Week 6 of the 2013 NFL season was supposed to feature a game of fate. This was a game in which Tom Brady would tie Drew Brees' record for 54 consecutive regular season games with a passing touchdown. It was supposed to be a legendary moment in which Brady would not only achieve this feat, but he'd do it against Brees.
Saints vs. Patriots will air as scheduled, but a small twist in the fabric of fate has altered the guts of the game. Last week in Cincinnati, Brady's touchdown streak was snapped at 52 games. Come Sunday, history will no longer hang in the balance.
Disappointing? Sure. The streak added another flavor to the upcoming game, the way a shot of warm butter adds a new dimension to lobster meat. Football fans across the spectrum wanted some butter.
But, in a sense, the elimination of the butter makes it a purer test between these teams. Instead of the game being influenced by the added element of history, the game is now about the game itself. It's about the meat. It's about winning.
Here are five bold predictions for New England's Week 6 action.
Early in the offseason, undrafted rookie receiver T.J. Moe brought a fresh twist to a remodeled Patriots team. Accustomed to being Goliath for so long, the Patriots seemed to shed their finesse over the spring as they collectively embraced Moe's scrappy persona. They became the underdog.
When Moe tore his Achilles and wound up on injured reserve, undrafted rookie tight end Zach Sudfeld took the baton. Sudfeld was also scrappy. In addition, he was humble and charming. He stole the show at training camp. What Moe started, Sudfeld seemed to have perfected.
Then it all came crashing down. His momentum slowed during the season and he didn't make a single catch. He also flubbed a critical onside kick recovery against the Falcons. Soon after, the Patriots released him.
In the absence of Moe and Sudfeld, there's been a void. The absence of tight end Rob Gronkowski and the inconsistent health of wide receiver Danny Amendola hasn't helped matters. On top of that, rookie wide receivers Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce are still projects in need of development.
In the wake of all this depletion and frustration, undrafted rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins needs to finish what Moe and Sudfeld began. Like it or not, the Patriots are an underdog team now and Thompkins is the key to deciding whether or not this experiment sinks or swims.
Of course, he's far from polished. Every time he makes a catch, he bobbles it enough to induce a near panic attack. But, I'll tell ya, when he makes a play, it's absolutely electrifying. When he succeeds, it's a bit like watching the ghost of Moe and Sudfeld succeed, as well.
Thompkins has 18 catches for 273 yards this season, along with three touchdowns. He has a pickup of 20 or more yards in four out of five games. He also racked up 127 yards on six receptions against the Falcons. Those are admirable numbers which inspire confidence heading into a tough contest against a strong Saints team.
Look for Thompkins to make his mark on Sunday's highlight reel.
Tom Brady got mauled in Cincinnati last week. He was sacked four times and hit twice as much. The end of his touchdown streak symbolizes the misery that was Patriots vs. Bengals.
New England's offensive line is in a slump. They were the saviors of the team last year, but they're doing some soul searching right now.
Brady's been sacked 11 times this year. He's taken 26 hits. New Orleans' pass rushers will storm into Gillette Stadium with 11 sacks and 32 quarterback hits under their belt. That's some foreboding math.
Though, to be fair, Drew Brees hasn't exactly been maxing and relaxing on his end. He's been sacked 14 times and hit 22 times. He's playing extraordinary football, but he's also getting walloped.
Come Sunday, I expect both Brady and Brees to endure a physical pounding of a relentless nature. These guys will take their biggest beatings of the season.
Both fanbases will be nervous until they see their quarterback meet the other at midfield for a post-game shake. Until then, prepare not to breathe.
Ordinarily, there wouldn't be anything bold about predicting arguably the greatest quarterback in history to throw three touchdowns in his own backyard. But oddly enough, Tom Brady hasn't thrown three scores in a single game this season.
Right now, Brady's immersed in a new world with a new cast of ball-catchers. Things haven't been peachy. Before the debacle in Cincinnati, the last time Brady played a regular season game without throwing a touchdown was January 3, 2010. Clearly, we're in strange and unusual territory now.
Heading into Week 6, the test for Brady will be his ability to bounce back from last Sunday's horror show. His touchdown streak is over. We'll never know if that streak brought any added weight or pressure, but it doesn't matter now. It's done.
The goal here is to put it behind him and find a rhythm and a groove with his receivers which they can collectively snowball into a triumphant playoff march.
Wide receiver Julian Edelman has played extremely well this season, tallying 36 catches for 354 yards and two touchdowns. He's also performed admirably on special teams, accumulating 176 yards on punt returns (11.7-yard average per return).
In Week 1 against the Bills, he teamed-up with receiver Danny Amendola to put on a receiving clinic, chipping in seven gutsy catches which illustrated his toughness. He dominated in Week 2 against the Jets, collecting 13 "must-have" receptions in Amendola's absence. In Week 4 against the Falcons, he delivered a sensational 118-yard performance.
For the first time in Edelman's career, he's demonstrating an ability to influence games as a receiver. That's a major step in his progression, considering he was once defined as a special teams returner who moonlighted as a defensive back. In his own little way, he's blossomed into a stud this year.
But he hasn't scored since Week 1. That needs to change. The Patriots need points desperately and he needs to provide them.
His uncompromising toughness will be an integral part of wearing down New Orleans' physical and cerebral defense. His longstanding relationship with Brady makes him the ideal candidate to act as a security blanket, which will set the offensive tone and enable the other receivers to have their moments late in the game.
Edelman's got a big day coming.
If the football season is a process of discovery and evolution, then it's safe to say the Saints are further along than the Patriots right now.
Saints head coach Sean Payton has his team playing smart and patient football. His guys are protecting the ball. They can annihilate teams with points or they can win slow, methodical boxing matches. They have a 5-0 record. Their offense is ranked third with 2,025 yards. Drew Brees has 1,722 yards and he's in command of a blistering offense with an arsenal of weapons. And also, their defense is lean, mean, nasty and awesome.
To combat this attack, the Patriots have three important charms in their back pocket. First, they've got cornerback Aqib Talib lurking in the defensive backfield and he's a beast. Second, they have home-field advantage. Lastly, they rarely lose twice in a row (though it has happened in the last two seasons).
Still though, even with those three tips of the hat, it doesn't feel right to give New England the edge heading into this game. For me, it's a question of chemistry. I don't see it from the Patriots right now. At times, they look like strangers out there. To beat a team like the Saints, it'll take a band of brothers.
That brotherly element just isn't there yet.
The Patriots have spent the first five games of the season winning ugly, losing ugly, scotch-taping their holes and compensating for injured players. They've been trying to discover themselves without having any real understanding of who's going to be healthy and when they're going to be ready to go. Dropped balls have been a problem. The running game has been inconsistent. Frustration has mounted.
I see the Patriots losing a tight contest here, but I see them walking away from this with their heads held high. I see progress finally shining through. I see Brady getting his mojo back. I see his receivers catching some fire and building some consistency. I see heroes beginning to rise.
Heck, Rob Gronkowski might even play. That would amazing and uplifting. If he plays, this game will be a learning experience. For the fans, it'll be a chance to see what this team will eventually look like. For the players, it'll be a their first chance to feel what it's like to be complete, to be whole.
A loss would sting now, but it's this type of learning experience which pays off in the playoffs.