By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
It looked for a minute like the Patriots had finally found their footing. They were playing well, moving the ball on offense, and getting stops on defense. But, as Bill Belichick said in the 2019 HBO documentary on him and Nick Saban, "Good players can't overcome bad coaching."
For this second time this year, a number of questionable in-game coaching decisions are front and center in a close Patriots loss. Much like the Week 2 game in Seattle, many will walk away wondering how much Bill Belichick and his staff had to do with the outcome of Sunday's matchup in Buffalo.
There were a number of little decisions throughout the game. Shotgun runs on third and long, defensive positioning, and a hesitation to turn to Damien Harris until late in the game drew the ire of fans. These certainly had their impacts, but there were two instances that really shoot out as head-scratchers - the third-down field goal at the end of the first half, and the onside kick at the end of the third quarter.
The first of the two looks worse in hindsight than it did at the time, but it was still a puzzling choice by Belichick. With 17 seconds to go and no timeouts, the Patriots had a 3rd & 1 from Buffalo's 15 yard line. Instead of taking one extra shot to the end zone, Belichick elected to kick the field goal, making it a 7-6 game.
Why did he make that choice? "To ensure the three points," he told the media after the game. "[It] felt like it was really a low-percentage play," he continued.
He's not entirely wrong. Per Pro Football Reference, since 2018 there have been 12 plays run from an opponent's 15 yard line with under 20 seconds to go in the half (excluding spikes). Of those, only one ended in a touchdown. However, only three ended with a ball-carrier being being tackled in-bounds, requiring the use of a timeout. The most common result is an incomplete pass, which has happened six times.
So while it's not exactly a "high percentage" play to score points, it's also not likely they would have ended up without another chance to kick the field goal.
In the moment Belichick made the call to send Nick Folk on the field, many were reminded of a similar situation the Patriots were in against Kansas City. At the end of the first half of that game, the Patriots tried to get one extra play off before kicking a field goal, but Brian Hoyer took a sack with no timeouts, ending the half.
With no timeouts left and in FG position, Brian Hoyer takes a sack. That’s how the first half ends. Yikes.
— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) October 6, 2020
Is that why Belichick chose to play it safe this week? If so, that's concerning. Such a decision is playing not to lose, instead of playing to win. If Belichick's confidence in his quarterback(s) is that low, then he's basically conceding the season.
Taking the points in a low-scoring, defensive football game makes sense. That's not an argument. But to leave a down on the table unused feels like an overreaction.
Then there was the third quarter onside kick. At that point, it felt like the Patriots had all the momentum. The defense had just recorded their first three-and-out of the game, which was followed by the offense's first touchdown - a 22-yard Damien Harris run.
Almost before the broadcast came back from commercial, Jake Bailey dribbled the ball off the tee, and it was easily recovered by the Bills. There was no gimmick, no change of formation, nothing. Just the element of surprise, which ended up not being enough.
The Bills would cover 45 yards over nine plays, taking the lead on a Josh Allen touchdown run, while running almost five minutes off the clock. New England did score on their ensuing possession, but the entire tone of the game was changed.
If it had worked, would it have been hailed as a brilliant decision? By some, maybe. But it was incredibly risky either way. The Patriots defense was in bend-don't-break mode all day, and setting them up with a short field was less than ideal.
Josh Allen has also struggling with his accuracy throughout the game. With a longer field ahead, the Bills may have put the ball in the air, leading to an Allen miscue. Instead, they ran the ball on all nine plays of the ensuing drive.
Whereas at the end of the first half Belichick cost himself by being overly conservative, it was a surprisingly aggressive call in the second half that set the Patriots back. That was the story of this game in some ways - the Patriots rapidly bouncing back and forth between an unsure, overly safe style and desperate aggression. There doesn't seem to be much of a middle ground right now, with isn't great for a team struggling to find an identity.
Will they figure it out next week against the lowly Jets? Even for 2020 Adam Gase outcoaching Bill Belichick feels like a stretch.
Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at [email protected].