In the NFL, teams only get a dozen or so possessions each game with which to score points. Unfortunately, most coaches forget 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.
OAKLAND RAIDERS 23, SAN DIEGO CHARGERS 20
This game didn't matter, at least not in the playoff race. There was no reason to go all-in, pull out all the stops, put it all on the line, put all the eggs in one basket, or whatever other cliche you wanted to use.
But both teams are trying to finish the season strong, and showcase themselves for the beckoning Los Angeles market. Moreover, what have we learned from nearly a season of Inopportune Knocks? Risky isn't risky if there's no downside.
Playing with house money, the five-point underdog Chargers had a seven-point second-quarter lead cut to three. Quarterback Philip Rivers hit receiver Malcolm Floyd for a nine-yard gain, but on second down tailback Danny Woodhead got stuffed. Backup tailback Donald Brown got stuffed on third down, too, and the officials called for a measurement.
Head coach Mike McCoy challenged the ruling, but the ruling was upheld. Bye-bye timeout, so long one challenge, it's now 4th-and-short from their own 35:
Win Probability: 65 percent
Adjusted Win Probability: 54 percent
First Down Success Rate: ~60 percent
With Brian Burke's site still coming back online after a maintenance issue and the New York Times 4th Down Bot inactive for this game, we don't have precise success rates for this conversion attempt. But getting one yard when you need it is generally a 60-70 percent chance, even when backed up this far in one's own territory. For instance, the Bot figured on a 69 percent chance of the Broncos converting from 4th-and-1 on their own 24 on Sunday Night Football.
But despite being a five-point underdog that is already eliminated from the playoffs, who is leading by four and trying to beat the team they're playing high-stakes Musical Stadia with, Mike McCoy chooses to play it safe. Living punting legend Mike Scifres boots it 52 yards, and the Raiders get the ball back on their own 22.
This great punt dropped the Chargers' AWP, very slightly, to 53 percent, while a conversion this deep in their own territory wouldn't have boosted it much at all. But if keeping the drive going weren't important, why would McCoy blow a timeout and a challenge?
Compounding McCoy's folly: The two prior plays. Three straight tries from one yard out, depending on the circumstance, results in a conversion approximately nine out of 10 tries. Though we shouldn't fall victim to the Gambler's Fallacy—his odds of success on fourth down were no better for the previous two—all the numbers were screaming for McCoy to go for it.
When it was all said and done, McCoy's Chargers lost by three points—or one scoring drive.
HOUSTON TEXANS 34, TENNESSEE TITANS 6
Coaches hate having to hit the panic button; abandoning your gameplan in the face of early adversity is a hallmark of the lily-livered.
But for the Titans, this was a divisional matchup where the only thing you're playing for is a chance to knock your hated rivals—the expansion franchise granted to the city your team bailed on—out of the playoffs. Interim head coach Mike Mularkey's only chance to impress other teams around the league is to do something impressive, do something innovative that shows he's got fresh ideas.
His tailback fumbled on the opening drive, which the Texans scooped up and scored. On a later drive, Zach Mettenberger threw short of the sticks on 3rd-and-13 from his own 30. Mularkey's defense subsequently forced a punt, which the Tennessee returner muffed to set up an easy Texans field goal. The Titans were down 10-0, and everything was falling apart. Mularkey needed to stop the bleeding.
Mettenberger and company actually got a first down in the waning minutes of the first quarter. But eventually during that drive, the Titans faced a 3rd-and-3. The ensuing play call failed, and additionally, the Texans declined an offensive holding penalty on the play, which brought up fourth down. Mularkey had his chance to do something impressive and keep the Titans in the game.
Now, the NYT 4th-Down Bot thinks the Titans should punt here, because it pegs the Win Probability break-even point on 4th-and-3 from your own 40 at 62 percent—and the Bot doesn't like the Titans' offense's odds.
Here's where the human factor comes in: Everything's going wrong for Tennessee, and everything's going right for Houston. The offense has shown zero ability to move the ball, partly why the Bot suggests they have just a 52-percent chance of converting. But if the Titans punt, and the Texans drive for a touchdown to go up 17-0, it's over.
Of course, the Titans punt.
They got their first break of the game immediately after when new Texans quarterback Brandon Weeden coughed it up on his own 25—but two penalties not only pushed the Titans backwards instead of forwards, it pushed them back out of field goal range.
You know what? Nevermind. Nothing Mularkey could have done would have stopped this bloodbath.
OPENING THE DOOR
Here's another game with zero playoff implications, but huge personal implications for the teams and coaches involved.
Lions head coach Jim Caldwell is coaching for his job, and owner Martha Ford was watching the Lions' last home game closely (with binoculars, even!). Ford Field was getting its last look at the 2015 edition of these Lions—and if Caldwell didn't produce a win, his case for sticking around in 2016 would be much weaker.
The quasi-streaking Lions, 5-2 since their Week 9 bye, were nine-point favorites over the 49ers. Yet the defense rolled over and allowed an 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to Blaine Gabbert and company on the opening possession.
A Matt Prater field goal and a 49ers three-and-out later, though, the Lions had a chance to get the game back in control. An immediate 3rd-and-1, though, became a 4th-and-1 when tailback Theo Riddick got stuffed. Facing 4th-and-1 from their own 35, the Lions lined up to punt.
But they didn't punt.
Facing the exact same situation McCoy and the Chargers did, Caldwell dialed up a fake punt. Special-teams ace Isa Abdul-Quddus received a direct snap, and plunged forward into the line. He easily got the conversion, plus three yards, and the Lions drive continued.
Five plays later, the Lions scored the go-ahead touchdown. The lead changed three more times in the first half before the Lions pulled away in the second—but if Caldwell's squad had capitulated on that drive, forfeiting the touchdown, they may never have gotten the lead back at all.