FOXBORO — One yard could have changed everything.
Facing fourth-and-1 from the Denver 26-yard line with six minutes to play in the 2015 AFC Championship Game, the Patriots desperately needed to convert in order to help rally from a 20-12 fourth-quarter deficit.
The offense lined up with three receivers, a tight end and a running back, as Julian Edelman motioned from the left to the right before quarterback Tom Brady took the snap. The offensive line moved right to simulate zone blocking movement, and Brady play-faked to running back Steven Jackson as Denver outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware provided heavy pressure. Edelman ran horizontally back across the left as Brady lofted a pass his way, but Broncos defensive backs Chris Harris and Aqib Talib snuffed out the completion for a loss of a yard.
Turnover on downs, Broncos’ ball, and although the Pats scored later, had they converted earlier, maybe they emerge from Denver with a berth in Super Bowl L instead of a 20-18 loss. Maybe then the Pats are even looking at a possible Super Bowl four-peat this season.
But the reality is that not being able to travel the shortest distance can make the greatest difference. Football coaches at every level know this, and at the outset of this season, the Patriots have been failing at an alarming rate.
The sample size may be small, but through three games, the Pats have had six chances to get a single yard on either third down or when they have decided to go for it on fourth. They’ve converted just once, an average of 16.7 percent.
Although that number is likely to go up, efficiency in such situations matters, and coach Bill Belichick knows it.
“If you can’t get a yard in this league, then that’s going to eventually catch up to you,” Belichick said last week. “It already has, but it will continue to be a problem if we’re not able to get that yard offensively.”
Sometimes Belichick will scoff at a statistic, suggesting that numbers aren’t necessarily worth looking at when it comes to the business of winning and losing. He’s right, but he also knows not every stat is meaningless.
When it comes to picking up a single yard on third or fourth down, he has a very specific one in mind.
“Defensively, percentages are with the offense in that situation, so a stop there is a big stop,” Belichick said. “But, realistically, you’re not going to be 80 percent on defense in that situation. Offensively, that’s where you’d like to be.”
So if 80…