Levine: It's Tebow Time once more

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Levine: It's Tebow Time once more

Not that our opinions actually mattered, but at the start of yesterdays overtime between the Steelers and Broncos, Patriots fans were faced with an interesting question:

Whom would they rather have the Pats play next?

Was it Pittsburgh, with its beaten down defense, no-name running game and quarterback who was now as immobile on the field as he was hide-your-daughters creepy off of it?

Or was it Denv Boom!

Before you could even finish the thought, Tim Tebow hit Demaryius Thomas on an 80-yard score to knock out the Steelers and render the whole argument insignificant. Although, we all wanted Denver anyway, right? Right?!

Of course we did.

Heading into this weekend, the Steelers were the only potential opponent to strike fear in New England's hopes to avoid a fourth straight playoff loss. The Bengals were a joke. Tebow Time had long run out. The Steelers, and only the Steelers, were the team who had a chance to come in and ruin another Patriots' season.

But after watching what Denver did yesterday, are you still that convinced that the Curse of David Tyree I've got copyrights on that, Shaughnessy. Don't even think about it! is ready to run out?

On one hand, you only need to look back as far as Week 15 to realize how capable the Pats are of dominating Denver. Outside of a frustrating first quarter which is the only way these Pats know how to play the opening frame they treated the Broncos like dirt. And that was in Denver, at the height of Tebow Mania, before they lost offensive lineman Chris Kuper for the season and now, very likely, Eric Decker. The Pats destroyed the Broncos when they were at their very best, so it's hard to imagine or expect anything less when the two reconvene on Saturday night.

Then again, regular season success hasn't really helped the Patriots much in recent years. As you know, they've now lost three straight playoff games, and all three came against teams that they'd already beaten that same season. They beat the Giants 38-35 in Week 17 of 2007, and lost in the Super Bowl, 17-14. They beat the Ravens 27-21 in Week 4 of 2009, and lost 33-14 in the playoffs. And most recently (and probably the most comparable situation to this one), the Pats beat the Jets 45-3 in Week 13 last season. You remember that? Remember how that's all anyone could talk about heading into the playoffs? How that game was proof positive that the Jets had absolutely no shot of coming in here and walking away with a win?

The Patriots were 9.5-point favorites heading into that game, and finished up as seven-point losers. On Saturday, they'll take the field as 14-point favorites, and will likely face a very different Denver team than the one they saw in December. The defense has been taken down a peg, the offense has taken a few major injury-related hits. Who knows how Willis McGahee's confidence is after that huge potential-season-ending fumble? And of course, Tebow Time isn't what it once was.

While he may have led his team to another improbable victory, it wasn't anything like those head scratchers from Denver's mid-season run. There were no onside kicks, two point conversions, phantom fumbles or idiots out of bounds. Instead, it was just a solid quarterback playing a relatively sound (and consistent) game against a very good (albeit beaten down) defense. Perhaps that makes him more apt to take on the Patriots, but if anything, the superhuman mystique has certainly worn off. There will be no question in the Pats minds that they're up against a mere mortal. But given recent history, there's also no question that absolutely nothing can be taken for granted. We've been here before. We've assumed too much and been burned in ways that haven't yet healed.

But still, while it might be dangerous to assume the Pats are in for a playoff cake walk against Denver, I'm sure as hell happy they're not playing Pittsburgh.

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

Stars, studs and duds: Celtics make big plays down the stretch

Stars, studs and duds: Celtics make big plays down the stretch

BOSTON – When the fourth quarter rolled around on Friday night, the Boston Celtics found themselves in a down-to-the-wire fight with the Sacramento Kings. 

It was the kind of game that in the past has brought out the scrappy, get-it-done-somehow brand of basketball that has in many ways come to define the Celtics under fourth-year coach Brad Stevens. 

And it was on full display Friday night as the Celtics made all the big plays at both ends of the floor down the stretch to beat the Sacramento Kings, 97-92. 

After Sacramento cut Boston’s lead to 90-87, Al Horford drained a 3-pointer to make it a two-possession game again. 

Isaiah Thomas came up with a pair of free throws that turned out to be huge, because shortly after he made them the Kings got a 3-pointer from DeMarcus Cousins that made it a 95-92 game.

The Kings had a chance to tie the game late in the fourth when Horford was credited with his sixth block of the game, this time on DeMarcus Cousins.

Horford was immediately fouled and went to the free throw line where he sealed the victory by making a pair.

Those were the kind of plays we saw often last season being made by the Celtics who finished in a tie for the third-best record in the East. 

This year, not so much. 

“For the most part we got what we wanted (in the fourth quarter) and we got the stops we needed even,” Thomas said. 

Which is the kind of game Jae Crowder and the rest of the guys who have been here awhile, have grown accustomed to.

“We got back to being the aggressive team,” Crowder said. “We came out and imposed our will early; that helped. But if the game comes down to what it was tonight, we have to be the team that comes out on top. It was like a playoff game, real physical. We have to grit it out, grind it out.”

Here are the Stars, Studs and Duds from Friday night’s game.

 

STARS

Al Horford

So this is what an ultra-aggressive Al Horford looks like? The four-time All-Star had a season-high 26 points which included knocking down four three-pointers to go with eight rebounds and six blocked shots – yes, six blocked shots.

DeMarcus Cousins

While his fiery temper hasn’t died down completely, his incredible offensive skills and brute strength is what folks are talking more about, finally. He led the Kings with a game-high 28 points to go with nine rebounds, three assists, a steal and four blocked shots.  

 

STUDS

Isaiah Thomas

His streak of being Boston’s outright scoring leader ended at 14 games, but he’s more than happy to take a back seat for one night if it means getting a victory. Horford led the charge on Friday night, but Thomas still chipped in with 20 points, seven assists and two steals. 

Matt Barnes

Although he missed eight of his 11 shots from the field, the 36-year-old Barnes was rewarded for his hustle and effort as he finished with a double-double of 12 points and a game-high 16 rebounds.

Jae Crowder

Boston needed tough plays to be made on Friday and Crowder was up the challenge all night. He finished with 16 points on 6-for-12 shooting to go with three rebounds, three assists and a steal. Good things happened when he was on the floor, evident by his game-high plus/minus of +15.

 

DUDS

Rudy Gay

He finished with 13 points on 6-for-14 shooting but the Kings needed more from their second-leading scorer who finished almost seven points below his 19.6 points per game average. That stands out on a night when the Kings lost by just five points.