logoby Scott Benson

There was so much to like about Sunday night.

Such as the game plan, which sure looked like a winner as the contest (rapidly, like a Polaroid) developed across our television screens. The Patriots, on the road for the first time in Lucas Oil Stadium, were in a tight, low-scoring, four-quarter battle with the still-dangerous Colts.

However much I want to rail about the bungled outcome, I admit that I would have been happy as hell with a tight, low-scoring, four-quarter battle with the still-dangerous Colts had one been promised to me beforehand. In the end, this was an eminently winnable game.

I thought the Patriots’ players responded to the plan with a generally solid, road-win-worthy performance. The offense executed well enough to possess the ball for nine minutes longer than Peyton Manning on his home field. The defense, with safeties James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather aligned deep, forced Manning to piece together long, time-consuming drives of his own, quickening the pace of the game and limiting Indy’s total possessions. With the quick strike option taken away, the Colts would have to execute consistently with few missteps to win.

Which they did, of course (are you that surprised?). And the Patriots didn’t, not entirely – the most glaring examples being Jabar Gaffney’s awful drop of a sure touchdown pass and a terrible penalty on David Thomas that took New England out of range for a game-tying field goal. Matt Cassel marched the Pats on scoring drives of 56, 61, 72 and 69 yards, but produced only one touchdown. The pass defense struggled against slot receiver Anthony Gonzalez, who doubled Cassel’s TD production by himself.     

Some of those things shouldn’t have happened (that was a bullshit call on Thomas, the first player in the history of the game to get an unnecessary roughness penalty for blocking somebody legally on their ass. The freaking play was in back of him and barely a beat over when Thomas sent his man flying. The Colts defender was in pursuit of the play and Thomas was ready to engage him just as Green-Ellis was yanked down behind him. You’re damn right it was unnecessary, Bill Corollo) and some of them were well earned (Gaffney, and the Pats’ deep secondary still allowing three catches over 20 yards).

The Patriots still should have beaten the Colts in Indy on Sunday night. They didn’t, and it was because of some lousy in-game decisions by their head coach.

This is astounding, no? The Bill Belichick who once took an intentional safety to set up a win? But it’s true, I think – confronted with more than one Moment of Truth on Sunday night, he stunk out the joint.

The one that first set me off was the wasted challenge on the Patriots’ possession to open the second half. The Patriots trailed by a mere point and were driving convincingly, stitching together two first downs for a 1st and 10 from the Indy 45. As the Patriots ran Kevin Faulk for no gain on first down, at least two Colts defensive players scrambled for the sidelines, and it appeared for a moment that the confusion had led Indy to have too many players on the field. There was no flag, and Belichick issued his challenge.

Excuse me, but what for? I’ve always figured that challenges were a precious commodity, to be employed only for things like sidelines and fumbles and catch-no-catches and whether or not the ball happened to cross the plane, which is kind of important detail.

But do you use them for a marginal call that – at best – gives you a 1st and 5 from the Indy 40 (vs. a 2nd and 10 from the 45) with 27 whole minutes remaining in the game? After you’ve already proven that you can move the ball both on the ground and through the air?

I’m sorry, but there was something really Eric Mangini about that particular red flag. It had that same sort of knee-jerk, lack of perspective quality that the Pats former defensive coordinator has honed with his many New York challenges.

So twelve minutes left in the third quarter of a 7-6 game and they’re already down to two timeouts. Which may not seem like a big deal until your still-inexperienced backup quarterback needs to take one for himself a minute or two later.

You might want to kill Cassel for taking a timeout on a 2nd and 8 from his opponent’s 17, with a chance to take the lead (they did, btw), but we’ve all seen Tom Brady do it a hundred times. You get three timeouts per half, and it seems only reasonable that you’d budget at least one for your quarterback.

End result, though, was that the Pats were down to one timeout with practically a whole half to play. If you’re going to go on the road for a tight, low-scoring, four-quarter battle with the still-dangerous Colts, you should really have some time outs just in case.

Like if Kevin Faulk is diving off the right side for a two-pointer that would give you a 14-7 lead, and he is hit well before the end zone, but he twists through the hit to touch the goal line with the ball as he is going down……you should really have a time out there that you can wager on a replay.

That wasn’t happening, though – not if it meant the Pats would use all three time outs on their first drive of the second half. So Belichick sat on his flag.

You know when you might also want a time out? When Dallas Clark catches a short pass in the left flat later on, and he runs past everyone until Meriweather and Gary Guyton chase him down, and the ball pops out – I swear to God I saw this – before Clark hits the ground. Adalius Thomas was one of several Pats with open access to the loose football.

I realize that the quick whistle would have probably rendered the whole thing moot, but mentioning it gives me the chance to say – NBC, you suck. The only replay we saw of this play was used as an outro for a commercial (didn’t you see that ball out before Clark’s knee hit the ground? I swear I saw that, as well as one official who seemed to be reacting as if he considered the ball still live) and never mentioned again. I’m pretty sure we’re still waiting for a stop action replay of Faulk’s failed conversion attempt. Who directed last night’s broadcast – Bill Polian?

But by the time that Clark let the ball squirt free, there were no time outs to give. The remaining TO had died the most inglorious death just seconds earlier, when I almost swallowed my tongue.

Allow me to set the scene: the Patriots are down by three (friggin’ Gonzalez again) and the third quarter is about to end. They take the ball at their own 24 and quickly move into Colts territory towards – at minimum – a tying field goal. I’m starting to hear The Battle Hymn of the Republic in my head just like when Oliver Douglas would give a particularly stirring address to his fellow Hootervillians on Green Acres. The Patriots – shells of their former selves after losing the NFL MVP, their leading rusher and their defensive stalwart before the season was half over – were on the road driving for perhaps the winning points in the new home of their bitterest of rivals? They would leave Indianapolis with the second best record in the conference and sole possession of first place in their division?

Cassel starts piling up the first downs, converting two consecutive third downs with a scramble and a pass to Moss, and New England is suddenly inside the Indy 20 with a 1st and 10 at the 16. But as so often happens, the shortened field slows down the offense, and Cassel is in another third down bind. A third-down pass to Wes Welker comes up a couple of feet short (maybe) on 3rd and 11, and I start yelling at my television – GO FOR IT! GO FOR IT!   

I was thinking that they may not have a better chance to win the game than right then, by scoring a touchdown and thus requiring the Colts to do the same as time ran down in the fourth. The Patriots had enjoyed a clear advantage in the matchup between their offensive line and Indy’s front seven (often including Bob Sanders, who must have a terrific publicist), and had proven they could push the Colts back off the ball when they needed to.

It appeared as if this may be Belichick’s thinking as well, as Cassel remained on the field with an enlarged version of the Patriots offense. The Pats came to the line on fourth and one and Cassel easily snuck off to the left for a first and goal from the Colts 6. His truth is marching on…

And then Belichick blew my mind.

As you know already, he called a timeout just as the ball was about to be snapped, like he was friggin’ Rex Ryan or somebody, nullifying what could have been the Patriots’ biggest first down of the season to date.

Later, the coach explained that he’d not gotten a clear picture of the distance needed for the first down, and he pulled the chain when he realized it was close to a yard, instead of inches. A whole yard that Cassel – almost simultaneously – easily made, despite the coach’s pessimism. But Gloomy Gus had by then already made up his mind; the Pats would take the sure tie and put the ball back in Manning’s hands.

Arrrrgh. The Colts came into the game 25th against the run, and the Patriots had surely established by then that they could run the ball…..so why was a yard too far? Why were inches to go okay, but several inches were just too much? After your team had already gained almost 140 yards by alternately fooling them and then knocking them on their ass?

That one gets me the most. They should have gone for it, because they would have made it, and they did……except they didn’t. The coach lost his water when he should have held it, and he wiped the whole thing off the board as if it didn’t happen. He took a huge confidence building moment for his team and he walked on it with a clumsy, curiously milquetoast piece of last second strategy.

The game was lost right there, as far as I’m concerned. Let’s say the Patriots go without Belichick’s inexplicable interference, and convert that 1st and Goal from the 6 into a touchdown and a 19-15 lead? Not a stretch, exactly – after all, they had done the same thing just minutes before.

That would have definitely put a different spin on Adam Vinatieri’s 52 yard field goal, which would have left the Colts still trailing. It would have given the Patriots the option to pin the Colts back by their own goal line with a punt rather than throw up a hopeless 4th down pass – because they were losing rather than winning – just a few minutes later.

And not having even one time out left the Patriots unable to able to do anything to stop even for a second – plus a two minute warning – the slide that play (a Cassel interception) put them on.  The Colts choked all but the last seconds off the clock, leaving Cassel throwing up even more hopeless passes until it was done.

The good news is that this kind of daffy in-game decision making by Belichick is an anomaly with a capital ‘A’. You could probably count the number of times Bill Belichick has put his team behind the eight ball with red flags and time outs on one hand.

That’s what makes Sunday night’s loss in Indianapolis so jarring. That one, incredibly, was squarely on the coach.