Blackhawks

Brady, Pats can only wonder what might have been

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Brady, Pats can only wonder what might have been

From Comcast SportsNet
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- The eyes that watched Tom Brady's pass sail to him were red. The hands that couldn't catch it were clasped in his lap. The heart that has helped make Wes Welker a star was broken. Blame me, he said. Blame me for letting a ball I always catch fall to the ground. "It comes to the biggest moment of my life, and (I) don't come up with it," the New England Patriots wide receiver said. "Most critical situation, and I let the team down." One of the NFL's smallest receivers at 5-feet-9 and its leading receiver with 122 catches wasn't the only one who missed an opportunity that ruined the chances of coach Bill Belichick's usually disciplined players of winning their fourth Super Bowl. They lost to the New York Giants 21-17 on Sunday. There was a safety on the Patriots' first offensive play. There were three fumbles by the Giants, but they kept the ball after each one against a team that led the AFC with a plus-17 turnover differential. And there was a desperation heave by Brady on the final play into the end zone -- a pass covering more than half the field that bounced off several players in the end zone. After it bounced off the last set of fingertips and fell to the ground, the game was over. So was the Patriots' last, longshot hope. "The ball's just floating in the air," Patriots guard Logan Mankins said. "I think everybody's holding their breath -- the crowd, the coaches, the players." The Patriots other two star receivers, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, were there with three defenders. The ball was tipped out of reach of a lunging Gronkowski, who was hampered by a high left ankle sprain suffered in the AFC championship game. "We've completed a Hail Mary this year," said Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who won his second Super Bowl MVP award. "I was hoping there wasn't going to be another one completed, for them." It nearly was. "I felt like I was close," Gronkowski said. "But close isn't there." Added Brady: "We got to the 50, and ran out of time." The Patriots missed plenty of opportunities when there was plenty of time left, including those three fumbles. The Giants recovered two. And the one New England's Brandon Spikes came up with was nullified because the Patriots had 12 men on the field. Two plays later, Manning hit Victor Cruz for a 2-yard touchdown and a 9-0 lead late in the first quarter. Then Brady got hot, completing a Super Bowl-record 16 straight passes, and the Patriots surged to a 17-15 lead. "I thought we played very competitive, had our moments where we moved the ball and stopped them," Belichick said. "We were in the lead for a good part of the game. We just came up a couple of plays short." The Patriots had a chance to make it a two-possession game when a mix-up on the Giants defense left Welker alone. On a second-and-11 at the Patriots 44, the sure-handed receiver had a chance to score. All he had to do was catch the ball and, perhaps, make it to the end zone. Amazingly, the ball went off his hands. "It's one of those plays I've made 1,000 times," he said. Brady and Deion Branch failed to connect on the next play on a pass just behind the receiver and the Patriots punted. "We had opportunities to put this team away and we didn't," Branch said. "All the plays were big. Every play is important. Had I made the catch that was behind me, that could have been a key third down but we didn't connect on it." After the punt, when Manning started the winning 88-yard drive capped by Ahmad Bradshaw's 6-yard touchdown run with 57 seconds to go. Had Welker made the catch and the Patriots scored, that touchdown might have been insignificant. "The ball is right there," Welker said. "I've just got to make the play. It's a play I've made 1,000 times in practice and everything else." But Welker is a big reason the Patriots reached the Super Bowl. And just one reason they lost it. "He's a hell of a player," Brady said. "I'll keep throwing the ball to him for as long as I possibly can. He's a phenomenal player and teammate. I love that guy." When Welker was done with his stint at the postgame podium, he walked slowly to the team bus with a backpack over his left shoulder. At one point, he passed a group of cheering fans dressed in Giants shirts. He kept walking, looking blankly straight ahead. At least he could share the misery with his teammates. "I think every guy in the locker room wishes they could have done a little more," Brady said.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

There hasn't been a more dynamic duo in the NHL so far this season than Kucherov and Stamkos, who have combined for 68 points (27 goals, 41 assists) through 20 games, and sit first and second in the scoring race.

They've each recorded a point in every game except three — which coincidentally have been the same games — and they've lost all three of those contests. Kucherov has also scored a goal in 15 of 20 games this season. That's absurd when you consider he's scoring on a consistent basis; it's not like they're coming in spurts.

To put all that into perspective, he reached the 17-goal mark in his 36th game last year and still finished second in the league with 40 goals. He hit the 17-goal mark in 16 fewer games this season. How many can he realistically finish with? 60?

2. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

Tampa Bay knows how dangerous Chicago's dynamic duo can be as well, as evidenced in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. The Blackhawks' superstars know how to get up for a big game.

In 13 career regular-season games against the Lightning, Kane has 18 points (six goals, 12 assists). Toews has 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 14 games.

They're both producing at or above a point-per-game pace, and they're going to need more of that against this powerhouse Lightning team.

3. Something's gotta give.

Tampa Bay's offensive prowess is off the charts up and down the lineup. It has four lines that can come at you at waves, and a strong, active blue line led by potential Norris Trophy finalist Viktor Hedman and Calder Trophy candidate Mikhail Sergachev.

Although Chicago allows the fourth-most shots per game (34.0), it actually hasn't been bad at preventing goals — a large reason for that is Corey Crawford. 

The Lightning rank first in goals per game (3.95) and first in power play percentage (28.0) while the Blackhawks rank sixth in goals against per game (2.65) and four in penalty kill percentage (84.9).

Who's going to crack first?

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

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USA TODAY

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

The news on Tuesday wasn’t really any sort of surprise: Brian Urlacher being selected as a semifinalist for the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Some of the immediate thoughts were, however, for one writer who covered Brian from the day he was drafted on through the unpleasant end of his 13-year career as a Bear.

Good thoughts, though. Definitely good.

The first was a flashback, to a Tuesday in late August 2000 when the ninth-overall pick of the draft, who’d been anointed the starting strong-side linebacker by coach Dick Jauron on draft day, was benched.

It happened up at Halas Hall when Urlacher all of a sudden wasn’t running with the 1’s. Rosie Colvin was in Urlacher’s spot with the starters and would be for a few games into the 2000 season. I caught up with Brian before he walked, in a daze, into Halas Hall after practice and asked about what I’d just seen.

"I'm unhappy with the way I'm playing and I'm sure they are, too," Urlacher said. "I don't think I've been playing very well so that's probably the cause for it right there. I just don't have any technique. I need to work on my technique, hands and feet mostly. I've got to get those down, figure out what I'm doing. I know the defense pretty good now, just don't know how to use my hands and feet."

Urlacher, an All-American safety at New Mexico but MVP of the Senior Bowl in his first game at middle linebacker, had been starting at strong side, over the tight end, because coaches considered it a simpler position for Urlacher to master. But he was not always correctly aligned before the snap, did not use his hands against blockers effectively and occasionally led with his head on tackles. His benching cost him the chance to be the first Bears rookie linebacker since Dick Butkus to start an Opening Day.

It also was the first time in his football life that Urlacher could remember being demoted.

"It's not a good feeling," he said. "I definitely don't like getting demoted but I know why I am. I just have to get better."

Coaches understood what they were really attempting, subsequently acknowledged privately that the SLB experiment was a mistake. While the strong-side slot may have been simpler than the other two principally because of coverage duties, "we're trying to force-feed the kid an elephant," then-defensive coordinator Greg Blache said.

"So you see him gag and what do you do? You give him the Heimlich maneuver, you take some of it out of his mouth, try to chop it up into smaller pieces. He's going to devour it and be a great football player. But he wouldn't be if we choked him to death."

Urlacher didn’t choke and eventually became the starter, not outside, but at middle linebacker when Barry Minter was injured week two at Tampa Bay.

We sometimes don’t fully know the import or significance at the time we’re witnessing something. Urlacher stepping in at middle linebacker was not one of those times – you knew, watching him pick up four tackles in basically just the fourth quarter of a 41-0 blowout by the Bucs.

That was the beginning. Over the years came moments like Urlacher scooping up a Michael Vick fumble in the 2001 Atlanta game and going 90 yards with Vick giving chase but not catching him. Lots of those kinds of moments.

And then cutting to the ending, in 2013, when he and the organization came to an acrimonious parting after GM Phil Emery managed to alienate the face of the franchise both with the one-year contract offer and the way it was handled. Butkus had a nasty separation at the end of his Bears years, too, and Bill George finished his career as a Los Angeles Ram after creating the middle linebacker position as a Bear. Maybe that’s just how Bears and some of their linebackers wind up their relationships.

In any case, while there is no cheering in the pressbox, the hope here is that Brian goes into the Hall in a class with Ray Lewis in their first years of eligibility. Somehow that just seems like it all should close out for that confused kid from New Mexico who lost his first job out of college, but responded to that by becoming one of the all-time greats in his sport.