John McGrath

John McGrath: Tactical errors by coach Belichick helped sink Patriots ... and I’m OK with that

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was 27 of 56 for 310 passing yards plus one TD and two interceptions Sunday.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was 27 of 56 for 310 passing yards plus one TD and two interceptions Sunday. The Associated Press

Sitting out conference-championship Sunday couldn’t have been fun for the Seahawks, but the afternoon wasn’t the seven-hour exercise in pain tolerance I presumed it would be.

Watching the New England Patriots surrender their chance at winning a second consecutive Lombardi Trophy — in part because of the curious tactical moves of head coach Bill Belichick — was the very definition of schadenfreude: deriving pleasure from another person’s woes.

And when Carolina followed up on its first-half pummeling of the Seahawks last week with an ambush of Arizona, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll had to be thinking, OK, we’re not the only guys who’ve taken the field against the Panthers as if we were limited to a 45-minute nap after a four-day binge at the Sasquatch! Music Festival.

So Super Bowl 50 is set, a Panthers-Broncos matchup that will dwell on the remarkable dissimilarity of the quarterbacks. Carolina’s Cam Newton, 26, is brash and fearless, a threat to either throw or run for a touchdown whenever the ball is snapped.

Denver’s Peyton Manning, 39, has regressed from the most prolific passer in NFL history into a dink-and-dunk guy more valued for his disinclination to lose a game than his ability to win one.

As the Patriots threatened to extend the AFC title game into overtime, Manning, trying to stay warm by throwing on the sideline, appeared to wince with his every release of the ball.

Then again, Manning has been wincing for decades. The snapshot of him blowing out the candles at his 10th birthday party probably shows him wearing an expression of “I’ve gotta go through with this, and I’ll do it to the best of my ability, but please cut me a break if this ends up 9-for-10.”

The Broncos were the beneficiaries of what can be called, well, not the finest work in the coaching career of future Hall-of-Famer Belichick, whose day began by overthinking the pregame coin toss. New England called heads, got heads and then lost its head by choosing to receive the kick.

Like most teams, the Patriots always defer receiving the kick until the second half — particularly on the road, before a crowd as amped up as the fans were in Denver. The Broncos swarmed quarterback Tom Brady, and the Patriots one-dimensional offense, absent any version of a running attack, soon was forced to punt.

A few minutes later, Denver converted its first possession into a 7-0 lead. To be fair, that might have happened had Belichick deferred, but it’s never a good idea for a road coach to provide early momentum for a home team with a defense more fired up than tethered pit bulls.

Brady needed three quarters to gather himself in the face of an unrelenting pass rush, but gather himself he did, taking the Patriots into the red zone four times in the final six minutes.

Which brings us to Belichick’s other mistake. With 6:03 remaining and New England trailing 20-12, he decided to go for the first down on a fourth-and-1 at the Denver 16. The prudent decision would have been to attempt a 33-yard field goal, as there was plenty of time for the Patriots to chip away at a five-point deficit.

If they settle for field goals on three subsequent drives deep into Denver territory, it’s not difficult to imagine the defending Super Bowl champions advancing to the Super Bowl as 24-20 winners rather than 20-18 losers.

As for a Super Bowl contest between the Broncos and Panthers?

It’s like a hypothetical brawl between outlaw bikers and El Chapo’s drug runners. I wouldn’t care who wins or loses, only that everybody ends up with a broken jaw and fractured skull.

Sorry. Imagining a confrontation that brings pain to bad guys and comparing it with a game as important as the Super Bowl is a tasteless affront to football.

But you get my point. Rooting for the Broncos is impossible unless you’re from Denver, and rooting for the Panthers is impossible unless you’re from Carolina — an amalgamation of North Carolina and South Carolina, two states that don’t particularly like each other but share an NFL team name because many of the Panthers original investors were from South Carolina.

When the subject turns to college basketball, by the way, “Carolina” is a euphemism for the North Carolina Tar Heels. How this came to be, I suspect, is the stuff of a long and not very interesting story, but one that will be revealed over the next two weeks.

It’s a Super Bowl tradition as old as 50-minute halftime shows: If the team you follow is in the mix, you can’t read or hear or talk enough about the team you follow. But if the team you follow stays at home, the excessive prelude to the game borders on obnoxious.

I’m already missing the madness, because schadenfreude is no way to get through January.

Especially when you have to spell “schadenfreude.”

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