Bill Belichick isn't scared to go against the grain, and fourth-down decisions are not exempt from that.
Ever since "4th and 2" from Indianapolis in the 2009 season, there seems to be a stir every time the New England Patriots go for it — in any situation. They had one last season that was eerily similar to what happened Sunday at Foxboro Stadium. Except this decision ended up working out. Eventually.
The Patriots had been one step ahead of the New Orleans Saints for most of the Week 6 game before the tide started turning against them in the fourth quarter. When that happens, Belichick's propensity to take risks goes up infinitely. This is important to keep in mind.
Down 24-23 with 2:50 left, Belichick decided to go for it on 4th and 6 from the Patriots' 24 yard line. They failed. It was the third straight dropped pass by three different Patriots receivers. The Saints took over.
Now compare this situation to the Patriots Week 15 loss to the San Francisco 49ers last season. There, the Patriots had 4th and 1 from their own 28, down 38-31, having erased a 31-3 deficit to even be in the game. That 4th-down pass to Danny Woodhead failed, and the 49ers tacked on a field goal to make it a two-score game.
On Sunday, the Saints took over and got conservative. Just as Belichick knew they would. They had been running the ball in plain fashion all day the closer the Saints packed it in towards the red zone, and they did exactly that the first two plays with runs, each followed by a Patriots timeout. Then on third down, Drew Brees hung one up just begging to get picked. It was dropped, and the ensuing field goal made it 27-23.
At this point, it might not have looked good, but the strategy was working out brilliantly for Belichick. He had played the Saints like a fiddle much of the afternoon, seeming to anticipate their next move all game. When they blitzed, he called for a screen. Defensively, they seemed to know when they were going to run or pass. And in the final minutes, the Patriots were still one step ahead.
What's incredible is that the Patriots got two possessions after the fourth-down failure. Tom Brady's floater pass was intercepted downfield, and yet the Saints still count not end the game that should have been over — likely twice.
It's controversial anytime a coach goes for in on 4th down. We debate it back and forth: Should he or shouldn't have he? This one is for certain: Belichick made the right call because he knew exactly how the game would play out and that he'd have not one, but two chances left to win the game if his players did their jobs.
They did. Rather unbelievably, it turned out. But that's not the point. The point is that a coach's job is to put his players in the best position to win.
Belichick was right. You can debate the 49ers 4th-down decision from last season and go the other way, with strong evidence to back you up. This game, it was a no-brainer: He made the correct call.