Welcome to Season 7, Episode 11 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
It’s getting to be stretch-run time for the Patriots, who are coming off their well-timed bye week to take on the Jets Sunday afternoon at MetLife Stadium.
The Patriots (7-3) are 13-5 after the bye in the Bill Belichick era, including last year’s 41-16 thumping of the Broncos in Denver. The Jets (3-7) appear to be a welcome opponent, having lost four in a row, including last Sunday’s 41-10 loss to the Bills.
But there are some concerns for the Patriots, who lost to the Titans, 34-10, before their hiatus. Tom Brady is listed as questionable with a knee issue and an illness (hopefully he got the memo on romaine lettuce), which adds an unwelcome layer of mystery to everything.
The Patriots, in their push to catch the Steelers and/or the Chiefs in the AFC standings, don’t need this one to be the gimme the teams’ records suggest it should be. They just need to win it.
Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let’s get this one started . . .
Three players I’ll be watching not named Tom Brady
Rob Gronkowski: Loved colleague Jim McBride’s word choice to describe Gronk’s mood at practice Friday: exuberant. I think most Patriots fans have come to grips with the possibility that we are watching his final season with the team, given his contract status, health history, and the fact that Belichick was willing to make him a Detroit Lion in the offseason. I hope, as he returns for his first game since Week 8, that most Patriots fans still remember to appreciate him while he’s here. Yes, it’s been a down season from a production standpoint — he has 29 catches for 448 yards and a single touchdown in seven games — but he still has had some huge moments, including 42- and 39-yard catches in the 43-40 win over the Chiefs. Exuberant Gronk is often dynamic Gronk, and I strongly suspect he’ll prove Sunday he’s far from washed up, no matter what dumb New York tabloid stories might suggest.
Josh McCown: The Jets’ 39-year-old quarterback, who will get the start Sunday in place of ailing rookie Sam Darnold, is one of just two active players remaining from the 2002 draft. Julius Peppers is the other. That’s some impressive staying power, even if he did enter the league two years after the Patriots drafted Brady. Consider this: The top two quarterbacks chosen in ’02 were David Carr (first) and Joey Harrington (third), and they’ve been out of the league six and 11 years. The Patriots’ first-round pick was Daniel Graham, a decent player who retired after the 2012 season. (He went three picks ahead of Ed Reed. Ouch.) McCown, who has played for eight teams, must have done a lot well off the field to still be in the league after all these years.
James White: After 10 games, White has 66 catches for 562 yards and 6 touchdowns. In fact, he’s already had career-highs for receptions, receiving yards, receiving touchdowns, rushing yards (230), and rushing touchdowns (4). He’s on pace for 106 catches for 899 yards and 10 touchdowns; that reception total would be an NFL record for a running back (Matt Forte had 104 in ’14 for the Bears), and it would be the best receiving season in Patriots history for anyone not named Wes Welker. Welker owns the top five reception seasons in franchise history, with a peak of 123 in 2009.
Grievance of the Week
Stanley Morgan was the greatest deep threat in Patriots history (and arguably the greatest receiver drafted by the team). In his 13 years with the Patriots (1977-89), he had 534 receptions for 10,352 yards — an average of 19.4 per catch. He averaged more than 20 yards per catch in each of his first six seasons, including a ridiculous 23.4 in 1981 (44 catches, 1,029 yards). But even he eventually lost a step or several; the Patriots let him go at age 34 after the ’89 season, and he played one final season with the Colts.
Brady has had a sneaky-decent career as a receiver, albeit in a minuscule sample size. Everyone remembers his drop in the Super Bowl last season, and they should — the outcome might have been different had he hauled in Danny Amendola’s pass. But in his career, Brady has three catches: a 23-yarder in 2001, a 36-yarder in 2015, and a 6-yarder two weeks ago against the Titans. That’s a Morgan-like 21.7-yard average (3 catches, 65 yards). Not a bad play to bust out every few years on an unsuspecting opponent.
However, it’s time to retire it. Brady is 41, and perhaps he’s lost a step as a receiver — if he ever had a step to lose in the first place. Brady’s drop in the Super Bowl was awkward, but his catch against the Titans was even more so; he stumbled, nearly took a huge hit, and didn’t get the first down. Part of the reason he missed practice Friday was a knee injury that reportedly occurred on that play. It’s absurd that the Patriots put him in harm’s way on a play that doesn’t work quite like it used to. The risk/reward is not in their favor. Even Morgan had to stop running fly patterns at some point.
Prediction, or who is the second-best quarterback in Jets history after Joe Namath? Chad Pennington?
The Patriots have won 12 of their last 14 matchups with the Jets dating back to October 2011. Both of the Jets wins, in 2013 and ’15, have come in overtime at home. On their turf, the Jets have generally played the Patriots tough in recent years, no matter the particular state of either team at the time. In their last four meetings in New Jersey, the Patriots have won three, but their largest margin of victory is 7, in a 24-17 win last year. The Jets tend to give them a battle at MetLife Stadium, even when it seems they shouldn’t. The Patriots will win Sunday, but history suggests expecting a blowout isn’t the right approach. Patriots 27, Jets 20.