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

Brady, Harbaugh found common ground on plane ride back from Michigan

Brady, Harbaugh found common ground on plane ride back from Michigan

FOXBORO -- What could have been an awkward plane ride for Tom Brady and John Harbaugh was made less so thanks to a high school lacrosse player. 

Brady and Harbaugh shared a private plane back from Michigan where Jim Harbaugh and his University of Michigan program put on an event for National Signing Day. About a year earlier, Brady told a room full of reporters that Harbaugh and his coaching staff should study the rule book and "figure it out" after hearing that they were pretty upset about the unusual formations the Patriots ran during their AFC Divisional Round win over Baltimore. 

They may not have been on the best of terms.

"I was pissed off," he told ESPN's Ian O'Connor before the start of this season. "It was uncalled for. And the rules are deeper than that, and I know the rules, and I stand by why that play shouldn't have been allowed. ... So yeah, that should never have been said."

But on the flight was Harbaugh's daughter Alison, a high school lacrosse player. When Brady took some time to share a few thoughts on competitiveness with her, he and Harbaugh found common ground.

"We had a lot of fun," Harbaugh said of the flight. "I don't know if he's talked about that at all, but we ended up sharing a plane ride along with my daughter and a couple of his people, friends of his. We just had a chance to just talk for a couple hours. And really more than anything, Alison got a chance to listen to Tom Brady talk about competing and what it takes to be great at what you do.

"And one of the funny things about it was, he was so nice to her. He gets off and they go, and we get back on the plane and we're talking, and she says something like, 'Boy, Tom really is a nice guy.' And I look at here and go, 'Tom?' I'm thinking 'Mr. Brady' would have been more appropriate. She said, 'He said to call me Tom.' I got a kick out of that.

"It was good. Lot of respect for him and a lot of respect for what he's accomplished. He's very tough to compete against. The best quarterback that's played, certainly in this era, without question in my mind. That's how I would rank him. And it's just another tough challenge to have to play against him."

Friday Bag: What’s the Patriots' future at running back look like?

Friday Bag: What’s the Patriots' future at running back look like?

Every Friday Tom E. Curran, Mike Giardi and Phil Perry will take your Patriots questions (Curran is sitting this one out) on Twitter and answer them as a joint mailbag -- or a Friday Bag, as they call it. 

Got questions? Tweet the guys using the hashtag #FridayBag.

MG: Q leading off my portion of the always popular, always exciting, always (occasionally?) informative #FridayBag. I think it would be easy to think that way from the outside looking in, or knowing how callous some organizations can be, but I just don’t believe that to be the case here. Players talk. Agents talk. Hell, coaches talk. If the Pats were to operate that way, it would get around the league in a heartbeat. Then why would someone want to play here knowing they’ll be treated even more like a disposable commodity then normal? The flip side to this is actually protecting the player from himself. Guys in the last year of a deal sometimes feel compelled to play through every damn thing so they can at least say “look at me, I’m a warrior!” And on that note, I’d sit Marty Bennett next week in Denver and probably the following week against the Jets if that will help the ankle and whatever else is ailing him heal to the point where he’s a hell of a lot more effective than what we just saw versus the Rams (He was awful). Bennett’s too valuable going forward. 

MG: Lisa, my understanding is teams nominate their player and then it goes to a panel (one that includes the NFL Commish) to decide who wins for the league (It was Anquan Boldin in 2015). Can’t quibble with Rob Gronkowski being the team’s nominee this year. People have no idea how much he does for the community. Heck, we don’t even know the extent of it, but the great Don Rodman of Rodman Car Dealer fame and one of the most incredibly charitable individuals to ever grace this area said that there are few if any athletes who devote more time and effort to charitable works/foundations. I hope he wins. It would mean a lot to Gronk.

MG: You never figured you’d have to worry about the offense, did you Steve? But the season-ending injury to Gronk and now the injury to Danny Amendola does concern me. Both of those guys are incredibly reliable 3rd down targets, and in Gronk’s case, he’s usually the first or second option on 3rd down. Bennett hasn’t been able to pick up the slack because he’s clearly not healthy either. That means the Pats and Josh McDaniels will be going through a trial and error period here to best determine how to improve that number and become more efficient. I suspect more will fall on Julian Edelman, but also look for the continued evolution of the two back set with James White and Dion Lewis.

MG: Ambrose, the Pats have remained incredibly committed to the run because they don’t want to find themselves in the same spot they were a year ago, when the run game was so pathetic that neither Miami in the regular season finale nor Denver in the AFC title game paid it one mind. That means rushers pinning their ears back and smashing into Tom Brady at rates no one is comfortable with. So while I won’t be surprise if Brady throws it 45 times, I don’t think they shelve the ground game, at least in the first half. 

MG: Ok Bunk, I stole a comment of yours for the mailbag. Trying to make you famous…yes, I stand by my tweet in which I stated the Ravens and Broncos are bigger threats than the Chiefs or Raiders. Oakland’s defense would give up 40 to Brady. 45 if the Pats needed it. Or 50. I’m dead serious. As for the Chiefs, Alex Smith is not coming into Foxboro and beating this team, even with some of it’s defensive issues. And Belichick will make damn sure that rookie Hill doesn’t get many cracks at touching the football in the return game. Oh, and now the Chiefs best linebacker, Johnson, is out for the year with an Achilles. Should I continue???

MG: History tells us no, David. Brady would throw a fit and argue that he needs to play to remain sharp or iron out this problem or that problem. There’s also the possibility of a bye week looming, meaning he’d go 3 weeks without actually playing in a game. Seems like a good idea in the sense that you don’t risk a 39-year old to a blindside shot, but neither he nor Belichick would ever go for it.

PP: The running back position might be the toughest to project moving forward because there are so many injuries there and there are so many backs who come from nowhere to earn significant roles. I'll say this though: The backs they have on the roster -- not including Brandon Bolden, who has turned into strictly a special teamer after having a difficult time holding onto the football this year -- don't seem to be slowing down. LeGarrette Blount just turned 30 but is in the middle of his best season. Dion Lewis looks strong after two surgeries. James White has taken his game to a new level in his third season. I could see the same group coming back next season, but given the volatility of the position, you know the Patriots will always be scouring for talent there. 

PP: Tom E. touched on this yesterday, Big Wally. Brandon Pettigrew, who was released by the Lions on Friday, might make sense. Otherwise, there's not a whole lot out there. Zach Sudfeld? He's available. Would be an unlikely reunion, but desperate times . . . I think the Patriots will continue to roll out Martellus Bennett at less than 100 percent. I think Matt Lengel could see more work as a blocking tight end as he becomes more familiar with the system. I think we'll see more Cameron Fleming, and we could see more two-back sets with no tight ends. In my opinion, Bennett could use a rest, but I don't think it's coming any time soon. As far as Sarge's question about the hurry-up, I'm not sure we'll start to see more that. It's possible, but one of the benefits with the hurry-up is to keep a defense from substituting to shift matchups in its favor. With Gronkowski or Bennett on the field in a hurry-up situation would have even further highlighted the matchup issues they present. If either one found himself with a slow linebacker on him, the Patriots could have rushed to the line and continued...to exploit...that matchup. Without Gronkowski and without Bennett at full strength, the advantage of the no-huddle is somewhat sapped.  

PP: It's so late into the season, I'm not sure there's much in the way of opportunity for a breakout game this week, Paul. I guess the obvious choice would be Griff Whalen. If he can give the Patriots a pair of sure hands as a punt-returner, that would be a significant enough add that I might qualify it as a "breakout." Bill Belichick made it clear this morning that the team views him as more than just a returner, though, so he could see some offensive snaps in four-receiver sets and provide the Patriots with a presence in the slot. I'd deem a four-catch, 50-yard performance as a "breakout" as well. To me, that's the range of his ceiling for this week. One other name as a potential "breakout" candidate? Justin Coleman. He could be used defensively after being inactive for the last three weeks due to Eric Rowe's hamstring injury. If he's able to help slow down the combination of Mike Wallace, Breshad Perriman and Steve Smith, that'd be a breakout in my book. 

PP: The combined record of opponents they've beaten is actually 26-57-1, including the Browns 0-12 mark twice, but now it's out there. 'Preciate you, Dave!

PP:  There's still so much up for grabs in the AFC West that it's hard to determine the likelihood of Patriots playoff matchups and where those games will be. However, without getting into the nitty gritty details, I'll just point out that it's still possible that the Patriots end up on the road in either of these cities in the postseason. On the road, Denver is the tougher matchup. Always has been a brutal place for the Patriots to play, and Denver's defense is still good enough to cause them problems. At home? I'd say, of these two teams, Kansas City would be the one that would provide the Patriots with a slightly tougher test. In my mind, they're a little more balanced and I have more faith in Alex Smith to make plays than I do Trevor Siemien.