After a week of conjecture, Patriots finally get back to football

Tom Brady of the New England Patriots huddles with teammates during the second half against the New York Jets.

Welcome to Season 6, Episode 17 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, often nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup that runs right here every weekend.

Excluding times when the conversation was dominated by topics with a –gate suffix, this has to have been one of the most annoying weeks during Patriots’ two-decade run of dominance.

ESPN writer Seth Wickersham’s compelling long feature on the condition of the relationship between Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and Robert Kraft dropped at a time when the Patriots were on what is more or less their annual first-round bye.

Then, when the Tennessee Titans rallied to beat the Kansas City Chiefs Saturday with a decent comeback that still left absolutely no one believing they’d have a chance against the Patriots, that left the window open for what the majority of local sports media around here savors: A chance to pick at the Patriots carcass even though they are very much alive.

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We heard countless theories on the Brady-Belichick-Kraft dynamic, conjecture on Wickersham’s sources and methods, and worst, speculation that Brady was the bad guy in all of this, as if we didn’t have 18 years of evidence that he’s everything you could ever want a franchise cornerstone to be, on and off the field. (Minus his faithful affiliation with dubious lifestyle guru Alex Guerrero, I suppose.)

What we rarely heard was anything about the Titans. In some way, that’s understandable. They were outscored in the regular season, their quarterback, Marcus Mariota, threw more interceptions than touchdowns, and the Patriots will probably cover the 13.5 point spread before the first quarter is complete.

The Titans are not a compelling opponent unless Mariota and running back Derrick Henry can morph into late-‘90s Steve McNair and Eddie George for a few hours Saturday night. Otherwise, the Patriots will win this game, with ease.

After all this talk this week about anything but football, I can’t wait to see how it plays out, even while it plays out in the blowout we expect. Forget the soap-opera nonsense. Finally, football.

Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let’s get this one started …

Three players I’ll be watching not named Tom Brady

Logan Ryan: Pro Football Focus graded cornerback Stephon Gilmore as the Patriots’ top defender this year, which means we’ve either severely underrated Gilmore’s performance all year or PFF is seeing something that has eluded most of us in real time.

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Gilmore did begin playing much better after a rough start, and perhaps his obvious communication issues during the Patriots’ 2-2 start left a stain on our overall perception of him.

I bring this up because I suspect the vast majority of Patriots fans would prefer having Ryan, who departed for Tennessee and a three-year $30 million contract following the 2016 season, over his de facto replacement Gilmore, especially when the latter’s much more lucrative (five years, $65 million, with $40 million guaranteed) contract is factored in.

I don’t think that’s fair to Gilmore though. Ryan was a dependable cornerback – and a terrific tackler for the position – during his last couple of seasons in New England.

But he was chronically erratic in his first few seasons here, and in coverage he wore a blinking neon bull’s-eye as recently as the 2014 AFC Divisional Playoff win over the Ravens.

Ryan improved and is remembered well here, with two championship rings confirming his contributions. But Gilmore has improved too, over the course of one season. It will be interesting to see who plays better Saturday night. It would not shock me at all if Brady is plotting a few tricks to unveil on his former teammate.

Chris Hogan: Hogan, who suffered a shoulder injury in Week 8 against the Chargers, has played in just one game since. He had 1 catch on 5 targets for a single yard in Week 13 against the Dolphins, then went back into the infirmary. But Hogan practiced Thursday and has been cleared to play Saturday night, which is a good thing in a couple of different ways for Brady and the Patriots offense. Rob Gronkowski and Dion Lewis have been dynamic down the stretch, but Patriots receivers – even 1,000-man Brandin Cooks – have been inconsistent. Hogan led the AFC with 17.9 yards per catch last season, and he was especially dynamic in the postseason, with 17 catches on 23 targets for 332 yards and three touchdowns in three games. It’s not just his big-play ability that has been missed. It’s his reliability. Brady must be thrilled to have him back.

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Jurrell Casey: If there’s anyone on the Dick LeBeau-led Titans defense that is capable of consistently disrupting Brady Saturday night, it is Casey, the 305-pound defensive tackle who is headed to his third consecutive Pro Bowl. Casey isn’t a household name, but as Belichick demonstrated when he offered a soliloquy on his various talents to reporters this week, he is very familiar to the Patriots coaching staff. Casey delivered a productive season that included 6 sacks, 14 quarterback hits, and 32 hurries. His ability create pressure up the middle – something that occasionally gives Brady headaches — puts the heat on left guard Joe Thuney, who has been overwhelmed by bigger opponents at times this season. If the Titans are to make this one interesting for a while, chances are it will be because Casey is having Justin Tuck in Super Bowl XLII kind of game.

Grievance of the week

This week’s primary grievance was addressed many words ago. Backup grievance: The inevitable race to declare that Father Time has finally sacked Brady whenever he goes through a stretch of mediocre (by his standard) games. Fivethirtyeight.com is the latest to do so with a piece Thursday on titled “Is Tom Brady Finally Getting Old?’’ No, Brady hasn’t been his sharpest lately, with 6 TD passes, 5 interceptions, and an 81.6 passer rating over the final five games. It’s easy to wonder how much the Achilles issue that has had him on the injury report in recent weeks (though not this one) is affecting him. But it’s also worth remembering that he was as stellar as a quarterback can be late in the season-defining win at Pittsburgh. And that 81.6 passer rating during his rough stretch? It’s better than Mariota’s 79.3 rating over the full season. There’s nothing to see here, at least this week. Maybe he’ll age rapidly between now and what will be the Patriots’ seventh straight appearance AFC Championship Game. Thirty-one other teams are rooting for that. They have been for years.

Prediction, or the Titans were much more interesting when they were the Houston Oilers

With Hogan, Kyle Van Noy, and every other member of the 53-man roster back at practice this week, the Patriots are as healthy as they have been in weeks. Presuming they’re most important players resume healthy through this one, there will be no suspense. The Patriots are 9-0 in Saturday night playoff games in the Brady/Belichick era. The Titans are not ready for prime time. Bring on the Jaguars. Patriots 41, Titans 10.

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September 19, 2018 | 4:42 PM