FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Situational football. It’s a term you’ll hear Bill Belichick and Tom Brady use often in their news conferences, and it was an area Sunday that best illustrated the differences between an elite team like the 3-0 New England Patriots and a struggling team like the 0-3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
That difference was most evident in a sequence just before halftime. With the Patriots inside the Bucs’ 10-yard line and just under a minute before the end of the second quarter, the Bucs called a timeout, hoping to leave enough time on the clock after the Patriots scored to at least try to get into field goal territory.
Two plays later, the Patriots were in the end zone to go up 14-3.
Tampa Bay got the ball back and went to work, advancing to their own 31-yard line before calling their second timeout with 17 seconds left in the half. Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman targeted Vincent Jackson on his next pass near the right sideline, but Pats cornerback Aqib Talib dove in front of him for an interception.
That gave New England the ball at the Bucs’ 43-yard line with 11 seconds to work with. Tom Brady connected with Brandon Bolden on a 3-yard pass and the Patriots called their second timeout with 6 seconds on the clock and the ball at the Tampa 40-yard line.
If they had stopped there, Stephen Gostkowski would have been stuck with a 58-yard field goal attempt, a bit out of his range. Instead, Brady on the next play kept the ball and rushed ahead behind his right guard, gaining another 5 yards for Gostkowski to work with and calling the team’s last timeout with 3 seconds before the half.
“Obviously, what we were trying to do is get the ball as close as we could into field goal range,” Belichick said after the game. “Where we had it there was on like the 40 or 41, it would have been 57-, 58-yard field goal with a strong crosswind. Each yard to get a little bit closer would increase our percentages on that. We only had, I think it was six seconds on the clock, so we didn’t have a lot of time to run a play and call timeout, so we had to do something pretty direct, get as many yards as we could in a short amount of time and take a timeout.”
On came Gostkowski, who nailed the 53-yard attempt to match his career high and send the Patriots in the locker room with a 17-3 lead. Had it gone the other way, the Bucs could have been within one score of the Pats and set to get the ball to start the third quarter.
“Coach always talks about those really important situational football plays that when you actually get a chance to finish the play, we finish the play,” Brady said. “It was a great field goal attempt -- kick, blocking, snapping -- and a huge momentum play going in, with the interception, make two good positive plays and then a great kick to go into the half with three points.
Gostkowski, it should be noted, was 3-for-3 on field goal attempts Sunday and all five of his kickoffs were touchbacks. On the season, 14 of his 15 kickoffs have been touchbacks.
His 53-yarder and the plays that set it up were far from the only example of the Patriots winning the game of situational football (the Bucs were also 0-for-4 on fourth down and 0-for-2 in the red zone), but it was the one that sticks out the most.
“I thought our situational football was better: third down, red area, fourth down, kicking game,” Belichick said. “I thought we made some improvement this week; that was good to see.”