Do we have any football fans in the house? If you aren’t a fan, just skip down to the links. If you are a fan, hopefully you caught the Patriots-Colts’ “Rivalry of the Decade” game. Whenever these teams get together it’s always comes down to the wire. As a Patriots fan, losing a game with a 17 point fourth lead is pretty harsh. There are a lot of reasons why it happened, but everyone wants to talk about the controversial call by Bill Belichick to go for it on 4th-down in an attempt to run out the clock.
Before I get to that, there were two previous plays that should get attention. They simply are being overshadowed by that call. The Patriots had the ball at the Colts 1or 2 yard line when Lawrence Maroney fumbled and the Colt recovered. That’s the kind of play you look back on in a 1-point loss. The other play was a 36 yard pass interference call – on a very late flag. I thought it was straight up defense with little or no contact. Two ESPN analysts said it was a “dicey” call and Deion Sanders of NFL Network said it was “a questionable call”. The Colts went on to score a touchdown in the next couple of plays. Patriots fans everywhere remember the phantom pass interference that proved to be the difference in the 2006 AFC Championship game that got the Colts into the Super Bowl over the Patriots. The heavily favored Colts ran away with the game.
The play everyone is talking about is the Patriots’ decision to go for it on 4th down from their own 28-yard line. The Patriots didn’t get the necessary two yards (though replays show it was pretty close with the receiver’s foot over the 30 yard line after securing the ball) and the Colts got the ball back with a short field. Deion Sanders later said it was a bad spot by the referee. The Patriots couldn’t challenge the spot because they had used up their timeouts.
The alternative was to punt the ball away. On a SportsCenter.com 58% of the people say there is no excuse for the call, 27% say it was somewhat understandable giving the flow of the game, and 15% say it was right call.
Tedy Bruschi, a former Patriots defensive player who could become the mayor of Boston if he wanted to, said that . Bruschi said that the decision didn’t give the Patriots’ defense the chance to win the game and wrote that Belichick dissed his defense. With all due respect to Bruschi, I don’t believe the defense was a large thought in Belichick’s mind. I think Belichick had a couple thoughts in his head:
- We have a great QB and offense – The strength of the Patriots is the offense. It still has the key players that made it the highest scoring offense in the history of the NFL in 2007. The defense has a lot of young players drafted in the last 2-3 years on it.
- They have a great QB and offense – Peyton Manning has already secured himself a spot in the Hall of Fame and some can argue he is the best QB of all time. Punting the ball gives him more than 2 minutes (plenty of time) and four downs on every set (the Colts wouldn’t punt or kick a field goal down by 6). It is always a smart move to keep the ball out of Manning’s hands – even if you have the 1985 Chicago Bears defense.
Another way to look at it is this. Since 2001 (Tom Brady era), the Patriots get a first down on 4th and 2 or less 76.4% of the time. That’s a 76.4% chance that you’ll be able to run out almost all the clock, virtually guaranteeing the win. An average punt typically nets 38 yards of field position… very close to the 36 yards that can be erased on a dicey pass interference call. Advanced NFL Stats broke down the probabilities of going for it on 4th down vs. punting and found that an average team had a 9% better chance at winning (79% vs. 70%) if they go for it. However, if you plug in the Patriots’ 76.4% on 4th and 2 or less, it goes up to 95% win probability in the Patriots favor. Of course that 76.4% may be artificially high since he it likely includes a lot of easier to convert 4th an inches.
In the end, analysts seem to be starting to realize that Belichick made the right decision to go for the win. The difficulty that some people are having is that it so unconventional to go for it on fourth down on your own side of the field with a lead. This is a case where the conventional wisdom is simply wrong.
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