Who needs blowouts, anyway?


Who needs blowouts, anyway?

By Rich Levine

OK, so the Pats won't win every game by 35 points after all.

Can you believe it?

Yes, of course you can. Although, I'll admit . . .

For a while there, things started to get a little weird.

On one hand, we never wanted to let ourselves believe it would really be that easy, or that New England's path to Dallas would be as smooth and effortless as the polar opposite of a Dan Connolly kick return but still, it was getting hard to resist, wasn't it?

This team had just won back-to-back "major" tests by a combined 81-10. Plus, they were only getting better and now all that stood between them and another three ungodly regular-season blowouts were Matt Flynn, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Chad Henne not exactly Murderer's Row, unless you count all the gambling careers theyve terminated. And seeing that it really hasn't been that long since New England actually did have a football team capable of extended periods of consistent dominance, it was easy to slip out of reality and into 2007.

But this isn't 2007, and we already knew that, so what happened Sunday Night against Green Bay isn't a huge surprise.

Maybe we didn't think that it would happen. Did you know anyone who thought the Packers had a chance? I can't imagine the levels of money Las Vegas raked in on this game. They couldn't make that line high enough. It went from 10 to 14 points in one weekend; everyone thought the Pats would cruise. But now that they didn't, and it wasn't just another "sit back and laugh about how awesome Brady and Belichick are" Sunday are you that shocked?



Maybe. Obviously, you wish they'd played better especially at home against a kid who'd never started a game or thrown a touchdown pass and, even worse, lost to the Lions last week but it's not the end of the world. There's no reason to think the Patriots are less prepared to win a Super Bowl today than they were yesterday. Barely beating Matt Flynn's Packers wasn't a setback, it was a test, and while they didn't pass with flying colors, they most certainly passed. And when you've built the body of work that they have over the course of these last 16 weeks, sometimes passing is enough. (Unless theres less than two minutes left and Matt Flynn's your QB, but thats another story. Or is it?)

Anyway, the Packers were a bump in the road, but the wheels didn't come off; even though there were several very near breaking points. But at those moments, the Patriots showed that while they're unfortunately not flawless, they still know how to win. The same way the 2001 team did in Buffalo and in the Snow Bowl, or the 2003 team did in Denver, Houston and Indy, or the 2007 team did in Baltimore and in Week 17 at the Meadowlands. Every memorable year except for maybe the ridiculous 2005 season has awful, ugly wins. Sometimes they're a wakeup call; sometimes a necessary learning tool; other times just a series of crazy NFL circumstances that the Pats are crafty enough to survive. In this case it was probably all three.

You can talk about how poorly they played and how lucky they were to win, but in the end they also deserved to win. It was a pretty crazy game, and all they did was take and roll with the punches. Do you really think they should have been more prepared for that first onside kick? Was that really from a lack of focus or skill level? I don't think so. It was a wild, well-executed play by the Packers. It worked perfectly, turned the game upside down before it even began and the Pats had to scramble to restore order. In the meantime, a series of strange plays and Matt Flynn's temporary transformation into Chad Pennington created a time-of-possession gap that limited Tom Brady's rhythm and the offense stalled. Through all the struggles, whether it was stopping Flynn from moving the ball or allowing Brady to do the same, the Pats never fell behind by more than 10 points, and that was for all of 1:09. And even though Matt Flynn isn't Aaron Rodgers, let's not forget that neither plays on the NFL's No. 1 ranked defense; that unit was still intact, and isn't an easy crew to regain your balance against.

But when it came down to it, on both sides of the ball, the Pats made the plays. They didn't make every play, just all THE plays.

When the Packers had the ball first-and-goal from the 2 with a 24-21 lead, the Pats forced a field goal even with John Kuhns temporary transformation into Peyton Hillis.

When the Packers had no timeouts but all the momentum on a potential game-winning drive, the Pats made the key open-field tackles.

When they needed to score, they scored.

When the Packers went up 10 with two minutes left in the first half, were getting the ball back to start the third, and were on the verge of knocking the crowd out of the game, the Pats put the ball in the hands of their 300-pound right guard and let him loose for a "quick" 71-yard, game-saving scamper.

I know that last one is out of chronological order, but I had to save it for last. Because when we look back on Sunday night's win, that play is what we'll most likely remembered it for it's the Dan Connolly kick-return game. We'll mention it the same way we do David Patten falling unconscious on the ball against the Bills in 01, or Belichick's intentional safety in Denver '03, or all of Baltimore's bad timeouts in 2007. It will be that wacky situation, from a wacky game that the Pats somehow pulled out.

But on top of that, the play's also a strong microcosm for the game itself.
It wasn't pretty. It wasn't as smooth or effortless as you would have liked. But effective enough to get the job done.

And at 12-2, and with now only one win standing between the Pats and and home-field advantage, they'll take it.

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

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


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


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.