Sunday, November 15, 2009

Stunning decision dooms Patriots

You can see the surprise in the eyes of Tom Brady.

The Patriots' quarterback had just thrown an incomplete pass toward Wes Welker along the sideline on third-and-2, a pass that appeared to force the Patriots to punt the ball back to Peyton Manning and the Colts with a little more than two minutes to go in Sunday's game. He was on his way to the sideline, his head down slightly, his left hand already on his chinstrap. He looked exactly like a quarterback who was ready to see the punt team take the field.

"You just have to punt it there," former Colts coach Tony Dungy said during NBC's postgame show.

"He has to punt the ball," former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said a few minutes later.

Brady stopped suddenly, still a few feet short of the sideline. He even seemed to hesitate for a moment. His eyes were wide, the disbelief obvious.

He then turned around and began to signal with both hands to the other offensive players who were walking off the field, to signal that the Patriots were going to go for it.

"They just said, 'We're going,'" Brady said later, insisting -- upon having had a chance to digest everything -- he wasn't surprised by the decision.

The Patriots were going to go for it on fourth down from deep in their own territory, to risk giving Manning a short field with which to try to score a touchdown, with the potential payoff a chance to kneel down and finish the game. A punt would have handed Manning the ball regardless -- but it would have handed him the ball 60 or more yards from the end zone rather than 29.

The Patriots lined up to go for it, and it looked for a moment as though they'd only lined up to try to force the Colts to burn one of their own timeouts. After they'd called timeout -- their third timeout of the game, no small factor -- they lined up once again, and they went for it.

"You start to get a little nervous because you might get a short field, but the game might be over," Manning said.

The Patriots gambled big, and they lost big. Kevin Faulk, who had played a sensational game to that point, juggled Brady's fourth-down pass just long enough for the Colts to drive him back behind the 30-yard line. There was no question he came up short of the first down -- and four plays later, Reggie Wayne scored the game-winning touchdown.

It was a decision that took unbelievable guts. But it was a decision that cost the Patriots a chance to host the Colts at Gillette Stadium in a possible rematch in the playoffs. It was a decision that will reverberate for the rest of the season -- and, if the Colts oust the Patriots in the playoffs, even longer than that.

And the body language of Brady demonstrated that he was just as baffled by the decision as anyone else.

"We had an opportunity to win the game," Brady said.

"If we get it, it's a great call," tight end Ben Watson said.

They didn't get it.

It probably cost them a bye in the first round of the playoffs.

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