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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The mistakes of assessment, the NFL moments of bare-naked chance versus informed risk, are the battles that we rarely see the New England Patriots lose. Defeat may come in the form of a missed kick or lesser talent or an unexpected bounce. But flying in the face of a seemingly easy, high-percentage choice? Losing that way in an important game? Almost never.
Which is why on Sunday, when the Patriots won the coin toss and elected to kick the ball to the New York Jets, after snatching momentum and forcing overtime, MetLife Stadium became an echo chamber of disbelief. Of all the things headed into overtime on the road, you would think Patriots coach Bill Belichick would want the football in the hands of his best player. That would be Tom Brady, the guy who had just minutes before engineered a grinding 11-play, 66-yard touchdown drive to force overtime. The guy who is third all time in NFL history with 48 game-winning drives. The guy who makes things happen even when you think he can't.
Instead, the Patriots gave the ball away. Why? Because injuries are forcing this team to get a little nutty. Not desperate, but definitely reaching and risking more than it historically would.
That's how you get special teams captain Matthew Slater standing at midfield after winning the coin toss, saying, "We want to kick, that way," and point a finger toward an end zone. In turn, thousands of jaws went slack with disbelief, and a stadium bellowed in unison, from the front row to the cheap seats (and the luxury boxes in between): "Whaaaaaaaaaaat?"
That's how you get a defense that was steamrolled in five plays, 80 yards and 2½ minutes, a drive that concluded when Jets wideout Eric Decker beat cornerback Malcolm Butler to the corner of the end zone for a game-ending touchdown.
Belichick was barely audible in his description of the choice to go against 21 years of head-coaching knowledge.
"I thought that was the best thing to do," Belichick said."… There wasn't any confusion [on the part of Matthew Slater]."
How much time was spent coming up with the decision to kick off rather than give it to Brady?
"I don't know," he said.
Belichick's answers were followed by long, empty pauses and maybe some glares of disdain for reporters who questioned his logic. But the finer points of the attack plan wouldn't have amounted to much. He could have gone through all the scenarios of why it might have been the right thing to do (and there are a few). Maybe it was game flow or ineffectiveness or some nearly game-changing plays by the defense. Maybe it was the hits Brady was taking. Maybe it was the wind.
It can be rationalized 20 different ways, and Belichick's biggest supporters most certainly will do so. But the reality is New England made a bad decision that is largely rooted in injuries.
The team's half-dozen key players on injured reserve is a fine place to start looking at New England's problems. Or some active players who have missed time. Skim over the inactive list Sunday and see the Patriots were down a few more starters, vital guys like wideouts Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, and defensive backs like Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung.
Then they watched another left tackle, Sebastian Vollmer, get carted off the field. Suddenly an already tough game had become a meat-grinder.
Brady was getting hit. The running game was doing little. The Jets' defense was everything it has been billed to be all season: talented on the back end, tough and terrorizing in the front. It beat up a Patriots offense that scored only 13 points Sunday, and energized a sometimes-deafening stadium. At some point in an environment, doubt creeps in. There was wonder if New England's defense, which already had scored a touchdown and nearly changed the game on a batted pass late, might pull some tricks and help make an unconventional decision seem a whole lot smarter.
That's how you end up kicking the ball away in overtime on the road against a hated division rival. The Patriots played a hunch and hoped for the best. Injuries have taken so much of a toll that the Patriots took measured chances that even surprised their opponent.
"After the game, [Patriots offensive coordinator] Josh McDaniels came up to me – my old ball coach in Denver – and I asked, 'What were you guys thinking?'" perplexed Jets wideout Brandon Marshall said afterward. "He explained to me the situation a little bit. But I didn't believe him."
There will be a lot of that going around after this one. But it keeps getting back to those injuries and wondering how much they will continue to warp what New England does and what it's capable of in the postseason because what happened Sunday, in a gritty, close game is the stuff of January. That's the stuff of the playoffs, when so much more will be on the line.
Would Belichick do it again? Will it even be a choice?
"It's tough," Brady said. "We have so many guys that have stepped in and have tried to do a great job. We just had some bad luck, truthfully. The game always ebbs and flows, and [the team is] missing some guys. But like I said, I don't think we've ever used those excuses, and we had opportunities to win this game. Hopefully, we can get healthy. We've just got to win one game next week [for home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs].
"I don't think anybody's feeling sorry for us. I'll say that. The guys who can do something about it and make a difference that are on the field have to go out and try to play well and win for this team – win for the guys who aren't out there playing for us. Every week presents different challenges."
Yes, they do. And every week presents different choices. In some ways, those choices are dwindling for New England. There is only so much shuffling and roster churning that can be done this late in a season. There is only so much personnel management that can be done on a Sunday. At some point, the only choices left are the conventional ones, when you play the best percentages and hope for the best. Or, as we saw Sunday, go in the opposite direction and absorb the worst.
Thankfully for New England, this was just one game and one blown coin toss in December. But one month from now, the bare-naked gambles and mistakes of assessment will be as important and unforgiving as any choice made this season.