Belichick's final gift to Patriots may have cost them a franchise QB

Belichick’s final gift to Patriots may have cost them a franchise QB originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Bill Belichick won 296 games with the Patriots. If only he had stopped at 295.

For all of the bits, bytes, pixels, and pages devoted to the different ways the Patriots could use the No. 3 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, they still find themselves at the mercy of others – specifically, the Washington Commanders.

That’s because Washington “won” a tiebreaker with their fellow 4-13 finishers for the second pick. And for that, we have Belichick’s final win to curse/thank.

If Jayden Daniels turns out to be a franchise quarterback at No. 2 and Drake Maye a lumbering clod, or vice versa, then that Christmas Eve victory over the Broncos will go down as the most devastating win in franchise history.

All the Patriots had to do was lose and they’d have stayed on track for the second pick, with an outside shot at No. 1. By winning, they dropped to fourth, which briefly took them out of the elite quarterback discussion entirely, at least until the Cardinals did them a favor with their own pyrrhic upset of the free-falling Eagles a week later.

But still…

Consumed by draft prognosticating over the last five months, we haven’t fully appreciated the devastating implications of that pointless December victory. Lose that game, and take your pick of Daniels or Maye. Win it, and you get whoever’s left, which hardly feels like the ideal path to a franchise quarterback.

It gets worse, because let’s not forget the improbability of the victory. The Broncos were by no means a wagon, but they were playing at home and desperately needed the game to maintain their slim playoff hopes. They had won six of their previous eight to resuscitate their season, including victories over the playoff-bound Packers, Chiefs, Bills, and Browns. The Patriots represented their easiest game in at least two and a half months.

New head coach Sean Payton finally seemed to be reaching his squad, even making things work with Russell Wilson, the one-time franchise quarterback veering into JAG territory.

The Patriots, meanwhile, were cooked. When they deplaned in Denver, Susan Sarandon may as well have led Belichick by the hand, because he was dead man walking. There’d be no saving his job or salvaging the season. He’d have to catch Don Shula somewhere else.

So the seven-point spread made sense. The Patriots were starting backup Bailey Zappe with absolutely nothing to play for, in a city where even the great Tom Brady went 6-7 during his career, including 0-3 in the playoffs.

And things unfolded according to script when Zappe dropped back from the 25 on the game’s first snap and got obliterated by D.J. Jones for a strip sack that Denver recovered at the 9. Four plays later, the Broncos tried to stuff it in from the 2 and failed. Huh.

No matter. Later in the quarter, Marvin Mims took a Bryce Baringer punt 52 yards to set up Denver at the 25. This time, Javonte Williams pounded it home for a 7-0 lead. Let the onslaught begin.

Except it never happened. The Pats took the lead early in the third quarter on an Ezekiel Elliott touchdown reception. Then the game swung in shocking fashion when the Pats scored 14 points in six seconds, the latter TD a 1-yard Cody Davis fumble return.

Now trailing 23-7, the Broncos had work to do entering the fourth, but the Patriots helped by going three-and-out on consecutive drives. The Broncos responded with a pair of Wilson TD passes and two-point conversions. Tie game with 2:53 left.

When another listless three-and-out gave the Broncos the ball with 1:42 left, the only question was whether Wilson would lead them to the winning field goal or touchdown. He instead threw his first pass backwards, killing that drive.

And this is where things turned downright stupid. DeVante Parker, easily one of the worst signings of the Belichick era, hauled in a 27-yard bomb to move into Broncos territory. A couple of short throws later, Chad Ryland, easily one of the worst picks of the Belichick era, stared down a 56-yard field goal. He had already missed an extra point and a 47-yarder. He would finish the season by making just 64 percent of his field goal attempts, one of the club’s worst marks since Scott “Missin'” Sisson three decades earlier.

And then he drilled it. Just drilled it. From 56 freaking yards. Instead of losing in overtime, the Patriots swiped an improbable and imprudent victory.

The Broncos paid the greater immediate price. They missed the playoffs, and Wilson never threw another pass in a Denver uniform, benched to avoid the injury kicker that could’ve guaranteed him another $37 million.

But in the long term, the Patriots may pay the stiffer price. The Commanders aren’t exactly a model franchise, so it’s possible they blow the second pick. It’s also possible they trade it to someone who doesn’t. In either case, the Patriots have no say.

They’re helpless because Belichick eked out one more unnecessary, ill-advised victory, a parting gift that may end up hosing his former franchise.

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