For 16 years, it had been little short of a lock: If the Patriots had a first-and-goal opportunity in the dwindling minutes of the fourth quarter while in need of a touchdown to extend (or win) a game, they’d get it.
Prior to Sunday’s 31-24 loss to the Seahawks, such a scenario had unfolded nine times since Tom Brady became the Patriots’ primary quarterback in 2001 (including two occasions with Matt Cassel under center).
Prior to Sunday, in all nine instances where the Patriots had a first and goal with five minutes or fewer left in the fourth quarter of a game they trailed by 4-8 points, they scored a touchdown.
Sunday night thus represented a twofold novelty. It marked the first time in the Brady era that the Patriots failed to convert a first and goal into a desperately needed touchdown in the game’s final minutes, and it also offered a play-calling sequence unlike any other that the Patriots had employed.
Of those nine previous touchdowns, eight had come by pass, the exception coming when Sammy Morris converted a fourth and 1 into a touchdown against the Seahawks on Dec. 7, 2008, when Cassel was under center.
That Morris touchdown with 2:44 left represented the only prior instance in which the Patriots attempted three straight rushes after arriving at a first and goal while in need of a touchdown. After Cassel was sacked for a 1-yard loss on first down from the 6-yard line, Kevin Faulk had a 6-yard run. Morris was stuffed for no gain on third down, but crossed into the end zone on fourth down to give the Patriots a 22-21 lead.
Brady, however, has never handed off three times after moving the Patriots within a first-and-goal opportunity under those circumstances. Indeed, there was only one other instance in which the Patriots attempted as many as two rushes while needing a late touchdown.
On Sept. 25, 2011, with the Patriots trailing the Bills, 31-24, New England reached Buffalo’s 1-yard line with 5:00 remaining. BenJarvus Green-Ellis was stopped on first and second downs from the 1, then a false-start penalty pushed the ball back to the 6. A Brady pass on third down was incomplete, but on fourth down, he found Wes Welker for a touchdown with 3:25 left, allowing the Patriots to tie the score, 31-31.
It is, however, worth noting that the Bills won that game, 34-31, when Buffalo responded to the Patriots’ touchdown by marching down the field for Ryan Lindell’s game-winning 28-yard field goal.
Indeed, it is intriguing to observe that the Patriots had lost five of the nine games over the last 16 years in which they converted a late first and goal into a backs-against-the-wall touchdown — most notably in last year’s AFC Championship game, when the Patriots scored a touchdown but failed to convert a 2-point conversion against the Broncos.
In other words, even had the Patriots scored, their own history suggests that they faced a coin-flip likelihood of winning. That said, it is in a way remarkable that, over the last 16 years, the Patriots had never before come so close to a game-changing touchdown in the game’s final moments without scoring it.
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Video: Ben Volin’s postgame analysis