INDIANAPOLIS -- In the solitude of night, all alone with his thoughts, Chuck Pagano had to be dreaming up heroic scenarios for his big moment in the Sunday night lights. No, he was not only going to beat Bill Belichick. Pagano was going to beat Bill Belichick at his own game.
The coach of the Indianapolis Colts was going to outsmart the coach of the New England Patriots, the potential consequences be damned. If a completely unnecessary onside kick in the second quarter didn't work -- in fact, it set up a Patriots touchdown -- then Pagano would run a fourth-down play near the end of the third quarter that even Belichick's mad scientist of an aide, Ernie Adams, couldn't cook up in his underground lab.
Maybe the same team baffled by Belichick's trick formations in last year's playoffs, the Baltimore Ravens, lent this play to the Colts as eagerly as they allegedly alerted them to the possibility the Patriots were deflating footballs. Or maybe Pagano and his staff came up with this baby on their own.
Either way, the play turned out to be funnier than Belichick's affection for "My Cousin Vinny"; it was a full-season blooper reel all its own. If the Patriots did take the air out of the balls before their 45-7 destruction of the Colts in the AFC Championship Game, all Pagano did in this 34-27 defeat was take the air out of his own building.
You've likely seen the replay a half-dozen times by now. In a fourth-and-3 punting situation, the Colts sent nine players wide right and had backup receiver Griff Whalen isolated on the left side with a safety, Colt Anderson. Of course, the Patriots acted as if they'd spent all day Friday and Saturday preparing for this formation. They had two defenders on top of Whalen, the de facto center, and Anderson, the de facto quarterback, with a third nearby and a fourth sliding over to help. Whalen snapped the ball anyway.
On cue, Anderson was immediately tackled for a loss by Brandon Bolden with a flag already on the field. To punctuate the absurdity of it all, Pagano didn't have enough of his "decoys" on the right side up on the line of scrimmage. The Colts would've lost the first down even if the trick play succeeded, and Belichick never looked happier to tell a ref he was declining a penalty. Six plays later, Tom Brady hit LeGarrette Blount for an 11-yard touchdown pass and a most demoralizing two-score lead.
"I take full responsibility for that," Pagano said, as if he had any other choice.
"We expected this to be a gadget game in the kicking game," Belichick said. The winning coach had watched Colts punter Pat McAfee run for 18 yards on a fake against the Titans, so he expected a curveball or two.
"We didn't know what play it was going to be obviously," he said.
The Patriots only acted as if they knew the play better than the Colts did. New Englanders are still laughing over the Jets' bygone "butt fumble" on Thanksgiving night in the Meadowlands, but hey, at least the butt fumble wasn't designed.
"Just a miscommunication between all of us," said Whalen, who refused to define the nature of the miscommunication.
Pagano explained (or tried to explain, anyway) that the Colts were hoping the Patriots would be bamboozled into a misalignment, or into having 12 men on the field, and that they would take a delay-of-game penalty as a worst-case alternative. Nothing of the sort happened.
"We shifted over," Pagano said, "and I didn't do a good enough job of coaching it during the week. Alignment-wise we weren't aligned correctly, and then a communication breakdown between the quarterback and the snapper."
The quarterback and snapper who happen to be a receiver and a safety.
"And that's all on me," Pagano said.
You're damn right it is.
But the larger point had little to do with Pagano's long-term job status (shaky), or even with the Patriots' dominance of the Colts in the Andrew Luck era (not so shaky). This game, and the way Pagano coached it, illustrated again that the Patriots aren't just beating opponents between the tackles, they're breaking them down psychologically, too.
Mike Tomlin's opening night meltdown over the failed Foxborough headsets was a case in point, and it was answered the next day by a Belichick jab about running a program that isn't built on excuses. People see ghosts when they play the Patriots. They don't stay within a country mile of their lane. Go back and give a second read to the report by ESPN.com's Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham on the connection between Spygate and Deflategate, and on all the time and energy New England's opponents have invested in fretting over potential covert ops and dirty tricks.
Pagano coached Sunday night as if he were determined to out-trick the master. "We were going to be aggressive," he said. "We wanted to attack this football team."
Fine. The Colts knew they were in for a rough one. Unlike baseball, a (mostly) noncontact game built around poise and fundamental precision, football is generally a sport that lends itself to manufactured pregame rage. You are not only allowed to hit people in football, you get fired if you don't.
So even before Brady's father told the New York Daily News that he would be rooting for the mother of all blowouts, the Patriots were fully expected to stampede through the tunnel with smoke billowing out of their ear holes. No matter how much Brady and Belichick attempted to bat away any suggestion that they were seeking retribution, human nature conspired with The Patriot Way to tell a different tale.
Pagano decided to meet fire with fire, and there's nothing wrong with that. But the onside kick was a foolish move and, after the referee explained that only a replay showing a clear Colts recovery of the loose ball originally awarded the Patriots would go his way, the challenge wasn't much smarter.
Pagano doubled down on it later with a play that will follow him like that high-pitched "Playoffs?" rant still follows Jim Mora. "Why'd you snap it?" the coach later asked Whalen, who apparently was too professional to deliver this obvious reply.
Why'd you call it? Especially against the most prepared team in the league. McAfee, the punter, conceded the result was "one of the most failed fakes probably of all time."
Funny, but the one special-teams unit that worked a little magic was New England's extra-point defense. Belichick had noticed that Colts blockers liked to get extra low after the snap, so there was Jamie Collins high jumping over the line untouched during garbage time to effectively act as a kicking net for Adam Vinatieri. "It's always good to come into Indianapolis and win," Belichick said.
The night wasn't without its hassles. Brady had to walk by a sign that called him "Mr. Pinocchio" and added "Cheaters Exit Here." One Colts fan held up a sign that read, "Hey Brady We Found Your Phone," while the fan next to him held up an oversized cell.
On his way off the field, Brady tucked the game ball in his left arm before dropping it and then handing it off to a staffer. He denied that he was keeping the souvenir, and so be it. Still fresh off his courtroom smackdown of Roger Goodell and his legal eagles, Brady gets to do and say pretty much what he wants.
Meanwhile, Pagano's 3-3 Colts are left to scrap for their season. The losing coach admitted his misjudgment "played a huge factor in the loss," though he denied that desperation drove him to commit the unforced errors.
Whatever. They say the film never lies, and Sunday night's film shows a Colts team that tried to get way too smart and way too cute at the worst possible time.
In the end, the Patriots don't just make you miss blocks and tackles. Pagano reminded everyone that they make you lose your mind, too.