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Did Patriots Flip Steelers Out Of Playoffs?

Bob George
Bob George on Twitter
December 28, 2015 at 5:00 am ET

Did Patriots Flip Steelers Out Of Playoffs?(PHOTO: Ed Mulholland - USA TODAY Sports)

🕑 Read Time: 5 minutes

E. RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The Doug Flutie drop kick game in 2005 is best remembered for the drop kick, but something else happened in that game which only gets mentioned on occasion.

Flutie drop-kicked an extra point, the first successful drop kick in the NFL since 1941. But Matt Cassel played most of the fourth quarter and not Tom Brady. On the final play of the game, Cassel hit Ben Watson for a nine-yard scoring toss to make it 28-26 Miami. On the ensuing two-point conversion, Cassel badly misfired on the pass, and the Patriots lost the game. By losing, the Patriots dropped to the four seed and got Jacksonville at home for the Wild Card round instead of a more dangerous Pittsburgh team. The Patriots did beat Jacksonville, 28-3, but saw their two-year championship run end the next week at (where else?) Denver, 27-13.

The reasoning seemed sound as Pittsburgh went into Denver and won, 34-17, then beat Seattle in the Super Bowl. Pittsburgh was as tough as Bill Belichick thought they were. But the alleged tank loss to Miami didn’t win the Patriots the Super Bowl. All it did was get them a playoff date at Denver and a certain loss.

A case can be made that you saw much the same thing on Sunday at MetLife Stadium against the New York Jets. First, let’s see the playoff picture for both teams, then we’ll explain.

All the Patriots had to do to clinch homefield throughout the playoffs was to win either of their final two games, road dates with the Jets and Miami. The Patriots could sustain a loss to the Jets, then beat a woeful Miami team on the road, despite the fact that Miami always plays the Patriots tough in South Florida. Meanwhile, the Jets could not make the playoffs even if they win out at 11-5, as they lose a tiebreaker to both Kansas City and Pittsburgh. The Jets needed this game more than the Patriots did.

But something happened along the way to the unbelievable finish to this game, won by the Jets in overtime, 26-20. Pittsburgh was getting spanked by Baltimore and wound up losing that game, 20-17. That meant that a Jet win would put the Jets in charge of their own playoff destiny and take it away from Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh was judged by most football experts as that proverbial “one team that you don’t want to face in the playoffs”.

All New England has to do is to win in Week 17 at Miami and the top seed is theirs. If the Steelers got into the playoffs as the six seed, they could go into Cincinnati and beat a team that historically does awful in the playoffs, and would then head for Foxborough for the Divisional round. The Patriots would then get a rematch of their Week 1 opponent, with Ben Roethlisberger always a feared weapon and perfectly capable of beating the Patriots in a shootout.

Instead, now it seems that the Jets could be the Divisional opponent for the Patriots, and at Foxborough and not Exit 16-W.

There were definitely some puzzling moments on Sunday, and it started with the last drive of the first half. The Patriots took over at their own 16 with 1:57 left and two timeouts, plenty of time to get at least a field goal attempt in, with the Patriots trailing at the time, 10-3. But the Patriots ran the ball twice, did not stop the clock, did not push the ball downfield, and then finished the half with a little dump pass from Tom Brady to James White. it was 10-3 Jets at the half, with the Patriots set to get the ball to start the second half.

During the first drive of the second half. Patriots had the ball, of course, by winning the coin toss and deferring. They drove from their own 20 to the Jet 45 in three plays. On the next play, Brady looked for Rob Gronkowski in the left seam, and had a step on Darrelle Revis. All Brady had to do was lead Gronkowski over his right shoulder and it is probably a touchdown. But Brady instead threw behind Gronkowski and hit Revis perfectly. The pick led to a Jet touchdown and a 17-3 lead.

The Patriots finally played like the Patriots and forced a 20-20 tie at the end of regulation and on the overtime coin flip, the Patriots won the coin toss. But Matthew Slater sounded like Abner Haynes in 1962 and said that the Patriots will kick off right to left. The “right to left” call didn’t matter, just the word “kick”. The Jets took the direction, and needed only five plays to end the game. The Patriots “gave up” a 48-yard pass to Quincy Enunwa, then two plays later Ryan Fitzpatrick hit an undefended Eric Decker from six yards out to end the game.

This loss stinks, but for the wrong reasons. There are plenty of fans out there who believe that Belichick seemed like he was coaching to keep Pittsburgh out of the playoffs. Both Belichick and Slater said in postgame comments that the call was definitely to kickoff in overtime. Slater sounded a bit angry that Belichick would order the Patriots to kick off in overtime rather than to receive. It sounded like the Haynes gaffe in the 1962 AFL title game and smacked of the botched coin flip with Pittsburgh.

But if you look at all three of these elements individually, they are key moments where you could make the argument that it seemed like the Patriots weren’t trying to win the game.

Every game, the Patriots always defer the choice if they win the coin flip. It is to set up the “double dip”, scoring at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second half. On both counts the Patriots failed in ways they don’t normally fail. Running out the first half clock when they could very easily have kicked a field goal is unbelievable. Maybe Brady misfired on the interception, but it looked like the pass went right to Revis.

The coin flip is another story. Either Slater is a lousy actor or Belichick took a very arrogant and gutsy gamble by calling for a kick if the coin flip was won. Both Belichick and Slater are men who simply wouldn’t do this accidentally, especially Slater. The postgame pressers suggest that Belichick called for a kick and Slater carried out the order. But why did Slater react the way he did when he called for a kick? That’s where the bad acting comes in. If he called for a kick and looked like that’s what he wanted to call, that would have engendered more conspiracy discussion. But Belichick flatly asserted that he called for a kick. He would not say why other than “it was what we wanted to do”.

It just doesn’t make sense. The Patriots managed to go on a 17-3 run to tie the game, and won the coin flip. Have Brady lead the Patriots to a touchdown on the opening drive and take the Miami game off. But calling for a kick on the flip made no sense other than to help Pittsburgh not make the playoffs.

So, let’s see. Denver and Cincinnati play Monday night. Patriots can wrap up homefield if they win at Miami next week. If the Jets win, they are the six seed at worst.  It should be quite a week.

READ NEXT:
Belichick On Coin-Flip Questions “There Was No Confusion”

About Bob George

Covering Boston Sports since 1997. Native of Worcester, Mass. Attended UMass and Univ of Michigan. Lives in California. Just recently retired after 40 years of public school teaching. Podcasts on YouTube at @thepic4139


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