Pete Carroll’s confounding last-minute play call Sunday night will be dissected, debated and mocked for as long they play Super Bowls. It might have been prodded by a sneaky-brilliant decision by Bill Belichick.
With 1 minute, 6 seconds seconds left and the Seahawks down by four points, Marshawn Lynch rumbled to the 1-yard line on first down. The Patriots possessed two timeouts, and the Seahawks had one left. The clock ticked down, and at first it appeared odd for Belichick not to exhaust one of his timeouts. With the Seahawks on the doorstep, New England needed to conserve seconds for a desperation drive in response.
Belichick’s choice to not use a timeout, though, made life more difficult for the Seahawks by complicating their play-calling options. It may have even convinced them to throw their ill-fated pass on second down.
Imagine Belichick had called a timeout in hopes of saving seconds for Tom Brady. The Seahawks would have had enough time to hand off the ball three times without fear of the clock running out, particularly because they had a timeout of their own.
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But with Belichick allowing the clock to tick, Seattle’s calculus became more complex, especially as they used almost the entire play clock. They did not snap the ball until there were 26 seconds left in the game. If Seattle ran on second down and the Patriots stuffed them, the Seahawks would have needed to use their final timeout immediately, with about 20 seconds remaining.
The situation would have dictated their ensuing third down. The Seahawks would have no choice but to pass, or else they would have risked the clock running out on their season. The Patriots would have known this, too, which would have made the play far easier to defend. On a potential fourth down, the Seahawks would have had their entire playbook at their disposal.
It’s possible, if not likely, that Carroll passed on second down because he didn’t want to be in a position where the Patriots knew they would pass on third down. And that reality arose because Belichick kept his timeouts holstered.
Belichick would have known that Carroll didn’t want to box himself in on a possible third down, which is how the Patriots could have anticipated that second-down pass that Malcolm Butler intercepted to ice the game. Even with the ball on the goal line, the Patriots used three cornerbacks on the field. The third? Butler.
It should be noted that the Seahawks’ suboptimal clock management contributed to their downfall. After Jermaine Kearse’s circus catch set up Seattle with a first-and-goal at the 5, the Seahawks burned their second timeout because they didn’t get a play to Wilson quickly enough. That timeout could have made Belichick not calling one moot. And as noted above, the Seahawks took too long after Lynch’s first-down run.
Anyone could still argue the Seahawks should have relied on their strength and given the ball to Lynch or let Russell Wilson run a zone-read play at the 1. Studying all of the permutations of the clock could be overthinking it. But as you rip Carroll for not running the ball at the goal line, credit Belichick for making him have to consider it, for making a tiny decision that had an enormous impact.
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