The Patriots nearly pulled out a miracle tying drive thanks to two fourth-down conversions, but the game and the circumstances might’ve been vastly different if two earlier fourth-down tries had been successful—or never attempted at all. Of all the what-ifs New England is dealing with today, two Bill Belichick decisions to go for it loom large.
The first came with 6:03 remaining in the game, with the Patriots down eight points and facing a fourth-and-1 from Denver’s 16. The rationale for either choice is obvious, if layered. A field goal would cut the lead to five, meaning a touchdown would give New England the lead—without having to go for two. Belichick opted to go for it, and a short pass to Julian Edelman was blown up behind the line of scrimmage.
The second came with 2:25 left, the Patriots still down eight, this time with a fourth-and-6 from the Broncos’ 14. This felt a little less justifiable, since a conversion was significantly less likely and New England had all its timeouts remaining, so could have expected to get the ball back with time for another drive. They went for it, and Tom Brady overthrew a triple-covered Rob Gronkowski in the end zone.
“It’s time, the number of possessions you have left, and what you need to do. And the number of opportunities we had to do that,” said Belichick.
“There weren’t very many. At that time there was no hesitation in doing that.”
For what its worth, the New York Times’ 4th Down Bot, which operates off of pure win probability, says going for it was the right call both times. And some of the unquantifiables leaned the Patriots’ way too. They had trouble sustaining drives all afternoon, but Denver’s defense, down its starting safeties, appeared to tire late. These two drives were the Patriots’ two longest drives of the game, and Belichick operated under the (logical, but ultimately incorrect) presumption that he wouldn’t get so close to the end zone again.
There’s no way to know how the rest of the game would have played out if the Patriots had been playing with three more points on the board, so it’s not nearly as simple as saying they would have won. That’s a fool’s game anyway, to judge a decision by the isolated result instead of the process.
On the whole, coaches don’t go for it on fourth down nearly enough. Which doesn’t mean it will always work out, no matter the increased odds, and no matter the successful track record of the coach making the call.