By Sean McAlevey
MJ’S CHILDHOOD BASKETBALL COURT, NC, Earth — Bill Belichick is a genius. Let’s give credit where credit is due.
Personally, I hate the guy. And about 98% of everyone outside of Bastan agrees with me. (We all have that one friend who isn’t from New England but LOVES the Pats anyway.)
But let’s take nothing away from Belichick and the Pats today. When faced with the choice of receiving or kicking in OT, Belichick did the unthinkable and decided to kick to the seemingly invincible Peyton Manning and the Broncos.
Now, I shouldn’t make him out to be a total ballsy hero just yet. He had two key factors going for him. For starters, he had the NFL’s new overtime rules, which among other things state that if the receiving team converts a field goal on the opening drive, the kicking team has the chance to answer with at least a field goal (to tie) or a touchdown (to win). Of course, the receiving team could just score a touchdown on the first drive and the game would be over. But barring that immensely plausible scenario (we’re talking about Peyton Manning; there’s no barring anything here), the Pats were going to get the ball back with a chance to answer the Broncos. And with the way Tom Brady was moving the ball in the second half, Belichick must have felt comfortable with that thought in mind.
The second thing going for Belichick was the 20-mph wind. Belichick chose to take the wind at his back, which was essentially the same as choosing to kick because there was no way the ultra-conservative Jack del Rio wasn’t going to have the Broncos receive. The winds were blowing viciously all night; Chris Collinsworth and Al Michaels made sure we understood that fact thoroughly. With the wind at the Pats’ back – and perhaps more importantly, in the Broncos’ face – Belichick felt his team had enough left in the tank to make a quick stop and get out on the attack offensively.
The favorable wind gave Belichick and the Pats a long field with which to work defensively. The Broncos now had to get to the Patriot 30, at least, to even think about attempting a field goal. (The Patriot 25 to 27 would be more realistic given the length-shortening effect on kicking in cold weather.) And if the Pats got possession, they would only have to reach the Bronco 35 to attempt a reasonable field goal; though with the cold weather, the 32 would be more realistic. On top of all that, if there was any punting to be had (oh would it be had), the winds were going to shift the field-position game in favor of the Pats. With all this going for him, Belichick and his evil genius of a mind decided that kicking (really, choosing which direction to go, knowing that his team would end up kicking) would be more effective than receiving.
Well, the Pats ended up stalling the Broncos’ opening drive around midfield, giving Brady and co. a chance to win with only a field goal. Then, after one of the most ridiculous non-calls happened (an obvious pass interference on receiver Kenbrell Thompkins), the Pats were forced into a fourth-and-more-than-one and had to punt. In both cases the wind probably added a total of 20 yards of field position to the Pats. But now the Broncos had the chance to win with only a field goal. Still, the wind was at New England’s back, and the crowd was clearly messing with the Bronco offense.
The Broncos’ subsequent drive stalled once again around midfield, giving the Pats the ball back deep in their own territory. After a quick 17-yard completion to Julian Edelman (who, by the way, had an awesome game), the Pats went three-and-out and were forced to punt the ball back to the Broncos. And here’s where Belichick’s call to go with the wind turned from a ballsy call into a genius call.
With Denver’s return man Trindon Holliday having trouble handling returns in the bitter Boston cold, Wes Welker was sent in to return the punt. Amidst audible “Wel-ker, Wel-ker” taunts from the home crowd, the former Patriot collected himself and camped out under rookie Ryan Allen’s booming punt. But after seeing that it wasn’t worth an attempt to return, Welker backed off and yelled to his teammates to do the same… except that fellow Bronco Tony Carter didn’t hear the call in time and was caught right in the flight path of the waywardly spiraling punt. Sure enough, the ball spiked up into Carter and the Pats pounced on it to gain possession. The game ended three plays later on a Stephen Gostkowski chip shot field goal.
The wind wasn’t entirely to blame. The majority of the blame has to fall on Carter, for unfortunately being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Welker, for backing out on a returnable or at least fair-catcheable punt and not making the “poison” call soon enough or loud enough. (The New England crowd definitely deserves credit for its loud taunting of Welker before and during the play.) But there’s no doubt that the wind played a significant role in getting the Pats the ball back on the Bronco 12, as the swirling, 20-mph randomness of that Boston air confounded the hell out of Welker and the rest of the Broncos as to where that ball was going to land.
And just like that, as if written in football lore, the wind became Belichick’s MVP and won the game for the Pats in the waning minutes of overtime. Belichick was a genius for taking the wind for two reasons: 1) the Broncos were forced to march 5-10 yards further than typical in order to attempt a reasonable field goal, while the Pats were given 5-10 yards more field to do the same; 2) punts would travel at least 10 yards less than typical for the Broncos and 10 yards further for the Pats, giving New England a huge field-position edge. When you add up all of those totals (10 yards here, 5 yards there, etc.) the case could be made that Belichick essentially stole an extra possession for the Pats. Now, I don’t know the exact numbers on that statement – it’s just a rough guess – but it seems that the Pats surely had a key field-position advantage for the entire extra period.
And all of this is without mentioning the fact that through the course of the game both offenses were noticeably more effective going with the wind than against it. Manning only looked like Manning in the second quarter, when he had the wind at his back, while Brady only looked like Brady in the third and fourth quarters and overtime, two of which had the wind at his back. Coincidence? If this was Blaine Gabbert versus Ryan Fitzpatrick, maybe. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning? The wind was clearly affecting the future Hall of Famers’ throws.
Here’s the thing. If the Patriots lose in overtime, no matter what the reason, Belichick is the goat for making the “dumb” call to kick. (“WHO WOULD VOLUNTARILY GIVE PEYTON MANNING THE BALL,” I can imagine Skip Bayless shouting with neck veins protruding.) There’s no way he lives down that decision to kick. No way. Not in today’s media-driven world.
Belichick deserves all the credit for making the ballsiest, and maybe smartest, call of the NFL season. He’s got my vote for coach of the year.