Welcome to Season 3, Episode 16 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday afternoon. The 12-3 Patriots are coming off a 17-16 barnburner over the occasionally pesky Jets, close the regular season against the 8-7 Bills. Five words of semi-wisdom for the top-seeded Patriots: be careful out there, fellas. Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let’s get this thing started already …
THREE PLAYERS OTHER THAN TOM BRADY I’LL BE WATCHING
Kyle Orton: That Bills coach Doug Marrone is starting Orton, the quintessential journeyman QB who is sneakily becoming our generation’s Steve DeBerg, over former No. 1 pick EJ Manuel tells you all you need to know about the latter’s standing with the franchise right now. Yes, EJ, we know we chose you 16th overall in 2013, made you the first QB selected, started you right away. All true. But well, guess what. We’ve determined that based on what we’ve seen this year, Kyle Orton has a brighter future. Right. That Kyle Orton. Good luck in your future endeavors. Hey, I like Orton. He’s lived the life Uncle Rico dreamed of, he’s getting paid $5 million this year, and he has a higher QB rating this season than the likes of Matthew Stafford, Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton and Andy Dalton. The Bills could have done worse.
Marcell Dareus: Actually, there’s a good chance the Bills’ Pro Bowl defensive tackle doesn’t play at all Sunday after hurting his knee against the Raiders last week. He missed practice again Friday, which is almost always an accurate indicator that a player is not going to be able to go Sunday. I’m sure the Patriots won’t miss running into him whatsoever — he’s had a remarkable season, with 10 sacks and 48 tackles. But after the number the Jets’ Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson did on the Patriots’ interior offensive line (which was missing steady Dan Connolly), I was curious how they would recover from that frustrating collective performance to deal with Dareus, as well as fellow Pro Bowl linemen Mario Williams and Kyle Williams.
Gronk: Given all that he overcame to regain his superpowers this year, it would have been cool to see Gronk set a personal milestone or two in the final game of the regular season. But the most notable career highs are probably a little out of reach, especially considering he’s unlikely to play more than a half in this game if I had to guess. He’s eight catches shy of his career-best of 90, set in 2011. He needs 203 yards to match his output of 1,327 yards from that same brilliant season. And if he can manage a mere five touchdowns, he’d tie his standard of 17 set in ’11 as well. Of course, there’s one number Gronk will get to Sunday that should make him very proud: 16 games played. What a hell of a comeback it has been.
ACTUALLY, THE BETTER QUESTION IS THIS: WHICH PLAYERS WON’T WE BE WATCHING?
I’d just as soon Bill Belichick give Brady, Gronk and Darrelle Revis this Sunday off. I think of this team as the Super Bowl favorite — I do think they’d beat Seattle, provided the best version of the offensive line is intact. But you have to figure, based on Belichick’s past decision-making in similar scenarios in which their playoff status and seeded are secure, that all three will play at least a half. I suppose it could be a shorter Sunday for Brady if the Bills are having success getting to him. He’s got enough dings and dents already without adding a few more in a meaningless game. But for the most part, we’ll see all of the healthy varsity on there for a good part of the game today. It’s not my preference, but Belichick knows best, and I’m never going to complain about watching these guys play, even when there’s nothing at stake but their health.
THE ONE LINE FROM KYLE ORTON’S WIKIPEDIA PAGE THAT REALLY SUMS UP THE CONCEPT OF BEING IN THE RIGHT PLACE AT THE RIGHT TIME
It is this:
… he was rushed into the Bears starting lineup as a rookie [in 2005] after a preseason injury to starter Rex Grossman, and the poor play of back-up Chad Hutchinson ….
Grossman? Hutchinson? The only way that competition could have been worse is if the Bears had found a way to bring Ryan Leaf into camp.
GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK
‘Well, isn’t this a kick. At the time of the year when we are supposed to air our grievances, I have none, at least pertaining to the state of the 2014 New England Patriots. This is their best all-around team since 2007, perhaps even 2004. They’ve been a joy to watch this season, especially after the slightly bumpy first month. And I expect the season’s joy to continue well past the holidays. Enjoy this team. It has a chance to be one we remember long after they’ve played their last snaps.
COMPLETELY RANDOM FOOTBALL CARD
Statistically, Roland Hooks’s seven-season NFL career looked something like one peak year of Thurman Thomas’s run with the Bills. Hooks finished his career, spent entirely with Buffalo, with 1,682 rushing yards, another 950 receiving yards, and 15 touchdowns. But he’s remembered for a couple of reasons — a great name, for starters. But for a relatively marginal player, he had his moments against the Patriots, including the catch of a Joe Ferguson Hail Mary pass on the final play of a November 1981 game. He also scored the Bills’ first touchdown in the second-to-last regular season game during that chaotic end to the ’78 Patriots season — old timers around here will remember that as the David Posey game.
PREDICTION, OR 13-3 SOUNDS PRETTY GOOD
Because there’s so much up in the air regarding key personnel for both teams — and how much playing time that key personnel will receiver — this is a tough one to call. But here’s one bold guess: when this one is over, Bills fans will be wondering why they don’t have their own Jimmy Garoppolo. Patriots 28, Bills 10