A return to greatness


A return to greatness

In all my years of watching football, I'm not sure Ive ever seen a return man break through coverage like Danieal Manning did on the opening kick of last night's game and not cruise into the end zone. I still cant believe they caught him. They never catch him. In the NFL, that kind of daylight always ends in a touchdown. But either way, in the few seconds it took for Manning to burst out ahead of the pack, two weeks of calm and over-confidence were quickly reduced to a gigantic pit in your stomach.

Over on Twitter, fans immediately compared the play to Ray Rices touchdown run back in 2010; the 83-yard sprint on the first play from scrimmage that triggered the most embarrassing home playoff loss in franchise history. And thats really what this one felt like. Even after Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington somehow hunted Manning down, the result changed the face of the game. Suddenly, it was as if any psychological carry over from Week 14 had been instantly erased, with momentum flipped back in the Texans favor.

It was 1st and 10 on the Patriots 12 yard line, and the game wasnt even 10 seconds old:

1st and 10: Arian Foster, three yard run.

2nd and 7: James Casey drop.

3rd and 7: Incomplete pass to Andre Johnson; a ball that might have been catchable had AJ been sitting on the crossbar.

4th and 7: Shayne Graham kicks a 27-yard field goal to give the Texans a 3-0 lead, and officially waste their first and only chance to catch the Patriots off guard.

Honestly, that was it. With that one defensive stand (even if Houston still got three), the script flipped again. From the Texans on the verge of landing an immediate and devastating blow a true "The Russian's been cut!" moment to the Patriots sending one very clear message: This is our game. This is Week 14. You know what, how about this: We'll let you start your first possession ON THE 12 YARD LINE, and you STILL can't score a touchdown. (P.S. We must break you.)"

The Pats came up short on their first two offensive possessions, losing their All-Pro tight end and only playoff-tested running back along the way, but on their third drive, Shane Vereen got New England on the board and they never looked back. They never trailed again. Aside from a brief stretch towards the end of the first half, the lead was never in danger. A rematch with Baltimore was never in doubt. How dominant was the Patriots performance? It made Dan Shaughnessys schtick even more unbearable. Do you realize how difficult that is? I'm not even mad. That's amazing.

And now it's on to the AFC Championship. The seventh time they've played in the game in the last 12 years. The fifth time they've hosted it. And . . . I don't know. What else can we say? We ran out of adjectives for these guys years ago. At this point, we all know how special this is. We know we're currently living through one of the most dominant stretches that the NFL has ever seen. We know it won't last forever, and that while there will be life after the quarterback and coach walk away, it will never be this good. We'll never get this back. Whether it's 10, 20 or even 30 years down the road, we'll reminisce about this era and regret ever taking it for granted. We'll pine for this. It will haunt us.

But in the moment, it's increasingly difficult to keep everything in perspective. After so many years of success, it only human to look at this latest trip to the conference title game and shrug your shoulders. While advancing this far, sitting one win short of the Super Bowl, is a dream for cities like San Francisco, Atlanta and even Baltimore, in New England it's not enough.

I feel dirty even thinking that way, never mind writing it. It's not enough? How can anything this team has given us over the last decade-plus ever qualify as "not enough"? What the hell is wrong with us?

But it's true. And as ridiculous as that be, we can take comfort in knowing that the Patriots are on the same page. Even if Belichick, Brady and Vince Wilfork are the only guys in that locker room with a Super Bowl ring to their name, there's no mistaking the expectations and urgency that currently surrounds this team. They know what we know. That while this era of dominance has already lasted far longer than anyone could have wish for or imagined, there's still work to be done rings to win, legacies to bolster and history to be made.

How many more chances do the Pats have? Between injuries and the general insanity the comes with every NFL season, how do we know they'll ever be this close at home, favored by 10 points, once win away from the Super Bowl again? We've been having this conversation for what feels like an eternity. We've spent to the last eight years dreaming about that fourth ring; one final, indisputable stamp on this stretch of unfathomable success. And once again, it's right there. It's real. Nothing less will do.

Of course, they'll have to get through the Ravens first. A Baltimore team that's powered by the pain and frustration of last year's championship defeat and the desire to win one last time for their own Tom Brady. A team that's spent the last year begging for and obsessing over this opportunity on this stage, against this Patriots team and presents a greater threat than the Texans could have even dreamed. A team that . . .

You know what? We've got another six days to build up and break down this next big game, so for now, let's just leave it at that. Let's take just a little more time to appreciate the reality of what the Pats accomplished yesterday at Gillette, before fully immersing ourselves in the regularly-scheduled unrealistic expectations.

But before signing off, I want to say this to Stephen Gostkowski:

Next Sunday, just to be safe, do us all a favor and send the opening kick off through the uprights.

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