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 31, ST. LOUIS RAMS 7
Here's a classic case of a bully failing to press an advantage and (almost!) paying for it.
The Bengals, 10-point home favorites, had every reason to try and put away this game early. The first two possessions followed the script: a Rams three-and-out, followed by a Bengals touchdown.
After that, though, things slowed down. The Rams went on a meandering, nine-play drive that actually only covered 44 yards. Then the Bengals went three-and-out. Then the Rams went three-and-out again. As the Bengals drove through the end of the first quarter, the glorious blowout-to-be was merely a 7-0 lead.
By the time they got to the Rams' three-yard line, they'd wound another 4:38 off the clock. On third-and-three, the Bengals tried to pass for the score, but it fell incomplete. A holding penalty was called, but the Rams declined it, bringing up fourth down:
Win Probability: 83 percent
Adjusted Win Probability: 94 percent
Touchdown Success Rate: 39 percent
Field Goal Success Rate: 99 percent
This is as automatic as field goals get. An attempt for three points is an all-but-guaranteed three points, while an attempt at a touchdown is only a 39 percent shot at a touchdown.
But check out that Adjusted WP: 94 percent! The Bengals were such overwhelming favorites that even though the scoreboard said 7-0, if they'd played out that scenario from here 20 times they'd win 19 of them.
Now, the vanilla WP model used in Brian Burke's fourth-down calculator says that the optimal choice is to kick the field goal. Once we adjust for the presumed strength of the two teams, however, the numbers swing wildly around.
If the Bengals go for it and fail, their AWP falls from 94 percent to 91 percent—hardly a calamity. If they kick the field goal, their AWP stays flat at 94 percent. If they go for it and succeed, their AWP rises to 97 percent, an all-but-certain victory.
A quick look at the Expected Points model confirms this: the break-even point for the potential reward outweighing the risk of going for it would be 34 percent, and we have a 39 percent nominal success rate. Even if head coach Marvin Lewis sees his team as a little less likely than average to convert against the Rams from three yards out, the odds that Nick Foles and the going-nowhere offense drives for 97 yards against the Bengals defense were much bleaker.
The decision didn't quite unravel the game for Lewis; it was the blowout everyone saw coming. But when Andy Dalton, up 17-7, threw a pick to open the second half, the Rams suddenly had a chance to pull back within one score.
They didn't capitalize, and the Bengals scored just three plays into the next drive—settling for a 10-point early lead later made what should have been a boring blowout interesting.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS 31, JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS 25
This is so depressing.
Here we have a theoretically hungry young team with a fire-eating coach that came into this matchup just one game back of their division lead. Their opponents? A bunch of crusty old diehards a full six games out with six left to play.
Guess who played to win?
It happened on the very first drive. Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles was dealing, hitting passes short, long, to either side, to multiple receivers. The Jags sliced their way down to the Chargers' 12, then eight, then four-yard line. On fourth down, needing just two yards for a first-down conversion that would set up an all-but-guaranteed touchdown, well...
Win Probability: 57 percent
Expected Win Probability: 74 percent
Field Goal Success Rate: 98 percent
First Down Success Rate: 42 percent
Here's another case where WP and EP disagree, but for different reasons. It's so early in the game that going up four extra points can't possibly spell the other team's doom. Even in the EP model, it's close: EP pegs the break-even point at 40 percent, while we have a nominal 42 percent chance of conversion.
But the Jaguars are five-point home favorites, desperate to stay with the Indianapolis Colts and the Houston Texans. If the Jags can just put the 3-8 San Diego Chargers out of their misery, they'll go into December with a very real shot at their first playoff berth since 2007, two Jack Del Rio jobs ago, when Fred Taylor led the team in rushing.
Furthermore, the supposedly fiery head coach in question, Gus Bradley, is in his third season, and the Jaguars aren't much closer to being the Seattle Seahawks than when they hired Bradley out from under Pete Carroll. If he wasn't on the hot seat before this disappointing loss, he should be now.
Oh, yes, in case you couldn't tell from my aggravated tone, the Jags kicked a field goal here, and lost by less than a touchdown.
OPENING THE DOOR
The wheels have fallen off the Green Bay Packers. It got so bad so fast they invited Brett Favre and Bart Starr to come back on Thanksgiving and help Aaron Rodgers get the green-and-gold bus back on the road.
Not even the combined powers of three of the best quarterbacks ever to play the game were enough to break through the Chicago Bears defense—which, after holding a "fire sale" of key defenders like Jared Allen and Jon Bostic, have suddenly become impregnable.
No, really: after holding the Packers to just one touchdown and two field goals, the Bears defense have allowed an average of just 17 points through five games in November. If that were their season-long average, they'd be the No. 1 scoring defense in football.
So that is what Mike McCarthy and his Packers were up against as they tried to finish off a Thanksgiving slate of blowouts with a poignant, symbolic, crucial divisional win.
McCarthy, whose game-planning and play-calling have been under attack all year, faced an early fourth-and-two at the Bears' 48-yard line. He looked at his stout power back, Eddie Lacy, who'd already ploughed the Bears for 37 yards on three carries, and went for it.
It was the smart thing to do. It was the right thing to do. Had they converted, the Packers could have entered the second quarter up 10-0 or 14-0 instead of 7-0, and history might have been different.
Instead, the newly stout Bears defense shot the right gap and stuffed Lacy, forcing a turnover. To those who would have preferred the Packers punt, well, the Bears immediately went three-and-out, giving the ball right back. As always, field position doesn't matter quite as much as points do.