GameChangers Week 16 (12/23/13)

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 three of the game-changing plays from the NFL and what the game would have looked like if the plays had turned out differently. 
Panthers vs. Saints
Cam Newton threw a 14-yard touchdown pass with 23 seconds left to give Carolina a win over the Saints and clinch the team’s first playoff berth since 2008. Riverboat Ron has successfully gambled on 4th down this season to help the Panthers reach the playoffs. Most of the decisions to go for it on 4th down were in ideal (as much as going for it on 4th down can be) situations like 4th and short or deep in the opponent’s territory. The question, would Rivera go for it in a sub-optimal scenario?
Trailing 13-10 with less than two minutes remaining, Carolina faced a 4th and 7 from their own 36-yard line. Rivera could go for it or punt, what did he do? He punted lowering the Panthers’ odds of winning from 18% to 7%. Was it the right decision?
Had Carolina successfully converted the 4th down, their odds of winning increase from 18% to 40%. A failed 4th down attempt would have decreased their odds of winning from 18% to 4%. You got to know when to hold’em, know when to fold’em… but in this case it appears that Riverboat Ron made the wrong decision. Giving Drew Brees the ball with a lead and less than two minutes to play will usually result in a loss. The Panthers’ defense bailed Rivera out, but the upside of going for it on 4th down outweighed the downside of giving the Saints a short field. By punting Carolina just delayed losing the game (most of the time).
There were two other interesting coaching decisions in this game, both by the Saints. The first resulted in a positive play for New Orleans. Leading 3-0 in the 2nd quarter, the Saints attempted and recovered an onside kick. The Rams pulled the same move on New Orleans last week to positively impact their expected win probability (surprise onside kicks work about 55% of the time). When the Saints executed the play they increased their odds of winning by 5% to make them 63% likely to win. That may not sound like a big difference but for a team that struggles as much on the road as New Orleans; picking up any additional advantage is huge.
The second coaching decision by Sean Payton is a little more intriguing. With 11:51 left in the 3rd, facing a 4th and 12 from the Carolina 34-yard line, the Saints attempted a fake field goal. Luke McCown’s pass fell incomplete and the Saints turned the ball over on downs. New Orleans odds of winning decreased from 47% to 40%. The general reaction on Twitter was that Peyton was crazy to fake a field goal. What do the numbers say?
For starters, choosing to not kick the field goal was wise. Shayne Graham is 13 of 27 (48%) in his career on field goals of 50+ yards. Punting most likely would not result in a net gain; the most likely outcome of punting would be a touchback and a difference of 14 yards of starting position for Carolina. So caught in no man’s land without an accurate kicker Peyton opted to go for it and hopefully get an advantage by surprising Carolina. Bill Barnwell noted that by lining up in the field goal formation and the motioning out of it the Saints got one-on-one coverage for Jimmy Graham. It was only a bad throw that kept the play from succeeding.
Had the fake worked and New Orleans picked up a first down, their odds of winning would have increased from 47% to 58%. The difference is not great but going for it even without Brees on the field, was not the wrong decision…it just did not work out.
Cowboys vs. Redskins
Tony Romo rallied the Cowboys from a nine-point fourth quarter deficit to force a winner take all regular season finale for the NFC East title against Philadelphia next week.
Two consecutive plays changed the Cowboys’ fortune. Down 23-17 with just over two minutes remaining, Romo completed a 51-yard pass to Terrance Williams when the Washington defender fell down. On the next play Romo completed a 17-yard pass to Dez Bryant that setup a 1st and goal from the 4-yard line. Those two plays increased America’s Team expected win probability from 9% to 52%.
No one will talk about it since The Boys won but prior to the 10-yard touchdown pass by Romo to win the game, DeMarco Murray seriously jeopardized the Cowboys’ chances of winning when he reversed field on 3rd and goal from the 1-yard line. Murray’s decision to change direction resulted in a 9-yard loss and lowered Dallas’s odds of winning from 38% to 11%.

Finally, after Dallas scored there was still a 42% chance that they could lose the game since the Redskins just needed a field goal and had a minute to work with.
Steelers vs. Packers
It was a comedy of errors for the Packers at the end of their game against the Steelers.
With less than two minutes remaining, Matt Flynn scrambled in an attempt to pick up a first down. As Flynn dove toward the sticks he fumbled the ball setting Pittsburgh up with excellent field position, 1st and 10 at the Packers 17-yard line. Green Bay’s odds of winning decreased from 40% to 5%. Had Flynn been able to dive for a 1st down the Packers would have become 55% likely to win.
After the turnover, with 1:35 left, the Packers defense forced the Steelers to attempt a field goal. During the field goal attempt Green Bay jumped offsides, the 5-yard penalty was enough to give Pittsburgh a 1st down. Green Bay’s odds of winning decreased from 18% to 5%. Had the Packers not jumped offsides and the Steelers converted the field goal attempt, Green Bay would have had a 27% chance of winning after getting the ball back.
Finally, with 20 seconds remaining the Packers had a False Start penalty that carried a 5-yard penalty and because Green Bay was out of timeouts, it also resulted in a 10 second runoff. At the very least the Packers would have had two more attempts to score if not three but with the runoff, Green Bay saw the game end with an incompletion by Flynn.
Patriots vs. Ravens
The Patriots became 99% likely to win with over nine minutes remaining in the 3rd quarter. I mention this because the final two minutes of the game had no impact on the outcome of the contest but it was thrilling (depending on which side you were on) for anyone who bet the over/under.
  • At halftime the projected final score was 29-12 with New England leading 17-0, below the over/under line of 45 points.
  • At the end of the 3rd quarter the projected final score was 26-10 with New England leading 20-0. Again, still below the over/under line of 45 points.
  • Halfway through the 4th quarter the projected final score was 23-10 with New England leading 20-7. Noticing a trend? The projected final score kept trending down and anyone who bet the under had to be feeling pretty good about their wager.
When New England scored to make it 27-7 with just a little over two minutes remaining the under had to be a lock, right? A fumble returned for a touchdown and a 74-yard pick-six gave the Patriots two quick scores and sent the total over the line of 45 points.

Lions vs. Giants
Headline: Lions eliminated themselves from the playoffs! Of course it took a Giants field goal in overtime, but Detroit did lose five of their last six games.
You could point to a number of failures by the Lions that caused them to lose but I prefer to be positive and focus on how the Giants won the game. In overtime, facing 4th and 7 at the Detroit 42-yard line, the Giants went for it and successfully converted. The Giants improved their odds of winning from 45% to 91%. Had they failed Detroit would have been 76% likely to win.