Welcome to Season 6, Episode 12, of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, often nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup that runs right here every weekend.
Bill Belichick’s habit of talking up any opponent, even an obviously lousy one, is hardly a new development. Were the Patriots playing the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers this week, I’m sure he’d tell us that any team with Lee Roy Selmon has a defense to be reckoned with, that Gary Huff is a savvy veteran quarterback who can’t be fooled, and also that the Bucco Bruce fella is one heck of an imposing mascot.
Predictably, Belichick was effusive Wednesday — if anyone talking in a monotone can be described as effusive — while discussing the 6-5 Buffalo Bills. He had particular praise for Tyrod Taylor, the Bills’ mobile quarterback.
“His running ability creates passing yards because of the extended play capability, so he can get the ball down the field to [Charles] Clay, in particular, [Jordan] Matthews, [Zay] Jones,’’ said Belichick. “A lot of times there are checkdowns to McCoy or [Travaris] Cadet or those guys and they take a 1- or 2-yard pass and turn it into 10, 15, 20 yards.
“His ability to extend plays, I would say, is just as concerning or dangerous and tough to defend as him actually pulling the ball down and running with it. That’s a problem, too. But extending the play and throwing it is, I’d say, as big or probably a bigger problem.’’
While Belichick was describing Taylor as essentially Michael Vick with a disciplined approach, he neglected to mention that Taylor’s chronic caution in the passing game tends to limit both his mistakes and the potential for big plays.
The Bills grew frustrated enough with Taylor that they benched him against the Chargers two weeks ago for someone named Nate Peterman. Five first-half interceptions by poor Peterman later, and Taylor had his job back.
But it sure sounds as if Belichick likes Taylor more than the Bills do. While his presence makes for a more interesting matchup, it’s almost too bad Taylor is starting this week. I’d love to hear Belichick try to talk up Peterman.
Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let’s get this one started . . .
Three players I’ll be watching not named Tom Brady
■ Jerry Hughes: There are more compelling Bills defensive players that I could write about here, starting with safety Micah Hyde, who has five interceptions and makes plays all over the field in his first season with the team.
But I’m going with Hughes, because when I see his name, I think of one thing: The controversial first round of the 2010 NFL Draft.
After trading down to No. 27, the Patriots drafted Devin McCourty out of Rutgers. This has proven to be a wonderful decision for reasons that should require no explanation. But if I remember right, and I’m sure I do, there was an enormous amount of backlash among segments of Patriots fans. McCourty wasn’t considered a first-round pick by the Kipers of the world. His scouting report suggested he would be a capable nickel back and an excellent special teams gunner.
This was not what Patriots fans wanted to hear. The perception then was that they needed to get one of two pass-rush prospects: Sergio Kindle from Texas, or Hughes, from Texas Christian. They passed on both to take McCourty, with Hughes going 31st overall and Kindle going 43d to the Ravens.
When this happened, you could smell the smoke coming from Twitter.. I’m pretty sure this was an early example of the stupid Belichick-the-GM-is-killing-Belichick-the-coach narrative. I remember being taken aback by how irate some fans were.
You know how it played out with McCourty; he’s a captain and a cornerstone. Hughes flopped with the Colts, totaling one sack in his first two seasons, before catching on with the Bills in 2013. He’s been a dependable pass rusher for them, with two seasons of 10 sacks on his résumé.
As for Kindle, he went one pick after the Patriots traded up to take an Arizona tight end with a bad back named Rob Gronkowski. Bet there were some gripes about that too.
■ Dion Lewis: On more than one occasion this season, I lamented that Josh McDaniels wasn’t using Lewis enough. Through the season’s first four games, during which the Patriots were 2-2, Lewis had just 12 carries for 46 yards.
I’m still not certain what the reason was, though there are some reasonable guesses: They were allowing him to shake the rust off, they wanted to keep his legs fresh for later in the season, they were trying to find out what they had in Mike Gilleslie, and so on.
Whatever the reason, the Patriots are properly utilizing him now, and he’s been as dynamic as he has been at any point during his three-year Patriots career. Lewis ran for 112 yards on just 15 carries Sunday against the Dolphins, a 7.47-yard average. That is rather good.
On the season, he now has a team-high 498 yards on 97 carries, a 5.1-yard average. Lewis still has the shimmy and the burst of speed through the hole that made him such a weapon before his knee injury in 2015, and he seems to be better than ever at breaking tackles once he gets into the linebackers and secondary.
He’s a wildly fun player to watch when he’s at his best. He’s at his best now, and watching him play like this is a joy and a relief. When the Patriots weren’t using him early in the season, I thought it might be a sign that he’d lost effectiveness. Turns out he was just storing up his power.
■ LeSean McCoy: The man they call Shady has had modest success against the Patriots since he was acquired by the Bills from the Eagles for linebacker Kiko Alonso before the 2015 season. (Man, doesn’t the Chip Kelly house-cleaning in Philly seem like about a dozen years ago now?) In three games against the Patriots since become a Bill, he has averaged 18 carries for 80 yards on the ground and five catches for 39 yards via the air.
History suggests the Patriots are capable of containing him, but I’m wary of expecting that. Though he’s averaging just 3.9 yards per carry this season, his is the team’s second-leading receiver, with 46 catches, and as one of the more creative runners in the league, he has a chance to do some damage against the Patriots’ subpar run defense and depleted linebacking corps. McCoy may end up being the primary responsibility of the perennially underrated Patrick Chung.
Grievance of the week
If there’s such a thing as a bemused and satisfying grievance, this is it. The decision by the Giants brain trust (insert laugh track here) to bench quarterback Eli Manning this week has caused a nuclear meltdown in the New York sports media, which apparently cannot believe a 2-9 team would bench a 36-year-old quarterback with the 15th-best passer rating in the league. (Full disclosure: I thought it would be worse before I looked it up.)
Manning is a popular figure in New York for obvious reasons: He is gracious and accessible, he maneuvered his way to playing there, and he heaved his way to a couple of Super Bowl victories along the way. He’ll probably make the Hall of Fame, though if he had the same résumé but with the last name Smith and had been a career-long Arizona Cardinal, he’d have roughly the same chance as Joe Flacco. None.
Anyway, they’re very, very upset about this in New York. Mike Francesa had an all-time rant about it a few days ago on WFAN, which I highly recommend listening to if only to revel in the fury. But they’re upset for the wrong reasons. They shouldn’t be upset because Manning is a good guy publicly, or because he beat the Patriots twice, or because his consecutive starts streak is ending. While the Mannings may think otherwise, playing quarterback in the NFL is not a job for life.
No, they should be upset because he’s being benched for Geno Freaking Smith. Geno Smith! Right, that one. The scatter-armed ex-Jets malcontent who once got sucker-punched by a teammate. They’re benching Manning in a no-win situation for a disliked underachiever who is not part of the team’s future.
That is insane, and that is what their outrage should be focused on, and only that. Manning doesn’t deserve to keep the job. But he shouldn’t lose it to this dope, either. You’d think New Yorkers would know how to properly air a grievance by now.
Prediction, or am I the only one who forgot that Bills cornerback Leonard Johnson once played for the Patriots?
This feels like a true make-or-break game for the Bills, who began the season 5-2, then lost three straight (including the Peterman debacle in a 30-point loss to the Chargers) before recovering last Sunday behind Taylor to beat the Chiefs.
If they can somehow beat the Patriots, that would surely put their bizarre mishandling of Taylor behind them, and they’d be in prime position for a postseason run in Sean McDermott’s first season as head coach.
Brady has owned the Bills more than any other franchise (he’s 26-3 against them in his career), but that doesn’t mean this one won’t be a challenge. During their seven-game winning streak, the Patriots have won on average by a margin of nearly 15 points. They’ve won their last three games (over the Broncos, Raiders, Dolphins) by nearly 23 points on average.
The Patriots will prevail, but it won’t be as easy as it has been. Among the AFC East pretenders, the Bills are the closest to being a contender. Patriots 27, Bills 20.