Best of 2017: Unforgettable moments, topped by another title
BEST WAY TO SOLIDIFY LEGACIES
The play was damn-near poetic. Julian Edelman went in motion to block down and blow up Falcons corner Brian Poole. Marcus Cannon rumbled into the flat to smother another defender, leaving James White -- in the game with LeGarrette Blount on the bench and Dion Lewis injured -- to fight through two more to win Super Bowl LI. Think about it. A No. 1 receiver doing the dirty work. A previously maligned offensive lineman who had developed into one of the game's best at his position leading the way. A role player with the ball in his hands and a chance to become the hero. It was an amalgamation of Patriots principles in motion: do your job; you're getting better or you're getting worse; next man up. What better way for the two faces of the franchise, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, to earn their record-setting fifth rings?
BEST INDICATION THAT THIS DEFENSE MIGHT BE GOOD ENOUGH TO MAKE A RUN
The Patriots defense meandered through the first month of the season like it was in a fog. Broken coverages. Missed assignments. Opposing passers collected 300-yard games on a weekly basis. But somewhere along the line -- even though the Patriots remain near the bottom of the league in terms of yards allowed -- they started showing a knack for stopping teams in the red zone, and with two games left in the regular season they found themselves as the sixth-best team in the league in terms of points allowed. Maybe that began in Tampa, where on the final play of a 19-14 win Jonathan Jones broke up a potential game-winning pass near the goal line. But we're choosing to go with Malcolm Butler's controversial strip of Austin Seferian-Jenkins the following week at MetLife Stadium. That started a run of defensive stands that included a failed fourth-and-goal run by the Falcons in Week 7, a game-ending Jones pick of Philip Rivers at the goal line in Week 8, a Raiders fumble near the goal line in Week 11, a Stephon Gilmore interception of Matt Moore in Week 12, a jaw-droppingly easy Eric Lee pick of Tyrod Taylor in Week 13, and Ben Roethlisberger's meltdown at the goal line in Week 15. Call all of those screw-ups on the part of Patriots opponents, but at some point credit should go to a team that has found a way to capitalize on mistakes in the game's most critical moments.
BEST EVIDENCE THE PATRIOTS ARE STILL SMARTER THAN THEIR COMPETITION
If they ever needed a reminder, what happened in the final moments of their Week 15 win over the Steelers has to make the Patriots feel as though the hours and hours they devote to what Bill Belichick calls "situational football" is well-spent. Pittsburgh was supposed to be a team that was, if not the intellectual equal of the Patriots, at least smart enough. They've been to Super Bowls before and won. Their coaching staff isn't dotted with neophytes, as is the case with a few contenders in the NFC. Yet, in the biggest game of the season, when asked to have a grasp on effective clock-management, an understanding of the rulebook, or a reverence for ball-security the Steelers showed they were equally deficient in each. In the process, they proved that the Patriots are still head-and-shoulders above their closest competition when it comes to how the game is played from the neck up.
BEST FREE AGENT SIGNEE - TO BE DETERMINED
For the second year in a row, the Celtics were able to land one of the top free agents available. But in signing Gordon Hayward to a four-year, $127.8 million contract, Boston did more than just add a talented player. They secured a key puzzle piece in what’s shaping up to be a team that will contend for an NBA title very soon – possibly as soon as this season.
Of course, that dream is a deferred one right now with Hayward out for the season following a dislocated left ankle injury. But it doesn’t take away from the Celtics accomplishing what so few felt was possible, this quickly.
In four-plus seasons, the Celtics have gone from a 25-win team to one that’s very much in the thick of things to compete for a spot in the NBA Finals.
And while Hayward isn’t expected to be part of that pilgrimage on the court this season, it doesn’t take away from how significant him coming to Boston will be for the Celtics going forward as they continue to look at ways to bolster their roster via free agency or trade.
After sliding down in the draft from the number one spot to No. 3 and getting a conditional first-round pick on top of it, the Celtics wound up with the best of both worlds – the player they coveted and a future asset.
Jayson Tatum, selected by Boston with the third overall pick, was a player that the Celtics repeatedly said they would have drafted with the top overall pick in they could not strike a deal with Philadelphia.
Instead, they wind up getting the guy they wanted (Tatum) and a pick that could be near the top of the draft board in what’s looking to be a top-heavy draft with lots of young bigs – the kind of players the Celtics could use more of going forward.
BEST ROSTER OVERHAUL
When the Celtics showed up for training camp, they might as well have handed out “Hello My Is …” stickers due to all the new faces – 11 to be exact.
That kind of turnover is a bit unusual, even more so for a team that won 53 games the previous season and had a pair of all-stars in Al Horford and Isaiah Thomas.
But Danny Ainge is never one resistant to change, even if that change means gutting the roster of a proven team.
Whatever questions or concerns back then, are a thing of the past now with the Celtics off to one of their best starts in years with the rest of the Eastern Conference playing catch-up to them.
BEST CELTICS’ WINNING STREAK
To lose a player who was to be as important as Gordon Hayward was going to be to the Celtics is heartbreaking. And Celtics players readily admit it took them a minute to regroup and refocus after it finally sank in that the dislocated ankle injury he suffered was going to keep him out for the season.
They lost that night to the Cavs and followed that up another defeat, this time at home, to the Milwaukee Bucks.
Boston finally got on track the following game with a tough, hard-fought road win at Philadelphia.
And that victory set into motion a run unlike any we’ve seen for a Brad Stevens-coached team.
Boston would go on to win 16 consecutive games, which is the fourth-longest winning streak in franchise history.
Making the run even more impressive was that despite the heavy amount of attention paid to Kyrie Irving, it affords other Celtics an opportunity to play and contribute to the one thing that matters more than anything to this team – winning games.
BEST FATHER-SON MOMENT
The Bruins youth movement has been apparent since the very beginning of the 2017-18 season, and never was it embodied more than when 21-year-old Jake DeBrusk scored his first NHL goal on opening night against the Nashville Predators. DeBrusk accomplished the big NHL milestone with his family in the TD Garden stands for the game and TV cameras caught DeBrusk’s dad, former NHL enforcer Louie DeBrusk, wiping tears from his eyes as a prideful dad watching the start of his boy’s NHL career. So much of hockey is about sacrifices that families make for the careers of their children, about fathers passing their passion for the game along to their sons. The moment between DeBrusk father and son was one of those absolutely iconic moments in hockey, and it really kicked the Bruins season off to a great start with both an impressive win and a wonderful hockey moment.
BEST HALL OF FAME INDUCTEE
Most of the best moments for the reloading Bruins these days still come from connections back to the 2011 Stanley Cup champion team, and such was the case at Hockey Hall of Fame weekend in Toronto when former B’s winger Mark Recchi was inducted. Recchi was a key veteran leader and top-six forward on that 2011 team as the right wing teamed with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. He was also an important mentor to the young players on that talent-loaded team. Clearly, his NHL career was winding to a close when he arrived in Boston but the rest of his body of work is amazing when held up for Hall of Fame examination. Three Stanley Cups as a player, 577 goals, 1,533 points and amazing longevity with than 1,600 games for the Penguins, the Flyers, Canadiens, Hurricanes, Lightning, Thrashers and the Bruins for the Wrecking Ball. Best of all, his former B’s teammates were up in Toronto playing the Leafs when Recchi was there getting inducted.
The Red Sox went through a ton in 2017. Their offense wasn’t a juggernaut. But they continually, time and again, got the job done. They were a 93-win team that somehow still qualified as scrappy. An informal Twitter poll asking people for their favorite moments of 2017 left a very clear winner: Christian Vazquez’s walk-off home run against the Indians on Aug. 1. A 9-8 Sox lead going into the top of the ninth became a 10-9 deficit heading to the bottom of the ninth. Down to their last strike, Mitch Moreland struck out — but the ball got away, putting two on for Vazquez. The catcher decimated a walk-off homer to center field, drilling a 3-1 fastball from Cody Allen for a 12-10 victory. (Earlier in the game, Hanley Ramirez was robbed of a home run by a leaping Austin Jackson, who fell into the home bullpen.)
BEST HOME RUN
Devers off Chapman. There was a dice roll when the Red Sox called up 20-year-old third baseman Rafael Devers. He had been raking at Double-A and had just been promoted to Triple-A, but no one expected he would arrive so soon. And no one could have imagined the feat he’d pull off at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 13. The Sox were down 2-1 in the top of the ninth. Devers was behind in the count 1-2 when he got a ho-hum 102.8 mph fastball. Out and gone to left-center. The hardest pitch any player has homered off since MLB began tracking velocity in 2008. It was just the second homer Chapman allowed to a lefty in his career. And the pudgy kid rounding the bases looked like he was about 12 years old.
BEST IMPROBABLE PITCHING PERFORMANCE
Brian Johnson’s complete game shutout. Brian Johnson’s career has been far from linear. The left-hander has been hit in the head by a line drive and held up at gunpoint, then learned to cope with anxiety. This was his age-26 season and he’s still getting a footing in the big leagues. Relieving could be in his future. But when he threw a complete game shutout on May 27 vs. the Mariners, he might have given the Red Sox their most heartwarming story of the season. No other Sox pitcher — not Chris Sale, not David Price — threw a complete game shutout in 2017. “The last time I walked off the mound here was 2012 and I made two pitches,” Johnson said. “Today I went nine innings. Today was pretty cool.”
Jackie Bradley Jr. robbing Aaron Judge. The Red Sox outfield is its own attraction. The dance company. Jackie Bradley Jr. didn’t have his best year at the plate, but he and Mookie Betts were again a vortex in center and right field. The former had a couple insane catches in 2017, including robbing the A’s Ryon Healy in Oakland early in the year. But against the Yankees on July 17, Bradley stole a homer from the guy won’t stop hitting them, Aaron Judge. The Sox were up 3-0 in the eighth inning with a man on when Judge clobbered an elevated David Price pitch to the triangle in center. With his back up against the slanted wall that begins the Red Sox bullpen, Bradley leaped as high as he could and reeled it in.
Sale 300 strikeouts. Chris Sale wasn’t his dominant self come September and the postseason, something the Red Sox felt was tied to an element of fatigue. Leaving him in to collect his 300th strikeout in the eighth inning of his second-to-last regular-season start, in Baltimore on Sept. 20, was a move some panned manager John Farrell for. But the bottom line is this: Sale struck out more batters in a season than any pitcher in Red Sox history besides Pedro Martinez. Had Sale made his last scheduled regular-season start, he surely would have broken Martinez’s record of 313 from 1999. He finished with 308 strikeouts. Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech may be great someday, but what an awesome pick-up Sale has been.