Welcome to Season 6, Episode 10, of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, often nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup that runs right here every weekend.
Given how contrarianism has invaded the sports culture around here, I suppose there were some among us who looked at the reigning Super Bowl champion Patriots entering the season, took stock of the high-profile additions to the roster such as Brandin Cooks (not to mention Rob Gronkowski’s return from injury), looked at their remarkable overall talent and depth, and said, nah, they’re not the favorites in the AFC.
They said it. But I doubt they believed it.
And so here we are now in Week 11, the Patriots have won five in a row to improve to 7-2, and they are coming off an affirming 25-point win over the Broncos at Denver, and . . . well, they look like the favorites in the AFC, or right where those of us who aren’t desperate for attention or to be the first to declare the dynasty over figured they would be.
Sure, the Chiefs have beaten them and own the tiebreaker, and the Steelers are to be respected, but the AFC appears to be the Patriots to lose — and good health willing, I don’t believe they’re going to lose it.
My question to you is this: Which team did you think, before the season, would pose the biggest challenge to the Patriots for AFC dominance. I was confident it would be the Raiders. They went 12-4 last year, finishing seventh in the NFL in total offense and sixth in defense, and had rising star quarterback Derek Carr not broken his fibula in Week 16 against the Colts, I bet they would have collided with the Patriots somewhere along the postseason trail. Instead, the Raiders, with overmatched Connor Cook at quarterback, lost to the Texans in the wild-card round.
Carr is back, but the Raiders haven’t been as impressive as expected this year. They enter Sunday’s game at 4-5, two games back of the Chiefs in the AFC West. But after a four-game losing streak, they’ve won 2 of 3. If this Raiders edition is going to match last year’s, they need a win Sunday against the best team in the conference.
The Patriots are who we thought they were. The Raiders are still trying to be what we thought they were.
Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let’s get this one started . . .
Three players I’ll be watching not named Tom Brady
■ Amari Cooper: If you’re of a certain age, you remember when Raiders players, most notably ball-hawking defensive back Lester Hayes, slathered themselves with a sticky goop called Stickum in order to get the ball to . . . well, stick to whatever part of the body it hit, ideally the hands.
That stuff was outlawed in the ’80s, which is too bad for the current crop of Raiders receivers. They could use some help holding on to the ball. Two years ago, then-rookie receiver Amari Cooper led the NFL in drops with 18, per Pro Football Focus. Last year, teammate Michael Crabtree was tops in drops with 13.
Now it apparently is Cooper’s turn again. He has 10 dropped passes this season, including six in the first three games.
Cooper is a supremely talented receiver, practically a prototype for the position. But man, has he had an oddball season. From Weeks 2 through 6, he totaled nine catches for 51 yards. Then in Week 7, he exploded for 11 receptions for 210 yards and two touchdowns against the Chiefs.
Your guess is as good as mine as to which version will show up against the Patriots.
■ Malcolm Butler: I’m still not sure what to make of the Patriots defensive backfield. With Butler, Devin McCourty, Stephon Gilmore, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon, it features the most high-quality talent and experience of any of the team’s defensive positional units. And the defense as a whole is certainly playing well; it has allowed an average of 13.4 points over the last five games.
But for the Patriots to win a third Super Bowl in four years, this group can’t continue to be strangely leaky as it has been at times. Butler was the most recent culprit, allowing the majority of the 137 receiving yards the Broncos’ Emmanuel Sanders dropped on the Patriots Sunday night.
Butler is a player who rightfully receives a large portion of the benefit of the doubt around here. But he needs to be better than he was last Sunday. And do you really trust Gilmore to be better?
■ LaAdrian Waddle: One of the trademarks of Dante Scarnecchia’s time as the Patriots offensive line coach is his knack for molding unheralded players with little professional pedigree into quality linemen. It seems like there’s a Ross Hochstein-type every year who rises from the bottom of the depth chart to become of a helpful member of the Tom Brady protection brigade.
This year’s candidate is Waddle, a fringe player last year who has gotten an opportunity this year because of Marcus Cannon’s injuries (he’s another who has developed on Scarnecchia’s watch) and made the most of it.
Waddle has faced some of the finest pass rushers in the league — the Texans’ J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, and the Broncos’ Von Miller just last week — and has more than held his own. This week, with Cannon apparently out again, Waddle will face another tough challenge. He’ll often be matched up against reigning Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack. Mack has just 4½ sacks so far this season (one more than Kyle Van Noy), but he remains a potential menace. Yet what we’ve seen from Waddle suggests he’s probably up for the challenge. Pretty impressive.
Grievance of the Week
When it comes to Patriots-Raiders, there can be only one grievance, and no, it’s not the Tuck Rule, so pipe down with your conspiracy theories over there, Tim Brown.
The grievance is Ben Dreith. It has been Ben Dreith for longer than Tom Brady has been alive, and it will always be Ben Dreith until the Patriots beat the Raiders in a huge situation on a terrible call. I know what you’re thinking. And no, that has not happened yet. I’ll explain in a moment.
First, the origin story of this longstanding grievance.
No Patriots fan with a reservoir of memories going back to the ’70s desires a reminder of how Dreith’s blunder cost the team a berth in the 1976 AFC Championship game, after a season in which the Patriots went 11-3 and outscored opponents by 140 points. So here’s the brief synopsis: With the Patriots leading the Raiders, 21-17, in the final minute and Oakland facing third down and 18, Patriots defensive lineman Sugar Bear Hamilton hit Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler a split-second before he released an incomplete pass.
It looks to be fourth-and-desperation time for the Raiders. But . . . hold on.
There was a flag on the field. Dreith had called Hamilton for roughing the passer, a ruling that still cannot be confirmed by film of the play all these years later. Five plays later, Stabler dived into the end zone for the winning touchdown with 10 seconds remaining.
It was a crushing and wrongful end to the greatest season the Patriots had up to that point. Some Patriots players insist to this day that the game was fixed. If that sounds like the Raiders’ complaints about the Snow Bowl 25 seasons later, consider the major difference. The Tuck Rule call in the Snow Ball was the correct interpretation of a ridiculous rule. Dreith’s call was robbery in plain daylight.
Prediction, or I still say Mark Davis believes his haircut looks like Jon Gruden’s
The Raiders are talented and undisciplined, which makes them in a way a quintessential Raiders team. But I can’t see a Jack Del Rio-coached team being more prepared to play in the unfamiliar high-altitude environment of Azteca Stadium than a Bill Belichick team.
It will be interesting to see which team is favored by the home crowd; the Patriots have become hugely popular there.
But there shouldn’t be much suspense to the outcome. When it’s over, it will be Rob “Yo Soy Fiesta’’ Gronkowski and the Patriots who return stateside with a victory. Patriots 38, Raiders 13.