Curran: Belichick's dark cloud has lifted

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Curran: Belichick's dark cloud has lifted

INDIANAPOLIS - Wait, help me out. Fourth-and-2 is in play? We can mention that with impunity and make it a punch line?
Because Ive heard some things.I remember back in 2001 when Bill Belichick looked at the assembled media in the soon-to-be-euthanized Foxboro Stadium and said, The strength of the wolf is in the pack.I remember the night before Super Bowl XXXVI when I sat in a Holiday Inn near the French Quarter and Bill Belichick told me by telephone, The hay is in the barn, and that he felt as confident before playing the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl the next day as he did the week previous when his team upset the Steelers in the AFC Championship.Back then the Patriots were upstarts. Lightly taken and soon to be dismissed.Except Belichick didnt believe that. Earlier in the season he noted in the wolf statement that the 2001 team was better than the sum of its unimpressive parts.But back then, the Patriots were just another upstart team on a hot streak. Still, to Belichick and his players Tedy Bruschi, Troy Brown, Ty Law, Tom Brady, Lawyer Milloy, Roman Phifer, Willie McGinest, Adam Vinatieri and so many others on that team there was something special afoot.Belichick didnt believe the Patriots would be overwhelmed by the Rams in the Super Bowl when the dynasty that he and Tom Brady (and a whole lot of others) created was still in the birth canal.He gave off an air in the first week of February 2001 as the Patriots approached their first Super Bowl with Belichick as head coach that said, Were going to be fine.They were. And they continued to be through the first decade of the 21st century. Two more Super Bowl wins. An NFL record 21-game winning streak. Legitimacy as a team that needed to be included in the all-time greatest discussions with the Packers of the '60s, the Steelers of the '70s, the Niners of the '80s and '90s, and the Cowboys of the '90s.The tenor and expectations changed after 2001. A team and program as good as the one Belichick spawned in New England went from Cinderella to supermodel.But as the stakes were raised, Belichick got progressively more circumspect.By February 2008 the last time the Patriots played in a Super Bowl Belichick had become more guarded.They were the hunted. They had been every other franchises quarry for several years, but the scrutiny and the judgmental nature of the media -- which was bent on chip, chip, chipping away at the foundation of everything Belichick, his players and his staff had built -- wore him down.The AFC Championship loss to the Colts after the 2006 season sent Belichick into a funk and the team set about making sure it never happened again. With two masterstrokes, the Patriots acquired Randy Moss and Wes Welker. They also added Donte Stallworth and Adalius Thomas.They went unbeaten in the regular season in 2007, but it was a joyless march to perfection with the specter of a videotaping scandal taking on a life of its own. The desire of a football-obsessed nation to see the beloved franchise of 2001 get its comeuppance for its real and perceived arrogance was rampant.The Patriots became a franchise detested. And Belichick became a villain. The tightness of the Patriots under Belichicks grip seemed to cause the team to fear failure more than it embraced success.But something interesting has happened since. The 2008 Patriots overachieved with Matt Cassel at quarterback, winning 11 games. The 2009 Patriots a chemistry disaster failed. The 2010 Patriots overachieved again, winning 14 regular-season games before a loss which sent Belichick into an even deeper funk.Now comes 2011. And a Patriots team thats been pockmarked by defensive flaws still found a way to go 13-3 and emerge as AFC Champions.Even though the Patriots had a better regular-season record than their NFC counterparts the Giants, Big Blue despite its 9-7 regular-season record has emerged as the favorite (even if Vegas still says otherwise).With that backdrop, Bill Belichick has especially in the past few weeks seemed to find some measure of balance. Hes lightening up.On Sunday in Indianapolis, Belichick made a punchine of the game back in 2009 when a flawed Patriots team peed away a win in Indianapolis.A reminder: Belichick, feeling his offense could close out a win against the Colts and not trusting his defense to stop Peyton Manning, opted to run a play on fourth-and-2 from his own 28. A pass to Kevin Faulk failed. The Colts answered with a touchdown. New England lost, 35-34.Weeks of second-guessing ensued, colored by a belief that Belichick was arrogant to take the gamble.Sunday, Belichick laughed about a game that previously tore him apart, saying, I never had too much hospitality (in Indianapolis) until I went for it on fourth-and-2 and since then, Ive been greeted in a lot more friendly manner than I have in the past.A minor thing in the grand scheme but, for Belichick, a willingness to show that life does indeed go on was a benchmark moment.Welker was asked about Belichicks mood this season. Is he more kicked back?We wonder about that all of the time, said Welker. I dont know if its a lady in his life or what the deal is, but he definitely smiles a little more than he used to.Belichick will never be confused for Dave Chappelle. But the fact he can joke about a bleak point in his Patriots history is an example that life does indeed go on.This season isnt reminiscent of 2007, when an unstoppable team was stopped by the Giants. This time, the Patriots are the upstarts, never mind what Vegas or regular-season records say.And Bill Belichick is willing to let his team embrace that. To lighten up. And to see once again if the strength of the wolf in the pack.

Report: Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura killed in car crash in Dominican Republic

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Report: Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura killed in car crash in Dominican Republic

Kansas City Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura was killed in a car crash in in the Dominican Republic on Sunday morning, according to ESPN's Cristian Moreno. Ventura was 25 years old.

Ventura was 13-8 with a 4.08 ERA for the Royals' 2015 World Series champions and 11-12 with a 4.45 ERA in 32 starts in 2016. The right-hander made his major league debut in 2013 and in 2014 went 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA for Kansas City's A.L. pennant winners. 

Ironically, Ventura paid tribute to his good friend and fellow Dominican, Oscar Tavares, who was also killed in a car crash in the D.R. in October 2014, by wearing Tavares' initials and R.I.P. on his cap before Ventura's start in Game 6 of the World Series in 2014. 

Ventura is the second major league player to die in the past five months. Former Miami Marlins ace Jose Fernandez was killed in a boating accident in Miami on Sept. 25.


 

Patriots-Steelers game notes: Pats shooting for record ninth Super Bowl berth

Patriots-Steelers game notes: Pats shooting for record ninth Super Bowl berth

A quick look at the information you need to know about tonight's Patriots-Steelers game:

PATRIOTS-STEELERS PREGAME

TEAM RECORDS: Patriots 15-2, Steelers 13- 5

GAME TIME: 6:40 p.m. EST

TV: CBS

TV ANNOUNCERS: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms and Tracy Wolfson

NATIONAL RADIO NETWORKS: Westwood One

NATIONAL RADIO ANNOUNCERS: Kevin Harlan, Dan Fouts and Ross Tucker

LOCAL RADIO NETWORK: Anchored by WBZ-FM (98.5 The Sports Hub)

LOCAL RADIO ANNOUNCERS: Bob Socci and Scott Zolak

ALL-TIME SERIES BETWEEN THE TEAMS: Steelers lead, 15-14

LAST MEETING: Patriots 27, Steelers 16 on Oct. 23, 2016 at Heinz Field

* * * *
QUICK FACTS
-- Bill Belichick is coaching in his NFL-record 11th conference championship game. Tom Brady is playing in his NFL-record 11th conference championship game.

-- The Patriots are 8-4 in AFC Championship Games, including 5-1 in games played in Foxboro and 4-1 at Gillette Stadium.

-- The Patriots are 30-19 in postseason games, including 19-4 at home (3-1 at Schaefer/Sullivan/Foxboro Stadium, 16-3 at Gillette).

-- The Patriots' 30 postseason victories are tied with the 49ers for fourth-most in NFL history, behind the Cowboys (34), Steelers (34) and Packers (32).

-- The Patriots' .612 winning percentage in postseason games is third-best in NFL history, behind the Ravens (15-8, .652) and Packers (34-21, .618).

* * * *
MILESTONES
-- If the Patriots win today they will qualify for their ninth Super Bowl, most in NFL history. They are currently tied with the Cowboys, Broncos and Steelers at eight.

-- If the Patriots win today, Robert Kraft will set an NFL record for most conference championships by an owner (8) in the Super Bowl era. He is currently tied with the Denver Broncos' Pat Bowler at seven.

-- If the Patriots win today, Bill Belichick will move into a tie with Bill Walsh for third place on the NFL list of best postseason coaching winning percentage. Belichick (who would be 25-10 with a victory) and Walsh (10-4) would have .714 winning percentage. Belichick is currently in fifth place, two percentage points behind Joe Gibbs (17-7, .708). Vince Lombardi (9-1, .900) is in first place and Tom Flores (8-3. .727) is second.

-- If the Patriots win today, Belichick will advance to his seventh Super Bowl as a head coach, which would be most in NFL history. He is currently tied with Don Shula at six.

-- Tom Brady (8) needs one more playoff game with three or more touchdown passes to tie Joe Montana (9) for most three-plus TD playoff games since the 1970 NFL merger.

-- Stephen Gostkowski (142) needs 11 points to tie Gary Anderson for third place on the NFL's all-time list of kicking points in the postseason. Adam Vinatieri (234) is first and David Akers (175) is second.

-- Julian Edelman (76) needs nine receptions to tie Andre Reed (85) for sixth place on the NFL's all-time list of postseason receptions. Michael Irvin is fifth at 88, and Hines Ward and Wes Welker are tied for third at 88.

* * * *
TONIGHT'S OFFICIALS
-- REFEREE: Terry McAulay. UMPIRE: Rich Hall. HEAD LINESMAN: Wayne Mackie. LINE JUDGE: Mark Perlman. FIELD JUDGE: Scott Edwards. SIDE JUDGE: Boris Cheek. BACK JUDGE: Tony Steratore. ALTERNATES: John Parry, Mark Steinkerchner, Rich Martinez. REPLAY OFFICIAL: Mike Wimmer. SUPERVISOR: Gary Slaughter.