As anyone who has been following my Top 20 Patriots Moments over the years knows, not every single moment on the list represents something great happening for the team. The goal of this series is not to simply throw a parade for how amazing the Patriots are, but rather to try and paint a picture of the previous season as a whole. Because of that, once in a while, we're all going to have to sit through an event where things didn't quite work out for New England.
The Number 19 Patriots Moment of 2015 is one of those events.
But first, the list so far:
20. In the span of two weeks, the Patriots make two trades to acquire Keshawn Martin and Akiem Hicks.
Number 19 takes us down I-95 and into the home of the AFC East rival New York Jets, when an unorthodox call didn't quite work out the way we were all hoping.
19. A decision to kick in OT backfires as the Jets beat the Patriots in Week 16.
More often than not, when you win the coin toss in overtime, you elect to receive. After all, a touchdown wins it, and getting the first possession puts you in position to end the game before your opponent even has a chance to touch the ball. There have been a handful of times when the coin toss winning team elects to kick - one particularly memorable occasion comes to mind - but usually, winning the coin toss in OT means you start the quarter with the ball.
The Patriots, of course, are not most teams, and perhaps no coach takes odd, yet calculated gambles quite like Bill Belichick. When the Patriots traveled to New Jersey for a Week 16 matchup against the Jets, a matchup that would have clinched them the number one seed in the AFC, they were about as banged up as a team has been in an extremely long time. No Edelman. No Dion Lewis. No LeGarrette Blount. A hobbled Gronk. Pretty much anyone who was producing on a regular basis was down for the count, and so the Pats limped into the Meadowlands hoping to hang on long enough for the defense to bail them out and let them escape into the postseason with the chance to get healthy.
And while the defense did well for the most part, holding the Jets to just 10 points per half, the offense continued to struggle as special teamer Brandon Bolden's 30 rushing yards led the team and Keshawn Martin was forced into a WR1 role for which he simply isn't suited. A huge Jamie Collins fumble recovery for a touchdown gave the Patriots some desperately needed points, but other than that New England was only able to generate one decent drive all game and finished the contest with just 284 total yards. With a late James White TD knotting the score up at 20, the Patriots headed into overtime shaky on offense, but with a defense that had forced five punts, a defensive TD, and a field goal in the last seven Jets possessions. It was clear that the Patriot weren't moving the ball well, but neither were the Jets.
So when team captain Matthew Slater marched out to midfield for the start of OT, his instructions were clear: take the south side of the field if he wins the toss. It was an odd choice, so he went back to Belichick more than once just to make sure that he heard the coach correctly. And it was perhaps this odd decision that caused Slater to falter when he won the coin toss and said "we want to kick...that way." The refs, of course, honored New England's decision to kick, which meant the Jets got to choose which side of the field they wanted to defend - giving them both the ball and the better position.
Tommy B wouldn't touch the ball again. The Jets went 80 yards in just five plays, highlighted by a 48 yard catch and run from receiver Quincy Enunwa and ended by a six yard TD pass to Eric Decker. Jets 26, Patriots 20. New England's playoff push took a step back, and New York's took a step forward.
That the Pats dropped one to the Jets wasn't really the topic of conversation after the game; the Jets were white hot at the time, playing at home, relatively at full strength, and New England's roster was in absolute shambles by that point in the season. However, the question on everyone's minds was why the hell would Belichick decide to kick there? This wasn't a Denver situation where there was an extremely strong wind and side of field provided a distinct advantage. So what was he thinking?
Honestly, I agreed with the call.
The way that overtime is now structured, unless a touchdown is scored on the opening possession, both teams are guaranteed to go on offense at least once, and if the team that receives is forced to punt, a field goal wins it. The way the New England offense was playing, receiving the ball was absolutely no guarantee that anything was going to come out of the possession. However, the way the defense was playing, the Jets weren't able to get anything going for the vast majority of the second half, and there was no reason to think that there was going to be a sudden reversal on that front. So Belichick's line of thinking was to give New York the ball, rely on the defense to force a punt, and have enough faith in Tommy B and the offense to get them into field goal position for the win. It obviously didn't work out, but that was the line of thinking. And anyone who watched the game shouldn't have too much of an issue with taking that gamble.
But it didn't work! The Pats lost! And this game cost them homefield throughout the AFC and probably a Super Bowl berth! Why is it on this list???
I'll tell you why - it's decisions like this that make Bill Belichick the best coach in the game. It's his willingness to take risks, to zig when the rest of the league zags, that allows him to be so successful year in and year out. Decisions like this aren't always going to pay off, and Belichick isn't immune to criticism when he makes a mistake (and yes, he does make mistakes), but it's all part of his coaching culture.
I personally have always equated folks who badmouth Belichick's decisions, be they on the field, in the draft war room, or in the front office, to people who complain that there is too much fat on their marble ribeye steak. You knew full well that that is the fattiest cut when you ordered in, and it's an absolutely delicious cut of meat that is going to make for an excellent meal every single time...so why are you focusing so heavily on the one or two negatives? Why not just enjoy yourself? The end result of all of Bill Belichick's questionable decisions is always - ALWAYS - the same: New England is one of three or four teams vying for a Lombardi Trophy. Winning a Super Bowl takes an insane combination of skill, strategy, and pure dumb luck; one or two bounces that nobody has any control over is literally the only thing separating a winning team from a losing one. You simply aren't going to have all the luck all the time, and so therefore all you can do is ensure that everything else is in place, and Belichick has consistently proven that he is the best in the business at getting his team where they need to be. Of course he is going to make some lousy trades, or make some lousy draft picks, or make some calls on the field that don't pay off - like this Number 19 moment - but the good so far outweighs the bad that, while it's fine to call him out when something doesn't work, the overall product is always pretty damn good. And that's why I decided to rank this failed decision at Number 19. It represents taking the bad with the good, knowing that Belichick does everything for a reason, and understanding that while you may not like everything he does, at the end of the day it's all going to work out pretty well.
Of course, I would never expect folks to stop complaining when something happens that they don't like. After all...we're New Englanders. Complaining is one of the things we do best.