Proper game management costs Patriots No. 2 seed

Published: 12/29/2019 11:08:26 PM
Modified: 12/29/2019 11:05:47 PM

SadTom.jpgSad Tom Brady wonders what could have been had the Patriots been less conservative at the end of the first half.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots suffered a devasting loss at Gillette Stadium on Sunday to the Miami Dolphins, dropping their record to 12-4, and knocking them down to the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs. Had they won, the Patriots would have had a bye next week. Instead they will host the No. 6 seeded Tennessee Titans, an overwhelming favorite outside of Vegas.

To put this in reductive terms, losing the game forces New England to win a game next week, a feat the Patriots have only pulled off in 75 percent of their attempts this season.
The loss to Miami hinged on exactly one factor and nothing else: Bill Belichick’s proper game management. Late in the first half, Belichick made the curious and correct decision not to call a timeout when the Dolphins were forced to punt with 1 minute, 40 seconds remaining. After Miami’s punt, the Patriots took over with 57 seconds left and three timeouts at their own 25-yard-line.
Now, some have correctly observed that 1 minute, 40 seconds is more time than 57 seconds. However, one point that gets lost in the shuffle is that two timeouts is less than three timeouts.
There are two reasons why this actually matters: 1. The more timeouts you have, the more difficult you are to defend. If teams try to take away the boundaries, you can throw to the middle and use a timeout. If they don’t, you can create extra clock stoppages by going out of bounds. The sooner you run out of timeouts, the less field you have to work with. 2. That extra 43 seconds can help your opponent more than you. Consider that the Dolphins had three timeouts of their own remaining. If the Patriots fail to gain yardage on first down, Miami can stop the clock and try to get the ball back.
Either way, field position put New England in a difficult predicament. Failure to advance the ball could have given Miami another shot at scoring before halftime. In fact, that exact scenario played out a week before when Belichick’s improper game management gave the Bills the ball with just 33 seconds remaining in the first half. The Bills used that to score a touchdown. Also, recall that a year earlier, the Dolphins needed only 16 seconds to score a game-winning touchdown against the Patriots.
This week, the Patriots learned from their mistake against Buffalo and did so to their own detriment. Leaving just enough time and timeouts for them — and no one else — to score, New England chose a to run the ball on first down. They lost two yards on a draw to Sony Michel and naturally, the wizened sofa scouts of New England saw this as a white flag, rather than a play that was designed in good faith to gain positive yardage.
No, the Patriots were giving up, and not trying to score. This makes sense because if anything, Bill Belichick is known for not being competitive. And he is especially not known for crafty, counterintuitive solutions that help his team and hurt the other team at the same time. Certainly, anyone who has watched the Patriots for the last two decades will tell you that Belichick never has any interest in scoring before halftime.
Even though he was obviously just giving up and not trusting his offense and definitely not trying to win, Belichick said he would have used his timeouts if the Patriots had gained a first down on that pre-halftime possession. Go figure.
So, either one of two things is going here: 1. Belichick cravenly lacked any desire of trying to score; or 2. After the Patriots failed to execute and lost two yards on first down, he realized that failing to convert could create another possession for Miami. He then wisely chose to play conservatively, given that his team still needed to gain another 44 yards (32 of them beyond the first down marker) to get into the upper limits of Nick Folk’s field goal range.
The Patriots then gave James White a handoff that produced 7 yards. But now in a third and 5 at the New England 30, the Patriots chose to let the clock run out. Perhaps if the Michel run had created a more manageable conversion, it would have appeared like the Patriots were actually trying to score. One might ask why a team that isn’t trying to score wouldn’t simply take a knee on first down and avoid the possibility of a turnover deep in their own territory. But this is not a time for such frivolous questions.
As there is no football strategy that works 100 percent of the time, the correct strategy is one that is most likely to succeed, even though it is guaranteed to occasionally fail. Therefore, one could conclude that Belichick deployed a correct strategy on Sunday, and that it failed to work, as every correct strategy is bound to fail from time to time. Or, one could conclude that Belichick gave up and deserved to lose for that reason. Unfortunately, we do not have a substantial body of Belichick’s work to help us understand where he falls on this spectrum.
What we do have is a football game next week between the Patriots and the Titans. The Doomed New England Patriots must now win four games if they are to win the Super Bowl. Since the league expanded to a 12-team playoff in 1990, no team has won four games to claim the championship, unless you count the 1997 Broncos, 2000 Ravens, 2005 Steelers, 2006 Colts, 2007 Giants, 2010 Packers, 2011 Giants, and the 2012 Ravens. Otherwise, nothing.
What else is left to be said, but see you in September.
Dave Brown is a freelance correspondent who covers the Patriots for the Monitor. You can follow him on Twitter @ThatDaveBrown.

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