A return to greatness

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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

Know Thine Enemy: A complete breakdown of the Ravens

Know Thine Enemy: A complete breakdown of the Ravens

After a 3-0 start, the Ravens dropped a 28-27 decision to the Raiders in Baltimore. That started a four-game skid for Baltimore which included back-to-back losses at the Jets and Giants. But they got back on track against the Steelers and have won four out of five with their only being to the Cowboys. It’s hard to get a clean read on who they really are. 

They had narrow, early-season wins over crap teams like Cleveland and Jacksonville. They had a narrow loss to an outstanding Raiders team and were close with the Cowboys but got run over late with Dallas scoring on its last five possessions. They are coming off their most impressive team win, a 38-6 triumph over the Dolphins. 

This game is a big one in the AFC race not just because it’s a divisional leader but also because it will be a common game between the Patriots and Raiders. The Raiders already beat Baltimore. 

The Pats need to keep pace in a tiebreaker they currently trail. Weird schedule quirk? The Ravens have had only one road game that required a long commute since September. That was the game at Dallas. They just played six of their last nine and four of their last five at home.

LAST 5

Ravens 21, Steelers 14
Ravens 28, Browns 7
At Cowboys 27, Ravens 17
Ravens 19, Bengals 14
Ravens 38, Dolphins 6

OFFENSIVE STATS TO CHEW ON

More than half of Joe Flacco’s 323 completions have gone to three players: tight end Dennis Pitta (61 catches), wide receiver Mike Wallace (57) and wide receiver Steve Smith (54). Those players are 31, 30 and 37 respectively so it’s a veteran group.
Flacco is 114 of 159 (72 percent) with nine touchdowns and three picks in Baltimore’s last four games. He has 15 TDs and 11 picks this season.

The Ravens don’t run it much: 502 pass attempts, 287 rushing attempts. Terrence West and Kenneth Dixon are the lead backs. West has carried more than 15 times in a game on three occasions this season.

Rookie left tackle Ronnie Stanley has been playing very well as has the rest of the Ravens offensive line in recent weeks. Still, Baltimore is just at 34.1 on third down conversions.

DEFENSIVE STATS TO CHEW ON

The Ravens have allowed 207 points this season, tied with the Patriots for lowest in the AFC and just behind Seattle (194) overall.
Baltimore’s allowing just 33.3 percent conversions on third down and only 3.4 yards per carry.

Opposing quarterbacks are completing 64.1 percent of their passes and have 21 touchdown passes and 14 picks against the Ravens defense. Ten of the Ravens 14 picks came against the Browns, Jaguars and in last week’s rout of Miami.
 
WHERE ARE THEIR HEADS AT

"I just think they've got a great team. They've got Tom Brady. They've been the best team in the conference, and it's going to be our toughest challenge of the year." – John Harbaugh, Ravens coach, on Monday night’s matchup

Bovada: Brady third in MVP race behind Elliot, Carr

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Bovada: Brady third in MVP race behind Elliot, Carr

Tom Brady has racked up some impressive numbers over eight games, but are they enough to surpass Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott or Raiders quarterback Derek Carr in the MVP race?

The Patriots have gone 7-1 since Brady returned from his four-game suspension to start the year, and the league's all-time winningest quarterback has completed 68.9 percent of his passes in that stretch (third in the league) for 2,470 yards. He has 19 touchdowns, he's been picked once, and he is averaging 8.2 yards per attempt (third), giving him a 113.1 quarterback rating (first). 

According to Bovada, he's currently the third-best bet to win MVP at 15/2, down from 4/1 last week. Ahead of him? Both Elliott (12/5) and Carr (7/2). 

The Carr comparison is an interesting one for obvious reasons. Because they play the same position, it's easier to match up their stats. In 12 games, Carr has completed 65.5 percent of his passes (12th) for 3,375 yards (fourth), 24 touchdowns (seventh) and five interceptions. He's averaging 7.4 yards per attempt (15th), and  he has a rating of 100.3 (seventh).

While Carr has the statistical advantage of playing in four more games than Brady has, he's also led his team to a record of 10-2 and the No. 1 seed in the AFC at the moment. (The Raiders hold the strength-of-victory tiebreaker edge over the Patriots, who are also 10-2.)

Meanwhile, Elliott, the talented rookie out of Ohio State who has the benefit of running behind arguably the league's best offensive line, has racked up 263 carries for 1,285 yards and 12 touchdowns this season. He's also posted 28 catches for 322 yards and a score. He leads the league in total rush yards, he's second in the league in rushing touchdowns behind Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount, and he's fourth in yards per attempt (4.9).