There was a glut of defensive bombs dropped on Miami in New England's 27-17 comeback win Sunday afternoon: Six sacks of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, eight tackles for loss, two interceptions, six passes defensed, and a forced fumble. But buried among all the flashier impact plays is a key call the Patriots made on special teams.
With the score knotted at 17, time ticked down on New England's final drive of the third quarter. Running back Stevan Ridley gained 10 yards on a second-and-20 rush to get to Miami's 30-yard line. Next up was third-and-10 and the Patriots had 18 seconds to work with.
It was decision time for head coach Bill Belichick.
"We were at that point where we were in field goal range, but it was a long field goal," Belichick explained on Monday, "and we felt like if we changed ends of the field then that field goal range might not be there.
"When the clock was running there I wanted to try to give ourselves a chance. Of course in a close game like that, when it's tied at the time, you hate to waste timeouts; they can be valuable at the end as we've seen many times this year. I felt like it was worth it to be able to have a better opportunity on the kick."
It was a windy day in Foxboro. Belichick said he had every confidence in kicker Stephen Gostkowski, but he wanted to optimize the situation. To attempt the 48-yard boom as it stood meant Gostkowski would have the wind at his back. Earlier in the quarter, Dolphins kicker Caleb Sturgis had tried a 46-yarder against the stiff breeze. The ball pinged off the right upright.
Belichick considered that missed opportunity when he burned the timeout. He also had a bit of history in mind.
"I'd say one of the biggest decisions, and most critical decisions that I've ever been a part of on that was the 1986 NFC Championship game against the Redskins," said Belichick, who was defensive coordinator for the Giants at the time. "It was a windy day in Giants stadium. We won the toss and Coach [Bill] Parcells elected to take the wind, which wasn't a very common decision because, face it, you kick in the first quarter you're not going to have it in the second quarter.
"But that's what he decided to do and we were able to really take advantage of that situation against the Redskins. We got three stops and 17 points. We had a 17-0 lead at the end of the first quarter in part due to the wind. Good defense and good offense helped of course, but the field position was huge, and [17-0] ended up being the final score of the game."
New England took the timeout against Miami. Directly after, quarterback Tom Brady threw an incomplete pass to Danny Amendola and the clock stopped again. Gostkowski nailed the go-ahead field goal, then boomed a 65-yarder toward the Dolphins for a touchback.
The Patriots entered the fourth quarter up 20-17 and never looked back.
Said Belichick: "That was a good lesson."