McCourty very familiar with Rice's skills

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McCourty very familiar with Rice's skills

FOXBORO -- Devin McCourty wasn't with the Patriots when Ray Rice stomped on New England's plans to make the AFC title game two seasons ago.

Rice rumbled for an 83-yard touchdown on the Ravens' first play from scrimmage against the Patriots in their AFC Wild Card Playoff game that year. The run took the wind out of Gillette Stadium and kick-started the Ravens' 33-14 win.

McCourty, who was drafted by New England the following spring, wasn't in the secondary or on the sideline for that Patriots gut punch. But he still knows just how dangerous Rice can be. He knew long before that 83-yard score.

McCourty and Rice were teammates at Rutgers University for three seasons (2005-2007), and McCourty became well acquainted with Rice's skills while going up against the compact running back in practices.

"In practice he made play after play," McCourty said of Rice. "It's his versatility. He plays hard. He has good balance. I see the same things watching film on him now that I used to see up close in practice. I always knew he was going to be a great player."

Few could have known just how great Rice would be. He's become one of the NFL's premier running backs, and perhaps its most versatile. He had 1364 yards and 12 touchdowns rushing, 704 yards and 3 touchdowns receiving this season.

Still, McCourty emitted confidence on Friday when he remembered their one-on-one battles in college.

"A couple times we went against each other," McCourty said with a smile. "I won them all."

If McCourty has to make many tackles on his former teammate, it's not a great sign for the Patriots defense. In all likelihood, they would like to keep Rice bottled up somewhere closer to the line of scrimmage than McCourty's area in the secondary.

Rather, McCourty will be more concerned with limiting Baltimore through the air. The Ravens have receivers who can go downfield -- Lee Evans and Anquan Boldin are two guys who have done that in the NFL for years. But Torrey Smith, a rookie receiver from Maryland -- the Patriots actually scouted him and ran him through a private workout -- has emerged as their most consistent big-play guy.

He made 50 catches for 841 yards and 7 touchdowns over the course of the season, and the Patriots have taken notice. His 16.8 yards per catch average trails that of only Lee Evans (18.5), who made just four regular-season grabs.

"He flies down the field and runs by guys," McCourty said. "I think the biggest thing, why Joe Flacco has confidence with him, is that he comes down with the catch. We really gotta be ready to cover himdown the field, but he also makes plays after the catch. He's dangerous with the ball in his hands. We just have to be ready."

They'll have to be ready from the very beginning, ready to guard against that game-opening gut-punch, or else they could be staring at a repeat of their 2009 nightmare.

Blakely: This could be the start of something big for Celtics

Blakely: This could be the start of something big for Celtics

BOSTON -- Prior to this year, the Celtics hadn't been to the Eastern Conference finals since 2012. That trip served as a curtain call of sorts for the last great C's dynasty.
 
But this one, which ended with Cleveland's emphatic 135-102 Game 5 victory Thursday at TD Garden, is very different.
 
Rather than closing another chapter in the Celtics' longstanding legacy of greatness, it could serve as the beginning of a new narrative in the franchise's steady growth.
 
"For us to be in the Eastern Conference finals after the first year of this team really being together, adding additions like Al Horford and Gerald Green . . . I can go down the list of guys that we needed to learn to play with, and for us to talk about where we wanted to be and actually make it, it's a big-time accomplishment," said Avery Bradley.
 
Boston has been among the younger teams in the NBA, with the 31-year-old Green being the oldest player on the roster.
 
But what the Celtics lacked in experience, they made up for with great effort.
 
"The great thing about this is the experience," Bradley said. "We were able to go to the Eastern Conference finals, learned a lot about being in this position, and I feel like it's going to help us for next year."
 
But as we all know, the Celtics will look to strengthen themsevles this offseason, which means there's a very good chance they'll have a different look when they gather again in the fall.
 
How different is anyone's guess.
 
"It's difficult every year whenever you don't have guys back," said coach Brad Stevens. "I think you share a bond (over the course of a season)."
 
Stevens and this group have been together for eight months. Eight months of struggles, successes, frustrating defeats and euphoric victories that brought them to the conference finals, which is where their season came to an end.
 
But as disappointed as the players and coaches are inow, there's definite excitement about this franchise in the very near future.
 
Boston has the No. 1 overall pick in next month's draft, with all indications -- for now -- pointing to Washington's Markelle Fultz as their choice.
 
And their top first-round pick from a year ago, Jaylen Brown, seemed to steadily improve as the season progressed. It was one of the few times in his life where minutes weren't just handed to him, which he admits was a learning experience unlike anything he had ever had, yet he adjusted and played better as the year went along.

"I've had ups, I've had downs, I've had opportunities, I've had mistakes," said Brown. "So I've been learning and growing and improving all year and I'm going to continue growing and improving and prove people wrong, prove doubters wrong."
 
Having the season end the way it did has indeed left a bad taste in the mouths of many Celtics.
 
"I can use it as fuel," Brown said, adding: "I want to get back to the same place I'm at now."
 
Bradley, who was on the 2012 team that lost to the Miami Heat in the conference finals, knows the Celtics are going to do whatever they feel is necessary to give them the best chance at competing for a title.
 
"It's out of our control as players," Bradley said. "We had a great year together. If guys are here, if guys aren't, we all wish the best for each other.

"But I do feel this is a special group. We all gave our heart every single night, played as hard as we could. I respect all my teammates, and I really appreciated playing with all the guys I had a chance to play with this year; a special group."