INDIANAPOLIS -- Bill Belichick is no stranger to controversial or unpopular decisions.
He chose Tom Brady over Drew Bledsoe in 2001. In Super Bowl XXXVI, instead of kneeling on the ball with 1:30 left and no timeouts and playing for overtime, he let a second-year quarterback fire away and set up the winning field goal. He cut starting safety Lawyer Milloy five days before the 2003 season, and watched his team win its last 15 games, including the playoffs, to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
Those all turned out to be strokes of genius. But last night, we witnessed the biggest error of the Belichick era.
As the Patriots coughed up a 14-point lead in the final 4:07 to lose to the Colts, 35-34, Belichick made his most dubious decision since becoming Patriots coach in 2000. Leading 34-28 and facing fourth and 2 at his own 28, Belichick eschewed a punt and went for it. Brady's completion to Kevin Faulk came up inches short of a first down.
By now you know the rest. Peyton Manning. Short field. Epic Colts comeback. Painful Patriots collapse.
There is a fine line between genius and madness and Belichick straddled that line last night. No less an authority than former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, now an analyst for NBC, said as much.
"You have to coach 60 minutes, and you have to trust and believe in your players, and you have to make the right decision," said Harrison, postgame. "You cannot give Peyton Manning the opportunity on the 30-yard line to drive the ball and score a touchdown. I've been around Bill Belichick a long time, and he's made a lot of great coaching decisions, but this was the worst coaching decision I have ever seen Bill Belichick make."
There is no doubt that Belichick's call will be dissected and discussed on talk radio ad nauseum in these parts for the next few days. It was both brilliantly daring and dumb, unforgetable and unforgivable.
Belichick's explanation was like the fourth-down play -- short.
"We tried to win the game on that play," said Belichick, whose team entered the game 5 of 10 on fourth downs this season.
Instead, they lost to Manning and the Colts for the fifth time in six games and at 6-3 are now three games back of 9-0 Indy. Home-field advantage throughout the playoffs for New England is now likely history, and it will be a battle just to get a first-round bye with games with the Jets, Saints, Dolphins and Texans remaining and three conference losses already.
That's crucial because the Patriots, who outplayed Indy for 56 minutes and deserved to walk away with a signature win, still haven't won a road game against a quality opponent.
How both Belichick and his team respond to the calamity against the Colts will define the rest of the Patriots' season. Either this will be a heartbreak in the heartland that the team never really recovers from or a touchstone for them to rally behind Belichick and play their best football over the final seven games of the regular season, starting on Sunday against the Jets.
The process already started last night, when Brady, who was 29 of 42 for 375 yards with three touchdowns and a third-quarter interception in the end zone with the Patriots in field goal range, went to bat for Belichick.
"I would never second-guess Coach Belichick," said Brady. "He makes the right decision out there a lot of the time, and we as players have to go out there and do our jobs and go out there and execute the plays that are called. He's not responsible for turnovers or penalties or missed throws or anything like that.
"That said, you have the offense out there, and we're one of the best offenses in the league and we have a chance to go out there and make a play to win. It's a game of inches, guys. You come up a little bit short or else you kneel on it for three plays and the game is over. It's easy to second guess, obviously. If we gain seven more inches, it's a great call."
After the game, some of the Colts defenders said they took Belichick's decision as a sign of disrespect, but it was quite the opposite. It was the ultimate show of respect for Manning and the Colts.
Even though his overhauled defense forced the Colts to punt on seven of 14 possessions and picked off Manning twice, Belichick still believed that his only shot of stopping Manning, who was 9 of 11 for 119 yards and two TDs in the fourth quarter, was not to give him a shot.
It used to be that Belichick was in Peyton Manning's head. Now, it's Manning who is tampering with Belichick's brain. He wouldn't have made such a decision against any other team or any other quarterback.
In his last six games against the Patriots, Manning has completed 63.6 percent of his passes (140 of 220), averaged 300.3 yards per game and thrown 13 touchdowns and six interceptions.
After the Patriots took a 34-21 lead on Stephen Gostkowski's 36-yard field goal with 4:12 left, Manning (28 of 44 for 327 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions,) marched the Colts 79 yards in just six plays and 1 minute and 49 seconds for a touchdown.
Belichick had seen enough.
So, a coach who is one of the best defensive minds the game has ever seen, basically waved the white flag in his war of wits with the Colts quarterback, concluding in his mind that his best defense was Brady and not his actual defense.
Belichick was asked if he understood why people would question his decision.
He said quietly, "I'm pretty sure they question everything."
They will now.