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Bubbly about uncorked kick

Belichick lauds Hanson's punt

By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / December 29, 2008
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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. - On a day that featured oddities such as a second-quarter delay to adjust the wind-tilted goal posts, two punts on third down (one by a quarterback), and an extra-point attempt that nearly took a U-turn back onto the field of play, Patriots coach Bill Belichick had little doubt as to the key play of the day.

So the coach, who was about eight minutes into his postgame news conference and hadn't been asked about it, interrupted his answer on a different topic and rerouted the discussion like the slashing winds rerouted footballs yesterday at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

He wanted to talk about Chris Hanson's 46-yard against-the-wind punt at the start of the third quarter.

"In those conditions, that punt, that is a helluva kick," Belichick said of its importance in the Patriots' 13-0 victory over the Bills. "That was some play."

Reflecting on his 34 years of NFL coaching, Belichick, who tends to avoid ranking accomplishments, immediately vaulted Hanson's effort toward the top of his personal charts, alongside Dave Jennings's 56-yard punt - from the back of the end zone - in the Giants' win over the Cowboys in 1981.

A 46-yard punt wouldn't normally draw such attention, but yesterday's conditions were anything but normal. The game was played in winds of 35-50 miles per hour, the goal posts doing their own end-zone dance.

So severe were the conditions that when Hanson attempted a punt in warm-ups, the ball never made it from his hands to his left foot. The wind carried it 5 yards to his left.

The Patriots led, 3-0, early in the third quarter when Hanson stood inside his 10-yard line, awaiting the delivery from long snapper Lonie Paxton. The offense had just gone three-and-out, quarterback Matt Cassel sacked at his 18.

The Bills, who elected to take the wind in the third quarter, couldn't have ordered up a better situation.

Yet Hanson foiled their plans, beating the Bills' ferocious rush and uncorking the unexpected 46-yarder off his left foot and down the left sideline. The field position shift was huge, because the Bills turned it over on the ensuing possession, and the Patriots capitalized on the next drive with a touchdown to go ahead, 10-0.

"You just go out and have fun and not expect perfect punts, perfect snaps," said the 32-year-old Hanson, now in his 10th NFL season. "But the guys did a good job protecting me and Lonie did a great job. He shows week in and week out why he's one of the best long snappers in the league."

Because of the relentless gusts, it was a day that produced some rarely-seen-before football moments:

  • In the second quarter, prior to Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski's 26-yard field goal attempt, officials stopped play to readjust the goal posts.
  • On that field goal attempt, the ball was headed straight down the middle before abruptly turning outside the right upright. "You can't beat Mother Nature," Gostkowski said. "It was insane."
  • Before each play, umpire Jeff Rice kept his hand on the ball so it didn't blow away until the center was ready to handle it.
  • The Patriots punted twice on third down, which Belichick later explained was designed to avoid a fourth-down situation in which the Bills - one of the NFL's top special teams units - could rush 10 players, creating a protection problem.
  • Bills punter Brian Moorman, a perennial Pro Bowler, had his first into-the-wind attempt carry a whopping 13 yards.
  • The Patriots won the opening coin toss and instead of taking the ball or deferring their choice to the second half, they chose option No. 3 - to defend the South goal, which gave them the wind at their backs on offense in the first quarter.
  • Linebacker Junior Seau joked that he somehow found the Fountain of Youth when running with the wind at his back, picking up more speed than his 39-year-old body was equipped to handle. Safety James Sanders explained that in warm-ups the footballs seemed more like balloons.

    Belichick, meanwhile, couldn't think of many games that included such ferocious wind.

    "The '86 NFC Championship game when I was with the Giants, against the Redskins, those were strong winds and Coach Parcells elected to take the wind in the first quarter and we got ahead, 17-0, and that was the final score," he said.

    "I'll never forget that game and I'll never forget that decision that he made in that game. I thought about that before this game. This wind was every bit as strong as that game, maybe even stronger."

    Strategy was naturally affected, turning it into a run-first game with power-based tight formations. The first completed pass into the wind by either team didn't come until Wes Welker's 12-yard grab with 5:09 left in the third quarter.

    Patriots players seemed to enjoy the once-in-a-lifetime type challenge. To a man, they said they'd never seen anything like it - from the tilted goal posts, to the rerouted field goals, to the extra-point attempt in which the football looked like it was a yo-yo.

    "This isn't baseball - we're not going to cancel the game because there is rain, we're not going to cancel the game because there is wind," running back LaMont Jordan said. "I guess that's why they call it the gridiron."

    Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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