Offenses Seemed to Take Some Interesting Breaks During NFL Wild Card Weekend
I'm never quite sure what decision-making trends to expect out of the NFL playoffs. It seems any decision can be justified by the playoffs. "It's the playoffs," one of the exalted keepers of the true knowledge can say. "You have to leave it all on the line," he says as the coach keeps the offense on the field for a fourth and goal.
But, he could just as easily say, "You don't have a choice here. You have to live to fight another day." The field goal team trots out for a 20-yard chip shot instead.
The field goal teams were out in force for Wild Card Weekend. Presented with 27 fourth downs inside the opponent's 40 yard line, teams kicked 17 field goals, punted twice, and went for it just eight times. Of the 17 field goal attempts, only eight were the optimal win expectancy choice according to the 4th down calculator. All told, coaches left 0.24 of win expectancy and 6.3 expected points on the table with these decisions.
Overall, teams saw 66 fourth down plays and made the optimal decision 49 times. Only one of the 11 decisions to go for it was suboptimal (by Washington when they were already down by 10 late in the game) and seven of the 33 punts were as well. The biggest whiffs were typically in field goal situations, but to the coaches' credit, the kickers were sharp: they combined to convert 16 of the 17 field goals on the week.
Still, there were a few calls worth questioning even given the true kicks. After making a borderline call to go for it on fourth-and-5 from the 34 -- probably the right call given the unreliability of Mason Crosby this season -- and succeeding, the Packers kicked on a fourth-and-goal from the one yard line with 3:25 to go in the 2nd quarter. The Seahawks, up by seven against the Redskins, chose to kick on fourth-and-goal from the 4 with 5:32 to go in the game.
Despite the automatic nature of field goals from such short distances, the Packers were leaving 2.1 points on the board (they "led" the week with 4.3 EPA and 0.10 WPA below optimal decisions). For the Seahawks, leaving Washington pinned inside the five down by seven was a roughly equivalent position to leading by 10 and giving them the ball on a kickoff; leading by 14 would have all but assured overtime as the worst possible case.
Fourth down decisions made a boring game in Houston between the Texans and Bengals into an infuriating one. Gary Kubiak's Texans chose to kick from inside the 10-yard line three times and again on a fourth-and-1 from the 30; he also punted on a fourth-and-1 from the 50 up by six in the third quarter. All told, he left 3.3 points and five percentage points of win expectancy on the table.
Marvin Lewis had fewer tough decisions to make, but he was somehow even more passive. He twice chose to kick field goals down by nine, first on a fourth-and-2 from the 16 in the third quarter -- the one miss of the weekend -- and again on a fourth-and-2 from the 29 in the fourth quarter. Lewis left a full point on the table with these decisions and, more importantly, seven percentage points of win expectancy.
Of course, solid play and good coaching in other areas can more than overcome these (usually) small tactical errors. The Packers and Seahawks won despite worse decisions (by WPA) than the Vikings and Washington. The Bengals and Colts were losers in the same situation.
A breakdown by team and situation can be seen below:
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