Welcome to Season 6, Episode 18 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, often nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup that runs right here every weekend.
It’s not a question of whether Tom Brady will play.
He could be hiding a TB12-branded Luke Skywalker-like metal claw beneath that red glove on his right hand and he’d still be the quarterback when the Patriots take their first offensive snap in Sunday’s AFC Championship matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
It’s a matter of whether he can play like Tom Brady.
This mysterious injury to his throwing hand that apparently occurred while he was handing off the football in practice Wednesday has alarms shrieking from here all the way to Las Vegas, where at last check the Patriots were 7½-point favorites after the line started at 9½. The current line probably makes more sense anyway. The Jaguars, who dropped 45 points on a talented but moronic Steelers team that behaved as if it owned a bye directly to the AFC Championship, deserve genuine respect.
But the dip reflects the uncertainty about Brady’s situation, especially since he missed practice Thursday. There are quite a few unanswered questions here. What, exactly, is the injury? (I’m not going to speculate, leaving that to the ever-growing Amateur Physicians of the Internet Society). Is this a new injury or a recurrence of something that happened earlier this season? (Over the past several weeks, Brady has occasionally been caught shaking and looking at the hand as if something weren’t right.) How did it happen? (The handoff thing is unusual to say the least.) Is there any gamesmanship at play here by the Patriots? (I seriously doubt it. Missing Thursday’s practice is confirmation enough for me that this is a legitimate concern.)
I imagine we’ll get some answers to those questions in dribs and drabs from assorted beat writers leading up to the game. But the answer to the most important question will not come until the game is under way:
How is this going to affect him?
Brady has played with hand injuries before. He suffered a broken finger in practice late in the 2009 season, one that ended with an abrupt and embarrassing 33-14 loss to the Ravens in the divisional round. But an injury to the thumb is even more concerning because it can affect a quarterback’s grip, velocity, and accuracy. Or as Jay Cutler put it with more than a hint of disdain after he suffered a thumb injury in 2016, “You know, as a quarterback, you kind of need your right thumb.’’
Brady’s every movement early in the game is going to be analyzed and overanalyzed. If he even slightly wiggles the thumb after a throw, CBS is going to give us the replay from 27 angles. The Patriots haven’t dealt with this much suspense regarding an injury before a big game since Rob Gronkowski messed up his ankle before Super Bowl XLVI.
You know how that went. Gronk was a one-legged decoy, and the Patriots lost to the Giants. The hunch here is that this situation will not be as dramatic.
As worrisome as Brady’s injury is — he’s the greatest quarterback in league history, while backup Brian Hoyer isn’t even the best second-string QB the Patriots have had on the roster this season — we know how tough and resilient he is. He will play. There is no doubt about that. I bet he plays well, too.
But we’re not going to be able to exhale until he throws that first dart that hits his target right between the numbers. Actually, I’d like to see him go deep to Gronk or Brandin Cooks on his first pass attempt. Now that would send a message that Patriots fans would be happy to receive.
Kick if off, Gostkowski, and let’s get this one started . . .
Three players I’ll be watching not named Tom Brady
■ Jalen Ramsey: I for one welcome the return to prominence of the Loudmouth Former Florida State Cornerback Who Happens To Be Really, Really Good. Deion Sanders was the prototype for this back in the late ’80s. Terrell Buckley was the adequate facsimile (and eventually, an unsung ’01 Patriot). Antonio Cromartie was too busy siring a huddle’s worth of kids to be much of a loudmouth, but he was a terrific player for a while. The Vikings’ Xavier Rhodes might be the best corner in the league right now, and Ramsey, his fellow first-team All-Pro, is right there with him.
Ramsey slapped a bull’s-eye on his jersey by proclaiming after the win over the Steelers that the Jaguars were going to go to the Super Bowl and win it. You’d think he might have avoided doing what the Jaguars claimed the Steelers did, which is looking past their current opponent. But that’s a lesson that has to be learned first-hand.
It probably is not a wise move to give the Patriots, who actually know what it’s like to go to a Super Bowl and win one (or five), bulletin-board material. But Ramsey, who had 63 tackles and 4 interceptions during the regular season, is so talented that he might be the rare Patriots opponent who is capable of backing up his braggadocio.
■ Calais Campbell: The teams that have beaten the Patriots — and beaten up Brady — in big games through the years all have one thing in common: An unrelenting pass rush.
We saw it with the Giants’ Justin Tuck and Michael Strahan in the Super Bowl losses. We saw it with Von Miller, Derek Wolfe, and DeMarcus Ware in Denver two years ago. We saw it with Terrell Suggs and the Ravens and even the occasional New York Jet through the years.
The Jaguars must put constant pressure on Brady if they are going to have a chance. And they are more than capable of doing so. Their best bet to provide that pressure is Campbell, a stellar defensive end who was second in the NFL in sacks this season (14½), trailing only Arizona’s Chandler Jones (17).
But he’s not the only bet. The Jaguars were second in the NFL in sacks this year (55), with Yannick Ngakoue (12), Malik Jackson (8), and Dante Fowler (8) often joining Campbell for frequent meetings in the opposing backfield. Only Pittsburgh (56) had more.
The Patriots offensive line, which didn’t give up a sack against the Titans, had better be on its game again, or Brady’s thumb won’t be the only body part that’s hurting.
■ James White: White had as many touchdowns in Super Bowl LI as he did during the 2017 regular season (3), which tells you a few things.
He was awesome in the Super Bowl and should have been the Most Valuable Player.
He endured a relatively tough regular season, which included missing the last two games with an ankle injury.
He is someone the Patriots should feel very comfortable relying upon in the postseason.
White offered a reminder of his postseason prowess with one receiving and one rushing touchdown in the 35-14 win over the Titans in the divisional round. It was reassuring to see him back in reliable form and working in tandem with Dion Lewis to give Brady some versatile options out of the backfield.
Given the Jaguars’ formidable pass rush and talent in the defensive backfield, there’s an excellent chance Brady frequently turns to White, Lewis, and perhaps even Rex Burkhead this week.
Grievance of the Week
Tom Coughlin is 5-1 in his career when coaching against Bill Belichick. This is remarkable. Doug Marrone is 1-3 in his career when coaching against Belichick. That is unremarkable. Doug Marrone, not Tom Coughlin, is the coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Can we stop fretting about red-faced boogeymen of Super Bowls past, please?
Prediction, or the Blaker Bortles jokes on “The Good Place’’ will never get old.
All of the talk leading up to this one will be about Brady, and that isn’t just understandable, that’s how it should be given his status and situation. But the more I think about it, the more convinced I become that this is the week the Patriots defense is finally recognized as one of the league’s best.
I get why they are not recognized as such now. There’s not a lot of star power. They started slowly, allowing at least 33 points in three of their first four games. They give up a lot of yardage.
But since Week 5 against Tampa Bay, they have allowed just two teams to score more than 17 points on them: The Dolphins in Week 14 (27 points), and the Steelers the following week (24 points). In that 13-game stretch, opponents have averaged just 14.7 points per game. A team quarterbacked by Bortles, under these circumstances, is not exceeding that average.
Brady will be fine and the defense will be better than fine. I hear Minnesota is lovely this time of year. Patriots 30, Jaguars 13.
Watch: Bill Belichick on Brady’s status: “We’re getting ready for Jacksonville.”