Let’s go back to Jan. 21, 2007. The site is the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, the contest is the AFC Championship. The Patriots have watched an 18-point lead evaporate and are clinging to a 34-31 advantage. New England is faced with a third-and-4 at its own 46. There’s 2:30 remaining in the game and the Colts are down to one timeout. Translation: One more first down and it’s over.
The Patriots fail to convert, as Troy Brown uncharacteristically doesn’t make the same read as Tom Brady and runs an in-route when Brady is anticipating an out. The Patriots punt the ball back to the Colts and Peyton Manning promptly leads a crisp 7-play, 80-yard championship-clinching drive in 77 seconds. For the Patriots, out the window goes a fourth Super Bowl victory in six years and the title of greatest dynasty of all time.
Yet perhaps more significant, the driving force behind a vengeful drive for perfection is spawned. As a result of that failed third-down and the ensuing culmination of an epic Manning comeback, the Patriots would embark on a furious spending spree that would net their just-a-tad-not-good-enough offense Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth.
The message out of Foxboro was clear and decisive: We have taken every measure to ensure that if and when we’re confronted by that scenario again, Manning will NOT get the ball back in his hands.
17 wins, zero losses and 365 days later, the Patriots were back in the AFC Championship Game, and had the Chargers not shocked the world by knocking off the Colts in the Dome, we just may have seen that philosophical change come to fruition.
See, time was, Belichick’s defenses — be it in blizzardy New England or climate-controlled Indianapolis — had the talent, gameplan and execution to go to war with Manning for 60 minutes and come out on top. Over the last few years the tables have turned, though, partly because the Pats D has aged.
But the real reason is Manning has entered a new zone cerebrally. Defenses can no longer win a 60-minute battle against him, no matter how crafty the scheme or how precise the execution. The guy will always make the adjustments. Coverages that burn him for picks in the first quarter he will look at on his satellite snapshots on the sideline, hatch a new plan of attack and put a quick six on the board when he sees the same coverage again in the fourth quarter.
He did it on the biggest play of the championship drive in ’07 (a 32-yard sideline pattern to backup tight end Bryan Fletcher) and again last Sunday, recognizing that the Patriot corners were jumping slants and hitches and thus becoming increasingly susceptible to double moves.
Which brings us, at last, to the fourth-and-2 that no one has been able to stop talking about this week. Did Belichick make a mistake? Yes he did. Was the mistake going for it on fourth down? An unequivocal NO.
Forget about the history for a moment and look at Sunday night’s game on its own. The Patriots offense was as dominant and free-moving as it had been at any point during the undefeated season, amassing 477 total yards vs. a depleted Colts secondary. On the other side, the Patriots played inspiring defense for three quarters before beginning to tire, holding Indy to 14 points. Of course, that was exactly the time when Manning implemented his adjustments and started to exploit the fatigued Pats D.
(Side note: A major argument for Belichick punting the ball was that his defense had already stopped Manning in the fourth quarter. That’s barely true. Here are the Colts first three drives of the quarter.
Drive No. 1 — Begins at Indy 21, 5 plays, 79 yards and a touchdown in 2:04.
Drive No. 2 — Begins at Indy 18, 1 play, Manning intercepted by Jonathan Wilhite on a duck that he clearly lost grip of as he released it.
Drive No. 3 — Begins at Indy 21, 6 plays, 79 yards and a touchdown in 1:49.
Watch Drives Nos. 1 and 3 then look at the ball Manning throws to begin Drive No. 2 and tell me he wouldn’t have found the end zone on that possession if it weren’t for a fluky throw. Thus I must respond with an emphatic PUH-LEASE when folks assert the New England defense was capable of stopping the Colts when Manning had 2:08 and a timeout to boot.)
That Belichick opted to go for it and failed is a perfect segway into how — despite making the correct decision on fourth down — Belichick still played a major role in the game being lost. Almost everyone with an opinion will assert that the fourth down miss was the final — and fatal — move by the Hooded Coach in his latest chess match with Manning. It wasn’t.
Aside from the fact that the Patriots had used all of their timeouts (including an unprecedented stoppage before the drive even started because of personnel issues, which ended up being the one they needed to challenge the spot of Kevin Faulk’s reception on fourth down), Belichick didn’t properly articulate the big picture to his defense. I use the words “properly articulate” because he must have been prepared for the eventuality that the conversion attempt could miss, in which case the strategy would become allowing the Colts to score the inevitable touchdown in an expedited fashion so Brady could salvage some time to work his own magic (remember, the Patriots only needed a field goal to win once Indy scored).
For some reason, though, Belichick didn’t relay that message to the defense, and sure enough, it bit him when Brandon Meriweather dragged Joseph Addai down from behind at the 1-yard line on the second play of the ensuing Colts drive. If Meriweather had allowed Addai to walk into the end zone (as he was about to do), Brady would’ve had roughly 1:10 to get his team into field goal range.
If you’re a New England fan, you know what that means. Just like Belichick knew what it meant for Manning to get the ball period, regardless of field position. Dunzo.
Anyone who still believes that Belichick made the call because of hubris or ego or early signs of senility is sadly misinformed. Moreover, they fail to appreciate that this man has probably endured countless sleepless nights ruing his decision to give the ball back to Manning on that fateful fourth down 34 months ago.
Once again, I’ll reiterate: On its own, given the circumstances, he made the right call. When you consider the history involved, and the fact that the demise (if you can even call it that) of the Patriots dynasty can arguably be traced back to that one play in the RCA Dome, there’s only one answer to the question of whether Belichick made the right move in sending Brady back out there.
And the question itself is rhetorical.
Week 11 Picks (home teams in CAPS)
CAROLINA over Miami
DALLAS over Washington
DETROIT over Cleveland
GREEN BAY over San Francisco
Pittsburgh over KANSAS CITY
MINNESOTA over Seattle
NY GIANTS over Atlanta
New Orleans over TAMPA BAY
JACKSONVILLE over Buffalo
Indianapolis over BALTIMORE
Arizona over ST. LOUIS
San Diego over DENVER
Cincinnati over OAKLAND
NEW ENGLAND over NY Jets
Philadelphia over CHICAGO
Tennessee over HOUSTON
Last Week: 11-4