Welcome to Season 8, Episode 4 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
After the Week 4 slate of games, the NFL regular season will be a quarter complete. Feels like it just began, but it always feels that way when good times are underway, and these have definitely been good times for the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots, even by their standards.
They enter Sunday’s matchup on the road against the Buffalo Bills at 3-0, with the NFL’s top-ranked offense and defense. They’ve scored 106 points and allowed just 17 in wins over Pittsburgh, Miami, and the Jets. Their point differential, plus-89, is greater than the point totals for all but five other teams. Their defense has yet to allow a touchdown. The Bills — again, nearly a quarter of the way into the season — are the first team they have played that has won a game this year.
The Bills enter 3-0, and while New England was a 7-point favorite as of Saturday, they’re deserving of respect, with a versatile, stout defense that held the Patriots to 49 points total in two games last year, and an offense that has plenty of speed, including at quarterback. For the first time this season, the Patriots will face at least something of a challenge.
Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let’s get this thing started . . .
GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK
Let’s keep this one brief, because the story has long since passed the tiresome stage. Bill Belichick didn’t stare blankly at CBS sideline reporter Dana Jacobson last Sunday after she asked a question about Antonio Brown for any other reason than he wasn’t interested in answering that question.
That’s his familiar method in such situations. He does the same thing to Channel 4’s Steve Burton at halftime of preseason games.
Is it jerky? Certainly comes across that way, but it’s rather effective, and anyone who asks him a question they know he doesn’t want to answer has to be prepared for it. Anyone trying to turn it into something more is revealing an agenda.
SMITH, PAYTON, SANDERS . . . GORE?
■ Frank Gore is a no-doubt Hall of Famer. It sneaked up on even the most avid NFL fans, and it’s not something we noticed until the last season or two, but it’s true.
The 36-year-old running back is fourth all time in rushing with 14,912 yards, trailing only Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, and Barry Sanders. He added another 76 to his total last Sunday. He also plowed in for the winning touchdown.
He has never led the NFL in any statistical category, though he did have one monster season in 2006, rushing for 1,695 yards and 8 touchdowns for the 49ers in his second year in the league. He has become something of a journeyman in recent seasons — the Bills are his third team in three years and fourth overall (San Francisco, Indianapolis, Miami) — but he has a sterling reputation as a teammate, and still can maneuver his way to 3½ yards on third and 3.
Gore’s career is a tribute to perseverance. After starring on a loaded University of Miami team that also featured Clinton Portis and Willis McGahee in the backfield, he fell to the third round of the 2005 draft in large part because of questions about his knees. Fourteen years later, he has held up as well as any running back in NFL history.
Last Sunday, he became just the fourth back in NFL history to rush for more than 75 yards in a game after turning 36 (John Riggins, Marcus Allen, and MacArthur Lane are the others).
Gore, who played 62 percent of the snaps against the Bengals, while Devin Singletary dealt with a hamstring injury, probably won’t do much damage against the stout Patriots defense. But he has played well against them in the past, averaging 5.0 yards per carry and 70 yards per game in five matchups. And it’s hard to believe they’ll face an opponent this year more deserving of their respect.
WR Josh Gordon vs. CB Tre’Davious White
It’s tempting to suggest the Patriots will emphasize running the ball against the Bills, given that they racked up 273 yards on the ground in their Week 16 victory last season. But with essential fullback James Develin on IR, some unwelcome changes to the offensive line, and Sony Michel struggling (116 yards in Week 16 last year, 108 yards total at 2.4 yards per carry through three games this year), the time to establish the run probably is not now.
The Patriots will put the ball in Tom Brady’s hands, as safe a bet as there is in the NFL even against a stout defense like Buffalo’s. That means that Josh Gordon, the supremely talented receiver who seems to have found a new ease this season, should get more than his share of opportunities again.
Last week in the win over the Jets, he had six catches — including two spectacular grabs — for 83 yards on 11 targets. He came through despite suffering a couple of injuries during the game that sent him briefly to the sidelines.
The Bills feature a terrific secondary, with a pair of versatile, playmaking safeties in Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde. But the best player — and the one most likely to be charged with accounting for Gordon — is Tre’Davious White.
He’s probably best known to Patriots fans as the Bill who was on the receiving end of Rob Gronkowski’s out-of-character dirty hit in December 2017. But White has become a terrific cornerback, and he’s coming off one of the best games of his career, having picked off two Andy Dalton passes last week, including the one that clinched the game.
White has lamented that the NFL “is sleeping on him,’’ meaning he doesn’t get the credit for his fine play. If he plays well against Gordon and the Patriots, maybe he will start to get the notice he is due.
WILL THE PATRIOTS DEFENSE GIVE UP A TOUCHDOWN THIS WEEK?
No, the Patriots defense will not give up a touchdown this week.
And yes, you bet I’m sticking with this shtick until (or is it if?!) they do.
PREDICTION, OR WHADDAYA MEAN REX RYAN WAS ALL BLUSTER?
Sean McDermott was hired as the Bills coach on Jan. 11, 2017. His won-lost record so far is 18-17, and the Bills are 0-1 in the playoffs in his tenure. That may look mediocre, but in the context of the team’s post-Jim Kelly/Marv Levy history, it is not.
The playoff game, a 10-3 loss to the Jaguars in the 2017 wild-card round, was Buffalo’s first playoff appearance since the Music City Miracle loss to the Titans on Jan. 8, 2000. Including those with an interim title, the Bills went through nine head coaches between playoff appearances.
This is all to say that McDermott, who has 10 new starters on offense since the beginning of last season, has done a nice job of pointing the Bills in the right direction. Are they a threat to the Patriots right now? Well, no. McDermott is 0-4 against the Patriots, with an average margin of defeat of 18 points.
The Patriots, dinged up as they are, are a superior team in every way, and their No. 1-ranked defense should eat Josh Allen alive. But the Bills are at least deserving of some respect. That’s progress.
Patriots 30, Bills 9.
THREE PLAYERS I’LL BE WATCHING NOT NAMED TOM BRADY
The mea culpa is at least a full season overdue, probably more. This is what I wrote about Gilmore in March 2017, when the Patriots signed the former Bills cornerback to a whopping five-year, $65 million contract that included $40 million in guarantees:
“Gilmore is a terrific player, one with a first-round pedigree, but if he comes here at the expense of [Malcolm] Butler and new Titan Logan Ryan, I’m not sure how a fan reconciles that beyond muttering, ‘In Bill We Trust.’
“Butler is probably the best rise-to-greatness story in Patriots history other than Tom Brady, a rookie free agent who saved a Super Bowl with perhaps the biggest play in the game’s history, then grew into a top-notch player at an incredibly difficult position, all the while remaining humble and likable . . . [It’s] tough to see them award a fat contract to a player who will probably never approach doing what Butler did for the franchise.”
Now remember, the Gilmore signing came out of nowhere, at the same time rumors were percolating that a Butler-to-the-Saints deal was imminent. I did not like this unfolding chain of events, and I was not alone!
Well, you know what happened. Butler stuck around through the ’17 season, but his uneven performance culminated with a stunning benching in the Super Bowl LII loss to the Eagles, a sad bookend to the football heroism of his rookie season, when his goal-line interception saved Super Bowl XLIX. (That play recently ranked fifth on the NFL Network’s top 100 plays of all time. It was four spots too low.) He ended up getting his money; he signed a five-year, $61 million deal ($30 million guaranteed) with the Titans roughly six weeks after his benching.
As for Gilmore, well, Bill Belichick the GM sure did help Bill Belichick the coach with that call. He started slowly as a Patriot; he had a colossal blown coverage in his first game, a 42-27 loss to the Chiefs in the ’17 opener.
But he figured it out, and got better, and better, and better, to the point that he’s the Patriots’ best No. 24 since Ty Law (yep, 2014 Darrelle Revis included) and is arguably the best cornerback in the league. Heck, the only person who might argue is Jalen Ramsey.
He even had an interception that iced the Patriots’ Super Bowl LIII win over the Rams. No, it wasn’t quite the magnitude of Butler’s play four years earlier. But it was made by a much better player.
Every once in a while, an erratic young quarterback fares surprisingly well against the Patriots (see: Mitchell Trubisky in the Patriots’ 38-31 win over the Bears last year). I can’t see Allen, one of those rocket-armed sorts with Tarkentonian mobility who lacks the experience to make efficient use of their skills, joining that small group, at least not yet.
There’s no doubt he has improved in his second season; he’s completing 64.1 percent of his passes after connecting on an unacceptable 52.8 percent as a rookie. He has just three touchdown passes to three interceptions, and he’s 27th in rating (trailing the mediocre likes of Joe Flacco, Jameis Winston, and Kirk Cousins). But he has done enough right to help keep the Bills unbeaten through three weeks.
The physical tools are staggering. He has Drew Bledsoe’s dimensions (6 feet 5 inches, 237 pounds), but he runs so well (736 yards and 10 touchdowns in 15 career games) that Patriots defensive coach Jerod Mayo compared him in style to Michael Vick.
The Patriots will be wary of what he can do, but they should not be worried. He still makes bad decisions — he got credit for a fourth-quarter comeback last week against the Bengals, but the Bills were in that spot largely because of a brutal Allen interception — and the Patriots should frustrate him into mistakes. Here’s betting he gifts Devin McCourty his fourth interception in four games.
Call it redemption, call it a renaissance, call it reconciliation, call it the right time to reunite for player in team. But whatever you do, call the return of Collins to the Patriots after 2½ seasons in Cleveland exile satisfying beyond what any of us might have dared to believe. The 29-year-old linebacker has been the best player on the league’s best defense this season, with 19 tackles, 2½ sacks, and 2 interceptions (including one returned 69 yards for a touchdown against the Dolphins) so far. He’s got enough highlights to fill a full season’s reel. It seems like the perfect fit between player and team, and he should continue to excel Sunday, his size and speed likely being a significant part of shadowing Allen, who was sacked once and took seven hits last week against the Bengals.
What’s remarkable is not so much his performance — the talent was never in question — but that the reunion happened at all. Remember when the Patriots shockingly traded Collins to the 0-8 Browns midway through the 2016 season? Mike Lombardi, a former Patriots executive who has a long history with Belichick, said part of the reason Collins was traded was because he was freelancing too much and there were effort issues. (Collins did frustrate at times, never more so than when he was burned for two touchdowns by plodding Broncos tight end Owen Daniels in the 2015 AFC Championship game.) When Belichick was asked about this at the time, he responded with a curt, “Mike’s one of the smartest people I know.” To his credit, Collins handled the deal with relative grace, telling Dan Shaughnessy, “It was OK. It’s business. This is a business league. [Expletive] happens . . . I leave with good terms with anybody.’’ It was wise of him to take the high road — it probably helped that the Browns immediately gave him a fat new contract — and perhaps a sign in retrospect that a reunion someday wouldn’t be out of the question. This much is certain: It sure looks like brilliant business now to bring him back.