Did cold truths about Peyton Manning heavily influence Bill Belichick's gutsy OT decision?

Dan Wetzel

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – In 2009, the New England Patriots visited the Indianapolis Colts in one of those typical, big expectation, powerhouse midseason showdowns.

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The Pats were sitting on a six-point lead with 2:08 remaining in the game when Bill Belichick decided he'd rather go for it on fourth-and-2 from his own 28-yard line than punt to Peyton Manning.

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The play failed and the Colts went on to score a short-field, game-winning touchdown. The decision went down as one of the more memorable (and criticized) in the Manning vs. Patriots rivalry. 

Sunday night here, in the series' latest chapter, with Manning now a Denver Bronco, the game went to overtime, score tied at 31. New England won the coin flip and Belichick immediately chose to again buck conventional wisdom and take the wind, a cold, whipping 20-mile per hour effort.

"We [were] like, 'Defer? Take the wind?'" defensive back Devin McCourty said.

Yes, take the wind. Belichick wanted that at Tom Brady's back. As for just giving the ball to Peyton with the game on the line, well, that was worth the trade. So just go ahead and boot it down to him. BB would take his chances.

"We just had to keep them out of the end zone," Belichick said later with a shrug, like that's no big thing.

New England beat Denver Sunday, 34-31, in one of the wildest and most entertaining games of the NFL season. The Broncos led 24-zip at the half, mostly courtesy of the Patriots' repeated fumbles. New England stormed back to take a 31-24 lead. Then Denver rallied to force OT. Then Belichick's decision proved wise – Denver couldn't reach the end zone or even the elongated field-goal range in the extra session.

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The Pats finally caught a break on a muffed punt on the Broncos' 13-yard line with 3:01 left in overtime. Three plays later Stephen Gostkowski kicked home the game-winner, wind blowing from behind him.

It was a great victory and a devastating loss, but all of those emotions will fade soon for each team. If the ball bounces in a different direction, or Wes Welker gets up and fair catches the punt for Denver, or any number of about a million variables occur and it's a different result. Or a tie. Or New England wins sooner. Whatever.

"It was a good football game," Broncos coach Jack Del Rio said. "Two good teams." New England is now 8-3, Denver 9-2. This will eventually get sorted out for keeps in January.

Except one question that was harped on coming into this game still remains, and maybe it influenced Belichick's decision on that coin flip. As brilliant as Peyton Manning can be, is he capable of delivering at the same level in the sub-freezing swirl of winter – which was precisely how it was in frigid Massachusetts on Sunday night.

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Manning wasn't terrible in this game, but he also wasn't slinging it around like he did earlier in the season when the Denver offense resembled a "Madden" video game. He finished 19-of-36 for 150 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

Meanwhile Brady went 34-for-50 for 344 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. Denver was smart to ride a hot running game (Knowshon Moreno crushed his way for 224 yards) but there was no question which quarterback looked more comfortable out there.

And while it was certainly cold, this is still just November. These could be dream conditions come January.

Manning is now 3-8 lifetime in games where the temperature was below 32 degrees at kickoff, according to Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com. In those games he now has 13 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, nothing close to his better than 2 to 1 TDs-to-interceptions (472 to 216) career ratio.

The problem for Manning is the elements can no longer be avoided. Brutal nights like this are going to be the norm.

He doesn't play in the dome in downtown Indy anymore, so even if the Broncos secure the No. 1 seed in the AFC, he'll have to line it up a mile high in Denver. If they slip to a wild card – they are at Kansas City in a critical division game next week; then they may wind up back here. And this season's Super Bowl will be played outdoors, in February in East Rutherford, N.J.

If Manning is going to lead the Broncos to a world championship, he's going to have to come up big in the cold, the snow, the sleet, the wind, the whatever. It isn't going to be a climate-controlled journey.

"It's always a possibility these last months of the season and then in the postseason," Manning said.

There were many reasons for Belichick to take the wind in overtime, the same way there were plenty for going for it on fourth-and-2 four years ago. He never fears being unorthodox. So daring Peyton to beat him in the elements wasn't solely it.

Still, the obvious parallel is that back in 2009, back in an air-conditioned stadium, back before Manning missed a season with a neck injury, Bill Belichick was willing to risk plenty to keep the ball away from this guy.

This time it was a secondary concern. Besides, he knew Manning would have to throw into those gusts.

"The wind was significant in the game," Belichick said. "It was definitely significant."

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"Bill's a genius," McCourty noted.

Manning brushed off any suggestion that the weather impacted the Broncos' passing game, although they came in averaging 350.4 yards per game, 200 more than they got Sunday. Besides, almost everyone else on both teams said it changes the way the game is played. Whether it's an inability to throw deep or causing more routes to be run in the center of the field (the deep out is too difficult), the weather is unavoidable. "It's trying to get completions, easier completions," receiver Wes Welker said. "It's tough. It's not the easiest of deals out there but you have to push through it, you have to practice through it."

After all these years that may be the only thing Manning is missing – experience pushing through it, practicing through it. He's as complete and as brilliant of a quarterback as this league has ever seen, but he acknowledged he's still getting used to outdoor, cold-weather play.

"I think the more you can be in it, the better off you can be," Manning said.

Brady long ago learned to be in it. Whether that was the difference Sunday night or not, it'll remain a point of debate surrounding Peyton Manning until he silences the last possible doubt about him. Like it or not, that's just how it is.

Well past midnight here, Manning and his Broncos bundled up their coats, put their heads down and walked out the back of Gillette Stadium toward a couple of waiting buses.

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No matter what the scoreboard behind them here said, they remain the team to beat in the AFC.

That bitter wind blasting through the darkness, however, isn't going to taper off anytime soon. As the stakes rise, it only seems to get colder and stronger.

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