Always propped up and praised for his higher intelligence, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick found himself in an odd position Sunday — being fitted for a dunce cap by the talking heads of the national media. But it’s not as simple as that, so this being the NFL, the play call in question is now under further review.
Don’t pile on Belichick and jump in on the second-guessing party until you hear the logic of Steve Fezzik, a professional gambler and advantage player who knows a lot about playing the percentages.
"It was a brilliant call. It’s not even debatable. It’s not even close," Fezzik said. "The guy is a genius."
But Belichick’s arrogance and intelligence is being derided from coast to coast, so the debate is unavoidable.
In the most stunning ending to a game yet this season, the Patriots squandered a 17-point fourth-quarter lead and collapsed in a 35-34 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
Belichick took a gamble — a highly controversial one to some — by deciding to go for a potential clinching first down on fourth-and-2 at the Patriots’ own 28-yard line with 2:08 left.
The end result was Belichick’s risk blew up in his face, as Tom Brady’s completion to Kevin Faulk was ruled just short of the first-down marker. Belichick was tagged as the goat by NBC analysts Cris Collinsworth, Rodney Harrison and Al Michaels, and almost everyone else who weighed in to rip the NFL’s most successful coach.
It took only four plays for the Colts to score the tying touchdown. Peyton Manning expertly milked the clock before connecting with Reggie Wayne, who snagged a 1-yard pass with 13 seconds left. The point-after kick drove the nail in the Patriots’ coffin.
So here’s the big question: Was Belichick wrong not to punt and force Manning to drive about 75 yards with less than two minutes to go?
Harrison, who played for Belichick in New England, sternly said, "This is the worst coaching decision I’ve ever seen Belichick make."
Collinsworth said Harrison’s opinion was "dead on the money," and Michaels said the call will "live in infamy."
Belichick explained he was trying to win the game on one play, and avoid leaving his defense at Manning’s mercy. The safe call would have been to punt and squelch the chance of rampant second-guessing.
"Belichick was absolutely correct to go for it there," Fezzik said. "If the Patriots punt, they lose anyway."
The only scenario in which Manning could not have won the game is the one where the Patriots get the first down and run out the clock. That’s the option Belichick chose with little hesitation.
As Fezzik said, everyone who bet the Colts to win straight up on the money line was hoping the Patriots would punt and put the game in Manning’s hands.
"The second the Patriots go for it, the Colts become a bigger underdog" in the live in-game betting market, Fezzik said.
The odds speak loudly in this case, and Belichick played the percentages the right way. The result just went wrong.
If the Patriots had picked up the first down, Belichick would have been hailed as a gutsy, unconventional genius. Instead, the game will be remembered by most for Belichick’s blunder and Manning’s miracle.
Belichick’s lone regret is not having a timeout left so he could have challenged the spot on Faulk’s reception.
If you bet New England plus-3 as I did, you won your wager regardless, and all the debating is strictly for entertainment. It was a phenomenal game with a fascinating ending.
The Patriots continued a day of dominance for the underdogs, who went 9-3-1 against the spread. Carolina, Cincinnati, Green Bay, Jacksonville, Kansas City and Washington won outright.
Arizona, San Diego and Tennessee were the only favorites to cover. Miami and New Orleans won but failed to cover as double-digit favorites. The bottom line is NFL underdogs are back with a vengeance, and Las Vegas sports books are again welcoming the business.
"It should have been a very good day for most books," said Jimmy Vaccaro, director of operations for Lucky’s sports books.
The Patriots-Colts showdown drew a healthy handle, as anticipated, and the game exceeded the hype.
"It was pretty good two-way action," Vaccaro said. "You truly love to have these types of games. You can talk to 10 people, and five can give you reasons for taking the Colts and five can give you reasons for taking the Patriots."
Fezzik gave you reasons for supporting Belichick’s controversial decision, whether you liked it or not.