Bill Belichick must be so mad he wants to kick something.
A miscommunication between New England Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater and referee Clete Blakeman led to New England getting neither the ball nor the wind at the beginning of overtime against the New York Jets on Sunday, and Ryan Fitzpatrick inflicted sudden death on the proceedings.
After careful analysis of the video and transcript of the exchange (via ESPN's Kevin Seifert), it looks as though Slater was under orders to take the wind (and therefore cede the kick-or-catch choice to the Jets)—but when the Patriots won the toss Slater chose to kick, as opposed to taking the wind. Belichick, the Patriots head coach, defended the decision after the game.
"I thought it was the best thing to do," Belichick said during his press conference.
But as enormous as this win was for the Jets, the loss itself doesn't mean much for the Patriots' season. With New England having already clinched a first-round bye and still in the hunt to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, it doesn't matter whether Blakeman misunderstood Slater, Slater topped Kirk Cousins for Week 16's biggest brain fart or Belichick screwed up in relaying his instructions to Slater.
The coin toss didn't lose the game. As Mike Loyko of NEPatriotsDraft.com noted on Twitter, it was impressive enough that the Patriots took the game to overtime at all:
Mike Loyko @NEPD_Loyko
It was a miracle to get that game to OT. I would have taken a loss at halftime. Only one major injury. See you in 3 weeks.2015-12-27 21:11:41
After being held scoreless for the first 21 minutes and 10 seconds of the game, the Pats went into halftime down 10-3. On their first second-half possession, quarterback Tom Brady tried to use his great equalizer, tight end Rob Gronkowski—the human weapon who's been so huge in so many tight spots for him all year long.
But All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, who won a ring with the Patriots in 2014 before spurning them to re-join the Jets, took an ironic star turn:
The interception set up a Brandon Marshall touchdown catch, which helped put the Patriots down 17-3 after a successful Randy Bullock extra-point kick. Brady and the Pats mustered a field goal in response, but the losing end of a 17-6 scoreline with just a few minutes left in the third quarter wasn't a good place to be.
That's when linebacker Jamie Collins got the Pats back into the game, by doing what Brady and the offense couldn't seem to do: get in the end zone. Collins scooped up Jabaal Sheard's strip-sack of Fitzpatrick and scored, cutting the deficit to seven points after Stephen Gostkowski's extra-point attempt.
It still wasn't good enough. The Jets answered with a field goal, and the Pats' next two offensive drives ended in punts.
The Patriots' running game was nonexistent; new signee Steven Jackson managed just 15 yards on seven carries. Brandon Bolden took nine carries just 30 yards. As a team, the Patriots averaged just 2.9 yards per carry on 22 rushing plays.
But on-the-ground futility has been a fact of Patriots life all season long; what changed this week was a lack of passing effectiveness.
Brady completed 71 percent of his 31 passes but averaged just 10.5 yards per completion. Were that Brady's season-long per-completion average, he'd be tied with Joe Flacco for worst in the NFL, per Pro- Football-Reference.com.
Despite relying heavily on dinks and dunks, Brady weirdly couldn't move the chains; the Pats were a miserable 1-of-10 on third down. Belichick and the Pats pulled out all the stops, including a flea-flicker and a Wildcat look with Brady at wide receiver. As Chase Stuart of FootballPerspective.com noted, it was an unusual, unbecoming level of desperation:
Football Perspective @fbgchase
Several trick plays today for the Patriots. A capitulation to having less talent on the field, I think.2015-12-27 18:45:27
At the end of regulation, Brady summoned all the old magic. He went 6-of-8 for 60 yards and ended with a game-tying touchdown on an 11-play, 66-yard, 4:31 drive, forcing the disastrous overtime.
Even if the Patriots had won this game, the minor issues that have nagged them all season are becoming increasingly major: a lack of quality or depth at running back, a lack of depth and quality on the offensive line (LaAdrian Waddle, cut by the Detroit Lions earlier this season, started at left tackle and got hurt), and question marks regarding the secondary.
The Jets have a good defense, ranked eighth in scoring before the game—but being held without an offensive touchdown for 58 minutes is simply not good enough. The Cincinnati Bengals (first), Kansas City Chiefs (third) and Denver Broncos (fourth) defenses have all been better at denying offensive points, and the Pats will likely face one (and possibly two) of those defenses in the AFC side of the playoffs.
Despite coming into the game ranked third in offensive points per game, it's been a while since Brady and the Pats have looked like the unstoppable machine that ripped through the NFL in September and October. Their entire post-Thanksgiving resume consists of punching out two AFC South tomato cans, dropping two overtime disappointments against the Broncos and Jets and a mystifying loss to the 6-9 Philadelphia Eagles.
In fact, the Patriots haven't beaten a likely playoff team since their Week 9 victory over Washington—and that uninspiring squad clinching a home playoff game is inspiring calls to change the way playoff seeding works, as Jeff Diamond of Sporting News discussed.
There are plenty of good reasons for the Pats' falling form, and a lot of them have to do with major injuries. Even if they get key players like center Bryan Stork and receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola back for the playoffs, the fact remains the Patriots will be hosting some red-hot AFC squad two months removed from playing championship-caliber football.
As Brady and Belichick proved last season—and nearly did again Sunday—they're both still good enough to overcome almost any odds. But the odds are stacked against them in a way they weren't before the rash of injuries, and they have a lot more important failures to reflect on than a once-in-a-lifetime coin toss snafu.