FOXBOROUGH – It's not like the Patriots never go for it on fourth down.
In fact, you can almost guarantee that if New England has a fourth-and-short situation near midfield or in an opponent's territory, Bill Belichickis going to call for a Tom BradyQB sneak. And more often than not, Brady's going to get it, by a mile.
However, in the middle of the third quarter, with the ball on New England's own 24-yard line, and leading Atlanta 16-10, and needing just a yard, yet with Brady and the offense continuing to struggle with their consistency, you had to figure Belichick was just trying to mess with the Falcons' heads. Brady would go to the line of scrimmage and try to draw Atlanta's defense offside, and if that failed, he'd call time out and the Pats would punt.
Um … no.
Belichick called a play. And it wasn't a Brady sneak. And one way or another, it was probably going to be the turning point of the game. If the Patriots make it, they give their offense a much-needed boost of confidence and keep the ball away from the Falcons' potent offense. Come up short and Atlanta has the ball on the threshold of New England's red zone.
The Patriots came to the line with an obvious run formation. Linemen in short splits. An extra tight end. Two backs behind Brady. Sammy Morris, a virtual ghost so far this season, was the up back. His job was to be the lead blocker, right?
Brady took the snap, took a step back, pivoted to his right, and quickly handed off to Morris, who buried his head into the mess of bodies at the point of attack. Churning his legs and twisting his body toward any opening he could find, Morris finally hit the ground at the New England 26. First down, Patriots.
"The short-yardage in our own end, you know … felt like we could get a yard," Belichick said matter-of-factly after the game. "I'm sure there would have been plenty of criticism if we didn't. But we were able to get that and hold on to the ball, if I'm not mistaken, for pretty much the rest of the third quarter."
They did just that, but not before another fourth-down situation presented itself. This time, the Pats were on the Falcons' 37-yard line, needing three yards for a first with under a minute to go in the third quarter.
To that point, Brady had misfired on 13 passes, many of which were overthrown to wide-open receivers. However, buoyed by their brazen fourth-down attempt, they gave it another try.
Standing in the shotgun, Brady took the snap and looked downfield to his right, where wide receiver Randy Mosswas streaking past his single-man defender. Brady lofted a perfect pass to Moss' outside shoulder, where only he could grab it. Moss made the catch and tiptoed out of bounds with a 21-yard gain.
The drive ultimately culminated in a Stephen Gostkowskifield goal, his fourth of the game, at the start of the fourth quarter. But more importantly, the drive injected the struggling Patriots offense with the confidence it had been lacking thus far this season. From that moment on, the offense clicked.
"I can't recall a moment like that," said running back Fred Tayloras he addressed reporters at the post-game podium.
"But I do recall Coach standing here, saying how there'll come a point in the season when we're going to have to go for it and we'll have to get it. And I'm glad we got it. Just trying to do whatever it takes to win the game. As an offensive guy, you want to establish that momentum, look over across the ball and see the frustration on the defensive guys' faces. It fires you up to keep going."
"Yeah, you don't see that very often," guard Logan Mankinsnoted. "Bill saw that good things were happening out there. I'm sure glad we didn't disappoint him.
"Those are tough situations in games and that can turn the game either way," Mankins added. "If you get it, it feeds your team. If we'd have screwed that one up, it would have electrified the other team."
Clearly, that drive demoralized the Falcons. Facing three fourth downs of their own in the fourth quarter, all inside their own 40-yard line, Atlanta lacked the same confidence that New England had and punted each time. Needing two scores to stay in the game, the Falcons decided, instead, to surrender. With seven minutes to go in the game, they gave up the ball for the final time. New England ran down the clock from there.
"They were big," center Dan Koppenremarked about the two fourth-down conversions in that third-quarter drive.
"Bill's got a lot of confidence to make those calls to go for it. And we've got to give him the confidence to do that."
The way the Patriots offense performed thereafter, they may have finally found what they'd been missing.