The football world is abuzz -- abuzz! -- with talk about a big gamble Patriots coach (and all around Incarnation of All Things Evil) Bill Belichick made in the game yesterday against the Indianapolis Colts. With the Pats leading 34-28 with a bit more than two minutes left, the Pats faced 4th-and-2 from their own 28 yard line. Just about everybody on the planet would almost certainly punt in that situation, the idea being that you at least want the other team to have a lot more field to cover if they have to drive for a touchdown to have any chance. But Belichick decided to go for the 4th-down conversion, which came up short. The Colts took over at the Pats' 28 yard line with just over two minutes to go and with all three of their timeouts remaining, in a game in which they had just stormed back from being down 31-14 early in the 4th quarter to being down just 34-28. Peyton Manning drove them in for the touchdown that gave the Colts a 35-34 lead with less than ten seconds to go, and the game ended with that as the final score.
Now, I agree with the general criticisms being leveled at Belichick on this. There is a growing consensus in the NFL that you shouldn't always punt on 4th down; going for it on 4th down is a lot more frequent now. But there are situations where it still seems prudent to kick the ball away, and this definitely seems like one of them. So what was Belichick thinking?
My suspicion is that he was, first of all, utterly confident that his offense would convert the 4th down. That seems obvious. Also, I suspect that he was less than confident of his defense, which, as noted above, had just been shredded in the 4th quarter and hasn't looked like a particularly stout defense a whole lot this year. Most of all, though, I'll bet Belichick was thinking about the game clock. I'd guess that his reasoning was something like this:
"Well, my defense is getting killed, so if we punt, we'll almost certainly give up the touchdown. If we go for it and convert, we can run down the clock a bit and force the Colts to use their timeouts on defense. But if we go for it and fail, the Colts will still score. So, assuming that the Colts score their touchdown if they get the ball back in this situation, which situation is worse for us? If they score after going sixty or seventy yards, they'll probably only leave a few seconds on the clock for us, so we won't be able to get a winning field goal. But, if they get the ball back right here on the 28, then they probably score really quickly, right? And then we get more time to get the field goal we'll need to win."
I think Belichick was trying to play the clock a bit, choosing the scenario that gave him the most control he would have over the time he would have left: either keep the ball, or at least give the Colts a chance to score in a lot less time than it would have taken them otherwise. Of course, the problem with that kind of thing is when the guy on the other side of the field knows all this too, and Peyton Manning may be the single most football knowledgeable quarterback in history, which is why he was able to both score his go-ahead touchdown and leave New England a paltry nine seconds in which they could do exactly nothing.
(In other news, the Bills still suck. We watched Up instead. A post on that movie is forthcoming sometime.)