Patriots

Patriots

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Tom Brady’s played 251 games at quarterback for the New England Patriots. How often in those games would Bill Belichick prefer to see the other team’s quarterback on the field with the game in the balance?

Not too many. Probably less than a dozen. The situation would have to be dire. And it might not be a cut-and-dried decision.

Sunday, that situation arose.  

Was Belichick “wrong” to take the ball out of Brady’s hands at the start of overtime Sunday against the Jets, to kick it off and hope to win a prolonged overtime battle? Or was it a calculated risk that just didn’t work out?

It was the latter.

Think about it. Look at the evidence submitted in the first 54 minutes of the game.

Offensively, the Patriots offense managed two field goals. Six points. They’d amassed 216 yards of offense. They’d gone 1-for-8 on third down. The only reason they were within a touchdown when they got the ball back with 6:26 remaining in the game was because their defense had created a strip-sack touchdown in the third. And when the Patriots finally did tie the game at 20-20 with 2:31 remaining, it was a drive pulled from the team’s collective posterior including two fourth-down conversions. With Brady throwing to Gronk, James White, Chris Harper, Brandon Bolden, Keshawn Martin and a banged-up Brandon LaFell, the odds were stacked against New England rolling downfield again. And we’re not even getting into the fact Brady was playing behind an offensive line featuring “In Case of Emergency Break Glass” left tackle Cameron Fleming.

 

With Brady throwing to Gronk, James White, Chris Harper, Brandon Bolden, Keshawn Martin and a banged-up Brandon LaFell, the odds were stacked against New England rolling downfield again. And we’re not even getting into the fact Brady was playing behind an offensive line featuring “In Case of Emergency Break Glass” left tackle Cameron Fleming.

Defensively, they were in a groove. After the strip-sack TD, they’d allowed a field goal and forced three consecutive punts. On the Jets’ previous three drives, the Pats had held them to one first down.

Which side of the ball was playing better for New England? It wasn’t close. Defense.

Kick it away, get a stop, roll downfield into field-goal range and get the hell out of Dodge with a win and the No. 1 overall seed. One could see the logic.

That wasn’t what happened. Not by a damn sight. But “wrong"?

If that was wrong, then taking the kickoff and asking a punchless offense to roll downfield would presumably have been “right”?

Actually, it would have been merely conventional.

This is far from the first time Belichick’s read the tenor of the game and decided to do something unusual. It’s blown up in their face -- fourth-and-2 in 2009 against the Colts. It’s worked out perfectly -- kicking off to the Broncos in OT at frigid Gillette in 2013.

In both cases, it was a dice roll. In all cases, Belichick looked at the facts as they were and made a decision.

In 2009, the Patriots defense wasn’t stopping Indy, period, so Belichick put the game in Brady’s hands. In 2013, Belichick didn’t think Peyton Manning could manage a drive into the wind. And on Sunday, Belichick bet on his defense and his special teams winning a field-position battle that would put the game’s best kicker -- Stephen Gostkowski -- front-and-center to win the thing.

There wasn’t a lot of navel-gazing from Belichick as to whether or not kicking the ball away was a tortured decision.

“I thought it was the best thing to do,” he stated, adding that there was no confusion as to what Matt Slater was supposed to do if the Patriots won the toss.

The closest he came to defending the call was pointing out two plays which he seemed to indicate the Patriots got jobbed.  

“There was a pass interference penalty on third down,” said Belichick, pointing to a flag thrown on Malcolm Butler with 1:25 left in regulation when he wrapped an arm around Eric Decker during a breakup. “We got the stop, we get the ball back where we want it.

“Then we get picked,” Belichick added, referencing the 48-yard catch-and-run for Quincy Enunwa on the second play of overtime. It didn’t appear on first look that the Jets made contact with any Patriots defenders, though. Leonard Johnson and Tavon Wilson collided, freeing up Enunwa. Had rookie safety Jordan Richards not left the game on the previous play with an injury, maybe things turn out differently. But when we get as far as wondering whether the loss of Jordan Richards at a key moment is the straw that broke the camel’s back, we have a pretty good bead on how undermanned the Patriots are right now.

But even the ridiculously competitive Brady had to tentatively allow that the Patriots were a little outgunned on Sunday.

“Whatever Coach decides, that’s what the team does,” he said. It wasn’t like we were tracking it up and down the field. It’s certainly not an easy decision.”

And it wasn’t necessarily the wrong one either.