At the end of the first half of the Pats-Ravens game the Patriots made a somewhat baffling decision to take a knee. The Pats still had two timeouts and if anyone can move a team down the field in under a minute, it’s Tom Brady.
The Ravens were content to let the Pats run out the clock, but had they been a bit more on the ball they probably could have forced a shot at a fair catch kick with an outside chance of blocking the punt for a TD or safety.
The Ravens took 2 timeouts into the locker room with them after Tom Brady knelt at his own 9 yard line with 16 seconds left. Had Baltimore taken a TO there it would have put the Pats in a 3rd and 11 situation with 15-16 second left and forced them to run another play. Had the Pats taken another knee the Ravens could have used their final timeout to force a punt from the Patriot 9 yard line or so.
Zoltan Mesko had 2 punts on the day for a 36.5 yard average with a long of 53. Assuming Mesko hit a 37 yard punt with the line of scrimmage as the 9 yard line, this would have put the ball at the Patriot 46 yard line, allowing Billy Cundiff a shot at a 56 yard-fair-catch kick. While Cundiff obviously struggled and is, by all accounts a substandard kicker, this would have been very low risk, and since the defending team may not attempt to block a fair catch kick, even poor kickers have extended range when trying them.
It is possible that once the Ravens started taking timeouts that the Pats would run some plays instead of merely taking a knee, but that also plays into the Ravens’ favor as it increases the chances for a turnover.
I should also acknowledge that forcing the Pats to punt is not without risk to the Ravens. The 49ers went out of their way to prove that. That said, the risk to the Pats is much higher.
In a fair catch kick situation, the returning team does not need gunners, just one or two returners to ensure that a fair catch can be made.* Everyone else can go all out for a block. This can lead to blocks and rushed, bad punts. A team trying to prevent a fair catch kick does have a few options. They can punt the ball out of bounds; however with over ten seconds remaining there is no guaranty that this will drain the entire clock. They can also attempt to kick away from the returners, but this increases the chances of a shorter kick.
It would have been very difficult for the Pats to prevent a fair catch kick once they kneeled themselves into 3rd down. Even kicking it out of bounds would have probably allowed the Ravens a long field goal attempt.
I’m a big fan of any weird NFL rule and there may not be any weirder rule than the fair catch kick. The Ravens deserved to lose for denying us the opportunity to see it.
*It's a good idea to put two players back there. You should have one player deep to field a standard punt, and one short to prevents a squib in an attempt to run out the clock (or an outright shank).
5 minutes ago