FOXBOROUGH — It was the week of the Chiefs game, and the Patriots offense was given a directive: Control the clock. They knew they could run on Kansas City’s defense, so if they did that and were safe with the ball, they’d move the chains and limit Patrick Mahomes’s opportunities.
The game went back and forth into the fourth quarter until, with 3:15 to go, the Chiefs made the score 40-40 on Tyreek Hill’s 75-yard touchdown catch, the first play of that drive. The Patriots got the ball back with 3:03 remaining and, as the offense went to work, the defense stayed warm, expecting to go back on the field.
It never needed to. Tom Brady executed a six-play drive to the Kansas City 9-yard line and Stephen Gostkowski kicked the winning field goal as time expired. The Patriots held the ball for 36 minutes, 9 seconds of that game and 11:29 of the fourth quarter. A Chiefs offense that scores more points per drive than any team since the 2007 Patriots lost because Brady had the football last.
“We were preparing like, ‘Hey, we’re going to have to go back out. It’s going to be a two-minute situation, we’re going to score here,’ ” cornerback Jason McCourty said. “The next thing you know our offense gets the ball and they just run out the last [three] minutes on the clock. I think when that goes on in our minds, at that moment, we’re just like, ‘This is how important that is.’ ”
Look no further than the playoff field to see how important possession is in today’s NFL. The top four teams, seven of the top eight, and nine of the top 11 teams in time of possession, according to Football Outsiders, made the playoffs this season, the seventh-ranked Patriots among them. Yes, controlling time is a byproduct of winning games, but in a season in which teams scored more points per drive than ever before, it’s also a cause.
“A lot of teams do it to us,” receiver Phillip Dorsett said. “A lot of teams, their plan is, ‘OK, let’s try to keep the ball as long as we can.’ I think that’s what Pittsburgh tried to do. ‘Let’s keep the ball away, play keepaway, don’t get the ball in Tom’s hands, run as much time off the clock.’ I mean, that’s not our strategy all the time but a lot of teams do it to us. That’s a good recipe to win.”
This isn’t your old-school ball-control strategy — Mahomes eats 3 yards and a cloud of dust for breakfast, with ketchup. Even conservative offenses don’t look so conservative, given advantageous rules adjustments and schematic developments that take advantage of the field horizontally and rely on playmakers to generate yards after the catch. The key is moving the ball efficiently on early downs, staying out of third-and-long situations.
On defense, it’s about generating turnovers and other big plays that give the ball back to the offense quickly. Four of the five teams who generated the most turnovers, the Bears, Rams, Texans, and Patriots, made the playoffs. That seems meaningful in a year in which good offenses were much more successful than good defenses: On a per-drive basis, this year’s top five scoring offenses all made the playoffs, while just two of the top five scoring defenses did.
Of course, it’s probably meaningful because those turnovers put the ball back in the hands of those good offenses. Teams averaged 2.04 points per drive this season, according to Football Outsiders, the most of any season on record with data going back to 1993. If drives are more valuable, plays that lead to more drives are, too.
“Things like turnovers are huge,” McCourty said. “We put our offense in a position to go out there and get points.”
The Patriots have talked about winning time of possession explicitly as a strategy before a handful of games, players said. Coaches always emphasize things such as third-down defense, turnovers, and staying out of third and long on offense, all things that keep the offense on the field.
Dorsett said possession came up in Week 17 against the Jets at the end of the game, though the score was so lopsided at that point it wasn’t impactful. Still, midway through the fourth quarter, Bill Belichick challenged the team to “finish the game with the ball in our hands.”
The Patriots did, thanks to a fumble recovery by Albert McClellan that sent Brian Hoyer out to kneel out the final 15 seconds of clock. Even without that big play, the Jets would have had only 24 seconds with the ball, mostly thanks to a 10-play touchdown drive in the middle of the fourth quarter that bled 5:06 off the clock and sent Brady and the first-team offense off to the playoffs feeling good.
“I love those drives,” Dorsett said. “Those drives are amazing. Those are the drives that get the team going, not just hitting the big one.”
With the playoffs underway, the field is concentrated with teams who have been greedy with the football all season, but the Patriots match up well in their conference. The Ravens, No. 1 in time of possession this season, were the only AFC playoff team better in that category than the No. 7 Patriots, and they were eliminated Sunday. The NFC is stacked in this area, with the No. 2 Eagles, No. 3 Bears, No. 4 Saints, and No. 6 Seahawks, but the Patriots have an advantage over the No. 10 Chargers and would over the No. 18 Colts or No. 27 Chiefs.
It’s funny to think, given the emphasis on explosive offense in football and football coverage this season, that we’re talking about ball control at the beginning of January. But ball control isn’t what it used to be, and one way for Brady and Co. to make a deep run just might be what Belichick made his message on the last day of the regular season: Control the clock, and finish the game with the ball.