A FEW DAYS EARLIER, Ravens coach John Harbaugh had made NFL headlines when he merely admitted to considered taking the wind, instead of the ball, before ultimately deciding to receive the kickoff that began his team’s overtime period with the Bears in Week 11.
And that was against Josh McCown.
So when Bill Belichick opted to give possession to the great Peyton Manning, in exchange for a chance to play downwind and defend Gillette Stadium’s north end zone on a blustery Sunday night, the choice perplexed many in the moment. Even his players.
“I mean, even the captains didn’t know,” said Patriots safety Devin McCourty. “We’re like, ‘Defer? Take the wind?’ “It was obviously the best call. And it was a great call by him.”
It became a great call because it worked. Manning’s record-pace passing attack was rendered ineffective because of the conditions, and after two overtime drives apiece, the Pats were punting with the wind when a bounding ball bounced off a Bronco. New England’s Nate Ebner pounced on the free pigskin, and Stephen Gostkowski kicked the winning field goal from 31 yards out.
But while it may have been his most controversial — or, at least, unconventional — choice of the night, the decision to initially defend in OT wasn’t where Belichick’s influence and ingeniousness was most evident en route to a 34-31 triumph that became the biggest comeback in franchise history because it required the Patriots to erase a 24-point halftime deficit.
In fact, they weren’t most apparent in any single play or strategic ploy, but rather in the way New England remained poised as their climb steepened. In the way that they stayed mentally strong after a dreadful first half against what might be the best team in football. And in the way those characteristics have become more a perpetual signature of his Patriots than any particular system or style of play.
“Going through the game film,” Belichick said Monday, “it’s just more and more evident how tough and resilient our players were (Sunday) night and how they just competed down after down for almost five full quarters against a really good football team.
“They did plenty of things that gave us problems but we hung in there and battled with them all the way.”
A more fragile team might have hung their heads, not hung in. The Patriots lost three fumbles in the first quarter and quickly fell behind by 17 points. On a bitterly cold night, they were being embarrassed before a national audience, while being booed off their own field at halftime, and the Broncos had run their record to 9-1 on the season even with a negative turnover margin — so they couldn’t have felt too good about their chances after affording Denver three free possessions.
But the Patriots avoided the traps of despair, and stayed focused on the task. Though their physical efforts had been beset by turnovers, they never let the game get away from them in a mental sense, with several players saying afterward that there was no rah-rah speech, no fiery rant during intermission. They simply took the break to refocus.
“We’re grown men, that’s our job,” said cornerback Aqib Talib. “We’re not going to pout and cry. We know you’ve got to play two halves of football, so that’s what we did.”
In order to do that, a team must first and foremost trust that they are well prepared — even in spite of their early foibles. That the Patriots so often maintain that confidence is a reflection of the faith the players have in their coaches. It cuts out the frustration, and guides the focus forward in a way that gives a team a sense of urgency, but not desperation. When facing a big deficit, that’s a big difference.
They never panic, which Sunday night enabled them to slice the gap to seven points by the end of the third before eventually go up by a touchdown in the fourth, and which has served them well at other points, as well. Last month they trailed the Dolphins, 17-3, before rattling off 24 unanswered points in the final 24 minutes. A week before that, they trailed the Saints in the final seconds before Tom Brady whipped on a winning strike to Kenbrell Thompkins, they’d previously beaten the Bills with a late drive, and they’ve fought to give themselves a chance in losses to the Bengals and Panthers.
They haven’t made it easy, certainly — but an 8-3 record says a lot about their ability to overcome.
“I think one thing that we’ve shown is that mentally we have some toughness. We’ve been in some bad situations,” Belichick said. “We’ve been able to hang in there, even when it hasn’t always looked great.”
Last year they trailed the 49ers 31-3 in the third quarter before battling back to even, while the year before (the previous time they’d been shut out in the first half) they beat the Dolphins by wiping out a 17-0 disadvantage.
And, conversely, they simply don’t get blown out. Since December of 2006, Brady has lost only three regular-season games by more than one score, and none of them has come in the past three years.
Again, that’s a credit to the way the way they’re prepared. They’re ready for the moment, McCourty said, no matter what that moment is, so rather than trying to figure it out on the fly they need only concern themselves with execution.
“Coach does a great job putting us in situations throughout the year,” the safety said. “There’s times in (offseason team activities) where the season’s months away and we’re out there playing and practicing in a downpour.
“Some people think that’s not a big deal, but that goes a long way to just being mentally tough, so that’s why when we get down, we don’t think too much. We just keep playing.”
And they just keep winning — in large part because they’re confident in the way they’ve been prepared by a coach they trust. Even when they can’t believe he doesn’t want the ball.
“Bill,” a smiling McCourty said, “is a genius.”
Dave D’Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.