Safety decision keys Pats win

If this were chess, Bill Belichick made the moves to put Mike Shanahan into check and checkmate.

No doubt, Belichick removed any debate whether he was the NFL first-half coach of the year with the strategies employed during Monday night's amazing 30-26 victory over the Broncos.

Here were the Patriots, trailing 24-23, with 2:51 remaining in regulation. The ball was at the Patriots' 1-yard line and Tom Brady had just failed on three pass attempts out of the end zone. Belichick made his decision clear to his special teams on the sidelines: Snap a safety and give the Broncos two points.

Call it the decision of the season to date. Belichick traded two points for the field position that later enabled Brady to hit David Givens with a 18-yard game-winning touchdown pass with 30 seconds left, leaving a Mile High crowd feeling as though its emotions were below sea level.

"It's fourth and 10 on the 1, I didn't think we were going to get very much field position coming out of there," Belichick said. "We had all of our timeouts left, so we went ahead and took the safety. With the three timeouts and two-minute warning still outstanding, we'd hope that we would get the ball back to be able to get a shot back. As it turned out, we got field position."

The idea is a little unconventional, but it was appropriate under the circumstances. Belichick remembers being in Denver in 2000 and trying a similar trick. He took the safety and punted the free kick. Deltha O'Neal grabbed the free kick, ran it for a touchdown and the game was over.

Not this time. Patriots deep-snapper Lonie Paxton snapped the ball from his 1 and hit the upright. Belichick mentioned that the Patriots practice such a play, but it's not as though they spend a lot of time working on the fundamentals in practice.

"You snap the ball over the head of the punter," Belichick said. "You do that in junior high school. It's pretty simple."

What followed took the heart out of the Broncos and may have sealed the fate of O'Neal being in the Shanahan doghouse for the remainder of the season. O'Neal is a first-round enigma for the Broncos. He's been talented enough to be a Pro Bowler. But in the past two years, his career has spiraled downhill.

This season, he lost his starting cornerback job to 6-foot-4 Lenny Walls. A week ago, Shanahan was so down on O'Neal that instead of letting him be the third cornerback, he deactivated him. Monday night was O'Neal's chance to redeem himself, and things looked encouraging. In the third quarter, O'Neal returned a punt 57 yards for a touchdown to give the Broncos a 24-20 lead, a lead the Broncos thought would be enough to win.

In the final three minutes, O'Neal went from hero to goat.

O'Neal misplayed Ken Walters' 64-yard free kick and recovered it at the Broncos 15. There was still 2:49 remaining on the clock, and suddenly Belichick's strategy looked brilliant.

The Broncos were using their third-string quarterback, Danny Kanell, who was almost completely ineffective moving the football in the second half. Had Kanell merely moved the ball into field goal position, the Broncos still could not have done anything. Kicker Jason Elam strained a groin muscle and was out of the game. Punter Micah Knorr had to fill in and could only make the equivalent of extra points.

After the free kick, Kanell gained only four yards on three plays that consumed just 34 seconds. Shanahan sensed he was being snookered by Belichick because he was forced to pass on third-and-five. Naturally, the pass was incomplete. The Patriots had 2:15 and the two-minute warning to get the ball and win the game.

"They had timeouts left, so if we run the football, they would get the ball with two minutes and 20 seconds left in the game," Shanahan said. "That's a lot of time. If we get the first down, we use up their timeouts and the game is probably over."

Suddenly, Belichick had a cushion. Troy Brown returned Knorr's punt nine yards to the Patriots' 42. The Patriots needed 58 yards for a touchdown and had a timeout and the two-minute warning.

Brady was magnificent during the game-winning touchdown drive. He looked better than he did his Super Bowl year. Despite playing with a banged-up right shoulder, Brady fired long passes with ease and was right on the mark when it counted. He completed three key passes to halfback Kevin Faulk for 40 yards, setting up one of the most dramatic plays of the Monday night season.

On first and 10 from the Patriots 18, Brady worked a fade pass to Givens. He was covered by, of all people, O'Neal, who has been beaten too often for touchdown receptions in key situations this season.

"It was a simple fade ball," Givens said. "He threw a back shoulder fade, and I made the catch. O'Neal was in press coverage, and Tom had two choices. He could either throw it over him or throw it to the back shoulder. He decided it to throw it back shoulder."

Said Shanahan, "It's always tough, any time you are in one-on-one coverage and you get beat. I was even more disappointed on the safety. We didn't field that punt, and that's 25-to-30 yards of field position. That doesn't help."

Broncos fans were furious. There were some boos and many shouts of anger. Halfback Clinton Portis, who wasted a gutsy 111-yard effort, summed it up the best when asked if the loss was a bitter pill to swallow.

"It's bull----," he shouted into a microphone.

Suddenly, the Broncos' 5-2 start is fizzling because of injuries and other problems. Already down two starting linebackers -- John Mobley and Ian Gold -- the Broncos lost veteran journeymen Donnie Spragan, forcing Shanahan to use rookies Terry Pierce and Jashon Sykes flanking middle linebacker Al Wilson. Jake Plummer is supposed to return after the bye week from the foot he broke standing up from his couch, but he's trying to now rally the Broncos to a possible wild-card spot.

At 5-4, the Broncos trail the Chiefs by 3½ games, and if the Chiefs beat the Browns on Sunday, the Broncos will be down four with only seven games left.

"Personally, it's tough," said Kanell, who didn't commit any turnovers but generated only 81 yards of offense in the second half. "I have an empty spot in my heart right now. It was one of those games you really fight hard in and then have a letdown. It's tough right now. Everyone in that locker room has to look at himself and see what he could have done better."

Enough about the Broncos. This game was Belichick's and Brady's.

Last year, Belichick played the Broncos and passed in a short-yardage shell. He wasn't going to let that happen again. Brady came out throwing, and he came out throwing deep. In the first quarter, Brady hit Deion Branch with a 66-yard touchdown pass against a Broncos zone. He set up a second-quarter field goal drive with a 48-yard pass to Givens on first down.

For the night, Brady was 20-of-35 for 350 yards and three touchdowns.

"I just think we are making more of an effort to try the long pass," Brady said. "We are working more on getting the ball down the field in practice. We are having enough time to make the throws. We are doing a good job of making defenses cover us up and down the field. Teams don't really expect us to go deep because we really haven't done that. It's one thing to take the shots, but it's another thing to hit them. We are capitalizing."

How is Brady getting away from his reputation of being a "dink-and-dunk" thrower despite having some shoulder problems? "With a lot of ice and a lot of steam," he joked. "But each week, there are more deeper balls in the game plan."

The real bomb Monday involved a safety, trading two points for seven. It allows the Patriots to head into the bye 7-2, and has Belichick heading into the second half of the season as the leader for coach of the year.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.