Patriots

Unconventional Preview: Antonio Gates is Great, But He’s Never Been What Gronk is Now

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Welcome to Season 3, Episode 13 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday afternoon. The 9-3 saw their seven-game winning streak come to an end in a well-played 26-21 loss to the Packers Sunday at Lambeau Field. The next leg of their road trip takes them to San Diego, where they’ll face Philip Rivers and the rejuvenated 8-4 Chargers in a game that the Patriots would be wise to win in order to secure homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let’s get this thing started already …

THREE PLAYERS I’LL BE WATCHING WHO AREN’T NAMED TOM BRADY
Keenan Allen: We all do it. We all play the Why Didn’t They Draft That Guy Instead? game.

It’s irresistible, and there’s somewhat of a fun element to it in imagining, say, the Patriots taking Greg Jennings rather than Chad Jackson in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft. But it’s also mostly annoying, because the Belichick-the-GM-hurts-Belichick-the-coach crowd (heard from 2-6 weekdays) takes it deliberately out of context.

It’s always about excellent Player X they could have had instead of the bust Player Y, with a complete disregard for the difficulty of getting it right with any given draft pick. It’s very easy to cherry-pick the biggest name selected after the Patriots picked in a round and howl they shoulda picked him!, completely ignoring the six players chosen in between them who are mired in obscurity or out of the league.

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All of that said … dang, I sure do wish they’d taken Allen over Aaron Dobson (the receiver version of Ras-I Dowling) last year. He’s excellent, though he’ll probably be made invisible by Darrelle Revis on Sunday.

Gronk: You know what I want to hear? I want to hear caterwauling from the fanbases of the 30-something teams who allowed him to last to the 42d pick in the 2010 draft — or 17 picks after the Broncos took Tim Tebow in the first round at No. 25. Has Josh McDaniels ever explained that? I would like to hear him explain that.

Antonio Gates: I’m convinced Gronk is the most complete tight end ever to pancake a linebacker or trample a defensive back — I suppose the technical term is “throw him out of the club” — in NFL history. There has never been anyone who can match his level of play when he is at his best.

But it should be acknowledged that this is the rare week in which the tight end for the other side is rather accomplished in his own right.

At 34, Antonio Gates is in the midst of another excellent season, with 47 receptions for 574 yards and 9 touchdowns. His best season? Either 2005 (89 catches-1,101 yards-10 TDs) or 2009 (79-1,157-8). Those are huge performances.

So don’t take it as a dismissal of what he has accomplished to point out that neither matches 25-year-old Gronk’s best year so far, 2011, when he went 90-1,327-17. It’s probably also worth noting that Gronk is on pace this season for an 87-1,213-12 … which would be career-highs across the board for Gates.

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COMPLETELY RANDOM FOOTBALL CARD
I know he’s explained it. And his two stupid Super Bowl rings justify it. But I’ll never understand why Eli Manning was so mom-can-we-go-now? bummed to be chosen by San Diego before he put on his happy face after the draft-day deal to the Giants?

Have you seen the postcard shots from Patriots’ practice out there this week? It’s paradise. Hell, with the weather we endure in the Northeast this time of year, escaping there for a week, let alone living there, has to be something beyond paradise.

I’m sure Manning has no regrets. He has one more championship as a Giant than big brother has with the Broncos and Colts.

But Rivers doesn’t seem too disappointed about how it has worked out for him, does he?

ODELL BECKHAM JR.’S CATCH WAS NICE AND ALL, BUT HE’S NO J.J.

Beckham’s fingertip catch while twisting backward like he was dodging a sequence of slo-mo bullets in the Matrix was lauded as the greatest in NFL history a couple of weeks ago. Maybe it was, though I’m always skeptical of instant analysis that decrees something the best.

Especially since this wasn’t the best.

You youngsters who don’t remember space-age receiver John Jefferson and the San Diego Super Chargers going to have to believe me on this, because there is very little online video of his various logic- and physics-defying catches during his too-brief heyday. But if he didn’t make five catches in his career that at least matched Beckham’s, he made two, three or four for sure.

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This hazy video is the best evidence I can find, and I admit it’s not much. But you should believe me. And if you saw J.J. during the first three years of his career, during those sunny 4 p.m. games at Jack Murphy Stadium when he made any catch seem possible, you already do.

(And if you still don’t, I’m going to have to suggest drastic measures — read the comments on the YouTube video above. Those people know.)

PREDICTION, OR DOES RIVERS STILL WEAR THAT RIDICULOUS BOLO TIE? I respect the Chargers. Unsung Mike McCoy seems like one of the NFL’s better young coaches. Rivers, as annoying as he is, is a damn good quarterback.

The Chargers have a talented, versatile offense, and they’ve won three in a row and they might even be better than the Broncos and… well, none of that is going to mean a damn thing.

The Patriots have their most well-rounded team since 2007, possibly even 2004. Don’t let a road loss to an excellent Packers team cloud that reality. If anything, that loss, the epilogue to a seven-game winning streak during a supposed gauntlet, confirmed just how good this team is.

Rivers is not Aaron Rodgers. The Chargers are not the Packers. And Tom Brady and Bill Belichick do not lose two in a row in December when it matters. This one matters. Patriots 41, Chargers 17

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