There are two sides to every improbable dramatic victory. There is the winning team, which gets all the glory and about 80-90 percent of the attention in the aftermath. But then there is also the losing team, which almost always aids and abets the dramatic finish with some sort of terrible play or decision.
Let’s talk for a moment, then, about the Packers’ 24-23 victory over the Bears on Sunday night. Almost all the focus is on Aaron Rodgers, and rightfully so, since the Packers quarterback came back from a first half knee injury (I’ll have some of whatever they gave him) and rallied Green Bay with three second-half touchdowns.
It was an all-time performance from an all-time great, setting the stage for even more intrigue leading up to Sunday’s game between the Vikings and Packers at Lambeau Field.
But the Bears? Oh, they played a role. They can be forgiven for stumbling in the second half. They cannot be forgiven for a decision that came late in the game and set up a seemingly inevitable finish.
At issue: After embarking on a marvelous, clock-killing drive, the Bears arrived at the Green Bay 14-yard line facing third down and a short 2 yards.
There were 2 minutes, 47 seconds left and the Packers had just called their final timeout. A first down from there would basically ice the game, since a play of any length would take the clock past 2:40, and the Bears wouldn’t have to run another play until after the two-minute warning. From there, with the Packers out of timeouts, three kneeldowns would do it.
They tried a pass that fell incomplete. Fine, it happens. That set up fourth-and-2. Every part of me — and every part of every Bears fan — should have been yelling at them to go for the first down.
Pro Football Reference win probability data culled from NFL history says the Bears had an 80.6 percent chance to win at that point given down, distance, margin (up by three points) and time left. That data, it should be noted, does NOT include information about opponent timeouts which is relevant in this case since Green Bay was out of them.
Going for it and getting stopped only would have decreased their chances of winning to 77.4 percent, while kicking a field goal and making it only boosted them to just 82.5 percent (again, these are all historical averages. I’d say in both cases they were lower given how good Rodgers is).
Going for it and making it? Regardless of timeouts, it boosts the chances of winning to 95.9. And really, in this case, it would have been approaching 100 percent with only three kneeldowns needed.
Teams convert short-yardage situations (1 or 2 yards) into first downs about 60 percent of the time, but let’s say for the Bears it was a coin flip that they get it or don’t. That still gives them about an 89 percent chance to win if they go for it, regardless of whether they make it — compared to the 82.5 percent with kicking the field goal.
Given that the Packers were out of timeouts and given that Rodgers was shredding the Bears defense, giving him the ball back at Green Bay’s 25 with 2:39 left with a six-point margin — the result achieved when the Bears did, in fact, kick the field goal — seems like an even worse choice.
The best way to win that game — both in terms of probability and in-game feel — was to go for it. If you have a reasonable chance to keep the ball away from Rodgers, you take it. Instead, Bears coach Matt Nagy choked in his first game and helped Rodgers be the hero as a result.