When you miss out on the Super Bowl by two points, you are left wondering what went wrong. While many factors were at play in the case of the New England Patriots and the AFC Championship Game, a few coaching decisions might be what held them back.
Perhaps the most decisive play of the game came in the fourth quarter with the Denver Broncos leading by eight points. New England's offense moved the ball to the opposing 16-yard line, although a Danny Amendola catch on third down wasn't enough to move the chains. This left a 4th-and-1 with just over six minutes remaining.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was left with the choice to kick a field goal and cut the lead to five or go for it and try to tie up the game on that possession. The offense stayed on the field, but Tom Brady's pass to Julian Edelman wasn't enough to convert the first down:
The Cauldron @TheCauldron
Broncos all over this 4th down play action from the Pats https://t.co/i5bptCHMfv1/24/2016, 11:03:55 PM
After a quick three-and-out from the Broncos offense, the Patriots again drove into the red zone and again found themselves facing a fourth down. This was an easier decision because there were less than three minutes left on the clock, but Brady's throw to the back of the end zone to Rob Gronkowski was unsuccessful.
Those who wanted to see New England kick the field goal on either of these drives will argue the last-minute touchdown would have won the game. The team wouldn't have needed to attempt a two-point conversion, and if kicker Stephen Gostkowski successfully hit both field goals, a third one would've been enough to win the game on its own.
Results aside, a field goal would have put more pressure on the Broncos while making a go-ahead score much more attainable. Considering Gostkowski was 33-of-36 on field goals this season, including 17-of-17 from inside of 40 yards, the decision to kick it either time would also be almost as safe as you can get.
The criticism of Belichick's decisions certainly has merit, although former Grantland writer Shea Serrano explains why it is much louder after the failed conversions:
Shea Serrano @SheaSerrano
criticism, the movie *goes for it on 4th & 1* *gets it* BELICHICK IS A GENIUS *goes for it on 4th & 1* *dont get it* BELICHICK IS AN IDIOT1/24/2016, 11:04:38 PM
While the second failed attempt requires little explanation because of the dwindling amount of time left in the game, even the first one made sense when you consider the situation.
New England had struggled offensively all game long against the NFL's No. 1 regular-season defense. Aside from the kneel-down at the end of the first half, the Patriots' first 11 drives featured six punts and two interceptions. They scored two field goals and a touchdown in this stretch, although it took a misplay on a lateral to help the Patriots get into the end zone at the end of a 22-yard drive.
Brady was playing as poorly as he had all year, and the offensive line didn't do him any favors.
Relying on the offense to put together multiple scoring drives at this late stage of the game might have been too much to reasonably expect. Going for it was taking advantage of the best drive of the day and believing in a future Hall of Fame quarterback to lead you to victory. The Patriots were short-stacked at the poker table and went all-in when they had the chance.
As far as the play itself, Greg Bedard of Sports Illustrated perfectly summed up what happened:
Greg A. Bedard @GregABedard
Can guarantee you, when Patriots drew up that 4th down play, they thought Edelman would be buck naked open. Harris stayed home.1/24/2016, 11:03:08 PM
The offensive line had been destroyed all day, and the Patriots weren't able to successfully run the ball for the first three-and-half quarters. Counting on a run play or even a quarterback sneak was a tough bet, even though Brady is usually great at picking up the requisite yards. The play action was trying to take advantage of the aggressiveness of a defense on fourth down and give Edelman a chance to make a play.
It simply didn't work.
It sounds obvious, but football often comes down to one team making a better play than the other. The Broncos, and specifically Pro Bowl cornerback Chris Harris, just made the play.
No matter what the Patriots did, winning after being down eight points late against an elite defense would have been difficult. Belichick considered his options and gave his team what could have been the best chance to win.
In the meantime, there are plenty of other people to blame from the 20-18 defeat. Gostkowski will certainly be a scapegoat due to a missed extra point in the first quarter, his first miss of the season. The kicker was ready to take responsibility after the game, per Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald:
Jeff Howe @jeffphowe
Gostkowski: "I feel terrible. ... It's a nightmare scenario. That's how I feel. I let a lot of people down."1/24/2016, 11:53:35 PM
Jeff Howe @jeffphowe
Gostkowski wants all the blame. "I lost the game."1/24/2016, 11:54:33 PM
While that failed attempt certainly hurt, others are just as responsible. The offensive line gave up four sacks and a season-high 23 quarterback hits to a dominant Broncos defensive front, per ESPN Stats & Info, while even Brady struggled, completing less than half of his passes. He was obviously under pressure all day but also misfired on a lot of attempts.
Losing is never easy on a team or its fanbase. However, neither one play nor one player or coach deserves all the blame for the disappointing loss in the AFC title game. The Broncos were a better team Sunday, and while they will play in the Super Bowl, the Patriots will deservedly be home watching.
Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for year-round sports analysis.