A gift from Big Ben

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A gift from Big Ben

And just like that, the Pats are the No. 1 seed.

Not officially, but with the Steelers loss last night in power-shortaged San Francisco, the Patriots now sit alone atop the AFC. Now, with victories over Miami and Buffalo, the Pats will clinch home field advantage throughout the playoffs. That means they'll have already played their last road game of the season.

At least until Indianapolis.

Oops. Lost my mind for a second. But there's no denying that Week 15 did one hell of a job improving the Pats playoff chances. I wrote as much yesterday, but Pittsburgh's loss just hammered it home: With three weeks until the start of the playoffs, the AFC is the Patriots' to lose.

Quick transition.

What was Ben Roethlisberger thinking playing in that game last night?

I know he fancies himself a superhero (although I don't think the proposed name, Alleged Rapeman, will catch on), but his performance went beyond heroic and crossed over into selfish.

The guy could barely walk. He could barely throw. He could barely do anything you'd expect from an NFL quarterback especially when facing one of the best defenses in the league. Yet he insisted on playing; somehow his coaches LET him play.

With Roethlisberger under center last night, the Steelers didn't have a shot. You could say the same thing for "without Roethlisberger," but who cares? The playoffs are only three weeks away. What's more important: A first round bye or a healthy Ben Roethlisberger?

Anyway, in closing: Congrats, Ben. You're a true hero. You just cost yourself two weeks of rest, and for what? A loss, and the chance to have the world hear Jon Gruden undress you with his tongue for a few hours?

Good stuff, man.

New England thanks you.

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

Thomas shines again in fourth quarter, Celtics beat Hornets, 108-98

Thomas shines again in fourth quarter, Celtics beat Hornets, 108-98

BOSTON –  Late in the fourth quarter, the TD Garden was rockin' when the fans charted chanting, 'M-V-P, M-V-P' which is become a nightly serenade of sorts for Isaiah Thomas. 

It's extremely wishful thinking on Celtics Nation's part, but there is no denying his status as one of the game's best players this season. 

He delivered yet another work of art on Monday, scoring 17 of his game-high 35 points in the fourth quarter in leading Boston to a 108-98 win against Charlotte. 

And he did the way he always seems to do it, mixing in 3-pointers with drives to the baskets and an occasional assist to keep the collapsing defenses that surround him relatively honest. 

But the numbers he's consistently posting only tell part of the narrative to what has been a fairy tale of a season for the 5-foot-9 guard who continues to defy odds on a nightly basis. 

Not only is he producing at a high level, but he's elevating the play of those around him which is reflected in the team's overall success.

Boston (26-15) hits the halfway point with its best record under fourth-year coach Brad Stevens and best by the franchise since a 32-9 start to the 2010-2011 season.

The Celtics have now won eight of their last 10 games, and 13 of 16 as they steadily pull away and establish themselves at worst being the third-best team in the East.

And against the Hornets, they got the victory with a nice blending of what they do best – shoot three-pointers and play solid, physical defense.

The game could not have gotten off to a better start for the Boston Celtics, opening with a 10-2 run that put the Hornets on their heels quickly.

Not surprisingly, the Hornets rallied to take the lead in the first quarter before Boston’s second unit stepped up.

Leading the way in the final minute of the first quarter was Jaylen Brown, just minutes removed from a moving pre-game speech honoring the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on MLK Day.

With Boston trailing 30-29, Brown scored the final five points of the quarter to give Boston a 34-30 lead.

The second quarter saw both teams pull ahead by slim margins, neither showing an ability to pull away and take full control of the game.

But again it was the Celtics making all the necessary plays at both ends of the floor in the closing moments.

Trailing 50-48, Boston would close out the half with an 11-3 run to lead 59-53 at the half.

In the third quarter, Boston began to give itself a little more breathing room fueled in large part by their defense which not only limited the Hornets scoring but took advantage of great spacing to get open jumpers or baskets in the paint with little resistance or help-side defense.

A back-to-the-basket hook shot by Al Horford gave Boston a 77-67 lead, the game’s first double-digit margin.

The Celtics increased their lead to 12 points following a pull-up jumper along the baseline by Avery Bradley who was back in the lineup after missing the previous four games with an Achilles injury.

Going into the fourth, the Celtics were ahead 80-71.

Off day for Tuukka Rask plays into rough loss for the Bruins

Off day for Tuukka Rask plays into rough loss for the Bruins

BOSTON – Many times this season Tuukka Rask has bailed out the Bruins when the team was at less than their best.

Monday afternoon was not one of those times as the Bruins goaltender was knocked out of the game after two periods on the way to a listless 4-0 shutout loss to the New York Islanders. Rask allowed three goals on 15 shots in the game’s opening 40 minutes, and was responsible for a very soft goal during the Isles’ three-score barrage in the second period.

After the game Rask wasn’t ducking responsibility for the subpar performance, and admitted he was simply beaten to the short side post on a bad angle shot from Islanders forward Josh Bailey for the soft-serve special.

“I was just late. I picked the wrong seal. It’s one of those [goals] that I should have stopped,” said Rask. “Claude [Julien] mentioned [not taking the Isles lightly] before the game, and the last game we played here they got us. It was a bit of a flat game again last time, and we just woke up too late today. We didn’t want to underestimate them. Any team in this league is good even though the standings might show otherwise. We just never got it going.”

Rask was being kind because the Bruins never actually woke up at all in the first B's shutout loss to the Islanders on home ice in franchise history, and that includes when the Finnish netminder was yanked after the second intermission.

Julien’s act of pulling Rask from a 3-0 game was clearly designed to spark the struggling hockey club, but it did nothing to breathe life into a dead hockey club that simply allowed another goal playing out the string in the third period.

“There are two things that can happen. No. 1, you hope you can spark your team because of the performance in front of him,” said Julien. “If it doesn’t spark your team, [at least] you’re not wasting your number one goaltender’s energy.”

One would expect that Rask will be back between the pipes on Wednesday night against the Red Wings in Detroit, and in hindsight perhaps this Monday matinee might have been a good time to see what Zane McIntyre has to offer as the backup. Instead it will go down as an “off” game for Rask and another inexcusable no-show on home ice for the Black and Gold.