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.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS 26, CHICAGO BEARS 20
After three weeks, the Chicago Bears were done. Sitting at 0-3, coming off a 26-0 mollywhopping by the Seattle Seahawks, whatever delusions they'd had about contending in a year when they fired the head coach, general manager, and just about everybody else had withered and collapsed.
So they traded off two theoretically key defenders: pass-rusher Jared Allen, miscast as a linebacker in new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's defense, and inside linebacker Jon Bostic. The white flag had been raised, the fire sale was underway…
…And then the Bears defense somehow got much better, and the team started piling up wins. After giving up an average of 35 points in those first three games, they allowed just 19.9 over their next eight. Coming into Week 13, the 5-6 Bears were still within striking distance of a Wild Card berth, with the woeful, 3-8 49ers were coming into their building.
When the Bears defense forced a three-and-out on the game's opening possession, and Bryce Callahan returned the ensuing punt for touchdown, it seemed the rout was already on. The return touchdown was called back on a penalty, but the Bears offense quickly chewed up 36 of the 59 yards remaining between them and the end zone. On 3rd-and-3 from the 49ers' 23-yard line, Cutler hit Martellus Bennett short of the sticks, bringing up 4th-and-2:
Win Probability: 56 percent
Adjusted Win Probability: 80 percent
Field Goal Success Rate: 77 percent
Conversion Success Rate: 74 percent
The gap between Win Probability and Adjusted WP is the seven-point spread by which the Bears were favored. They walked in with a 76 percent chance of winning, and the game was breaking even more strongly their way.
Brian Burke's Win Probability Calculator shows the nominal chances of making a 39-yard field goal as nearly equal to the odds of going for it and converting.
A caveat: Robbie Gould has been one of the game's steadiest kickers over the years, so head coach John Fox likely considered this a gimme. But Gould already had misses of 34, 47 and 51 yards on the season, and though Fox couldn't know it, he was about to miss two more against the 49ers. At the end of this game, Gould would be 8-of-10 from 30-39 yards on the season; that 80 percent rate, you'll notice, is right in line with the predicted 77 percent.
Both Burke's WP and EP models insist Fox go for it here; his 4th-Down Calculator pegs the break-even rate at 51 percent and 52 percent, when the average offense converts 74 percent of the time.
Had the Bears converted and extended the drive, their Adjusted WP would have soared to 85 percent—and if they'd scored a touchdown instead of taking the field goal, they wouldn't have lost in overtime.
The Bears aren't mathematically eliminated from the playoffs yet. But at two games behind the red-hot Seattle Seahawks for the last Wild Card spot, Fox's failure to grasp mathematics effectively snuffed out any reasonable postseason hopes.
NEW YORK JETS 23, NEW YORK GIANTS 20
The New York Giants appeared to have this game won throughout much of the second half, and even when they lost their lead in the game's dying seconds, they still had a chance to win.
But their overtime loss may have been sealed way back in the second quarter, when they failed to capitalize on a critical opportunity. The Giants were up 7-3 after punt returner Dwayne Harris bailed out their offense with a return touchdown. Quarterback Eli Manning and company had just been held to another three-and-out, and punted the ball back to the Jets with 11:06 left before halftime.
That's when Jets tailback Chris Ivory fumbled, and Comeback Player of the Year candidate Jason Pierre-Paul pounced on the ball. Eli and company got another gift: Possession on the Jets' 10-yard line.
Orleans Darkwa picked up two yards on first down, and Manning hit Hakeem Nicks for seven yards on the next play. But Andre Williams got pushed back a yard on third down, setting up a 4th-and-2 from the Jets' two.
Win Probability: 74 percent
Adjusted Win Probability: 69 percent
Field Goal Success Rate: > 99 percent
Touchdown Success Rate: 42 percent
The numbers are emphatic here: A 2.5-point underdog, leading by four and holding a 42 percent shot of leading by at least 10, needs to take that chance. EP puts the break-even point at 34 percent, and with halftime approaching WP likes going for it even more, setting the bar at 33 percent.
The nominal touchdown rate here is 42 percent. Should they convert, their Win Probability jumps from 74 percent to 83 percent, and AWP from an already nice 69 percent up to 79 percent. Considering the Giants opened the game with a theoretical 40 percent chance of winning, head coach Tom Coughlin needed to take that chance—and given the futility of the Jets offense to that point, the risk of allowing a 99-yard touchdown drive was incredibly small.
Though the Giants still could have won in overtime, they never should have let it get that far.
OPENING THE DOOR
John Harbaugh, once a regular feature in the what-not-to-do section of this column, has continued to evolve and progress as a fourth-down decision-maker.
After one ugly, scoreless stanza against the Miami Dolphins, Harbaugh's Baltimore Ravens strung together a 14-play drive that led from their own 18-yard line all the way to the Dolphins' two.
After getting stuffed on 3rd-and-1, the Ravens faced a 4th-and-1—again, from the Ravens' two-yard line, so all they really needed to get was a yard to convert. With the score still tied at zero, and a struggling offensive skill group comprised almost entirely of second- and third-teamers, conventional wisdom would tell Harbaugh to be conservative.
That, of course, is where conventional wisdom is flat-out, dead solid wrong: With just a few precious red-zone opportunities a game, it's even more important for a struggling offense to make the most of them.
Had it been 4th-and-2 from the two, this would have been a much different decision; the conversion rate falls from 55 percent to 42 percent, and thus well below the break-even point in both Burke's WP and EP models. But needing just one yard, Harbaugh wisely dialed up a quarterback sneak.
Backup quarterback Matt Schaub was stuffed—but so be it! Harbaugh played the percentages correctly—and the New York Times' 4th-Down Bot concurs.