The New England Patriots earned themselves a tough win against a good team on Sunday when they traveled to the West Coast to take on the Oakland Raiders.
They did a lot of things well, especially on the offensive side of the ball, but for the second week in a row they’ve shown a deficiency that could end up keeping them from going far in the postseason again this winter.
The New England offense has shown an unwillingness to abandon their high-flying passing attack when they have a lead late in the game. This isn’t to be confused with an inability to run out the clock; they showed they were able to get yards on the ground against the Raiders when they wanted to.
It would be one thing if they simply couldn’t run out the clock late in the game—this is more disturbing because they stubbornly refused to keep the ball on the ground and the clock running.
This team has proved that scoring points isn’t going to a problem for them; holding onto the leads that they amass will be.
Good teams get leads and know how to hold onto them. Last week, they refused to keep the ball on the ground in the second half and they gave up a sizable lead to the Buffalo Bills in their first loss of the year. This week, they held onto the lead, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t give Oakland every opportunity to do to them what the Bills did.
They let the Raiders hang around in this game just like they let the Bills hang around last week. The only reason we’re not talking about another second-half swoon by the Patriots is because Jason Campbell isn’t good enough to take advantage of the chances New England gave him the same way that Ryan Fitzpatrick did.
If the Patriots had just switched gears late in the game and kept the clock running, they would have shortened the game and effectively taken plays away from Oakland.
There comes a time in every game where you’re able to do some simple math and know that if you just hand the ball off from there on out, the other team won’t have enough offensive plays at their disposal to score the points they need to come back.
It should be easy for teams to know when this happens; all you would have to do is have some MIT graduate in the coaches' booth with a computer program that lets him tell the head coach at any time in the game how many running plays he would need to call to run out the clock. It’s really not that hard. In fact, it’s such a simple idea, I can’t imagine why teams don’t already do it.
So that leaves us with two possible conclusions. The first is that teams aren’t making this information available to the coach, which is highly unlikely considering they spend so much money on all sorts of other things that contribute much less to winning and losing on a weekly basis.
The other option is that the coaches do have this information available and they just choose to ignore it. That’s a much more concerning scenario because that means Belichick and the staff are just so ingrained in what they do on offense that they aren’t willing to dial it back when that’s the right call to make.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the way that the Patriots play offense. The NFL is all about a smart, strong-armed quarterback like Brady spreading the field and throwing all over the place to multiple receivers. It’s almost impossible for teams to beat you when they know they’re going to need 30-plus points every week.
The Raiders are a perfect example of this. They did a lot of things right in this game. They ran the ball pretty much at will and got a few big plays in the passing game. But in the end, if you rely on the running game in the first three quarters to get your points, you’re not going to score enough to keep up with high-scoring teams like New England.
It’s not those first three quarters that the Patriots need a change in philosophy, it’s that crucial fourth quarter where they need to play a smarter brand of football. Once they have enough points on the board, they need to be humble enough to just hand the ball off over and over again so they don’t give the other teams enough chances to get back in the game.
They got away with it this week, but as last week against the Bills showed us all, if they don’t commit to running the ball to protect leads, they’re going to find themselves suffering some heartbreaking losses this season.