Touching All the Bases

Unconventional preview: Patriots-Dolphins

Welcome to Season 2, Episode 14 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 10-3 Patriots, coming off a 27-26 victory over the Cleveland Browns in which Rob Gronkowski was lost for the season, visit Kim Bokamper Doug Betters A.J. Duhe Bob Baumhower Dion Jordan and the 7-6 Miami Dolphins. Kick it off, Gostkowski (onside if you prefer), and let’s get this thing started already …


1. Chandler Jones: Jones, the AFC Defensive Player of the Month in November, has 10.5 sacks this season, giving him an excellent shot at setting the single-season high by a Patriots player in the Bill Belichick era. (Mike Vrabel, who will eventually be revealed as Rob Ninkovich‘s long-lost brother, had 12.5 in 2007.) Jones hasn’t had a sack in the last two games, but he has a decent shot at catching Vrabel Sunday against a Dolphins line that has allowed Ryan Tannehill to be sacked a league-high 48 times. Bryant McKinnie has stabilized the left tackle spot somewhat in the aftermath of the Richie IncognitoJonathan Martin mess, but Jones should still have his chances.



2. Charles Clay: With Rob Gronkowski down for the season after his brutal knee injury last week, this is the rare instance where the best tight end on the field Sunday plays for the opposition. Clay, who drew plenty of praise from Bill Belichick and the Patriots players this week, is enjoying a breakthrough in his third NFL season. He has 60 receptions for 678 yards and is on pace to surpass Randy McMichael‘s single-season team records for receptions by a tight end (73, 791, both set in 2004). Clay has 14 catches for 177 yards over the past two weeks, scoring two of his six touchdowns this season last Sunday in a win over Pittsburgh.


3. Shane Vereen: In five games this season, the versatile Vereen has 38 carries for 186 yards and 40 catches for another 373 yards. That level of production over 13 games would work out to 99 carries for 484 yards and — get this — 104 catches for 970 yards. I know the science is inexact there and the Patriots likely wouldn’t have given him such a workload had he been healthy for all 13 games. But if you’re looking for someone who can be the dynamic force in this post-Gronkowski offense, he’s it.


COMPLETELY RANDOM FOOTBALL CARD What we have right here is a fine player with an unforgettable name. One of the seemingly countless big, talented defensive linemen to play for the Dolphins in the Don Shula heyday, the 6 foot 6 inch end from the exotic outpost of Sioux City, Iowa would have been one of the NFL’s sack leaders in the ’70s if they actually kept official track of sacks in the ’70s. But about that name: Roughly translated, I believe his name means “Herder of Dens,” which of course makes no sense. I have no idea what Uwe von Schamann means, though it may involve sheep.


GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK: Man, how bad was that Patriots-Browns broadcast last Sunday? I suppose some measure of the benefit of the doubt is appropriate since Don Criqui was a late replacement for Bill Macatee, who was stuck in Dallas for weather-related reasons.

But there’s no sugarcoating it: the play-by-play/analyst tandem of Criqui and Steve Tasker had a rough broadcast, one that got worse as the game went on.

Criqui chronically misidentified players (calling Browns tight end Jordan Cameron “Jason Cameron” repeatedly was the most egregious), while Tasker seemed perplexed at various pivotal moments — particularly on the Patriots’ late onside kick recovery. If you can’t offer clarity and insight, don’t bother talking until you know what you’re seeing.


It wasn’t quite as frustrating as the days when the Patriots were a television afterthought and hapless Beasley Reece was often the analyst (sometimes alongside Criqui, coincidentally).

But it was the worst television call of a Patriots game I can recall over the last several years. It’s also a reminder that Patriots fans are fortunate to have the top broadcast tandems typically call their games. Sunday was a reminder of how those at the bottom half of the standings live.


This is one of those things that makes you with this week’s game was played in Foxborough: Thursday marked the 31st anniversary of the famous Snow Plow game, when a stadium worker named Mark Henderson drove his John Deere onto the field per Patriots coach Ron Meyer‘s orders and cleared a spot for John Smith to kick the winning field goal in a 3-0 win.


Yahoo! Sports ran an entertaining excerpt Thursday about the Snow Plow game from Patriots great John Hannah‘s new book. Here’s a snippet:

As the kicking team ran off the field, I could see the Dolphins sideline explode on the opposite side of the field and instantly Shula was leading a charge of assistant coaches and players toward the middle of the field. They were all yelling and screaming, throwing playbooks, headsets, and helmets.

After what seemed like an eternity of argument, protests, screaming, and hollering, the game resumed, and the play stood. The Dolphins played like their hair was on fire. In the remaining few minutes, pure adrenaline pushed them within field goal range for the tie attempt. In all fairness the Dolphins were also offered the use of the snowplow by the head referee to clear the field for their kick, but with complete indignation and certainty the game would be nullified for the unfair use of it by the Patriots, Coach [Don] Shula adamantly refused to stoop to such tactics.

Shula was so incensed by the tactic — he never acknowledged that game as a loss on his record — that one has to believe the frigid temperature that day was all that kept him from spontaneously combusting on the sideline.

I actually thought Criqui might have been the play-by-play voice for this game, but it was apparently Jay Randolph, with former Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese on color. I’m sure he was pro-plow.

It’s easy to focus on what’s gone wrong this season for the Patriots — the attrition on what looked like a potentially excellent defense, the inconsistency on offense pre-Gronk return, Gronk’s injury last week, all of that. And sometimes we focus on it too much, probably because of a Super Bowl-or-bust mentality that can lead to overlooking some of remarkable accomplishments along the way.


This Sunday, the Patriots have a chance to clinch their 11th division title in 14 years. Think about how incredible that is. In the Belichick era, the only times they haven’t won the AFC East were his first season, 2000, when he had to clean up the Pete Carroll/Bobby Grier mess; 2002, when the Lawyer Milloy/Tebucky Jones/Victor Green trio of safeties all stopped making plays at once and they went 9-7; and 2008, when they won 11 games despite The Unthinkable occurring in Week One.

That is an incredible run. Every other team in the division has gone through rebuilding multiple times in that stretch without ever really overcoming the Patriots (though the Jets had their moments).


It’s not going to be easy for the Patriots to wrap it up this week — Miami is playing fairly well and has a shot at a playoff berth, having won three of its last five games. And it’s always tough to win there.

It’ll be close, especially if Miami can run the ball, but I think the Patriots veterans end up with more AFC East champions gear for their extensive collections.

It’s not the ultimate goal, but it’s one worth saluting nonetheless.
Patriots 24, Dolphins 21

(Last week’s prediction: Patriots 34, Browns 10. Final score: Patriots 27, Browns 26. Season record: 7-6.)

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