INDIANAPOLIS -- So many of us have put the guy on the highest of football-coaching pedestals that we didn't know quite how to react when we saw what we saw with 2:08 left on the clock.
Bill the Genius is going for it? Right here? Right now? No way.
That was the initial buzz along press row at Lucas Oil Stadium. Then came an attempt to find a shred of logic in the fact Bill Belichick had called a timeout, summoned his punting unit back to the sidelines, and redirected Tom Brady and the New England offense to the field on fourth-and-2 from the Patriots' 28-yard line while holding a 34-28 lead over the Indianapolis Colts.
Wait, wait. Belichick's not actually going to run a play, we concluded; he's merely looking to draw the Colts' defense offside. Well, that does make sense. Get an anxious Colt defender to jump the gun, pick up 5 free yards, and the game is over.
No, wait. He is running a play. Yes, that's Brady throwing. Yes, that's Kevin Faulk catching the ball ... and being tackled a yard shy of the first-down marker. Yes, that's Peyton Manning to whom a 29-yard journey to the end zone and two minutes to do it have just been gift-wrapped.
And yes, that really was Belichick who just made -- I can't believe I'm about to type this -- one of the all-time goofiest decisions an NFL coach can make. And this is a coach that has a game plan on display in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and is generally regarded as the smartest man in the history of his profession.
Hard as many of us tried, we couldn't figure out exactly what possessed him to go for it and essentially give away a game that his team had played well enough to win.
Brain lock? Senior moment? Insanity? Or maybe, just maybe, it was what several people within the Colts' locker room were mumbling with considerable disdain after their team's 35-34 victory: Arrogance.
You want to know how utterly stunning Belichick's call was? It became a larger topic of postgame discussion than the fact the Colts were still one of only two unbeaten teams in the NFL (along with the New Orleans Saints), held a four-game lead in the AFC South, and strengthened their grip on the inside track to home-field advantage in the playoffs.
Stuff like this just isn't supposed to happen with Belichick.
Sure, he has made plenty of gutsy decisions throughout his illustrious career. Going for it on fourth down is something he does with regularity, and he has done it deep in his own territory before. He did it in the third game of this season, in fact, when the Pats faced fourth-and-1 from their own 24 while holding a 16-10 lead over the Atlanta Falcons. The Patriots picked up the first down on the way to a 26-10 triumph. But that was with 5:19 left in the third quarter.
What happened on Sunday night, in front of a national television audience tuned into the most anticipated NFL game of the season, was entirely different.
It was more reckless than risky. It was more bizarre than bold.
With 2:08 left and your team up by six points, you punt. Period. You put 75 yards between Peyton Manning and pay dirt, not 29. You place the onus on your defense to keep one of the game's greatest quarterbacks out of the end zone and count on the night ending with another of the game's greatest quarterbacks kneeling. Period.
What were you thinking, Bill the Genius?
"Tried to win the game on that play," Belichick said.
In hindsight, a reporter asked, do you wish you would have punted it away?
"I thought we could have made that yard," he said. "I thought we had a good play and completed it. I don't know how we couldn't get a yard on that completion, but I guess we didn't."
Later, another reporter reminded Belichick that the Patriots had actually needed 2 yards for the first down. Belichick said he knew the correct distance when he decided to go for it, thus removing the assumption that any momentary lapse or confusion could have influenced him to do what he did.
So what was it?
The only answer that comes remotely close to being acceptable is a sheer lack of confidence in his defense. At that point, the Patriots' defenders were looking as if they might be fading. After all, the Colts had needed only 2:04 to drive 79 yards for one touchdown early in the fourth quarter to cut the Patriots' lead to 31-21 and 1:49 to march 79 yards for another touchdown to reduce the margin to 34-28 with 2:23 remaining.
Still, that wasn't registering with everyone in the New England dressing room. Of course, you had your politically correct responses from Brady ("Coach was being aggressive; I love that about him. Sometimes you come up a little bit short.") and Faulk ("It doesn't matter what decision Bill's making; we've got to execute the play no matter what.").
But then you had this from linebacker Adalius Thomas: "I don't know why he went for it. I'm pretty sure he thought we could get it. I don't know why he went for it, though."
Asked how he and his defensive teammates were feeling at that point, Thomas said, "We were just on the sidelines watching."
So were the rest of us. Watching and wondering and shaking our heads in disbelief.