Patriots fans are all-too-familiar with the term “fourth-and-two.” Those words still send shivers down their spines. Now the Patriots have fourth-and-one.
In a regular season game against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in 2009, Belichick decided to go for it on fourth-and-two from his own 28 yard line and with a six-point lead late in the fourth quarter. The pass to Kevin Faulk came a half-yard short. It took Peyton Manning four plays to score the game-winning touchdown. The call by Belichick was an indication of his lack of confidence in his defense. He didn’t trust them to stop Manning. Belichick decided he’d rather have the ball in the hands of his Hall-of-Fame quarterback than risk his defense stopping Indianapolis’ Hall-of-Fame quarterback.
That was then. This is now.
Fast forward just over six years later. The same two quarterbacks are facing off against each other. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady’s quarterback arcs have gone in different directions, especially in the last two seasons. Manning, finishing off his career with the Denver Broncos, has declined precipitously while Brady has maintained his Hall-of-Fame level of play, even at the age of 38.
So what happened on Sunday? Might Sunday at around 6 p.m. EST have marked a turning point in Belichick’s attitude towards his Hall-of-Fame quarterback?
Faced with a fourth-and-one with just over six minutes to play at the Denver 16-yard line, and down by eight points, Bill Belichick decided to go for it instead of kicking a field goal to close the gap to under a touchdown. Belichick reasoned that the situation called for the Patriots to go for it. Belichick reasoned the Patriots wouldn’t have many more possessions left in the game, possibly only one more. He also reasoned the Patriots may not have another opportunity to get this deep into Denver territory. He didn’t like the odds of Tom Brady, with only one drive left, to drive his team this close to the end zone.
What? This is the opposite reasoning Belichick had six years ago. Six years ago, Belichick had more confidence with the ball in Brady’s hands on fourth down to convert one play for a first down in his own territory rather than turn the ball over to his defense. Now Belichick is saying, essentially, that he didn’t have confidence that Brady could lead his team deep into Denver territory for one last ditch effort to win the game.
In that situation, down by eight with six minutes left, Belichick has to allow Stephen Gostkowski to rectify his earlier mistake of missing an extra point by kicking a field goal to close the gap to under a touchdown. Even if the Patriots converted a first down, there was no guarantee they would score a touchdown. There was certainly no guarantee the Patriots would convert a two-point conversion. In fact, it was highly unlikely. What had the Patriots’ offense done in short yardage situations to give anyone confidence they could? Just look at the eventual two-point conversion they tried and how poorly conceived and executed it was. Just look at their failed fourth down conversions.
The Patriots needed to kick the field goal there. It was a sure bet the Patriots would get the ball back once, and a pretty safe bet the Patriots would get the ball back twice– which is what happened. The Patriots’ defense was playing stout ever since a poor opening drive. Peyton Manning and the Broncos were playing not to lose. They were afraid.
As it turns out, Belichick had a second chance to take a field goal when the Patriots had a fourth-and-six at the Denver 14 with 2:25 left. The Patriots still had all three of their timeouts, and, again, Manning and the Denver offense was not moving the ball against the Patriots’ defense. Heck, the Patriots could have even attempted an onside kick after the made field goal. Instead, Belichick chose to go for it, and failed, again. Yet another indication that the Patriots would have a difficult time converting a do-or-die two-point conversion.
Gostkowski, to his credit, manned up and tried taking the blame for the loss following the game. There should be a part of him, however, that should be bitter that his coach didn’t give him a chance to rectify his gaffe.
The Patriots would go on to score an improbable touchdown with twelve seconds remaining in the game, thanks to a Herculean effort by tight end Rob Gronkowski. That score could have, should have, been the game winner which spurred the Patriots to yet another Super Bowl.
“Fourth-and-two” has its own chapter in New England Patriots lore, but that was a regular season game. Now Patriots fans have “fourth-and-one,” and this one stings a lot more.