Patriots Lead NFL in Goal-Line Stands Under Bill Belichick

The ending to Super Bowl XLIX instantly became part of NFL lore with Malcolm Butler's interception of an ill-advised slant pass from the run-based Seahawks. I already said my piece on the call. My strategy was for Seattle to commit to four Marshawn Lynch runs with 1:06 and one timeout remaining, snapping the ball from the no-huddle on second down anytime under 40 seconds to ensure three more plays (if necessary).

Seattle quickly turned a situation with a win probability of 0.88 into essentially a guaranteed loss in the span of two plays. How often does the defense hold up in these dire situations? My research on comebacks and game-winning drives is still largely in drive format, so I used the Play Finder at Pro-Football-Reference to search plays from 1998 to 2014 (playoffs included).

Looking for situations similar to Seattle's drive, I looked at offenses that had a first down at the opponent 5-yard line (or better) in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter, trailing by 1-8 points. A total of 93 teams won the game in this situation, including 57 teams that trailed by 4-8 points and had to score a touchdown.

I was more interested in the 67 teams that lost the game, producing an overall record of 93-67 (.581) and 57-55 (.509) when trailing by 4-8 points. Of those 67 offenses, 34 achieved the goal of scoring a touchdown. However, eight of those teams failed to connect on the game-tying two-point conversion and two more botched the extra point attempt, making Joey Harrington quite sad in the process. The other 24 teams lost due to a game-winning drive by the opponent, either in the fourth quarter or in overtime. Well, technically Matt Schaub (2010) and Matt Hasselbeck (this again?) lost in overtime thanks to a pick-six, but you get the point.

Six more teams settled for a game-tying field goal thanks to being down by three points. They all lost in overtime.

That leaves 27 teams that failed to score, including one team that was only down three points. In Week 9 this season, Colin Kaepernick fumbled a quarterback sneak at the 1-yard line in the final seconds after a clusterfudge of officiating probably cost the 49ers a win against the Rams.

Here is the table of the 27 stops, sorted by ascending time left when the team had a first down. The LOS is where the team had the ball on first down.

Goal-Line Stands: Facing a First Down Inside the 5-Yard Line in Final Two Minutes
Date OFF DEF Time LOS Trail by End Result Type of Stop
9/8/2011 NO GB 0:00 1 8 Stuffed at GB 1 w/0:00 left (untimed down) Run stuff/clock
11/12/2000 JAC SEA 0:00 1 7 Incomplete on 1st-and-1 w/0:00 left (untimed down) Incomplete/clock
10/25/1999 ATL PIT 0:02 5 4 Incomplete on 2nd-and-5 w/0:00 left Incomplete/clock
12/11/2011 TEN NO 0:07 5 5 Sacked on 3rd-and-5 w/0:00 left Sack/clock
10/9/2011 HOU OAK 0:08 5 5 INT on 2nd-and-5 w/0:00 left INT
12/11/2011 MIN DET 0:09 1 6 Sack/fumble w/0:00 left Fumble
12/23/2012 PHI WAS 0:11 5 7 Intentional grounding on 2nd-and-5 ends game Incomplete/clock
11/20/2011 JAC CLE 0:13 2 4 Incomplete on 3rd-and-1 w/0:00 left Incomplete/clock
11/10/2008 SF ARI 0:21 1 5 1-yd run on 3rd-and-2 w/0:00 left Run stuff/clock
9/18/2005 ARI STL 0:27 5 5 10-second runoff for false start ends game 10-second runoff
11/30/2003 IND NE 0:40 2 4 1-yd loss on 4th-and-1 run w/0:11 left Run stuff
11/2/2014 SF STL 0:42 2 3 Fumble at 1-yd line on quarterback sneak w/0:02 left Fumble
11/27/2011 IND CAR 0:43 3 8 INT on 2nd-and-3 w/0:35 left INT
12/22/2013 GB PIT 0:43 5 7 False start; Incomplete on 2nd-and-6 w/0:00 left Incomplete/clock
11/5/2000 NYJ DEN 0:49 2 7 Incomplete on 4th-and-2 w/0:31 left Incomplete/downs
9/7/2008 KC NE 0:53 5 7 Incomplete on 4th-and-5 w/0:37 left Incomplete/downs
11/13/2005 MIA NE 0:58 5 7 Incomplete on 4th-and-10 w/0:36 left Incomplete/downs
9/23/2007 WAS NYG 0:58 1 7 2-yd loss on 4th-and-1 run w/0:20 left Run stuff
11/24/2002 CIN PIT 0:59 5 8 Incomplete on 4th-and-5 w/0:42 left Incomplete/downs
11/25/2007 STL SEA 1:03 4 5 Botched snap on 4th-and-1; tackled at opp 5 w/0:27 left Botched snap/downs
2/1/2015 SEA NE 1:06 5 4 INT on 2nd-and-1 w/0:20 left INT
9/13/2010 SD KC 1:14 4 7 Incomplete on 4th-and-6 w/0:33 left Incomplete/downs
12/29/2002 ATL CLE 1:23 4 8 No gain on 4th-and-1 run w/0:23 left Run stuff/downs
11/7/2004 CLE BAL 1:24 5 7 Pick-six on 2nd-and-5 w/0:26 left INT
1/2/2005 OAK JAC 1:24 3 7 Botched snap on 4th-and-2; tackled at opp 7 w/0:08 left Botched snap/downs
11/6/2005 NYJ SD 1:40 3 5 Incomplete on 4th-and-3 w/0:53 left Incomplete/downs
10/7/2007 ATL TEN 2:00 1 7 Sacked on 4th-and-4 w/1:00 left Sack/downs

The first thing that stands out is the Patriots have had four of these stops, the most of any team. The first was very memorable with Willie McGinest accused of faking an injury in Indianapolis only to return for the game-winning stuff of Edgerrin James on fourth down. That really started a rivalry and helped the 2003 Patriots earn the No. 1 seed in the AFC. They also stopped pass-heavy Miami in 2005, Kansas City's Damon Huard in 2008 in the game Tom Brady was injured and of course the Super Bowl stop. So Bill Belichick has seen his defense rise to the occasion more than any other defense has since 1998.

New England accounts for four of the 17 stops where the opponent had at least 40 seconds to work with. The other 10 teams had fewer than 30 seconds, which really limits the options in play-calling. We even saw two untimed downs serve as the offenses' only shot, including the Saints in the 2011 season opener at Green Bay. Mark Ingram was stuffed at the 1-yard line. Eight of the 10 offenses with fewer than 30 seconds saw the clock play a direct factor in stopping them. Just ask the 2013 Packers about how tough the clock can get. Against the Steelers, a false start with 22 seconds left led to a running clock that resulted in Matt Flynn not getting the second-down play off until three seconds left, making it a final-ditch effort.

Russell Wilson joins Curtis Painter, Matt Schaub and Jeff Garcia as the only four quarterbacks to throw an interception. You might recall Ed Reed returning Garcia's pick for a 106-yard touchdown in 2004. Joe Webb (sacked) joins Kaepernick as the only players to lose a fumble.

The Jets appear twice, largely ignoring Curtis Martin on the ground in both situations despite having enough time to use him. That's more acceptable when Vinny Testaverde is the quarterback compared to Brooks Bollinger. But one of the bigger blunders on this list was Byron Leftwich fumbling the ball on first down at the 1-yard line, setting up a second-and-9 situation in 2007. Some help from the offense is always welcomed by the defense in these desperate moments.

I just wonder if Pete Carroll let the 2012 Falcons beat him twice. One of the aforementioned 34 games where the offense scored the touchdown and lost was Seattle in the 2012 playoffs. Lynch scored on first down from two yards away with 31 seconds left to take a 28-27 lead, but Matt Ryan led a game-winning drive. Maybe Carroll let that change his future strategy. This was different though since the Patriots likely would have just played for overtime where the Seahawks have been impressive with Wilson.

We observed that over 75 percent of the time, the offense in need of a touchdown in this goal-line situation scores the touchdown. Given the time Seattle had left and the presence of Lynch, that just makes this particular Super Bowl-winning goal-line stand that more extraordinary.


13 comments, Last at 08 Feb 2015, 7:43pm

#1 by PaddyPat // Feb 05, 2015 - 10:47pm

It would be interesting (though silly-small sample size) to see how many opportunities NE defenses have had under Belichick to make the stop vs. the 4 stops they've made. I have reminded folks on these comment threads of the 2003 stand in trying to assert that it was POSSIBLE that the Patriots could have held even if Seattle had just run. That stand was a heck of a thing to watch live.

Points: 0

#2 by Scott Kacsmar // Feb 05, 2015 - 10:55pm

Three times the Patriots allowed the touchdown and lost the game.

You probably could have guessed at least two of them since we reference them quite a bit here. One was the 4th-and-2 game. Manning threw the touchdown to Wayne after Addai was stuffed. Then in 2011, the Giants had a first down at the 1 and Eli finished on third down with the touchdown to Jake Ballard. That's the only 4QC allowed in NE since 2001.

The first one predates Belichick. It was Damon Huard coming off the bench for an injured Marino in 1999 and throwing a 5-yard touchdown pass to Stanley Pritchett in a 31-30 win.

So Huard got two cracks at the Pats from the 5-yard line, but things didn't work out with the Chiefs in 2008.

Points: 0

#3 by PaddyPat // Feb 06, 2015 - 12:56am

Thanks so much for the quick, thoughtful reply. I know I've said it elsewhere in another thread, but Scott, I really appreciate your conscientious diligence in replying to your humble commenters.

Great piece looking at an interesting issue. Goal line stands are rarely the prism through which we view football (invariably railroaded to think in terms of offense). I guess the next question would be looking for correlations between power situation defense and goal line stands... though I would infer that samples are laughably tiny.

Points: 0

#4 by dryheat // Feb 06, 2015 - 7:24am

That's because due to illicit recording and video study, they know what the opponent is going to run. And they over-inflate the opponent's balls, making them harder to hold onto in the run game and throw in the passing game. Me and my children could make a goal line stand if we had that going for us. Those four victories are clearly tainted.

Points: 0

#7 by johonny // Feb 06, 2015 - 12:28pm

Dumb spygate question but did the Patriots success rate change after spygate or not? Of course given camera technology is so much better now than 2007... have they ever stopped? Why would they given the penalty to reward ratio?

Points: 0

#10 by Scott Kacsmar // Feb 06, 2015 - 4:03pm

Not mentioned: Jason Campbell actually spiked the ball on first down at the 1-yard line against the 2007 Giants. The spike probably came with 51-52 seconds left (0:58 has to be a PBP error), but that's still a big waste of a down. I wonder if Joe Gibbs told the offense to do that.

But just imagine if Washington scored there and won in OT to drop the Giants to 0-3. Might have really changed some NFL history.

Points: 0

#13 by RobertSachs // Feb 08, 2015 - 7:43pm

Now that you have analyzed how great the Patriots are at goal line stands why don't you do a by team analysis on the number of carries per fumble since Tom Brady & Peyton Manning convinced the league to let the teams have control over the footballs.


Points: 0

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