FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — You still see T-shirts around the home of the New England Patriots with coach Bill Belichick’s scowling face and the mantra “In Bill We Trust.”
But more than any time since the hoodied football guru began filling the team’s trophy case, fans here are beginning to question his judgment.
Two decisions to forego a field goal and go for it on fourth down in Sunday’s AFC championship game was just the latest in a series of calls that didn’t work out for Belichick and the Patriots this season. The Broncos won 20-18 to earn a trip to Super Bowl 50 that the defending champions had considered their birthright.
“I think each of us that competed in the game — players, coaches — probably feel the same way,” Belichick said on Monday. “A couple of plays, calls, that you’d like to have back.”
The Patriots wouldn’t have even been in Denver — where quarterback Tom Brady has a 2-7 record — but for a rare December collapse by a team that has been one of the league’s best finishers.
Winning just two of their last six regular-season games, the Patriots finished one win short of home-field advantage through the AFC playoffs.
Belichick’s decisions — some risky but reasonable, others downright puzzling — were a big reason why.
While only the most extreme talk radio loudmouths would be calling for the head of a four-time Super Bowl winner after a few failed moves, Belichick conceded on Monday that he second-guesses himself “all the time.”
Among his players, there’s still absolute loyalty.
“One hundred percent, we follow him and the decisions he makes,” long-snapper Joe Cardona said as he cleaned out his belongings in a somber locker room on Monday.
“We follow him and the decisions he makes,” he said. “Obviously, he’s accomplished a lot. There’s no questioning our leaders.”
Here are some of the decisions that proved costly in New England’s failure to repeat as champions:
THE RUGBY KICK: Winners of their first 10 games, the Patriots arrived in Denver on Nov. 29 with a chance to open a three-game lead over the Broncos in the race for the AFC’s top seed. The Broncos rallied from a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit to win in overtime, taking advantage of a fumbled punt return by Chris Harper — an undrafted rookie who was called up from the practice squad 12 days earlier.
The following week, the Patriots again opened a two-touchdown lead — this time over Philadelphia. After scoring to make it 14-0 midway through the second quarter, Belichick inexplicably called for a rugby-style onside kick from safety Nate Ebner.
The thus-far overmatched Eagles — who would fire their coach before finishing a 7-9 season — fielded it and drove for their first touchdown, then added another to tie it before the half. In all, Philadelphia scored five straight touchdowns after the unusual play.
THE COIN TOSS: The Patriots won their next two games before playing the New York Jets on Dec. 27. New England trailed for most of the game before Brady hit James White for a touchdown with just under 2 minutes remaining to send the game into overtime.
Belichick decided to kick off to start the OT period. The Jets went 80 yards on five plays to end it without New England ever getting the ball.
“I thought it was the best thing to do,” Belichick said.
THE MIAMI MISADVENTURE: The following week, the final game of the regular season, the Patriots played the Dolphins — another team that was mired in the middle of a coach-firing season. Amid questions of whether it would be better to go all-out for the win or rest key players for the playoffs, Belichick opted for a middle strategy.
Brady played, but he handed off 20 times in 25 first-half plays, and one of the incomplete passes resulted in Dolphins lineman Ndamukong Suh rolling over on Brady’s ankle. The Patriots let the three-time Super Bowl MVP loose in the second half, but it was too late.
Down two scores in the final minutes, backup Jimmy Garoppolo replaced Brady. The Broncos beat San Diego later in the day to clinch the AFC’s No. 1 seed and, eventually, home-field advantage in the conference title game.
“We can’t say ‘What if? If this was that. If that was that,’” special teams captain Matthew Slater said on Monday. “They were what they were and we had to go there and play. We didn’t play well enough to win. Simple as that.”
FOURTH-AND-GO: The playoff victory against Kansas City was uneventful — if you don’t count the twice-deflected, almost intercepted second-down pass to Julian Edelman when New England was just trying to run out the clock. That landed the Patriots in Denver, where Brady and the rest of the team have struggled.
With a dominating pass rush, the Broncos took an eight-point lead into the fourth quarter. There was just over 6 minutes left when the Patriots faced a fourth-and-1 at the Denver 16. A field goal put them in position to win — if they could get the ball back and score again.
Based on the time left and how many possessions he expected to have left, Belichick went for it. Brady completed a pass to Edelman, but he was hit immediately and brought down for a 1-yard loss. “At that time, there was no hesitation in doing that,” Belichick said Monday.
As it turned out, the Patriots got two more possessions inside the Denver 20. With 2:25 left, Belichick went for it on fourth-and-6 from the Denver 14. The pass to Rob Gronkowski was over his head.
The Patriots got the ball back again, and scored. But the 2-point conversion to tie failed, and so did the onside kick attempt with 12 seconds left.
THE EXTRA POINT: Belichick didn’t shank the first-quarter extra point that wound up costing the Patriots in Sunday’s game — that was kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who had made an NFL-record 523 in a row to that point.
But Belichick was one of the proponents for moving the point-after from the 2-yard line to the 15. The league changed the rule this year in the hopes that it would restore some suspense to what Belichick had complained was a non-competitive play.
“Whatever the rules are, we’ll play by them. We don’t make the rules,” Belichick said on Monday.
Gostkowski said he felt as if he lost the game for the team. His coach would have none of that.
“Every player and coach who participated in the game, I think we all feel that way,” Belichick said. “I feel like it’s my fault. I’m sure that all the other players that played feel like it’s their fault.”