Tuesday, November 24, 2015

There Are No NFL Moral Victories, but There Are Pyrrhic Ones

I'm not quite sure at what point of last night's game Bill Belichick decided he had more urgent priorities than just beating the Bills. I only know the decision took place.

Maybe it was in the third quarter after Leodis McKelvin's fumbled punt. Up 17-10 with the ball on the Buffalo 30, the Patriots ran the ball four times in five plays and settled, for once the right verb, for a Steven Gostkowski field goal and a 10-point lead. Maybe it was after Tom Brady's interception early in the fourth quarter, or after the last Buffalo hit on Brady that led to an extended dialogue between the quarterback and referee Gene Steratore. They could have been discussing holiday plans, but more likely Steratore was seeing if Brady was a concussion protocol candidate.

But for sure the decision was made before the Pats' final possession. Leading 20-13 with over two minutes to play, Brady handed off to LaGarrette Blount three times. If he got a first down, great? When he didn't, well, defense and special teams get paid, too. Let them be the heroes tonight.

In the event, they were. Field position off the kicking game, defense, and the uncanny ability of Rex Ryan's teams to punch themselves in the face are the reasons New England is 10-0 this morning. Nobody wins without them, of course, but the manner of this particular victory was particularly unBelichickian. His Patriots are legendary for never letting their collective foot off the accelerator, taking the fastest and most direct route between Kickoff A and Win B at all times. Except last night. Ahead on all the judges' cards, Belichick was content to waltz out the last rounds of the fight.

Content's likely the wrong word there. Belichick felt he had no choice. I couldn't read his poker face up close when I covered the team, and I'm not going to try and peer into his mind from watching TV, but the coach's actions speak for him, and what they said last night was "I've seen one injury too many tonight. I've seen about five hits too many on Tom. And I've seen about two hours too much of my offensive line."

Danny Amendola out. Aaron Dobson out. It's getting downright dangerous to be a Patriots wide receiver, but that's not what changed New England's offense down the stretch. What did were the double-digit shots Buffalo pass rushers took to Brady's torso. Tom is a big, strong, fanatically conditioned man, but no amount of muscle pliability can protect ribs, collarbones and shoulder joints.

So Belichick made Blount Brady's safe word. It had to be hard for the coach, Brady too for that matter. They're not the types to choose discretion as the better part of valor -- unless they had to.

They had to. The simple truth that New England is the best team in pro football but only so long as Brady is ambulatory outweighed the franchise's creed that the game at hand is the most important, only important matter in the world.

Here's a bet. You'll hear Blount's name called more often in the next six games. The Pats will give Brady the late game hero's role only when they absolutely have to, and the definition of "have to" will be very strict until January rolls around.

Do your job is a fine slogan. But a man can only do his job if he's healthy enough to get out of bed and go to work.


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