Patriots coach girds for wave of second-guessing: ‘Sure, they question everything’

By Jim Litke, AP
Monday, November 16, 2009

Manning-Brady a draw, but Belichick takes the loss

The argument over who’s the better quarterback, Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, will continue long after both have stashed enough souvenirs in the Hall of Fame to qualify it as a second home.

Few should doubt, though, which would make a better coach someday. Heck, Manning might be a better coach than Bill Belichick already.

With Sunday night’s Patriots-Colts game on the line, Manning forced Belichick into a reckless gamble — even by his audacious standards — that wound up costing New England the game. Facing fourth-and-2 from his own 28 with 2:08 left to play, Belichick tried to protect a 34-28 lead by having his offense go for a first down instead of punting.

A quick pass from Brady to Kevin Faulk on the next play would have been enough — if Faulk hadn’t bobbled the ball and been driven back to the 29-yard line by Colts safety Melvin Bullitt.

“I thought we could make the yard,” Belichick said in the interview room afterward. “I thought we had a good play. We completed it and I don’t know how we could not get a yard on that completion.

“But I guess,” he added, “we didn’t.”

The funny thing is Belichick won’t know for sure until he’s had time to look at a replay Monday, but by then it will be too late. The call wasn’t reviewed by the officiating crew because the play ended before the 2-minute warning. And Belichick didn’t have a time-out to challenge it, having already burned two of his three time-outs in the second half during that final, fateful New England drive.

Belichick wouldn’t say whether he’d lost confidence in his young, fast-tiring defense. But that was the implication in Brady’s answer to a question about whether the fourth-down call surprised him.

“Not at all. … They have a great offense. We’d just punted it to them at the 20 and they go 60 yards in a minute and a half,” he said, describing the Colts’ previous scoring drive, which actually began at their own 21-yard line with just over four minutes left.

“So it’s not like as a coach, you’re thinking, ‘Wow, let’s punt it to them again, and see if they can do that again.’”

Yet that’s exactly what Belichick should have been thinking. Players and coaches who move into the broadcast booth are loathe to criticize their counterparts on the field, but former Indy coach Tony Dungy and Pats safety Rodney Harrison both gave Belichick’s decision a thumbs-down.

“The worst coaching decision I’ve ever seen Bill Belichick make,” Harrison said.

Dungy used to say Manning was like another coach on the field, and that was apparent as early as the first quarter Sunday night. Right around the 10-minute mark, he completed a 25-yard pass that Reggie Wayne hauled in along the sideline at the New England 26.

Before anyone had a chance to see a replay, Manning hustled the Colts back to the line and was about to engineer a quick snap, forcing Belichick to throw the challenge flag if he wanted to see one. Belichick did; the catch was good and he was down a time-out. Manning stayed in the shotgun formation the rest of the drive, completing three of his next four passes to march the Colts 90 yards for the score.

It was a small victory in what’s become the NFL’s best rivalry, but it underscored just how extensive Manning’s grasp of the game is. Much is made about all his gesturing and last-minute adjustments at the line of scrimmage, but that’s only the most visible manifestation. Despite what had been an off-night for the Colts and Manning, it’s clear the quarterback was closing ground in a hurry.

Indy scored three times in the final quarter and it’s a measure of how much Belichick respects Manning that he was willing to risk everything — even a so-so punt would have left the Colts with a 70-yard drive — rather than try and stop them again. What followed was the 40th game-winning drive Manning had engineered in the fourth quarter or overtime in his career, and his third against the Pats.

Exactly what the gamble cost Belichick is tough to say. It sends the wrong message to Belichick’s defenders, but more important, it likely means New England will have to make the return trip to Indianapolis when playoff time comes.

“You understand people will question the decision to go for it?” a reporter asked.

“Sure, they question everything,” Belichick replied softly, his voice barely audible in the room.

“What was that?” the questioner said.

Belichick shortened his original answer.

“Yeah,” was all he said this time.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)

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