In 2020, the New England Patriots finished 7-9, giving the franchise its first losing season two decades. A year later, they’re 2-4 through six games. Based on the standard in Foxborough, the Patriots may as well be the worst team in the league, but they aren’t.
In fact, they are a better team than their 9-13 record over the last season and a half suggests, and they’ve repeatedly come close to proving it.
Of those 13 losses, seven have been one-possession games where just a couple plays made the difference — four came in 2020 and three already in 2021. In 2020, it was somewhat understandable because the team was working with a bad roster, but after spending $163 million in free agency, each and every close loss is becoming more and more disappointing.
It leaves viewers wondering, why, with a revamped roster that’s filled with talent, are the Patriots still on the losing end of tight contests? The answer is simple: New England has adopted a conservative approach that’s doing far more harm than good for their winning efforts.
Conservative coaching and play calling is costing the Patriots wins.
The approach to games for New England has involved very little risk. From the plays called to the situational decisions, it has all been conservative. By playing this way, they frequently find themselves in tight games, creating situations where they have very little margin for error.
This issue was on full display in Sunday’s game against the Dallas Cowboys. In a 35-29 overtime defeat, New England had plenty of opportunities to take responsible gambles, but they didn’t, and that ultimately ended up costing them.
Leading 14-10 with 4:34 left in the second quarter, the Patriots faced and 4th and 1 from their own 35-yard-line. Instead of going for it, they elected to punt, and the punt was blocked and recovered by Dallas at New England’s 17-yard-line.
OK. That’s understandably a risky move to go for it deep in your own territory, but did you see the way they were running the ball all afternoon?
The Patriots defense thankfully made a phenomenal stand, forcing a goal-line fumble and giving the New England offense the ball on their own 20 with 1:30 left in the half. Instead of initiating a two-minute offense to try and get points before the half, the Patriots ran the ball for a yard and then kneeled twice to run the clock out. Bill Belichick explained his reasoning for that:
Somehow, that only makes the situation worse. Watch a football game at any level and you see that’s where teams try to steal points. Those circumstances give teams back-to-back possessions, and if executed properly, it can effectively put the game away.
If New England just got in field goal range, they had the chance to go up seven points. Then, if they came out in the second half and had a successful touchdown drive, they would have led the Cowboys 24-10. That’s a very low-risk, high-reward circumstance that the Patriots didn’t take advantage of.
The final backbreaker of their conservative nature came in overtime when New England had the ball at their 46-yard-line for 4th and three and decided to punt. The moment the decision was made, everyone knew that the Patriots were kicking their chance at a victory away, whether it ended in a draw or a loss. New England wasn’t going to win that game without going for it at midfield.
Sure enough, they punted the ball and allowed Dallas to score a walk-off touchdown. It’s unfortunate that the Patriots defense is on the highlight that “lost” the game, because the unit did a good job containing an explosive Cowboys offense. But the risk-aversion approach on offense put the Pats in this hole and forced the defense into unfavorable situations.
How the Patriots can stop losing close games
In the post-game presser, rookie quarterback Mac Jones said, “In the NFL…the margin of error is very slim,” and he’s right. However, teams have to find ways to expand that margin. For some, they do it by just being immensely talented. Others look for every advantage or gamble they can take and capitalize on it. For the Patriots, they have been complacent with playing with the slim margin of error throughout the game and just demanding perfection from their players, and it’s proving not to be a sustainable method for victory.
The Cowboys game was far from a one-time heartbreaker — it’s actually a microcosm of Patriots’ football the last couple of seasons. In order for things to change, New England is going to have to develop guts and take some reasonable gambles. Until they do that, results like the one on Sunday will keep repeating themselves.