By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
I’m a firm believer in the idea that no football game has ever been decided by a single play. Some snaps may be more impactful than others, but at the end of the day any given game is won or lost on a complete effort.
So while the Patriots 35-30 loss in Seattle Sunday night did come down to the last snap, missed opportunities earlier in the game put the team in the spot of needing to score on the final play. Adjustments earlier on could have led to less stress late for Bill Belichick and his group.
If you polled 100 people, you’d probably find 100 different critiques of the Patriots’ game plan. So instead of dissecting each and every little decision that changed the outcome of the loss, let’s focus on four instances that really stood out as game changers when using the gift of hindsight.
The first such situation began with 5:12 to go in the first half, and the game tied at 14. New England was, up to that point, moving the ball well at a time when momentum in the game was up for grabs. On the previous two plays, Cam Newton hit Rex Burkhead out of the backfield for gains of 19 and 18 yards, respectively. The second of the two completions set the Pats up with a 1st & 10 on the Seattle 33 yard line.
That’s when offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels decided to get overly conservative. After an incomplete pass to Burkhead on first down and a two yard designed shotgun give to Burkhead on second down, McDaniels tried to go back to the well again, calling a motion pop pass to guess who, Burkhead, which the Seahawks read perfectly and stopped in the backfield. Nick Folk was then brought on for a 51-yard field goal, which he missed.
A lot of people want to get worked up about Folk’s second miss of the year, but the reality is when you have a kicker like that, you’re prioritizing accuracy over power. Somebody like Folk will be money on anything 40 yards or less, but once you step beyond that, you’re asking for trouble. McDaniels seemed to ignore that fact on this sequence, and appeared to be confident the field position would give New England a scoring opportunity.
If the Patriots get a little more aggressive on any of those three plays, they could have put themselves in a spot where a fourth down attempt would have been realistic, or at least gotten a few valuable yards back for Folk. Instead, the ball was never thrown beyond the line of scrimmage.
How about the bigger-picture implications of this conservative approach. Even if the Patriots picked up that first down, only to be stalled further down the field, it’s increasingly likely Folk hits his field goal attempt. If he does, and if the remainder of the game plays out the same, the Patriots are only down two points on the final drive of the game, not five, and could have won it with a chip shot field goal.
There was also a similar sequence of plays called in the fourth quarter. With 12:11 to go in the game Seattle punted, giving the Patriots the ball at their own seven-yard line, trailing 28-23. On 3rd & 10, Newton scrambled and hit Damiere Byrd on a comeback route which picked up 20 yards, giving the Patriots a first down and some breathing room.
Following what should have been a spark plug kind of play, McDaniels again put the breaks on. The ensuing first down call was a screen to N’Keal Harry, which worked well enough as the second-year receiver pick up eight yards. But the Patriots went back to the screen on the next play, which Seattle was ready for – they brought down Damiere Byrd for a two yard loss. Then, on a 3rd & 4 from their own 33, the Patriots went with a power option (despite the running game having little success all night), which resulted in Burkhead losing four yards.
Jake Bailey was able to get away a 56 yard punt, but a 20 yard return from David Moore gave Seattle a short field, which Russell Wilson used to drive for what ended up being the game-winning touchdown. Once again, on a night where agressive play calling seemed to work carte blanche, the Patriots went conservative at a key moment in the game. If they were more aggressive on that sequence, at the very least they punt further up the field, and give their defense more room to work with.
Now we get to the end of the football game. On the final play, everybody knew what was coming. To be fair, that’s part of what makes that QB Power play call so fun – even when the defense knows it’s coming, they still have to execute perfectly to stop it. Still, Seattle was able to identify the play and get themselves in the perfect position to stop it.
What if the Patriots had a similar looking play to catch the Seahawks off-guard when they needed to most. Well, they do have such a play. In fact, they used it earlier in the game.
On the second play of the fourth quarter, Cam & co. had a 1st & goal from the one yard line. With their jumbo set on the field, Newton started towards the line like he was going to run, before pulling up and flipping the ball to fullback Jakob Johnson in the end zone for the touchdown.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with the play itself. It’s a solid, nifty design by McDaniels, echoing the ‘jump pass’ that’s so popular in college football. However, they picked an interesting time to debut it.
With three or even four shots from the one yard line, why let one of your new tricks out of the bag? If it’s third or fourth down, that’s another story – better to score than walk away empty handed. But certainly they could have tried something more ‘conventional’ on first and second down, especially given the way Seattle’s defense looked to that point in the game.
Imagine if they had simply ran it in with Newton or Sony Michel on that play – they would have had the surprise throw to Johnson ready and waiting for the game winner. At the same time, you have to figure they have more creative looks out of that set they haven’t revealed yet. Why not debut another new look for the game winner, instead of running the QB Power, which has been called so much it can probably be considered a staple at this point. Again, it’s fair to say there’s a lot of ifs there, but it still felt like odd asset management when it comes to the playbook.
Asked about the play call after the game, Belichick told reporters, “We had one play to score, and we tried to go with what we thought was our best play…What else is there to think about?”
Finally, we get to the final sequence of the game and the non-called timeout. As the Patriots were moving down the field on the final drive, it became obvious that Julian Edelman was the key to winning the game. Still, the Patriots managed to get him one-on-one with linebacker Bobby Wagner as they entered Seattle territory. Edelman hauled in an 18-yard pass from Newton near the sideline with 30 seconds to go in the game, but Wagner prevented him from getting out of bounds.
Belichick elected to not use his lone remaining timeout, and the ensuing rush to the line took another 17 seconds. New England didn’t get the next snap off until there were 13 seconds left on the clock.
If Belichick uses that timeout, the Patriots have enough time to run multiple plays from the 13 yard line by either using the sidelines or clocking the ball if needed. So even if the next play is the back-shoulder throw to Harry at the one yard line, New England could have, in theory, ran up and clocked the ball and still had time for a throw at the goal line before attempting to run it in with Cam.
Asked about the timeout usage after the game, Belichick seemed to acknowledge he had made a mistake. The Patriots head coach sat silently for almost half a minute when the question was brought up, only managing a “yeah, well…yeah” before the press availability moved on. It was as defeated as the six-time Super Bowl champion has looked in some time, maybe ever.
Look, this isn’t meant to be a hit job on the Patriots coaching staff, and it shouldn’t be read that way. Hindsight is 20/20. I have the advantage of looking at all of these decisions the context of the entire game, not just what was known in the moment they were made.
Instead, allow me to just point out that we got an excellent dissection Sunday night into how crucial seemingly menial decision are in a football game, even more so one between close teams.
The Patriots offense played incredibly well, especially when you consider the circumstances. To play as well as they did and leave points on the table is honestly more encouraging than not. Players and coaches all seemed to acknowledge in one way or another during the postgame that they let a win slip away, and likely would have been victorious if they had made even a few minor changes.
As Belichick himself said in last year’s HBO documentary featuring him and Nick Saban, “good players can’t overcome bad coaching.” Calling Sunday night’s coaching performance ‘bad’ would be an overreaction, but the idea still applies to what happened in Seattle – the players made all the plays they needed to, but ultimately the coaching staff didn’t put them in the right position to win the game.
It’s easy to say the Patriots “lost the game by one yard.” And while on the surface that’s true, it’s leaving out a huge chunk of the story. It’d be like explaining the plot of Goodfellas as “the Feds got Henry Hill to flip.” Yeah, you wouldn’t be wrong – but you’d also be missing the entire point of what you just watched.
Yes, football is a game of inches, and the Patriots couldn’t get the crucial ones at the end of the game to come out on top. As always though, the final result goes beyond one play. If the Patriots had picked up those inches they needed elsewhere, earlier in the game, they wouldn’t have to be perfect or better with three seconds left on the clock and one chance to win it all.