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Were the Patriots too conservative during their 37-20 loss to the Ravens?

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Related: Instant analysis from Patriots’ 37-20 loss to Ravens

New England Patriots v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

After every game, it is only natural to turn back around and wonder how the end result would have looked had just one or two plays gone differently. Following the New England Patriots’ 37-20 loss against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday night, there are numerous plays that would fit in this category: from defensive penalties that extended drives, to Julian Edelman’s fumble that was returned for a third quarter score, to multiple long runs given up.

Two plays in particular caught the eye, however, not due to their actual result but rather because of the question they lead to: was New England too conservative against the Ravens? The pair of plays in question both came in the second quarter with the visitors trying to rally back from a 17-0 deficit, and are listed in the official game and stats book released by the league afterwards as follows:

  • 4-4-BLT 4 (3:44) N.Folk 22 yard field goal is GOOD, Center-J.Cardona, Holder-J.Bailey.
  • 4-1-BLT 1 (:10) N.Folk 19 yard field goal is GOOD, Center-J.Cardona, Holder-J.Bailey.

Yes, it’s time to analyze the decision making on two field goals shortly before the half and ask whether or not kicking them instead of going for the fourth down conversion was the right decision. In order to properly come to conclusion, there are a few factors that need to be put into consideration: the situational context in which the two kicks happened, and how they impacted New England’s chances of winning the game.

Let’s start by taking a look at the latter of the two, because this is a pretty straight forward venture. Statistics website NumberFire keeps track of win probability throughout a game, and the two field goals had a different effect on the Patriots’ theoretical chances of winning the contest:

  • 4-4-BLT 4 (3:44) N.Folk 22 yard field goal: -3.77%
  • 4-1-BLT 1 (:10) N.Folk 19 yard field goal: +0.83%

As can be seen, the first field goal — the kick made it a 17-10 game in favor of the Ravens — negatively impacted New England’s chances of winning. The second one, on the other hand, caused a slight increase late in the second quarter and with the Patriots down 17-13 afterwards. Numbers alone do not tell the whole story and give an answer to the question about the reigning world champions playing too conservatively.

This is where context comes in. As noted above, the Patriots were down 17-7 when they kicked the first field goal. They had just gotten the football back at the Ravens’ 19-yard line thanks to a fumble recovery by defensive tackle Lawrence Guy, and moved the football well by gaining 12 yards on their first two offensive plays after the turnover. However, a penalty against Shaq Mason followed by a short run and 10-yard pass set up a third down.

Tom Brady threw incomplete towards Julian Edelman and with a 4th and goal from the 4-yard line coming up, the team decided to go for the points. One can see why, despite the statistical impact of getting only three instead of a possible seven: a kick made the game a one-score contest with plenty of time left, whereas a failed conversion would have left the team empty-handed and still down by 10 despite having the momentum on its side.

A similar thought process probably also played a role on the second field goal one possession later, despite the Patriots being only a few inches away from the end zone. After a 5-yard run by James White on 3rd and goal from six yards out and a subsequent look from the replay official into whether or not the plan had been broken by the ball carrier, the team took a timeout and ultimately decided to send Nick Folk out for his second field goal try.

Not leaving the offense on the field seems like a curious decision considering the field position in combination with the score and time left on the clock, but the Patriots did have an argument here: going for the points in a game that projected to be a closely contested one in the second half was the safe move, especially with New England receiving the third quarter kickoff and having just found some offensive rhythm in the second quarter.

That being said, the numbers certainly would not have worked against the Patriots here. While New England failed to convert both of its 4th and 1s so far this season — albeit in different field position — the team was a combined 10-of-17 on third and fourth down tries with one yard to go entering the game. Furthermore, it also came into the contest 7-of-10 in goal-to-go plays from one yard out. Baltimore’s defense, meanwhile, was 0-for-4.

Nevertheless, Bill Belichick and his team decided to play it safe and cut the deficit to four points heading into the locker room instead of gambling to potentially tie the game. The team did therefore play the down conservatively, to go back to the question asked above, just like they did one drive earlier. Was it too conservative, though? In the great scheme of things and with the benefit of hindsight one can tend to take “yes” as an answer.

From how the game was going and with the Patriots knowing they would get the football back right after intermission, however, it is hard to blame the team for trying to get points and put itself in a position to take the lead one series later. They trusted their offense to put together a touchdown drive, and it nearly did just that with the up-tempo attack slowly wearing Baltimore’s defense out. Edelman’s aforementioned fumble destroyed the plan, but it was still a sound one to begin with.