Sometimes being bold can align with playing the percentages. Sometimes when you think too hard, though, you really are just overthinking.
For the Giants on Sunday night against Dallas, both of these things were proven in a 27-26 last-second loss to the Cowboys. Essentially, New York was too conservative at the exact wrong times and too brazen at other times. It conspired to chip away at the Giants' chances of winning.
We know because of the wonderful Win Probability Calculator via wp.advancedfootballanalytics.com. Here is a look at three critical missteps and how they impacted the game:
1) The Giants led 23-20 and had a first-and-goal at the Dallas 4 with 1 minute, 54 seconds remaining in regulation. On their next two plays, however — both rushes by Rashad Jennings — they reportedly told Jennings not to score, presumably to force the Cowboys to use their final two timeouts. Jennings reached the 1, setting up third down. Had he scored on either of the first two downs, putting New York ahead by 10, the calculator tells us the Giants had a 97 percent chance of winning, given the amount of time left.
2) As apparently instructed, though, he did not score. Dallas used its timeouts. And on third down, the Giants called a pass play that resulted in an incompletion, leaving the clock stopped. Had they called a running play, even if the Giants didn't score, Dallas would have had less than a minute left when it got the ball back. That would have given the Giants a better chance to win regardless of what happened next: attempting a field goal or going for it on fourth-and-goal from presumably the 1.
3) But the reality was fourth-and-goal from the 1 with 1:37 left. At this point, they still could have salvaged some advantage by going for it. Scoring, again, would have put them at a 97 percent chance to win. But even not getting it — and being ahead by three, with Dallas presumably at its own 1 with a little more than 1:30 left — would have left New York a 90 percent chance to win.
But the Giants kicked a field goal, for a six-point lead. Dallas returned the kickoff to the 28 with 1:29 remaining — and the Giants were down to a 78 percent chance of winning.
That's still a good chance, but hardly the near-sure thing that came from scoring a touchdown or the 9-in-10 chance had they left Dallas at its own 1.
Why make a big deal since it's just one game?
Well, FiveThirtyEight.com looked at NFL data for teams that finished between 5-11 and 11-5 from 1990 through 2013. Those that started the season 1-0 made the playoffs 54 percent of the time while those that started 0-1 only made it 25 percent of the time.
So yes, a few bad seconds (and decisions) can potentially define a season.