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.
CINCINNATI BENGALS 28, BALTIMORE RAVENS 24
The Ravens played about as poor a first half as a team with that much talent could play. Their first three drives ended in a punt, a missed field goal and an interception—and in between, they allowed two Bengals touchdowns.
Already down 14-0 at home, the Ravens somehow mounted a 10-play, 5:34 drive that went from just their own 20 to their own 47. On 3rd-and-2, with 8:26 left on the clock, the Ravens ordered tailback Lorenzo Taliaferro to plunge into the left side of their line; the Bengals blew it up and stuffed him for a two-yard loss.
That set up a 4th-and-4 for the Ravens from their own 47:
Win Probability: 10 percent
Adjusted Win Probability: 13 percent
First Down Success Rate: 53 percent
So the Ravens, 2.5 point favorites at home, down 14-0 deep in the second quarter, are essentially at midfield. Going for it has a nominal success rate of 53 percent—not a gimme, but not a tough ask. Now, here's the key to this call: It's not a high-leverage situation.
Converting the first down is just one more step on the way to making a difference. Giving the ball to the Bengals at midfield when you're already down 14-0 is dribbling water on a shirt in the middle of a rainstorm. The Win Probability calculator suggests success or failure is only a one-percent difference either way.
But instead of taking better-than-even odds to extend a drive and maybe get points out of it, the Ravens punted from midfield—and, thanks to an offensive holding committed during the punt, Cincinnati got the ball back on their 20.
Think of it this way: John Harbaugh intentionally committed a turnover for 33 yards of field position. Yes, that field position has value—but even after the punt, the Ravens needed a four-down goal-line stand to keep the Bengals from building an insurmountable 21-0 lead.
Converting a makeable 4th-and-4, sucking a few more minutes off the clock and working into scoring position would have paid big dividends in what would go on to be a four-point loss; punting didn't make a bit of difference.
This is Harbaugh's second-straight appearance in Inopportune Knocks—and later in this game, his indefensible fourth-quarter decision to kick a field goal from the Bengals' two-yard line created the four-point deficit by which the Ravens lost the game.
Perhaps someone should be reading more VICE Sports.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS 31, SAN DIEGO CHARGERS 14
The Chargers, 2.5-point road underdogs, came out playing great defense. They went three-and-out on their first possession, but stuffed Minnesota on the opening drive and picked off Teddy Bridgewater on the second.
What they did with that turnover, though, boggles the mind.
Taking over on their own 20, Chargers tailbacks Danny Woodhead and Melvin Gordon picked up 36 yards on five plays, which fell just one yard and one down short of the sticks on the Minnesota 44.
Mike McCoy is a smart offensive mind, but this is a no-brainer:
Win Probability: 51 percent
Adjusted Win Probability: 42 percent
First Down Success Rate: 74 percent
Field Goal Success Rate: 10 percent
Normally, with such a slim chance of hitting this 61-yard field goal, I wouldn't bring this possibility up. But even with this small a chance of conversion, the advantage of going up 3-0 means the WP model doesn't entirely hate kicking it.
The "Total WP" of kicking in that situation (the calculated WP after success and after failure, adjusted by the likelihood of each) is 0.45, a little less than the Total WP of punting (0.49), and significantly less than going for it (0.54).
Despite how early it is in the game, this is still a very high-leverage situation: A first down gives the Chargers an 0.58 WP, plus a new set of downs to work towards an easy field goal or touchdown. This is such a favorable situation, WP-wise, it's basically just as good as making the field goal from 61 yards (0.59 WP)!
...and NFL teams convert here 74 percent of the time.
Instead, the Chargers punted. Their four remaining first-half possessions ended like this: Sack-fumble, punt, punt, touchdown. That late score cut the Vikings' lead to 10-7 going into halftime, but it could have tied it up or put the Chargers up 14-10 if they'd gone for it there.
As it was, the Chargers opened the second half with an AWP of 0.49. If they'd converted and added a field goal on that early drive, it would have been 0.59. If they'd converted and gone on to score a touchdown, 0.73.
But instead of a 73 percent chance of taking control of the game, McCoy and the Chargers ceded the first half to the Vikings—and lost, emphatically, in the second.
ATLANTA FALCONS 39, DALLAS COWBOYS 28
The Dallas Cowboys, despite being without starting quarterback Tony Romo and superstar wideout Dez Bryant, quickly built a 14-0 lead against the visiting Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons' ensuing touchdown compelled the Dallas offense to answer.
When Joseph Randle was stopped for no gain on a key 3rd-and-1, the obvious answer was to go for it again: A team with a powerful offensive line should be able to convert almost every opportunity from one yard out.
Win Probability: 0.70
First Down Success Rate: 0.74
If they convert the 4th-and-1, their WP goes up to 0.78, and gives them a chance to continue the drive rather than surrender it back to the Falcons for a chance to tie (note Adjusted WP doesn't come into play here since Vegas considered this a pick-'em game).
If they fail, the WP drops to 0.66, which means a bigger potential loss than potential gain. But with such a high likelihood of success, both the Expected Points and Win Probability models of Brian Burke's 4th-down Calculator say going for it is the way to go.
As it happened, Atlanta didn't do anything with the subsequent drive, and Dallas scored a touchdown after that to put it back up to 21-7. The two teams traded touchdowns again, and made it 28-14. All's well that ends well, right?
Nope. The Falcons reeled off 25 unanswered points to close out the game with an 11-point win. Had the Cowboys been able to take that gimme conversion in the first half and go up 24-7 or 27-7, they would not only have made the comeback much less likely, but drained time off the clock that the Falcons ended up using for a last-second field goal.
The real halftime score was 28-17, Dallas, and improbable enough as it was, Dallas had an 0.85 WP after kicking off to start the second half. Had it been 31-14 or 35-14, though, that would have risen to 0.93 or 0.94, respectively—and the Falcons would have needed every one of those three late touchdowns just to even it up.
OPENING THE DOOR
Cleveland Browns head coach Mike Pettine has been through a lot of rough moments in his short tenure. But he's had monk-like calm and wisdom in handling his volatile quarterback situations. Against the Oakland Raiders in Week 3 he did the same when handling early 4th-down opportunities.
Down 10-0 at home, just before halftime, the Browns had scrapped all the way down to the Oakland one-yard line with a fresh set of downs. The Browns tried once, twice, three times to punch it in and they couldn't. What's the right choice?
Go for it!
As discussed last week in this space, 1st-and-goal from the one is a virtual certainty if you take four cracks at it. As the announcers wrung their hands in panic, the Browns lined up for a chance to get on the board—and get back in the game.
"You're down by 10, you know you'll need two scores at some point," the color commentator fretted. "This is risky!" No, turning down four points when you've played 23 minutes and change of without scoring any at all is risky. Playing for a tie when it isn't even halftime yet is risky. Scoring touchdowns when they're there for the taking is smart.
And then Joel Bitonio jumped.
The guard's false-start penalty pushed the Browns back five yards. So what, right? Aggressive strategies for the win? Nope. The math on 4th-and-6 is completely different, a nominal success rate of 0.21—and, let's face it, the Browns offense is something a little less than nominal. The difference between 10-7 and 10-3 couldn't offset the four-out-of-five odds of the score staying 10-0.
The math is close (0.88 total WP vs. 0.85), but clear—and though his Browns went on to lose, Pettine should be commended for optimal decision-making here.