Patriots

A return to greatness

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A return to greatness

In all my years of watching football, I'm not sure Ive ever seen a return man break through coverage like Danieal Manning did on the opening kick of last night's game and not cruise into the end zone. I still cant believe they caught him. They never catch him. In the NFL, that kind of daylight always ends in a touchdown. But either way, in the few seconds it took for Manning to burst out ahead of the pack, two weeks of calm and over-confidence were quickly reduced to a gigantic pit in your stomach.

Over on Twitter, fans immediately compared the play to Ray Rices touchdown run back in 2010; the 83-yard sprint on the first play from scrimmage that triggered the most embarrassing home playoff loss in franchise history. And thats really what this one felt like. Even after Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington somehow hunted Manning down, the result changed the face of the game. Suddenly, it was as if any psychological carry over from Week 14 had been instantly erased, with momentum flipped back in the Texans favor.

It was 1st and 10 on the Patriots 12 yard line, and the game wasnt even 10 seconds old:

1st and 10: Arian Foster, three yard run.

2nd and 7: James Casey drop.

3rd and 7: Incomplete pass to Andre Johnson; a ball that might have been catchable had AJ been sitting on the crossbar.

4th and 7: Shayne Graham kicks a 27-yard field goal to give the Texans a 3-0 lead, and officially waste their first and only chance to catch the Patriots off guard.

Honestly, that was it. With that one defensive stand (even if Houston still got three), the script flipped again. From the Texans on the verge of landing an immediate and devastating blow a true "The Russian's been cut!" moment to the Patriots sending one very clear message: This is our game. This is Week 14. You know what, how about this: We'll let you start your first possession ON THE 12 YARD LINE, and you STILL can't score a touchdown. (P.S. We must break you.)"

The Pats came up short on their first two offensive possessions, losing their All-Pro tight end and only playoff-tested running back along the way, but on their third drive, Shane Vereen got New England on the board and they never looked back. They never trailed again. Aside from a brief stretch towards the end of the first half, the lead was never in danger. A rematch with Baltimore was never in doubt. How dominant was the Patriots performance? It made Dan Shaughnessys schtick even more unbearable. Do you realize how difficult that is? I'm not even mad. That's amazing.

And now it's on to the AFC Championship. The seventh time they've played in the game in the last 12 years. The fifth time they've hosted it. And . . . I don't know. What else can we say? We ran out of adjectives for these guys years ago. At this point, we all know how special this is. We know we're currently living through one of the most dominant stretches that the NFL has ever seen. We know it won't last forever, and that while there will be life after the quarterback and coach walk away, it will never be this good. We'll never get this back. Whether it's 10, 20 or even 30 years down the road, we'll reminisce about this era and regret ever taking it for granted. We'll pine for this. It will haunt us.

But in the moment, it's increasingly difficult to keep everything in perspective. After so many years of success, it only human to look at this latest trip to the conference title game and shrug your shoulders. While advancing this far, sitting one win short of the Super Bowl, is a dream for cities like San Francisco, Atlanta and even Baltimore, in New England it's not enough.

I feel dirty even thinking that way, never mind writing it. It's not enough? How can anything this team has given us over the last decade-plus ever qualify as "not enough"? What the hell is wrong with us?

But it's true. And as ridiculous as that be, we can take comfort in knowing that the Patriots are on the same page. Even if Belichick, Brady and Vince Wilfork are the only guys in that locker room with a Super Bowl ring to their name, there's no mistaking the expectations and urgency that currently surrounds this team. They know what we know. That while this era of dominance has already lasted far longer than anyone could have wish for or imagined, there's still work to be done rings to win, legacies to bolster and history to be made.

How many more chances do the Pats have? Between injuries and the general insanity the comes with every NFL season, how do we know they'll ever be this close at home, favored by 10 points, once win away from the Super Bowl again? We've been having this conversation for what feels like an eternity. We've spent to the last eight years dreaming about that fourth ring; one final, indisputable stamp on this stretch of unfathomable success. And once again, it's right there. It's real. Nothing less will do.

Of course, they'll have to get through the Ravens first. A Baltimore team that's powered by the pain and frustration of last year's championship defeat and the desire to win one last time for their own Tom Brady. A team that's spent the last year begging for and obsessing over this opportunity on this stage, against this Patriots team and presents a greater threat than the Texans could have even dreamed. A team that . . .

You know what? We've got another six days to build up and break down this next big game, so for now, let's just leave it at that. Let's take just a little more time to appreciate the reality of what the Pats accomplished yesterday at Gillette, before fully immersing ourselves in the regularly-scheduled unrealistic expectations.

But before signing off, I want to say this to Stephen Gostkowski:

Next Sunday, just to be safe, do us all a favor and send the opening kick off through the uprights.

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

Patriots cut ties with Cassius Marsh, sign Eric Lee to help front-seven

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Patriots cut ties with Cassius Marsh, sign Eric Lee to help front-seven

Cassius Marsh was brought to New England to help a depleted defensive end group and play in the kicking game. The Patriots wanted him badly enough that they parted with two draft picks -- a fifth and a seventh -- to acquire him in a trade with the Seahawks just before the start of the season. 

Less than three months later, they've decided to part ways with the 6-foot-4, 245-pounder. 

Marsh played in nine games for the Patriots this season, providing the team with an edge defender and someone with special-teams experience. He blocked a kick in Week 7 against the Falcons that earned him an enthusiastic attaboy from coach Bill Belichick. 

Coming off the edge, Marsh recorded one sack and 13 hurries. Against the run, he was used more sparingly, and he was one of the Patriots on the scene for Marshawn Lynch's 25-yard run in the second quarter on Sunday. He played in just two snaps in Mexico City after missing the previous week's game in Denver due to a shoulder injury. 

Without Marsh the Patriots remain thin at defensive end. In order to help bolster that spot, the corresponding move the Patriots made to fill the open spot on their 53-man roster was to sign defensive lineman Eric Lee off of the Bills practice squad. 

Lee entered the league with the Texans last season as an undrafted rookie out of South Florida. Listed at 6-foot-3, 260 pounds, Lee has bounced on and off of the Bills practice squad this season since being released by the Texans before this season.

The Patriots got a good look at Lee during joint practices last summer with the Texans at The Greenbrier in West Virginia. In the preseason game with the Texans that week, Lee played 40 snaps and according to Pro Football Focus he had two quarterback hurries. The Patriots have a history of snagging players they've practiced against, and with Lee, that trend continues

Belichick takes some heat for 'earthquake' comment

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Belichick takes some heat for 'earthquake' comment

Bill Belichick sounded less than enthused about traveling to Mexico to play a game. And his line about being "fortunate there was no volcano eruptions, earthquakes or anything else while we were down there," didn't exactly sit well with some folks south of the border.

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“Personally, I wouldn’t be in any big rush to do it again,” Belichick said on his weekly appearance on WEEI's "Dale and Holley with Keefe" show Monday. “Players did a great job dealing with all the challenges that we had to deal with. I think we’re fortunate there was no volcano eruptions, earthquakes or anything else while we were down there. I mean you have two NFL franchises in an area that I don’t know how stable the geological plates that were below us [were], but nothing happened so that was good.”

Pancho Vera of ESPN Mexico took exception to Belichick's comment on Twitter, which, translated, called out the "ignorance of the genius of the NFL." More than 200 people were killed after a quake centered near Mexico City struck in September. 

Other Twitter users said, using Belichick's reasoning, they wondered if they'd be fortunate not to be killed or wounded in a mass shooting if they were to travel to the US:

Translated, the tweets read "I also have luck in Las Vegas I was not in a shooting" and "But you are right, I apply the same when I go to the U.S. and say I was fortunate I was not in some crazy shootout."