Overtime decision came up heads, as in head-scratcher
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Only the Patriots could turn a coin toss into a controversy that overshadows a game that displayed the mettle of both teams.
The Patriots' 26-20 overtime loss to the New York Jets on Sunday at MetLife Stadium will forever live on as the Coin Toss Loss.
The most scrutinized and analyzed team in the NFL gave football fans more fodder for debate, unhinged conspiracy theories, and schadenfreude with an unconventional decision to kick off after winning the coin toss for overtime.
There was no mistake, no misunderstanding, no mismanagement, just Patriots coach Bill Belichick bucking coaching canon, and the Patriots losing to their bitter rivals without arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, Tom Brady, touching the ball in OT.
Professor Belichick wanted to kick off, even though under the rules of modified sudden-death overtime if the team that gets the ball first scores a touchdown the game is over. That's exactly what happened, as Ryan Fitzpatrick found Eric Decker for the decisive 6-yard score.
"I thought it was the best thing to do," said a succinct and sullen Belichick.
It was a strange ending to a strange game that vacillated between playoff intensity and preseason self-preservation instinct.
The Jets, playing for their playoff lives, took a 17-3 third-quarter lead. The Patriots, just trying to avoid more injuries and prep for the playoffs, rallied to force OT.
In the end, the Jets got the inside track on a playoff berth and the Patriots dropped to 12-3, needing a win next week in Miami to clinch home field throughout the AFC playoffs.
Conventional thinking, like counting statistics, is for losers in Belichick's mind.
He is an iconoclast, whether its snapping the ball off the goal post in Denver in 2003, going for it on fourth and 2 from his 28 in Indianapolis in 2009, ordering his team to intentionally let the other team score to get the ball back in Super Bowl XLVI, or trying an onside drop kick on Dec. 6 against Philadelphia.
This wasn't even the first time Belichick declined to take the ball in overtime. Against the Broncos in 2013, Belichick took the wind in OT. It proved wise when a muffed punt by ex-Pat Wes Welker led to the winning field goal.
Still, the man charged with executing Belichick's vision, special teams captain Matthew Slater, wanted to make sure his cognitive function hadn't been compromised when Belichick instructed him that the Patriots didn't want the ball first.
"I double-checked three or four times," said Slater. "I think he was looking at me like, 'Are you concussed?' because I kept asking him. But that's what he wanted to do. You never question Coach's decision-making. He's the best in the business, and we trust him fully. So, that's what we did."
Initially, it was tough to make heads or tails out of exactly what happened on the fateful coin toss.
Slater called heads. The coin came up heads. Referee Clete Blakeman motioned toward Slater, who said the Patriots wanted to kick off. Slater then tried to indicate which direction the Patriots wanted to kick. He was waved off by Blakeman.
Slater then gestured vehemently like there had been some miscarriage of coin toss justice or a colossal error.
"At the end of the day we did what we wanted to do," said Slater. "We kicked off. It just didn't work out."
What Slater didn't understand is that the team that wins an overtime coin toss can choose whether to kick off/receive or which goal to defend, but not both.
Patriots players probably don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of coin toss rules because all they have to say is "defer" to set up the patented double score.
You can argue with Belichick's logic, but you can't deny that he put his best unit on the field for OT.
His defense had smothered the Jets in the fourth quarter, holding them to just 31 yards. Despite missing starting safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung, the defense scored just as many touchdowns on the Jets as Brady and Co.
Jamie Collins converted a Jabaal Sheard third-quarter strip-sack into a 14-yard touchdown that pulled the New England within 17-13.
The injury-depleted Patriots offense sputtered most of the day, failing to convert a third down until the fourth quarter and held without a touchdown until Brady hit James White with the tying score with 1:55 to go.
The offense mustered only 284 yards and finished 1 of 10 on third-down conversions (they made all three of their fourth-down attempts).
Brady, who finished 22 of 31 for 231 yards, threw a third-quarter interception to old friend and Deflategate truther Darrelle Revis at the Jets' 21 that set up Brandon Marshall's second TD catch of the day to put the Jets up, 17-3.
The absence of wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola coupled with the loss of left tackle Sebastian Vollmer (leg) on their first series forced the Patriots to resort to subterfuge.
On three successive plays of their first scoring drive, the Patriots ran a flea-flicker (incomplete to Rob Gronkowski), a reverse to Brandon LaFell (9 yards), and a Wildcat run with Brandon Bolden for no gain.
"It wasn't like we were tracking the ball up and down the field," said Brady. "It's certainly not an easy decision. I think we all have confidence that whatever Coach decides, we have to go out there and do our job and do the best we can because he's trying to do whatever he can to help us win."
This game will go down as one of the more polarizing examples of Belichick's outside-the-box thinking.
But no one should flip out about this loss by loose change.
No NFL coach has more strategic currency than Belichick, and no coach has done more to earn it.