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Conservative decisions cost the Patriots against the Cowboys

Related: Instant analysis from Patriots’ 35-29 loss to Cowboys

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New England Patriots David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Just like their previous games against the Miami Dolphins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Houston Texans, the New England Patriots’ Week 6 meeting with the Dallas Cowboys also came down to the wire. The contest went to overtime, with the Cowboys scoring the winning touchdown to take a 35-29 win and drop New England to 2-4 on the year.

The game was a tight affair, and one was left to wonder what could have happened if just a handful of plays went differently from the Patriots’ perspective. Quarterback Mac Jones, who completed 15 of his 21 pass attempts for 229 yards, 2 touchdowns and an interception, also spoke about this during his postgame press conference.

“In the NFL it takes maybe three or four bad plays and you lose the game,” he said. “The margin of error is very slim.”

On Sunday, it turns out, the margin was too slim for the Patriots. However, there is an argument to be made that they actively contributed to this via their conservative decision making.

Take the end of the second quarter as an example. After the Cowboys blocked a Jake Bailey punt and set up shop at the New England 17-yard line, the defense delivered a goal-line stand to keep their opponent off the board and the score 14-10 in the Patriots’ favor. At that point, 1:30 was left on the game clock before the half; the offense, following a Dak Prescott fumble on fourth down, took possession at the 20-yard line.

With Nick Folk’s field goal range at around 50 yards, that meant Mac Jones and company had to travel circa 45 to put their kicker in a realistic position to add three points. And — who knows? — maybe New England would even have been able to score a touchdown to go up 21-10.

Instead, to quote the official game book, the Patriots decided to do the following:

1-10-NE 20 (1:30) D.Harris left guard to NE 21 for 1 yard (O.Odighizuwa).

2-9-NE 21 (:47) M.Jones kneels to NE 19 for -2 yards.

Timeout #3 by DAL at 00:08.

3-11-NE 19 (:08) M.Jones kneels to NE 17 for -2 yards.

After a 1-yard Damien Harris run, Mac Jones knelt down twice to end the half. Following the game, head coach Bill Belichick explained the sequence as follows when asked why he decided to go into the locker room rather than drive for potential points.

“Because we were getting the ball the start of the second half,” he said.

Yes, New England did receive the second half kickoff. Yes, the Patriots did not have any timeouts left. And, yes, they might not have wanted to expose Jones to any more hits behind a struggling offensive line. But, at the end of the day, they effectively decided to play not to lose rather than to win.

That was not the only curious decision made by Belichick, however.

Let’s talk about one of his favorite subjects: the punt game.

Going back to that blocked punt mentioned above, an argument can be made that New England should have attempted to go for it rather than try the kick. According to the so-called “4th down decision bot” created by Ben Baldwin of The Athletic, the numbers favored the Patriots had they left their offense on the field:

Hindsight is obviously 20/20, and the context — New England has one of the best punt coverage teams in the league — has to be considered as well. Nonetheless, the play was a sign of things to come.

The Patriots were too scared on fourth down.

When the game was over, they had attempted five punts. Even disregarding the blocked kick, three of those still took place in comparatively manageable situations. All of them came in the second half or overtime, by the way.

New England punted on a 4th-and-2 from the 50-yard line in the third quarter; the other two punts came from the Patriots’ 46-yard line: one on a 4th-and-4 in the third period, and another on a 4th-and-3 in overtime.

The “4th down decision bot” did not make calculations on the final of those three plays, but the other two came with recommendations: New England should have gone for it.

What followed those two punts? A Dallas touchdown and a Dallas field goal. The eventual game-winning touchdown pass to CeeDee Lamb in extra time also came after a punt — the aforementioned kick on 4th-and-3 from the Patriots 46-yard line.

While correlation is not causation, New England did negatively impact its own margin of error with all these decisions. Just look at it from a play volume perspective: the Cowboys offense and Patriots defense were on the field for 89 plays; the Patriots offense and Cowboys defense, meanwhile, shared the field on just 54 between them.

Dallas’ 35-play advantage was not always the direct result of Belichick’s fourth-down or late-half decision making, but those did not help tip the scales in his team’s favor.

The matter of fact, after all, is this: at the moment, the 2021 Patriots are not good enough to play conservatively, especially against teams as talented as the Cowboys. That might have worked back in, say, 2016, when New England fielded arguably the best team in the league.

This New England squad, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, is not that. However, any possessions given up either by questionable punting or game management is putting more pressure on this offense to succeed in its limited opportunities. It also is putting more pressure on the defense to come up with stops despite a hefty workload.

Belichick and his coaching staff have their reasons for all those calls, and they have more information available than any fan or writer could ever have. That being said, at least from the outside it appears as if the Patriots’ decision makers have little trust in the team’s offense and in turn are coaching too conservative a game.

On Sunday against the Cowboys, it cost them.