UPDATE: For those who don't like our estimated (read: made-up, guessed at, etc.) percentages, please note that the NY Times' Fifth Down blog has the numbers we assumed were out there but couldn't find: both a statistical analysis and a computer program based on actual results that say the probability of a win for New England was better going for it rather than punting.
The knee-jerk reaction last night was to rip Bill Belichick. How could he go for it? There was howling on Twitter. There was second-guessing everywhere. We had about 30 seconds where we couldn’t really believe the Patriots were considering going for it. The situation seemed absurd: 4th-and-2 from their own 28, up by 6, with 2:08 to play against Indianapolis, which had one time out left. The Patriots had no timeouts (more on that later).
But we started to love the idea as New England walked to the line. Then everything blew up in the Patriots’ faces: the pass was caught at about the 30.5 yard line, enough for a first down, but the referee ruled the receiver was juggling the ball and gave him forward progress only to the 29.5. (Side note: If you look at the replay, receiver Kevin Faulk only juggles it for a split second, and in our estimation he still gains control past the 30, which would have been a first down. The Patriots, though, had no timeouts left and therefore couldn’t challenge – revealing a seldom-invoked insanity in the challenge rule. Usually a team has at least one time out left before the two minute warning (when booth reviews replace coach challenges). But it’s absurd that a team can’t challenge a call because of something that isn’t inherently connected to a challenge, such as not having a time out left. It’s like saying you can’t order pancakes at a restaurant unless you are paying with only 10 dollar bills … or that you don’t get health care because you have the wrong kind of job. Whoops, got political there).
We digress. The challenge was not the issue. Perhaps a challenge would have overturned the spot and given New England a first down and everyone would have been talking about Belichick’s guts. That, too, would have been flawed because it would have kept the conversation focused on the outcome instead of the process. Belichick wasn’t crazy. He wasn’t a maverick. He wasn’t going against the odds; in fact, he was playing the odds in his favor. He just happened to be playing them in a way that contradicted conventional thinking. Here's the breakdown of possible outcomes as we see them (and please know we don't root for either team in question. At all):
*Patriots go for it and make it. They make a first down about 45 percent for the year on third down and fourth down, but we can’t find a stat for third or fourth and 2 yards to go or less so, but we have to guess the number is significantly higher. They had already gained close to 500 yards in the game, for an average of 6.6 yards per play. Up until that fourth down play, the Patriots had gained at least 2 yards on 45 of their 70 offensive plays (64.2 percent). They have one of the best and most accurate QBs on the planet, a fantastic short-yardage receiver (Wes Welker), one of the all-time NFL greats at WR (Randy Moss) and an offensive scheme that feels as though it should be able to get two yards even in a pressure situation like that. We put the chances of them converting that 4th down somewhere between 55 and 60 percent. Maybe that's even conservative, but we'll go with it. If they do make it, the game is essentially over. Clock stops at the two-minute warning. The Colts can stop it one more time. Worst-case scenario for New England (outside of a turnover): Three running plays and a punt gives the Colts the ball, in all likelihood, with about 20 seconds left and no timeouts from their own 30. Chances of the Colts winning the game if the Patriots make that first down: about 3 percent (fumble, big punt return, Manning magic).
*Patriots go for it and don’t make it. Indy takes over in great field position with 2 minutes left. Chances of Indy scoring a TD: 80 percent in our book. The Colts have the momentum and an equally great QB, and that’s plenty of time. Still, there’s a chance Manning throws a pick, there’s a fumble, or a turnover on downs. But here’s the underrated part: there was also a decent chance the Patriots would get the ball back even if the Colts scored. If Joseph Addai had rumbled into the end zone instead of being stopped at the 1 with 1:10 left, New England gets the ball back with plenty of time to kick a field goal. Instead, the Colts drained the clock like pros and didn’t give New England a chance. But we’ll put the chances of Indy scoring so quick that New England gets the ball back and goes back down to get a winning field goal at 15 percent of the 80 percent of times Indy scores.
So Belichick figures he can win in one of three ways: make the first down and the game is essentially over. 55 percent chance. Miss the first down but stop the Colts on defense. 20 percent chance. Give up the TD but come back to win anyway. 15 percent.
*New England punts. The Colts get the ball somewhere around their own 30 with 2 minutes left. Indianapolis has all the momentum and Peyton Manning. This one is more subjective, but we put the chances of Indy driving for a TD somewhere around 40 percent. Maybe that’s too high; maybe it’s too low. That’s not a ton of time, but it’s plenty of time. It would likely take 8-10 very good plays, but that’s Manning’s specialty, especially against a young and struggling defense. You don't think Manning pulls that out at least 2 of every 5 times? If they go that far and score, there is almost certainly not going to be enough time on the clock left for a New England counter drive. Maybe 2 percent of the time. So the Patriots win about 60 percent of the time if they punt.
So in our estimation the chances of the Patriots going for it and making it – the nearly no-doubt method that practically ends the game – are only about 5 percent worse than if they punt. But then you have to consider the 45 percent of the time they go for it and miss it. If they stop New England 20 percent of those times, that’s another 9 percent of games they win overall. If the Colts wind up scoring but the Patriots get the ball back and score (15 percent of 36 percent of the overall scenarios), that’s another 5.4 percent of games they win overall.
So going for it, in our book, gives the Patriots 55 percent (at least) + 9 percent + 5.4 percent chance to win. That’s nearly 70 percent. Punting gives them maybe a 62 percent chance of winning. We won’t defend Belichick and the Patriots staff as human being. We saw the security guy next to him throw the camera man to the ground. Classless. (Video above).
But we have to disagree even with high-profile breakdowns that suggest his decision was wrong. Belichick is not a moron. Nor is he crazy. He was just a coach giving his team the best chance to win. If the method defied convention, that's not his fault -- it's laziness on the part of the viewer to dismiss it outright simply because it didn't follow a normal football script.