As one of the cool duties that comes with that new byline up there, I'll be writing a conventional Patriots column after every game this season. So I figured that to preview the game each week, I'd try something a little less conventional and yet still in the spirit of the serious-but-lighthearted, often-nostalgic prism with which TATB has always viewed sports. This column is still a work in progress in Week 2, something you probably won't need to be reminded of after reading it. Some features will reoccur every week, and others will be opponent-specific or even one-and-done. But it will be right here every Friday around noon, and I think it's going to be fun. Hope you do too. And yes, this is the last time I'll use this ridiculously long intro.
THREE PLAYERS OTHER THAN TOM BRADY I'LL BE WATCHING
1. Chandler Jones, defensive end: Willie McGinest played his final game as a Patriot on January 7, 2006, a 27-14 playoff loss to the Broncos that ended the bid for three straight Super Bowl victories. While it was probably time for him to go -- he went on to three nondescript seasons in Cleveland where he totaled eight sacks -- the Patriots have never come close to replacing all that he provided to their defense. I've seen Jones, the first-round pick out of Syracuse, play exactly one NFL game, just as you have. And I'm sure I'm not the only one who watched that strip-sack of Jake Locker Sunday and thought, "They've got the guy. McGinest has finally been replaced."
2. Dont'a Hightower, linebacker: So this is what it looks like to have fast, relentless young playmakers on defense.
3. Larry Fitzgerald, wide receiver, Cardinals: For the past couple of seasons, if you'd told me that the Patriots could steal one player off another team's roster without repercussion from Overlord Goodell, Fitzgerald might have been my first choice. Can you imagine him playing with Brady rather than the parade of McCowns and honorary McCowns he's played with in Arizona? Fitzgerald has been surpassed by Calvin Johnson as the league's most dynamic receiver, and his list of career comps isn't quite as impressive as you'd expect. According to pro-footballreference.com, his most similar receiver in career "quality and shape" through five seasons is receiver John Jefferson, who was a brilliant flash rather than an enduring great. But at 29, Fitzgerald is still in his prime, and I suspect his own quarterback will do a better job of minimizing his impact Sunday than the Patriots defensive backs will.
CARDINALS CORNERBACK WHO MIGHT GIVE YOU OLD TIMERS LIKE ME SOME MIKE HAYNES '76 FLASHBACKS
There are game-changers. And then there are those even rarer players who can have such a profound impact on a particular play that it is essential to go to great lengths to avoid giving him a chance to tilt the game's outcome. The Cardinals' Patrick Peterson, a second-year return man and cornerback, is fast becoming one of those players. As a rookie last season, Peterson tied the NFL record with four punt returns for touchdowns, joining Devin Hester, Rick Upchurch, and Jack Christiansen. (Haynes had two for the '76 Patriots, the first season in his Hall of Fame career). As a cornerback, he's on a track to become the player Darrelle Revis is purported to be. I'm not saying it's best for the Patriots if Zoltan Mesko avoids him at all costs, but ... well, watch at your own risk.
COMPLETELY RANDOM FOOTBALL CARD
I bet Bill Belichick, with his historical and tactical appreciation for multi-skilled football players, loved Roy Green. If you only vaguely remember him -- and that's excusable, because while he was a heck of a player, ranking 51st all-time with 8,965 receiving yards in 14 NFL seasons, 12 of those seasons were spent in the NFL witness protection program playing for the Cardinals -- he's worth revisiting. Green's career was sort of the reverse of Troy Brown's, the great Patriots receiver and occasional defensive back who will be inducted into the franchise's Hall of Fame Saturday. Brown played defensive back on essentially an emergency basis beginning in 2004, his 12th NFL season, even picking off three passes for the Super Bowl champs. Green began his career in 1979 as a cornerback, but was so dynamic as a kick returner that he began getting time on offense, and had 33 catches at more than 20 yards per pop in '81. He made the transition to receiver full-time in 1982. Heck of a player, heck of a career, and someone worth remembering.
GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK
The notion that Wes Welker, who had three catches for 14 yards in the opener, has become an afterthought or is being phased out because of his contract status, is the height of hysterical, contrived sports-radio-driven ridiculousness, and fans who give credence to this really need to start thinking for themselves. Yes, the three-for-14 is an unusually low output for Welker, who had 122 receptions last year, 22 more than any other receiver in the league. But c'mon, do you really think Tom Brady is conspiring to throw him the ball less? You know better -- the Patriots offense is absolutely stacked, as deep and versatile as imaginable with Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Brandon Lloyd, and because Brady can spread the ball around depending upon the defense and particular matchups, someone among them is always going to end up with fewer chances than you'd expect for a player of accomplishment. Last week it was Welker. Guess what? It's been Welker before. Last season, he had two catches for 22 yards in Week 11 against the Chiefs. In 2010, he had three games with three catches and three more with four, and he finished that season with 86 receptions coming off a knee injury. Even in the record-setting 2007 season, when Welker busted out as an NFL star with 112 catches, he had three games with three receptions. It's probably magnified because it happened in the first week of the season. But it's not going to be a trend. Don't be suckered in to thinking something devious is at play here.
PREDICTION GONE HORRIBLY WRONG EXACTLY ONE WEEK INTO THE SEASON
Wrote this way back in, let's see ... um, it was last week. It was my sixth
blind heave at a dartboard fearless 2012 NFL prediction in a gallery of a dozen, and hopefully will prove my most embarrassing:
The Cardinals' John Skelton will prove valuable in both real and fantasy football. It seems like a quarterback or two emerges every season from relative obscurity to become a dependable starter. Think Matt Moore or Ryan Fitzpatrick last year. Our bet to put up unexpectedly good numbers this season is the Cardinals' Skelton, who threw for 1,913 yards last year in eight games, is more comfortable in his third season, and has Larry Fitzgerald on his side.
Well, that was fun while it lasted ... which was, precisely, 51 minutes and 27 seconds of the Cardinals' season-opening victory over the Seahawks last Sunday. That's how long Skelton lasted before suffering a high ankle sprain that apparently was painful enough that he required the assistance of the cart to get off the field with 7:33 remaining in the fourth quarter.
And to be honest, it actually wasn't that fun while he was playing -- he finished just 14 of 28 with an interception before giving way to Kevin Kolb, who guided the Cardinals to victory and will start Sunday. Here's a makeup prediction: Kolb will be just as mediocre against the Patriots as Skelton was against Seattle, providing us with more evidence that this Patriots defense has been seriously upgraded. Come to think of it, the Cardinals might be best off starting Neil Lomax. Patriots 37, Cardinals 14
(Last week's prediction: Patriots 34, Titans 17. Final score: Patriots, 34-13. Record: 1-0.)
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.