Patriots

Good times keep rolling in Boston

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Good times keep rolling in Boston

By Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

Last winter, I really thought it was over.

After all, we knew it wouldn't last forever. It had been such an amazing run, so much greater than anyone imagined. And while no one was necessarily ready to come back down to Earth, if the time had come, you'd have understood.

Hey, six titles in 10 years. Not a bad stretch!

But now it was over.

Last January, the Patriots suffered the most embarrassing loss of the BelichickBrady era -- the 33-14 beatdown at the hands of the Ravens, at home no less, in the first round of the playoffs -- and the future of the organization suddenly looked darker than a Coen Brothers movie. The inmates were running the asylum and, as opposed to a collection of veterans who were mad on pride, grit and the Patriot Way, these Pats were led by recluses. Players who had long given up on the "team" and had a hard enough time taking care of themselves. By the end of the season, these guys had poisoned the culture.

Meanwhile a series of poor drafts had poisoned the talent pool, and it didnt help that Wes Welker, one of their most skilled and positively charged weapons, had just suffered a potentially career-altering injury. There was just an awful vibe coming out of Foxborough and the Jets looked poised to take over the AFC East. Awesome!

Over at Fenway, the term "bridge year" was being tossed around in preparation for a somewhat somber offseason. This, fresh off a playoff series which saw the Sox swept by the "Hey, We're Supposed to Own You in October!" Angels of Anaheim. Beckett, Ortiz and Papelbon all looked out of sorts, and that damn phrase "bridge year!" felt so wrong. These were the Red Sox. The only time you expect to hear the word "bridge" uttered within that organization is if John Henry's describing his favorite pasttime, or Larry Lucchino's saying "We've built a new bridge which gives fans better access between their seats and our over-priced souvenir shop."

Even if the team did sign John Lackey that winter, the idea that they'd ever use money as an excuse not to do whatever it takes to improve was an uncomfortable pill to swallow. Like a DayQuil. They told Boston to wait, but Red Sox Nation was unaccustomed to waiting, and many became resigned to the fact that the Sox would be the A.L. East's third-best team. (And they were)

Oh, yeah, and the Yankees had just won the World Series. Good times!

At the Garden, the Celtics were a mess. A combination of KG's knee, Rondo's attitude, Rasheed's effort, plus overall age, health, bad luck and worse chemistry had turned the team upside down. A year earlier, they'd been one of the happiest, most fun-loving teams in the league. Now they walked around like a bunch of disgruntled postal workers.

By January, and into February and March, the idea that the Celtics could contend for a title was as believable as Cam Newton's innocence, which was especially frustrating because that season was supposed to be it. Since the Big Three had first joined forces, everyone assumed it would just be a three-year venture; as the third season slipped away, so would the Big Three. It was the end of an era. One title; one Finals appearance; certainly satisfying, but, all things considered, not as great as it could be.

It's not that they were about to fall back down into the Lottery gutter. After all, Rondo, KG and, very likely, Pierce would all be back; that's still a playoff team. But there's no doubt that they were starting down on a pretty steep slope. Especially considering all the cash that would be tied up with the aforementioned three guys.

And oh yeah, the Lakers were reigning World Champs, and still the consensus best team in the world. Yes!

As for the C's roommates at the Garden, the Bruins were in the middle of an underachieving season of their own. The year before, they'd finished tied for the most wins in the NHL. They were upset in the second round, but we saw it as part of the growing pains of this young team. They would learn from it and get better.

But halfway through last year, that wasn't the case. The Bruins couldn't score. They couldn't find a rhythm. They couldn't get on the same page as their coach. They were the same old Bruins. And like the Patriots, Red Sox and Celtics at least by Boston's newfound standards they were in trouble.

And that was that. That was the vibe in Boston last winter. Those are the things we wasted the days talking about, and it was depressing as hell.

But again, at the same time, it wasnt entirely unexpected.

The city was disappointed, but still very grateful for all that had happened, and starting to accept that things were about to be different. Still fun. Still competitive. I mean, if I'd asked you last winter, "Hey, what do you think things will look like around here Christmas 2010?" you probably wouldn't have been completely doomsday about it.

But you just never would have predicted this. At least I wouldn't have.

The Patriots defense, which was so uninspiring in that awful loss to Baltimore, and struggled so much to develop an identity, has come into its own. They're far better than anyone imagined, and are only getting better. Not just this year, either. They have a defensive foundation that will carry the load for seasons to come.

And, not a bad complement, they also once again have the best quarterback in the game; the same guy whose efficiency absolutely blows your mind and consistently makes one of the hardest jobs in sports look easier than doing multiplication tables with a calculator. The bad apples were thrown in the garbage and Belichick turned out his best draft since at least 2003. Welker made an insane comeback, and while it took him a little time to fully find his groove, is once again among the leagues reception leaders.

Theyre 11-2 and the best team in the NFL.

The Red Sox told their fans to wait, and then told them to wait a little more, then tortured them even more with the Victor Martinez deal before dropping two of the biggest offseason bombshells of the last decade. They're World Series favorites. It only took five days to win back an entire nation of baseball fans.

The Celtics changed everything with last spring's historic run to the Finals. And although the season still ended in disappointment, that disappointment birthed a level of constant energy and optimism that's rare in any sport. That loss brought Doc back for one more shot, and then Paul Pierce and Ray Allen and Jermaine O'Neal and Delonte West and Shaq. Kevin Garnett is closer to his 2008 self than we ever imagined. Ray hasn't aged a day. Rondo's grown up. Big Baby's getting close. And Paul is still doing his thing he's now without a doubt one of the greatest Celtics of all-time. And for the most part especially and most importantly with Garnett the Celtics are happy.

Basically, through a series of amazing events between last spring and this fall the Celtics added two years to the Big Three era, and did so without falling off at all. And while the somewhat distant future is still a little cloudy, you can make the case that they're better equipped to win the title today than at any other point in the last four seasons. I know it's only December, but it's also basically 2011 and the C's are still major contenders. Maybe even the favorites.

As for the Bruins, you know, theyre still trying to completely find that groove, and it turned out that the disappointment of the 2009 playoffs couldnt hold a Zamboni to what went down in the spring of 2010. But they're in a better place. They have the best goalie in the league. A rookie class that's already paying dividends and a crew of other young players who've gained valuable experience over the past two post seasons and are starting to shed that "young player" label.

They're still trying to gain the same level of respect of the other three teams, but you can see it happening. It feels closer than it has in a long time.

In all four cases, success feels real. It feels very attainable. Just like it did for all those years before last winter's unraveling.

Basically, the good times are back. Or maybe it's that they never left.

Either way, I thought it was over.

And I thought very wrong.

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on CSNNE.com. Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL: Raiders score on final play for 31-30 win over Chiefs

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THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL: Raiders score on final play for 31-30 win over Chiefs

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Wins have been so hard to come by for the Oakland Raiders that it took three tries at the final play for them finally to pull this one out and possibly save their season.

Derek Carr threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree on the final play after the game was extended by two straight defensive holding calls and the Raiders snapped a four-game losing streak with a 31-30 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday night.

"We didn't give up," Crabtree said. "We got a team full of fighters. We believe. ... No matter how hard the game was, we believed. We came out with the W and I'm excited. It's a good way to win, a great way to win."

With their season on the line following the recent slump, Carr led an 85-yard touchdown drive in the final 2:25 to give the Raiders (3-4) the thrilling comeback in a game they trailed by nine points heading into the fourth quarter.

Carr finished 29 for 52 for 417 yards and three touchdowns, with Amari Cooper catching 11 passes for 210 yards and two of the scores. The Raiders had struggled to get the ball downfield while being held to 17 or fewer points in four straight games but Carr repeatedly beat the Chiefs with deep passes.

"No. 4 kept making plays," coach Jack Del Rio said. "This is a special, special win."

Alex Smith threw for 342 yards and three touchdowns but it wasn't enough for the Chiefs (5-2). They lost consecutive games for the first time since Oct. 11-18, 2015, and had their 12-game winning streak in the AFC West snapped in a thrilling finish.

"I've never been part of a game that came down so dramatic," linebacker Derrick Johnson said. "But, still had a chance to win. Period. Just have to make a play. One play. One play."

The Raiders had an apparent go-ahead touchdown pass to Jared Cook with 18 seconds left overturned when replay ruled he was down at the 1. An offensive pass interference on Crabtree wiped out another touchdown on the next play.

But holding calls on Ron Parker and Eric Murray set the stage for the final play. Carr hit Crabtree in the front corner of the end zone to tie it at 30. Giorgio Tavecchio won it with the extra point , setting off a celebration on a wild night that included Oakland running back Marshawn Lynch getting ejected in the second quarter for shoving an official.

HOT TEMPERS: The game took an odd turn midway through the second quarter after Kansas City's Marcus Peters hit Carr late, angering the Raiders. Offensive linemen Kelechi Osemele and Donald Penn confronted Peters and Lynch sprinted off the Oakland sideline to join the fray. Lynch, a close friend of Peters, ended up shoving line judge Julian Mapp and getting ejected . Peters also was called for a personal foul on the play. Lynch congratulated his teammates in the locker room after the game but didn't speak to reporters.

"I was disappointed he ran out because I knew we had a 15-yard penalty and we'd be in good shape," Del Rio said.

LONG DRIVE: After Marquette King pinned the Chiefs at their own 1 with a perfect punt early in the second quarter, Kansas City needed little time to turn the momentum. Smith hit Demarcus Robinson on a 33-yard pass on the first play of the drive. After a short run, Tyreek Hill beat David Amerson for a 64-yard touchdown pass that gave the Chiefs their first 99-yard drive since doing it Dec. 3, 2006, against Cleveland.

DEEP CONNECTION: Carr had not connected on a single deep ball to Amari Cooper all season before the two teamed twice for long TDs in the opening quarter. On the first, Cooper appeared to push Terrance Mitchell but the officials picked up the flag and gave Cooper the 38-yard TD . Later in the quarter Carr and Cooper connected on a 45-yard score, making Cooper the first Raiders receiver with two TD catches in the first quarter since Mervyn Fernandez in 1989.

KICKING WOES: The Raiders were hurt last week when a bad snap by Jon Condo led to a missed extra point by Giorgio Tavecchio in a 17-16 loss to the Chargers. That was Tavecchio's first missed kick of any kind this season but he then had a 53-yarder blocked and missed a 45-yarder wide left in the second quarter. Tavecchio also had a false start on an extra point in the third quarter.

UP NEXT

Chiefs: Host Denver on Oct. 30.

Raiders: Visit Buffalo on Oct. 29.

NLCS: Dodgers win first pennant since 1988 with 11-1 Game 5 rout of Cubs

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NLCS: Dodgers win first pennant since 1988 with 11-1 Game 5 rout of Cubs

CHICAGO -- Enrique Hernandez put a Hollywood ending on an LA story three decades in the making.

Fueled by a home run trilogy from their emotional utilityman, Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers are finally going to the World Series.

Hernandez homered three times and drove in a record seven runs, Kershaw breezed through six crisp innings and Los Angeles ended the Chicago Cubs' title defense with an 11-1 rout in Game 5 of the NL Championship Series on Thursday night.

"It feels good to hear World Series," Kershaw said. "It's been a long time coming for this team."

After years of playoff heartache, there was just no stopping these Dodgers after they led the majors with 104 wins during the regular season. With Kershaw firing away at the top of a deep pitching staff and co-NLCS MVPs Justin Turner and Chris Taylor leading a tough lineup, one of baseball's most storied franchises captured its first pennant since Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda managed Kirk Gibson, Orel Hershiser and Co. to Los Angeles' last championship in 1988.

"Every night it is a different guy," Turner said, "and this is one of the most unbelievable teams I've ever been a part of."

Kershaw will be on the mound again when the Dodgers host the New York Yankees or Houston Astros in Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday night. The Yankees have a 3-2 lead heading into Game 6 of the ALCS at Houston on Friday night, so one more New York win would set up another chapter in an old October rivalry between the Yankees and Dodgers.

Los Angeles made the playoffs eight times in the previous 13 seasons and came up short of its 22nd pennant each time, often with Kershaw shouldering much of the blame. The three-time NL Cy Young Award winner took the loss when his team was eliminated by the Cubs in Game 6 of last year's NLCS at Wrigley Field.

The ace left-hander was just OK during his first two starts in this year's postseason, but Los Angeles' offense picked him up each time. Backed by Hernandez's powerful show in Chicago, Kershaw turned in an efficient three-hit performance with five strikeouts and improved to 6-7 in the playoffs - matching Burt Hooton's club record for postseason wins.

"To get to be on the mound tonight and get to be going to the World Series on the same night, it's a special thing," Kershaw said. "Who knows how many times I'm going to get to go to the World Series? I know more than anybody how hard it is to get there. So, I'm definitely not taking this one for granted."

When Kenley Jansen retired Willson Contreras on a liner to shortstop for the final out, the party was on . The Dodgers poured out of the dugout and mobbed their dominant closer near the mound, and a small but vocal group of Los Angeles fans gathered behind the visitors' dugout and chanted "Let's go Dodgers! Let's go Dodgers!"

On the field, manager Dave Roberts hugged Lasorda and told the iconic skipper the win was for him.

"I bleed Dodger blue just like you," Roberts said. "Thank you, Tommy."

Hernandez connected on the first two pitches he saw, belting a solo drive in the second for his first career playoff homer and then a grand slam in the third against Hector Rondon. Hernandez added a two-run shot in the ninth against Mike Montgomery.

The 26-year-old Hernandez became the fourth player with a three-homer game in a league championship series, joining Bob Robertson (1971 NLCS), George Brett (1978 ALCS) and Adam Kennedy (2002 ALCS). Hernandez's seven RBIs tied a postseason record shared by four other players who all did it in a Division Series.

Troy O'Leary was the previous player to have seven RBIs in a playoff game, for Boston at Cleveland in the 1999 ALDS.

It was a stunning display for a player with 28 career homers who remains concerned about his native Puerto Rico, which is recovering from a devastating hurricane. He delivered a historic performance in front of his father, Enrique Hernandez Sr., who was diagnosed with a blood cancer related to leukemia in December 2015, but got word last November that he was in remission.

"For me to be able to come here and do something like this is pretty special," said Hernandez, who also goes by Kik�. "My body's here, but my mind's kind of back home. It's hard being away from home with what's going on.

"All I want to do right now is go to my dad and give him a big hug."

Kris Bryant homered for Chicago, but the NL Central champions finished with just four hits in another tough night at the plate. Each of their eight runs in the NLCS came via the long ball, and they batted just .156 for the series with 53 strikeouts.

Long playoff runs in each of the last two years and a grueling five-game Division Series against Washington seemed to sap Chicago of some energy, and its pitching faltered against sweet-swinging Los Angeles. Jose Quintana was pulled in the third inning of the final game, and the Cubs never recovered.

"They executed their plan," Bryant said. "They pitched great and the bullpen was lights out. That makes for a tough time scoring runs."

Turner and Taylor helped put it away for Los Angeles, contributing to a 16-hit outburst while closing out a pair of impressive performances.

Turner singled home Taylor in the Dodgers' five-run third, giving him seven RBIs in the series and 24 throughout his postseason career. Taylor finished with two hits and scored two runs as the Dodgers, who have won five straight NL West titles, improved to 7-1 in this postseason.

Taylor's versatility helped Los Angeles cover for the loss of All-Star shortstop Corey Seager, who missed the series with a back injury, but is expected to return in the next round. Coming off a breakout season, the 27-year-old Taylor hit .316 with two homers and scored five times against the Cubs.

"I couldn't be happier to be a part of this and be with these guys," Taylor said. "It's been an unbelievable year, and I'm just super excited."

OUT WITH A BANG

Hernandez joined Kennedy (2002), Adrian Beltre (2011), Reggie Jackson (1977 vs. the Dodgers) and Babe Ruth (1928) as players to hit three home runs in a postseason series clincher.

LIGHTS OUT

Dodgers relievers have thrown 23 consecutive scoreless innings, a postseason record.