Unconventional preview: Patriots-Texans

Welcome to Season 2, Episode 12 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday around noon. The 8-3 Patriots, coming off a thrilling 34-31 overtime victory over the Denver Broncos in which they overcame a 24-0 halftime deficit, visit Ryan Moats Ron Dayne Wali Lundy Domanick Williams Arian Foster Ben Tate and the 2-9 Houston Texans. The Texans, who were 11-1 when they faced the Patriots in Week 13 last year, have lost nine straight — including last Sunday to the punch-line Jaguars — and look more like a junior varsity squad than the one that showed up at Gillette Stadium in lettermen jackets. Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let’s get this thing started already …

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THREE PLAYERS I’LL BE WATCHING OTHER THAN TOM BRADY
1. Case Keenum: His name may sound like that of a rejected Friday Night Lights character — I suspect his parents’ other name considerations included Colt, Aikman, Coy, and Gunslinger. But ol’ Case can apparently play a little — in five games since taking over for the hapless Matt Schaub, Keenum has thrown eight touchdown passes against just two interceptions while throwing for 1,161 yards. He’s also put up an 89.6 rating, which is the exact same as NFL passing yardage leader Matthew Stafford of the Lions and slightly higher than the likes of Cam Newton and, yes, Tom Brady. Keenum, signed as an undrafted free agent out of Houston a year ago, has looked more vulnerable lately — he was benched in the second half two weeks ago against the Raiders, and struggled with the Jaguars’ pass rush last week. The hunch here is that he becomes all too familiar with Chandler Jones on Sunday.

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2. Rob Gronkowski: In five games since making his season debut following offseason back and forearm surgeries, Gronk has 31 receptions for 433 yards and three touchdowns. (And as you, me, and Luke Kuechly know, there’s a decent chance it could be 32-446-4.) Over a full 16 games, that equates to roughly 99 catches for 1,386 yards and 10 touchdowns. Before Gronk returned, the Patriots were averaging 20.8 points per game. Since his Week 7 return, they are averaging nearly 10 points more, at 30.6 per game. He has changed everything, and his return to good health and dominant form is one reason a February trip to New Jersey suddenly seems a reasonable possibility. He’s changed everything.

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3. Stevan Ridley: If you were one of those who wanted to bury him after his fumble Sunday — his third in three games — I was right there with you.

So here we are five days later, and I think I’m back to being an apologist. At least, I do hope he’s the feature back again Sunday. I mean, I’m fine with benching him when he coughs up the ball, and of course he simply must become more conscientious about hanging on to the thing. But Ridley is such a talented runner, a true asset, that burying him seems counterproductive in the long term, even with a versatile corps of running backs on the roster, particularly Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden. They’re going to need Ridley at some point if this season is going to fulfill all of the daydreams that suddenly seem possible. And as Kevin Faulk reminds us today, Ridley isn’t the first talented Patriots back to have fumbling issues. I remember writing a column circa 2002 suggesting Faulk should be cut — I think it was after a particularly brutal fumble against the Packers. Thank goodness that never happened. Here’s hoping Ridley has the same sort of career redemption. The talent is there, if he can only stop letting opportunity — right, and the football — slip from his grasp.

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COMPLETELY RANDOM FOOTBALL CARD
Man, with one exception, the top of the 2002 NFL Draft sure did end up a heap of disappointment. The Texans, in their first year of existence and with a presumed chance right off the top to draft a franchise cornerstone, took Fresno State quarterback David Carr first overall. Though he did manage to last 11 years in the league, he will be remembered as a bust, having thrown for more than 2,800 yards just once and never throwing for more than 16 touchdown passes in a season.

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It’s hard to say how much of his unfulfilled promise was his own fault — he was sacked 76 times as a rookie behind a makeshift offensive line, fumbling 21 times. Maybe he never really had a chance.

His career was really no less impressive than that of the No. 3 overall pick that season, Lions pick Joey Harrington. In fact, the only player among the top five to have a substantial NFL career was No. 2 overall choice Julius Peppers, who starred at defensive end almost from the beginning for the Carolina Panthers.

The Texans did get it right with their top pick the following season, though, taking receiver Andre Johnson third overall — one pick after the Lions chose all-time bust Charles Rogers, a receiver from Michigan State.

If the football gods have a sense of humor, Carr’s brother Derek, a promising quarterback prospect who is eligible for the 2014 NFL Draft, will end up with the Texans as well.

GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK
This has nothing to do with Patriots-Texans, but it’s the talk of the NFL this morning, so I might has well have my three cents’ worth (that’s right, three — consider it a Black Friday bonus cent) on Mike Tomlin’s “accidental” interference with a Jacoby Jones return Thursday that probably would have gone for a touchdown had the Steelers coach not happened to be out for a casual stroll near the hashmarks.

Cent No. 1: Tomlin was in better position to make a play than Troy Polamalu has been at any given point the past three years.

Cent No. 2: Good thing Bill Cowher and not Tomlin was the Steelers’ coach during the 2001 AFC Championship Game. Otherwise, who knows what he would have done to stop Troy Brown that day.

Cent No. 3: He’s going to get away with this because of his likable persona. If Bill Belichick had done the same, Felger would be marching to Foxborough right now with the tar, and Mazz would be right behind him with the feathers.

PREDICTION, OR HOW ABOUT A DEFENSE FEATURING J.J. WATT, BRIAN CUSHING, AND JADEVEON CLOWNEY?
Hard to believe given the talent on their roster and the perception that they were a Super Bowl contender at this point last year, but the Texans are in line to have the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft. They’ve been devastated by injuries — Cushing and Arian Foster are among those out for the year — and while there is still legitimate top-shelf talent in Watt and Andre Johnson, the Texans just don’t have enough able bodies to compete with genuine contenders at this point. And if you managed to stay tuned in for the second half of the Patriots’ affirming victory over the Broncos Sunday night, you know they are a genuine contender. Brady throws for 300-plus, Ridley gets a bit of redemption, and the Patriots collect their ninth win without much suspense.
Patriots 34, Texans 14

(Last week’s prediction: Broncos 37, Patriots 27. Final score: Patriots 34, Broncos 31, OT. Season record: 5-6. This is not going so well.)

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