You’d think it was Peyton Manning and the Colts out there with the season on the line. It wasn’t. It was the 49ers in a late-season slugfest, in a game the Patriots had no business winning but had somehow fought their way back into.
So why are people upset that Bill Belichick went for it on 4th-and-1?
The 4th-and-1 in the final minutes of the Patriots’ loss to the 49ers on Sunday night was the defining moment of the game, but not because Belichick had his team go for it. What made this play stick out was how it was a perfect microcosm of the entire contest.
The Patriots didn’t lose on the 4th-and-1, but the 4th-and-1 certainly showed why they lost.
New England came into this game with good players at every position, and the momentum of seven wins and a solid thrashing of the AFC-leading Texans. Tom Brady and the offense came into that 4th-and-1 having scored 28 unanswered points, erasing a four-touchdown deficit.
New England came into this game forcing turnovers from other, less mentally focused teams (and, in years past, using disastrous weather to its advantage). Brady and the offense came into the 4th-and-1 having seen San Francisco fumble the ball six times and wilt under pressure.
New England came into this game with some of the surest receivers, with Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez consistently coming up with catches in traffic, and Danny Woodhead finding a way to get it done. Brady and the offense came into the 4th-and-1 having every conversion they wanted for much of the second half.
So, why was it crazy to trust the team that has been so good all season, and had been so good in the recent minutes? Belichick had just as little reason going into that 4th-and-1 to think Brady and Woodhead would fail to connect as he would to think that the Patriots would spend the first half fumbling in ways unseen before in Foxboro. (And the weather — oh, the weather. Why can the Patriots suddenly not play in bad weather?)
The problem Sunday was not any of the play calls. It was, through and through, execution.
Welker started griping about a penalty and slowed down on a route before the pass had been let go, leading to an interception. Shane Vereen bought himself a spot on the sideline with a fumble, and Stevan Ridley followed his example. The secondary didn’t have as many costly penalties as usual, but that’s because those players were getting torched in coverage. Brady took sacks and couldn’t get drives going. Receivers all around failed to hold on to passes, with one Hernandez drop even turning into an interception.
The Patriots were horrible for the entire first half Sunday, and for good portions of the second half, too. They had lost the game well before 4th-and-1 and had only Brady and his ability to dig deep to thank for even being in the game.
As for going for that fourth-down conversion with how much time was left, there is an argument for the other side. If the Patriots had punted and gotten a defensive stop, they may have been able to force a three-and-out. But seeing as the defense looked like it was regressing to early-season form, there’s also a good chance New England would have never gotten the ball back. In that case, you always bet on making the big plays when Brady has the ball, not when he doesn’t.
In the end, the 4th-and-1 wasn’t a bad call. The Patriots had the ability to pull it off, and the perfect situation to do it.
Where they failed was, once again, in the execution. Brady and Woodhead couldn’t connect. The Patriots had the perfect setup and the players in the right spots, and they failed to execute just as badly as they had throughout the rest of the game.
This isn’t Manning and the Colts. It was the 49ers, and a new crop of Patriots who looked like they had never seen rain or good football before. Of course you go for it — unless, of course, you can’t execute.