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 16, KANSAS CITY CHIEFS 10
Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid can blame Jamaal Charles' season-ending ACL injury for his offense being less effective than usual. It's not, however, an excuse for giving up on the few drives his Chiefs managed to mount in a depressingly fruitless loss to the Vikings.
After their first three drives ended in punts, and trailing 10-0, the Chiefs faced a 3rd-and-1 from their own 29-yard line. When tailback Knile Davis got stuffed at the line of scrimmage, Reid decided a three-and-out was the better part of valor.
That's not even the stupid decision I'm writing about.
On the Chiefs' next drive they drove to the Minnesota 46, the first time they had crossed the 50 yard line. That's right: The Chiefs didn't advance past midfield until there was just over a minute left in the first half.
On the subsequent 3rd-down play, needing just two yards to convert, a pass to rookie wideout Chris Conley fell incomplete:
Win Probability: 19 percent
Adjusted Win Probability: 15 percent
First Down Success Rate: 74 percent
This is such a screaming, obvious no-brainer.
For starters, a 3.5-point underdog down 10-0 at the end of the first half is already in dire straits. Reid's Chiefs, widely considered a strong playoff contender (and potential AFC noisemaker), were 1-4 coming into the game—but a win would have kept them within two games of a Wild Card slot.
Converting here, just converting, would have boosted the Chiefs' Adjusted WP from 15 percent to around 22 percent. A good punt from Brandon Colquitt held AWP steady at 15 percent; going for it and failing would have dropped their spread-adjusted probability of winning from 15 percent to 11 percent.
But again: the likelihood of converting from there was a whopping 74 percent; WP considered the break-even point to be just 42 percent. After three seasons of building the roster to his specifications, Reid can't trust his offense to get one yard when their season depends on it.
Either Reid is a terrible on-field decision maker, or he's an awful offensive architect. Either way, he repeatedly denied his team chances to win a very winnable must-win game.
CAROLINA PANTHERS 27, SEATTLE SEAHAWKS 24
We weren't sure if the Panthers, even at 4-0, were really all that good. We weren't sure if the Seahawks, even at 2-3, were really all that bad. This come-from-behind win has cemented the narratives in both directions. But one fateful first-quarter decision could have changed everything.
The Seahawks, inexplicably seven-point favorites at home over the undefeated Panthers, didn't get past their own 41-yard line on either of their first two drives. Fortunately for them, neither did the Panthers—and an Earl Thomas interception set them up deep in Carolina territory.
Russell Wilson and company got down to the Carolina 12-yard line in five plays, which set up a 4th-and-5:
Win Probability: 56 percent
Adjusted Win Probability: 77 percent
First Down Success Rate: 45 percent
Field Goal Success Rate: 91 percent
This is a close call. Brian Burke's Win Probability and Expected Points models both set the break-even point at 45 percent, which happens to be exactly what the Seahawks' nominal odds of converting were.
But again: The Seahawks were a seven-point favorite, with one of the league's loudest home crowds in their favor. Pressing their advantage on 4th-and-5 could have resulted in a first-blood touchdown that would have given them a huge WP advantage, or simply an even-surer field goal.
What's more important, though, is that they were on the Panthers' 12-yard line, and the Panthers had shown little offensive teeth. They'd already had a turnover! A failed conversion attempt would have dropped the Seahawks' nominal WP from 56 percent (a small advantage) to 50 percent (a coin flip)—but it would also park the Panthers deep in their own end.
An incomplete 4th-down pass here wouldn't have dropped the Seahawks' AWP much, from 77 percent to 71 percent. However, a conversion would have bumped it up from 77 percent to a dominating 84 percent, setting up a likely touchdown.
The numbers don't think passing up a touchdown here was a flagrant mistake—but the scoreboard suggests an extra four points in the first half would have saved the game in the second half.
The narratives the footballing universe will take away from this game is that the 5-0 Panthers are absolutely for real, and the 2-4 Seahawks are truly struggling. But what if Vegas was right about these two teams, and the Seahawks simply blew an opportunity to get the Panthers under their thumb?
OPENING THE DOOR
Browns head coach Mike Pettine has received praise in this space for being appropriately aggressive, despite an offense that (on paper) falls short of the nominal/typical/average team strength assumed by most analytical models. Allow VICE Sports to applaud him yet again for his decisions on Sunday.
His Browns were 3.5-point home underdogs against the Broncos, but almost immediately fortune smiled on the Dawg Pound. On the sixth play from scrimmage, 33-year-old linebacker Karlos Dansby picked off Peyton Manning—setting the Browns' first drive up one yard deep into enemy territory.
The Browns' first three offensive plays covered eight, four and five yards, setting up a 2nd-and-5 from the Broncos' 23. After two quick incomplete passes, Pettine went right back to the well for a third straight crack at converting.
Josh McCown's pass to tight end Gary Barnidge fell incomplete. But Brian Burke's 4th-down calculator estimated a 49 percent success rate for a conversion attempt, against a 57 percent chance at a field goal. The advantage granted by a successful red-zone conversion, even at this early juncture, made going for it the optimal choice in both the WP and EP models.
After the failed conversion attempt, the Broncos drove from there to the Browns' 10-yard line to kick a field goal. Remember: If the Browns had tried a field goal and missed, it would have gifted the Broncos seven yards of field position—seven yards that would have turned a Broncos field goal into a Broncos touchdown.
Pettine shouldn't just get credit for taking the option with the most upside; he should also get credit for understanding the extra downside that comes with a failed field goal.