COLTS-PATS

November 16, 2009

From Sam Farmer of the LA Times we read:                                                                       
“The NFL has outlawed gambling.

Clearly, New England missed the memo.

The Patriots took one of the biggest, most mystifying gambles in memory Sunday night, and paid the price when it backfired.

In the strangest chapter of their storied rivalry, the Indianapolis Colts scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter — the last coming with 13 seconds left — to beat the Patriots, 35-34, at Lucas Oil Stadium.

The Colts improved to 9-0 and, by getting past their most fearsome threat, claimed the early inside track toward home-field advantage in the playoffs.

The decisive score was set up by a bizarre decision by New England Coach Bill Belichick, one that football fans in Indianapolis, Boston and elsewhere will
debate for as long as there are water coolers.

With 2 minutes 8 seconds on the clock, the Patriots were up by six points and facing a fourth and two at their 28-yard line. Instead of punting the ball back to the Colts and making Peyton Manning drive it from his own territory, the Patriots’ offense stayed on the field.

Then, instead of merely trying to draw the Colts offside with a hard count, Tom Brady, in an otherwise empty backfield, took the shotgun snap and fired a pass to Kevin Faulk on his right. Safety Melvin Bullitt instantly made the tackle.

One-yard gain. Turnover on downs.

“We thought we could win the game on that play,” Belichick said, his voice so soft it was barely audible. “That was a yard I was confident we could get.”

They did get one yard. Getting two was the problem.

Manning took over, got the Colts to the one with a pass and two handoffs, then triggered delirium with a quick pass to Reggie Wayne for a touchdown. Matt Stover put the home team up with an extra point.

“Not much surprises me with New England,” Manning said. “When you see them go for it on fourth down, I can’t lie to you, you certainly get a little nervous because you might get a shorter field. But the game might be over.”

The Patriots had time to return the kickoff and run a play, and, like that, it was over.

“Disbelief? No. Disappointment? Yeah,” said Faulk, who came up just short on the fourth-down play. “Especially when you know it was the game-changing
play.”

The Patriots could not challenge the spot on the play in question — although they surely would have wanted to — because they had no timeouts.

Were it another coach making the decision to go for it, it might somehow be dismissed as the Rule of Dumb trumping the Rule of Thumb. But Belichick is
widely considered among the greatest minds in NFL history, a three-time Super Bowl champion who always seems to make the right call at the right time. He’s the guy who once came back to win at Denver after intentionally taking a safety. He’s the only NFL coach to finish the regular season 16-0.

Asked if he understands why people will question the fourth-down call, Belichick shrugged and said, “They question everything.”

Count former Colts coach Tony Dungy among the doubters.

“You have to punt the ball in that situation,” Dungy said in his role as NBC commentator. “As much as you respect Peyton Manning and his ability, and as much as you may doubt your defense, you have got to play the percentages and punt the ball.”

New England’s rationale was that it was so vital to keep the ball out of the hands of Manning, whose killer instinct was only enhanced by his being at home, that it was worth the risk. With his quick-strike capabilities and brilliance at managing the clock, even the thought of him starting deep in his territory was a knee-knocker.

Regardless, it didn’t work, and the Colts wound up winning their club-record 18th consecutive regular-season game — with a head-scratching memory to
savor.

“Whenever you go for it on fourth down in that situation, you’ve got to make a play,” Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney said. “It even happens in video games.
You go for it on fourth down when you’re not supposed to, and something bad happens.”

Then from the incredulous Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe we read him say that Belichick’s gaffe is unrivaled:                                                                                
“Ghastly.
This was as bad as anything the Red Sox ever did. Had it been a playoff game, it would be right up there with Bucky Dent, Bill Buckner, Aaron Boone, and
History Derailed in Glendale, Ariz.
And Bill Belichick played the part of Grady Little.
The Patriots lost to the undefeated Colts in unbelievable fashion last night. Leading, 31-14 in the fourth quarter, and 34-21 with 2:30 remaining, the Patriots took the choke and lost to their hated rivals, 35-34.
So the conference is gone, the playoff bye is probably bye-bye, and the (6-3) Patriots are saddled with a loss that will haunt them for the rest of the season.
And Belichick gets the blame. Too smart for his own good this time. The sin of hubris.
Here’s the situation: With the Patriots leading, 34-28, and 2:08 remaining, Coach Hoodie elected to go for a first down rather than punt when he faced fourth
and 2 from his 28-yard line. Guess he was afraid of what Peyton Manning might do.
Tom Brady’s fourth-down pass to Kevin Faulk was complete but inches shy of the first down. So the Colts took over and went 29 yards in four easy plays,
winning the game when Manning connected with Reggie Wayne on a laser-like 1-yard pass with an unlucky 13 seconds left on the clock.
Ouch. Bob Kraft’s $9 million federally funded footbridge project just became a bridge over troubled waters.
This game was in the win column. A Stephen Gostkowski field goal with 4:12 left made it 34-21. Unfortunately for New England fans, Belichick elected to
play soft defense and Manning quickly had the Colts in the end zone. It was 34-28 with 2:23 left. Then came the tragic set of downs and Belichick’s bold and crushing gamble.
In the postgame confusion, Belichick twice made a reference to the Patriots trying to gain 1 yard.
“I thought we could get that yard,’’ he said.
Asked if he knew the team needed 2 yards, Belichick said that he did. But then he said, “I don’t know how we could not get a yard on that.’’
Brady was simply spectacular in defeat. It was the 2007 Tom. He completed 29 passes for 375 yards and three touchdowns. Ditto for Randy Moss, who
caught nine passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns. The Patriots shredded Indy’s depleted secondary, scoring 24 straight points in the first half, then bolting to a 31-14 lead early in the fourth.
Meanwhile, Belichick worked with a depleted defense (no Ty Warren, no Jarvis Green, no Shawn Springs), plugged gaps with no names and new names, and frustrated the indomitable Manning (two interceptions) for a good part of the evening.
But none of that forgives his strategy in the final four minutes. Even the legions of zombies who say “In Bill We Trust’’ and the formidable pay-for-play Patriot media machine will have a hard time defending the brilliant coach on this one.
With Brady and Moss playing catch and New England’s defense containing Manning, the Patriots looked like they were going to insert themselves into the mix for the top rung of the conference. A 34-21 lead late in the fourth quarter generally means you win.
But there is some bad history for the Patriots in this town. In the 2006 AFC Championship game, New England led, 21-3 in the first half and 21-6 at
intermission, but managed to lose, 38-34. It was a crushing defeat that motivated the Patriots’ 16-0 season in 2007.
There was some deja vu last night as the Patriots led, 24-7 in the second quarter, 24-14 at intermission, then that 34-21 late in the fourth.
The first sign of trouble was Belichick’s decision to stand down when the Colts got the ball with just over four minutes left in the game, trailing by 13. New
England gave up everything underneath and Manning quickly had the Colts in the end zone.
It looked like a garbage-time footnote until the Patriots stalled when they got the ball back.
After a third-down pass to Wes Welker was broken up by Jerraud Powers, everyone in the world figured the Patriots were going to punt deep into Indy
territory. With 2:08 left, Belichick called time out and got into a discussion with Brady. To the amazement of everyone, Brady came back on the field to try the fourth and 2 from his 28.
“We thought we could win the game with that play,’’ reasoned Belichick.
Faulk made the catch and almost had the yardage, but he was short. The Patriots couldn’t challenge the spot because they didn’t have any more timeouts. And the Colts had the ball with incredible field position. The final touchdown drive was almost too easy, but Wayne made a nifty grab of a pass that looked like a Jonathan Papelbon fastball.
“We’re disappointed, but we’re moving on,’’ said Belichick.
Not everybody. This one will linger for a while, maybe into the winter. This was a horrible loss. It changes everything. And Bill Belichick gets the blame.”

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