Patriots

Old rivals Gabriel, Butler will renew acquaintances in Super Bowl

Old rivals Gabriel, Butler will renew acquaintances in Super Bowl

HOUSTON - Who knew that Nov. 3, 2012 in Abilene, Texas, would form the foundation for a friendship and a rivalry that will be reborn on Super Bowl Sunday here in Houston? 

SUPER BOWL LI: THURSDAY REPORT

But that’s exactly what happened when Abilene Christian upset 13th-ranked West Alabama 22-16 in front of a whopping 3,517 fans at Shotwell Stadium.

Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler donned West Alabama’s red, white and black uniform that day, while Falcons receiver Taylor Gabriel was wearing Abilene’s purple and white. The ACU Wildcats jumped out to a surprising 13-0 lead before West Alabama forced overtime with just 13 seconds left in the fourth quarter. But Abilene scored on its first possession of overtime, and when Kyle Caldwell’s pass feel incomplete at the host’s 9-yard line, the celebration was on.

“It was a big win for us,” recalled Gabriel at the Falcons media availability yesterday. 

Butler was a little hazier on the details.

“I think it was 2013. Or 2012. One of ‘em.”

I asked both men who won the individual battle. Again, it depends on what side you’re coming from.

“I mean I think I had five catches for 80 something yards [five for 71 according to the box score], recalled Gabriel, then he smiled, “So you would say I won that.”

“I don’t think we was doing any matching back then so ah...just stats,” said Butler, who had two pass breakups and four tackles that day. 

Little did the two know, but they would meet again as teammates on the National roster in the 2014 Medal of Honor Bowl game in Charleston, South Carolina. That’s where the friendship blossomed.

“Most definitely,” said Butler. “We had good conversations, just enjoying mingling around, talking about football, talking about where we wanted to go in life.”

“He’s good friend of mine. I have so much respect for him,” Gabriel said. “In fact, his path is the same as mine but he made that big splash interception in the Super Bowl.”

Gabriel claimed he knew back at that Bowl game that Butler was destined for the NFL and that plays like that Super Bowl-saving interception of Russell Wilson was in Butler’s future. Gabriel, however, thought his own path might be a bit tougher. 

“Malcolm is a very, very, very charismatic guy and he worked hard ,” said Gabriel. “I knew he was going to make it to the league. It was just the fact if I was going to do my thing to get there. He’s one of the best cornerbacks in this league. I think he’s earned that.”

Gabriel had support at Abilene. Grant Boone, the voice of the Wildcats, recalls watching Gabriel and thinking “he’s next” in the school’s recent run of turning out pro players.

“Gabriel was a human highlight reel from his first year,” Boone told me. “And we were in a stretch that had seen Danieal Manning drafted in round two and make the Super Bowl for the Bears in 2007. Then Johnny Knox and Bernard Scott were taken in 2009, Clyde Gates in 2011 and Daryl Richardson in 2012. So, we'd begun to think Gabriel's being at ACU wouldn't hold him back.”

It did, although not for too long.

“Came down to his size,” added Boone. “But his work ethic and speed - both his acceleration and as weird as it sounds - his ability to stop quickly is what made us think he had a shot.”

A shot Gabriel fully realized this season, catching 35 passes for 579 yards and six touchdowns after being cast off by the Cleveland Browns.

Butler reflected on that, and his own journey, saying simply, “It’s about taking advantage of your opportunities. That, and working hard and just trying to stay consistent.”

Both players have done just that to solidify their places in the NFL. Now, it’s on to the bragging rights on a much bigger stage, NRG Stadium, which seats nearly 70,000 more fans who stood in Shotwell Stadium for that 22-16 upset back in November of 2012.
 

Curran: Pats and Steelers a study in contrasts . . . and we should be grateful

Curran: Pats and Steelers a study in contrasts . . . and we should be grateful

PITTSBURGH --- Mike Tomlin started embracing the "elephant" s on November 27.

Foreplay with the pachyderm can finally cease. The Patriots and Steelers get after it this afternoon. This is the Game of the Year in the AFC. Maybe the NFL.

While Tomlin started hyping the Patriots game 21 days ago, the Patriots didn’t breathe a word about it until this week. And that only came after a Monday night loss in Miami that raised the stakes for this game into a do-or-die for the Patriots in terms of getting the No. 1 seed.

PATRIOTS VS. STEELERS

That whiff of vulnerability that descends after every Patriots loss was in the air this week. Segments of the fanbase react like the worst kinds of hypochondriacs -- perfectly fit but thinking every day that every twinge means an aneurysm is near.

But on Saturday, the 40-year-old quarterback did for New England what he’s been doing since 2001. Put his hand on its shoulder and said, “LFG.” 

Thank God for Tomlin. As much as we lampooned his giddy embrace of this matchup, he got the hype train out of the station and the tub-thumping since has made this the most anticipated Patriots game since February.

While we’re at it, thank God for the Steelers. For Big Sloppy Ben, for Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell and the detestable James Harrison. Without them, the Patriots would be completely without a foil in this league.

Think about it. The NFL is Rex-less. Peyton’s long gone, the Colts are dead, the Broncos are also dead, the Ravens are washed, Eli’s on his last legs for a two-win team.

The Steelers are the only ones out there, picking up a rock and fitting it in a slingshot for the rest of the conference, the rest of the league.

Take it a little further: Thank God for the Steelers as an organization. They serve as an AFC measuring stick for the Patriots. They won back-to-back Super Bowls twice in the 1970s and have won six Lombardis overall. While there’s no arguing which franchise has been better since the 1990s, you can have a spirited talk about whether the Patriots have yet supplanted the Steelers in overall historical resume. You want 45 years of really good with spikes of being the best, as Pittsburgh’s had? Or 40 years of not-so-good with spikes of real good and then a 17-year stretch like no team’s ever had?

These Steelers and Patriots have nothing in common when it comes to the way they do things. The coaches are polar opposites. The quarterbacks are nothing alike. The Steelers defense flies around with the same danger and disorganization of a wasp attack. Playing the Patriots defense is like punching a snowbank for three hours. Everything about the Patriots offense is based on timing and precision. The Steelers have an air of winging it when they have the ball, whether it’s Bell hanging out in the backfield after the snap until a crease opens or Roethlisberger waiting to restart a play while Brown skips through the opposing secondary.

The Steelers always talk a big game. The Patriots say next to nothing.

As consumers, we all love the talking and the hype because it ratchets up the drama. But as football observers based in New England, we’ve come to believe that talking beforehand is like giving your own eulogy.

But a lot of what Mike Tomlin said you can agree with even if you’re only on your couch today. You will remember this game, as opposed to the succession of beatdowns over the procession of also-rans the Patriots seasons sometimes become.

"It's good to be in the kitchen,” said Tomlin this week. “The kitchen's in Pittsburgh, PA, this week in the National Football League, and at Heinz Field. That's where you want to be in the middle of December. We don't take it for granted."

And neither should we.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Patriots will be without Kyle Van Noy for showdown against Steelers

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Patriots will be without Kyle Van Noy for showdown against Steelers

The Patriots' defense won't be at full strength Sunday as linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who's been battling a calf injury for weeks, is ruled out against the Steelers:

And NBC Sports Boston's Mike Giardi wonders if it could have been avoided:

And what will it mean this afternoon? Giardi has an idea:

There is some good injury news for the Patriots, however:

As for the Steelers, they're getting nothing but good news: