By Ryan McGowan
I didn’t sleep much last night. I usually pass out easily on Sunday nights, but this week I kept replaying the final two minutes over and over again in my head. Somehow, I eventually got to sleep—and when I woke up, it all made sense.
Belichick was right. He went for it on 4th and 2 at his own 28 yard line. And I would want him to do it again, no question.
By now we’ve been able to dissect the events of Sunday night’s Colts-Patriots epic contest. The opening score by the Colts. The furious 24-unanswered-point run by New England. Kevin Faulk’s ever-consistent marches to the first down markers. Wes Welker’s sure hands and gutsy punt returns. The Colts defense playing 20 yards off Randy Moss in the slot, as #81 sprinted vertical past the Indy safeties for another sublime touchdown grab. The rookie Sebastian Vollmer’s manhandling of legendary Colts pass rusher Dwight Freeney. Tom Brady looking like the vintage 2007 model, threading the needle through helpless Indianapolis defenders and even pirouetting at one point like Clara in The Nutcracker. Peyton Manning leading the Colts roaring back in the fourth quarter, just like in the 2006 AFC Championship game, throwing caution to the wind and taking back the momentum and getting his team within six points with a chance to tie or win the game.
The sad part of last night’s two-minute-warning fourth-down debacle is that all those great moments for both team will be forgotten, relegated to the dustbin of history much like the first 7 innings of Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, a game in which a gutsy Pedro Martinez grinded out a masterpiece before Grady Little choked his way into infamy. In fact, numerous Boston-area media types have already posited the analogy that Belichick’s fateful decision to eschew punting the ball to Manning and the seemingly unstoppable Indy offense is the gridiron equivalent of rolling the dice with Pedro in Yankee Stadium.
They couldn’t be more wrong.
Belichick made the call, and it was the right call. It was the only call that made sense. I am 100% convinced that even had the Patriots punted, the Colts still score a touchdown to win the game. Did anyone watch the previous eight minutes of that game? Manning and the offense ran through the Patriots exhausted defense like Moses and the Israelites through the Red Sea. Call me a homer, call me biased, call me a Belichick rump-swab, but for my money you do not give the ball to Peyton Manning with a chance to win the game under any circumstances. Bill had the other reigning Best Quarterback Alive on his team, and the ball was in his hands. Why would you do anything to give the other guy a shot, when your guy has the keys to the kingdom and you have the guts to pull the trigger on it?
Today’s critics have brought out all the stops in ripping Belichick’s decision. “No other coach in the league would ever do that,” they say. How bogus and small-minded. Just because Jim Zorn would have been removed from the sidelines by Daniel Snyder before the clock even struck zero does not mean that BB made the wrong call. Who cares if Raheem Morris or Wade Phillips couldn’t get away with such a decision? Not only do they all suck as coaches to begin with, none of them have Tom Brady on their side. None of them were staring down a fired-up, momentum-charged Peyton Manning ready to pounce into the end zone whether he had 30 yards or 70 yards to work with. None of them had to get two freaking yards (read: six feet or roughly 182 centimeters) and had a play that GAINED TWO YARDS before an awful spot pushed the ball back in front of the sticks.
“He’s arrogant,” they said today. “He didn’t respect the Colts as a professional defense.” This is completely ludicrous. If anything, the decision to go for it on fourth down was as much a show of complete paranoia (albeit justified) over Manning’s personal awesomeness than any kind of hubris-filled show of Belichick’s self-love. He didn’t want Manning to touch the ball again. Pretty reasonable in my mind, especially considering the results.
“He lost them the game,” they cried today. How short our memories are. Against Atlanta in Week 3, the Patriots offense went for a fourth down conversion deep in their own territory, and made it. They proceeded to roll down the field and scored an important touchdown in disposing of the Falcons. No one said a peep about how he disgraced the game by failing to correctly punt the ball away to Matt Ryan then. One play does not make or break a game—you could just as easily point to Laurence Maroney’s goal-line fumble or Brandon Meriwether’s tackle of Joseph Addai when it would have been arguably a better play to let him score Madden-style and have more time left on the clock as decisive plays in the game. But because Belichick had the balls to go for the jugular and put the other team away rather than play soft and not to lose, he gets vilified as the Boston Bartman.
If anything, the call was the logical end to an unfortunate series of events that was a possible result of the Pats building up too big a lead, effectively peaking too early. In that sense, it was eerily reminiscent of the 06 AFC title game, when the Colts stormed back from a 21-6 halftime deficit to win 38-34. The Patriots offense was moving at will—Indy had no answer for Moss, and Welker, Faulk, and Ben Watson were reaping the benefits of increased attention to him. But for some inexplicable reason, New England decided to start milking the clock throughout the fourth quarter, thinking that a three-score lead was enough. The lead, not shockingly, began to slip away. Belichick had to have sensed the transience of this lead and decided enough was enough. No longer were they going to sit on their lead and play field position—they were going for the win. And he didn’t change his tune today—in all his interviews, he kept repeating the same line: I thought it gave us the best chance to win the game.
And when it comes down to it, that’s all you can ask from your coach. Many in New England are cursing Bill today, but after further review, I’ve decided that we should count our blessings that we have a coach with enough guts and moxie to play to win the game by trusting the greatest winner in the NFL rather than turtle and take the safe, conventional move just because that’s what Joe Fan is used to seeing the Eric Manginis and Norv Turners of the world do. Bill could have ordered the punt, the Patriots would have lost, and he wouldn’t have been criticized for any “unconventional” decisions. But he wanted the win.
Jerry Thornton of Barstool Sports quoted Rounders today (actually a double-reference, since the film was itself quoting Jack King’s Confessions of a Winning Poker Player): “Few players recall big pots they have won, strange as it may seem, but every player can recount with remarkable accuracy the outstanding bad beats of his career.” How soon we forget reaping the benefits of Bill Belichick’s genius and turn on him as soon as the coin flips in the wrong direction for us. As much as last night’s loss hurt, I’m okay with the Patriots having gone out in a blaze of glory.
“Lord I never drew first
But I drew first blood
I’m no one’s son
Call me young gun.”
Hey, if nothing else, the Colts and Pats gave us exactly what this season needed- a jolt in the arm with one of the greatest regular-season games of all time as another chapter of the best NFL rivalry of this decade, and at least the Pats covered the 3 point spread. And for the record, I would hate to be the New York Jets right now. See you in Week 11.