Welcome to Season 6, Episode 1 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, often nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup that runs right here every weekend (or the occasional Thursday).
At last, the real thing.
After a preseason spent figuring out which Hollister brother is which, lamenting the loss of Julian Edelman, analyzing and overanalyzing the trade of a third-string quarterback for a receiver once selected in the first round, and reveling in the latest Do Your Job documentary, the Patriots formally begin their quest for a second straight Super Bowl title, a third in four seasons, and a sixth overall when they take on the Kansas City Chiefs Thursday night.
Did we say at last already?
The Patriots begin doing their jobs in earnest against a talented Chiefs team (11-5 a season ago), an opponent with whom they have some unusual history. We all remember what happened the last time the franchises met in a season opener nine years ago. Fortunately Bernard Pollard is not expected in vicinity of Gillette Stadium tonight.
Stranger still was their matchup in Week 4 of the 2014 season, when the host Chiefs routed the Patriots, 41-14. Tom Brady had one of his roughest games in recent seasons and was pulled in the fourth quarter for Jimmy Garoppolo. In Bill Belichick’s postgame press conference, CSN’s Mike Giardi asked whether the quarterback position would be evaluated. Belichick gave him an are-you-kidding-me? looked, grunted a “ha,’’ and did not respond.
The quarterback position was not evaluated. Patriots won the Super Bowl that season. Brady is 43-9 since that game.
It will be fun to get our first glance what this new-look offense can do. Brandin Cooks should be an electrifying addition to the passing game, and Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead are intriguing new running backs. The defense has some new faces too, most notably cornerback Stephon Gilmore. This might be a better roster talent-wise than the one that pulled off the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history in February. The next five-plus months will reveal whether its one capable of similar greatness to its championship predecessors.
We begin getting answers Thursday night. Right – at last. Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let’s get this thing started …
THREE PLAYERS I’LL BE WATCHING NOT NAMED TOM BRADY
Chris Hogan: I’m fascinated to see how his role evolves this season, his second with the Patriots after he was pilfered in free agency from the Bills. Last season he was the designated deep threat, and he was an excellent one, tying then-Eagle DeSean Jackson for the highest yards-per-catch average in the league (17.9 on 38 catches). But with slot receiver Julian Edelman out for the season and a couple of speedsters (Brandin Cooks and Phillip Dorsett) added to the roster, Hogan’s role could both expand and evolve. The Patriots have an angry militia’s stockpile of weapons in the passing and running games, but Hogan is going to get his share of touches. He earned Brady’s trust last season. This year, the reward will be more footballs aimed in his direction, and not just deep downfield. I’m setting the over/under at 75 receptions.
Mike Gillislee: Speaking of unheralded offensive players plucked from the Bills, I’m convinced Gillislee will have at least as much of an impact with the Patriots this season as Hogan did a year ago. The goober “Bills Mafia” is going to love it. Gillislee averaged a league-best 5.7 yards per carry last season; he averaged 5.7 yards per carry in ’15 as well. Watching him, it’s easy to understand why. He is the anti-Laurence Maroney in terms of running style, hitting the hole with a fury and always seeming to shake the first would-be tackler. In his two year NFL career, he has 185 carries for 865 yards and 11 touchdowns. The Patriots have a deep and versatile backfield, and Rex Burkhead is another intriguing import, but I’ll bet you or Craig Carton that Gillislie surpasses all of those numbers this season.
Trey Flowers: We’ve got to have a concern about something with this roster, and one of the popular topics is whether the Patriots will have much of a pass rush. Last year, they collected just 34 sacks as a team, and the players who ranked second, third and fourth on the team in sacks – Jabaal Sheard (5), Chris Long (4) and Rob Ninkovich (4) – are no longer here. But the team’s sacks leader remains. Flowers led the Patriots with seven sacks – all coming in the last nine games -- in what was in essence his rookie year. (He played one game in ’15 before going on injured reserve.) Most encouragingly, he was at his best in the Super Bowl, recording 2 ½ sacks, including a late siege on Matt Ryan that knocked the Falcons out of field goal range and set up the Patriots’ game tying drive. I’m not going on out a limb to say he’ll be a menace to rival quarterbacks this season. He became one last year, even if the league didn’t quite take notice. It will now.
GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK
Ah, how can anyone have a gripe during the first week of the NFL season? These are the good times, the days of high hopes and Super Bowl dreams. This is the time when the idea of a trip to Minnesota in February sounds desirable rather than ridiculous. Complaints at this time of the year are the domain of the incurably miserable. Football season is back. The Patriots are stacked. Grievances? I’ll muster up a few later in the season, for sure. But for now, my only grievance is with those who have let perspective slip away, who can’t appreciate the moment in real-time. I always loved Andy Bernard’s line in the finale of The Office: “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve already left them. Someone should write a song about that.” The Patriots wrote that song in 2001. All these years later, we’re still playing it on repeat.
PREDICTION, OR HOW CAN PATRICK MAHOMES II BE AN NFL QUARTERBACK WHEN HIS DAD WAS A YOUNG PITCHER JUST YESTERDAY?
Man, as if I needed another reminder that I’m getting old, Mahomes’s dad Pat made his first appearance for the Red Sox the same year (1996) that Brady played his first game at Michigan. And now Brady is on the opposite sideline from his kid, an electrifying quarterback prospect who for now sits behind Alex Smith, the Bill Pullman of quarterbacks. At some point Brady will age too. No, it’s true. Maybe it happens this year. We’ve all seen the stats on quarterbacks at 40 and beyond – only Brett Favre and Warren Moon have had anything resembling stellar seasons beyond that age. But I don’t think it will. He will be the outlier because that’s what he always has been. There is no greater outlier in NFL history than a sixth-round pick becoming a five-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, the best ever at his position, and probably the best ever at any position. He’ll be an outlier in that he’s brilliant beyond 40, too. The Chiefs will be the unfortunate recipient of the season’s first reminder.
Patriots 38, Chiefs 24.
Follow Chad Finn on Twitter at @GlobeChadFinn.