Belichick's errant gamble might haunt 6-3 Patriots for entire season
Bill Belichick's 4th-down gamble may have been out of respect for Peyton Manning
The AFC East-leading Pats may be the most devastated 6-3 club in memory
Indy's Dwight Freeney says those kind of gambles don't even work in video games
INDIANAPOLIS -- In Patriots lore, it'll forever be known as "The Call,'' the ultimate example of some Bill Belichick bravado that backfired.
But in Indianapolis, if there is somehow a perfect season in the Colts' future this year, they'll be able to look back, bizarrely enough, and thank the only other NFL team to go 16-0 in the regular season: Belichick's Patriots.
The sequence of events at the end of the Colts' 35-34 comeback victory over New England Sunday night at Lucas Oil Stadium will be discussed and debated for ages. But there's only so many ways to read Belichick's astounding decision to have his team go for it on 4th-and-2 from its own 28, leading the Colts by just six points with 2:08 remaining.
Maybe it was intended as the supreme show of respect for Peyton Manning and Indy's offense. Maybe it was a lack of confidence in New England's wearied defense, or an unwise sense of overconfidence in the Patriots' potent offense. Most likely, it was a combination of all of the above. Whatever the rationale, it proved to be a tempting of the football fates that New England could not overcome.
The Patriots failed to convert, the Colts made the most of the gift, and that was that, an Indianapolis win so improbable as to make every other game in this remarkable rivalry seem almost ordinary, by comparison. The Colts rallied out of a 17-point fourth-quarter hole and beat New England to stay perfect at 9-0. New England, still leading the AFC East by two games, is the most devastated 6-3 team in memory.
"We thought we could win the game on that play,'' a shellshocked-looking Belichick said in his postgame news conference, more than once. "That was a yard I was confident we could get. But I guess we didn't.''
What ramifications this game will have. For Belichick, the acknowledged best game tactician in NFL coaching, the call was immediately assailed as the worst of his long and distinguished career.
In the Colts locker room, defensive end Dwight Freeney said that even when you make that call "in video games,'' it's not a smart move. "You go for it on fourth down when you're not supposed to, and something bad happens."
On NBC, former Indy head coach-turned studio analyst Tony Dungy second-guessed his onetime rival, saying "You have to punt the ball in that situation. As much as you respect Peyton Manning and his ability, and as much as you may doubt your defense, you've got to play the percentages and punt the ball.''
Even ex-Patriots star Rodney Harrison, one of Belichick's favorite players ever, pilloried his former head coach for the call. "You cannot give Peyton Manning the opportunity on the 30-yard line to drive the ball and score a touchdown,'' Harrison said. "I've been around Bill Belichick a long time and he's made a lot of great coaching decisions, but this was the worst coaching decision I have ever seen Bill Belichick make.''
Though he tried to give off the detached air he always maintains in the post-game, win or lose, Belichick's demeanor showed that he didn't particularly like leaving himself open to the mother of all coaching second-guesses. When a reporter asked him if he could understand why people would question the move, he shrugged slightly and said: "Yep. They question everything.''
They'll question a little bit more now than they would have before Sunday night. You can count on that. Belichick's Hall of Fame ticket was punched years ago, but his reputation took a hit with this one, the biggest fourth-quarter lead his Patriots have ever surrendered in his 10-year tenure in New England.
The Patriots locker room was a morgue. It was as quiet as I can ever remember an NFL locker room being in the wake of a devastating loss. Those few players who did agree to talk to the media lined up squarely behind Belichick; but then, what else were they going to say?
"He's the head coach. He makes all the decisions,'' said Patriots running back Kevin Faulk, who caught the pass from Brady on fourth-and-2, but came up short thanks to a superb tackle by Colts safety Melvin Bullitt. "We're the players. We just execute. Or try to. He's the head coach. We are employees.''
Not exactly "I got your back, Coach,'' but Faulk got the pertinent message across. The Patriots take orders from one man, and one man alone. And the only rule in New England's locker room is, You don't criticize that man. Even if he put his defense into an impossibly tough situation on a short field with the game of the year hanging in the balance.
"Coach has a lot of confidence that we can gain a yard and a half to win the game,'' Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. "So you punt it to them, and they showed on the drive before that they can go down and score pretty quickly. And they had some timeouts. So we make that play, and we thought it'd win the game. Coach was being aggressive, and I love that about him. He gave us a chance to make the play and we just came up short.''
Indeed. And because of it, the Patriots could well come up short in this year's playoffs as well. That's what might have been on the line with Belichick's call. At 6-3, the Patriots' shot at securing homefield advantage in the AFC is probably gone. If the road to Miami and the Super Bowl goes through Indianapolis now, New England can't be comforted by that news. Need I remind anyone the Patriots and Colts have met three times this decade in the playoffs and each game has been won by the home team?
That's why in this series, against this particular nemesis, with so much at stake, Belichick's decision could continue to haunt these Patriots long past Sunday night. The same way New England blowing an 18-point halftime lead to Indianapolis in the 2006 AFC title game was a singular hurt before Sunday night.
"Any given Sunday, anything can happen,'' Faulk said. "They came back on us from (18 points) one year. Anything can happen. It doesn't matter who's coaching. He's still one of the better coaches making those decisions, no matter what happens. You win some and you lose some, buddy. You've just got to wake up tomorrow and fight from that day.''
It's true that Belichick, in the past, has been far more brazen with his fourth-down decision-making than your average NFL head coach. In Week 3 against Atlanta, the Patriots went for it on fourth down on their own 24-yard line, up just 16-10 in the third quarter. But that was up six at home in the third quarter, against the Falcons. That's not the undefeated Colts, on the road, in the final 128 seconds of a game your team has done enough to win -- but can't quite yet nail down.
"Not much surprises me with New England,'' said Manning, whose 1-yard touchdown pass on a slant to Reggie Wayne sealed the deal for the Colts with 13 seconds remaining. "You kind of expect the unexpected. Obviously, you prepare to get the ball back, and certainly when you [the defense] stop them on third down, you get excited to get the ball. But when you see them going for it on fourth down, I can't lie to you, obviously you certainly get a little nervous, because you realize you might get a shorter field, (or) the game might be over.''
On this night, Belichick's bravado was badly misplaced. The Colts and Manning got the ball on a shorter field, and soon enough, the game was indeed over. Some would say that even if the call had worked, it was the wrong move. But all that matters is that it didn't, and the Patriots failed because of it. Belichick has made brilliant calls aplenty in the past, and he'll have more in the future. This time, he gambled and lost.
"He's the best in the league at it, so we trust him,'' Patriots defensive lineman Mike Wright said. "It was Coach's decision, and everybody backs everybody on this team. Everybody had full confidence in the offense. It just didn't go our way. It sucks. But you let it go. You have to let it go.''
After a loss that was almost unique in its sting, those were the words the Patriots had to say. Now let's see how long it takes New England to really mean them.
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