Debatable decision costs Patriots

INDIANAPOLIS -- It will be the fourth-down call talked about across New England, a questionable decision by Patriots coach Bill Belichick that resulted in one of the team's most heartbreaking defeats in recent memory.

Holding a 34-28 lead with 2:08 remaining, why go for it on fourth-and-2 from their 28-yard line?

Perhaps if the Patriots picked up the first down, Belichick would have been hailed for his boldness, but when running back Kevin Faulk was marked short of the 30-yard line after catching a short pass from quarterback Tom Brady, it led only to a flurry of questions.

What was Belichick thinking? How could he forgo a punt and instead give the Colts such prime field position at that critical point in the game?

"We felt we could win the game on that play," Belichick answered. "We pick up that play and we would have been able to run out the clock or most all of the clock. That was a yard I was confident we could get."

They actually needed a bit more than a yard, which Belichick said he was aware of because the team discussed it during a timeout before the play.

Highlighting the uncharacteristic struggles the Patriots had in crunch time, however, the team had no timeouts left to challenge the officials' spot on Faulk's catch. They had burned their last two on the drive, first because of a personnel mix-up and then because of indecisiveness on the fourth-down decision.

Faulk was ruled to have bobbled the ball so he wasn't given forward progress as Colts safety Melvin Bullitt drove him into the ground. Four plays later, quarterback Peyton Manning connected with Reggie Wayne for a 1-yard touchdown pass with 13 seconds remaining, with Matt Stover's extra point accounting for the 35-34 final.

"I couldn't believe it," said Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney of the debatable fourth-down call. "It even happens in video games -- you go for it on fourth down when you're not supposed to and something bad happens."

It was a Patriots meltdown, coming from a coach who prides himself on situational football and regularly drills his players on mastering critical situations.

The frustration was evident in some corners of the team's hushed locker room, with some players dressing quickly and departing, while others reacted like Faulk, who initially waved off reporters angrily before composing himself and answering questions about the stunning collapse.

Faulk, who didn't think he bobbled the pass, summed up his emotions by saying: "Disbelief, no. Disappointment, yes -- especially when you know that was probably the game-changing play."

The Patriots went with an empty set on the play, with tight end Benjamin Watson and receivers Isaiah Stanback and Wes Welker to the left, and Faulk and receiver Randy Moss to the right. Faulk lined up in the slot, saw the Colts in man-to-man coverage, and turned quickly to gather the pass from Brady.

It was a play that Belichick and Brady said the Patriots have worked on for a long time. Brady defended the decision.

"It was an opportunity to win the game and that's all you can really ask for as an offense," he said. "It was Coach being aggressive, and I love that about him. "

Yet there is a difference between aggressiveness and carelessness, and this was dangerously close to the line.

"I ran out on the field, I saw Brady still out on the field, and I was like, 'What is happening? They're on their own end of the field, there is no way they are going to go for it,'" Colts punt returner T.J. Rushing said.

"I was surprised," added rookie cornerback Jerraud Powers. "I thought maybe he was going to try to get us to jump offside or something. I didn't think he'd actually try to run a play."

Belichick hasn't been afraid to roll the dice on fourth down. Against the Falcons in late September, the Patriots went for it from their own 24 while holding a 16-10 lead midway through the third quarter. They made it, and the decision was lauded as a key to the victory.

This one, because it came so late in the game, was altogether different because it put the entire game on that one play.

It could be easily argued that the smart play was to punt the ball away and force the Colts to drive a longer field with just one timeout remaining. Even though the Colts had driven 79 yards in just 1:49 for a touchdown on the previous drive -- and perhaps memories of the 2006 AFC Championship were lingering in Belichick's thoughts -- it was debatable if that was enough reason to concede such a large chunk of field position.

"He is still one of the better coaches making those decisions, no matter what happens," Faulk said. "You win some and you lose some. You just have to be able to wake up tomorrow morning and be able to fight from that day.

"They came back from 17 on us one year. Anything can happen. It doesn't matter who is coaching."

On Sunday night it did.

The coach who is widely considered one of the best in the profession made a debatable call that directly led to the devastating loss.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.