Welcome to the 10th installment of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday at noon. This week, the 6-3 Patriots host
Johnny Unitas Bert Jones Art Schlichter Peyton Manning Andrew Luck and the upstart Indianpolis Colts, also 6-3. Let’s get to the details.
THREE PLAYERS OTHER THAN TOM BRADY AND ANDREW LUCK I’LL BE WATCHING
Aqib Talib: He has the talent to be an above-average cornerback and plays a physical style that should mesh with what the Patriots’ scheme asks him to do. Sunday won’t be an easy first test, especially if he’s lined up opposite Reggie Wayne for much of the day, but there’s a very reasonable chance he can be a significant factor in correcting the Patriots’ single glaring weakness. Can’t wait to start finding out the answers.
Reggie Wayne: It’s been said and written this week that the Colts are using the great veteran receiver Wayne in similar manner to how the Steelers used to utilize Hines Ward. I’ll presume that refers to Wayne’s tremendous season catching the ball — he has 69 receptions and needs 69 yards Sunday for his eighth 1,000-yard season — and not some new Ward-like habit of lunging for some unsuspecting linebacker’s knees. I’m not one who is particularly down on Brandon Lloyd, but man, can you imagine what the Patriots offense would be accomplishing if Wayne had signed here as a free agent?
Stevan Ridley: I feel like he’s one of the three players slotted here just about every week — come to think of it, he may alternate the spot with Devin McCourty. But that just goes to show, I think, the significance of the second-year back to the Patriots offense. Ridley is fifth in the NFL and second in the AFC in rushing yards (814, trailing only Houston’s Arian Foster in the conference). He averaged 4.7 yards per attempt, and he has played a crucial role in bringing balance to the offense — the Patriots are actually higher in the rushing yardage rankings (fifth) than they are in passing (seventh). Against Indianapolis’s 22d-ranked run defense, Ridley could be poised for another fine day.
“I’M LIVIN’ TO SEE TWO MORE DAUGHTERS GET MARRIED, DANCE AT THEIR WEDDINGS”
If you’re reading this column, most likely you’re a Patriots fan, and it would be absurd to suggest you root for their opponent any given week. I’m not about to do that. But after watching Chuck Pagano, the first-year head coach who is on leave while being treated for leukemia (he is now in remission), speak to his team after the Colts’ 23-20 victory over the Dolphins two weeks ago … well, I’m trying here, but nothing I can write is going to even approach the genuine emotion of the moment, so evident in the ailing coach’s eyes. Let’s just say Pagano is a very easy man to root for, and that will continue beyond that wonderful day when he returns to the sideline in full health.
COMPLETELY RANDOM FOOTBALL CARD
I sort of joked in the intro about the interesting history of Colts quarterbacks, and while they have had their share of all-time greats (not so fast, Mike Pagel), there’s one who could have joined Unitas and Manning as a Canton-bronzed legend if only he’d been able to stay healthy.
If you were a child of the ’70s, you remember the exceptional Bert Jones, the rifle-armed and mobile quarterback from LSU who won the 1976 Most Valuable Player award at age 25 but who suffered a career-altering shoulder injury. He was everything you wanted Steve Grogan to be. During that ’76 season, he led the Colts to an 11-3 record — same as the awesome ’76 Patriots, with whom they split a pair of games — by throwing for a league-leading 3,104 yards and 24 touchdowns. He also ran for 321 yards and another three scores.
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So how good was Jones, and how good could he have been? Consider this: On the Friday before Super Bowl XLII, Bill Belichick was asked about the greatest passers he had ever seen. After naming Tom Brady and some more decorated players, Belichick said this:
“As a pure passer I don’t think I could put anybody ahead of Bert Jones. I know he had a short career and the shoulder injury, but when I was there and he was just starting his career, the success that he had and his ability to throw the ball as a pure passer and as an athlete, it would be hard to put anybody ahead of Bert Jones at that point in time.”
AND WHILE WE’RE ON THE SUBJECT OF THOUGHTFUL BELICHICK ANSWERS …
… I loved this response from the Patriots coach Friday morning when he was asked whether Adam Vinatieri, the brilliant former Patriots kicker who returns with the Colts Sunday, should join Jan Stenerud as the lone kickers in the Hall of Fame:
He’s certainly one of the greatest kickers I’ve ever seen since I’ve been in the league [Belichick began coaching with the ’75 Colts]. The longevity, the production, the performance in championships and big games, I mean, what more could he do? What more could he do? Go out there and play wide receiver and catch a bunch of passes? I don’t know. Is that what he needs to do? I don’t know, what more could he do? I don’t know what more [former Giants punter] Dave Jennings could have done at his position, or Ray Guy, or guys like that. What else would they have had to do? Get a bunch of interceptions? We don’t judge quarterbacks on their rushing yardage, we don’t judge them on how many tackles they made, I don’t even know if we judge them on how many games they win. We judge them on a lot of their quarterback rating and stats, and running backs on rushing yardage. I don’t know, what’s a guy have to do if he excels at his position? Is that good enough? I don’t know. Like I said, you’d have to ask somebody that knows a lot more about it than I do, because I don’t understand what the criteria is.”
By my quick count, that’s four “I don’t knows” and an “I don’t even know” from Belichick. But every other word in that answer tells you that he absolutely knows, you know? There’s no doubt that Vinatieri, who has two Super Bowl winning kicks and neither of them is his most impressive, belongs in Canton someday.
It’s still strange seeing Vinatieri in that Colts uniform — it’s sort of like seeing Carlton Fisk come to town with the White Sox, though Vinatieri needs three more years in Indy to match his longevity here. But it will not be strange at all to see him making a speech in that mustard-colored jacket someday.
PREDICTION, SPONSORED THIS WEEK BY THE GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK
It’s going to be a blast to get a chance to watch Luck and Brady duel, and don’t doubt for a second that the Patriots’ quarterback will find an extra kernel or two of motivation by showing the young fella how it’s done. But I’ll also be glad when it’s over, because the Manning-to-Luck happy accident of succession led to way too much verbal hand-wringing this week about how the Patriots will replace Brady when the time comes. (And yes, I was guilty of it too on Boston Sports Live. Excuse: I don’t pick the topics. You know I’d have rather done 20 minutes on the Marlins-Jays trade.) Brady has a shot at hitting 3,000 yards on the season Sunday. He’s thrown 18 touchdowns to three interceptions. Yes, he’s 35, and he can’t play forever. But barring another catastrophic run-in with Bernard Pollard, the day of reckoning is seasons away. Tom Brady will be the best quarterback on the field Sunday, and the Patriots will win, just as the story usually goes. Patriots 37, Colts 24.
(Previous game’s prediction: Patriots 45, Bills 21. Final score: Patriots 37, Bills 31. Season record: 6-3. You know, I should probably pick against the Patriots one of these weeks. But I probably won’t. For whatever their flaws happen to be, I still genuinely believe they will win each week.)