The New England Patriots are off to a 1-3 start after Tom Brady marched the Tampa Bay Buccaneers into Gillette Stadium and left with a victory on Sunday night. In a vacuum, it is not at all surprising that the defending champions handled a very average team starting a rookie quarterback in primetime. But it was a wire-to-wire finish, and one the Patriots could have easily won-- but Bill Belichick bungled the biggest call of the game.
New England received the ball with just under two minutes to play and needed a field goal to take the lead. Mac Jones had been playing the best football of his young career thus far under absurd circumstances, both weather-related and otherwise. The Bucs were struggling to defend any receiver after more injury issues further depleted their secondary. The Pats took only a minute to cross midfield, and then were faced with a fourth-and-three from the Bucs' 37-yard line.
There were two choices to make, two paths to take: either attempt a 56-yard field goal on a rainy night, or let Jones try to convert the fourth down and guarantee a closer field goal that would leave very little time, if any, for the Tampa Bay offense to mount a comeback. Belichick, of course, opted for the field goal. Nick Folk doinked it off the left upright, the Bucs kneeled three times, and the game was over.
No matter which way you slice it, the decision was indefensible. Folk had been dealing with an injury to his plant leg all week so he was already in tough shape to make a long field goal. It was raining hard by the time he was lining up to kick, making it all the more difficult. And even if he made the field goal, the Bucs had two timeouts and around 50 seconds left to get back into field goal range to win. Everyone in the building last night had seen Brady do that once or twice over the last decade.
There's just no way to justify that as the right decision. Folk's career-long is 56 yards, which he set ... in 2010. He hadn't made a field goal longer than 51 yards since 2015. Belichick was asking him to make the kind of kick he hadn't made in years, during a rainstorm, while Folk's left knee was banged up. Folk took responsibility for the miss afterwards and said he had made a 58-yarder in warmups that night, but every kicker is banging it in from 55-plus yards during warmups.
If Belichick didn't have another good choice, then it would be one thing. But it was only fourth-and-three! Jones had been nearly perfect in the second half, at one point completing 19 consecutive passes. He knew the Tampa Bay defense was shorthanded in the secondary and was finding holes left and right. He is still a rookie and the Bucs had been finding ways around his offensive linemen all night, but all they needed was four yards. Four yards that would give Folk a shorter attempt and, more importantly, leave no time left on the clock.
Because that's perhaps the most frustrating part of all of this. Folk's attempt did not come as the clock expired. There were 59 seconds left. Brady and his cadre of Pro Bowl receivers were more than capable of getting into field-goal range with that amount of time left on the clock, especially with two timeouts. The Pats' defense played excellent all night, but they didn't exactly shut down Tampa Bay. They kept Brady's offense to field goals last night and should be commended, but the previous drive it took the Bucs exactly five plays to move into field goal range. With the game on the line and two timeouts in their pockets, it's very easy to envision them doing the same thing if Folk had made the field goal. Just last week we saw Aaron Rodgers do the same with only 37 seconds to work with.
If Folk misses the 56-yard attempt, the Patriots lose. If he makes it, the Patriots have to stop one of the best offenses in football quarterbacked by the clutchest player in the history of the sport. The alternative? Trusting a rookie QB to complete a fourth-and-three that guaranteed, at the very least, an easier field goal to take the lead.
Belichick made the wrong decision. There is no way to look at it as the right one with all the context available. It's not something we're used to seeing from the all-time great coach. But the Patriots sit at 1-3 as a result. A brutal end to a great game for his team.