GameChangers Divisional Round (1/12/14)

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 NFL and what the game would have looked like if the plays had turned out differently. 
Colts vs. Patriots
The Patriots advanced to their third straight AFC Championship Game with a 43-22 victory over the Colts. LeGarrette Blount’s four touchdowns and Andrew Luck’s four interceptions propelled New England to the win. Nothing went right for Indianapolis, even when it seemed to.
Late in the first half Patriots’ long snapper Danny Aiken sailed a snap over punter Ryan Allen’s head. Allen scrambled wildly around with the football before Indianapolis slapped the ball out of the end zone for a safety. The safety gives you two points and another possession with good field position thanks to the free kick, but did the play actually help Indianapolis?
After the safety, the Colts took over on their own 28-yard line trailing 21-12. The Colts had a 26% chance of winning. Had the punter been tackled at the 1-yard line, Indy would have been 36% likely to win with at least three cracks to score from the 1-yard line. As disappointed as New England fans might have been by conceding a safety, it actually worked out better for them.
Game Notes

LeGarrette Blount’s 73-yard touchdown run was a backbreaker. Not only did it put the Patriots up two touchdowns in the 4th quarter, it also lowered the Colts’ expected win probability from 13% to 3%.
The Colts waved the white flag with 10:16 left in the 4th. Trailing 43-22 and facing a 4th and 1, Indianapolis punted. By punting, the Patriots became 99% likely to win. Had the Colts went for it and converted the 4th down Indy would have been 2% likely to win. Not great but better than giving up.
Seahawks vs. Saints
New Orleans made it interesting at the end but this game was decided in the first half when the Saints’ first five drives ended in a punt, missed field goal, fumble, punt and turnover on downs. So how much did a missed field goal, fumble and turnover on downs hurt Drew Brees and the Saints?
The missed field goal occurred with 5:03 left in the 1st. Had the Saints connected on the field goal they would have been 25% likely to win, but instead their expected win probability dropped to 16%.
With 14:51 left in the 2nd Mark Ingram fumbled. The Seahawks recovered the fumble and lowered the Saints win expectancy to 7%. Had Ingram not fumbled New Orleans would have been 14% likely to win.
Facing 4th and 4 at the Seattle 29-yard line, New Orleans opted to go for it instead of kicking a field goal. Drew Brees’ pass fell incomplete and the Saints win probability dropped to 3%. Had New Orleans picked up the first down they would have had a 9% chance of winning trailing 13-0.
A dreadful first half that included a missed field goal, fumble and turnover on downs collectively lowered the Saints expected win probability by 22%.
Game Notes

After recovering an onside kick with 0:24 left in the 4th, New Orleans only had a 0.1% chance of winning trailing 23-15.
With 0:11 left in the 4th, Brees found Marques Colston near the sideline for a 1st down. Instead of stepping out of bounds, Colston tried to throw across the field, it was an illegal forward pass. The resulting penalty ended the game. Had Colston stepped out of bounds the Saints would have had a 1% chance of winning needing a Hail Mary and successful two-point conversion to tie the game.
49ers vs. Panthers
San Francisco avenged a regular season loss to Carolina with a 23-10 victory that sends them to the NFC Championship Game for a third straight season. The 49ers held Cam Newton in check with pressure; they sacked the quarterback five times (one waved off because of an atrocious roughing the passer penalty). San Francisco used back-to-back sacks to force Carolina out of field goal range late in the 3rd quarter. The Panthers punted trailing 20-10 and their odds of winning dropped to 5%.
Had Newton avoided the sacks and Carolina successfully converted a field goal attempt, the Panthers would have had a 15% chance of rallying to win trailing 20-13.
Another critical play occurred at the end of the first half. Frank Gore fumbled on 1st and goal from the Carolina 1-yard line but San Francisco recovered. The 49ers had a 56% chance of winning at the time but had the Panthers pounced on the football, Carolina becomes the projected winner with a 56% chance of advancing to the NFC Championship Game. 
Game Notes

With 14:54 left in the 2nd, Riverboat Ron calls for a quarterback sneak on 4th and 1 from the San Francisco 1-yard line. Quarterback sneaks have worked about 86% of the time since 2009 to pick up first downs. Unfortunately for Carolina it did not work. The 49ers’ defense stifled the sneak and San Francisco became 73% likely to win. Had the Panthers scored a touchdown, their expected win probability jumps from 27% to 45%. A field goal would have only made Carolina 33% likely to win. The Panthers were 10 of 13 (76.9%) on 4th down this season, the best rate in the NFC per ESPN Stats and Info. Right decision, wrong outcome.

In all four Divisional Round games, the eventual winner was the projected winner for every play in the second half. More notably, there was never a point in any of the other three games in which the favorite was not expected to win outright. This is the lone exception. Carolina was the projected winner for about seven minutes in the second quarter over San Francisco. It may have seemed like an innocuous play at the time, but the 49ers took the projected lead for good on a 2nd-and-10 pass from Colin Kaepernick to Anquan Boldin that left the play clock with exactly two minutes left in the first half. The 49ers were still down 10-6 at that time, but the 14 yard gain moved the 49ers to midfield and gave them a very good chance of scoring on the possession before halftime. It took nine more plays and almost every second on the clock, but San Francisco finished that drive with a touchdown to Vernon Davis that put them ahead on the scoreboard for good as well.
Chargers vs. Broncos
Peyton Manning guided Denver to a 24-17 victory over the Chargers in the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs. The Broncos advanced to the AFC Championship because of their success on 3rd down. In their December loss to San Diego the Broncos were 2-of-9 on 3rd down. Denver converted 9-of-13 3rd down attempts on Sunday including three on the final drive of the game.
With 3:06 left in the 4th, Denver facing a 3rd and 17 from their own 20-yard line, Manning completed a 20-yard pass to Julius Thomas (less than a 20% chance of converting that 3rd down). The first down made Denver 99.6% likely to win. Had San Diego prevented the first down and forced a Bronco punt, the Chargers win probability would have increased from 0.4% to 11%.
Game Notes

Should San Diego have attempted a second onside kick late in the 4th quarter after Nick Novak’s 30-yard field goal made it 24-17? San Diego kicked off attempting to force a punt with nearly four minutes remaining and two timeouts to play with. Once they kicked off to Peyton Manning, their win probability was 2%.
The upside of attempting an onside kick would be that San Diego gets possession down a touchdown; they would have had a 10% chance of winning. However, the downside would be giving Denver a short field; expected onside kicks are successful about 10% of the time. A failed onside kick would have given Denver excellent field position and lowered San Diego’s chances of winning to 0.8%. There is not a clear answer to the question but I think kicking off was the right move. Had the Chargers’ defense held on 3rd and 17 the outcome of the game could have been very different.