A familiar feeling in Foxboro

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A familiar feeling in Foxboro

To be honest, I still havent heard or watched any of the post-game coverage from last nights AFC Championship, and I don't plan to anytime soon. So if youre looking for hard-hitting analysis on how and why this years Super Bowl turned into a Harbaugh family reunion, then this probably isnt for you. Same goes for anyone looking to avoid a heavy helping of depression.

Despite ignoring the media wrap-up, Im obviously still familiar with the details of the Patriots latest playoff loss. And as usual, theres an expanding list of what-ifs running through my head:

What if Gronk was healthy? What if Talib stayed healthy? What if they had called a timeout right away? What if Welker made the catch? What if, even in his virtually unconscious state, Stevan Ridley held on to that ball for a split second longer, what if his ass had hit the ground just a split second faster, what if his arm fell just another inch away from his body and the ball never made contact with his leg?

What if Bernard Pollard didnt exist? What if God hadnt made the curious decision that Ray Lewis deserves a second Super Bowl ring more than Tony Gonzalez deserves one?

I could go on, but whats the point? Nothings going to change. And anyway, the what-if game is a slippery slope. It works both ways too. What if JR Redmond didnt get out of bounds? What if Vinatieri didnt needle that kick through the snow? What if Drew Bledsoe had slid? What if he simply stepped out of bounds? What if you were born a Bills fan? What if you were born an ant?

It doesn't matter. So instead of spending the next thousand words or so re-hashing everything that went wrong on Sunday, lets just look at the end result, and the aftermath of another lost season.

Sometime late last night, I was messing around online, searching for a way to start this column, when I came across an old game story that put everything in perspective.

It was from January 23, 2005, just about eight years ago, and the day New England beat Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship.

Here are the first few (very short) paragraphs (and here's the whole thing if you're interested):

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Too much Brady, too much Belichick.The New England Patriots are going back to the Super Bowl for the third time in four seasons because they simply overwhelmed Big Ben, stopping him and the Pittsburgh Steelers cold. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick were an unbeatable combination again for the Patriots, exposing all of the Steelers' weaknesses to end their 15-game winning streak and win the AFC championship 41-27 on a frigid Sunday night.Brady gave the inexperienced Ben Roethlisberger a lesson in quarterbacking a championship game, throwing two touchdown passes -- one to Deion Branch that gave New England a 10-0 lead in the first quarter. Belichick upstaged can't-win-the-big-one Steelers coach Bill Cowher, improving to 9-1 as a playoffs coach and matching Vince Lombardi for the best postseason record in NFL playoff history.Two weeks later, the Pats beat the Eagles to win their third Lombardi Trophy in four years, and the dynasty was at its peak. It was at THE peak. In turn, all the BradyBelichick slobbering and idolization on display in that old AP story was magnified by infinity. And it was justified, too. They were on top of the world, and showing no signs of coming down.

I can still remember staring at that 10-0 playoff record and wondering if it would ever end. Naturally, that was ridiculous. Of course it would end. At some point, everyone has to lose. But if there was ever an exception to that rule, it was Brady and Belichick.

Who was going to beat them?

I remember that night in Denver. What a fluke. Troy Brown fumbled. Kevin Faulk fumbled. Brady was intercepted at the goal line. Each occurrence was more unlikely than the next.

I remember that night in Indianapolis. My father texting me at halftime to ask which day I'd be able to leave for Miami. I wasn't slightly worried about a jinx. All I could see was another ring. Their fourth in six years. With only Rex Grossman standing in the way.

I remember that night in Glendale. The most confident I've ever been heading into a sporting event. Maybe the most confident day of my life. The game hadn't even started, but the win was already on Brady's resume. Four rings and counting. Undefeated in the Super Bowl. An undefeated regular season. The best to ever play the game, and it wasn't even close.

I remember the most depressing eight minutes of football this city has ever seen. It started with Eli Manning's touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress and ended with Bernard Pollard introducing himself to Brady's knee. Over that short time, everything changed. Everyone was human. It was a reminder that this was sports, and not a fairy tale. It took two years for the franchise to recover.

I remember that night in Foxboro. That awful loss to the Jets. The shock of them falling flat again. Brady and Belichick. This was three straight playoff losses. Three games in which they were heavily favored. Three games in which Brady didn't play all that well. Where Belichick was seemingly out-coached. While 2007 knocked Patriots fans on their ass, the loss to the Jets was a steel chair over the head. Punishment for believing that this time would be different.

I remember that night in Indianapolis last February, and not knowing what to think. What the hell just happened? I thought we'd given up on this dream? But suddenly, here they were: Brady and Belichick, against the same New York Giants, with the perfect chance to atone for everything and miraculously regain that mystique.

Of course, they lost the game in heartbreaking fashion. But worse than the actual loss, was how predictable it was. How familiar it all felt. I remember driving home from Indianapolis, shaking my head and thinking, "Crap. This is who they are now."

I'm doing the same thing this morning.

Probably the best and worst aspect of last nights Patriots loss is that it doesnt hurt quite as much as it used to.

The best because well, who wants to hurt? Given the choice, who would ever want re-live that horrible feeling from the days and weeks after 18-1, or even after last years Super Bowl?

The worst because well, why doesnt it hurt as much?

For one, because we've grown accustomed to the losing. To fantastic regular seasons, and playoff disappointment. Obviously, the disappointment is relative. I think we'd all rather live through this era than switch places with the Browns or Chiefs. I'm just saying that the shock of Brady- and Belichick-led teams coming up short has definitely worn off.

And that sucks.

I'm sorry to put it so eloquently, but it's true. Despite how ridiculous it was to ever believe that the quarterback and coach were as unbeatable as they seemed . . . we really wanted to believe it. In the moment, it was absolutely real.

But now it's absolutely gone.

I don't say that with a lack of perspective. More than anything, I think our original standards were just unfair. No one goes undefeated. Everyone has to lose. Even with everything that's happened over these last eight years, Brady and Belichick will obviously be remembered as one of the greatest quarterbacks and coaches in NFL history.

But you can't help but miss the days when they were THE greatest; when the fairy tale was real. You can't help but look back at all close calls, all the legitimate chances at another title, and get stuck obsessing over how much better it could have and should have been.

But whatever, that's life. It could also be so much worse.

Especially since the run isn't over. Assuming everyone's healthy, the Patriots will be every bit as good next season. With another year of experience under the defense's belt, they could even be better. No one will be surprised if they're back in the AFC Championship, or make it to the Super Bowl. Even amidst the darkness of last night's loss, I can see them winning it all.

But while a fourth Super Bowl ring once felt like a formality basically the worst case scenario for Brady, Belichick and the entire Patriots dynasty right now, No. 4 feels every bit as distant as No. 3, and the possibility of the Pats falling short seems more realistic now than ever.

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

Belichick, Patricia observe huge draft-eligible crowd at Michigan pro day

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Belichick, Patricia observe huge draft-eligible crowd at Michigan pro day

There are so many players coming out of Michigan this year who could be drafted that it made sense for the Patriots to send two of their top football minds to take in the proceedings.

Both Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia were in Ann Arbor to watch coach Jim Harbaugh's massive crowd of draft-eligible prospects, acording to NFL Network. Between draftees and undrafted rookies there could be as many as 24 Wolverines on training camp rosters this summer, according to NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah, and the school has a chance to best Ohio State's whopping 12 players drafted last year. 

It's already been a busy week for the Patriots when it comes to the pro-day circuit. Belichick was at Ohio State on Thursday, while Patricia was at Notre Dame. The team also had representatives at Stanford, Utah and Missouri. 

Here's a quick look at some of the top players Belichick and Patricia were watching Friday . . . 

Jabrill Peppers, LB/S:  A Swiss Army knife type who at the next level could play as a linebacker/safety hybrid, compete in the slot and return kicks, Peppers is one of the more dynamic athletes in the draft. At 5-foot-11, 213 pounds he may fit best with the Patriots as a box safety.

Taco Charlton, DE: Strength, length and athleticism . . . Charlton -- who has drawn comparisons to Chandler Jones -- has all the tools necessary to become a game-changing edge defender at the next level. If there's a team out there who thinks they can get his best effort on a snap-to-snap basis, he'll easily be worthy of a first-round pick. 

Jake Butt, TE: Projected as one of the top tight ends in the draft class until he tore his ACL in late December, Butt still has a chance to be selected on Day 2. He told NFL Network's Mike Mayock that he believes he'll be ready to play by mid-July. Should the Patriots want some depth behind Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen, Butt may represent good value if he's still available in the third round. 

Chris Wormley, DE: A three-year starter who has an NFL-ready build (6-5, 298 pounds, 34-inch arms, 10.5-inch hands), he looks like a strong edge-setter who could rush from the interior in sub situations. 

Jourdan Lewis, CB: Quick, competitive and another three-year starter, Lewis is just one of many talented corners available in this draft. Teams at Michigan's pro day will undoubtedly want to meet with Lewis in order to ask him about an incident that led to a misdemeanor domestic assault charge. He has a pretrial hearing scheduled on April 12. 

Ryan Glasgow, DT: For teams interested in tough, physical, early-down defensive tackles to hold up against the run, Glasgow could be worth a mid-round selecton. He measured in at 6-3, 302 pounds with 33-inch arms at the combine. 

Ben Gedeon, LB: Gedeon may not hear his name called until Day 3, but he has the feel of a prototypical Patriots draft pick. He had very good production in a good conference (106 tackles, 15.5 for a loss), and though he may not be the kind of athlete Belichick wants playing three downs in the middle of the field, he looks like someone who could contribute immediately on -- you guessed it -- kick-coverage teams. 

Patriots represented at Stanford, Utah, Missouri pro days

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Patriots represented at Stanford, Utah, Missouri pro days

The Patriots had a busy day of gathering intel on Thursday. A very busy day. 

While Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia represented the Patriots at Ohio State and Notre Dame, respectively, the team had other representatives at high-profile pro days around the country including Stanford, Missouri and Utah. 

Here are a few of the players the Patriots were able to get a better look at . . . 

Stanford: The Patriots have shown plenty of interest in players coming from David Shaw's program in the past (Cameron Fleming, Jordan Richards), and they'll undoubtedly appreciate the talents brought to the table by two of the school's projected first-rounders in Solomon Thomas and Christian McCaffrey. Thomas is a powerful 6-foot-3, 273-pound defensive lineman who can play just about anywhere up front. McCaffrey, meanwhile, is one of the most athletic running backs in this year's class. He worked out as a receiver on Thursday and could fill a multitude of roles as a pro, whether it's as a back, a slot receiver or a kick-returner. The Patriots would need to trade back into the first round to have a prayer at landing either player. 

Utah: The Utes have a handful of draftable offensive linemen and one who is expected to come off the board in the first round. Garrett Bolles, who lit up the combine, might be the top tackle available -- and there are those who believe he's just starting to tap into his potential. Isaac Asiata is a monster guard (6-3, 323, 34-inch arms) who put up more bench-press reps than any other offensive lineman at this year's combine, and center JJ Dielman is an intriguing later-round option. One of the quickest risers in the pre-draft process? Marcus Williams, who is an eye-popping athlete. He was top-five for those at his position at the combine in the vertical, broad jump and three-cone drill, and he looks like a ready-made NFL free safety. The Patriots are pretty well stocked at that spot, but if they're picking at the bottom of the first round and going with the best player available, they may very well think that's Williams. 

Missouri: Defensive players were in focus for scouts and coaches at the Tigers pro day, and Charles Harris was the headliner. One of the most impressive players within a very deep class of edge defenders, the 6-3, 253-pounder appears to have the quickness and burst to give NFL tackles fits. One of Harris' teammates up front, Josh Augusta, ran a pretty ridiculous 40-yard dash Thursday, clocking in just a shade under five seconds. Ridiculous, why? Because he's a defensive tackle who wighed 390 pounds during the season. That's moving. Augusta dropped down to 347 after being diagnosed with a thyroid issue in January and is looking to get to 335. Corner Aarion Penton can competes well for the football, but his size (5-9, 177) may scare teams off until late in the draft.