Welcome to the 16th and final regular-season installment of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday at noonish.
The 11-4 Patriots, coming off sluggish 23-16 win over the Jaguars, wrap up the regular season and determine their playoff seeding when they take on
Don Nottingham Jim Kiick Benny Malone Delvin Williams Sammy Smith Bernie Parmalee Abdul-Karim Al-Jabbar Ricky Williams Reggie Bush and the 7-8 Miami Dolphins.
Let's get to the details.
THREE PLAYERS I'LL BE WATCHING OTHER THAN TOM BRADY AND POSSIBLY RYAN MALLETT
1. Brandon Lloyd: Yeah, I know, he's got his flaws. He's not big on yards after the catch, he hasn't been much of a deep threat, and he still isn't entirely simpatico with Tom Brady on his reads. But you probably knew all of those things, since for whatever reason the negative is often dwelled upon when it comes to Lloyd at the expense of all that he has brought to the offense. I don't know that the Patriots have ever had a better receiver along the sidelines, and his knack for the spectacular has been fun to watch. Lloyd enters Sunday's game with 902 receiving yards, and I hope he has another 100 or so in him against the Dolphins. Should he go over 1,000 yards for the season, perhaps that would put an end to all foolish Chad Ochocinco comparisons for good.
2. Brian Hartline: In the first meeting between the Patriots and Dolphins this season, Hartline had five receptions for 84 yards. Solid numbers, but they could have been spectacular had rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill been able to find him when he was wide open on at least a couple of his other five targets. Hartline has over 1,000 receiving yards this season, and he'll bump up that number provided that his quarterback does a better job of getting him the ball Sunday.
3. Dont'a Hightower: I have little doubt that he's going to be a very valuable and versatile cog in this defense for at least the next half-dozen years, but the camera on Sunday caught him in jogging-it mode when there was a play to be made at least once, and special-teams lifer Tracy White outplayed him against the Jaguars. Letting the quality of the opponent determine effort level is a common rookie mistake, but it's one Hightower needs to grow out of immediately.
YOU KNOW, ROB NINKOVICH IS PRETTY DARN GOOD
I've long admired Bill Barnwell's football writing -- whether the outlet was Patriots Daily, Football Outsiders, his contributions to the Patriots Maple Street Press Annuals I edited, or now at Grantland -- for many reasons, but at the top of the attributes list is his determination not to let the facts become clouded by conventional wisdom. He's true to what he sees and what the data tells him, which is why he has extra credibility when he does something seemingly unconventional -- such as, say, selecting Ninkovich as one of the linebackers on his AFC All-Pro team. Here's what he wrote:
I'll excuse you if you take a step back from the computer screen right now, but Ninkovich always seems to show up when the Patriots need him most. He's managed to make huge plays in a number of games over the past year, most notably when he strip-sacked Mark Sanchez to end the Pats-Jets overtime game earlier this year. His impact stretches across the stat sheet, as Ninkovich ranks among the league leaders in sacks (eight), stuffs (seven), and forced fumbles (five). Once a practice squad journeyman and backup long snapper, Ninkovich has become an essential part of the New England defense virtually overnight.
Ninkovich has become sort of a less-heralded version of Mike Vrabel, minus all the goal-line touchdown receptions. He's not Vrabel's equal, but he's a reasonable facsimile, and that's pretty impressive for a guy who bounced back and forth between the Dolphins and Saints before he was an under-the-radar signing by the Patriots in August 2009.
COMPLETELY RANDOM FOOTBALL CARD
Speaking of former Dolphins who are thriving with the Patriots, here's an updated scorecard on the deal that sent Wes Welker from Miami to New England for second- and seventh-round picks in March 2007.
Welker with the Patriots (regular season): 92 games, 664 receptions, 7,365 yards, 36 touchdowns.
Second-round pick with the Dolphins: Center Samson Satele started all 32 games during his two seasons in Miami before he was traded to the Raiders to make room for center Jake Grove. He's now with the Colts.
Seventh-round pick with the Dolphins: Defensive end Abraham Wright out of Colorado never played a game for Miami after injuring his knee during training camp.
Figure that's a timely update given the opponent and that we're currently in the season of giving. There haven't been many football gifts to the Patriots through the years better than that one.
'WELL, I HEARD THAT JULIUS ADAMS SAID HE WANTS TO RIP SOME PEOPLES' FACES OFF ...'
This 14-minute-plus clip from the NBC pregame show before the Patriots-Dolphins AFC Championship game in 1985 is gold for many reasons, not the least of which is the reminder of how enjoyable Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen were as a broadcast team during their '80s heyday. I recommend watching the entire flashback if you've got a few minutes, but if you don't, just skip ahead to the 9-minute mark and some hilariously canned trash-talk between Julius Adams and a completely goofy Dan Marino, who apparently found the time to record the clip in between pushing Isotoners and yelling at Mark Duper and Mark Clayton.
PREDICTION, OR HOW MUCH SCOREBOARD WATCHING WILL YOU BE DOING?
Well, a lot, I'd think, which makes for a fun day of football. The best-case scenario is a Texans loss to the Colts in the 1 p.m. game, which would allow the Patriots to secure a bye with a win no matter what the Broncos do against the Chiefs. That seems more than feasible, though I wonder how much of a priority Bill Belchick will put on resting some of his battered regulars such as Aqib Talib, Brandon Spikes, Aaron Hernandez, and the entire offensive line more or less. The hunch here is that at the end of the day, the Patriots wind up as the No. 2 seed and get that much-needed week of rest before the games that determine legacies begin. Patriots 27, Dolphins 13
(Previous game's prediction: Patriots 45, Jaguars 17. Final score: Patriots 23, Jaguars 16: Season record: 11-4.)
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.