BOSTON (CBS) – New England Patriots fans are used to Bill Belichick deferring the opening kickoff, opting to let opponents start the game on offense so his team can get the ball after halftime.
But some were left scratching their heads when the head coach did the same thing after the Patriots won the coin toss to begin overtime on Sunday night, giving the ball to Peyton Manning to begin the extra session of football.
Even the team captains, Matthew Slater, Devin McCourty and Rob Ninkovich, who went to mid-field for the toss weren’t sure what to do when coin came up heads after the Broncos called tails.
But Belichick knew exactly what he was doing. Instead of giving his team the ball, he was making Denver drive into the 25+ MPH wind that had wreaked havoc on the passing game and brought temperatures down into the single digits. In addition to battling a Patriots defense that held them to just a single touchdown in the second half, Manning and company would have to fight against those freezing gusts as well.
“The wind, it was a strong wind. We just had to keep the out of the end zone, obviously. I just felt like the wind would be an advantage if we could keep them out of the end zone on that first drive,” Belichick explained after the win. “We were able to do that. The wind was significant in the game, it was definitely significant.”
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The Broncos got the ball twice, with their first drive ending after Eric Decker was whistled for a 15-yard pass interference penalty on a third-and-3, leading to a Denver punt one play later. Their second drive found them within striking distance at the New England 37 — if it wasn’t for that blustery weather. Denver kicker Matt Prater didn’t think he could hit a game-winner with the wind in his face, so the Broncos once again had to punt it away.
“It was tempting, because it was close,” Denver head coach Jack Del Rio said after the game. “[The wind] was a factor in that if we had the other direction, we may have had an opportunity with those five yards. That’s certainly ended up being to their advantage.”
Denver nearly got the ball back after forcing a New England punt four plays later, but a botched return by Tony Carter and Wes Welker gave the Patriots the ball back at the Denver 13. A few plays later Stephen Gostkowski kicked the game-winner from 31-yards out to give New England an amazing 34-31 comeback win to improve to 8-3 on the season.
Though it would be just a chip shot on any other day, Gostkowski said having the wind on his side made life a lot easier with the game on the line.
“The wind was pretty good and anytime the temperature is lower and the wind is higher, the harder it is to kick. Luckily we had the wind behind our back on that last kick,” said the Pats’ kicker, who has now hit 21-straight field goals. “Obviously you could tell, kickoffs going one way were going five yards out of the end zone and they were going to the 10 [yard line] the other way. It’s tough, but it was a lot of fun. Ryan [Allen] and Danny [Aiken] did a great job on the last kick, the line obviously blocked really well. It was just sweet. Definitely going to enjoy this one for a couple days.”
Needless to say, Belichick’s players applauded his decision to defer following the victory.
“Bill’s a genius. He’s a genius,” said McCourty. “I mean, even the captains didn’t know. We [were] like, ‘Defer? Take the wind?’ And, it was obviously the best call, and it was a great call by him.”
“Great decision,” said tight end Rob Gronkowski, who caught seven passes for 90 yards and a touchdown despite the windy and freezing conditions. “He is our coach [and] we’re behind him with everything, especially coach Belichick. Whatever he has, we’re behind him. So it was a great call because we won.”
It was a risky call giving Peyton Manning the ball to begin the extra frame, one that certainly would have drawn plenty of second-guessing had it not ended the way it did (remember 4th-and-2?). Had the Broncos scored a touchdown on their first possession the Patriots would have walked away with their fourth tough-to-swallow loss of the season.
But the gamble paid off, and Belichick’s decision is part of why the Patriots are now the two-seed in the AFC as of Monday morning.
Manning has seen it all from Belichick in his 17 NFL seasons, so when asked if he was surprised to learn he would have the ball to begin overtime he gave a simple “No.”
“Because that’s what they do sometimes,” he said.
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