It was almost special

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It was almost special

From the very start, Sunday nights Patriots-49ers game had the makings of something special. Before the opening kick even landed in Devin McCourtys gut, you just knew that these teams were about to make a memory.

It was a classic match-up. Two storied franchises. The No. 1 offense vs. the top ranked defense. It was national TV. The Game of the Week. The grand finale to the most significant Sunday of the NFL season.

There was the weather. The cold, the rain, the ice and more than anything, the fog. It set an almost mythical scene. Like they were playing on a Hollywood set. You could see the players breathe, the rain pouring off their helmets. You knew Steve Sabol was smiling somewhere. As the game went on, the jerseys started to bleed. The whole thing devolved into a sloppy mess. But in perfect football fashion, as the conditions worsened, the drama heightened.

Above all else, there was Newtown, CT. There was that chilling tribute before the national anthem, the Presidents first quarter address and the general sense of disappointment, sorrow and confusion thats existed in all of us since the news broke on Friday afternoon.

While the shootings at Sandy Hook made the whole institution of sports, and really, everything else, feel completely insignificant, games like last night continue to serve an essential purpose in helping us cope with disaster. Obviously, theres something inherently selfish about that statement, because you know that the families and friends directly affected by the massacre couldnt have cared less about yesterdays action. But even in our countrys absolute worst moments, sports have consistently served as a unifying force in the face of tragedy. At the very least, theyre a distraction. And theres no doubt that Patriots and 49ers promised to give us that. But there was something in the air that felt like they might give us more. The stage was set for something truly special.

So, when did you first start to believe that the comeback was real? At what point did you put off your plans of going to bed early and settle down for the long haul?

For me, it was Tom Brady on fourth and goal. He got in, and I knew the game was on. I knew Brady was on. As he got up from that pile, there was a look in his eyes that we hadn't seen in some time. He looked like a super hero of fourth quarters past. Everything he did the way he fired the ball back and forth to stay warm on the sidelines, the way he spiked the ball into the turf after the Niners were granted that defensive timeout made you believe that the Pats were about to win the game.

For some reason, I kept thinking back to that Monday night in Denver. The night Bill Belichick sacrificed a safety and Brady found David Givens at the pile-on to win it. The confidence that Brady had shown during that drive was now on display every time New England got the ball. It was over. Soon, this game would be remembered the same way we remember that comeback in Denver which happened more than nine years ago, but still feels like yesterday. It was about to go down as one of the greatest comebacks in one of the greatest careers in NFL history. It was headed to the Hall of Fame.

We'd never forget the night Brady brought them back from 31-3.

But now, that night doesn't exist.

That's because the Pats fell short.

In the end, for all the comparisons between last night and some of the greatest comebacks of Brady's career, Sunday serves as a another reminder of a more recent chapter in Patriots' history one featuring a team that can never quite get over the hump. A team that forever keeps you believing that things are how they used to be . . . only to consistently fall on its face just short of the prize.

Now, obviously this loss isn't the end of the world. Certainly not after the way this weekend started, but even in a pure football sense. The Pats are still one of only a handful of teams with real Super Bowl aspirations. There's still every reason to believe that they have enough talent to finish on top. After last night, the road will be a lot tougher. The Pats are more than likely destined for the No. 3 seed, which means an extra game in the Wild Card round, (presumably) followed by trips to Denver and Houston. But what are you going to do?

The bottom line is that the Patriots are still good enough to win. The AFC, at least. And if by some chance they make it to New Orleans and face a rematch with the 49ers? They'll be good enough to win that one, too. Knowing Vegas, the Pats will probably be favored. At that point, we'll look back last night's game and retroactively obsess over the importance of New England's failed comeback. We'll talk about how essential it was that they proved that they can beat the Niners 'D', about the benefits of having a full game against Colin Kaepernick under their belts.

But for now, we'll just remember last night as another failure on the doorstep of greatness. And hope that the resulting shift in the AFC playoff picture isn't too much for the Pats to overcome.

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

Rob Gronkowski appears to thoroughly enjoy himself at Daytona 500

Rob Gronkowski appears to thoroughly enjoy himself at Daytona 500

New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski attended the Dayton 500 in true Gronkowski form.

He appeared to be there promoting Monster Energy drink, and was therefore hanging with the Monster Girls, who were also promoting the drink. Gronkowski's herniated disc injury, which required surgery in December 2016, does not seem to be slowing him down as he gets warmed up for the Summer of Gronk.

During the race coverage on FOX Sports, Gronk delivered a speed limit joke, which is sure to make the 13-year-old in you chuckle. (You can watch it here.)

[H/T NESN.com]

Curran: It's time to let the air out of Deflategate

Curran: It's time to let the air out of Deflategate

I think it’s time. Time to let the Deflategate wound scab over. Time to exit the active, raging, teeth-gnashing, petition-signing, lawsuit-filing portion of the program and let the hate follow its natural course into a slow-boil loathing.

If you are of Irish descent, you know how it works. Clear a big-ass space on the grudge shelf. Put Roger Goodell, Jeff Pash, Mike Kensil, Troy Vincent, Ryan Grigson, Jim Irsay, every shiv-wielding owner, all the cluck-clucking media and the legion of retired players and exiled GMs from Marshall Faulk to Joey Porter through Marty Hurney and into Bill Polian up there. Turn off light. Leave room.

When you need to piss yourself off -- in traffic, mowing the lawn, waiting for your coffee -- fetch ‘em down, blow the dust off and when you’re in a sufficiently foul mood, return grudge to shelf.

You rode the roller coaster. You’ve been there, done that and have all the T-shirts.

I came to this conclusion a few days ago, when ESPN’s Cari Champion interviewed Rob Gronkowski and asked about Goodell visiting Gillette. It was like playing “Get the Stick!” with a big goofy Lab. Champion threw the leading question, Gronk fetched -- tail-wagging --  and returned with a slobbery response that was completely implausible but still designed to dominate a four-hour news cycle.

"The fans are nuts, they’re wild, and they have the Patriots’ back no matter what,” said Gronkowski. “They have [Tom Brady’s] back. I’m telling you, he won’t get through the highway if the fans saw him. I don’t even think he can even land in the airport in Boston because Patriot fans are the best fans, they’re the most loyal fans. I’m telling you, they might just carry out Roger themselves. They couldn’t even get to the stadium in Foxboro if he landed in Boston."

Gronk’s just doing what he thinks he’s supposed to do. And Champion is, too. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

Watch these mooks up in New England get all pissed off: “Hey, hey, Chowderhead . . . Roger Goodell . . . . ”

“F*** that guy, he better never show his face in Foxboro! But I want him to come to Foxboro so I can boo the ever-living s*** out of him and maybe barricade Route 1 like Gronk said we would!”

See? Works every time.

The irony is that the person mainly responsible for turning up the burner on this is Robert Kraft.

In May 2015, Kraft said at the owners meetings in San Francisco, “I don’t want to continue the rhetoric that’s gone on for the last four months. I’m going to accept, reluctantly, what he has given to us, and not continue this dialogue and rhetoric, and we won’t appeal.

“Now, I know that a lot of Patriots fans are going to be disappointed in that decision, but I hope they trust my judgment and know that I really feel at this point in time that taking this off the agenda, this is the best thing for the New England Patriots, our fans, and the NFL, and I hope you all can respect that.”

Well, that blew up like an ACME bomb. And -- from that moment on -- Kraft has tried to recoup the fanbase that believed he sold them out by issuing a succession of calls-to-arms that the region has dutifully responded to.

The most recent was throwing down the gauntlet to Goodell by expressly inviting him to the 2017 season opener.  I mean, it would have been a conversation point anyway, but now it’s metastasized into something that will be discussed throughout the offseason, ratcheting up in early September and hitting a crescendo on opening night.

There is appeal to seeing Goodell squirm while knowing the Maras, Rooneys and Irsays will be sipping highballs and lamenting the caddish treatment of Poor Roger. But I still like the football better.

Conversation about the historic import of SB51, the legacy of Brady and Belichick, prospects for the league in 2017? I’ll take those rather than an ESPN “personality” who spent a weekend in Newburyport at a friend’s wedding telling everyone what the mindset of the New England sports fan is.  

But that’s not what we’re going to get. There will instead be ever-escalating predictions of the terrors Goodell will be subjected to fueled by interviews with tatted-up kids from the mean streets of Marshfield who wanted “Hoodie” fired when he let Revis sign with the Jets.

Unless . . . unless the region en masse decides to let its loathing mature. Mature to the point that when the carrot gets dangled in its collective face it doesn’t leap at it with teeth bared but instead says, “No thanks. Already full.”

Yeah. I don’t think it’s gonna happen either.