Belichick gaffe unrivaled
INDIANAPOLIS - Ghastly.
This was as bad as anything the Red Sox ever did. Had it been a playoff game, it would be right up there with Bucky Dent, Bill Buckner, Aaron Boone, and History Derailed in Glendale, Ariz.
And Bill Belichick played the part of Grady Little.
The Patriots lost to the undefeated Colts in unbelievable fashion last night. Leading, 31-14 in the fourth quarter, and 34-21 with 2:30 remaining, the Patriots took the choke and lost to their hated rivals, 35-34.
So the conference is gone, the playoff bye is probably bye-bye, and the (6-3) Patriots are saddled with a loss that will haunt them for the rest of the season.
And Belichick gets the blame. Too smart for his own good this time. The sin of hubris.
Here’s the situation: With the Patriots leading, 34-28, and 2:08 remaining, Coach Hoodie elected to go for a first down rather than punt when he faced fourth and 2 from his 28-yard line. Guess he was afraid of what Peyton Manning might do.
Tom Brady’s fourth-down pass to Kevin Faulk was complete but inches shy of the first down. So the Colts took over and went 29 yards in four easy plays, winning the game when Manning connected with Reggie Wayne on a laser-like 1-yard pass with an unlucky 13 seconds left on the clock.
Ouch. Bob Kraft’s $9 million federally funded footbridge project just became a bridge over troubled waters.
This game was in the win column. A Stephen Gostkowski field goal with 4:12 left made it 34-21. Unfortunately for New England fans, Belichick elected to play soft defense and Manning quickly had the Colts in the end zone. It was 34-28 with 2:23 left. Then came the tragic set of downs and Belichick’s bold and crushing gamble.
In the postgame confusion, Belichick twice made a reference to the Patriots trying to gain 1 yard.
“I thought we could get that yard,’’ he said.
Asked if he knew the team needed 2 yards, Belichick said that he did. But then he said, “I don’t know how we could not get a yard on that.’’
Brady was simply spectacular in defeat. It was the 2007 Tom. He completed 29 passes for 375 yards and three touchdowns. Ditto for Randy Moss, who caught nine passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns. The Patriots shredded Indy’s depleted secondary, scoring 24 straight points in the first half, then bolting to a 31-14 lead early in the fourth.
Meanwhile, Belichick worked with a depleted defense (no Ty Warren, no Jarvis Green, no Shawn Springs), plugged gaps with no names and new names, and frustrated the indomitable Manning (two interceptions) for a good part of the evening.
But none of that forgives his strategy in the final four minutes. Even the legions of zombies who say “In Bill We Trust’’ and the formidable pay-for-play Patriot media machine will have a hard time defending the brilliant coach on this one.
With Brady and Moss playing catch and New England’s defense containing Manning, the Patriots looked like they were going to insert themselves into the mix for the top rung of the conference. A 34-21 lead late in the fourth quarter generally means you win.
But there is some bad history for the Patriots in this town. In the 2006 AFC Championship game, New England led, 21-3 in the first half and 21-6 at intermission, but managed to lose, 38-34. It was a crushing defeat that motivated the Patriots’ 16-0 season in 2007.
There was some deja vu last night as the Patriots led, 24-7 in the second quarter, 24-14 at intermission, then that 34-21 late in the fourth.
The first sign of trouble was Belichick’s decision to stand down when the Colts got the ball with just over four minutes left in the game, trailing by 13. New England gave up everything underneath and Manning quickly had the Colts in the end zone.
It looked like a garbage-time footnote until the Patriots stalled when they got the ball back.
After a third-down pass to Wes Welker was broken up by Jerraud Powers, everyone in the world figured the Patriots were going to punt deep into Indy territory. With 2:08 left, Belichick called time out and got into a discussion with Brady. To the amazement of everyone, Brady came back on the field to try the fourth and 2 from his 28.
“We thought we could win the game with that play,’’ reasoned Belichick.
Faulk made the catch and almost had the yardage, but he was short. The Patriots couldn’t challenge the spot because they didn’t have any more timeouts. And the Colts had the ball with incredible field position. The final touchdown drive was almost too easy, but Wayne made a nifty grab of a pass that looked like a Jonathan Papelbon fastball.
“We’re disappointed, but we’re moving on,’’ said Belichick.
Not everybody. This one will linger for a while, maybe into the winter. This was a horrible loss. It changes everything. And Bill Belichick gets the blame.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.