Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships
Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Scott Kacsmar

After a postseason that had been lacking in drama and memorable moments, Championship Sunday delivered with two overtime games that will be remembered for a long time. They just may not be remembered for the right reasons in New Orleans and Kansas City, as the home teams both fell for only the fourth time in this round since the merger. 2018 joins 1992, 1997, and 2012 as the only seasons where that happened.

You could say one game got to overtime after a travesty (a no-call), and the other got to overtime after an absurdity (38 points in the fourth quarter). Since neither game was the Super Bowl, it's hard to say if the NFL will feel pressured enough to expand replay or overtime for next season. Personally, I feel both changes are long overdue and will give my thoughts below on how the NFL could improve those areas of the game. One group that won't get any scorn this week is the kickers, who made all nine of their field goals and had no missed extra points.

Game of the Week

New England Patriots 37 at Kansas City Chiefs 31

Type: 4QC/GWD (OT)
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 4 (28-24)
Game-Winning Chance Before: 56.1 percent
Game-Winning Chance After: 100.0 percent
Win Probability Added: 43.9 percent
Head Coach: Bill Belichick (55-81 at 4QC and 71-82 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Tom Brady (44-40 at 4QC and 57-42 overall 4QC/GWD record)

This is the NFL's 99th season. Ten teams have scored at least 540 points in a regular season and none of those teams won a championship. The 2018 Chiefs, third all-time with 565 points, are the latest to fall short of the ultimate goal. Trailing 14-0 at halftime, it looked like the Chiefs might suffer one of the worst crash-and-burn efforts by one of those scoring juggernauts, but that was not the case for Patrick Mahomes. He found a way to drop 31 points in the second half alone, but once again fell victim to a defense that could not get him the ball back.

That was always going to be the question with Kansas City this postseason. Could the defense that ranked 32nd in yards per drive, 28th in points per drive, and 26th in DVOA (32nd against the run) close things out against a top quarterback? I thought they would be in that late-game position against Andrew Luck last week, but the Colts were shockingly poor in that divisional-round matchup. The Patriots were of course much better prepared with a run-heavy approach early that threatened to significantly limit Mahomes' possessions. The Chiefs only had the ball four times in the first half, including a drive that started with 21 seconds left in the second quarter. On one of those drives, Mahomes missed a wide-open Damien Williams for a touchdown; the drive then came up empty after Mahomes also took a bad sack to move out of field goal range. At halftime, Tom Brady's red zone interception was the only thing keeping this from a rout.

Pressure was significant to the outcome. According to ESPN Stats & Info, what these teams did pressure-wise last week really carried over to Sunday night as well. Last week, Mahomes suffered four sacks and was pressured just over 40 percent of the time against the Colts. This week, Mahomes was pressured 44.4 percent of the time and took four more sacks, losing 45 yards in the process. The Patriots pressured Philip Rivers 45.3 percent of the time last week and kept Brady clean (11.4 percent). Brady's pressure rate was even lower this week (10.9 percent) despite the fact that the Chiefs had the best pressure rate by any defense at home this season. Brady never took a sack and was only hit once on the night. That's a sure-fire way to lose to this team, as only the 2015 Broncos and 2017 Eagles have been able to keep up the pressure on Brady in crunch time of the playoffs in recent years.

The score was actually low for a while, with the Patriots taking a 17-7 lead into the fourth quarter before the Chiefs added another touchdown. After stopping Rex Burkhead on a fourth-and-1 run, the Chiefs had an opportunity to take a lead, but the offense went three-and-out. That's when the officials became heavily involved, but they actually seemed to get four replays right in the final nine minutes. The first was an apparent muffed punt by Julian Edelman that he likely didn't even touch. If there wasn't a rule that a muff can't be advanced for a touchdown, Chiefs fans would probably be really up in arms on this one since the call on the field was a turnover and the review is supposed to be conclusive to overturn it. Either way, Edelman should not have tried going for that ball, and two plays later he tipped a pass for an interception anyway. That led to the first go-ahead touchdown by the Chiefs after they got Williams wide open again for a 23-yard touchdown on a screen with 7:45 left.

One thing the officials got badly wrong was a roughing the passer penalty on Chris Jones that otherwise would have put the Patriots in a third-and-7. Jones did not hit Brady's face, and the frustrating part about that call was the inconsistency since Mahomes had a similar play earlier where the officials correctly let it go. Given the way the Chiefs played defense on third down, the Patriots may have overcome that situation anyway, as they were 13-of-19 on third down. Chris Hogan converted a big third-and-8 by pulling in a pass with one hand and getting his arm under the ball for enough control to avoid an incompletion. That led to a 10-yard touchdown run by Sony Michel on fourth-and-1 when most were expecting the Brady sneak.

Down 24-21 with 3:26 left, Mahomes needed to be mindful of the clock, but he did launch an ill-advised bomb with 3:02 left that was nearly intercepted in the end zone. One play later, the Chiefs got Sammy Watkins open on a pick play for a 38-yard gain on a night where Travis Kelce had the dropsies and Tyreek Hill wasn't much of a factor. The Chiefs only ran the ball 10 times for 30 yards with Williams, but he did come through with a touchdown to give the Chiefs a 28-24 lead with 2:03 left.

Brady had all three timeouts left. The situation dictated it, but the Patriots also clearly moved to a more pass-happy approach later in the game after seeing how well they could handle the rush from the Chiefs. Kansas City did force the offense into one third down, and it looked like a Super Bowl berth was on the horizon after Rob Gronkowski tipped a pass for Brady's third interception with 54 seconds left, but Dee Ford was lined up offsides to nullify the play. That was just terrible awareness by Ford, and this is the last team and quarterback to give an extra chance to in this spot. Gronkowski delivered on the very next play with a 25-yard grab to the 4. The Chiefs basically let the Patriots score with Burkhead, which was really the right move at that point given how inevitable the touchdown felt.

Down 31-28, Mahomes still had a timeout left at his own 31 with 32 seconds left. That's still doable, and he bought time to hit a play for 21 yards before using his timeout. With the Patriots jumping offsides, Mahomes had a free play and used it wisely for a 27-yard gain that also stopped the clock. In just 16 seconds, the Chiefs moved 48 yards with two clock stoppages (one being a timeout), so keep that in your memory bank when you see an offense just kneel to end a half. The Chiefs were in a tough spot at the 21, and Mahomes took one shot to the end zone that was basically a throwaway. He really could have tried one more for the win with 11 seconds left, but given the low probability of success and the way the Patriots were getting pressure -- the game would have ended with a sack -- the field goal was probably the wise move. Harrison Butker doesn't have a long history of clutch kicks, but he delivered from 39 yards to send the game to overtime.

In overtime, the Patriots won the toss and of course elected to receive. In 16 career overtime games, Brady has gotten the ball in his possession 14 times. One of the only two times he didn't was in 2015 against the Jets when Bill Belichick actually kicked off after winning the toss. Even though the Chiefs forced third-and-10 three times in overtime, Brady converted all of them. They even toyed with the Chiefs by throwing incompletions to Cordarrelle Patterson twice and attempting a weird flea-flicker, but when it came down to it on third-and-long, the usual suspects showed up and the Chiefs had no answers for them. After getting to the red zone at the 15, the running game took over and Burkhead finished off the Chiefs with three runs, including the 2-yard touchdown to end the game at 37-31.

All Mahomes could do was watch from the sideline, much like he did in Week 6 when Brady got the ball late in a 40-40 tie and led a game-winning field goal drive. The Patriots had two games this season with over 500 yards of offense and both were against the Chiefs. Brady's 56th game-winning drive ties him with Peyton Manning for the most in NFL history. It was a historic type of win all around. The Patriots join the 1971-73 Dolphins and 1990-93 Bills as the only teams to appear in at least three straight Super Bowls. Home teams had been 16-0 in the conference championship round when committing zero turnovers, but the Chiefs lost this one. Since 1940, playoff teams that scored at least 31 points with zero turnovers had been 64-1. The only other loss was the "Ghost to the Post" game in 1977 when Oakland beat the Colts, also by a 37-31 final in overtime. That was actually in double overtime, so both teams touched the ball in overtime that day.

Both offenses certainly didn't touch the ball in overtime in this one, and it's hard to see how the NFL can continue to be the most popular league with the worst overtime system. Even a Super Bowl where one team with the reigning MVP quarterback never touched the ball failed to change anything. High school football, college football, the Arena Football League, and the CFL understand that this isn't a game celebrated for someone to score first, but as a challenge to see who can score the most points. Hell, even NFL Europe used to give both teams a possession. It's just the fair and logical thing to do in a game where both sides of the matchup matter.

Baseball doesn't end even if a team hits a grand slam in the top of the 10th inning; the home team gets three outs too. Some will argue baseball isn't as physically demanding, but the NFL is a league that schedules Thursday night games well into December. A few extra minutes of action in a playoff game every once in a while isn't going to hurt anyone. Rules can be different for the playoffs too. We saw it this weekend with the clock going back to 15 minutes instead of the 10-minute idea in the regular season. Playoff hockey is physically taxing and those players can go for two or three extra periods while playing a game two nights later as well. That game is also so limited in scoring that sudden death works perfectly for it. Basketball is about who can score the most in an allotted time, and it's hard to see why the NFL isn't moving in a similar direction, even if it means playing a full 10 or 15 minutes in the playoffs to crown a winner.

Football has changed a lot. Joe Montana was 84-1 as a starter when his team scored at least 25 points. Mahomes is already 14-5, with at least 28 points in all of his losses. Before the NFL signed off on the first modified overtime game in the 2011 season, it did not expect we'd see so many 500-point teams or 5,000-yard passers, or see 400-yard passing games became a new norm. When the salary cap era started in 1994, teams averaged 1.64 points per drive. By 2004, it was only up to 1.73 after illegal contact was reinforced. In 2009, when the Saints beat the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game after Brett Favre never touched the ball in overtime, the league averaged 1.76 points per drive. But scoring has increased more recently. In 2016, the season where the Patriots beat the Falcons in Super Bowl LI in overtime, the average was 1.97 points per drive. Things topped out at 2.04 points per drive in 2018.

Rules should change along with an evolving game, and this season has shown that offense rules. So why are we still going to let a coin flip decide the most important games of the season? While the coin toss doesn't directly put the ball in the end zone, there is still an advantage to receiving first. If that wasn't true, then 116 out of 120 teams wouldn't have chosen to receive first. In the 120 modified overtime games, the team receiving first is now 60-53-7 (.529). The team receiving first has won immediately with a touchdown 24 times now, or 20 percent of the games. This is more likely to happen when good teams are involved. In 25 overtime games between teams that finished the season with winning records, there were eight first-drive touchdowns (32.0 percent), or almost double the rate of how often that happened in the other 95 overtime games (16.8 percent).

In the eight playoff games with modified overtime, the team receiving first is now 7-1, with New Orleans yesterday as the only loss. Five of those eight games have ended with a first-drive touchdown, meaning the 2011 Steelers (at Denver), 2014 Packers (at Seattle), 2015 Packers (at Arizona), 2016 Falcons (vs. New England), and 2018 Chiefs (vs. New England) never touched the ball in overtime. While this system may work well enough in Week 7 when FOX wants to make sure Buccaneers-Saints doesn't cut into the start time for Bob's Burgers, it's not good enough for the postseason.

The solution isn't to adopt a hokey college system where both teams start at the same point on the field. It's simpler than that. For the playoffs, the NFL should just guarantee that both teams get a possession. If it's still tied after that, then the game can go to sudden death. At the very least this will make sure both sides have a say in overtime, and teams may have to actually think about whether or not to take the ball first or go on defense. The common rebuttal that the losing team "should have played defense" should fall on deaf ears after the winning team didn't even get challenged. The reason this particular game got to overtime was because the New England defense allowed a field goal in the final seconds. That came on the heels of allowing two go-ahead touchdown drives. Yet that unit never had to be held accountable in overtime by making a stop because a coin toss dictated otherwise. If the rest of the football and sports world can do better than this, so can the NFL.

While the Patriots prepare for their ninth Super Bowl in 18 years under Brady and Belichick, the Chiefs have some work to do to get over this hump next year. Firing defensive coordinator Bob Sutton after years of diminishing returns should be the first step. CBS' Tony Romo sounded like he had a better grasp of what the Patriots were doing. Under Sutton, the Chiefs were abysmal in protecting one-score leads this season. The 4-4 record sounds bad enough, but consider that one of those "holds" was in Week 8 when Denver had four seconds to go 85 yards. In the first game against Denver, Case Keenum should have had a game-winning touchdown in the final 20 seconds, but badly missed the throw. Even in Week 14 against Baltimore, Robert Griffin III came off the bench and had a fourth-and-22 pass in overtime that Willie Snead should have caught, but didn't. The cleanest pressure stop the Chiefs got all year was against Arizona's rookie Josh Rosen, the worst statistical starter of 2018, and even that was an interception with over 12 minutes to play. Jared Goff, Philip Rivers, and Brady (twice) all picked apart the Chiefs in crunch time this season. If Brady didn't get the Chiefs twice, Goff may have just done it in two weeks. This defense simply wasn't championship-caliber.

Perhaps the best news for Mahomes is that the Patriots are near the end of their run while he'll be 24 years old next season. The AFC should inevitably be going through some changes, but for at least one more year, the Patriots weren't ready to pass the torch just yet.

Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind

Los Angeles Rams 26 at New Orleans Saints 23

Type: 4QC/GWD (OT)
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 3 (23-20)
Game-Winning Chance Before: 72.4 percent
Game-Winning Chance After: 100.0 percent
Win Probability Added: 27.6 percent
Head Coach: Sean McVay (6-6 at 4QC and 6-6 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Jared Goff (6-8 at 4QC and 6-8 overall 4QC/GWD record)

For a change, the latest playoff disappointment in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era came primarily with the offense on the field. It wasn't so much anything either of those guys did on Sunday, but the cumulative effect of missed opportunities that kept the Rams in the game even after a miserable first quarter left L.A. with a 13-0 deficit. A fake punt eventually helped get the Rams on the scoreboard, and Jared Goff finally was able to strike deep before halftime to take a 13-10 deficit into the locker room.

This wasn't any brilliant coaching turnaround by Sean McVay on the road, but greenlighting the fake punt and having the stones to banish a struggling Todd Gurley (six touches and two third-down drops) to the bench for C.J. Anderson were big moves for the Rams. The Los Angeles running game never really materialized, but getting Goff more comfortable and finding better spacing for Brandin Cooks really helped on a third-quarter touchdown drive to answer a New Orleans score.

The Saints led 20-17 to start the fourth quarter, and both of these teams had been 7-0 this season when protecting a one-score lead in the fourth. On the first play of the quarter, Nickell Robey-Coleman got quite handsy with Ted Ginn on a third down, but no flag was thrown. That was a precursor of things to come. After a Cam Jordan sack made the Rams go three-and-out, the Saints blew another golden opportunity with great starting field position at the Los Angeles 46. Instead of adding to the lead, a holding penalty set back the drive, and Brees was nearly intercepted by Robey-Coleman on third-and-17.

Next drive, on a third-and-3, Goff made one of the biggest plays of his career to find Gerald Everett for a 39-yard gain after a rare case of extending the play. The Rams eventually had a first-and-goal, but Goff was slow in deciding to scramble on second down, so he didn't get a touchdown. The officials also missed a facemask on the play that would have given the Rams a first down. Gurley has a great nose for the end zone, but Anderson got the third-down carry and was stopped a yard short, bringing up fourth-and-goal at the 1 with the clock beating down towards five minutes left. I think given the time, the field position, and the strength of your offense at running in these situations, going for it would have been the smart move. McVay settled for the conservative option of a 24-yard game-tying field goal following a delay of game penalty. According to EdjSports, the Game-Winning Chance for a run from the 1 was 46.9 percent, compared to 34.5 percent for a field goal. That's hardly the worst decision we've seen this season, but that's a pretty big error that nearly cost the Rams dearly.

While the game was tied at 20 and the Saints weren't going to be super aggressive, those short completions by Brees drain the clock quickly. After one nice find of Alvin Kamara on a third down, the clock was suddenly under three minutes. Brees rarely ever attacked down the field on Sunday. While Michael Thomas wasn't shadowed by Aqib Talib, the Rams did an excellent job in taking that connection away from the Saints. Thomas finished with 36 yards on seven targets, his third-lowest game of his career.

However, Brees was looking for Ginn in the fourth quarter and found him on a 42-yard strike in front of Lamarcus Joyner to get to the two-minute warning. That felt like a Super Bowl-advancing type of play with the Rams down to two timeouts, but the Saints didn't nail the execution afterwards. A low pass from Brees to Thomas on first down kept the clock still at 1:55. A no-gain run by Kamara quickly brought up third-and-10. Brees threw quickly to Tommylee Lewis coming out of the backfield, and Robey-Coleman blew him up near the sideline. Everyone expected a flag for defensive pass interference (the hit was early with the ball in the air) or for an illegal hit to a defenseless receiver, but the damnedest thing happened: no flag came.

If that's not textbook pass interference, then nothing is. Any side judge should have been able to see that one. The head official, Bill Vinovich, actually had a petition this week for him to not be assigned to this game since the Rams had been on an 0-8 slide with him doing their games, but they got the gift of all gifts here. NFL history is loaded with egregious officiating blunders, but it's hard to think of an obvious no-call worse than this one. Reportedly, it wasn't long after the game that Payton received word from the NFL that they botched this one badly. Had the call been made, the Saints would have had a first down. They could have run three plays, with the Rams burning their final timeout on one of them. That would have set up a short field goal with 10 to 15 seconds remaining, which would have given the Saints an outstanding probability to win the game, of course. It was an atrocious miss, and Robey-Coleman didn't hold back after the game on it. He knew he was trying to blow up a receiver to and got away with one.

While the game didn't just end here, it pretty much should have. So what can the NFL do to limit these mistakes in the future? I think the solution is quite simple: leave coaches one challenge per game, but make everything challengeable. Since all scores and turnovers are automatically reviewed, coaches don't have to use their challenges as much anymore. By giving them only one, you can make them prioritize better. Instead of challenging a spot for 4 yards of field position in the second quarter, maybe they'll save that challenge for something important later in the game. The idea that a "judgment call" shouldn't be challenged is ludicrous. Anything that has to be judged by human eyes is a judgment call, including a completion, or whether there were 12 men on the field at the snap, or whether or not a lineman false started. If you've paid attention this season, you know false starts are being missed all the time. So if Mike Tomlin had been able to challenge here that the Chargers had a false start, then that touchdown would have been voided in Week 13. If a replay system exists to give a play another viewing and get it right, then why shouldn't everything be fair game?

I would be open to a coach getting a second challenge if his first is successful, but overall, I don't think this would lengthen games by any significant margin. It would also add some more strategy to coaching and hopefully cut down on the atrocious calls we see far too often in this league. This wouldn't be necessary if the officials were better, but as Sunday proved yet again, too often they are not even when the stakes are at their highest. It's always best to correct a call during a game rather than in a phone call afterwards.

Rant aside, the Saints still could have stopped the Rams after Wil Lutz's 31-yard field goal gave them a 23-20 lead with 1:41 left. Goff hung in against the pressure, and may have had a 51-yard touchdown right up the middle of the field to Robert Woods if the throw had been better to allow Woods to keep his feet. That converted the only tricky part of the drive on a third-and-3 at midfield, but it also cost the Rams their final timeout. The offense only gained 3 more yards and set kicker Greg Zuerlein up with a difficult situation. A 48-yard field goal with the season on the line in that hectic atmosphere with the crowd noise was not an easy kick, but Zuerlein nailed it to send the game to overtime.

No qualms with the Saints taking the ball first, and they even looked like they might get a make-up call or two after a pass interference penalty was finally called on the Rams for 14 yards. But after a 6-yard loss by Mark Ingram, Brees had to throw on second-and-16. The Rams traded for Dante Fowler this season for moments like this, and he delivered with a spin move that got to Brees and hit him in motion. John Johnson made an interception while lying on his back as the ball fluttered, and the Rams were at their own 46 to start the drive, only needing a field goal. Brees, who turned 40 this week, was intercepted once in six of his last seven games after starting the season with one pick in 10 games. This was the 120th game of his career (52-68) that presented a game-winning drive opportunity, but fewer losses will sting more than this one.

The Rams didn't exactly thrive on offense with the win in sight. On a third-and-7, McVay was again content with a bubble screen to Cooks, who looked like he was going to get buried even before he dropped the ball. That set up a 57-yard field goal attempt for Zuerlein, which would have given Brees the ball at midfield had he missed. This was another huge, pressure kick, but Zuerlein delivered right down the middle to send the Rams to the Super Bowl.

After edging the Chiefs 54-51 in Super Bowl 52.5 and coming back to steal one in the Superdome against the Saints, McVay and the Rams can finish off their run with a Super Bowl win over the Patriots in two weeks.

Season Summary

Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 73
Game-winning drives: 92 (plus three non-offensive game-winning scores)
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 154/266 (57.9 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 36

Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro Football Reference. Screen caps come from NFL Game Pass. Game-Winning Chance (win probability) data is from EdjSports.


44 comments, Last at 24 Jan 2019, 3:12pm

1 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

"So if Mike Tomlin had been able to challenge here that the Chargers had a false start, then that touchdown would have been voided in Week 13."
Funny you mention Tomlin. If memory serves, he actually said he doesn't like the idea of judgment calls being challengeable (Considering his recent success with challenges ... well)

2 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

"In the 120 modified overtime games, the team receiving first is now 60-53-7 (.529)."

That's not as high as I would have thought, basically a 3.5 game swing over 120 games. What was the percentage in the 120 games (or in the 7-8 years) prior to the OT rules modification?

3 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

Don't have the prior parsed out, but you have to remember that bad teams/offenses can still get to overtime, and those teams can win a coin flip just as easily.

One thing I thought was interesting was the idea that home-field advantage in the playoffs should determine what a team wants to do to start overtime (likely receive). For the Super Bowl, you can just do the team with the better record. The home team has gone 67-45-7 (.592) in these games, so that's a better percentage than the team that received first (.529) or scored last in regulation (.521).

8 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

Instead of the OT coin toss, teams should bid on starting field position, with the lower bid starting OT with the ball at that yard line. This idea removes the randomness of the coin toss.

In Chiefs-Patriots, with both teams wanting the ball in OT, I think both Belichick and Reid would have been willing to bid pretty low. Say the Patriots bid the 12 yard line and the Chiefs bid the 8 yard line, and the Chiefs start OT with the ball at the 8. All other OT rules the same.

Yes, it's still incumbent on the defensive team to make a stop to earn the win, and with slightly worse field position for the offense, that helps the defensive team's chances. Also, the randomness of the coin toss is gone - if it turns out that the defensive team can't prevent the opening drive touchdown, well, the coach could have bid lower and gotten the ball for himself.

Also, this procedure gets rid of one kickoff, which the NFL is trying to downplay anyway.

I'd be curious to see how the bidding would play out between Patriots-Chiefs or Rams-Saints versus, say, Cardinals-Niners. Teams with worse offenses might have a bid in the low 20s. But in the playoffs, teams usually have pretty good offenses, and so the bidding would be more aggressive. Theoretically each team would bid a number where they are indifferent between having the ball or not. But that number would depend on each coach's perspective.

9 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

That is a good point, but I am not sure you should exclude bad offenses winning the OT coin toss from the data. TD/drive, while elevated this season leaguewide, is still under 25%. NE was 27%, KC was a ridiculous 40%. So it's still a less than 50% chance that even the best videogame-like offense scores a TD.

Funny, though. Even though I said all that, I do agree that the OT rules should be modified again. While better than the true sudden death OT from before, it could be improved further. Each team gets a possession. If still tied, then it goes to sudden death. For me, though, it is more an issue of fairness rather than statistics. I doubt the change would move the needle significantly on that .529 win% for who wins the coin toss (or whatever the win% is for good offenses).

10 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

I think that giving the kicking team a possession even after an opponent's TD would itself be a significant unfair tactical advantage, since that team would obviously now be able to use 4 plays to reach every first down on their drive, unlike the receiving team that has to balance the options of punting and FGs.

That advantage already plays out in the final drives of close games, and (admittedly eyeballing it since I don't have the stats) it seems pretty significant, with teams routinely going for it on 4th down deep on their side of the field. While it still makes sense (and is unavoidable) at the end of a long game, it does not seem reasonable to me at the beginning of OT. You want to win, stop the other guys. Your D is part of your team as well.

12 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

According to the piece above, receiving teams have won 60/120 OT games overall. First drive TDs accounted for 24% of OT victories, 32% of victories among winning-record teams and 5/8 playoff games. When the sample size is there, I don't see a statistically significant advantage worth addressing right away (although if the playoff trend continues, then maybe it will be worth looking at in a few years).

The issue is one of perception, and that issue would not be solved by allowing kicking teams the benefit of 33% more plays to reach 1st down, looking to tie the score. (Also, call me cynical, but I suspect that had KC won the coin toss and won on Sunday, we'd now be hearing about Mahomes' greatness and how unstoppable the KC offense is, without a peep about the unfairness of it all.)

15 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

As Scott wrote in the article, out of 120 OT games, the team winning the coin toss has wanted to receive 116 times. Coaches evidently perceive benefit to having the ball to start OT, but the core issue is that they don't always pay the market price for it.

That's why I like the field position bidding process I mentioned in a post above.

Under the current rules, the market price is determined by the result of a kickoff. Could be a touchback and at the 25, or maybe the returner gets out to the 31, or maybe the receiving team's 3rd string TE commits a penalty and the drive starts at the 12. The price is variable. Yes, kickoffs are part of the game, but as noted above, teams are choosing to receive kickoffs in OT because they perceive benefit to having the ball to start OT. To me, this suggests that coin-toss winning coaches expect the post-kickoff field position to be relatively advantageous to their winning chances (under whatever other OT rules are in place). With a coin-toss, coaches get this expected advantage for free. A bidding process removes that advantage.

In Patriots-Chiefs, the Patriots started OT at the 25 after a touchback. Would Reid have wanted to start OT at the 25? Of course. At the 24? At the 16? At the 8? Who knows. But make Belichick and Reid pay market price for the first possession.

Also, I like this idea much better than guaranteeing each team a possession. And the only real change to current rules is we're eliminating one kickoff.

40 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

Instead of bidding, how about putting a bit more "foot"-ball into the process?

Send both punters out at the 30 yard line and have them kick toward the far end zone, similar to lagging for break in pool. Whichever team's ball stopped closest to the goal line gets to choose whether to start on offense or defense, at the spot of that ball (or if it's in the end zone, at the 20 after a touchback--maybe go Price is Right-style and have anything past the goal line lose to anything short of it). From there you can even do straight sudden death.

24 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

This seems to confuse win probability with whether an asymmetric system is a good way of deciding games

Flipping a coin would produce a perfect 50-50 win probability - perfectly "fair" in percentage terms, but not a good way of resolving a game of football.

The issue for me is that football is essentially 2 sub-games or matchups: Offense A vs Defense B, and Offense B vs Defense A. A tied game might arise from both of those sub-games being quite even, or it might involve both defenses dominating, or both offenses dominating.

What seems bizarre and wrong is to have an OT system where the ultimate result can be determined by just one of those sub-games/matchups, rather than both. The effect is that Offense B and Defense A can be rendered completely irrelevant.

4 Officiating

It's funny: through my NE fan-glasses, I observed the Chiefs getting away with a ridiculous amount of OPI, picks, etc, even as they allowed the KC DBs cover the Pats wideouts hair shirts. My glasses most noticed this in the second half when the league sent down the secret order to the refs to let KC back into the game (Kidding, kidding). If KC had won, I wouldn't have donned my tinfoil hat but I would have been pretty burned by the flagrant inequality, and muttered to myself about home-cooking and unconscious bias.
A mind is indeed a terrible thing.

30 Re: Officiating

In reply to by RobotBoy

Even without the Patriot-tinted goggles, Geoff Schwartz shares my point of view.

5 'Tight Windows'

ESPN ran an interesting video on Brady's elevated success rate in throwing into 'tight windows' on Sunday. I don't know what the definition of 'tight window' is but it does add some support to my earlier perception that Pats receivers really struggled to gain separation.

6 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

Scott, I understand your points about the overtime rules and bemoaning the fact that the weakest unit in the NE-KC game got put on the field in overtime when the other unit that was struggling in the 4th quarter didn't, but it's not like the Chiefs defense was completely awful the entire the 4th quarter either.

On NE's first two drives in the 4th quarter, the Chiefs stopped them on 4th and inches, then got an interception. On the Pats third drive with KC up 21-17, the Chiefs forced them into a 3rd and 8 but Hogan makes a terrific diving catch (no shame there) w/6:25 left then they force another 4th & inches, this time Michel got the TD as opposed to Burkhead getting stopped, but KC had what they wanted right there where if they stop them, they get the ball back with a 4 point lead and 3:35 to go. Make the stop. Then on the 4th drive for NE, the Chiefs were up 4 with 1:01 left and get the stop they needed via the interception, but Dee Ford's penalty took it away. Yet they still had 3rd & 5 after the penalty which it ended up with Eric Berry failing to turn around and make a play on the underthrown ball by Brady to Gronkowski.

And finally in overtime, Brady was 1 for 6 passing on 1st/2nd down, leading to three 3rd & 10's on their own 35, KC 45 and KC 30. If the Chiefs got the stop they needed on either of the first two plays, they force a punt and Mahomes gets his shot. If they give up the first two plays, but get the stop on the 30, NE probably kicks the FG on 4th & 10 and Mahomes gets his shot.

The Chiefs defense had plenty of chances to either win this game in the 4th or give Mahomes the ball in OT and just didn't get it done on any of these plays, that's not the OT rules, that's the Chiefs defense, be better.

14 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

Is there a way to calculate the change in the win expectancy from the no-call? Based on what I see on the ESPN Gamecast, the Saints were at about 77-78% at the time of the play. Surely this must have been a swing of about 20% of win expectancy from the no call? I calculated something on football reference that makes it seem like 90%, but this doesn't seem to include provision for time outs.

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Re: Overtime. People hate two things about it: 1) the randomness of the toss, and 2) the potential unfairness of not getting a chance.
To solve the toss issue, I think the game shouldn't pretend to start again - it should just resume where it stopped. Eg. this last weekend, the Saints and Patriots both took a knee to run out the time in the 4th quarter. My rule would dictate that it's their ball at the beginning of overtime - 2nd and 10 from wherever they were (since they took a knee already). Get rid of that toss (and another pointless kickoff). It would make teams keep playing at the end of the 4th, even if they only had 10 seconds. No more settling for overtime and gambling they will win the toss. It might cut down on random hail marys with the score tied though, for fear of interception and some speculatory field goal attempts from deep. No big loss in my view.
For the unfairness aspect, it's hard to get a perfect system. I'm in broad agreement with Scott about regular season vs playoffs. Make the system more aggressive in weeks 1-17 (and I think the current one is decently aggressive), but make both teams play out a longer game in the playoffs. I'd favour a full 15 minute quarter, whoever is in front at the end wins, If tied, then whoever scored first wins. No, no, if tied the team with the higher DVOA for the game wins :)

17 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

Scott historically has defended the current OT rules when he has no rooting interest or when the Patriots lose because of them, but objects to them if the Patriots win because of them.

He positively loved the modified sudden death rule when Belichick opted to kick off OT and Brady never got the ball. So he's OK with the rule if the Patriots don't get a drive in OT. He only hates the rule if their opponent suffers the same fate.

Just sayin'.

20 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

People are also behaving as if the Patriots marched down the field with zero resistance. They didn't. They had to convert multiple 3rd downs that required pinpoint throws from Brady.

Yes it was undoubtedly a stroke of luck receiving first against a somewhat fatigued defense, but it still requires execution under the most intense pressure. Reading various analysts give the Pats offense no credit whatsoever by suggesting their path to the end zone was virtually unimpeded, and instead demanding changes to the OT rules, definitely smacks of churlishness.

22 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

Also for the sake of fairness, when Belichick elected to kick against the Jets in OT, it was his choice, and things just turned out the other way.
But if a coach has a reasonable degree of confidence that their D can limit the opponent to at best a FG on the opening possession (as was the case with the Pats that day, I presume), I think that kicking is actually a very reasonable strategy, precisely because it gives you the advantage of knowing what your end goal should be, and the option of 4 downs to get there if needed. On the other hand, I suspect that coaches overwhelmingly pick the ball (even in the absence of a clear statistical advantage) probably a) to avoid the public perception of "foregoing a shot at winning", and b) because Belichick famously tried it the other way and failed (it takes a coach very secure in his job like BB to take that risk).

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Then he's been playing both sides. Because he's certainly been on record supporting the newer rules as fair to both teams.

Here's something from 2015 Week 16, regarding Belichick opting to kick off in OT:

Now Belichick has done it twice, and this one resulted in a loss, so of course the pitchforks are out, but I think it was a very reasonable move. I practically beg for a coach to do this every other overtime game, so hopefully this outcome does not deter Belichick or anyone else from doing it in the future. Overtime has changed, and going first on offense is no longer an automatic decision.

That certainly does not sound like outrage or disappointment that only one team got to go on offense. Nor does it sound like a first drive TD ending the game is in any way unfair, to the other team or to its fans.

Here's some more from a game that went the other way: The Ravens elected to receive and lost by a FG after punting in week 11 of 2013.

Harbaugh won the toss and foolishly received....It was the perfect example of the difference between playing conventional three-down football versus the advantage of four downs:
- Down 20-17 in regulation, Baltimore went for it on fourth-and-4 at the Chicago 44.
- Tied 20-20 in overtime, Baltimore punted on fourth-and-5 at the Chicago 46.
By going first in overtime, you practically confine yourself to traditional three-down football.

No chance for outrage there. But he sure sounds like he thinks the receiving team's TD-instant-win advantage is offset by the Knowing-What-You-Need advantage of kicking off.

You may be right that it's not solely his well-known anti-Patriots bias at work. He might have biases for or against other teams, too, or just be an inconsistent guy.

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I've had to write about all 120 modified OT games during my eight seasons on the job. Feel free to dig through all 120 of them if you can find them. We appreciate the clicks. Or you can just acknowledge the receipts on Twitter that my opinion hasn't changed since Game 1 of 120 ended that I think both teams should get the ball.

Also, I was critical of Aaron Rodgers years before it was the cool thing to do. Yet here's what I wrote for the 2015 NFC divisional recap of GB-ARI:

"But maybe the worst part is that for the second postseason in a row, Green Bay lost in overtime with Rodgers and the offense never taking the field. You just wonder how much longer the NFL can let this happen when fans want to see more action in the playoffs and a fairer system. The regular season is what it is, but we can do better in the playoffs. The game is not about who can score first, but who can score the most. Maybe that means a 10-minute period played in its entirety, or ensuring that the other offense always gets one do-or-die possession to match the touchdown. Alternatively, both teams could start a drive at the 50, with the team that scores the most points on that possession winning. That would put some strategy into fourth downs and two-point conversions since it would not always be obvious to go for it if you didn't think you could convert fourth-and-18.

Green Bay's proposal might be a Hail Mary competition, but we need something better than what we have. You cannot have an offense do what Green Bay did to tie this game and not allow fans to see another drive of that matchup. These finishes are rare, but certainly avoidable in the playoffs."

The next time a game ends in OT like this, I may not say anything about changing the system. That doesn't mean my thoughts aren't well established for years on the topic.

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I think the goal should be to set up OT to be as fair as possible to both teams. Going by current rules, each coach might put their winning chance at 50% before the coin toss. After all, the teams are tied after four quarters. But once the coin is tossed, one team's perceived winning chances go up, perhaps considerably. In both of the games this weekend, I'd figure all four coaches expected to win 55%-60% of the games in which they received the first possession of OT. (Your mileage may vary, but because of the first possession touchdown rule, if you have a good offense, you'll want the ball.) Expected kickoff results are baked into that 60%. The problem is that once the coin is tossed, one team's winning chances go to 60%, the other team's go to 40%, and the only thing that happened was the toss of a coin. In effect, one team spends $50 to get something they value at $60. That's the unfair aspect, in my view.

I mentioned elsewhere in the thread the idea of bidding for starting field position. I think this is a simple and elegant way of ensuring fairness. Mechanically, at the end of regulation, each team writes or says their bid for starting field position and the bids are collected and announced by the referee. The team with the lower bid gets the ball at that yard line. If bids are the same, toss a coin or do another bid. If the Patriots bid the 19 and the Chiefs bid the 16, the Chiefs start OT with the ball at their 16. All other rules the same. The Chiefs can win with a TD on the first drive of OT, but they have to balance their bid with the fear that if they get stopped, the Patriots would have slightly better field position to drive for a game-winning field goal. So there's considerable risk in bidding very low.

In theory, each team would bid a number on which they are indifferent between having the ball for themselves or letting the other team have it in worse field position. No matter the result, each team would perceive their victory chances at 50% or greater. (Their actual chances may differ from that, but that's kind of the analytical fun.) Say the Patriots bid 19 and the Chiefs bid 16. The Chiefs start at their 16 but the Patriots would have been happy with the ball at the 19 or with the Chiefs starting at the 18 or less. So the Chiefs perceive their winning chance at 50% and the Patriots at 50%+ because of the extra two yards of bonus field position. This is a much fairer starting point than the 60/40 mentioned above.

This idea would remove one kickoff but also introduce some analytical riches between perceived and actual winning chances. And some fascinating situations, like if you started with the ball at your 10 on the first drive, and you face 4th and 4 at your 16 - knowing the defensive team only needs a FG to win - do you go for it?

Also the market price would differ by the game. I bet a bidding system with Patriots-Chiefs would have had one of the teams starting at the 12-15 yard line; both offenses were rolling, and Reid would have bid aggressively knowing how tired his defense was. For Jaguars at Bills in a 10-10 game in horrible December weather, the market price might be out past the 25.

Furthermore, this mechanism could be used with whatever other OT rules are in place. Want to play a 15-minute 5th quarter, most points at end wins? Fine, you can still bid for getting the ball first (I do think there's a benefit to first possession in a single 15 minute period). 10 minute period? Sudden death? Sure. The market price would change because of the underlying rules, but the mechanism would be fair in all situations.

29 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

The bidding system is absolutely the fairest one and a great idea. The coaches could be required to lock in their bids using their Microsoft Surfaces. They could be on the clock for one minute before having to lock in their bids to keep the game moving.

Well, it might not have worked in the KC-NE game 'cuz Belichick totally destroyed his Surface after showing the sideline official the missed pick play in Q4.

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I think it's a bad idea to try to "improve" one element of overtime that is different from the way the game is played in regular time (sudden death!) with another element that is ALSO different from the way the game is played in regular time (both teams guaranteed to get a possession!).

Instead, just have the game work the way it does in regular time and play a full period. If you're concerned about the physical wear and tear on players, make it a full 10-minute period. (If the team receiving the kickoff manages to possess the ball for a full ten minutes and then kick a field goal, they deserve to win.)

If it's tied at the end of the overtime period, play a second overtime period.

I'd also have these rules apply only to the postseason - but then, I'd get rid of overtime altogether for the regular season and just let games end in a tie.

32 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

OT is simple.
1. Get rid of it in the regular season. This will force teams to play for the win more and make games more exciting. If it leads to more ties...oh well.
2. In the playoffs, simply play one more 10 or 15 minute period. This ensures that both teams have an opportunity to get their offence on the field and adds in the strategic elements of time/possession management.

Replay is *mostly* easy too.
1. Get rid of challenges. They are stupid. It shouldn't be up to the coaches to figure out when the refs f*%#ed up. All replays should be initiated from the booth. Not only should they be initiated from the booth, they should be DONE by the booth. When a bad call is made, the refs are the last people in North America to know the correct call. If I know what the call should be within 5 seconds of the play ending, why does it take the refs 2 minutes to figure it out? Have someone in the booth make the call and relay it down to the field. This will also give the person reviewing the call the luxury of seeing the play from 4 different angles on 4x 50 inch screens rather than trying to decipher what happened on a 11 inch tablet screen. If a coach wants to make sure that the booth takes a long hard look at a play, they should be able to call a timeout and have the official call up to the booth to tell them what to look for.

Where it gets tricky is reviewing penalties. Clearly there needs to be a system for this...but only egregious non/penalties should be reversed/enforced. As everyone says, holding could be called on every could illegal contact and DPI. I don't have a good answer for what you can/can't reverse.

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"1. Get rid of challenges. They are stupid. It shouldn't be up to the coaches to figure out when the refs f*%#ed up. All replays should be initiated from the booth. Not only should they be initiated from the booth, they should be DONE by the booth. "

Exactly the opposite. There is no good reason to leave access to reversal to the booth. Let the teams challenge anything - just limit the total number of challenges allowed.

The situation on Sunday very well would have been exactly the same if "the booth" had been allowed to challenge the no-call on the DPI. Certainly we've seen no good indication that the NFL is willing to admit officiating mistakes.

On the flip side, I'm hard pressed to see the down side of letting Sean Payton demand that an outside official review the no-call on the obvious DPI. Everybody who looks at that play knows it's DPI. The only reason it wasn't enforced is because of the officials' reluctance to throw a flag. There's no reason to think that reluctance would disappear simply because a different individual was involved. You really need the interested party to have the power to initiate the challenge.

34 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

Team with bad D and good O should start onside kicking in OT when they don't get possession.

Unfortunately, they changed KO rules and onside is more difficult but is it any significantly better than have your 90 snaps D on the opponent 25 than the opponent 45?

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From the rules:
If the kicking team legally recovers the kick, the receiving team is considered to have had its opportunity.

So, yes, recovering an onside kick and then driving to a FG wins the game.

This means both teams have a path to an instant win.

Receiving team: Receive the kick. Drive to a TD.
Kicking team: Recover the kick. Drive to any score.

Onside kicks are probably still a bad bet. But this would certainly qualify as a "surprise" onside kick. Those are much more likely to succeed. (I'm not sure how much more likely under the newest rules - there's not enough data to know yet.)

39 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

How about a bit of discussion on whether Andy Reid made the correct decision when he won the regulation coin toss?

He elected to put his young star QB on the bench and give the Patriots the ball.

Of course against the Pats you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't.

But surely he must have realised the Pats would use that power running game to take as much time off the clock from the beginning.

Wouldn't he have been better sending out Mahomes for the opening drive with intent to take an early lead throw the Pats out of run offense early?