Clutch Encounters: Divisional Round
by Scott Kacsmar
For the 14th season in a row, the NFL will crown a new champion after the Eagles were eliminated on Sunday. This extends the longest streak in NFL history without a repeat champion. We should thank the Eagles for their effort in New Orleans, as it was the most competitive game on a very disappointing weekend of action. Both AFC games were decided well before the fourth quarter, with the Patriots and Chiefs set to meet next week.
It was only the fourth time in the eight-division era (2002-2018) where all four home teams won in the divisional round, joining 2002, 2004, and 2015. The NFC East has helped provide a little drama this postseason with both Philadelphia and Dallas games, but we will have another Championship Sunday that includes all four bye teams.
Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind
Eagles at Saints: Now Win Two F'n Games
After three uneventful games this weekend, the Eagles teased us for a quarter with what could have been one of the all-time great upsets in the divisional round. The defending Super Bowl champions dominated the first quarter with a 14-0 lead against this year's regular-season champion Saints. Nick Foles continued to drop playoff dimes while Drew Brees looked terrible with an interception and two more near-turnovers. The hot takes would have been flying left and right from this one. Trade Carson Wentz to the AFC. The Saints were rusty from too much playoff rest. Why was Sean Payton talking up winning three games instead of taking things one game at a time? Can Sean McVay beat Doug Pederson?
But everything changed in the second quarter after Foles misfired on an interception from midfield. Suddenly, Eagles started dropping like flies to injury, and the Saints converted a pair of fourth downs, including a fake punt from their own 30 and a 2-yard touchdown pass. Foles lost his magic touch, and in the third quarter, the Saints embarked on an 18-play, 92-yard drive that actually featured 112 yards of offense due to penalties. Brees threw another 2-yard touchdown pass to Michael Thomas and the Saints led 17-14 going into the fourth quarter.
The reason that teams which take a 14-0 lead usually win is because they continue to score. The Eagles are the 10th team since 2001 to score 14 points on their first two offensive drives and not score the rest of the game. The Saints are now 7-0 this season when holding a one-score lead in the fourth quarter or overtime. Foles had opportunities, but he didn't throw a pass well enough to Golden Tate on a third-and-8 to at least draw pass interference even though P.J. Williams never looked for the ball. The Saints added a field goal to take a 20-14 lead, and Foles' accuracy continued to flounder.
The Saints hit several big plays between the numbers on third-and-long throughout the game. Thomas came through with another to convert a third-and-13 for 22 yards. Just when it looked like the Saints might run out the clock, they called a run to Alvin Kamara on third-and-8. The Eagles snuffed it out well and stuffed him for a 3-yard loss. Kicker Wil Lutz has had a strong season, but from 52 yards away he was wide right with 2:58 left to keep it a 20-14 game. Once again things were going Philadelphia's way in the postseason.
Foles could have really cemented a playoff legacy with another game-winning drive, and it started to look like he was going to do it after a roughing the passer penalty put the ball at the New Orleans 27 with 2:25 left. That's when things went haywire. The Eagles called a rare run to Darren Sproles on first down and it went for no gain. Frankly, that was fine. It felt like a play just to get to the two-minute warning since the Eagles didn't want to score too quickly to leave too much time for Brees, who would have only needed a field goal to win. The Saints were down to one timeout too.
However, the offense hurried to get another play off just before the two-minute warning. It was a simple, short throw to Alshon Jeffery that probably would have set up third-and-6 if it was caught. Instead, Jeffery had the ball go through his hands and right to Marshon Lattimore for his second killer interception of the game. For a postseason that has been lacking in turnovers, this was a huge one, and it wasn't even the quarterback's fault.
— NFL (@NFL) January 14, 2019
Should Jeffery have caught the ball? Absolutely, but this is on Pederson for not managing the clock better. Not only was it asinine to run a play there, but his explanation wasn't any better, citing that they had plenty of time for a simple play. It was a simple play too, and if executed properly, it only would have gained 4 yards. So it's not like the Eagles were rushing to exploit a blown coverage or anything. They ruined their season to get to the line for a 4-yard gain on a play they could have run after the two-minute warning with the benefit of a running clock. This was a massive blunder. The Eagles were only down to one timeout too, so it was a pretty decisive play. A miracle was still possible with a three-and-out, but Kamara ripped a 12-yard run on third-and-10 to seal the deal.
The Saints improve to 6-0 at home in the playoffs in the Brees-Payton era and will host the Rams next week. As for the Eagles, it was a miracle run late this season, and they certainly caught some breaks along the way. Remember, Chicago winning in Week 17 to eliminate Minnesota ultimately got the Eagles in the tournament. They nearly pulled off two big road upsets, but the failure to score on the final seven possessions was too much to overcome. Out of all the injuries during the game, it seemed like the loss of guard Brandon Brooks had the most negative impact on the Eagles as Foles wasn't comfortable after that hot start.
Is that the last we see of Foles in Philadelphia? It has been a wild run, and his final DVOA numbers in the playoffs should be interesting. After that unlikely ending, it's too bad Foles gets the interception stat and Jeffery has to live with the drop because the ball simply should have never been snapped.
Cowboys at Rams: The Clapper and The Real McVay
The Rams have won their first playoff game since the 2004 season. They don't have to find the next Sean McVay, because they found the original two years ago. Just 12 days shy of his 33rd birthday, McVay became the youngest coach in NFL history to win a playoff game with a 30-22 win over a competitive Dallas team. The Cowboys trailed by as many as 16 points, but cut the lead in half going into the fourth quarter. The offense finished 1-for-10 on third down, but head coach Jason Garrett embraced a go-for-it mentality on fourth-and-1.
The Cowboys were able to convert four of their five fourth-down situations on the night (one via penalty), but unfortunately the one failure was crucial. It was the first play of the fourth quarter and the Cowboys faced fourth-and-1 at the Los Angeles 35, trailing 23-15. Since Dallas drafted Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott in 2016, the Cowboys are surprisingly tied with the Saints for the second-most attempts on fourth-and-1 (the Eagles lead NFL with 37 attempts). Dallas is 25-of-31 (80.6 percent) on those plays, which is better than the league average (67.1 percent). While 23 of those plays were against a defense with at least eight defenders in the box, this was a poor time to go tight and slam Elliott into his own linemen for no gain.
Here's the perfect reaction to running into a 9-man front like this with your season possibly on the line on 4th-and-1 pic.twitter.com/47A2B0edkY
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) January 14, 2019
This is really an area we should tackle in the offseason with charting data to see what the difference would be when running from spread formations versus going big. According to ESPN Stats & Info, since 2016, runs on fourth-and-1 against eight or more defenders in the box have converted 68.8 percent of the time, compared to 74.8 percent for fewer than eight defenders. It makes sense that having more space would help a player gain a single yard. With personnel like Dallas', Prescott's mobility should be an asset in keeping the ball himself or pitching on the option if necessary. This game goes down as Prescott's 10th failed comeback in his career (9-10 overall record), but he can't be faulted for that fourth-down call, or that Dallas scored a touchdown on the drive before this and the one after it. The defense just needed to play better.
It was a stellar night for McVay's offensive line. Jared Goff was barely pressured and the line paved the way for Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson to both rush for at least 115 yards and a touchdown. Elliott only finished with 47 yards on 20 carries for Dallas as Anderson actually stole a lot of the spotlight from the running back matchup. Anderson delivered a knockout touchdown on fourth-and-1 from the 1-yard line with 7:16 left to give the Rams a 30-15 lead. That was a curious call, especially since it came after the Rams tried to draw the Cowboys offsides on fourth down before using a timeout. Kicking the field goal there would have been big to hand Dallas a two-possession deficit halfway through the quarter. According to EdjSports, the field goal would have been a better choice by a meager difference of 0.2 percent in Game-Winning Chance.
Oddly enough, it wasn't McVay's most stellar night in game management. He blew all his timeouts with more than five minutes left in the game. The fourth-and-1 run also came after some early field goals on fourth-and-short, so his decisions seemed inconsistent. The field goal on fourth-and-3 to start the game dropped the team's Game-Winning Chance by 2.6 percent compared to going for it. The extra point instead of a two-point conversion to take a 13-7 lead in the second quarter cost the Rams 0.5 percent in Game-Winning Chance.
We're not citing those numbers to say that McVay made huge errors, because they are small differences. However, small differences can add up in a game. We are bringing them up because of the perceived blunder Garrett made after the Cowboys answered with a touchdown on their next drive after Prescott kept the ball himself for a 1-yard touchdown with 2:11 left. Dallas kicked an extra point to trail 30-22 with four clock stoppages remaining.
Down 15 points in the fourth quarter, there is a school of thought that teams should go for a two-point conversion after the first touchdown to cut it to seven points. The usual logic behind this is that the team can gain instant information on exactly what they need and adjust strategy for the rest of the game. In reality, NFL teams almost always kick the extra point first to make it an eight-point game, saving the two-point conversion for later when it's absolutely necessary. This can be viewed as extending the game. It should be noted that these are all dire situations for the trailing team regardless of strategy. Since 1994, teams scoring a touchdown while down exactly 15 points at any point in the fourth quarter are 6-111 (.051) for the game. All six winners kicked the extra point first. Only 11 teams went for two early, and their conversion rate was a poor 3-for-11. It's also worth pointing out that the 2007 Jets converted against Cincinnati with no time left on the clock, so there was no incentive to even defend that play.
I respect people who believe in the early two strategy, but I think it's usually the wrong call, and it definitely would have been the wrong call in Saturday night's game with 2:11 remaining. If Dallas didn't convert there, the game would have essentially been over already. A nine-point deficit so late is a near-hopeless situation where you will have to attempt two onside kicks and recover at least one of them. Why trigger the end of the game before you have to? At least in a 30-22 game, the defense will still play hard and the team will still have morale that it can win. You may not need a single onside kick attempt in that scenario.
At such a late point in the game, the "gained information" argument is such a moot point. The only information you gain so late from a failed two-point conversion is that you're screwed. Whether you're screwed with 2:11 or 0:11 left, you're still screwed and will need a miracle. You need to make the two-point conversion either way. Had Dallas gotten the ball back with 1:40 left, Prescott would have needed to be in hurry-up mode no matter if the Cowboys trailed by seven, eight, or nine points. That's just not enough time to fool around. The argument for two would make a lot more sense if there had been more time available.
Here's something interesting: the EdjSports data does not support going for two in Dallas' case. The Game-Winning Chance (GWC) was 0.9 percent whether Dallas tried the extra point or the two-point conversion (2PC). After rounding, the extra point was actually chosen as the preferred play. These numbers take into account the matchup and quality of the opponents. Before you brush it off as a glitch, I checked the other four games where a team scored a touchdown down 15 and kicked the extra point this season:
- Week 9: When Seattle scored with 1:50 left against the Chargers, the GWC was again practically even, with the extra point as the preferred play.
- Week 8: When Tampa Bay scored with 9:57 left against the Bengals, the GWC was 0.3 percent higher for the 2PC over the extra point, so Edj picked the 2PC.
- Week 7: When Miami scored with 6:00 left against the Lions, the GWC was 0.1 percent higher for the 2PC over the extra point, so Edj picked the 2PC.
- Week 6: When Indianapolis scored with 1:51 left against the Jets, the GWC was again practically even with the extra point as the preferred play.
It's only five games, but these numbers show that the extra time does play a factor. When at least six minutes remained, that's when the GWC preferred going for two, but even then it was just a difference of 0.1 or 0.3 percent. We already showed earlier that McVay had bigger differences than that on multiple decisions earlier in the game. Garrett made the right move by kicking the extra point at 2:11.
I tested the waters with this on Twitter Saturday night and was met with a surprising amount of backlash from people who strongly believe in going for two early. The following tweet wasn't from any of my conversations, but it's the type of argument that is often presented in this case.
Going for 2 early and missing doesn't end the game. Probably like a 0.1% chance (need 2 onside kicks minimum), but there's still a chance. If you do the 2pt on the 2nd score and miss there's a 0% chance since the strategy probably plans on scoring with nearly 0 seconds on clock.
— William Kradel (@WKradel) January 13, 2019
First, the numbers don't support this either. According to ESPN, since 2001, teams down exactly nine points in the final 2:30 are 0-188. So if anything has no chance here, it's apparently that. Meanwhile, teams down exactly eight points are 18-316-1 (.055). This is also a case of saying what you think teams should do versus what NFL teams actually do. While offenses should be mindful of the clock, they still have to approach the final drive with the mentality of scoring when possible. Sure, scoring in the final seconds to force overtime sounds nice, but it's not really feasible in most cases. Also, read the first recap on what the Eagles did Sunday in case you still want to believe teams will only try to score when seconds remain.
Realistically, many of these successful touchdown drives come with enough time left for an onside kick recovery and game-winning field goal should the two-point try fail. So you can't say there's no chance to win if you fail on a late two. Dallas beat Buffalo in 2007 this way after a failed two with 20 seconds left. In the last eight seasons, only 19 offensive touchdowns have been scored in the final 10 seconds by a team trailing by one score. Compare that to 54 touchdowns scored with 11 to 30 seconds left. Since 2011, there have been 16 offensive touchdowns scored in the final 60 seconds by a team trailing by exactly eight points (so a 2PC was needed). Only two of those teams waited until fewer than 20 seconds remained to score, and none needed a snap past the final 15 seconds. If you're going to play the information card, then you have to acknowledge that teams down eight will know they can't wait until the very last second to score. They need to keep a little buffer time available for a miracle onside kick recovery and field goal. It's not like this really changes the offensive strategy as teams will take the touchdown whenever they can get it in the final minute.
We've already spent more time on this than it deserved, but I'll wrap up with one more angle. A counterpoint to me was that going for two early opens up the possibility for winning in regulation by going for another two after the second touchdown. That's definitely true, though does anyone see the NFL as a league where coaches are thinking "8+8" when they face a 15-point deficit? They're thinking overtime. Also, Dallas had already scored on a 2PC in the third quarter. A lot of teams prepare a best play for these situations for that week, so expecting any offense to go three-for-three on conversions in one half is expecting a lot. Even two-for-two is a lofty expectation on coin flips.
As for the actual ending to this one, it wasn't that dramatic. Dallas could have tried an onside kick, but those are so hopeless this season that improving field position wasn't the worst decision. After kicking deep, Dallas just needed a stop and still had four clock stoppages. The four-minute offense is usually poor across the league, but the Rams came out of the two-minute warning with a cunning plan on third-and-7. Goff held the ball on a bootleg and ran for a big 11 yards to make Dallas burn its second timeout. Instead of Gurley, Anderson wrapped things up with two good runs to get another first down and end the game. The Cowboys failed to get the ball back, making their point-after strategy a moot point, but we needed something to rant about for this bland divisional round weekend.
McVay has the Rams in the NFC Championship Game in his second season. The Cowboys have still not reached that game since the 1995 season, and that marks eight full seasons where Garrett hasn't advanced past the second round. In the Super Bowl era, only three head coaches (Ted Marchibroda, Norv Turner, and Gary Kubiak) reached their first conference championship game in their ninth season or later, and none of them did it with their first team. It would be a real rarity for Garrett to ever get there, and this team is going to face some salary cap struggles with the offensive core (including Amari Cooper) looking for their second contracts.
Maybe count the Cowboys in on looking for the next McVay next offseason.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 71
Game-winning drives: 90 (plus three non-offensive game-winning scores)
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 152/264 (57.6 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 35
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.