Welcome to Season 7, Episode 2 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
Tom Brady has engineered so many extraordinary comebacks on big stages (you see, this one time the Patriots were down 28-3 and …) that some incredible achievements are practically lost in their shadow.
For all intents and purposes, the Patriots should have lost the AFC Championship Game to the Jacksonville Jaguars last January. With just over 10 minutes left, they trailed by 10 points and had the ball still in their own territory.
Rob Gronkowski had been knocked out of the game with a concussion. The stars of the Jaguars’ young defense, their legs running even faster than their mouths, were all over the field, nearly putting it away earlier in the fourth when Myles Jack stripped the ball from Dion Lewis after a Patriots double pass.
The degree of difficulty in orchestrating a comeback was high — and yet it was expected, because that’s what Brady does, and that’s what he did. An eight-play drive that included three catches — including the touchdown — by Danny Amendola cut it to 20-17 with 8:53 left. Six minutes and a couple of hapless Jaguars possessions later, Brady found Amendola again for the go-ahead touchdown.
Nothing but perhaps the Jaguars’ lingering disappointment of that game has any bearing on Sunday’s matchup (4:25 p.m., CBS, Jim Nantz, Tony Romo and Tracy Wolfson on the call). But it is worth revisiting now for one reason: It’s a reminder, if one is needed, that this era is so extraordinary that Brady has made stirring comebacks against excellent teams not just normal, but expected, and even overlooked.
Maybe that game never seemed in doubt to you. It was. It just happens to be that the Patriots have a quarterback who is better than anyone has ever been at erasing that doubt.
Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let’s get this one started …
THREE PLAYERS I’LL BE WATCHING NOT NAMED TOM BRADY
Phillip Dorsett:[Dwight Schrute voice]: Question … is it possible that Dorsett, and not Chris Hogan, is going to be the Patriots’ most reliable wide receiver in Julian Edelman’s absence? There were a lot of encouraging developments in Dorsett’s performance against the Texans in Week 1 – he finished with 7 catches for 66 yards and a touchdown. Perhaps the most impressive stat was that the seven receptions came on seven targets. That’s the sign of a receiver who is in sync h with Tom Brady. Hogan is the most accomplished receiver on the Patriots roster right now, but he has sometimes struggled when his obligations are to be anything more than the fourth or fifth option in the passing game. He had just one catch for 11 yards last week. The Jaguars are probably more aware of Dorsett than most teams – he had a huge 31-yard catch in the fourth quarter in the AFC Championship Game when the Patriots were trailing 20-10. Perhaps the next step is playing well when the opponent knows you’re capable of it.
Myles Jack: Seems hard to believe now given what a stalwart he has become for the Jaguars’ high-speed defense, but Jack, who was a two-way superstar at UCLA, fell to the 36th pick in the 2016 draft because of health concerns. The Patriots did not have a first-round pick that year because of the absurd penalty for Deflategate, and as Jack was falling on draft night, I remember wondering if he might have been the Patriots pick had they actually had one. They actually took a player with injury concerns later in the draft – receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who gave them one memorable season before his knee problems proved career-altering, and perhaps career-ending. In a small way, Jack is one of those what-might-have-been stories. Oh, and one more thing: I don’t think he was down.
Jalen Ramsey: I mean, you know why. He’s trying to be the modern-day Deion Sanders, a chatty, supremely talented Florida State cornerback whose play usually cashes the checks his mouth is always writing. Here’s hoping he gets matched up with Rob Gronkowski more than occasionally on Sunday. He’ll win a few rounds – he wasn’t totally wrong that Gronk is less effective when he’s covered by a cornerback on the outside – but I seriously doubt he’ll win the battle. He’s too good for Brady to expose like he has loudmouths of the past (hello, Anthony Smith), but you know the Patriots will take a shot or two in his direction. Hey, this stuff is fun.
HEY, HERE’S THE FULL VIDEO YOU PROBABLY DON’T NEED OF THE JAGUARS’ 25-10 PLAYOFF VICTORY OVER THE PATRIOTS IN JANUARY 1999
Yep, watched this beginning to end, all 2 hours 31 minutes and 17 seconds of it. I don’t necessarily recommend it, because if you remember those days, before trips to the AFC Championship Game became the low end of our annual expectations, it will stir some frustrating memories. In the Patriots’ 25-10 loss to Mark Brunell, Fred Taylor, and the Jaguars, the deterioration of what Bill Parcells built and abandoned is one full display. Pete Carroll struts on the sideline in all of his obliviousness. Ernie Zampese’s offense is predictable and uninspired. And Phil Simms talks so much he makes Tony Romo seem reticent – especially when Simms is giving us the first televised soliloquy about pigeons since Bert from Sesame Street was in his prime.
But there is cool stuff. With Drew Bledsoe sidelined with his famous finger injury, Scott Zolak got the start at quarterback. He struggled in the first half – he was 5 of 16 for 39 yards as the Jaguars took a 12-0 lead into the break – but got it together in the second half, hitting 16 of 28 throws for 151 yards, and with Terry Glenn sidelined (of course), forged a connection with Troy Brown that foreshadowed the postseason stalwart he would become.
The Patriots even had a chance to take the lead in the third quarter, but a Zolak dart ricocheted off the hands of backup tight end Lovett Purnell, and the Patriots had to settle for a field goal and a 12-10 disadvantage. Zolak, probably the most popular backup quarterback in Patriots history other than Bledsoe in the 2001 postseason and Steve Grogan at the times in which Tony Eason or Matt Cavanaugh took over his job, has been known to mutter about this play from time to time on his radio show.
It’s not exactly a cause for wistfulness, though it is fun to see great Patriots such as Ty Law, Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi and Lawyer Milloy out there putting up a fight in their football youth. But it is a compelling time capsule of the days before the dynasty, when victory sometimes was just getting to the game rather than its usual result.
Oh, and one more thing: This was the last Patriots playoff game not started by Tom Brady. Found that in the YouTube comments, which has to be the only useful thing ever found in YouTube comments.
GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK
Back when he was coaching the Bills – and especially when he quit coaching the Bills after their best season in years in 2014, when they went 9-7 – Doug Marrone usually came across as a self-serious hardhead. You know the type, one of those old-school, Bear Bryant-worshiping helmet heads who still wear ill-fitting Bike brand shorts, equate football with war, and carry themselves like the coach in Dazed and Confused who can’t understand why Randall “Pink” Floyd won’t sign the damn contract. Maybe he wasn’t quite that extreme of a cliché in reality, but the truth didn’t seem too far away. “He is awkward around a microphone, and his demeanor comes across as gruff,’’ wrote Liz Merrill in a 2015 profile on ESPN. “He cuts an intimidating figure, an old lineman in a 6-foot-5, 270-ish pound body.”
Coaches like Marrone – or at least my perception of him – could be the grievance here every week. But it turns out the perception isn’t the reality, even if he was OK with it being portrayed that way for years. Merrill captured his regular-guy spirit in her 2015 piece, and it was even more evident during his conference call with reporters Wednesday, when he revealed – to a dubious reaction – that he no longer watches the Super Bowl.
Q: You never watched the Super Bowl?
Q: Not even live?
Q: There’s like over 100 million people in the country that watch the Super Bowl.
DM: No, but I don’t watch it. I got a question about if I saw Coach – wasn’t it last year somebody asked me about did I watch Coach [Tom] Coughlin’s Super Bowls? I’m like, ‘No.’ I don’t know why everyone doesn’t believe that.
Q: You never watch the Super Bowl live?
DM: No, I’m usually so pissed off I can’t handle it.
Q: Was that even more so the case because your team was so close last year?
DM: No, I just always said – hey, listen. I just don’t watch it. That’s all. I watch enough tape during the year.
Q: So, what was the last Super Bowl you did watch?
DM: Probably when I wasn’t coaching and I was allowed to gamble. Probably when I was like 12... when I had a little money on it. You guys write that. I’ll probably get [expletive] investigated.
Q: Wouldn’t watching the Super Bowl help you guys prepare for this week’s game?
DM: I think our defensive and offensive coaches obviously have watched it.
[Subject turns to Jacksonville’s running game. And then …]
Q: I’ve got to be honest, I’m still intrigued by the Super Bowl thing...
DM: You’ve got to let it go, man.
Q: While the whole country gathers for parties and stuff, what do you do during the Super Bowl?
DM: I usually just – I mean, is this on the record or off the record?
Q: Whatever you want.
DM: Off the record, I just sit down and drink some beer and be miserable.
Q: So, you don’t go bowling or have an activity or anything? You just sit at home and don’t watch the Super Bowl?
DM: What makes you think a guy – are you saying because I’m fat that I bowl? Is that what you’re trying to say? I like bowling because I’m a fat guy?
Q: You said it, not me.
DM: You think I can’t go out there for a jog? Maybe I go out for a run. How about if I go out there and run a marathon? You don’t think I’m that guy?
Q: You tell me. I left the question open-ended for you.
DM: No, I’m not that guy. You know, when you aspire to go there and you’re not there, it’s something that – I just don’t want to go through the whole season again in my mind of not being there. That’s the truth. Even when I was a player and even when I was a coach – and obviously you guys know we get tickets – I just never, even when I was a player, we’d always say, ‘Look, we’re never going until we go.’ That’s always stuck in my mind when I was a player. Hopefully one day – that’s what we work for. And if not, then, [expletive], I’ll probably start watching.”
Marrone is a good coach. He seems like a good guy. My grievance is a self-grievance -- that I recognized neither for too long. It almost makes you root for him to get to a Super Bowl, just so he can see what all the hype is about. I said almost.
PREDICTION, OR IT’S TOO BAD FRED TAYLOR COULDN’T HAVE STAYED HEALTHY WITH THE PATRIOTS: Did you catch Myles Jack’s comment on the meaning of this game for the Jaguars? “It’s definitely the most important game of my life ... the most important week of my life, for sure,’’ he said. Either he’s had far fewer interesting weeks in his life than we’d assume, or Jack and the Jaguars are completely overemphasizing what this game means. I mean, where do think you this rates among the most important games of Brady’s life? Top 100, maybe?
Sure, it could have some impact in playoff seeding down the road. It’s not impossible that it might factor into where the AFC Championship Game is played. But it’s also Week 2 of the regular season. It carries nowhere near the importance of the last time they played against the Patriots, when there were real stakes. They’re trying to win a game they already lost.
The Jaguars are an incredibly talented team, but they don’t have the appropriate perspective on this game. The Patriots will. I heard Boomer Esiason call it a trap game for the Patriots on CBS Sports the other day. That’s wrong – this is no trap. The Patriots know the Jags are good, but they know what to expect, and they know how to handle anything unexpected that comes their way too.
The Jaguars will start fast, but the Patriots’ improved defense will frustrate Jaguars quarterback and “The Good Place” punch line Blake Bortles, and the Jags will have to deal with losing the most important game of their lives until whenever the next most important game of their lives comes along during the regular season. Patriots 24, Jaguars 20.