GameChangers Conf. Champ (1/19/14)

By John Ewing
GameChangers, a look at plays that impacted the outcomes of games around the league. If you have a suggestion for a GameChanger please direct all ideas via twitter to @johnewing.

To highlight the Live ScoreCaster, we will take our in-game technology, Live ScoreCaster, to the next level to review the game-changing plays from the NFC and AFC Championships and what each game would have looked like if certain plays had turned out differently. 
Seahawks vs. 49ers
Seattle is headed to its second Super Bowl with a 23-17 win over San Francisco. The Seahawks survived a thrilling second half that saw at least seven double-digit swings in expected win probability for both teams.
The biggest swing occurred after Russell Wilson’s 35-yard touchdown pass in the 4th quarter. With San Francisco leading 17-13, Seattle was facing a 4th and 7 from the 49ers 35-yard line. Initially Pete Carroll sent his kicker out to attempt a field goal but Steven Hauschka was slow to get on the field forcing Seattle to burn a timeout. Instead of sending his kicker back out, Carroll had his offense go for it on 4th down. San Francisco’s Aldon Smith jumped offside on the ensuing play giving Wilson a free play. Wilson took a shot at the end zone and Jermaine Kearse made an incredible catch over a 49ers defender for a touchdown. The Seahawks odds of winning increased from 38% to 71%.
Had Seattle kicked the field goal, trailing 17-16, they would have had a 47% chance of winning. Had Seattle been stopped on 4th down, assuming the touchdown pass is incomplete and the Seahawks still go for it on 4th and 2 after the Aldon Smith penalty is enforced, their odds of winning would have decreased to 30%.
The 49ers could have won if…
Seattle forced three 4th quarter turnovers. The first was a strip sack of Colin Kaepernick. Three balls had hit the turf before that fumble and San Francisco had recovered them all. Fumble recovery is a 50/50 proposition in the NFL and the odds of the 49ers recovering all four would have been 6%. Seattle scooped the ball and returned it to the 6-yard line; San Francisco’s odds of winning decreased from 29% to 7%.
The second turnover was a bad interception by Kaepernick. Two plays after San Francisco got a much needed turnover (Wilson/Lynch bobbled hand off on 4th down) to avoid going down two scores, Kaepernick underthrew Anquan Boldin. The interception swung the 49ers win probability from 28% to 8%.
The final turnover, an interception in the end zone, was more about Richard Sherman and the Seahawks’ defense than a mistake by Kaepernick. Had that pass just been incomplete, San Francisco still has a 17% chance of winning with 2nd down from the Seattle 18-yard line.
Additional Game Notes
San Francisco was 71% likely to win with 13:16 left in the 3rd quarter and the 49ers winning 10-3. Eight plays later, Marshawn Lynch, #BeastMode, rumbles 40-yards for a touchdown.
Broncos vs. Patriots
Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos are headed to the Super Bowl after a 26-16 win over the Patriots in the AFC title game. New England slowly slipped into the offseason allowing the Broncos to accumulate 500+ yards of offense and score on six consecutive drives.
New England was never better than 34% likely to win over Denver and that occurred with 9:22 left in the 1st quarter following the Bronco’s only punt of the game.
The Patriots could have won if…

To reiterate, Denver was never less than 66% likely to win and spent nearly 23 minutes (1.5 quarters) of game time being 99% likely to win.
With 2:30 left in the 3rd quarter, facing a 4th and 3 from the Denver 29-yard line, New England opted to go for it instead of kicking a field goal trailing 20-3. Terrance Knighton sacked Tom Brady on the 4th down attempt making the Broncos 99.8% likely to win. It would have still been a long shot, but had Brady avoided the sack and the Patriots picked up the 1st down, New England’s odds of winning would have increased from 0.2% to 1.3%.
Going for it was the correct decision. Had New England kicked a field goal to make it 20-6, Denver would have still been 99.1% likely to win.
Just for fun, let's assume that New England converts the two-point conversion late in the 4th quarter to make it 26-18. Now, trailing by 8 points, what would have happened had the Patriots recovered the onside kick?
A Successful onside recovery increases New England’s expected win probability to 7.5%.
Additional Game Notes

Denver’s opening drive of the 3rd quarter was their most time consuming of the season (7:08 minutes). It ended in a Peyton Manning to Demaryius Thomas touchdown that put Denver up 20-3. With a three-possession lead, the Broncos’ expected win probability increased from 87%, before the drive started, to 99% likely to win.