FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Bill Belichick defended his decision to go for it on fourth down as criticism mounted Monday of the call that led to the New England Patriots stunning loss.
The coach hailed as one of the NFL’s best was a target of columnists, talk radio callers and two of his former players. Why, they all wondered, did he gamble with a six-point lead and just over two minutes to go against the Indianapolis Colts?
The gamble failed and the Patriots lost, 35-34, after leading by 17 points in the fourth quarter Sunday night.
“The same thing I said after the game,” Belichick said at his regular Monday news conference. “I thought it was our best chance to win. I thought we needed to make that one play and then we could basically run out the clock. We weren’t able to make it.”
An average punt would have left Peyton Manning about 60-70 yards from the end zone, a long distance but one Manning has traveled before with little time left.
But when the Patriots gained 1 yard on fourth-and-2, his task became much easier. Manning got the ball at the New England 29-yard line and four plays later he threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Reggie Wayne with 13 seconds left. Matt Stover’s extra point was the winning margin.
Belichick was noncommittal Monday when asked if he would make the same decision again.
“You only get one chance,” he said.
When that chance ended, the second guessing started.
NBC analyst Rodney Harrison, a safety for Belichick for six years who retired before this season, called it “the worst coaching decision I’ve ever seen Bill Belichick make.”
ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi, who retired this year after 14 seasons as a Patriots linebacker, said, “The decision to go for it would be enough to make my blood boil for weeks. … I would look at this decision as a lack of confidence in our ability as a defensive unit to come up with a big play to win the game.”
The loss dropped the Patriots to 6-3, three games behind the unbeaten Colts, and hurt their hopes for home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs and for avoiding a game in the first round. They’re home against the New York Jets on Sunday.
Belichick has made plenty of aggressive calls that worked. He’s led the Patriots to three Super Bowl wins this decade. Might it be unfair for critics to pounce when one gutsy call doesn’t pan out?
“Everybody’s entitled to their opinion out there,” he said. “I respect that.”
Not everyone piled on.
Colts coach Jim Caldwell, the beneficiary of Belichick’s decision, held off.
“I just think that every situation is different,” Caldwell said, “There are things that you have to weigh, you have to take into account, and things that are not readily available to the public, so I’m not going to question anybody’s decision, especially someone who has won more Super Bowl championships than most people dream about.”