Who are the Pats? They're AFC Champs

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Who are the Pats? They're AFC Champs

What can you say about that game?

How do you take the emotions of those 60 minutes, or even just the last 1:44, and quantify how much it means to every one involved, how much it changes the past, potentially changes the future, and how close it all came to slipping away?

For the next few days, and for the better part of the next two weeks, that's what we'll do here at SRO. But for now, let's just keep it simple:

The Patriots are back in the Super Bowl.

I wasn't sure I'd ever see it again. I certainly didn't know when. But after a season full of ups, downs and inconsistent play, after so many injuries, an eight-game win streak, a (gasp) two-game losing streak and countless arguments centered around one frustrating question Who are these New England Patriots? we finally know the answer.

Who are these Patriots?

They're AFC Champions.

Theyre Wilfork holding down the trenches, doing things a man his size isn't supposed to do. They're Spikes and Mayo wreaking havoc in the middle, and Mark Anderson doing the same around the edge. They're Arrington and Moore holding on for dear life on the corners, with Chung and McCourty as the last line of defense. Theyre BenJarvus Green-Ellis running hard with his head down, regardless of whether his helmet's on top. Theyre Gronks strength and resilience. Hernandez's elusiveness. Welkers toughness. Theyre Brady. Theyre Belichick.

They're not 2001, 2003, 2004 or 2007.

They're 2011, now 2012. And they're heading back to the Super Bowl.

If you're a Pats fan, you know exactly what that means.

For the next two weeks, no matter where you live or what you do, your life's about to get better. For the next two weeks, work wont be as painful. Commutes wont feel as long. Theres always something to watch, always something to read. Depressed about the Celtics? Pissed off about the Sox? For the next two weeks, it's not so bad.

As of last night, we all picked up a holiday. But not just any holiday. The Super Bowl doesn't come with any family obligations, fancy dinners, expensive presents or ugly sweaters. It's a holiday where your only responsibility is to drink beer, eat delicious garbage and watch your favorite team play on the biggest stage in all of sports. Your friends don't make excuses of why they can't come out or have to go home early. When it comes to the Super Bowl there are no excuses. It's a celebration unlike anything in sports, and few other things in life.

There was a time when we may have taken it for granted. A stretch where this was the expectation, instead of the dream. But after four years, the dream is back, and we'll appreciate every second.

The Patriots are back in the Super Bowl.

One game stands between so many people, and so much history.

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

STANLEY CUP FINALS: Guentzel's goal lifts Penguins by Predators 5-3 in Game 1

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STANLEY CUP FINALS: Guentzel's goal lifts Penguins by Predators 5-3 in Game 1

PITTSBURGH - Pittsburgh rookie Jake Guentzel beat Nashville's Pekka Rinne with 3:17 left in regulation to put the Penguins ahead to stay in a 5-3 victory in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night.

Guentzel snapped an eight-game goalless drought to help the defending champions escape after blowing a three-goal lead.

Nick Bonino scored twice for the Penguins. Conor Sheary scored his first of the playoffs and Evgeni Malkin scored his eighth. The Penguins won despite putting just 12 shots on goal. Murray finished with 23 saves for the Penguins, who used the first coach's challenge in finals history to wipe out an early Nashville goal and held on despite going an astonishing 37:09 at one point without a shot.

Game 2 is Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.

Ryan Ellis, Colton Sissons and Frederick Gaudreau scored for the Predators. Rinne stopped just seven shots.

The Penguins had all of three days to get ready for the final following a draining slog through the Eastern Conference that included a pair of Game 7 victories, the second a double-overtime thriller against Ottawa last Thursday.

Pittsburgh downplayed the notion it was fatigued, figuring adrenaline and a shot at making history would make up for any lack of jump while playing their 108th game in the last calendar year.

Maybe, but the Penguins looked a step behind at the outset. The Predators, who crashed the NHL's biggest stage for the first time behind Rinne and a group of talented defenseman, were hardly intimidated by the stakes, the crowd or the defending champions.

All the guys from the place dubbed "Smashville" have to show for it is their first deficit of the playoffs on a night a fan threw a catfish onto the ice to try and give the Predators a taste of home.

The Penguins, who led the league in scoring, stressed before Game 1 that the best way to keep the Predators at bay was by taking the puck and spending copious amounts of time around Rinne. It didn't happen, mostly because Nashville's forecheck pinned the Penguins in their own end. Clearing attempts were knocked down or outright swiped, tilting the ice heavily in front of Murray.

Yet Pittsburgh managed to build a quick 3-0 lead anyway thanks to a fortunate bounce and some quick thinking by Penguins video coordinator Andy Saucier. Part of his job title is to alert coach Mike Sullivan when to challenge a call. The moment came 12:47 into the first when P.K. Subban sent a slap shot by Murray that appeared to give the Predators the lead.

Sullivan used his coach's challenge, arguing Nashville forward Filip Forsberg was offside. A lengthy review indicated Forsberg's right skate was in the air as he brought the puck into a zone, a no-no.

It temporarily deflated Nashville and gave the Penguins all the wiggle room they needed to take charge.

Malkin scored on a 5-on-3 15:32 into the first, Sheary made it 2-0 just 65 seconds later and when Nick Bonino's innocent centering pass smacked off Nashville defenseman Mattias Ekholm's left knee and by Rinne just 17 seconds before the end of the period, Pittsburgh was in full command.

It looked like a repeat of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against Ottawa, when the Penguins poured in four goals in the first period of a 7-0 rout.

Nashville, unlike the Senators, didn't bail. Instead they rallied.

Ellis scored the first goal by a Predator in a Stanley Cup Final 8:21 into the second. Though Nashville didn't get another one by Murray, they also kept Rinne downright bored at the other end. Pittsburgh didn't manage a shot on net in the second period, the first time it's happened in a playoff game in franchise history.

Nashville kept coming. Sissons beat Murray 10:06 into the third and Gaudreau tied it just after a fruitless Pittsburgh power play.

No matter. The Penguins have become chameleons under Sullivan. They can win with both firepower and precision.

Guentzel slipped one by Rinne with 3:17 to go in regulation and Bonino added an empty netter to give Pittsburgh early control of the series.

Harper, Strickland throw punches in Nationals-Giants brawl

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Harper, Strickland throw punches in Nationals-Giants brawl

SAN FRANCISCO - An enraged Bryce Harper charged the mound, fired his helmet and traded punches to the head with San Francisco reliever Hunter Strickland after getting hit by a fastball, setting off a wild brawl Monday during the Washington Nationals' 3-0 win over the Giants.

Drilled in the right hip by a 98 mph heater on Strickland's first pitch in the eighth inning with two outs, none on and Washington ahead 2-0, Harper didn't hesitate. The slugger pointed his bat at Strickland, yelled at him and took off.

No one got in Harper's way as he rushed the mound. His eyes were wide as he flung his helmet - it sailed way wide of Strickland, it might've slipped - and they started swinging away. The 6-foot-4 Strickland hit Harper in the face, then they broke apart for a moment before squaring off again. Harper punched Strickland in the head as the benches and bullpen emptied.

Giants teammates Michael Morse and Jeff Samardzija collided hard as they tried to get between the two fighters. Three Giants players forcefully dragged Strickland from the middle of the pack all the way into the dugout, while a teammate held back Harper.

Harper and Strickland were both ejected. They have some history between them - in the 2014 NL Division Series, Harper hit two home runs off Strickland, and the All-Star outfielder glared at the reliever as he rounded the bases after the second shot in Game 4.