Monday, November 16, 2009
Belichick flunked his open-book test
By Gene Wojciechowski ESPN.com
The New England Patriots should be 7-2 today. They should be getting treatment for welts caused by postgame backslaps. They should be basking in the afterglow of going to Indianapolis and beating Peyton Manning and the Colts at Hearing Loss Stadium.
Instead, they're 6-3 and getting treatment for shock. Not only did they lose a game but they probably lost something more important: home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs.
And oh, by the way, it's all Bill Belichick's fault.
Maybe his headset was too tight and it squeezed the blood from his brain. Maybe it was so loud in Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday night that he said, "No," but quarterback Tom Brady thought he said, "Go."
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Or maybe one of the greatest coaches who ever stood on an NFL sideline screwed up. Maybe it's just that simple.
With 2 minutes, 8 seconds remaining in the game, with the ball on the Patriots' 28-yard line, and with one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the game standing at his side, Belichick decided to go for it. Not play it safe and punt. Not make the Colts drive 50, 60, 70 yards for the game-winning touchdown. But go for it in a "Top Gun" "I've got a need for speed" sort of way, even though everybody is staring at their TVs and saying -- no, screaming -- "What is he doing?!"
Not me. I knew what Brady was going to do. He was going to drop into the shotgun formation and try to use a hard count to coax the anxious Indianapolis defensive line into a 5-yard penalty. Fourth down would become a gift first down.
And it did.
For the Colts.
Patriots running back Kevin Faulk bobbled Brady's pass long enough for the Colts to knock him just short of the first-down line. Belichick couldn't challenge the mark because he was out of timeouts. And, hello, here comes one of the other best quarterbacks in the history of the game -- Manning.
Four plays later, Indianapolis has a 35-34 victory and a 9-0 record and is driving the lead car in the AFC Home-Field Advantage 500.
Bill Belichick has some explaining to do.
The Patriots? Well, did you see Brady's face as the Colts covered those 29 yards? It was a combo facial platter of seething anger, disbelief and "How did we just lose this game?" And the postgame handshake between Belichick and Indianapolis coach Jim Caldwell was as warm as an ice floe.
You can rationalize the decision any way you want, but Belichick cost New England a crucial victory. Two yards isn't six inches. This wasn't a gimme quarterback sneak; it was a pass, meaning lots of things can -- and did -- go wrong. The first wrong thing was going for the first down. The second wrong thing was Faulk's bobble. The third wrong thing was not having any timeouts to challenge the mark of the ball after Melvin Bullitt's tackle.
Both Brady and Belichick defended the call. Of course, they did. That's what they're supposed to do. What, Brady is going to say the Patriots' offense, which finished with 477 total yards, couldn't finish with 479? He's going to argue against the fourth-down play? No way.
But where Belichick's logic springs a very large leak is why he chose Brady and fourth-and-2 over the Patriots' defense and first-and-70. That's about how many yards Manning presumably would have had to cover in the final 120 seconds (with one Colts timeout).
If Belichick was worried that his defense couldn't stop the Colts from scoring a touchdown from 70 yards out, why would he possibly think it could stop them from scoring one from 29 yards out? Brain freeze.
Giving Manning two minutes and one timeout from his own 30 is taking a chance. He's that good. But giving him two minutes with the equivalent of two timeouts from your 29 is football suicide. Just the thought of that scenario should have served as an ammonia capsule under Belichick's nose. Punt.
Instead, Belichick made the wrong choice at the wrong time against the wrong quarterback. As an added bonus, he sent a big bouquet of "I don't trust you" flowers to the New England defense. He rolled the bones on one play rather than taking his chances with however many plays -- six, seven? -- Indianapolis would have had in those remaining 120 seconds.
Belichick has done so many things right during his Patriots coaching career that it's a stunner when he does something so wrong. But this was a total miscalculation of the percentages. In the pressure of the moment, he forgot how to do the football math.
Manning, Caldwell and the Colts were presented a gift late Sunday night. I just never imagined Belichick would be the guy who wrapped it.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.