Last night’s game between the Patriots and Bills provided 60 compelling minutes of football. It finished with two minutes that were far more intriguing than they may have seemed at first blush.
The final 120 seconds started with a bang, as the Bills tried to convert a fourth down and 14 from the New England 19. After the throw failed to connect, the Patriots had first and 10 with 1:55 to play, and with one timeout for Buffalo.
If the Bills had no timeouts left, it would have been a three-knees situation for New England. The ability of the Bills to stop the clock one more time meant that, unless the Patriots made a first down, the Bills would get the ball back after a punt.
The Patriots still could have gone into kneel-down mode at that point, milking more than 80 of the remaining 115 seconds before giving possession back to Buffalo. If a slow, step-or-two-back kneel-down play would have consumed three seconds each, that would have chewed up another nine seconds beyond the 80 seconds that would have evaporated after two of the three plays. That’s 89 of the remaining 115 seconds, leaving Buffalo with 26 seconds, minus the time that would have elapsed during the punt.
The Patriots instead opted to run the ball. To risk having rookie quarterback Mac Jones pull a Joe Pisarcik. To risk having another key fumble like the one from running back Damien Harris in Week One, as the Patriots closed in on a game-winning field goal against the Dolphins.
For coach Bill Belichick, the question becomes balancing out the risk of a fatal miscue versus the chances of getting a first down, while also considering the possibility of a blocked punt or a punt return for a touchdown or a Hail Mary to win the game.
Should the Patriots have simply taken three knees and punted? If Jones had bungled a snap or one of the running backs had dropped the ball, we’d be saying that, yes, they should have done that. Absent a disaster, Belichick gets the benefit of the doubt and then some; who if anyone is questioning his decision to have receiver N'Keal Harry attempt his first career punt return in strong winds?
The Patriots eventually caught a huge break, when Bills linebacker Matt Milano suffered an injury with 1:23 to play, causing (because the Bills had not time outs left) the play-clock to reset to 40 seconds and giving the Patriots the chance to burn the entirety of it, take a knee, consume all of the next 40-second clock, and end the game with a kneel-down.
Even then, things didn’t go entirely smoothly. Belichick got mad at Jones for taking a timeout with 44 seconds on the game clock and one second on the play clock. Taking the delay of game penalty would have removed one more second from the game clock before the third-and-seven play, increasing the chances that the Patriots wouldn’t have to snap the ball again after that.
Ultimately, everything worked out for the Patriots. They didn’t have to punt. They didn’t have to defend a Hail Mary. They didn’t have to get a first down. And, perhaps most importantly, they didn’t have to hand the ball off one last time before it became clear that they’d be able to kill the clock.