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.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS 34, BUFFALO BILLS 31
NFL Week 7 was the wildest yet, with a host of first-half blowouts leading to second-half comebacks (successful and otherwise). Somehow, the Bills managed to do both: Successfully roar all the way back from a 27-3 deficit, then collapse in the final minutes and give the game back.
During that first improbable run, though, the Bills missed a golden opportunity to get seven points instead of three—which would not only have enabled a faster comeback, but potentially prevented the Jaguars from answering.
Towards the end of the first half, everything had gone as badly for Buffalo as it possibly could. For the umpteenth time, the Wembley Stadium crowd was suffering through a blowout of one miserable team by another.
Then a very nice touchdown catch by Robert Woods pulled the Bills to within 27-10, and the Bills defense managed to get a stop on the ensuing possession. Manuel and company, aided by a Jaguars penalty, drove down to the Jaguars' 20. A 3rd-and-4 pass from there fell incomplete, and with 12 seconds left on the clock, the Bills had a decision to make:
Win Probability: 10 percent
Adjusted Win Probability: 14 percent
First Down Success Rate: 48 percent
Field Goal Success Rate: 81 percent
So, it's bad enough the Bills—four point favorites— are down by 17 after playing nearly a half of football. It's bad enough that they drive down to the Jags' 20 and turn down a 48 percent chance of finishing the drive with a touchdown and getting back in the game for an 81 percent chance of kicking a field goal and still needed two touchdowns.
But look at the game situation. There's 12 seconds left, time for a quick conversion attempt and and end-zone shot if you convert it. The Bills had a timeout left, so the entire playbook was open to get those four yards. The Bills kicked off in the first half, so the Jags would be getting the ball back no matter what.
At the start of the second half, the Bills' WP was still 10 percent, and AWP actually fell to 13 percent. Had they gotten into the end zone, those figures would have been 17 percent and 22 percent, respectively.
Now, I hear what you're saying: The Bills eventually got the lead back, so the ends justify the means, right? A) No, kicking a field goal on 4th-and-4 from your opponents' 20 to take a three-point bite out of what was a 24-point deficit is still suboptimal, and B) if the ends justified the means, the Bills would have won.
Finally, this is the lesson of Inopportune Knocks: If this situation had occurred in the last two minutes of the second half instead of the last two minutes of the first half, kicking a field goal would have been considered madness—and "go for the touchdown, go for the onside kick, go for the touchdown, go for the onside kick" would have been S.O.P.
Instead of betting it all on Hail Mary after Hail Mary in the game's dying minutes, why not put yourself in position to win by converting a coin-flip 4th-and-4 in the second quarter?
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS 27, INDIANAPOLIS COLTS 21
Though this game would develop into another first-half blowout, second-half comeback, at the end of four combined drives it looked like a grim, deadlocked, scoreless snoozer.
With 6:14 left in the first quarter, the Colts faced a 4th-and-1 from their own 41:
Win Probability: 50 percent
Adjusted Win Probability: 64 percent
First Down Success Rate: 74 percent
The Colts were four-point home favorites against the Saints, which is why their AWP is so much higher than their raw WP here. So, you'd think playing at home, with neither squad having drawn first blood in four possessions, and Frank Gore and Andrew Luck giving you even better odds of conversion than the nominal 74 percent would give head coach Chuck Pagano the confidence to go ahead and go for it near midfield.
The Colts punted, putting the Saints back on their own 22. Their WP and AWP didn't change, 'keeping them in the game', but if they'd gone for it and gotten one yard—one measly yard, like they had a three-in-four shot of pulling off—their AWP would have soared to 0.70, an almost 10 percent increase.
Had they finished that drive with even a field goal, the Colts might have changed how everything else went down. Instead, the Saints scored the first seven of what would be 20 consecutive points, en route to a 27-20 home upset.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS 23, PITTSBURGH STEELERS 20
The Chiefs had one of the most talented rosters in the NFL, playing in front of their loudest-crowd-in-the-world home fans, against a Steelers outfit starting their third-string quarterback.
They kicked field goals on 4th-and-3 from the Steelers 11-yard line, 4th-and-3 from the Steelers' three-yard line, 4th-and-6 from the Steelers' nine-yard line, and 4th-and-6 from the Steelers' 36-yard line (and missed it).
That's three should-have-been scoring drives against a team the Chiefs should have been decimating. They went into the second half leading by a score of 9-3. Four successful drives deep into enemy territory, and the Steelers still could still have gotten the lead back with a single lucky play.
OPENING THE DOOR
Down an astounding 35-0 late in the first half, Houston Texans head coach Bill O'Brien saw his team finally drive not only into enemy territory for the first time, but all the way down to the Miami nine-yard line.
On 4th-and-3 from nine yards out, O'Brien chose to go for it.
Golf clap, Bill O'Brien, for not 'taking the points' or 'staying in the game' by kicking an entirely useless field goal. Of course, the Texans didn't get it, but hey: Credit where credit is due.