This weekend in NFL stupid, we’re actually going to take you back three weeks to Jan. 3, 2016 — the final Sunday of the 2015 regular season.
That’s because it was on that day when Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots rather inexplicably conceded the top spot in the AFC to the Denver Broncos by barely feigning effort against the Miami Dolphins.
New England had wrapped up the a first-round bye but would have to beat Miami in order to secure home-field throughout the AFC playoffs. But Belichick seemed satisfied with only the bye, which might explain why the Pats handed off 26 times to running backs who were going nowhere.
That week in Miami, New England used a ridiculously conservative approach while seemingly experimenting with backs and offensive linemen. Defensive stars Dont’a Hightower and Chandler Jones were held out despite the fact indications were they could have played if they were needed. Quarterback Tom Brady attempted just 21 passes — and only three traveled beyond 20 yards.
For all intents and purposes, New England just didn’t show up. And the Patriots basically forfeited in the fourth quarter, going to backup Jimmy Garoppolo despite a not-impossible 10-point deficit in the final two minutes.
Maybe the Pats would have lost that day anyway, but the wimpy approach definitely hurt their chances of making the Super Bowl. As a result of that strange loss, New England had to travel to Denver for Sunday’s AFC championship game. Denver is the only place outside of the AFC East where Brady and Belichick have lost more than two road games. The Pats have for years been nearly unbeatable at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, but in the Brady/Belichick era they entered Sunday just 2-6 at Mile High.
Make that 2-7.
The Patriots lost 20-18 on Sunday. Might the result have been different in New England, where they’re 15-3 in the playoffs since the start of 2001? Some fans will be left wondering that for years, because it’s completely possible that blasé season-finale cost the franchise a shot at its fifth Super Bowl.
The runner-up: Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians
When you’re trailing by 20 points in the third quarter, you have to treat every possession like it’s do or die. That’s why it was silly of Arians to punt on a 4th-and-2 with only 21 minutes left in a 27-7 game, regardless of the fact Arizona was only on its own 28-yard line.
At that point, the Cards had little to lose. The time that would come off the clock combined with the potential for more Panthers points on the ensuing Carolina possession wasn’t worth not attempting a fourth-down play that was statistically about a 50/50 proposition for one of the best offenses in football.
The Panthers did score on the ensuing drive and the game was over. Dumb.