SAN DIEGO – The Smartest Man in the World had a decision to make, and obviously, it was going to be the correct one.
On fourth-and-1 from his own 49-yard line with two minutes remaining and a chance to put away the San Diego Chargers Sunday afternoon at Qualcomm Stadium, Bill Belichick was going for it, because that's the way the New England Patriots coach rolls.
As with his well-publicized gamble in a Sunday night defeat to the Indianapolis Colts last November, Belichick's decision backfired when his team failed to convert. This time, however, he nonetheless walked off a winner, as the Pats preserved a 23-20 victory thanks to a brutally timed false-start penalty on the Chargers and Kris Brown's(notes) missed 50-yard field-goal attempt.
And you know what? As much as I questioned Belichick's wisdom in Indy 11 months ago, as much as I want to blame his approach on an oversized ego and to question its consistency given that he doesn't always apply the same principle in non-game-deciding situations, I'm going to resist those impulses and concede that he absolutely made the right decision on Sunday.
Here's why: Belichick understood that even if his team couldn't get that yard, there was a very good chance that Norv Turner's Chargers would screw up their opportunity to steal the game, or even to send it into overtime.
San Diego, after all, had already revealed itself to be a sloppy, undisciplined mess of a team, twice losing second-quarter fumbles based on the mistaken assumption that a play had been blown dead. The false start on Louis Vasquez(notes) that moved Brown's 45-yard field goal attempt back to a much more daunting 50 – his kick clanged off the right upright with 22 seconds remaining – was ruinous but hardly surprising, given the Chargers' atrocious special-teams play and the team's general lack of focus in 2010.
Belichick's teams, by contrast, almost never have those kinds of colossal mental meltdowns. As quarterback Tom Brady(notes) told me after Sunday's game, "No, there's not a lot of that bad football here. That's a big point of emphasis from the first day of training camp: You can't do things that are just going to beat you right off the bat, at least not against good teams."
For the record the Chargers (2-5), despite four consecutive AFC West titles and preseason predictions that they'd cruise to a fifth, are not a good team. "A lot of things we've been doing this year are hard to explain," center Nick Hardwick(notes) said afterward. "We're not looking to the past for answers."
The Patriots (5-1), meanwhile, look better than they have since their record-setting 2007 campaign, when they became the first NFL team to go 16-0 in the regular season before suffering a stunning Super Bowl XLII defeat to the New York Giants. This New England team, in many ways, is much more like the three that captured Super Bowl championships in the first half of the last decade – without the eye-catching offensive fireworks, but with a great coach and great quarterback as the two constants.
Belichick's credentials as a master strategist, shrewd team-builder and ruthlessly calculating motivator have been well-documented. The way his teams consistently avoid the type of game-changing screwups we saw from the Chargers on Sunday is a more underrated element of his coaching prowess.
Indeed, for all of Turner's well-deserved praise as a gifted play-caller and offensive mind, those who point to his sub.-500 career coaching record (92-103-1) got some added ammunition on Sunday. There was lack of attention to detail, most glaringly demonstrated by numerous dropped passes – and by two plays that told you everything you needed to know about the relative preparation levels of these two teams.
Play 1: The Chargers, trailing 7-3, had a first down at their own 34 on the second play of the second quarter, and quarterback Philip Rivers(notes) fired a 25-yard strike to rookie wideout Richard Goodman(notes). Playing because of Vincent Jackson's(notes) contract dispute and injuries to Malcom Floyd(notes) and Legedu Naanee(notes), Goodman made a sliding catch for his first NFL reception. Naturally, he celebrated by dropping the ball and giving himself a hearty round of applause.
Goodman tries to recover the fumble before the Patriots take control.
(Denis Poroy/AP Photo)
The Chargers' defense mitigated the damage by forcing the punt – coordinator Ron Rivera is doing a terrific job and should be a strong head-coaching candidate at season's end – and Rivers drove San Diego to the Pats' 32. On first-and-10 with 8:58 remaining in the half, he reacted to pressure in the pocket by flipping a screen to fullback Jacob Hester(notes), who had no chance of catching the low pass and callously turned to walk back to the huddle.
Slight problem: It was a backward pass, and after a couple of seconds New England linebacker Rob Ninkovich(notes) dove on the football at his own 29. And still no one on the Chargers touched him down or otherwise reacted. Eventually Ninkovich, one of the slower players on the field, got up and rumbled 63 yards down the left sideline to the San Diego 8, setting up the first of three Stephen Gostkowski(notes) field goals.
Again, give Belichick some credit: Regulars at Pats practices will tell you that he constantly preaches the importance of picking up any balls that hit the ground, even if the whistle has blown.
Somehow, despite turning over the ball on four consecutive first-half possessions, the Chargers went into halftime trailing just 13-3, and 68,836 fans at Qualcomm had to feel relatively fortunate. San Diego didn't wake up until the deficit had reached 23-6, with Rivers directing a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives sandwiched around a somewhat redemptive onside-kick recovery by Goodman.
The Pats, who would generate just 179 yards of offense for the day, got the ball back at their 40 with 4:01 remaining, looking to close out the game. After an eight-yard pass from Brady to Welker on first down, however, the Chargers' defense stiffened, and suddenly it was the two-minute warning with the Patriots facing that fourth-and-1 on their 49.
"If you punt, they get the ball back with three timeouts and two minutes left," Brady said later, explaining Belichick's reasoning. "I don't like those odds at all. You get the first down, game over."
This is not to suggest that Brady offered his perspective to Belichick on the sidelines.
"I just run the play," Brady said. "He knew what he wanted to do. We just didn't execute very well on it. But we've got to get those yards."
Rivera, to his credit, had studied the Pats' tendencies and alignments and seemed to know exactly what was coming. He overloaded his defensive front to the left side of the Patriots' line, which is exactly where halfback BenJarvus Green-Ellis(notes) was headed when he took a handoff from Brady.
"That's what we were banking on," Rivera said.
Hey, Bill – do you like apples?
Belichick and I used to talk a lot – these days, not so much. But I did ask him a question in the postgame news conference that had been bugging me since the first quarter. If going for it on fourth-and-short is the smart call, even (as was suggested after last year's Indy debacle) deep in your own territory, why not stick to that philosophy in lower-risk situations, such as the fourth-and-1 New England faced from the San Diego 48 while trailing 3-0 in the first quarter?
"Well, because I did what I thought was best for our team," Belichick answered.
Like I said, we don't really talk anymore.
Fortunately, I do talk to a guy who talks to The Guy – a dude who happens to be one of the greatest players of his era, and someone who desperately craves the opportunity to finish off an opponent with a fourth-down conversion, consequences be damned.
Even though the Pats are now 0-for-2 in those situations over the last 11 months, Brady doesn't see his coach's approach changing anytime soon.
"Nah," he said, smiling, "we'll keep going for it, I think."
Hey, when you're playing against a team that can't seem to stop brain-locking, I'm all for it, too.
THE HIGH FIVE …
• Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita(notes) knew his return to New Orleans would be emotional, so upon his arrival in the Big Easy Saturday he made a point of taking teammate Eric Barton(notes) on a power tour of his old ‘hood in the city’s Warehouse District. They paid quick visits to his favorite sushi spot, Rock-N-Sake, and his favorite watering hole, Lucy’s Retired Surfer Bar and Restaurant, along with the fashionable condo that Fujita and his wife, Jaclyn, still own. “That actually kind of helped,” he said Sunday night. “I was able to experience the emotion then, so when I got to the game it was more about football.” Fujita then proceeded to play some very good football against his former team – “He balled out and was all over the ball,” teammate Alex Mack(notes) said – registering an interception and sack of buddy Drew Brees(notes) while resisting the compulsion to talk trash. Most important, the Browns stunned the defending Super Bowl champs 30-17 to improve to 2-5. “It’s been hard for us to finish games,” an exhausted Fujita said upon his return to Cleveland late Sunday night. “This time we closed it out. Hopefully we can start to get something rolling.”
• Quick, who’s the Rams’ all-time rushing leader? Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson? Future Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk? As of Sunday, the answer is Steven Jackson, who ran for 110 yards in Sunday’s heartbreaking, 18-17 defeat to the Buccaneers in Tampa to push his career total to 7,324, ahead of Dickerson’s prior standard. “I respect him so much,” Jackson wrote (via text) Sunday night. “He has done a lot for this league.” That’s not an overstatement – unlike the postgame quote from Bucs coach Raheem Morris, who said after his team improved to 4-2, “We’re the best team in the NFC. Yeah, I said it. We’re the best team in the NFC.” So there you have it: A week after losing at home to the Saints by 25, the Bucs are the team to beat. I’m sure the Falcons, who host Tampa Bay on Nov. 7, will be eager to provide a dissenting opinion.
• Aaron Rodgers(notes) won’t admit it, nor should he, but beating Brett Favre(notes) on Sunday night at Lambeau Field was a major unburdening, not to mention a significant step in the development of a burgeoning star. The Packers, who defeated the Vikings 28-24, still looked sloppy and choppy at times, and watching them try to run the ball in short-yardage situations is painful. It would’ve been nice if general manager Ted Thompson had stepped up and outbid the Seahawks for Marshawn Lynch(notes), Rodgers’ ex-Cal teammate. Oh well – another former Golden Bears star, middle linebacker Desmond Bishop(notes), did A-Rod a solid on Sunday, picking off a Brett Favre pass and returning it 32 yards for a third-quarter touchdown. Rodgers will likely need even more help next Sunday against the Jets at the Meadowlands, but at least he doesn’t have to carry the "Can’t Beat Brett" stigma with him on the flight east.
• So the team I saw score nine points against a previously winless opponent last weekend showed up in Denver and put a franchise-record 59 on the Broncos Sunday? Yep, I have zero understanding of the Oakland Raiders – nor do any of you. OK, Raider Nation, deep breaths: This is a franchise that hasn’t had a two-game winning “streak” since 2008; let’s see how the Raiders do against the 4-2 Seahawks (!) in Oakland next Sunday.
• Speaking of the inexplicable, did you see who had the best receiving game of any NFL player this season on Sunday? Just as we all predicted – uh, yeah – it was the Titans’ Kenny Britt(notes), who was benched for the first quarter of Tennessee’s 37-19 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles after his reported involvement in a bar fight Friday morning. Britt still finished with seven catches for 225 yards and three touchdowns as the Titans (5-2) overcame a 19-10 fourth-quarter deficit. Tennessee had only 103 total yards that didn’t involve Britt, who had the highest number of receiving yards allowed by the Eagles (4-3) in the history of their franchise, eclipsing Tony Hill’s 213 for the Cowboys in 1979. That was nine years before Britt was born, as opposed to present times, when the second-year wideout sometimes acts like a 9-year-old.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. That a quarter-century after my college buddies and I used to sit in the chilly Candlestick Park bleachers and chant "Oooo-ribe" for Jose Uribe – who died four years ago in a car crash in the Dominican Republic – another San Francisco Giants shortstop named Uribe would honor his late cousin's memory by hitting one of the biggest home runs in franchise history and helping to send San Francisco to its first World Series since 2002. And yes, it's awfully crowded, and terribly entertaining, aboard the bandwagon.
2. How back judge Scott Helverson could butcher the call on Favre's apparent 35-yard touchdown pass to Percy Harvin(notes) in the back of the end zone with 48 seconds to go and the Vikings trailing the Packers by four. Replays showed that Harvin clearly came down with his right foot out of bounds, which must have been an enormous surprise to Helverson. In fairness, Helverson was a whole three feet away with an unobstructed view of Harvin's feet – maybe closer. I'm sure Packers fans were wondering if Helverson was one of Favre's special texting buddies, or if he was a secret "consultant" to Vikes owner Zygi Wilf. Fortunately, instant replay exists, and the call was rightfully overturned. It's also fortunate that the dreaded forceout rule was abolished two seasons ago; in the old days Helverson would have had to play God and decide whether Harvin would have come down in the end zone if defenders hadn't pushed him backward. (It's fair to assume the official would have ruled TD, which wouldn't have been reviewable.) I have a feeling Helverson will get an unfavorable evaluation for Sunday's performance, and deservedly so. I only wish that this tennis legend was the NFL's officiating supervisor.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
Was I hallucinating after the Packers-Vikings game, or was that Brad Childress essentially declaring war with Favre during his postgame news conference? Yes, the two men have been clashing behind the scenes since last season. And yes, Favre threw three interceptions Sunday night, one returned for a touchdown by Bishop. But when Childress took his frustration public, I believe he escalated the situation to a new level – and that he may be misjudging his power base (or lack thereof) within the organization. Referring to Favre’s interceptions, Childress said, “It still goes back to taking care of the football. You can't throw it to them. They have to play within the confines of our system … you can't give seven points going the other way, not in a game like this.” Really, Chilly? Two reactions: 1) Duh. 2) Do you really want to call out one of the great media manipulators of our time at this tenuous juncture in your coaching career?
Some in the Vikings facility speculated before last Sunday’s victory over the Cowboys that a defeat could have led to Childress’ dismissal, with highly regarded defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier installed as the interim coach. It’s certainly possible that those rumors were unfounded, but it makes me wonder what might go down if the Vikes lose to the Patriots at Gillette Stadium next Sunday to fall to 2-5, especially in light of Childress’ obvious frustration with his highly compensated quarterback after the game. Later in his news conference, Childress was asked if Favre’s interceptions were forced passes. “Yeah,” he answered, “the one to Bishop, I'd have to look at that, 'cause I'd like to know where we're going with the football, 'cause I believe the play was designed to go to the other side and I think Percy's standing there in big air, so not sure why we're looking at the left-hand side …” Favre resisted the urge to fire back in his postgame news conference, but that could change when he sees his coach’s comments in print and decides how to proceed. It will also be interesting to see what Wilf’s take on all of this is. It’s going to be a very interesting week at Winter Park.
TEXT/TWITTER/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"I HAVE COMPLETELY LOST MY MIND!!!!!"
– Text Saturday night from KNBR-AM San Francisco morning host and Y! Sports contributor (and unabashed Giants fan, and my former Santa Rosa Press Democrat colleague) Brian Murphy, reacting to Uribe's homer.
"I got ejected for smoking a cigarette … Help!"
– Text from the Qualcomm parking lot during the second quarter of Sunday's game from my close friend Mike Fleiss – creator of "The Bachelor," rabid Chargers fan and tragic tobacco user.