[Editor's Note: I thought this was an excellent read by Professor Todd. While some may not agree with his assessment of Belichick's 4th and 2, he at least presents a very cogent analysis of the game and why our head coach went in that direction]
I know, I know. Everybody on NBC and on NFL network (except Deion Sanders) couldn't believe that Bill Belichick
went for it on 4th and 2 at the 30 but come on....does anyone really think the Patriots (or anybody else in the NFL) would have stopped Manning if they had punted the ball in that situation? He had just moved 70 yards against our defense in what seemed like 25 seconds. What exactly would have prevented a replay of that?
Let's reexamine the call. The Patriots offense is one of the best around and they moved the ball at will against the NFL's top-ranked defense last night and scored 34 points. They just needed two yards to get a new set of downs and Belichick--justifiably--believed his offense could get those two yards. Maybe you can question the play call itself--Welker looked open slightly deeper down the field, or maybe you run the ball on 3rd and 2 to set up another run or Brady sneak on 4th and inches--but the logic behind going for it there is still good. It's not just that the New England offense is really good and can get two yards but that the effect of a first down there is to keep the ball away from Manning. With a better spot--did they ever show a measurement or the exact placement of the ball?--they would have gotten it, run out the clock, and won the game. Belichick went for it on 4th and short against Atlanta in week 3 at our own 24 (or something) and later explained his decision by saying simply: "I thought we could gain a yard." Last night it was two yards but the logic and the thinking was the same--and, again, it was the best (maybe the ONLY) possible defense against Manning in that situation.
Give the Colts credit for playing until the very end and for making the plays they had to make. Manning is absolutely phenomenal. But the Colts benefited from two questionable calls that greatly aided their comeback: a phantom pass interference call against Butler defending Austin Collie that resulted in a 31 yard gain and set up the Addai touchdown that cut the margin to 34-28; and the spot and the call on Faulk's catch on the 4th and 2.
But those officiating calls weren't where the Patriots lost the game, any more than they supposedly lost it because of Belichick's decision to go for it. Instead, New England lost last night because, while dominating the 3rd quarter and possessing the ball for over 11 minutes, they failed to score on either of two deep drives into the red zone. On the first, Brady was intercepted in the end zone by Bethea after a nice drive. Then, after an even better drive, Maroney fumbled inside the 5 and the Colts recovered in the end zone for a touch back. A field goal on either one of those drives would have put us ahead 27-14 athe the time; 34-14 after the Brady to Moss TD early in the 4th (after Welker's great return), and 37-21 after the Gostkowski field goal at around 4 minutes. That's a three score game and would have required the Colts to score two TDs and two 2-point conversions just to tie. Needless to say, a touchdown on either of those drives would have given the Pats leads of 31-14 on that score, 38-14 after the Brady to Moss TD, and 41-21 after the field goal with 4 minutes left. Game over. But these season-long red zone miscues--while only holding down our victory margin in previous games--killed us tonight. By not closing out the Colts in the 3rd and early 4th quarter, the Patriots gave them just enough space and time to come back.
The loss is extremely disappointing. New England had possibly the best team in the league on the ropes and beaten. On the road. A win would have given us a 3 game lead in the division and moved us right into great position to claim home field advantage for the playoffs in the event of a tiebreaker with the Colts.
But there is much to be pleased about with this game. The Patriots pushed around possibly the best team in the league for most of the game. They moved the ball at will and scored 34 points and the defense came up with two picks and some big stops during the first 56 minutes of the game. Special teams played great. There is a lot about to be happy about despite the loss (although that's all that Patriot nation can really feel right now). And let's not forget that Indianapolis--for whatever reasons--turns into pumpkins at playoff time (especially if San Diego is their opponent). The Colts might lose before the Patriots would have to face them in Indy in the playoffs. But even if the Colts win and there's a playoff rematch at Lucas Oil Stadium, New England knows that it came in here and pushed the Colts back on the heels and (coulda, shoulda, woulda) beatem them. In fact, the Pats did everything except win the game--but, of course, that's the only thing that counts. I doubt they will have any fears of facing Indianapolis here again in January if it comes to that. All the pressure would be on the Colts and I'd like the Pats chances in that game.
Besides how well they played for most of the game last night, there's another silver lining about yesterday's results. The Jets lost again and are now in free fall, coming into Foxboro next week. As a result, even with the loss tonight New England is still two games up in the division. The Patriots already have a score to settle with the Jets already, and now need to exorcise the demons from the Indianapolis game as well. A win next week and we're 7-3 and lead the division by at least two games (if Miami wins) or three games (if Miami loses). Sure, the Saints are great but I don't think Brees is quite as good as Manning, nor do I think the Saints D is as good as the Colts defense. I like our chances in the Monday night game in New Orleans. And then it's a tough road game in Miami and then on to the final four-pack of games against very beatable foes and a chance to wrap up the season with a nice medium sized winning streak.
You do what you have to do to win games and, although in an ideal world we would have so far ahead that it wouldn't have come down to this, Belichick's call last night was exactly the right one. It's not so much a matter of not trusting your defense, it's a matter of trusting your offense to pick up two yards and run out the clock. I still say keeping the ball out of Manning's hands entirely is better than kicking it two him with 2 minutes, one timeout, and 70 yards to go. The game was lost by the failure to score in the 3rd quarter; not by the decision to go for it on 4th down.
Now, let's go run up the score on the Jets. In the meantime, we should probably all just ignore the torrent of second-guessing and criticism from the national sports media that is sure to come in the days ahead.