Pats' D rewards Belichick this time around

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

Yahoo! Sports NFL writer Jason Cole's Monday Morning Backup is filling in for Michael Silver's Morning Rush column. Silver's Monday morning column will return Nov. 29.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – This is the play New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick didn't trust his defense to make a year ago, when the man who knows the percentages better than any coach who has ever worked in the NFL made the most scrutinized fourth-down call in league history.

This is the play that could signal the Patriots may once again have a defense just good enough to win another Super Bowl in a year.

Heck, it was enough of a play that Belichick started his postgame remarks by lightly calling out the offense.

"It was great," Belichick said after safety James Sanders(notes) sealed a 31-28 victory over the Indianapolis Colts with a leaping interception at the New England 6-yard line with 31 seconds left. "It would have been a lot sweeter if we had done something there in the fourth quarter to help our defense."

Now there's an about-face. Last season at this time, Belichick thought so little of his defense in this situation, he wouldn't put the game in its hands. This time he may not have had a choice, but he watched as the unit forced Manning's third interception of the contest.

"Bad throw," said Manning, who stewed in front of his locker long after almost all of his teammates had headed to the buses. His errant toss, which marked the second time in the past three games that he let a comeback slip away with an interception, left the Colts tied with Jacksonville for first place in the AFC South at 6-4 and moved the Patriots into a tie with the Jets and Falcons for the best record in the league at 8-2.

Not that New England's 8-2 seems all that overwhelming. Though the Patriots have won seven of eight games since their Week 2 loss to the aforementioned Jets, three of their five most recent victories have been by the scant margin of a field goal. (The Colts, Ravens and Chargers were the victims.)

But if you look just a tad deeper you can see the glimmer of titles past in this Patriots team. That's not just the beautiful timing between quarterback Tom Brady(notes) and wide receiver Deion Branch(notes) or the all-out hustle of Danny Woodhead(notes) and Wes Welker(notes), a pair of guys who seem like they might fit right on the field of one of those Electric Football games of the 1970s. Rather, Belichick and the Pats have a defense that, while still flawed, isn't so bad that he's afraid to play conventional football.

For those with short memories, it was last year that Belichick chose the unconventional route of going on fourth-and-2 from his own 28-yard line in Indianapolis rather than punt. That set off a torrent of criticism aimed at Belichick, particularly from guys like former Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy, who said he would never dare go against the percentages like that. Without getting into a reprise of that discussion, the basis of Belichick's decision was simply this: He bet that his offense had a better chance to gain two yards than his defense had to stop the Colts from going roughly 70 yards.

To this day, Belichick's players won't second-guess that call, but their automated response of, "That's Coach's call and we just have to execute what he calls" rings hollow. Any self-respecting football player will tell you he wants the game in his hands. What happened Sunday was proof to those players that they can handle themselves against the best and survive.

"We got a chance to do something [Sunday] and we made it happen," safety Patrick Chung(notes) said. "We're young guys and we're figuring it out. We still have a long way to go, but we're getting there."

Like Chung, Sanders echoed the "we just have to execute what he calls" line. But as he described the play on the interception, it showed how far the defense has come. After the Colts drove from their own 26 to the New England 24, Indianapolis called a pretty standard high-low route combination. The first-down call featured wide receiver Pierre Garcon(notes) running a deep pattern toward the sideline and tight end Jacob Tamme(notes) running a shorter route underneath Garcon.

Both Garcon and Tamme were facing man-to-man coverage, with Sanders reacting off what he saw from Manning. Manning's job is to read Sanders. Wherever Sanders goes, Manning goes the other way.

It comes down to whoever reads the situation better and Manning has a pretty distinct advantage because, well, he has the ball.

In this case, Sanders got a little help.

Up until the fourth quarter, Manning had a rough time.
(Else/Getty Images)

"[Linebacker Gary] Guyton got a really good bump on Tamme, so I could wait just a little longer to go to him. As I'm [going] to cover Tamme, I'm reading Peyton and I see he's going to the one-on-one, so I just dropped as fast as I could," Sanders said.

While many will take that as a sign that Manning, who threw an interception at the end of a loss to Philadelphia, is somehow on the decline, it's more a simple reality of where the Colts are at this point. With all their injuries, their timing is off and their margin for error is smaller. This is not the same Colts team that can cut swaths through an opposing defense.

More importantly, it's an offense the Patriots can handle now even as their defense goes through growing pains. Through three quarters, New England limited Manning to 24 of 34 for 261 yards and two touchdowns, as well as nabbed two interceptions. Even more, the Patriots did a relatively good job of keeping most stuff in front of them.

This is not to say that New England's defense is anywhere close to being what it was in the days of Willie McGinest(notes), Tedy Bruschi(notes) and Mike Vrabel(notes), but it may not have to be this season. In what is an increasingly unpredictable season for the entire NFL, the Patriots have shown enough to get by even with a defense that started three rookies among seven defenders with less than four years' experience Sunday.

For Belichick, whose title teams thrived on the intelligence and experience of the defense, this has been a painful part of retooling his team. It has meant doing the unconventional, such as last year's hotly debated fourth-down call. At the time, you couldn't really blame Belichick for preferring to let Brady try to beat Manning rather that Jerod Mayo(notes) and the rest of the boy band.

Now, his tune may have changed.

Compassion for Moss

Tennessee Titans wide receiver Randy Moss(notes) generally doesn't rank at the top of anybody's list of sympathetic or compassion-deserving characters – probably not even among his biggest fans. But right about now, Moss probably deserves a hug.

First, he's not winning. Since being let go by the Patriots after they started 3-1, Moss has gone 1-5 between stops at Minnesota and now Tennessee. He has also been limited to 14 catches for 200 yards and two touchdowns over that span – numbers similar to his final six appearances with the Raiders in 2006 (18 receptions, 202 yards, no touchdowns).

Second, he has gone from one nightmare situation to another. In Minnesota, Moss got tossed into the middle of a dysfunctional team on which the quarterback (Brett Favre(notes)) dislikes the head coach (Brad Childress) – a dysfunction Moss only exacerbated. Now, Moss is on a dysfunctional team where the quarterback (Vince Young(notes)) reportedly dislikes the head coach (Jeff Fisher) and is now benched.

So what does that all mean? Well, it's not a good idea to read Moss' mind, but at least one person who knows Moss well said Sunday night that the idea of Moss begging his way back to New England in the offseason is getting more and more likely.

"You don't think he's thinking about how good he had it in New England?" the source said. "That stuff he said after the Vikings played in New England, he meant it and he's been talking about it since then. He thought Oakland was messed up, but this stuff is worse. Way worse. He went to Tennessee because he thought it would be great with him, Chris [Johnson] and Vince.

"He didn't know how weak Vince was."

Young's No. 1 fan

Speaking of Young and the Titans, the natural belief is that his latest emotional outburst is the breaking point in his relationship with Tennessee. Certainly if Fisher has any say, that will be the case.

The problem is that owner Bud Adams is the guy who will have the final say and Adams loves Young. That is no understatement. Truth be told, it's not out of the realm of possibilities that Adams will force Fisher to keep Young in the offseason, perhaps forcing Fisher to make a decision about whether he would resign.

One time during an NFL owners meeting in 2009, Adams spent more than 10 minutes reciting Young's college accomplishments and early professional stats. Adams then talked about how much he expected of Young and how Young had promised to come through for Adams.

Of course, all of this started when Adams had the Titans take Young, a Houston native, at No. 3 overall after the Texans passed on him at No. 1 to select Mario Williams(notes) in the 2006 NFL draft. Adams, who still lives in Houston, was hoping Young would lead the Titans to their first Super Bowl championship so that he could show up the folks in Houston, where his team once played.

Yeah, it's convoluted, but emotional decisions usually are and they are also hard to unravel.

What will Wilf do?

While the belief is incredibly strong that the Vikings will fire coach Brad Childress at season's end, the bigger issue is whether owner Zygi Wilf will step in to start the repair process sooner than later.

"Everybody is looking around this place, just wondering what's going to happen," one prominent player said later Sunday. "Chilly talks and it's like nobody even really listens. … Yeah, white noise. I just wish we could hit the skip button and get to the next step." In other words, what does Wilf do about quarterback Brett Favre when it becomes obvious that Favre is doing nothing more than playing out the string? Wilf could get some help from the NFL in the form of a suspension (or a nudge toward early retirement). However, if Wilf is forced to act on his own, it's clear that he has to be the one to tell Favre that he'll have to sit the rest of the season. As Favre showed Sunday in ignoring Vikings offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, he's not going to go quietly against the likes of Childress or Bevell.

Hot-seat watch

1. John Fox, Carolina Panthers: His questionable decision to start quarterback Brian St. Pierre(notes) has the feel of someone who wants to be set free. Just let him go and stop the stupidity.

2. Mike Singletary, San Francisco 49ers: Shut out at home by Tampa Bay? Yeah, the Bucs are decent, but that's ridiculous.

3. Gary Kubiak, Houston Texans: Wow, that finish stunk, completely miserable. Texans are finding ways to lose games.

4. Josh McDaniels, Denver Broncos: Yeah, yeah, 49 points last week. Whatever. The team is still a mess.

5. Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals: From Coach of the Year to the firing line? Maybe not, but this was not the year Lewis wanted in the final season of his deal.

Postscripts and patterns

1. I appreciate the emotion that Lions coach Jim Schwartz showed in the frustrating loss to Dallas, but Schwartz is much better off when he maintains a sense of calm. Look, the Lions are better with him, but it's still the Lions and changing the losing ways takes patience – from ownership, the coaches and the fans.

2. In the span of two plays, Danny Woodhead further made himself a cult legend in New England. First, he scored a crucial touchdown on a 36-yard run against Indianapolis. On the ensuing kickoff, Woodhead made the tackle on the coverage team. At 5-foot-9 (yeah, right), Woodhead is doing a heck of a job filling Kevin Faulk's(notes) job after opening the season on the Jets practice squad. "Thank the Jets for that one," Pats wide receiver Deion Branch said. By the way, it was awesome to see New England wide receiver Wes Welker, who is all of 5-9, leading the way at the end of Woodhead's run.

3. Seriously, where does the Cal football team get the stones to dance around like that before a game? Dudes, you're Cal, not the University of Miami. Win something more than a couple of Big Games before you prance. More importantly, try backing it up by winning rather than playing so badly that you basically made Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck about $50 million. That said, as a Stanford grad, I loved it.

4. Miami Dolphins fans continue to be haunted by cornerback Jason Allen(notes), the team's first-round pick in 2006 who was cut two weeks ago after a loss to Baltimore. On Sunday, Allen was the main guy in coverage against Jets wide receiver Braylon Edwards(notes) on the deep pass that set up the game winner for New York.