Pats come back down to Earth

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Pats come back down to Earth

By Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

Last week was a crazy one for Pats fans, and I'm not even talking about the speculation over a potential Randy Moss reunion, the overhyping of BelichickMangini: Round Whatever, or the absurdity of Logan Mankins' mustache.

No, what made last week so especially strange was that for probably the first time since Bernard Pollard wrecked Tom Brady's knee, the New England Patriots were the consensus best team in football.

They were the only one-loss team in the league. They'd played one of the most challenging schedules in the league. They were building chemistry on offense, discovering themselves on defense and undergoing an attitude overhaul behind the scenes.

They'd won five straight games. They had momentum.

Leading into Sunday's game against the Browns, New England sat atop nearly every "expert's" power rankings. They were once again the darlings of the national media. Even Tom Jackson was forced to say a few nice things about them, and that happens about as often as you hear Rex Ryan say, "Nah, that's OK. The small order of onion rings is fine."

The Pats were back. Or at least that's what it felt like.

And it was kind of shocking.

Why? Because we never saw it coming.

Not even the most optimistic, silver-and-blue-colored-glasses-wearing, "In Belichick We Trust"-pledging, "Man, why is Fred Smerlas so negative?"-asking super fan could have realistically believed that the Pats would start this season 6-1.

Part of that was a result of New England's schedule over the first eight weeks, which included trips to New York, Miami and San Diego, as well as home games against the Ravens and Vikings. And even though the Bengals don't look like much now, let's not forget they came into this season as the defending AFC North champs. That should have been a major challenge, too.

Even a great team, we thought, would hit a few potholes on such a treacherous early season road, and this is the other reason why 6-1 seemed so distant we knew that the Pats weren't great.

Yeah, there was reason for positivity, but we'd all seen enough great teams around here to understand that this current one had some serious issues. Our expectations were high, but they weren't unrealistic. We expected the season to be successful, yet at the same time exceedingly difficult.

And we just werent ready for what happened.

Which is that through a bizarre stretch of on-and-off the field mayhem, the Patriots won five straight games.

This isn't to say any of the wins were undeserved. A win's a win in this league. But individually, there was something about each victory that left us wanting more, or at least, left us not entirely convinced that this team was for real.

After the Buffalo game we said, "Yeah, but it was Buffalo."

After the Miami game we said, "Yeah, but when are they ever going to get three defensivespecial teams touchdowns again?"

After the Ravens game we said, "Yeah, but they only really played one good quarter."

After the San Diego game we said, "Yeah, but the Chargers gave it to them!"

And after the Minnesota game we said, "Yeah, but didn't they still look kind of sloppy?"

Each week there was something different, but the result was always the same. Meanwhile, the Colts, Saints, Packers and Steelers began to lose, and the national media needed another "team of the moment." They saw the 6-1 record, the five-game win streak and the "They dropped Moss and never looked back!" storyline and just ran with it.

We'd spent most of the first few months of the season wondering if the Patriots were even the best team in their division. We thought we knew who they were that is, a good but not great team with loads of potential and a lot of room to grow but now everyone in the football world was telling us differently.

And despite the irrelevancy of power rankings in general, and the insignificance of guys like Tom Jackson, it was hard not to join the fun. Life's a lot better when the Pats are atop the NFL. It's been a while since we could really say that.

So we rolled with it. We talked about the Pats like they were the team of old; like the team that marched into Cleveland six years ago and blew them off the field before halftime. We played along.

But deep down, this didn't feel like a 6-1 team. The offense still wasn't clicking. The defense was playing at an unrealistic level. They looked like a good team, but just not the best team in the NFL. No matter what anyone said.

And after watching the way the Pats played in Cleveland, its now obvious that theyre not.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. I'm not saying we should overreact to Sunday's loss, call it a season, hope the Raiders lose a bunch more games and start looking to next year. I'm just saying that maybe the overreaction had taken place before Sunday's game even started.

That for now, maybe it's healthier and more realistic to consider the plight and potential of the 6-2 Patriots a team with legitimate, but not necessarily fatal flaws (experience, depth, offensive fire, big-game pedigree) than to go along ignoring the issues of the 7-1 team under the assumption that they'll just always find a way to win.

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on CSNNE.com. Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

WATCH: Celtics vs. Sixers

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Patriots DT Branch wins appeal of four-game suspension

Patriots DT Branch wins appeal of four-game suspension

FOXBORO -- Alan Branch knew he had a good case, otherwise he wouldn't have appealed. It was just a question of when that appeal might be heard. 

As of Wednesday, the Patriots defensive tackle hadnt heard anything as it related to the appeal of his four-game suspension. But by Saturday morning, according to Field Yates of ESPN, Branch had won the appeal and been cleared of the league's ban. 

Branch's agent later confirmed the news on Twitter.

Word of Branch's punishment, which stemmed from what was reported as a positive marijuana test, became public when reported by ESPN on Nov. 21. Per the league's substance abuse policy, appeal hearings are typically scheduled for the fourth Tuesday after a player has been informed of his penalty. The policy notes that it is possible for appeals to be heard on another date should the two sides be able to work out different schedule, but Branch was not optimistic that would be the case earlier this week. 

Good news came quickly, though. 

Had Branch been forced to miss any time, it would have docked the Patriots arguably their top interior defensive lineman. Branch has started every game, and he leads all Patriots defensive tackles with 457 snaps played. 

The Patriots recently waived running back DJ Foster and signed defensive tackle Darius Kilgo, seemingly as a way to build some depth on the roster if Branch had been suspended. 

By having his four-game suspension wiped away not only are the Patriots saved from having to deal without one of their top players in the trenches, but Branch saved himself a relatively hefty financial penalty.

A four-game ban would have cost him nearly $300,000 in base salary as well as four game-day bonuses adding to $100,000. He also stood to lose as much as $750,000 in season-long playing-time incentives. In all, had the suspension stood, it could have cost him about $1.1 million. Patriots salary-cap expert Miguel Benzan goes into more detail about the potential financial impact of Branch's suspension here

Thankfully for Branch, he doesn't have to worry about that any longer. With this situation in the rear view, he can now focus on helping the Patriots win games during the stretch run of the regular season and into the playoffs.