Analytics supported Bill Belichick going for 2 in New England Patriots' defeat

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Last season, when New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was asked how much he relies on analytics when deciding to go for it on fourth down or elect for a 2-point conversion, he decisively answered, "less than zero."

Maybe he's suddenly embraced it after all.

Belichick, 68, made a fourth-quarter decision to go for a 2-point conversion that might have seemed puzzling to many in Sunday's 18-12 loss to the Denver Broncos, but it was strongly supported by analytics.

After Cam Newton scored on a 1-yard run to slice the deficit to 18-9 with 8:31 remaining, some might have said the obvious decision would be to kick the extra point and make it a one-possession game. But Belichick chose otherwise.

His explanation?

"We thought it was the best thing to do at that point," he said.

Belichick, as is often the case, didn't elaborate on what could have sparked an educational discussion on strategy. It was a situation similar to what unfolded in the Dallas Cowboys' Week 2 win against the Atlanta Falcons when coach Mike McCarthy went for a 2-point conversion after slicing a deficit to 39-30 with 4:57 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Here's why Belichick's decision is widely supported by sports analytics:

Given the situation the Patriots were in, they probably were going to have to convert a 2-point conversion at some point in the fourth quarter -- whether it was after Newton's touchdown, or the next one they hoped to score.

So the thinking is that it's better for Belichick to find out after the first TD (with 8:31 remaining) if the Patriots are down two scores or one score, and thus, they can adjust their strategy accordingly.

In other words, because their 2-point conversion failed, the Patriots now had the important information they needed to play aggressively, because two scores would be required to win the game.

The alternative, converting a successful point-after attempt, would have left them trailing 18-10 and not knowing if they ultimately needed one score or two. They might have put together a methodical drive to try to tie the score, only to find out they needed two scores all along if they missed the 2-point attempt.

Whether one agrees or not, that is the essence of what Belichick was considering in a surprisingly disappointing day for him and his team.

Last year, when the topic of sports analytics was broached with Belichick, he called his approach more of "an individual analysis based on the things that are pertinent to that game and that situation." He added that analytics are "not really my thing" before cracking, "I like math, by the way."

The decision to go for 2 wasn't Belichick's only fourth-quarter call under the microscope.

Not throwing a challenge flag on running back James White's 2-yard run on third-and-3 early in the fourth quarter with New England trailing 18-3 -- a play that was run in the direction of the Patriots' sideline -- seemed puzzling.

Officials appeared to incorrectly spot the ball short of the first-down marker, and despite the Patriots still having all three timeouts, Belichick kept the challenge flag in his sock. This seemed like a notable breakdown in whatever internal process Belichick has instituted for challenges (e.g. Ernie Adams calling down from upstairs, etc.).

Asked after the game if he thought about challenging the spot, Belichick simply said, "No, not really."

When he watches the replay, he might reconsider why that was the decision, and decide if there is something that can be done to avoid a similar situation in the future.

Asked late Monday afternoon if he feels good about the team's internal process with challenges, Belichick said: "Yeah, I do. It's nice to be able to sit up there and watch replay after replay and have unlimited challenges, but that's not just the way it is. We don't have unlimited challenges. We challenged the touchdown -- the quarterback sneak on the touchdown. We thought that was enough to overturn it."

Another questionable decision by Belichick came late in the third quarter when he declined an illegal-hands-to-the-face penalty on third down that would have pushed the Broncos out of field-goal range. Instead, kicker Brandon McManus, who was hot, drilled a 54-yard field goal to increase Denver's lead to 18-3.

"That's right on the edge there, it could have gone either way. We went with what we went with, and they made a good kick," Belichick said.

An argument could also be made that Belichick could have challenged Tim Patrick's 35-yard catch on third-and-21 in the third quarter. Patrick might not have gotten his second foot in bounds.

It was reflective of a day in which the Patriots needed to tighten things up -- on the field, and extending to the head coach on the sideline.

"There are a lot of close plays out there," Belichick said. "If you challenge all of them, then you run out of timeouts, run out of challenges and everything else. You have to pick out the ones that you think are the right ones and [it's] certainly an unscientific process. I feel like we take the information and do the best we can. I'm sure it could be done better. I'm sure other people could manage it better, but we'll just do the best we can."