Good times keep rolling in Boston

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Good times keep rolling in Boston

By Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

Last winter, I really thought it was over.

After all, we knew it wouldn't last forever. It had been such an amazing run, so much greater than anyone imagined. And while no one was necessarily ready to come back down to Earth, if the time had come, you'd have understood.

Hey, six titles in 10 years. Not a bad stretch!

But now it was over.

Last January, the Patriots suffered the most embarrassing loss of the BelichickBrady era -- the 33-14 beatdown at the hands of the Ravens, at home no less, in the first round of the playoffs -- and the future of the organization suddenly looked darker than a Coen Brothers movie. The inmates were running the asylum and, as opposed to a collection of veterans who were mad on pride, grit and the Patriot Way, these Pats were led by recluses. Players who had long given up on the "team" and had a hard enough time taking care of themselves. By the end of the season, these guys had poisoned the culture.

Meanwhile a series of poor drafts had poisoned the talent pool, and it didnt help that Wes Welker, one of their most skilled and positively charged weapons, had just suffered a potentially career-altering injury. There was just an awful vibe coming out of Foxborough and the Jets looked poised to take over the AFC East. Awesome!

Over at Fenway, the term "bridge year" was being tossed around in preparation for a somewhat somber offseason. This, fresh off a playoff series which saw the Sox swept by the "Hey, We're Supposed to Own You in October!" Angels of Anaheim. Beckett, Ortiz and Papelbon all looked out of sorts, and that damn phrase "bridge year!" felt so wrong. These were the Red Sox. The only time you expect to hear the word "bridge" uttered within that organization is if John Henry's describing his favorite pasttime, or Larry Lucchino's saying "We've built a new bridge which gives fans better access between their seats and our over-priced souvenir shop."

Even if the team did sign John Lackey that winter, the idea that they'd ever use money as an excuse not to do whatever it takes to improve was an uncomfortable pill to swallow. Like a DayQuil. They told Boston to wait, but Red Sox Nation was unaccustomed to waiting, and many became resigned to the fact that the Sox would be the A.L. East's third-best team. (And they were)

Oh, yeah, and the Yankees had just won the World Series. Good times!

At the Garden, the Celtics were a mess. A combination of KG's knee, Rondo's attitude, Rasheed's effort, plus overall age, health, bad luck and worse chemistry had turned the team upside down. A year earlier, they'd been one of the happiest, most fun-loving teams in the league. Now they walked around like a bunch of disgruntled postal workers.

By January, and into February and March, the idea that the Celtics could contend for a title was as believable as Cam Newton's innocence, which was especially frustrating because that season was supposed to be it. Since the Big Three had first joined forces, everyone assumed it would just be a three-year venture; as the third season slipped away, so would the Big Three. It was the end of an era. One title; one Finals appearance; certainly satisfying, but, all things considered, not as great as it could be.

It's not that they were about to fall back down into the Lottery gutter. After all, Rondo, KG and, very likely, Pierce would all be back; that's still a playoff team. But there's no doubt that they were starting down on a pretty steep slope. Especially considering all the cash that would be tied up with the aforementioned three guys.

And oh yeah, the Lakers were reigning World Champs, and still the consensus best team in the world. Yes!

As for the C's roommates at the Garden, the Bruins were in the middle of an underachieving season of their own. The year before, they'd finished tied for the most wins in the NHL. They were upset in the second round, but we saw it as part of the growing pains of this young team. They would learn from it and get better.

But halfway through last year, that wasn't the case. The Bruins couldn't score. They couldn't find a rhythm. They couldn't get on the same page as their coach. They were the same old Bruins. And like the Patriots, Red Sox and Celtics at least by Boston's newfound standards they were in trouble.

And that was that. That was the vibe in Boston last winter. Those are the things we wasted the days talking about, and it was depressing as hell.

But again, at the same time, it wasnt entirely unexpected.

The city was disappointed, but still very grateful for all that had happened, and starting to accept that things were about to be different. Still fun. Still competitive. I mean, if I'd asked you last winter, "Hey, what do you think things will look like around here Christmas 2010?" you probably wouldn't have been completely doomsday about it.

But you just never would have predicted this. At least I wouldn't have.

The Patriots defense, which was so uninspiring in that awful loss to Baltimore, and struggled so much to develop an identity, has come into its own. They're far better than anyone imagined, and are only getting better. Not just this year, either. They have a defensive foundation that will carry the load for seasons to come.

And, not a bad complement, they also once again have the best quarterback in the game; the same guy whose efficiency absolutely blows your mind and consistently makes one of the hardest jobs in sports look easier than doing multiplication tables with a calculator. The bad apples were thrown in the garbage and Belichick turned out his best draft since at least 2003. Welker made an insane comeback, and while it took him a little time to fully find his groove, is once again among the leagues reception leaders.

Theyre 11-2 and the best team in the NFL.

The Red Sox told their fans to wait, and then told them to wait a little more, then tortured them even more with the Victor Martinez deal before dropping two of the biggest offseason bombshells of the last decade. They're World Series favorites. It only took five days to win back an entire nation of baseball fans.

The Celtics changed everything with last spring's historic run to the Finals. And although the season still ended in disappointment, that disappointment birthed a level of constant energy and optimism that's rare in any sport. That loss brought Doc back for one more shot, and then Paul Pierce and Ray Allen and Jermaine O'Neal and Delonte West and Shaq. Kevin Garnett is closer to his 2008 self than we ever imagined. Ray hasn't aged a day. Rondo's grown up. Big Baby's getting close. And Paul is still doing his thing he's now without a doubt one of the greatest Celtics of all-time. And for the most part especially and most importantly with Garnett the Celtics are happy.

Basically, through a series of amazing events between last spring and this fall the Celtics added two years to the Big Three era, and did so without falling off at all. And while the somewhat distant future is still a little cloudy, you can make the case that they're better equipped to win the title today than at any other point in the last four seasons. I know it's only December, but it's also basically 2011 and the C's are still major contenders. Maybe even the favorites.

As for the Bruins, you know, theyre still trying to completely find that groove, and it turned out that the disappointment of the 2009 playoffs couldnt hold a Zamboni to what went down in the spring of 2010. But they're in a better place. They have the best goalie in the league. A rookie class that's already paying dividends and a crew of other young players who've gained valuable experience over the past two post seasons and are starting to shed that "young player" label.

They're still trying to gain the same level of respect of the other three teams, but you can see it happening. It feels closer than it has in a long time.

In all four cases, success feels real. It feels very attainable. Just like it did for all those years before last winter's unraveling.

Basically, the good times are back. Or maybe it's that they never left.

Either way, I thought it was over.

And I thought very wrong.

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on CSNNE.com. Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

Tomlin calls Patriots 'a--holes' in speech Antonio Brown posts on Facebook

Tomlin calls Patriots 'a--holes' in speech Antonio Brown posts on Facebook

Showing a knee-buckling lack of self-awareness, Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown put up 13:35 of footage on Facebook Live after his team’s 18-16 win over Kansas City on Sunday night.

It was a weird betrayal of the team’s privacy by one of its star players. Brown, allowed viewers to see live (and on tape until it’s inevitably taken down) that, while head coach Mike Tomlin was around a bank of lockers addressing what Tomlin presumed was his entire team, Brown was mugging in front of his phone for a growing online audience.

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The video starts with Brown and teammates having fun in front of their lockers. As the team is called together for a postgame prayer, Brown keeps the camera rolling. After the prayer, Tomlin made a statement.

“When you get to this point in the journey, not a lot needs to be said,” said Tomlin. “Let’s say very little moving forward. Let’s start our preparations. We spotted those a******* a day and a half. They played yesterday. Our game got moved to tonight. We gonna touch down at 4 o’clock in the f****** morning. So be it. We’ll be ready for that ass. But you ain’t gotta tell them we coming. Because some of us might not like the damn (woofkisses?) The chest pounding.  Keep a low profile.”

While Tomlin was issuing that low-profile request, Brown rolled on. Another Steeler then spoke up saying, “Keep cool on social media, this is about us, nobody else.”

Finally, what sounded like quarterback Ben Roethlisberger addressed the team saying of Foxboro, “That’s a lion’s den we’re going into this week. It’s a lion’s den. I’ve been there, a lot of us have been there. Keep your mouth shut.”

While people might fan themselves over Tomlin calling the Patriots a*******, that’s benign and likely will be matched in private by Patriots coaches this week.

What’s staggering is that a player of Brown’s ability and seeming intelligence would be so self-absorbed as to be agog at putting on a video show for Facebook followers at the expense of his coaches, teammates and franchise.  

Curran: Steelers survive, advance to AFC Championship Game vs. Patriots

Curran: Steelers survive, advance to AFC Championship Game vs. Patriots

For the third time in the Belichick-Brady Era, the Patriots will be trying to step over the Steelers to get to a Super Bowl.

Pittsburgh went into Kansas City on Sunday night and outlasted a breathtakingly sluggish Chiefs team, 18-16.

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If you spent the day stewing about the Patriots adequate-against-Osweiler-but-probably-nobody-else offensive performance Saturday night, maybe Sunday night calmed your nerves.

Despite having a more than 2-to-1 edge in total yards entering the fourth, Pittsburgh had managed just six field goals from kicker Chris Boswell. Their best chance at getting six on the board was squelched when Ben Roethlisberger got picked at the goal line in the first half.

That Kansas City was even in the game with a chance to tie it in the final three minutes has to be humbling for the Steelers. They dominated every statistical category of consequence while the Chiefs played aimlessly behind Alex Smith, who may be a cut above Brock Osweiler but is definitely a cut below every other quarterback in the Divisional Playoff round.  

On this night, Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t much better.

Still, Pittsburgh’s got the best 1-2 punch in the NFL at running back and receiver – LeVeon Bell and Antonio Brown were both at 101 yards after halftime – and New England’s entire defensive game plan will revolve around corralling those two and getting them horizontal.

The Patriots beat a Roethlisberger-less team in October, 27-16. Landry Jones was at quarterback that day.

The Steelers were in the Patriots’ red zone four times. They came away with 10 points. They were inside the Patriots’ 40 six times and finished with 16.

“In an offense like that with a bunch of very explosive players, one slant can turn into a touchdown so you have to be really careful in your coverages,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich told me after that game. "There’s not just one go-to guy. They got a running back that can catch it out of the backfield and make plays (Le’Veon Bell). [Antonio Brown] can catch it anywhere on the field and make plays. You just have to make sure with a guy like [Landry Jones] to have him make the throws. It’s hard in this league to be perfect. So to have him sit back there and try to make all the throws was what we chose and the secondary did a great job.”

Bell and Brown combined for 268 yards from scrimmage against the Patriots.

The Steelers scored one touchdown.

The ever-dawdling Bell, who practically walks to the line of scrimmage then skips around like a little kid with a full bladder before finding a crease to exploit, is where it will start for the Patriots.

If the Patriots are going to go to their seventh Super Bowl since Belichick’s hire, Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Donta Hightower and Elandon Roberts – their two best interior linemen and their two inside linebackers – will be the ones who start the bus. The overwhelming majority of Bell’s runs are between the guards so building a wall and out-patienting him as he probes for a crease is Job One.

The Chiefs weren’t stout enough at the line of scrimmage and Bell brutalized them. It will, of course, fall to more than just those four. Trey Flowers, Rob Ninkovich, Chris Long, Vincent Valentine and Shea McLellin will also be in focus. Run-support from safeties Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty will be a part of it as well, but that’s where the Steelers become tough to deal with.

Once Bell’s established himself, the Steelers can start to work play-action and get Brown into space. Creep too far and the numbers on the back end could wind up being insufficient to deal with one of the NFL’s fastest players.

That’s why you can expect the Patriots to not overexert themselves with pressures and blitzes against Ben Roethlisberger. They’ll want as many back in coverage as possible to deal with Brown and some of the other Steelers speed merchants.

The Patriots have dealt with Pittsburgh’s defense enough to know where to attack. LeGarrette Blount ran for 127 yards on 24 carries in the first meeting and

Tom Brady went 19 for 26 for 222 with two touchdowns.

The Patriots had Gronk that day and the Steelers didn’t have Roethlisberger. That tips the scales some when measuring the differences. But after watching Pittsburgh kick six field goals and keep afloat an underperforming Chiefs team, the issue that dogged them in October – red zone offense – looks like its still around.

And they are going to visit a team that does that led the NFL in preventing points.