One of the most surprising aspects of the Patriots’ wild-card round loss to the Titans on Saturday was that Bill Belichick twice decided to punt on fourth-and-short while trailing in the fourth quarter.
Down 14-13 with 12:52 to play, the Patriots faced fourth-and-3 at the Titans’ 47-yard line. Instead of trusting Tom Brady and the offense to pick up three yards, Belichick decided to punt. Thanks to Mike Vrabel using a Belichick clock management tactic against him, the Titans’ ensuing possession took up most of the fourth quarter: By the time the Titans punted, they had run more than eight minutes off the clock.
After that Titans punt, the Patriots gained 20 yards on their first play but then stalled and faced fourth-and-4 from their own 37-yard line with just 3:17 left in the game. Again, Belichick decided to punt. That time the Titans ran a long enough possession to force the Patriots to use all three of their timeouts, and by the time New England got the ball back they were in a basically impossible position, at their own 1-yard line with 15 seconds left.
The analytics site EdjSports.com uses a model to judge coaches’ fourth down decisions and said that Belichick had the second-worst game of any coach all season in terms of how much his fourth down decisions set the Patriots back. (The EdjSports.com model also dinged Belichick for a fourth-and-3 field goal in the first quarter, a fourth-and-goal field goal in the second quarter and a fourth-and-1 punt in the second quarter, although it was the decisions in the fourth quarter that were most costly.)
Belichick famously made one of the most aggressive fourth down calls in NFL history when he went for it on fourth-and-2 at his own 28-yard line late in a 2009 loss to the Colts. He was widely criticized by fans and the media for that, but the analytics community said it was the right decision, even though it didn’t work. Belichick could have used more of that aggressiveness on Saturday.