Patriots

A familiar feeling in Foxboro

986181.jpg

A familiar feeling in Foxboro

To be honest, I still havent heard or watched any of the post-game coverage from last nights AFC Championship, and I don't plan to anytime soon. So if youre looking for hard-hitting analysis on how and why this years Super Bowl turned into a Harbaugh family reunion, then this probably isnt for you. Same goes for anyone looking to avoid a heavy helping of depression.

Despite ignoring the media wrap-up, Im obviously still familiar with the details of the Patriots latest playoff loss. And as usual, theres an expanding list of what-ifs running through my head:

What if Gronk was healthy? What if Talib stayed healthy? What if they had called a timeout right away? What if Welker made the catch? What if, even in his virtually unconscious state, Stevan Ridley held on to that ball for a split second longer, what if his ass had hit the ground just a split second faster, what if his arm fell just another inch away from his body and the ball never made contact with his leg?

What if Bernard Pollard didnt exist? What if God hadnt made the curious decision that Ray Lewis deserves a second Super Bowl ring more than Tony Gonzalez deserves one?

I could go on, but whats the point? Nothings going to change. And anyway, the what-if game is a slippery slope. It works both ways too. What if JR Redmond didnt get out of bounds? What if Vinatieri didnt needle that kick through the snow? What if Drew Bledsoe had slid? What if he simply stepped out of bounds? What if you were born a Bills fan? What if you were born an ant?

It doesn't matter. So instead of spending the next thousand words or so re-hashing everything that went wrong on Sunday, lets just look at the end result, and the aftermath of another lost season.

Sometime late last night, I was messing around online, searching for a way to start this column, when I came across an old game story that put everything in perspective.

It was from January 23, 2005, just about eight years ago, and the day New England beat Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship.

Here are the first few (very short) paragraphs (and here's the whole thing if you're interested):

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Too much Brady, too much Belichick.The New England Patriots are going back to the Super Bowl for the third time in four seasons because they simply overwhelmed Big Ben, stopping him and the Pittsburgh Steelers cold. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick were an unbeatable combination again for the Patriots, exposing all of the Steelers' weaknesses to end their 15-game winning streak and win the AFC championship 41-27 on a frigid Sunday night.Brady gave the inexperienced Ben Roethlisberger a lesson in quarterbacking a championship game, throwing two touchdown passes -- one to Deion Branch that gave New England a 10-0 lead in the first quarter. Belichick upstaged can't-win-the-big-one Steelers coach Bill Cowher, improving to 9-1 as a playoffs coach and matching Vince Lombardi for the best postseason record in NFL playoff history.Two weeks later, the Pats beat the Eagles to win their third Lombardi Trophy in four years, and the dynasty was at its peak. It was at THE peak. In turn, all the BradyBelichick slobbering and idolization on display in that old AP story was magnified by infinity. And it was justified, too. They were on top of the world, and showing no signs of coming down.

I can still remember staring at that 10-0 playoff record and wondering if it would ever end. Naturally, that was ridiculous. Of course it would end. At some point, everyone has to lose. But if there was ever an exception to that rule, it was Brady and Belichick.

Who was going to beat them?

I remember that night in Denver. What a fluke. Troy Brown fumbled. Kevin Faulk fumbled. Brady was intercepted at the goal line. Each occurrence was more unlikely than the next.

I remember that night in Indianapolis. My father texting me at halftime to ask which day I'd be able to leave for Miami. I wasn't slightly worried about a jinx. All I could see was another ring. Their fourth in six years. With only Rex Grossman standing in the way.

I remember that night in Glendale. The most confident I've ever been heading into a sporting event. Maybe the most confident day of my life. The game hadn't even started, but the win was already on Brady's resume. Four rings and counting. Undefeated in the Super Bowl. An undefeated regular season. The best to ever play the game, and it wasn't even close.

I remember the most depressing eight minutes of football this city has ever seen. It started with Eli Manning's touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress and ended with Bernard Pollard introducing himself to Brady's knee. Over that short time, everything changed. Everyone was human. It was a reminder that this was sports, and not a fairy tale. It took two years for the franchise to recover.

I remember that night in Foxboro. That awful loss to the Jets. The shock of them falling flat again. Brady and Belichick. This was three straight playoff losses. Three games in which they were heavily favored. Three games in which Brady didn't play all that well. Where Belichick was seemingly out-coached. While 2007 knocked Patriots fans on their ass, the loss to the Jets was a steel chair over the head. Punishment for believing that this time would be different.

I remember that night in Indianapolis last February, and not knowing what to think. What the hell just happened? I thought we'd given up on this dream? But suddenly, here they were: Brady and Belichick, against the same New York Giants, with the perfect chance to atone for everything and miraculously regain that mystique.

Of course, they lost the game in heartbreaking fashion. But worse than the actual loss, was how predictable it was. How familiar it all felt. I remember driving home from Indianapolis, shaking my head and thinking, "Crap. This is who they are now."

I'm doing the same thing this morning.

Probably the best and worst aspect of last nights Patriots loss is that it doesnt hurt quite as much as it used to.

The best because well, who wants to hurt? Given the choice, who would ever want re-live that horrible feeling from the days and weeks after 18-1, or even after last years Super Bowl?

The worst because well, why doesnt it hurt as much?

For one, because we've grown accustomed to the losing. To fantastic regular seasons, and playoff disappointment. Obviously, the disappointment is relative. I think we'd all rather live through this era than switch places with the Browns or Chiefs. I'm just saying that the shock of Brady- and Belichick-led teams coming up short has definitely worn off.

And that sucks.

I'm sorry to put it so eloquently, but it's true. Despite how ridiculous it was to ever believe that the quarterback and coach were as unbeatable as they seemed . . . we really wanted to believe it. In the moment, it was absolutely real.

But now it's absolutely gone.

I don't say that with a lack of perspective. More than anything, I think our original standards were just unfair. No one goes undefeated. Everyone has to lose. Even with everything that's happened over these last eight years, Brady and Belichick will obviously be remembered as one of the greatest quarterbacks and coaches in NFL history.

But you can't help but miss the days when they were THE greatest; when the fairy tale was real. You can't help but look back at all close calls, all the legitimate chances at another title, and get stuck obsessing over how much better it could have and should have been.

But whatever, that's life. It could also be so much worse.

Especially since the run isn't over. Assuming everyone's healthy, the Patriots will be every bit as good next season. With another year of experience under the defense's belt, they could even be better. No one will be surprised if they're back in the AFC Championship, or make it to the Super Bowl. Even amidst the darkness of last night's loss, I can see them winning it all.

But while a fourth Super Bowl ring once felt like a formality basically the worst case scenario for Brady, Belichick and the entire Patriots dynasty right now, No. 4 feels every bit as distant as No. 3, and the possibility of the Pats falling short seems more realistic now than ever.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

Ryan's 2 TD passes enough as Falcons hold off Seahawks 34-31

falcons_seahawks_matt_ryan_112017.jpg

Ryan's 2 TD passes enough as Falcons hold off Seahawks 34-31

SEATTLE - Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons did enough through 3 1/2 quarters that even the best comeback attempt by Russell Wilson fell short this time.

A couple of yards short to be exact.

Ryan threw a pair of touchdown passes, Adrian Clayborn returned a fumble 10 yards for a score and the Falcons watched Blair Walsh's 52-yard field goal attempt in the final seconds fall short, holding off the Seattle Seahawks for a 34-31 win on Monday night.

Atlanta won its second straight to stay on the heels of New Orleans and Carolina in the NFC South, and handed Seattle a second consecutive home loss.

"What an absolute team win from the guys tonight," Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said. "Coming here, in this environment, with the crowd, we thought it would be two competitive, tough teams that were going to battle for it in the biggest way."

Ryan threw TDs to Mohamed Sanu and Levine Toilolo, while Tevin Coleman added a 1-yard TD run on Atlanta's opening possession.

But it was Clayborn's fumble return that helped break the game open early in the second quarter and gave Atlanta a 21-7 lead. He scooped up a loose ball after Wilson was crunched by Takk McKinley and Courtney Upshaw.

"I think we're moving in the right direction. We keep proving we can finish games and beat guys. We have to take the momentum and keep rolling with it," Clayborn said.

With Seattle down 11 points, Wilson hit Doug Baldwin on a 29-yard TD with 3 minutes left and then threw to Jimmy Graham for the two-point conversion. Seattle got the ball back and moved in range for Walsh, whose attempt was on line but landed short of the crossbar.

"That was in our range, and in hindsight I would have just driven it more," Walsh said. "I would have driven it more and not left it short. I was too accurate and didn't have enough on it."

Wilson again was the entirety of Seattle's offense, throwing for 258 yards and two touchdowns, and running for another 86 yards and a TD.

But it was an awful night for the Seahawks, filled with more injuries and questionable decisions by coach Pete Carroll. He called for a fake field goal late in the first half rather than attempting a 35-yard kick. He also made a questionable challenge in the fourth quarter that didn't go his way and left Seattle with just one timeout.

That lack of timeouts came back to haunt Seattle on the final drive when seconds ticked away and rather than running one more play, Walsh was sent out to attempt the 52-yard kick. His long for the season is 49 yards.

The conclusion only amplified Carroll's baffling decision at the end of the first half, when Seattle ran a fake field goal rather than having Walsh attempt a 35-yarder that would have pulled Seattle within 24-20. Holder Jon Ryan completed his shovel pass to Luke Willson, but Grady Jarrett read the play and tackled Willson for a 4-yard loss.

Willson said Atlanta's defense on the play was different than what Seattle had seen on film.

"It would have been a really good call if we had made it," Carroll said. "Terrific opportunity right where we wanted it and the defensive tackle made a better play."

Seattle played a game for the first time since the end of the 2010 season without Richard Sherman. His streak of 99 consecutive starts in the regular season was snapped because of a torn Achilles tendon suffered against Arizona. The Seahawks were also without safety Kam Chancellor because of a neck injury, leaving their vaunted secondary with several new faces.

"Those two are phenomenal players. ... It was a lot different," Sanu said. "They did a lot of different things but we just had to take advantage of our routes."

MATTY ICE

Ryan was more than happy to pick on a defense without Sherman and Chancellor. He was 19 of 27 passing for 195 yards and rarely faced pressure. Seattle had one sack, and the Falcons went 9 of 14 on third-down conversions.

Sanu made a great one-handed grab for a 2-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Ryan found Toilolo on a 25-yard TD in the third quarter to give Atlanta a 31-20 lead. Matt Bryant added a 19-yard field goal with 3:49 left to put the Falcons ahead by 11, and Wilson's late heroics weren't enough.

Ryan's streak of 64 straight games passing for at least 200 yards was snapped.

INJURIES

Seattle's injury woes continued. The Seahawks lost rookie cornerback Shaquill Griffin to a concussion on the second play of the game, forcing newly signed veteran Byron Maxwell into a more prominent role than expected.

Early in the second half, promising running back Mike Davis was lost to a groin injury after taking a screen pass 21 yards. Davis had two receptions and had carried six times for 18 yards before getting hurt. Seattle also lost starting guard Oday Aboushi in the fourth quarter with a shoulder injury.

Atlanta got a scare when safety Keanu Neal was checked for a concussion in the first half. He was cleared to return.

UP NEXT

Falcons: Host Tampa Bay on Sunday to open a three-game homestand.

Seahawks: Travel to division foe San Francisco on Sunday.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

EX-PATS PODCAST: How Belichick the perfectionist will find flaws in win vs. Raiders

ex-pats-podcast17.png

EX-PATS PODCAST: How Belichick the perfectionist will find flaws in win vs. Raiders

0:55 - Patriots playing great as they stream roll the Raiders but Koppen explains that Belichick will knock them down as he strives for perfection. Also talk about how it takes a couple months into the season for the coaches and players to learn each other again.

5:40 - Stephon Gilmore playing excellent lined up against Michael Crabtree. Malcolm Butler bounces back but gives up the only score to Amari Cooper. Koppen suggest Butler’s contract situation might be affecting his play. 

7:50 - All in on the Patriots defense yet? Giardi and Koppen discuss the defensive play and the upcoming offenses the Patriots will be facing.

10:30 - Dan Koppen talks about job security in the NFL and if he ever worried about somebody else taking his job, and the cutthroat nature of the Patriots. 

13:50 - Tom Brady picking apart the Raiders and Jack Del Rio’s defenses throughout his career. 

17:45 - A debate about Patriots backup quarterbacks and if Matt Cassel was actually a good NFL QB. 

21:20 - A few game notes: Rex Burkhead’s fumble vs. the Raiders, LaAdrian Waddle filling in for Marcus Cannon.