FOXBOROUGH — Let’s call this one Belichick’s Redemption.
There’s something about Tom Brady-Peyton Manning matchups that turns Bill Belichick’s decision-making a little unconventional.
In 2009, it was a fourth-and-2 call against the Colts that backfired in his face and led to weeks of criticism. Belichick decided to go for it from his 30, the play fell short, and Manning’s Colts promptly marched down the short field for the winning score.
In Sunday night’s thriller, an unbelievable 34-31 comeback overtime win over the Broncos, Belichick again went against the grain with a major decision. The Patriots won the overtime coin toss, but instead of taking the kickoff, like 99.9 percent of NFL coaches do in that situation, Belichick took the wind.
Former Detroit coach Marty Mornhinweg made a similar decision exactly 11 years earlier, and was criticized mercilessly after the Lions lost the game without touching the ball in overtime.
It would have been easy to scream bloody hell at Belichick for not taking the ball — and if the Broncos had scored a touchdown on the opening drive, we’d absolutely be criticizing Belichick in this space. But Belichick was down on the sideline, and had a lot of factors on his side that Mornhinweg didn’t.
For one, the overtime rules have since changed. The Patriots knew they’d get the ball as long as they kept the Broncos out of the end zone on the first drive of overtime. New England had allowed just 7 points on six second-half Broncos possessions to that point.
And being at field level, Belichick felt the 20-plus-mile-per-hour winds whipping across the frigid turf, and saw the wind’s effect. All night long, kickoffs, punts, and long passes were knocked down near the north end zone, where strong winds funneled through the opening in Gillette Stadium’s stands.
Taking the wind would give the Patriots the edge on field goals, and take 50-yard field goals out of the Broncos’ equation. Taking the wind also meant that Manning, with his weakened throwing arm, would be limited to short throws.
“The wind was significant in the game. It was definitely significant,” Belichick said. “We just had to keep them out of the end zone, obviously.”
But as it turned out, the most significant advantage was in the punting game. Denver’s Britton Colquitt hit a 22-yarder into the wind with 3:01 left in overtime, giving the Patriots the ball at the 19 instead of pinning them against their end zone.
Less than a minute later, New England punter Ryan Allen was able to boom a nice, high-arcing 42-yard punt that gave the Patriots’ coverage unit plenty of time to run downfield. Wes Welker, who only had four catches for 31 yards, finally made an impact in the game — just not the one his team was hoping for.
Welker let the punt bounce at the 15 instead of calling for the fair catch. The ball deflected off a blocker, Tony Carter, the former Patriots practice squad player. Nate Ebner pounced on the fumble, Brady took a couple of snaps to line up the ball in the middle of the field, Stephen Gostkowski drilled an easy 31-yard field goal, and the Patriots walked away with one of the most dramatic and improbable comeback victories of the season.
“Good punt there at the end, getting it up high, and making it a tough play,” Belichick said. “We say, ‘Play 60 minutes.’ It took a lot more than that tonight. We just stuck it out, and in the end kept making plays.”
Belichick’s decision to take the wind and the ending to the game were appropriately unconventional, because not much about this game made sense. Neither team could hold onto the football in frosty weather with a windchill of 6 degrees at kickoff. The Patriots fumbled the ball a whopping six times in the first half — the franchise record for a game is eight — and lost three of them, directly leading to 17 points. Von Miller returned one 60 yards for a touchdown, and the Patriots lost two other fumbles in their territory. Julian Edelman muffed a punt, picked up the ball, and fumbled on the return.
The Patriots were getting pushed around on both sides of the ball. The Broncos sacked Brady three times in the first half, and rushed for 137 yards on 6 yards per carry, but they didn’t necessarily outplay the Patriots. They just benefitted from a slippery football, bad ball security by Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount, and a few bad bounces. The 24-0 score wasn’t quite appropriate, and the Patriots knew it when they regrouped at halftime.
“We went in there and basically said, ‘Let’s start over,’ ” Edelman said.
The Patriots didn’t panic. They got their play-action passing game going in the second half, and Brady was an unstoppable machine targeting Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen, and Kenbrell Thompkins.
He completed 24 of 33 passes after halftime — he was 18-for-21 at one point — for 263 yards and three touchdowns. The Patriots scored touchdowns on their first four possessions of the second half, while the Broncos suddenly became the inept team, going fumble, punt, interception, punt. The Broncos fumbled the ball five times overall — four after halftime — and lost three of them.
“I thought we were moving the ball pretty well in the first half, but we turned it over,” Belichick said. “Once we started [protecting the football], converting a few third downs, made a few big plays in the red area, not get held to field goals, that was huge for us.”
Recovering Carter’s fumble in overtime was huge for Belichick and his team as well. It improved the Patriots to 8-3 and back in sole possession of the No. 2 playoff seed. It gave them a memorable win for the ages and a three-game lead in the AFC East with five games to play.
And Belichick, who didn’t have to face a chorus of reporters questioning his decisions, got a little redemption from that Brady-Manning game four years ago.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, this story mistakenly said that the Patriots 2009’ fourth-and-2 gamble ended in an incomplete pass. It was a completion that fell short of a first down.