Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Belichick's Logic Sound; Accusations Of Throwing Game Senseless

Lost in the controversy surrounding the end of the New England Patriots' overtime loss to the New York Jets - either real or contrived from the minds of paranoid conspiracy theorists - is the fact that the Patriots almost pulled that game out despite the tremendous amount of adversity loaded on the shoulders of the players.

Any other team would have mailed it in and used the injury issues as an excuse.

Yet, despite getting only 13 points from an offense that was plagued with an aversion to the yardage marker- as going just one for ten on third down conversions will attest - the Patriots forced their showdown with the Jets into overtime with a clutch drive when it mattered the most, converting two fourth down conversions along the way...

...after riding the defense for the entire game, a defense that had held the Jets' offense to one field goal and 81 yards for the final twenty minutes of regulation while scoring a touchdown themselves on a Jabaal Sheard strip sack and Jamie Collins recovery and return - forcing two three-and-outs and three punts overall in the fourth quarter.

The hot hand was most assuredly with the defense, so when overtime called and the Patriots had won the coin toss, head ball coach Bill Belichick elected to kick the ball away to the Jets to start overtime and trust his defense that had dominated the Jets in the second half to force the Jets to punt and, hopefully, flip the field position to give Brady and the offense a short field to work with to get into kicker Stephen Gostkowski's considerable field goal range.

Instead, the Jets drove down the field, going 80 yards in five plays to score the winning touchdown in a 26-20 fist fight that gave New York new life in their pursuit of the post-season while denying the Patriots an opportunity to secure homefiled advantage throughout the playoffs.

In truth, even though the Patriots defense had been dominating the Jets in the second half, the secondary had been living dangerously all game, lucking out on several throws down the field that the New York receivers either couldn't quite get a handle on, or that Jets' quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick had just plain overthrown...

...but the key play in the winning drive was a result of reserve safety Tavon Wilson being rubbed into cornerback Leonard Johnson, taking him out at the knees and allowing a short pass in the left flat to receiver Quincy Enunwa to go for 48 yards, opening up a chain reaction that saw the Jets score a walk-off touchdown two plays later.

New York made the overtime drive look so effortless that many in the media and in the fan bases of several teams wondered aloud if Belichick called off the dogs and let the Jets win in order to to drive a stake into the hearts of the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose loss to the Baltimore Ravens just moments earlier severely crippled their playoff hopes.

But, why would Belichick even conjure such a thing?

Some are speculating that Belichick saw a perfect storm that would keep his team from having to deal with the offensive juggernaut of the Steelers, delivering a double whammy that gave the Jets a leg up in the race for the final playoff spot in the AFC, but there are a couple of holes in that conspiracy theory.

First, Belichick is already regarded around the league as a "Cheater", with unfortunate monikers like "Belicheat" attached to his legacy, so in accordance with maintaining public perception he needs to do his thing cleaner and better than the other guy - so a blatant episode of fixing the outcome of a game - something that could and should be considered outright cheating - would not be a prudent choice, as not even the arrogant Dark Master has the stones to pull off something so obvious.

Secondly, a loss to the Jets compounds an already fluid injury situation, as now instead of being able to rest his core players in what would have been a meaningless game against the Dolphins on Sunday, he is forced to expose them to injury if he wants his team to have homefield advantage for the AFC playoffs.

That can not be overstated, because if the Patriots had been able to win on Sunday, It is likely that after about a quarter of work in Miami this coming Sunday for Brady, it would have been the Jimmy G. show, the second year heartthrob (come on, ladies, you know it's true) running for his life behind a makeshift offensive line while the defense would have seen names like Ebner, Wilson and Bostic starting and picking up a few stats...

...while the more injured of the starters would have had a full three weeks to lick their wounds before the Patriots take the field in the divisional round of the playoffs - and with modern medicine being what it is, three weeks is enough time to heal everyone on the active roster and make them available for another Super Bowl run.

Lastly, why in the name of Woody Johnson would Belichick want to take the chance of having to face the Jets for a third time? The last time these two teams hooked up in the post-season, it didn't turn out very well for New England, and since they are natural rivals the games are usually too close for comfort.

The Steelers screwed themselves by losing to the Ravens, with Ryan Mallet (of all people) at quarterback. If Pittsburgh and their funky cold head coach Mike Tomlin don't make the playoffs, well, that's on them. The Jets beat the Patriots because they executed when it counted, and it was legit.

Or at least as legit as it could be given the Patriots' injury situation, which grows exponentially every week and has left New England's offense a shell of itself - and even though the team follows the mantra that they don't use injury as an excuse for losing or for poor play, you'd have to be crazy on acid not to recognize what the injuries have done to this team.

But this loss to the Jets was exactly because of injury and poor play, and even though the Jets played just as poorly as New England, in the end they had just enough to pull out the win.

Regardless of Fitzgerald's struggles with finding open receivers downfield, he pretty much had his way with New England's defense for a little more than one half of play, going 15 of 23 for 155 yards and two touchdowns during that time frame while building a 17-3 lead, much of that yardage and both scores going to enigmatic receiver Brandon Marshall, who consistently abused Patriots' cornerback Logan Ryan...

...while the powerful New York running game hammered the Patriots' front seven - the healthiest unit on the entire team - for 97 yards on just 17 carries, much of it right into the teeth of the Patriots' usually stout run defense, but then gained only 46 yards on 10 carries the rest of the way - and while giving up 4.6 yards per carry down the stretch isn't something for the Patriots to hang their hats on, it's certainly better than the 5.7 yards per carry average they surrendered before that point.

By contrast, New England's offense picked up a measly 113 yards in the first half as Brady took an epic Steve Grogan-like beating every time he dropped back to pass, completing 8 of 10 for 67 yards while his running game accounted for 46 yards on 12 carries, which isn't bad until one stops to consider that 15 of those yards came on two Brandon Bolden carries as New England curiously ran out the last two minutes of the half in a conservative manner.

At least running out the clock with two minutes and two time outs remaining seemed curious at the time, until the struggles by both units combined with the fact that the possession started deep in New England territory are taken into account, as well as the fact that the Patriots' defense had been on the field for 19 minutes in the half and had just given up a touchdown on a 13 play, seven minute drive, and were collectively exhausted.

So Belichick decided, correctly, that had he turned Brady loose to go downfield with the ball and they failed to pick up a first down, the defense would have been back out on the field, exhausted and demoralized, the odds favoring them giving up more points to the hot Jets' offense...

...which happened on the first drive of the second half anyway - but then the Patriots' defense suddenly found life and stiffened, holding New York to just three points the rest of the half and scoring the touchdown that got New England right back in a game that they had no business being in.

But in it they were, and the only real question I have for Belichick is why, instead of playing for overtime, he didn't call for a two-point conversion after Brady's clutch drive, riding the hot hand to give the Patriots the lead and relying on his defense to hold a lead with 1:55 left in the game.

Caution should be exercised when attempting to explain anything that Bill Belichick does, however, and far be it for any Patriots' fan to question his logic, unconventional as it may have been, as the Dark Master has been right far more times than he's been wrong, and to accuse the man of throwing a game to gain a competitive advantage in the playoffs is as paranoid as it gets.

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