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

Valentine will be plunked down in heart of D-line

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Valentine will be plunked down in heart of D-line

FOXBORO – The Patriots used the 96th overall pick – a compensatory pick that came to the Patriots after losing Darrelle Revis – on a very large man. Vincent Valentine, a 6-3, 329-pound defensive tackle from Nebraska who is more space-eater than penetrator.

Though Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio said Valentine has played all over the defensive line including 5-technique (outside shoulder of the tackle), he’ll likely be an early-down, middle of the defensive line player for the Patriots at the outset. How does the team go about getting him on the field?

Currently, they are pretty well-stocked with big bodies. Last year’s first rounder, Malcom Brown, is going to play a lot for a long time. Terrance Knighton, added as a free agent, figures to be a major component of the defensive line. And aging Alan Branch showed in 2015 that he’s still got plenty of plays left in him.

The other 300-plus pound linemen in the mix are Marcus Kuhn, a free agent brought over from the Giants, and Joe Vellano, who’s been with the team for four seasons as an end of the roster player.

Valentine had an injury-plagued final season with the Cornhuskers and will need to tune up his body and conditioning for the NFL. He’s not a project but neither is he a plug-and-play type who can be expected to walk in and make immediate contributions. With the 31-year-old Branch nearing the end, it’s reasonable to expect Valentine to be the successor to him in the Patriots interior rotation when they go heavy on early downs and in short-yardage and goal-line.

Examining possible Patriots fits going into Day 3

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Examining possible Patriots fits going into Day 3

The Patriots have eight picks remaining on the final day of the draft. While they may not use all of those selections -- they currently have 80 players on the roster, leaving them with only two slots for undrafted free agents if they use all of their picks -- they still have plenty of opportunities to take chances on talented athletes Saturday. 

Here's a quick look at some of the best players available after they spent their first four selections on a corner (Cyrus Jones, Alabama, pick No. 60), an offensive lineman (Joe Thuney, North Carolina State, No. 78), a quarterback (Jacoby Brissett, North Carolina State, No. 91) and a defensive tackle (Vincent Valentine, Nebraska, No. 96). 

The Patriots have one fourth-round pick, five sixth-round picks and two seventh-rounders remaining.

RUNNING BACK: KENNETH DIXON, LOUISIANA TECH

Listed as one of our top players available after Day 1, Dixon is still hanging around after nearly 100 picks have gone off the board. Perhaps his level of competition at Louisiana Tech has worked against him. Perhaps his fumbling issues have come back to bite him. Perhaps this is simply an indication of how the rest of the league considers this position. Only four backs have been drafted through the first three rounds. 

Other top running backs available: Jordan Howard, Indiana; Devontae Booker, Utah; Paul Perkins, UCLA; Jonathan Williams, Arkansas; Alex Collins, Arkansas. 

RECEIVER: DANIEL BRAVERMAN, WESTERN MICHIGAN

If ever there was a player who stood out as a potential Patriots pick, it would be Braverman. At 5-foot-10, 177 pounds, he is a prototypical slot receiver whose skill set resembles that of Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola or Troy Brown. He's very shifty in and out of his breaks, he does a great deal of his work while risking big hits over the middle of the field, he catches just about everything thrown his way, and he churns out yards after the catch with speed and good vision. 

Other top receivers available: Malcolm Mitchell, Georgia; Rashard Higgins, Colorado State; Devon Cajuste, Stanford; Keyarris Garrett, Tulsa; Keenan Reynolds, Navy.

LINEBACKER: JOSH PERRY, OHIO STATE

This Buckeye seems to fit the size profile the Patriots typically like in their receivers at 6-foot-4, 254 pounds. He runs well enough to be able to track ball-carriers from sideline-to-sideline, and he has a ton of experience coming downhill to make big hits in the running game. Perry will need some work before he's a reliable defender in coverage, but on first and second downs he could be a force. 

Other top linebackers available: Scooby Wright III, Arizona; Kentrell Brothers, Missouri; Stephen Weatherly, Vanderbilt; Blake Martinez, Stanford; De'Vondre Campbell, Minnesota. 

DEFENSIVE TACKLE: HASSAN RIDGEWAY, TEXAS

A college teammate of Patriots defensive tackle Malcom Brown, Ridgeway is considered by many to be more physically talented than Brown was when he declared for the draft. Injuries hurt Ridgeway's productivity last season, and there are some who question his conditioning, but he understands how to be a disruptive force on the interior, both in the running game and in the passing game. If he's in shape and can maintain the level of fitness that will be expected of him as a pro, he could turn into an immediate contributor.

Other top defensive tackles available: Andrew Billings, Baylor; Sheldon Day, Notre Dame; DJ Reader, Clemson; Dean Lowry, Northwestern; Justin Zimmer, Ferris State.

Patriots hatch latest backup plan at QB

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Patriots hatch latest backup plan at QB

Tom Brady needs a Hail Mary at this point to get himself on the field for the first four games of 2016. The Patriots are more aware of that than anyone, so Friday night they grabbed a little security, using a third-round pick on North Carolina State quarterback Jacoby Brissett.

The 6-4, 235-pound Brissett was a two-year starter for the Wolfpack and had 23 touchdowns and five picks in his senior season. He’s lauded for his leadership, has outstanding physical skills and is a tireless worker.

All that said, he’s not going to beat out Jimmy Garoppolo. Brissett isn’t in Foxboro to be the long-term No. 2 in 2016. But if he shows a high level of competency between now and the end of August, the Patriots will likely go into the four-game Brady-less stretch with Garoppolo as the temp starter and Brissett as the temp backup.

When Brady returns, everybody moves back down the ladder again.

But a look at the contracts of Garoppolo and Brady shows that, after 2016, Garoppolo may become expendable. Brady is signed through 2019 and isn’t going anywhere. Garoppolo is up after 2017 and will be a free agent. If Garoppolo plays well enough to impress the rest of the league in his four-game audition, the Patriots could look to deal him prior to the 2017 season.

The return on the former second-rounder isn’t relevant right now. What is relevant is that the Patriots are going to have to carry three quarterbacks on their 53-man roster in 2016: Brady, Garoppolo and Brissett. For a team that’s always churning the end of its roster to get the best players ready for every week’s matchup, the team will have one less roster spot to deal with than it’s had in past seasons.

The only way around carrying Brissett all year on the 53 would be to release him, hope he passes unclaimed through waivers and then sign him to the practice squad. It’s likely someone would claim him. So the Patriots will be working with three quarterbacks on their 53 for 2016. Forecasting, it’s not likely they’d do that two years in a row.

The addition of Brissett is a signal that the team isn’t preparing for life after Brady, but life after Jimmy G.