If you’ve been paying attention over the past two decades, you have learned a simple truth about the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts playing games in Indianapolis. If the offense has the ball on fourth down in a critical situation, it’s going to get it wrong.
Consider the 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard line in 2003 when Willie McGinest blew up the play and saved a Patriots’ victory. Or whatever the heck that weird punt formation play the Colts tried (and failed) in 2015 that went down in history as the “Colts Catastrophe.”
And then there were the 4th downs that famously went against the Patriots. Like the one on Saturday night that had Patriots fans scratching their heads and the analytics folks pulling the hair out of theirs.
The Patriots saw their 7-game winning streak come to a crashing halt on Saturday night, as Jonathan Taylor continued to make his case for league MVP with another brilliant performance in a 27-17 Colts victory.
But what might have happened if the Patriots had gone for it on 4th-and-goal from the 7 with 9 minutes to play? Patriots fans would like to know. And though he will never ever, ever admit, Bill Belichick probably would like to know, too.
To kick or not to kick? That was the question facing Bill Belichick
That the call in-question actually mattered with nine minutes to play Saturday night is a testament to the Patriots’ ability to keep their heads in Saturday’s game, which was a disaster from a New England perspective for three quarters.
Penalties. A blocked punt for a touchdown. Turnovers. If it could have gone wrong for the Patriots, it did in the first 45 minutes. But trailing 20-0 after three quarters, the Patriots dusted themselves off and scored on the first play of the fourth quarter to make it 20-7, then quickly got the ball back on an interception and again drove downfield, reaching the Colts’ 4-yard line on an 18-yard run by wide receiver Kendrick Bourne with 10 minutes left.
A touchdown to cut the deficit to six points seemed inevitable. But the errors that plagued the Patriots all game long short-circuited them again at the worst possible time. On 3rd-and-goal from the 2, guard Michael Onwenu moved early for a false start, moving the Patriots back to the 7-yard line. And when Mac Jones couldn’t connect with Hunter Henry on third down and 9:08 remaining, it was fourth down and decision time for Belichick.
Trailing by 13, the football world expected the Patriots to go for it. But Belichick went conservative and kicked the field goal instead. The kick was good, but the Patriots still trailed by two scores. And though the Patriots would get the ball back late and score a touchdown to make it 20-17, Taylor sealed New England’s fate with a 67-yard touchdown run with 2:11 left that restored the lead back to 10 points.
Patriots fans (and plenty of their detractors) descended on social media with incredulity that Belichick had played it so conservative given the relative lack of time remaining. In the opinion of the football analytics crowd, this was no second-guess: Belichick had made a terrible statistical blunder. Others came to the Patriots’ defense, just days after the Chargers went for it on fourth down repeatedly and lost to the Chiefs.
A much riskier 4th-down decision by Belichick still resonates
For many, the irony of the moment was not lost. It was 12 years ago, in 2009, that Belichick had swung completely the other way against Peyton Manning’s Colts in Indianapolis, going for it on 4th-and-2 from deep inside his own territory with a six-point lead and 2:08 remaining, afraid the punting would give Manning a chance to march down the field and score. With a first down, the Patriots could have essentially run out the clock.
And Tom Brady’s fourth-down pass to Kevin Faulk was complete. But a Faulk bobble as he came back to corral the ball put him back just inches short of the line to gain when he hit the ground, and Manning took over on the Patriots’ 30-yard line and proceeded to engineer the short touchdown drive to win the game anyway, 35-34.
Belichick was roasted in the press and on talk-radio for the highly-unorthodox decision in 2009. On Saturday, the decision was met more with a raised eyebrow. Of course, in classic postgame Belichickian fashion, there was to be no specific explanation of his reasoning, beyond “I did what I thought was best for the team.”
Where the loss leaves the Patriots in the AFC Playoff mix with three games left
The Patriots missed a golden opportunity to put a vice-lock on the AFC East title, dropping to 9-5 while the Buffalo Bills improved to 8-6 with their win over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. The Miami Dolphins also put themselves back in the division race with a win over the New York Jets Sunday, improving them to 7-7.
But the Patriots still can put the division to bed next Sunday in Week 16 with a victory over the Bills in Foxboro, giving New England a two-game lead over Buffalo and the head-to-head tiebreaker with two games to play. If the Dolphins also lose to New Orleans next Monday night, the Patriots clinch the division.
Things are a little trickier for the top seed and first-round playoff bye. The Patriots now trail the Kansas City Chiefs (10-4) by a full game and are tied with the Tennessee Titans for the No. 2 seed. But the Patriots currently hold all the tiebreaker cards, having beaten the Titans and owning a 7-2 AFC record to Kansas City’s mark of 5-4, all but assuring that if the Patriots and Chiefs finish with the same record, the Patriots would reclaim the top seed.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference