“When the future’s architectured by a carvival of idiots on show,
you’d better lie low” – Coldplay
When you go for it on 4th and 2 from your own 28 yard line, up by six points, with 2:08 left in the game, you’d better be able to accept the flood of criticism that will come from falling short. After the referees spotted the ball inches from the first down marker, the flood gates came soaring open for Bill Belichick. At the moment, there’s no less than six articles on ESPN.com lambasting Belichick for his decision to boldly go for the win last night. I, however, have absolutely no problem with that call. Giving Peyton Manning more than two minutes to execute a game-winning drive with one time out and the two minute warning is a recipe for disaster. I don’t care how good your defense is, Peyton Manning has built his career on situations like that. So if you give me the choice between converting a 4th and 2 or Peyton Manning lining up from his own 25 with plenty of time to execute, I’ll take the 4th and 2. It’s not conventional. It’s beyond gutsy. But it’s also probably the play that gives you the best odds of escaping from Indianapolis with a victory. Maybe the Patriots would have stopped Manning on that final drive. Maybe they wouldn’t have, and the outcome would have been the same. There’s absolutely no way to tell. The bottom line is that if you put that one decision in a vaccum – 4th and 2 or punt – Belichick made the call with the better odds.
That being said, Bill Belichick coached this team like a complete idiot in the 4th quarter.
Here’s the scenario: You’re up 31-14 early in the fourth quarter. Your offense has been gashing the Colts defense with long passing plays. At one moment in the second quarter, you were on pace to score over 60 points. The Colts secondary is practically pulling fans out of the stands to fill in because they’re so banged up. You’ve got Randy Moss. You’ve got Wes Welker. They have absolutely no answer for you. On the other side of the ball, you’re putting amazing pressure on Peyton Manning, you’re jamming his receivers and putting hard, hard hits on them when they try to catch the ball resulting in tons of incompletions. They’re averaging about 0.4 yards per carry with their running game. The offense completely sputtering. Manning is beyond frustrated, and it’s looking like 2003 all over again for him after two crucial interceptions. This is a team on the ropes. You have battered them for 45 minutes and their will is broken. It’s borderline embarrassing. Now it’s decision time.
A. Continue the high pressure defense which has resulted in numerous three and outs for your opponent
B. Keep attacking on offense, realizing that another touchdown would make even the most incredible of comebacks an impossibility
C. Switch to a prevent defense which will allow Peyton Manning to pick you apart and score easily, and, at the same time, completely abandon a legitimate attempt to score yourself, in favor of running plays that will kill the clock but ultimately put the ball right back in your opponent’s hands
D. An elephant
No, Bill Belichick didn’t select Answer D, but he may as well have. Answer C was equally as idiotic. Perhaps more so. At least the elephant gives you the possiblity of a stampede, causing the refs to call the game off, resulting in a shallow victory because you were leading at the time. When you’ve been dominating a team for 45 minutes, why change the game plan? Sure, continue to make adjustments, throw in new wrinkles, and keep things from going stale, but don’t completely abandon what’s worked the entire game! Why turn high pressure and hard hits into a soft defense? Yes, you’re preventing a quick score from a long pass, but at what cost? Giving up easy 5-6 yard gains in the middle of the field that keep the clock running, but ultimately result in a touchdown anyway? You want to get gutsy on 4th and 2 with 2:08 left? How about you get gutsy with twelve minutes left in the game by looking Peyton Manning in the eye and saying “We’ve owned you all night. You want to try to get your team back into it with a big pass play. Good luck. We’re still bringing the house, and you’re going three and out – again!”
The new England Patriots displayed a killer instinct for three quarters and then started playing like a bunch of pansies in the fourth. A seventeen point comeback in the fourth quarter is unlikely, but not impossible. A 24 point fourth quarter comeback? Virtually unheard of. So when you’ve been decimating a team’s defense the entire game and one more touchdown will plant the proverbial boot on their neck, why do you pull back on the reins? Why start playing games with the clock to slowly choke them out when you can put a bullet through the temple and end it right there? It just doesn’t make any sense! Worried you might turn the ball over by being agressive? How is that any different than punting the football because you were too conservative to get a first down? Either way the Colts get the ball back. I’ll take my chances with maybe a 5-10% turnover chance than a nearly guaranteed punt!
As you can see, playing soft on a lead just doesn’t make sense. Yet every team does it, and that’s why the NFL has so many “amazing comebacks”. The old saying holds true: “The only thing a prevent defense does, is prevent you from winning.” Granted, there’s a time to manage the clock. When you can make a team burn all their time outs and force them into an incredibly difficult situation like having to go the length of the field in 45 seconds with no clock stoppage, then it’s smart go conservative and rely on your defense. Last night, however, the Patriots were trying to bleed an entire quarter off the clock. That probably works against Chad Henne, or Aaron Rodgers. Against Peyton Manning, it’s suicide.
With five minutes left in the game, the Patriots clearly became content to just kick a field goal, effectively forcing the Colts to score two touchdowns to win. They had just intercepted Peyton Manning and had the ball on the Colts’ 31 yard line. It was prime time to go for the end zone and put the thing away. They ended up running seven plays for 13 yards, got their three points, and chewed up 3:30 off the clock. Again, if the Patriots score a touchdown here, it’s game over. You want to bold on 4th and 2 with 2:08 left? How about being bold when you’re up by ten and a mere 31 yards away from a guaranteed win?
The media are going to have a field day all week with Belichick’s 4th and 2 decision. And you can be guaranteed that if the Patriots end up going back to Lucas Oil Stadium in the playoffs, they’ll be dissecting that one play ad nauseum. However, they’re completely missing the point. If you want to show faith in your offense, be aggressive, and put the game away with one heroic play, go for it. The game truly was on the line, and the odds were in New England’s favor. Pull the trigger. What’s being completely overlooked is that Belichick failed to pull that trigger for the ten minutes leading up to that one play when the odds were even better and the consequences of failure were far smaller. The Patriots were so utterly conservative for an entire quarter that they forced themselves into a situation where they needed to be dangerously bold. 4th and 2 didn’t cost them the game. Seven plays for 13 yards deep in Indianapolis territory was far more damaging.
I’ve said my rant, and I’ve made my peace. But before I put this game behind me and start looking forward to a sweet, sweet revenge game against the Jets, let me make one final statement. If you’re seriously contemplating going for it on 4th and 2, why do you throw the ball on 3rd and 2? If you want to play the odds, fine. That means you run the ball twice. Whether you’re playing Indy’s weak run defense or the Steel Curtain, your chances of picking up two yards on back to back running plays are far greater than trying to gain those two yards through the air. It’s football 101. Unfortunately, last night, “the Genius”, couldn’t even wrap his head around the basics. Not when it mattered, at least. The game plan was beautiful through three quarters, perhaps one of his finest ever. Then he outsmarted himself. If there’s any consolation in this painful, painful loss, it’s that nobody fools Bill Belichick twice, not even himself. If he’s ever finds himself at 4th and 2 again, I can guarantee you that he’ll go for it. What he won’t do is find himself in that situation because he was too conservative to go for the kill.