Late-night grilling - of Belichick
INDIANAPOLIS - The game plan was masterful, pure Bill Belichick genius.
The execution was something else, and in the end, Belichick heard more hard questions than Grady Little.
The Colts beat the Patriots, 18-15, at Lucas Oil (Can Boyd) Stadium last night and as always, the Ponies and Pats thrilled America with 60 minutes of bone-rattling, action-packed football. The Patriots came within a couple of plays (a Jabar Gaffney drop and a David Thomas penalty) of winning the game and still managed to come home with a share of first place in the AFC East scramble.
It took a 52-yard field goal from Adam Vinatieri (you may have heard of him) to beat New England, and in the midnight hour Belichick was grilled about going for a 2-point conversion in the middle of the third quarter, calling a timeout that appeared to negate a first down on fourth and 1 from the Colts' 7 (New England settled for a field goal), and electing to go for it on fourth and 15 from the Colts' 45 with 4:40 left.
Belichick also had an unsuccessful challenge in the second half and burned his final timeout with 11:38 left to play. Mercy.
Mr. Hoodie has answers for all of the above, but it's difficult to remember a game that turned on so many debatable decisions by the vaunted New England coach. All of them blew up in his face. And that's unusual.
It was odd to see the coach on the hot seat after a game in which his master plan was particularly brilliant. The Patriots knew the Colts were faster and more experienced. New England's defense had four rookies on the field for most of the snaps. The climate was ripe for a Peyton Manning highlight reel and the Patriots knew they were in trouble.
So what did Belichick do? He shortened the game. He played stall ball. He had Matt Cassel throwing a succession of short passes. He ran Kevin Faulk on draw plays. He tried a few direct snaps to Faulk.
Cassel carried out his orders nicely. QB 16 was never sacked, gained 20 yards on five carries, and completed 25 of 34 passes. Cassel watched with the rest of us when the game slipped through the fingers of Gaffney on what would have been a 39-yard touchdown pass at the end of the third quarter.
Had the Patriots won this game, they would have been in sole possession of first place in the AFC East. Instead, they are tied with the Bills and Jets with a 5-3 record. They play both at Gillette Stadium in the next week and a half.
"The Colts made a couple of more plays than we did," said Belichick. "We had our chances, disappointing, but we have some pretty good games coming up, a game against Buffalo and we are going to turn our sights toward that."
Playing on national television, in front of 66,508 people at spectacular Lucas Oil Stadium, the Patriots did a masterful job most of the way. Belichick's goal was to keep Manning off the field and New England won the time-of-possession scorecard, 34:24-25:36.
It was the Patriots' first game in the Colts' new building, which will be the home of the 2012 Super Bowl. Named after Forrest Lucas, a truck-driving man who founded one of the country's largest producers of automotive lubricants, Lucas Oil is well known on the NASCAR circuit. Stadium officials opened the retractable roof more than two hours before kickoff.
There were only seven offensive possessions in the first half, which ended with the Colts leading, 7-6.
On Indy's second possession, Manning led the Colts 91 yards on 15 plays over nine minutes, connecting with Anthony Gonzalez on a 12-yard touchdown pass. Dr. Manning was 8 for 8 (69 yards) on the drive. Nothing close to a miss. The Colts did not lose yardage on any play in the drive.
The Patriots answered with a pair of drives that produced field goals, both lasting more than six minutes. New England's burn-clock strategy on offense was obvious. Cassel, untouched by the Colts' speed rushers, rarely even looked to his wide receivers. He was 8 for 9 in the first half, but the completions totaled only 64 yards.
New England's plan continued at the start of the second half when the Patriots ate up almost eight minutes and took the lead on a 6-yard run by BenJarvus Green-Ellis. New England went for 2, but Faulk came up short.
Folks at Lucas Oil scratched their heads. This was ridiculous. The battered Patriots, somehow, had the lead.
The Colts roared back, though, with an easy touchdown drive to regain the lead. Then came the Gaffney drop. It was bad, people. The perfectly thrown ball went through his hands as he crossed the 5-yard line. For good measure it fell to his feet and he booted it low and hard. The Patriots settled for a tying field goal - after losing what appeared to be a first down on a quarterback keeper because time had been called from the sideline. Ouch.
After Vinatieri's 52-yarder, the Patriots drove right back into field-goal range and looked set to tie the game and shoot for overtime. Green-Ellis carried to the Colt 31 on a second-and-2 play, and that's when Thomas was tagged for unnecessary roughness on a late block.
Out of timeouts, afraid to give the ball back with 4:40 left, Belichick had Cassel throw deep on fourth and 15 from the Colts' 45. Bob Sanders intercepted. In the words of Tony Kornheiser, "Good night, Canada."
Weird night for Belichick. The plan worked. A couple of freak plays beat the Patriots. All the small stuff went the wrong way, and it'll be a great week for the second-guessers and armchair coaches.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.