Patriots

It was almost special

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It was almost special

From the very start, Sunday nights Patriots-49ers game had the makings of something special. Before the opening kick even landed in Devin McCourtys gut, you just knew that these teams were about to make a memory.

It was a classic match-up. Two storied franchises. The No. 1 offense vs. the top ranked defense. It was national TV. The Game of the Week. The grand finale to the most significant Sunday of the NFL season.

There was the weather. The cold, the rain, the ice and more than anything, the fog. It set an almost mythical scene. Like they were playing on a Hollywood set. You could see the players breathe, the rain pouring off their helmets. You knew Steve Sabol was smiling somewhere. As the game went on, the jerseys started to bleed. The whole thing devolved into a sloppy mess. But in perfect football fashion, as the conditions worsened, the drama heightened.

Above all else, there was Newtown, CT. There was that chilling tribute before the national anthem, the Presidents first quarter address and the general sense of disappointment, sorrow and confusion thats existed in all of us since the news broke on Friday afternoon.

While the shootings at Sandy Hook made the whole institution of sports, and really, everything else, feel completely insignificant, games like last night continue to serve an essential purpose in helping us cope with disaster. Obviously, theres something inherently selfish about that statement, because you know that the families and friends directly affected by the massacre couldnt have cared less about yesterdays action. But even in our countrys absolute worst moments, sports have consistently served as a unifying force in the face of tragedy. At the very least, theyre a distraction. And theres no doubt that Patriots and 49ers promised to give us that. But there was something in the air that felt like they might give us more. The stage was set for something truly special.

So, when did you first start to believe that the comeback was real? At what point did you put off your plans of going to bed early and settle down for the long haul?

For me, it was Tom Brady on fourth and goal. He got in, and I knew the game was on. I knew Brady was on. As he got up from that pile, there was a look in his eyes that we hadn't seen in some time. He looked like a super hero of fourth quarters past. Everything he did the way he fired the ball back and forth to stay warm on the sidelines, the way he spiked the ball into the turf after the Niners were granted that defensive timeout made you believe that the Pats were about to win the game.

For some reason, I kept thinking back to that Monday night in Denver. The night Bill Belichick sacrificed a safety and Brady found David Givens at the pile-on to win it. The confidence that Brady had shown during that drive was now on display every time New England got the ball. It was over. Soon, this game would be remembered the same way we remember that comeback in Denver which happened more than nine years ago, but still feels like yesterday. It was about to go down as one of the greatest comebacks in one of the greatest careers in NFL history. It was headed to the Hall of Fame.

We'd never forget the night Brady brought them back from 31-3.

But now, that night doesn't exist.

That's because the Pats fell short.

In the end, for all the comparisons between last night and some of the greatest comebacks of Brady's career, Sunday serves as a another reminder of a more recent chapter in Patriots' history one featuring a team that can never quite get over the hump. A team that forever keeps you believing that things are how they used to be . . . only to consistently fall on its face just short of the prize.

Now, obviously this loss isn't the end of the world. Certainly not after the way this weekend started, but even in a pure football sense. The Pats are still one of only a handful of teams with real Super Bowl aspirations. There's still every reason to believe that they have enough talent to finish on top. After last night, the road will be a lot tougher. The Pats are more than likely destined for the No. 3 seed, which means an extra game in the Wild Card round, (presumably) followed by trips to Denver and Houston. But what are you going to do?

The bottom line is that the Patriots are still good enough to win. The AFC, at least. And if by some chance they make it to New Orleans and face a rematch with the 49ers? They'll be good enough to win that one, too. Knowing Vegas, the Pats will probably be favored. At that point, we'll look back last night's game and retroactively obsess over the importance of New England's failed comeback. We'll talk about how essential it was that they proved that they can beat the Niners 'D', about the benefits of having a full game against Colin Kaepernick under their belts.

But for now, we'll just remember last night as another failure on the doorstep of greatness. And hope that the resulting shift in the AFC playoff picture isn't too much for the Pats to overcome.

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

Patriots-Falcons practice report: No changes for Pats

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Patriots-Falcons practice report: No changes for Pats

Thursday's practice participation/injury report for Sunday's Patriots-Falcons game:

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

DID NOT PARTICIPATE
CB Stephon Gilmore (concussion/ankle)
LB Harvey Langi (back)
LB Elandon Roberts (ankle)
CB Eric Rowe (groin)

LIMITED PARTICIPATION
RB Rex Burkhead (ribs)
WR Chris Hogan (ribs)
G Shaq Mason (shoulder)

ATLANTA FALCONS

DID NOT PARTICIPATE
LB Jordan Tripp

LIMITED PARTICIPATION
OLB Vic Beasley Jr. (hamstring)
K Matt Bryant (back)
LB Jermaine Grace (hamstring)
LB Deion Jones (quadricep)
DE Takk McKinley (shoulder)
LB Duke Riley (knee)
WR Mohamed Sanu (hamstring)
DL Courtney Upshaw (ankle/knee)

Patriots' team personality changed by offseason moves, and not for better

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Patriots' team personality changed by offseason moves, and not for better

Bill Belichick has long been a proponent of altering his team's DNA from season to season. It cuts down on complacency, and also allows the head coach to be correct when he says last year doesn't matter to this year's Patriots. It can't, after all. What can players like Stephon Gilmore, Brandin Cooks or Lawrence Guy, who were on other rosters in other cities and -- in some cases -- other divisions or other conferences, know about last year's Pats? The answer is nothing, or next to nothing. Just the way Belichick prefers.

But last offseason's turnover may have done more harm than good, at least to this point in the year. Yes, the Pats have shown a toughness and an ability to overcome adversity -- see the start versus the Jets and the comeback against the Texans -- but there are clear indicators this group isn't gelling like Belichick believed it would. 

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Much of that points to the unusual approach taken by the coach and the front office in free agency. Whether it was the quick-strike signing of Gilmore to an expensive contract, to the surrendering of another first-rounder -- this time by choice -- in the trade for Cooks, or even the decision to walk away from fan favorite LeGarrette Blount in favor of younger, less proven backs Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead, much of what Belichick was trying to do has yet to bear the necesssary fruit. And it's not just on the field where the Pats have shown deficiencies; it's in the locker room and meeting rooms as well.

Start with the bold move to get an in-his-prime Gilmore. Signing a player considered in some circles to be a No. 1 corner makes all the sense in the world. But what perplexed many was the decision to pay an outsider over Malcolm Butler, a proven player not only in this system, but in the biggest of games. Gilmore doesn't have that pedigree because his former team, the Bills, never made the playoffs, let alone a Super Bowl. 

Butler's anger at the decision and the way the rest of his offseason played out has been well-documented in this space {http://www.nbcsports.com/boston/new-england-patriots/new-england-patriots-mike-giardi-malcom-butler-wanted-new-orleans-he-wanted-them-badly}. But what hasn't in many other spaces is the acknowledgement that it still wears on Butler to this day. 

His play is back on the uptick after a reduction of snaps in Week 2, but Butler has always been a player to whom the team has devoted extra attention to get ready week to week. That may have factored in the Pats' decision to only go so far in contract talks. Why then would Belichick assume Butler would be the perfect professional when Gilmore gets what Butler believes is his money? The thought seems to run counter with the argument against keeping Butler longterm in the first place. 

Butler says his relationship with Gilmore is good, that he's glad to have him as a teammate. Perhaps the 28-year-old has come to that now. Perhaps. 

As for Gilmore, he's soft-spoken. That has occasionally come off as though he's a player lacking confidence. His performance against Tampa Bay was a step in the right direction, but it was immediately followed by a day-before-the-game scratch against the Jets because of a concussion that was either suffered late in the week or was unreported until Saturday. His sudden absence put the Patriots in a bind. The fact that Gilmore spoke up was the right thing to do, but if it could have been communicated earlier it should have been, for the good of both player and team. Now he must reassert himself, whenever that opportunity comes.

"[You] grow together as team based on those experiences; some good, some bad, but learning from all of them," Belichick said when I asked him about a team's personality evolving over the course of the year. "I mean, we've only had one roster change since the start of the season but that's certainly on the low side. I would anticipate that there would be roster changes during the course of the year like there always are for every team and so that affects the makeup of the team, the interactions of the team. Maybe that's the personality you're talking about."

Belichick has a tendency to not only remember your last game, but -- if warranted -- hold it against you. Blount would be a prime example. He rushed for nearly 1,200 yards and 18 touchdowns last year but his play in the Super Bowl was poor. So despite his production on the field and his popularity off, the Pats had no inclination to offer LGB a raise. In fact, they were fine with him walking away, and that's exactly what he did. Gillislee and Burkhead were tabbed as replacement parts, and on paper it looked great. It still may end that way. But neither player has provided a) a level of play equivalent to Blount's and b) the energy that Blount brought. And that latter part of the equation is incredibly important. Just ask the Eagles, who get a jolt from Blount every time he lowers his shoulder and runs over a defender. 

The same could hold true for others who fled, were allowed to leave, or never got the chance to come back: 

-- Martellus Bennett could be a pain in the ass but there was never a dull moment around him, and no one can deny the loquacious tight end was an energy player both on and off the field. 

-- Logan Ryan had been through so much with the Pats, both good and bad. He had no problem talking, not just to his teammates but to the other side as well. He had earned his teammates' trust. 

-- Chris Long had an excellent relationship with so many guys on the team, and while he wouldn't be considered a "personality" in the same mold as Blount, he was incredibly well-respected for his professionalism and for his sacrifice, many times playing out of position. 

Then throw in the retirement of old standby Rob Ninkovich and, of course, the season-ending injury to Julian Edelman. If you didn't understand before, you should know now just how much each player is missed. 

It's now up to the newcomers, and some of the holdovers, to elevate their level and find their voice, both on the field and in that room. And that may also be a part of the early issue. These "new" players -- Cooks, Gilmore, Gillislee, Burkhead, Guy -- are, for the moment, quiet. Perhaps they're concerned about stepping on toes, but at some point that may be needed.

"Look, everybody's a shareholder on the team," Belichick said. "It's not one person's team. It belongs to all of us and we try to make it as functional, as effective and as competitive as we possibly can. So, that's what the goal is, to win every game that we play and to have a good season and to make the most out of every day and every opportunity that we have. 

"I don't know if that answers the question or not, but I'm trying."

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