FOXBORO -- Between the time the ball is snapped and the whistle blows to signal a play dead, hundreds of decisions get made by the 22 players on a football field.
The overwhelming majority are instinctive. The eyes see something and muscle memory kicks in -- open receiver, throw ball; cut block, jump over it; defender inside, go outside.
But every game also includes plays when players are forced to make conscious decisions that could decide the game. Suddenly, they may be in a situation they didn't expect -- a broken play, a missed assignment by a teammate, a decision to jump a route or lay back -- and they have to process how to react while also considering situations like down-and-distance, score and time remaining.
In the playoffs, those decisions decide games. And it's not always the future Hall of Fame quarterback who's in the spot to make them. Sometimes it's the rookie corner taken in the seventh round.
The Patriots are open about the enormity of every decision they may make Sunday against Houston. But Bill Belichick said they can't be paralyzed by that.
"You don't win a war by digging a foxhole and sitting in it," said Belichick. "You gotta go out there and attack. You gotta go out there and make the plays you need to make to win. It's a one-game season."
Yet, while bearing those brave words in mind, there's also the reality Brady spoke to in his press conference.
"You make one mistake, you're gonna be watching next weekend . . . we spend extra time talking about every little play and not that last week wasn't important but the ramifications are different and we have to be at our best," he said.
"It's always about risk-reward in football," Brady added. "There are calculated risks and judgments you make as a player on every single play whether it's my position or whether you're a defensive tackle. That's what you train yourself to do over a long season. That comes through experience, that comes through playing a lot of games and certainly against better competition you don't have as long to make the decision. The better players you face, the less margin you have to make those split-second decisions."
Brady sets a high bar. Given the number of big games in which he's played and the position he's at, he's made more big decisions than perhaps any quarterback. And his TD-INT ratio dwarfs the other quarterbacks regarded as the all-time greats.
"I don't think you can play so conservative that you're not able to go out and make plays," Brady stated. "Part of that is the mental toughness. In '06 against the Chargers (in the AFC Divisional Playoff), I threw three picks in that game (and the Patriots won 24-21). You've gotta be able to overcome mistakes. If you make 'em, you still gotta do whatever you gotta do to win and give yourself a chance to move on. The important thing is, if you do make a mistake, you gotta hope you don't make another one. Because if they capitalize on it, you're gonna have to dig yourself out of that hole and make a lot of good plays. The more mistakes you make, the harder it is to win. You can make mistakes and still win, but they gotta make mistakes too.
Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo explained it more succinctly.
"Those are calculated risks that you have to take," he explained. "Especially, I think the biggest thing for us is third down, getting off the field and getting that ball back in our offenses hands."
Third down plays. Red zone plays. Special teams plays. The team that makes them often wins the game, regardless of which team is superior. The team that missteps more often will lose.
"Every player, every coach, everybody that is involved in the game understands that's exactly what that is," said Belichick.