In the NFL, teams only get a dozen or so possessions each game with which to score points. Unfortunately, most coaches never remember that until they've wasted most of them. In the fourth quarter, conservative-to-a-fault coaches who punted away points and dawdled minutes off the clock become desperate, reckless aggressors.
Every week at VICE Sports, Inopportune Knocks will take a hard look at first-half opportunities NFL teams passed up—sealing their second-half fates.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS 26, DETROIT LIONS 16
This NFC North matchup had big implications for both playoff-hopeful sides. The winner would be one game ahead of both the loser and the Chicago Bears, not to mention gain a big tiebreaker advantage.
The Lions, three-point underdogs on the road, were struggling to get anything going. The Vikings weren't blowing their doors off, but were steadily outclassing Detroit, going up 14-0 just after the start of the second quarter.
In response, the Lions mounted a 14-play, seven-plus-minute drive that ended in—wait for it—a field goal.
Since their first two possessions netted a whopping 29 yards of forward motion, the opportunity to sit on the Vikings' eight-yard line — with a first down possible at the two — should have been treated like a precious jewel. Instead, on 4th-and-6, Caldwell kicked the sure-thing field goal to 'stay in the game.'
Let's see what Brian Burke's Win Probability Calculator says about that situation:
Win Probability: 14 percent
Adjusted Win Probability: 11 percent
First Down Success Rate: 21 percent
Field Goal Success Rate: 95 percent
At 0.11 Adjusted WP, the Lions really aren't in the game: they've got about a one-in-ten shot of climbing out of the hole they've dug themselves. Sure, kicker Matt Prater might hit that chip shot 19 out of 20 times, or better, but three points won't—and didn't—help. After the field goal, the Lions' WP remained 14 percent, and AWP remained 11 percent.
Had the Lions converted and scored the touchdown, their WP would have jumped to 28 percent, and AWP to 22 percent: They'd have a fighting chance.
I know, I know: what about the risk? It's all about risk aversion with football people, and sure, the Lions had a 79 percent risk of failing. But if they failed, their AP would have fallen from 14 percent to 11 percent, and AWP from 11 percent to 8 percent.
Let's say you had fourteen dollars to your name, but really badly needed to raise $100 by the end of the day. Would you buy a $3 lottery ticket with 1:5 odds of winning $17—doubling your money and putting you almost a third of the way toward your goal? Or would you keep the $3 in your pocket and hope to get much luckier later?
With one of just three red-zone drives he'd get all day, Jim Caldwell passed up an opportunity to double his chances of winning to cling to a rounding-error's worth of hope.
OAKLAND RAIDERS 37, BALTIMORE RAVENS 33
The Oakland Raiders beating the Baltimore Ravens wasn't the biggest upset of the day, but it might have been the most surprising.
Any time you host an opponent favored by six points or more, as the Raiders were, you know you're at a huge talent disadvantage, or at least the perception of one. Yet towards the end of the first half, the Raiders were tied with the Ravens at 17, and marching deep into Baltimore territory.
The Raiders came up short on a 3rd-and-10, leaving them at the Baltimore 28, six yards shy of the sticks. Apparently waffling on whether to send the big-legged Sebastian Janikowski out for the field goal, head coach Jack Del Rio called a timeout to ruminate, before sending the 15-year veteran out to do his thing.
Here's a situation that transcends the WP calculator:
Win Probability: 54 percent
Adjusted Win Probability: 41 percent
First Down Success Rate: 45 percent
Field Goal Success Rate: 66 percent
On a 48-yard field goal attempt, the nominal success rate is 66 percent. In this high-pressure situation, per the WP calculator, it's more like 53 percent (though Janikowski is historically better-than-average at long-distance kicks).
The conversion rate of 4th-and-6 from here is quite high — 45 percent. A successful conversion raises raw WP from 54 percent to 63 percent, while going for it and failing drops raw WP from 54 percent to 45 percent. There's more to gain than to lose, but it's slightly more likely you lose than gain. The 4th-down calculator calls it a wash, basically.
With both offenses moving the ball well and scoring, the Raiders gave the Ravens a three-point deficit, the ball and two minutes to equalize. That's exactly what happened: Baltimore accepted the invitation, drove into Raiders territory and kicked a field goal as time expired, nullifying the Raiders' brief lead.
As safe as kicking a field goal seems, the downside to Janikowski's 48-yard try was severe: missing the kick wouldn't just whiff on three points, but give the Ravens the ball on their own 35-yard line with 2:00 left. The Ravens' Adjusted WP in that situation would climb from 54 percent (after a make) to 68 percent (after a miss)!
That's why going for it actually had less downside than kicking the field goal. Between the possibility of gaining some yards while going for the conversion and the field position lost by the field goal attempt's snap and hold, a missed kick would have given the Ravens a significantly better chance of coming back and scoring. And, of course, had the Raiders converted, they could have run the clock down to nearly nothing before kicking from a much surer distance.
But, wait, the Raiders ended up winning, right?
Yes — partially thanks to John Harbaugh.
After Janikowski's boot to make it 20-17, the Ravens drove from their own 20 to the Raiders' 3-yard line. Thanks to an Oakland penalty, Baltimore had a 1st-and-goal with seven seconds left. The Raiders had laid down and placed the Ravens' boot on their own throat:
Win Probability: 63 percent
Adjusted Win Probability: 78 percent
Touchdown Success Rate: 39 percent
Field Goal Success Rate: 99 percent
But at the start of the second half, the Ravens' Adjusted WP plummeted from 78 percent to just 64 percent. What happened? They kicked a field goal!
By turning down the chance to take a four-point lead and then immediately get the ball back, the Ravens let the Raiders stay in the game. Had the Ravens punched it in, their AWP would have jumped to an all-over-but-the-shouting 0.84.
But by being conservative, John Harbaugh let the Raiders live to fight another drive—and ultimately lost the game by the four points he turned down here.
DALLAS COWBOYS 20, PHILADELPHIA EAGLES 10
This game defies a lot of conventional analysis. The Eagles were four-point favorites at home and never played like it, while Dallas came in limping and went out on life support. Nevertheless, the Cowboys pulled off a critical upset win that might have kept their division title hopes from flatlining.
It's worth revisiting a goal-line stand the Cowboys had in the first quarter, though, because they turned down a chance to take a commanding lead when every number and chart was screaming for it.
Tight end Gavin Escobar fell just short of the goal line inside three minutes, and the Cowboys blew a challenge hoping to show he'd scored. After the challenge failed, the Cowboys took three shots at the end zone from the Eagles' one-yard line—then kicked a field goal.
Here are Burke's modeled odds from 1st-and-goal at the one at that point:
Win Probability: 63 percent
Adjusted Win Probability: 78 percent
Touchdown Success Rate: 55 percent
Field Goal Success Rate: > 99 percent
If you have a weighted coin with a 55/45 heads/tails split, and you flip it four times, your chances of getting at least one heads is 91.5 percent. In this case, if the Cowboys get one "heads"—a touchdown—they get an AWP of 0.58, despite their assumed talent disadvantage. By trying three times, then tucking their tails between their legs and kicking a field goal, the Cowboys accepted an AWP of just 0.45.
The New York Times' 4th-down bot covered its little automaton eyes and hung its head in shame:
"The coach's decision to attempt a field goal is the right call if you think the Cowboys' chances of converting on fourth down are less than 11 percent. But based on my analysis, I'd give the Cowboys a 51 percent chance to get a first down here."
Of course, the Cowboys went on to win—but that's clearly in spite of, not because of, this inopportune decision.
OPENING THE DOOR
Early on Thursday Night Football, the Denver Broncos had netted just 17 yards from their first two possessions. On the third, they finally drove into Chiefs territory. Perhaps sensing they wouldn't be getting many chances against that stout defense, they went for it on 2nd-and-2 from the Kansas City 23.
Then they went for it on 3rd-and-1 from the Kansas City 22.
Then they went for it on 4th-and-1 from the Kansas City 22.
They didn't make it, but with both teams still scoreless a few minutes into the second quarter, the opportunity to extend the drive was too precious to turn down. Per the 4th-down calculator, NFL teams typically convert 74 percent of the time from this situation, and both the WP and Expected Points model point strongly towards going for it.
The Broncos didn't win because of Kubiak's correct decision, of course, but it was the right call to make.
If Caldwell and the Lions lost the game when they meekly took the edge off the Minnesota Vikings' 14-0 first-half lead, the Vikings might have won it upon taking that lead to begin with.
After starting with a 1st-and-goal from the Lions' six-yard line, the Vikings faced a 4th-and-1. As was the case with the Cowboys, a typical goal-to-go attempt from the one has better-than-even odds of success.
At that point, the Vikings had an AWP of 0.86. Had they failed, it would have dropped to 0.78—but after they succeeded, it went up to 0.92. Mike Zimmer's early-game aggression, pressing a big advantage, paid big dividends.