“A lot of folks who went to bed early tonight are going to wake up awfully surprised tomorrow morning when they see this score,” said NBC color man Chris Collinsworth at the finish of last night’s astonishing 35-34 victory by the Indianapolis Colts over the New England Patriots. According to Bob Costas, “It was billed as the game of the year, and it turned out to be the game of the year.”
Well, no, actually it didn’t. In fact, it wasn’t even one of the ten best games of the year until the last few minutes. That the Patriots could have dominated the unbeaten Colts so decisively in their own stadium for the first fifty minutes was a major surprise; that they could have collapsed so completely in the final ten minutes was an even greater surprise.
But the Colts had some help from Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick…
With 2:08 to play and a six-point lead, New England faced a fourth-and-two at their own 28-yard line. Now, it doesn’t take a brain trust of coaches to tell you what to do in that situation: you kick the ball away and let your punter, Chris Hanson, send it 40-50 yards beyond the line of scrimmage — Hanson’s four punts that night averaged 44 yards apiece. Then you make Peyton Manning go maybe 60-65 yards for a winning touchdown, the same Peyton Manning that your defense had stopped several times that night, twice on interceptions.
For reasons known only to himself, Belichick did not do that. Instead, he told Tom Brady to pass for a first down, and Brady, who had had a fantastic night with 364 yards on just 42 throws (Manning wound up with 314 on 44 passes) threw, for reasons known only to himself, not to Randy Moss or Wes Welker (who had caught a combined 18 passes against the Colts’ porous defense for 273 yards) but to running back Kevin Faulk. In what will probably survive in Colts’ fans memory as the defensive play of the year, defensive back Melvin Bullitt grabbed Faulk and pulled him down half a yard short of the first down.
The play was great, and the question that is going to loom all season long for the Patriots is why Belichick gave the Colts a chance to make it. What happened next had, in retrospect, an air of inevitability: Manning threw to Reggie Wayne for 15 yards to the Pats’ 14-yard line and then, in the kind of daring call that makes Manning not just a great passer but a great quarterback, audibled a draw to Joseph Addai, who gained 13 yards down to New England’s one-yard line. The Pats stopped Addai on the next play but that didn’t help, it just ran 30 more seconds off the clock, and on the next play Peyton threw a perfect pass to Wayne for a fingertip TD catch in the end zone. The Colts won by the margin of the extra point.
Those last four plays allowed Indianapolis not only to keep their unbeaten season going but extend their lead over New England to three games in the race for home field advantage in the postseason.
So why did Belichick go for it on fourth down? The decision was a mix of arrogance and contempt: arrogance that Tom Brady couldn’t possibly fail — the 2008 Super Bowl has apparently been erased from Belichick’s memory — and contempt not only for his own defense’s ability to win the game but Peyton Manning’s ability to pull one out of the fire. The odds were already heavily in Belichick’s favor before that fourth down play. What it boils down to is that by calling for the pass he took a huge gamble that he didn’t have to take, and in so doing turned the Patriots’ entire season around.
By the way, kudos to NBC’s new commentator, former New England Pro Bowl safety Rodney Harrison, who had the guts to call it like it was and rip his former coach: “There’s no doubt about it, you have to kick the ball away in that situation.”