By Steve Lichtenstein
» More Columns
I'm not in the business of defending Bill Belichick.
As a Jets fan, I've despised the Patriots coach ever since he abruptly resigned as "HC of the NYJ" in 2000 to take over in New England, where he then won four Super Bowls.
But even if you don't believe the spin coming out of the Patriots' locker room at MetLife Stadium on Sunday following the Jets' thrilling 26-20 overtime victory, Belichick's decision to kick off after winning the coin toss had his evil logic behind it and did not cost New England the game.
A case can be made that Belichick had the Jets' figured out. He had seen his fourth-quarter defense hold the Jets to a pair of three-and-outs and then another punt after New England tied the game with less than two minutes remaining.
Another quick stop would have forced a punt by Ryan Quigley, one known for routinely giving returners opportunities due to poor hang time. The Jets coverage unit is notoriously slow, often not even in the picture at the moment of the returner's catch.
With his banged up offensive line, anonymous receiving corps, and a running back for whom he had to dust the mothballs off his shoulder pads a few days ago, Belichick would have had his Patriots in a position where quarterback Tom Brady only needed a first down or two to get in Pro Bowl kicker Stephen Gostkowski's range for a game-winning field goal.
Sure it was rather risky to allow the Jets to start off overtime with the ball, but it only backfired because the Jets did what many of their predecessors failed to do in similar situations against the hated Patriots.
They made plays.
I've lost track of all the times that the Jets were just one or two plays away from knocking off the Patriots, only to see Brady prove clutch and the Jets choke.
It's as if the Jets were "Megamind" versus New England's "Metro Man" -- the Patriots would win some, the Jets would ALMOST win others.
The only way to flip the script was for the Jets to make the plays that were previously owned by the Patriots.
On the second snap of overtime, the Jets set up in a four-receiver formation with their two top threats -- Eric Decker and Brandon Marshall -- on the right side and with Kenbrell Thompkins and Quincy Enunwa to the left. Thompkins, the former Patriot who knows a thing or two about pick plays, darted inside while Enunwa slanted from his slot position to the sideline.
Patriots reserve defensive back Tavon Wilson attempted to jump Enunwa's route by splitting Thompkins and teammate Leonard Johnson, but he bumped into Johnson and couldn't disrupt Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's pass to the left flat.
On the Jets' final drive in regulation Enunwa failed to snare a catchable Fitzpatrick bomb on a crucial third down. However, he made up for his misplay to start overtime with a catch and run of 48 yards down the sideline to the Patriots' 30.
A short run by Chris Ivory and a 20-yard Marshall reception set up Fitzpatrick's fade to Decker in the right corner of the end zone from 6 yards out that ended it.
Social media went batty after Belichick's curious choice. Some went after the officials, as if they were to blame for confusing Patriots special teams ace and designated captain Matthew Slater during the toss. Slater dismissed that notion during his postgame chat with the media, saying that Belichick had already told the refs that he would kick away if New England won the toss. Slater said he was only unsure of whether the Patriots could pick the direction they would defend.
Nuttier still were those who claimed Belichick gifted the Jets the game because he wanted Pittsburgh out of the postseason tournament. The Patriots historically have always played to win, even when the games have been meaningless. Had they beaten the Jets, they would have clinched the top seed and the ensuing home field advantage through the playoffs. That's not meaningless.
Besides, while Gang Green's victory (and the Steelers' inconceivable loss in Baltimore) allowed them to vault into the sixth and final playoff seed for the moment, the 10-5 Jets still have to win in Buffalo next week to secure it.
And that's no guarantee.
Now if it was Bills coach Rex Ryan who opted to kick away, I would probably question his mental makeup.
But Belichick tends to think outside the box. He was one of the early adapters of aggressive fourth-down play calls to avoid giving up on possessions (remember the loss in Indianapolis when going for it on fourth down gave Peyton Manning a short field to complete a comeback victory?) and over the years he's had a few of his players go both ways (offense and defense) where he saw fits.
Against the Jets, Belichick emptied the playbook. He called jet sweeps, a flea-flicker, and a play out of the wildcat formation with Brady split out wide as a receiver.
I think if the Patriots active list wasn't so sketchy, Belichick would have surely given Brady the ball with the first chance to finish the game. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, Brady's two favorite wide receiver targets, did not dress and the Patriots suffered yet another blow to their offensive line when tackle Sebastian Vollmer was carted off in the first quarter with a leg injury. The Patriots handed the ball off seven times to 32-year old Steven Jackson, who signed with the team on Monday after sitting at home for the first 15 weeks of the season.
Out of his normal weaponry, all Brady had at his disposal on Sunday was tight end Rob Gronkowski. Until their game-tying drive, the Patriots had been limited to just two field goals on 218 yards of total offense. Their other score came courtesy of a strip-sack of Fitzpatrick and 14-yard return of the fumble by linebacker Jamie Collins.
The New England defense, on the other hand, found its mojo after the Jets took a 17-3 lead in the third quarter on a 33-yard Fitzpatrick-to-Marshall hookup. That completion was only Fitzpatrick's fourth in 26 attempts this season that traveled at least 30 yards in the air, according to ESPN.com. The Patriots then made even more of an effort to clamp down on the Jets' mixture of short routes and screens and put more heat on Fitzpatrick. On their final five possessions in regulation, the Jets offense produced just 91 yards and a field goal.
Belichick's decision may have been a gamble, but it was a calculated one. He gambled that the Jets, a team whose previous nine wins came against clubs that currently sport a composite record of 46-88 and had not beaten an opponent with a winning record all year, wouldn't score a game-ending touchdown.
They did, and after the game Jets coach Todd Bowles echoed the sentiment of the club's long-tormented fans when he said, "It's about damn time!"
For a FAN's perspective of the Nets and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter at @SteveLichtenst1
for more features.