Two coaches, two decisions.
Two different outcomes.
Football is too complex for a single action to decide a 60-minute game, but that doesn't minimize the obvious contrast in coaching styles on display during this weekend's divisional playoff games.
First and 10 with 37 seconds remaining in the game, St. Louis trails Carolina by three with the ball on the Panthers' 15-yard line with one timeout left. Rams coach Mike Martz decides not to take a shot at a game-winning touchdown but rather to play it safe, play for overtime.
The Rams wind up losing.
Fourth and three with 5:14 remaining, New England and the Tennessee Titans tied at 14 with the Patriots at the Titans' 33. Too far for a field goal in single-digit temperatures, Bill Belichick never hesitates to go for it and Tom Brady executes perfectly to move the chains. Four plays later Adam Vinatieri sneaks a 46-yarder over the crossbar for the winning score.
Coaching always has been important in the NFL. But with the salary cap and free agency making the stockpiling of talent almost impossible, it is even more pronounced today.
With the margin between winning and losing razor-thin (consider the weekend's four ultra-tight playoff games) it is no longer just preparation and motivation but the split- second decisions that can separate champs from chumps.
In Belichick, the low-key, white-hot Patriots have the game's best coach.
Meanwhile St. Louis, with perhaps more talent, has eight months to wonder what happened in the final minute of regulation.
"Yeah, I was surprised that we didn't take a shot at the end zone," Rams receiver Torry Holt told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I would've liked to."
Said Martz: "I was very sure about the decision. I don't regret that decision. The whole point is keep yourself in position to continue to play, so you could win the game."
That's playing not to lose, and sometimes it works. Sometimes not. What it does do is send a clear message to your team that you have little confidence in your offense, minimal faith in your quarterback.
Bulger isn't much different than Brady two years ago. Brady then was a fill-in for a hurt star (Drew Bledsoe) who kept winning and winning. Bulger did the same this year subbing for Warner.
Belichick's actions in the 2002 Super Bowl – 1:21 remaining on his own 17, he gave Brady the ball and the quarterback delivered – proved he trusted Brady. The decision still is paying dividends. Martz's, however, casts doubts.
That Super Bowl performance helped make Brady the star he is today. He lacks the awe-inspiring ability of the league's other top QBs, such as AFC title-game opponent Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts. But despite throwing for just 201 yards on Saturday, when faced with fourth and three – or any pressure play – he delivered with the confidence of an All-Pro. There is a reason New England has won 13 consecutive games.
Bulger, meanwhile, threw three interceptions, including a critical pick in overtime.
A lot of that is ability, but at least some of it comes from a coach instilling confidence in his players. And proves that coaching is more than designing a cute offense.
"I think there are a lot of things that happen that don't turn out the way you would like," Brady said. "But I think this team has done a good job of learning from the bad plays and the bad situations.
"I mean, we are not really producing as much as I would like to see. But I still think in the critical times we are doing a good job in making those plays."
It is players that make the plays, but what Brady is talking about stems from great, authoritative coaching. Something that more than ever is at a premium in the oh-so-even NFL.
A key reason why New England plays on, St. Louis wonders what might have been and the unshakable Belichick – as much as any player – is an undeniable force as we enter football's Final Four.