By: Bob George/
November 16, 2009

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Honk if you feel worse today than after the Super Bowl loss to the Giants.

If not so, you must admit that it is pretty darned close.

Needing a win to maintain position for the top seed in the 2009 playoffs in the AFC, the Patriots failed to hold a 34-21 fourth quarter lead against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday night. In front of a national television audience, the much-ballyhooed battle between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning instead morphed into Bill Belichick not trusting his defense to win the game, and a coaching decision which is being compared to the 1978 New York Giants deciding to hand the ball off to Larry Csonka instead of taking a knee to win the game.

Manning led the Colts on three touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, the last with 19 seconds left, to rally the hometowners to an electrifying 35-34 win over the Patriots before a frenzied crowd at Lucas Oil Stadium. The three touchdown drives were 5 plays and 79 yards, six plays and 48 yards, and four plays and 29 yards. The times for each drive were 2:04, 1:49 and 1:47, respectively. That's 21 points in just over five minutes out of a 15-minute quarter. Maybe the Rams of ten years ago did it quicker, but that's still pretty darned fast

The prevailing issue here isn't Manning scoring all those points, but rather Belichick and his decision to go for it on fourth and two from his own 28 with no timeouts left and 2:08 left in the game. The play, a quick hitch to Kevin Faulk to the right side, was right at the marker. But Faulk was hit by Melvin Bullitt on the play, which caused Faulk to bobble the ball when he had the first down on forward progress. When Faulk had control of the ball, Bullitt slammed him to the turf at the 29, one yard short. Because he had no timeouts left and because it was not yet within two minutes of the end of the game, a challenge, either by Belichick or the booth, was not in order.

And of course, you know the rest. Manning led the Colts easily on their 29-yard stroll to the end zone, with Reggie Wayne catching an indefensible one-yard laser to complete the comeback. There was no Willie McGinest to stop Joseph Addai or anyone else at the two-yard line on fourth down to seal the win. This time, the Colts actually stuck it in the end zone.

Belichick is being called every insult Monday morning, from arrogant to stupid. Going for it on fourth down was indeed a gamble, a gamble most any coach would have chosen not to consider. Punting the ball seemed like a slam dunk, but Belichick instead chose to go for it and win the game right there. It failed, and Belichick now has to live with that decision, a decision which may stick with him for the rest of his coaching career.

But how really bad was that decision?

The defense really was that tired

For three quarters, Belichick and Dean Pees had pulled off a brilliantly concocted game plan that seemed like the old days. Manning couldn't find Dallas Clark. Pierre Garcon was looking like Reche Caldwell or Donald Hayes. Reggie Wayne was getting some looks and catches, but nothing too much for the Patriot defense to handle. The Colt rushing attack gained only 91 yards as a team. And Manning was goaded into two interceptions, looking as frustrated as in the early part of this decade. It was just like old times for the Patriots against Manning.

But in the fourth quarter, it all stopped. Except for a mistake on a square-out route by Wayne which resulted in an easy interception for Jonathan Willhite, Manning and his offense moved through the Patriot defense like a knife through butter in the fourth quarter. The Patriots were clearly in a no touchdown defense, and it gave up a touchdown on all drives other than that one-play Willhite interception drive. The Patriots could no longer play the receivers tight, the outside linebackers could no longer pressure Manning, and Colt receivers were finding holes in the Patriot soft zone with frightening ease. There was nothing the Patriot defense could do to stop Manning in the fourth quarter.

So, if you punt the ball instead of going for it, and you make Manning go 70 yards or more for the winning score instead of 29 yards, Manning sticks it in the end zone with ten seconds left anyway. The extra 40 or so yards would have been a mere formality. The Patriots could no longer stop Manning, and Belichick knew it. Having or not having confidence in your defense is one thing, but Belichick made a decision which he thought was the best way to win the game. Unfortunate it may be, Belichick now must pay the price for it not working, however sound a decision he and his players might have thought it was.

The play almost worked

The play was a quick hitter to the right sideline. Often times you will see the Patriots run this pattern with a wide receiver, most commonly Wes Welker. The play can sometimes be a quick screen, which requires more setup time and more intricate blocking schemes, or simply a one-step drop and a quick fire. The Patriots scored a touchdown on one such quick fire in the 2004 AFC title game at Pittsburgh when Brady audibled and saw that David Givens had a good matchup.

This play was a little different than the one against the Steelers. Faulk was to head for the first down marker and take the bang-bang toss. The Patriots work it so much in practice that they figure it to be a lock for at least two yards.

It is possible that Faulk did not anticipate being hit by Bullitt, which caused the critical bobble. Faulk, who has had a prior history with fumbles, is one of the most dependable Patriots in gaining clutch yardage. But either Faulk misread where the first down marker was or Bullitt made a great play in keeping Faulk from getting to where he needed to be.

The bobble prevented the ball from being spotted at the point of forward progress, which was about right on the first down marker line, unofficial though that line may be. When Faulk finally gained control of the ball, he was slammed to the turf by Bullitt at the 29, not the 30, where he needed to be for the game-ending first down. It was a matter of inches that separated the Patriots from victory and defeat.

One thing that troubles Patriot Nation is conflicting postgame statements from Brady and Belichick. Brady said that in practice, they run that play so well that in a game, they expect to get those two yards. But in his presser, Belichick lamented that they couldn't get the one yard. He was asked by a reporter if he knew that they needed two yards, and his answer was nonresponsive. Belichick may have been referring to the fact that Faulk was one yard short of the first down, not that he didn't know that it was fourth and two and not fourth and one.

Maroney is the real goat, not Belichick

The sad fact of this whole thing is that the Patriots never should have been in this position. Laurence Maroney, who has underachieved his entire Patriot career, may have permanently injured his relationship with the fans with his critical fumble at the one-yard line in the third quarter which negated a 13-play, 87-yard drive that chewed up 7:51 of the game clock which should have made it 31-14 Patriots and made it near impossible for the Colts to come back. Moss' fourth quarter touchdown catch would then have made it 38-14 Patriots, and have given the fourth quarter a whole different complexion,

Brady finished the first drive of the second half with a foolhardy interception into double coverage in the end zone, but you cannot assume a touchdown on that drive. If the Patriots went no further than where they were, Stephen Gostkowski would have had to kick a 51-yard field goal. But Maroney's fumble took a sure touchdown off the board. If the Patriots get at least a field goal on the first drive, then the Patriots were shorted ten points in the quarter thanks to turnovers.

The play called for a simple run off right tackle behind Dan Koppen and Stephen Neal. Phillip Wheeler was able to cut in behind the blockers and dislodge the ball from Maroney before he crossed the goal line. The loose ball rolled into the end zone and was covered by Gary Brackett, who fell on the ball for a touchback. Maroney had a running lane open up, but did not secure the ball properly before being hit by Wheeler. It smacked of the famous Ernest Byner fumble at Denver in 1987, and like that fumble, it helped cost the Patriots the game in the end.

Maroney has confounded the Patriots over the years with his annoying inability to hit the line without juking back and forth. This critical fumble won't help smooth over any of those feelings. In fact, that fumble may spell the beginning of the end of Maroney here in New England. His game stats were pedestrian (13 carries, 31 yards and a 2.4 average per carry despite one rushing touchdown in the first quarter), and the fumble drops any grade he might receive in the game to an F. Simply put, the Patriots miss Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris a great deal, and Maroney has not performed in any way close to his draft level expectation.

Had the score been 38-14 or even 41-14 Patriots in the fourth quarter, there would be no angst in Patriot Nation right now. Belichick does not have to make that kind of decision on fourth down and would thus be spared all the slicing and dicing of his coaching skills that are going on right now, particularly in the northeast USA. Belichick was put in that decision because his offense failed to put the Colts away in the third quarter when they had the chance, and because his defense was in no position to stop Manning in the fourth quarter when the game was on the line.

The game was what it was, a gut-wrenching loss which the Patriots will simply have to stomach and move on if they still want to contend for a two seed.

The fans and local media need to move on also, and know that Belichick still knows what is best for the team more than all of you do.