It was almost special

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It was almost special

From the very start, Sunday nights Patriots-49ers game had the makings of something special. Before the opening kick even landed in Devin McCourtys gut, you just knew that these teams were about to make a memory.

It was a classic match-up. Two storied franchises. The No. 1 offense vs. the top ranked defense. It was national TV. The Game of the Week. The grand finale to the most significant Sunday of the NFL season.

There was the weather. The cold, the rain, the ice and more than anything, the fog. It set an almost mythical scene. Like they were playing on a Hollywood set. You could see the players breathe, the rain pouring off their helmets. You knew Steve Sabol was smiling somewhere. As the game went on, the jerseys started to bleed. The whole thing devolved into a sloppy mess. But in perfect football fashion, as the conditions worsened, the drama heightened.

Above all else, there was Newtown, CT. There was that chilling tribute before the national anthem, the Presidents first quarter address and the general sense of disappointment, sorrow and confusion thats existed in all of us since the news broke on Friday afternoon.

While the shootings at Sandy Hook made the whole institution of sports, and really, everything else, feel completely insignificant, games like last night continue to serve an essential purpose in helping us cope with disaster. Obviously, theres something inherently selfish about that statement, because you know that the families and friends directly affected by the massacre couldnt have cared less about yesterdays action. But even in our countrys absolute worst moments, sports have consistently served as a unifying force in the face of tragedy. At the very least, theyre a distraction. And theres no doubt that Patriots and 49ers promised to give us that. But there was something in the air that felt like they might give us more. The stage was set for something truly special.

So, when did you first start to believe that the comeback was real? At what point did you put off your plans of going to bed early and settle down for the long haul?

For me, it was Tom Brady on fourth and goal. He got in, and I knew the game was on. I knew Brady was on. As he got up from that pile, there was a look in his eyes that we hadn't seen in some time. He looked like a super hero of fourth quarters past. Everything he did the way he fired the ball back and forth to stay warm on the sidelines, the way he spiked the ball into the turf after the Niners were granted that defensive timeout made you believe that the Pats were about to win the game.

For some reason, I kept thinking back to that Monday night in Denver. The night Bill Belichick sacrificed a safety and Brady found David Givens at the pile-on to win it. The confidence that Brady had shown during that drive was now on display every time New England got the ball. It was over. Soon, this game would be remembered the same way we remember that comeback in Denver which happened more than nine years ago, but still feels like yesterday. It was about to go down as one of the greatest comebacks in one of the greatest careers in NFL history. It was headed to the Hall of Fame.

We'd never forget the night Brady brought them back from 31-3.

But now, that night doesn't exist.

That's because the Pats fell short.

In the end, for all the comparisons between last night and some of the greatest comebacks of Brady's career, Sunday serves as a another reminder of a more recent chapter in Patriots' history one featuring a team that can never quite get over the hump. A team that forever keeps you believing that things are how they used to be . . . only to consistently fall on its face just short of the prize.

Now, obviously this loss isn't the end of the world. Certainly not after the way this weekend started, but even in a pure football sense. The Pats are still one of only a handful of teams with real Super Bowl aspirations. There's still every reason to believe that they have enough talent to finish on top. After last night, the road will be a lot tougher. The Pats are more than likely destined for the No. 3 seed, which means an extra game in the Wild Card round, (presumably) followed by trips to Denver and Houston. But what are you going to do?

The bottom line is that the Patriots are still good enough to win. The AFC, at least. And if by some chance they make it to New Orleans and face a rematch with the 49ers? They'll be good enough to win that one, too. Knowing Vegas, the Pats will probably be favored. At that point, we'll look back last night's game and retroactively obsess over the importance of New England's failed comeback. We'll talk about how essential it was that they proved that they can beat the Niners 'D', about the benefits of having a full game against Colin Kaepernick under their belts.

But for now, we'll just remember last night as another failure on the doorstep of greatness. And hope that the resulting shift in the AFC playoff picture isn't too much for the Pats to overcome.

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

Flashback: Belichick breaks down lasting impact of Buddy Ryan's '46' defense

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Flashback: Belichick breaks down lasting impact of Buddy Ryan's '46' defense

When news broke on Tuesday of Buddy Ryan's passing, it wasn't very long before the NFL community at large paid tribute to one of the most well-respected defensive minds in the history of the league. 

Ryan, a longtime coordinator and head coach, leaves a legacy that includes two sons -- Rex and Rob -- who have carved out length careers spent on NFL sidelines. His legacy also includes a defensive scheme that confounded offenses, particularly in 1985, when the Bears '46' defense dominated all comers. With eight men in the box and just three defensive backs, Ryan's defense could be as confusing for quarterbacks as it was intimidating.

On the day of Ryan's passing, we can add to the list of Ryan rememberances a long quote from a Bill Belichick press conference back in 2012. The Patriots were getting ready to play Rex Ryan's Jets, but as the topic of conversation shifted away from the game itself and toward football philosophies, Belichick explained how Ryan's '46' defense changed the game, and where it can still be seen today. 

(To see the video of the press conference, you can head here. It's a bit slow for the first six or seven minutes, but when Belichick is asked about the idea behind being a "game-plan offense" and which coaches inspired him to take that mindset into his own career, things start rolling. Belichick rattles off the names of those who influenced him, including Annapolis High coach Al Laramore, Phillips Andover's Steve Sorota, Navy coach Wayne Hardin, Baltimore Colts coach Ted Marchibroda and several others. He calls the list of coaches who educated him -- including his father, of course -- a "menagerie." If you're into those types of Belichick responses about football philosophy and his own personal football upbringing, it's a video that's worth your time.)

Here is Belichick's response to a question from Sports Illustrated's Greg Bedard, then of the Boston Globe, concerning Ryan and his '46' scheme. A tip of the hat to Chris B. Brown of Smart Football for pointing out the quote on Twitter early Tuesday. 

Q: You mentioned Buddy Ryan earlier. How come we don’t see more 46 defense? I’m not talking about for a full season – not everybody is the ’85 Bears, but in a one-game situation. Is it because of the quarterbacks and the shotgun?

BB: "A lot of the success that Buddy had with the 46 defense came in the ‘80s when there was a lot of two-back offense. It was one of the things that probably drove the two-back offense out. If you remember back in the ‘80s when Buddy was in Philadelphia, he had a lot of trouble with the Redskins and their one-back offense, a lot of trouble. There were a lot of mismatches of Art Monk and Gary Clark on the middle linebacker and stuff like that.

"I think the 46 was really originally built for two-back offenses, whether it be the red, brown, blue and the flat-back type offenses and eventually even the I-formation. I think it still has a lot of good application; a lot of teams use it in goal-line situations. They either use a version of it like a 5-3 or cover the guards and the center and however you want to quite fit the rest of it, but that principle you see a lot in goal-line, short yardage situations. You see it and some teams have it as part of their two-back defensive package.

"As it has gone to one-back and it’s gotten more spread out, if you’re playing that, it kind of forces you defensively to be in a one-linebacker set. You lose that second linebacker and depending on where the back lines up and what coverage you’re playing, then there’s some issues with that. If you’re in a one linebacker defense and you move the back over and the linebacker moves over then you’re kind of out-leveraged to the back side. If you don’t move him over, then you’re kind of out-leveraged when the back releases and that kind of thing.

"There are some issues there that, I’m not saying you can’t do it, but you have to work them out. In a two-back set, I’d say it was probably a lot cleaner and it always gave you an extra blitzer that was hard for the offense. Even if they seven-man protected on play-action, there was always an eighth guy there somewhere. You didn’t have to bring all eight; if you just brought the right one and they didn’t have him or somebody would have to have two guys and that creates some problems.

"I think that’s what Buddy, really, where the genius of that was. He had by formation a different combination and group of blitzes so depending on what formation you were in, then he ran a blitz that would attack that formation and then when you changed formations, then he would change blitzes. Now, plus the fact [he] had Dan Hampton, Richard Dent, Mike Singletary, [Otis] Wilson, [Wilbur] Marshall, that was a pretty good group there. You could have probably played a lot of things and that defense would have looked pretty good, especially when they put Hampton on the nose. That was pretty unblockable."

Amendola forced Brady to break a ping pong paddle in first week with Patriots

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Amendola forced Brady to break a ping pong paddle in first week with Patriots

Tom Brady has never been one to hide his emotions when he's on the field, and it sounds like he's not much different at the ping pong table.

When asked about Brady during an interview on ESPN's NFL Insiders show, Patriots receiver Danny Amendola recalled one story from his first few days at Gillette Stadium back in 2013.

"He's the best teammate," Amendola said. "He's so competitive . . . I remember one story, it was my first week in the building and he wanted to play some ping pong. I didn't know how to go about it. I knew I was better than him, [but] I didn't want to beat him too bad because I wanted him to throw me the ball.

"I knew I was better. Needless to say, his competitive nature unleashed a broken paddle by the end of it. It's the reason we love him, and the reason why he's the best quarterback."

That first encounter at the ping pong table didn't seem to hinder Amendola's relationship with Brady in the least. In their first game together, Amendola fought a groin injury and still ended up with 10 catches for 104 yards in a win over the Bills. Since then, when healthy -- and particularly since New England's most recent run to a Super Bowl title -- Amendola has established himself as one of Brady's most trusted targets.

Amendola and the rest of the Patriots are facing a start to the regular season without their No. 1 quarterback as Brady awaits a decision from the Second Circuit on whether or not it will rehear his case against the NFL. Should backup Jimmy Garoppolo take the reins in Brady's place, however, Amendola said he'll be confident. 

"He's a great player," Amendola explained. "He's been in the system a couple of years now and he's learned a lot. He's picked up everything that Tom has taught him and then also what coach [Bill] Belichick has to offer him. So we're all excited to see where he goes and see what the future holds for him."

Amendola says he feels 'really good' following offseason surgeries

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Amendola says he feels 'really good' following offseason surgeries

Danny Amendola did not participate in OTA or minicamp practices that were open to reporters, but that doesn't mean he's ailing. 

"I feel really good," Amendola said while paying ESPN's NFL Insiders show a visit. "I had a couple minor procedures done after the season. Everybody knows how long the season can be. I wanted to go into next season feeling as fresh and ready as I can."

Amendola joined a relatively long list of Patriots regulars -- including LeGarrette Blount, Julian Edelman, Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon -- who were not spotted during spring workouts. There exists, however, some optimism that he'll be ready to participate in training camp.

Though Amendola has battled nagging injuries in three seasons with the Patriots, he's often played through them rather than miss time. The 30-year-old wideout has played in all but six regular-season games since 2013.

Amendola is coming off of his best year in a Patriots uniform, finishing 2015 with 65 catches for 648 yards and three scores. He now helps make up a receiving corps that will include Edelman, newly-acquired wideouts Chris Hogan and Nate Washington, Aaron Dobson, DeAndre Carter, Chris Harper and rookies Malcolm Mitchell and Devin Lucien.