There was something particularly New England Patriots-ish about Dion Lewis.
The fact that he was discarded by two other NFL teams earlier in his career, that he was drafted 149th overall in the 2011 NFL Draft behind 10 other running backs, and that he was so undeniably under the radar this past summer that he didn’t even show up in Fantasy Football Draft guides printed in August made him a sparkling jewel in Bill Belichick’s glistening crown of roster construction.
This was the ultimate Belichick guy. Dismissed by others, undersized, versatile and nasty as hell. When you go through the list of other Patriots running backs who’ve operated in Belichick’s offensive systems, it’s a list rich with names that found great success in New England, but didn’t quite hit it big elsewhere. Corey Dillon was the rare exception, having a career resurgence with New England after putting up huge numbers and causing huge frustration in Cincinnati.
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LeGarrette Blount was discarded by Tampa, rescued by New England, discarded by Pittsburgh, and then again rescued by New England. Neither Stevan Ridley (0 touches Week 9 vs. Jacksonville) nor Shane Vereen have done much in their first years away from Ivan Fears’ running backs room. With the exception of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who had moderate success in Cincinnati, there have been very few examples of Patriots running backs doing anything of note outside of New England. Belichick’s running backs are special because they are uniquely Belichick’s running backs.
The loss of Lewis for the year to a torn ACL is major. Big numbers aside, Lewis embodied the 2015 Patriots offensive attack. Varied, fluid and capable of beating you on the ground and through the air.
But as has been the case with Belichick and his running backs for years, life must go on. There’s no time to mourn the loss of the offense’s most versatile weapon. Next man up.
Insert James White.
White’s time is now, and though he, too, isn’t a household name, there’s a lot to like about what he brings to the table. I recall being in Foxboro for training camp before last year’s Super Bowl campaign, and four names continuously coming up in conversations with Patriots coaches and front office staff: Brady (in better shape than ever before), Revis (new to the team and spectacular), Gronkowski (coming off an ACL injury and looking better than prior to the injury), and James White. Buried on the depth chart, White ended up seeing very little action during the team’s Super Bowl run, but becoming one of the key members of the scout team and mid-week preparation game to game.
Last August, Tom Brady was raving about White, telling reporters, "I knew when we drafted him everyone really liked him, so that’s why he’s here, because I think everyone thinks he can contribute to the team and he can make a big impact on the team. He’s done that. He’s definitely someone who has come every day, and he makes really impressive plays for a young player. The more of those guys we have, the better we’re going to be collectively, and that’s what training camp really gives everybody an opportunity to do — because you get the chance, and you want to try to go out and show people what you’re capable of, you want to go out and surprise people that they didn’t think you’re capable of something, and you show them that you can do it. That’s where you really gain the trust of your coaches and your teammates."
So, who is this little known second-year player who has to now step in and replace the biggest surprise of the first half of the NFL season? White’s a 2014 fourth-round pick out of Wisconsin who had a solid 2015 preseason (164 yards on 34 touches), and was expected by many to be the third down guy until Lewis got the nod and ran away with it. He’s been a special teams contributor, but at 5-foot-10, 205 pounds, it was White who slid into Lewis’s spot when the starter went down with an injury against the Jets last month.
White’s college heroics at Wisconsin, though noteworthy, were quickly drowned out by those of fellow Badgers running back Melvin Gordon a year later. He’s been on the cusp so many times in his two years in New England that it’s only natural that his coming out party should happen Sunday, in front of a national audience, vs. the New York Giants.
The Patriots have a knack of finding gold at the running back position with guys not every other team seems to value.
James White, the ball is yours.
Week 10 NFL Cheat Sheet Trivia Question: Adrian Peterson now has 28 games with 125-or-more rushing yards. Only five players have more – all are Hall of Famers. Who are they?
Now, on to the picks. Bad week, last week. Very, very bad.
Week 9 Record: 5-8
Overall Record: 72-60
Buffalo Bills at New York Jets: As much as I feel for Geno Smith and whatever trauma he went through after being punched in the face back in August, I can’t be too upset about Rex Ryan naming IK Enemkpali — the guy with the mean hook — as a Bills captain for this one. When I heard the news, I smirked, and have no shame in doing so now. Rex is a solid defensive coach, a great motivator, and perhaps most kindly to those of us in the sports media — an entertainer. The Jets defense was looking stout, but got lit up by the Raiders and Jaguars the past two weeks. There are bigger concerns for New York than who is the opposing team’s captain. Give me Buffalo in those hideous all-red uniforms you’ll all be tweeting about on Thursday.
The Pick: Bills 24, Jets 20
Result: Bills 22, Jets 17
Jacksonville at Baltimore: The Jaguars are in the midst of another frustrating losing season, but there have been three major bright spots. Blake Bortles looks the part (at least some weeks) and starting wideouts Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson are proving to be the most dynamic pair of guys named Allen in the league (and also a pretty good 1-2 punch of second-year wideouts). Jags fans have a lot to be encouraged by (I swear), but I don’t see them waltzing into Baltimore and winning on Sunday.
The Pick: Ravens 34, Jaguars 23
Carolina at Tennessee: It’s a pleasure watching Marcus Mariota do his thing like he did last Sunday in New Orleans and Week 1 in Tampa Bay. I don’t see him doing "his thing" vs. this Panthers defense, though. It’s easy to focus on Luke Kuechly, Josh Norman, and Thomas Davis — but if you’re not watching the work third-year inside guys Kawaan Short and Star Lotulelei are doing to dominate the line of scrimmage each week — you’re missing something special.
The Pick: Panthers 24, Titans 19
Cleveland at Pittsburgh: I can’t stop complimenting Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley for the job they’ve done in Pittsburgh with a banged-up offense this year. Ben Roethlisberger has been in and out of the lineup since the St. Louis game, Le’Veon Bell is out for the season, and the offensive line is missing its starting center and left tackle. And yet, Pittsburgh’s in the hunt with Landry Jones and DeAngelo Williams picking up the slack. Incredible to see them hovering in the AFC playoff picture, all things considered.
The Pick: Steelers 27, Browns 23
Chicago at St. Louis: Say what you want about Jeff Fisher’s win-loss record or late-game decisions, but there are few things more damning in today’s football world than calling a coach dirty. I can also tell you that there are few guys in the league who are more reasonable and transparent than the Rams head coach. Remember, Fisher plays a prominent role on the competition committee, and his chief concern there is player safety. Rodney Harrison has the right to say whatever he wants (it’s a free country!), but Fisher also has the right to publically bludgeon him with a defense that lists all of Harrison’s unsportsmanlike instances, penalties and suspensions, as well. Give me the Rams on Sunday.
The Pick: Rams 28, Bears 21
Dallas at Tampa Bay: Lost in all the Greg Hardy dissection over the past few weeks is the fine work Dallas rookie Byron Jones is doing on defense. A first-round pick with incredible athletic abilities (NFL Draft Scouting Combine record in the broad jump), Jones has also shown to be a versatile and heady player, capable of covering the opposing team’s top tight ends and underneath weapons. He’s still not having the season Tampa Bay’s defensive rookie — Kwon Alexander — is. With Philly’s Jordan Hicks out for the year, these two are up there as my top defensive rookies this season. Watch them in this one.
The Pick: Buccaneers 26, Cowboys 19
Detroit at Green Bay: The Lions are the perfect cure to whatever ills there are for the Packers. And how about Martha Firestone Ford? Ninety-years-old and dropping the hammer last week. Any 90-year-old woman who’s still kicking ass is a person I both respect and fear. The Lions interim GM is Sheldon White. The last time the Packers lost to the Lions at Lambeau Field, White played in the game (1991).
The Pick: Packers 31, Lions 17
Miami at Philadelphia: Don’t look now, but my preseason pick out of the NFC has now won four of their last six, and are looming large in the NFC playoff picture. After all that doom and gloom the first few weeks of the season, Chip Kelly’s Eagles are winning games, Jordan Matthews is emerging as a No. 1 wide receiver and that offensive line that appeared to be so doomed a few weeks back is playing extremely well. Meanwhile, the Dan Campbell Era was fun while it lasted, but appears to have hit the skids due to games that aren’t against the AFC South.
The Pick: Eagles 34, Dolphins 20
New Orleans at Washington: I circled this one back in August as the much-anticipated Junior Gallette Bowl! Unfortunately, the troubled former Saint/current Redskin whose "girlfriend’s account" blasted all of the Saints on Twitter after he was cut (the tweets were deleted!), is out for this one. I’ve got the Redskins winning anyway, finding holes in a Rob Ryan defense that is amazingly on pace to not only be worse than last year’s unit, but the worst passing defense in NFL history. The Sean Payton-to-Miami-to-Indianapolis-to-USC-to…wherever rumors will continue to ramp up with every Saints loss.
The Pick: Redskins 34, Saints 27
Kansas City at Denver: The Broncos showed some holes in that defense last Sunday and without Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware, this game could be ripe for a late afternoon upset. I think Kansas City wins this game if it were at Arrowhead.
The Pick: Broncos 24, Chiefs 20
Minnesota at Oakland: The Raiders have a fun little thing going with their AC/DC tandem of Amari Cooper and Derek Carr. And both Charles Woodson and second-year man Khalil Mack are getting a lot of media love, too. But the two guys I’m most impressed by in Oakland are Aldon Smith and Michael Crabtree. Both considered questionable signings by the Raiders, they’ve been the ultimate leaders. Smith, who many questioned whether he’d ever get another shot after being released by the 49ers, was a team captain Sunday vs. Pittsburgh. Crabtree, viewed by many as cancerous in San Francisco, has been an important mentor for Amari Cooper. I like what’s happening in Oakland, and think they get the best of a very good Vikings team on Sunday.
New England at New York Giants: I was so impressed by the Jason Pierre-Paul comeback last week that I failed to notice Nikita Whitlock — the undersized fullback-turned special teams demon-turned part-time-defensive tackle — making a ton of plays for the Giants D. Watching the tape, it appears that Whitlock may be at his best working the middle for the Giants. New York’s had Tom Brady’s number — both in the Super Bowl twice and in a 24-20 Giants’ win in 2011 at Foxboro — but I’ve got New England getting the best of Big Blue on Sunday.
The Pick: Patriots 34, Giants 23
Arizona at Seattle: The Seahawks are my sneaky team to watch in the NFC. Including last week’s bye, they have three straight home games now, meaning an unprecedented 35 straight days of sleeping in their own beds. They’ve got all their NFC West opponents playing in their building in front of the 12s over the next two months, and one of the best defenses in the game. I like Seattle here, and think that Week 17 game in Arizona could end up being a big, big one for both teams.
The Pick: Seahawks 20, Cardinals 16
Houston at Cincinnati: Fun one, here, for no other reason than Houston is one of those teams that has been a demon for Andy Dalton in the past. His two first playoff losses came at the hands of the Texans, including one to current backup and eternal trivia question answer, T.J. Yates. Different Bengals team. Different Andy Dalton. New contract, new weapons and new haircut, most importantly.
The Pick: Bengals 30, Texans 17
Reader Email of the Week:
I think even you, an obvious Cam Newton lover and blowhard from your columns this season (look at his numbers next to Kaepernick’s, they’re not much different), have to be sickened by him stupidly tearing down the Packers fans’ banners Sunday. Why do it? Just play football. I’m not some super stuffy conservative, either, I just wish it wasn’t about everything else. I wish it was just about football for him.
Greg, Louisville, Kentucky
You’re right. You don’t sound super stuffy at all! Grr. Just play football, you annoyingly efficient 8-0 quarterback of the NFC’s top team! Smile, Greg. Life’s too short to care about fans’ banners or the act of them being torn down.
Week 10 NFL Cheat Sheet Trivia Answer:
Barry Sanders, Jim Brown, Walker Payton, Emmitt Smith, and Eric Dickerson