DENVER – Let’s make this clear from the start. Bill Belichick will be in the Hall of Fame some day. He will go down in history as one of the best, if not the best, head coaches in the history of the NFL.
Nobody in the New England region is in any hurry for His Hoodiness to retire. There is no living, breathing human being that walks the earth who can even dream of matching his record as Patriots head coach. Whomever replaces him someday will be faced with an impossible task. Future Patriot interim head coach Phil Bengston was the man who replaced Vince Lombardi in Green Bay. It may be that sort of thing.
That said, Belichick failed the Patriots in 2015. Injuries did their part, but the great teams can overcome them. When the 2015 season is studied and pored over down and through the years, this team will go down in history as a team which could have, and should have, at least made it back to the Super Bowl but did not due to uncharacteristic bad decisions by Belichick.
The residue of Belichick’s bad decisions will remain forever at Sports Authority Field in Denver, a symbol of Patriot futility and the worst consequence of how the 2015 season turned out. The 2015 AFC Championship Game should have been played at Gillette Stadium and not here. Because it was played here, the Patriots managed to bring their usual C game, mostly on offense, as they have done so many times in the past. It is the Denver Broncos, not the New England Patriots, who will represent the AFC in Super Bowl 50, as they defeated the Patriots, 20-18.
Anyone who follows the Patriots closely know exactly how this game would have turned out if the game had been played in Foxborough. The weather in Foxborough was 15 degrees colder than Denver. Gillette Stadium is closer to sea level than Denver. Peyton Manning has never won a postseason game at Gillette. Stephen Gostkowski would never miss a conversion in Foxborough, and that missed conversion proved the difference in the game.
All the Patriots had to do was to win one more game on their schedule and this game would have been at Gillette and not Mile High. The Patriots gagged away their top playoff seed by going 2-4 down the stretch after beginning the season 10-0. In the end, everything broke Denver’s way and not New England’s, but the genesis of this lies in bad decisions by Belichick during this six-game stretch, as well as some major miscalculations on Belichick’s part.
All week long, smug Patriot fans predicted a Denver win, many thought even by blowout. Experts on television and radio thought the game would be close, but nobody came out and predicted a Broncos win. Las Vegas had the Patriots a 3.5-point favorite; the last time the Patriots were a road favorite in the AFC Championship game, they did win (2004, in Pittsburgh). Only a scant few of the experts brought up the home field issue, and that Belichick would have a lot to answer for if the Patriots lost the game.
But nobody around here thought the Patriots would lose. Manning was too broken down. The Patriots have all their offensive cogs back that they didn’t have in November. The Patriots will score too many points for Denver to be able to beat the Patriots with a potent offensive attack.
And in the end, the Patriots still can’t win in Denver, no matter the circumstances.
Belichick made two major miscalculations. First, he believed so greatly that the Patriots could win a rematch at Denver that he did not care at all about the home field advantage. He arrogantly allowed Denver to claim the top playoff seed, and assumed that his team could go into Denver and win. Second, he figured that even if he surrendered the top playoff seed, he might get the home field anyway if Pittsburgh went into Denver and induced Manning into another playoff one and done. Indianapolis beat Denver last year in the Divisional round, so why can’t the Steelers do the same this year?
Only Pittsburgh didn’t win. Denver did. This meant a trip to Denver that either Belichick wasn’t planning on, or a trip which didn’t scare him one bit.
Three events down the stretch will be scrutinized for years to come which contributed to the Patriots not claiming home field advantage and a certain trip to the Bay Area in two weeks.
First, there is no way that the Patriots should have lost at home to Philadelphia the week after the overtime loss at Denver. Leading early, 14-0, Belichick called for an onside kick to bury the Eagles early. Nate Ebner drop-kicked a floater that the Eagles recovered, and the visitors completely outplayed the Patriots from that point on. No visiting team other than Baltimore looked that formidable at Gillette Stadium. The onside kick was needless. Several Eagle players complained about being disrespected over that kick.
Second, the coin flip at the Meadowlands was the wrong decision, no matter who you listen to. Losing to the Jets was not shameful, but the way they lost was. Yes, the offense was sputtering, but not to the point where you kick off to begin overtime. You always give the ball to Tom Brady in overtime if you can. Brady never got the ball, as the Jets predictably scored a touchdown on the first drive to win. If the Jets win on the second or subsequent possessions, so be it. Some experts thought Belichick tried to lose this game to help Pittsburgh get eliminated from the playoffs. How ironic it is that Pittsburgh went from “most dangerous playoff foe” to “best chance to knock off Denver and get home field for the conference championship” in the span of two weeks.
Third, and most damning to Belichick, was the apparent disinterest in winning the season finale at Miami. The Patriots spent most of the first half, and the first quarter in general, working on the running game. All but two of the first 18 plays of the game for the Patriots were runs. Belichick was clearly coaching the game to prevent injuries rather than to win and secure the top playoff seed. This was a game that the Patriots had in their back pocket, even with their checkered past in south Florida. If the Patriots had built up a big lead early, the Dolphins would have gone into “get on the bus” mode and then the Patriots could have worked on the running game. But they lost, 20-10, and Denver won later in the afternoon to get today’s game at home instead of at Foxborough.
Dan Shaughnessy of the Globe wrote a column on Monday that had this whole situation nailed. His headline said it all: They Asked For This Trip. Rather, Belichick asked for this trip. And now, it is Belichick that will have to live with this loss, and all the consequences that follow. If Manning wins the Super Bowl in two weeks, Brady’s legacy may be affected. The two worst words in the English language are “if only”, and Belichick will have plenty of “if onlys” to deal with, though he will never come out and admit to such. If you get even one “I’m sorry” out of Belichick, that in and of itself will be a miracle.
And so it goes. Until the Patriots actually do win a playoff game in Denver, you have to assume that they will lose. This game could have and should have been in Foxborough. The decisions which led to Denver claiming home field advantage proved fatal for the Patriots.
The Patriots did snap the Miami jinx, but that took 19 years. It’s been 30 years since playoff loss number one in Denver. For one more time, this mountain was still too “rocky” to climb.
Posted Under: Patriots Commentary