“Maybe those guys gotta study the rulebook and figure it out. We obviously knew what we were doing and we made some pretty important plays. It was a real good weapon for us.”
Those are the words of Tom Brady after yet another New England Patriots playoff win, a 35-31 much-too-close-for-comfort victory over upset-minded Baltimore on Saturday.
The Patriots, according to Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh, used “deception” at the line of scrimmage to confuse the officials into not allowing his team to substitute players. It started when New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels — already having seen his offense go three-and-out to open the second half — decided that a 14-point deficit had to be cut in half with quick tempo and a barrage of trickery.
“It’s a substitution type of a trick type of a thing,” Harbaugh said. “So they don’t give you the chance to make the proper substitutions. … It’s not something that anybody’s ever done before. The league will look at that type of thing.” Remember, he had to purposefully induce an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty just to protest to officials that his defense had the right to properly adjust to the unconventional — albeit legal — ineligible Patriots receiver.
You don’t often see teams get this confused in a playoff game, particularly a defense as well-schooled and disciplined as Baltimore’s. And that is the beauty of Bill Belichick, the villainous Patriots coach who continually re-invents his teams. While we can call him cheap for such tactics, we can also choose to see this as sheer genius and mastery from one of the league’s all-time coaches as he tries to win his fourth Super Bowl as a head coach. Remember also, that he led the league’s last repeat champion exactly a decade ago.
Baltimore, to Harbaugh’s credit, believed it could win in Foxborough, Massachusetts. It came out with guns blazing and jumped on a revamped Pats defense, 14-0. Brady looked flat early, as did the team’s running game, and it appeared the Ravens might actually win — for a third time out of their last four Foxborough postseason games.
“You could see how frustrated they were on who to cover and this and that, so it turned out to be great plays for us,” Pats tight end Michael Hoomanawanui told ESPN.com about the unconventional setup.
Perhaps the greatest play in this game was Julian Edelman’s 51-yard bomb to Danny Amendola. Edelman, a slot receiver, was a collegiate quarterback at Kent State. The play, with the game in the balance, showed off Belichick’s willingness to do something different, to take the ball out of Brady’s hands and trust an undersized receiver to throw the first pass of his NFL career.
A crucial component for any coach is the in-game adjustment — more specifically, realizing when the game plan is not working. Against Baltimore, Belichick swallowed his ego, if only momentarily, and did just that. His “deception” completely altered the tenor of this game, helping the Pats earn a trip to their fourth consecutive AFC title game.
Earlier in the week, Don Shula, the former Hall of Fame coach who won two Super Bowls and led the 1972 Miami Dolphins to the only undefeated season in league history, caused a bit of a stir when he called Belichick, “Beli-cheat.” For those who do not remember, Shula is referring to “Spygate,” the 2007 debacle when the Patriots were caught and punished for taping their opponents’ coaching signals.
Eight years is a long time in the NFL, almost an eternity really. The 62-year-old Belichick, though — and maybe this is why he remains such a polarizing figure — seems unfazed by public persona or perception. Instead, he merely goes on with his business of winning.
“Nobody’s ever seen that before,” Harbaugh said following his team’s loss.
And, like him or not, there is a certain simplicity, tunnel-vision focus and ruthless dedication to winning in Belichick’s nature that commands our respect.
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