It wasn't quite "fourth-and-2," but Bill Belichick's decision to take the wind against Peyton Manning in overtime Sunday night, denying Tom Brady first crack at the ball, certainly raised some eyebrows.
Before we dissect the decision, it's hard to believe this game even reached that point, as Denver had a 24-0 lead in "Manning-Brady XIV" thanks to the Patriots losing three first-quarter fumbles. It marked the 10th time in 14 meetings that one of the quarterbacks held at least a three-score lead over the other. But despite it being the greatest quarterback rivalry ever, we had never previously seen these two engage in a classic shootout played within a tight scoring range.
When it looked like things were slipping away for Manning, he made his best throws of the night on an improbable 80-yard touchdown drive to tie the game at 31-31 with 3:06 left. Manning has a record 40 fourth-quarter comeback wins and he was attempting to lead his 52nd game-winning drive, which would have set an NFL record (Dan Marino also led 51 game-winning drives). That sent the game into overtime.
The rules have changed for overtime, yet every coach has basically used the same strategies from the old system. Belichick, like the maverick he is, became the first coach in 34 modified overtime games to take the wind versus receiving the ball first. He's the first to do it in any NFL overtime game since Marty Mornhinweg did so with the Lions in 2002. (That was during the old overtime system in which the first score immediately ended the game, which was Mornhinweg's/the Lions' fate).
On Sunday, the game-time temperature was 22 degrees with a 6-degree wind chill. The winds were gusting at more than 20 mph, but in overtime surely a team still takes the ball first with these quarterbacks, right? Manning's inability to succeed in cold weather has been somewhat overstated, as we'll discuss later, but did Belichick know some secret math to make that decision? Or did he just not fear Manning's ability in the cold weather?