One of the most remarkable play sequences of week 7 occurred in the closing minutes of a game that isn’t likely to have much bearing on who wins the Super Bowl this year. With 1:12 remaining in the Falcons–Lions game, Todd Gurley of the Falcons reluctantly stumbled into the end zone for a touchdown, and after a successful two-point conversion the Falcons were in front by 22-16. Matt Stafford subsequently orchestrated a thrilling game-winning drive in the final minute and left the Falcons’ Raheem Morris wondering what could have been. The actual plot was more complicated than what appeared on the surface. Here’s a breakdown of the central characters and their roles in this drama:
All indications are that the Lions’ defense was instructed to let the Falcons score. This is confirmed by the defenders readily signaling for the touchdown when Gurley crossed the goal line. When Patricia called his final timeout after the Falcons picked up a first down on the Lions’ 10-yard line, the plan was to entice the Falcons into the end zone and put Stafford in position to execute a game-winning drive. Without this gambit, the Lions would likely bear witness to a game-winning field goal of essentially the same success rate of an extra point.
The Falcons must have been onto the Lions’ ploy as it appears Gurley was told to take a knee short of the endzone to set up the field goal.
Gurley charged through the defense on the now infamous play as if his instincts for scoring took over. When he finally realized this was contrary to the plan, he tried to hit the brakes, but it was too late.
The Lions’ defense properly opened the door for Gurley, but an attempt by the Detroit safety to grasp the runner almost thwarted the plan. It was difficult, at first, to tell if Harris was trying to strip the ball or actually bring Gurley down. Ironically, it may have been Gurley’s effort to break the tackle that provided the momentum that propelled him into the end zone. When Harris joined his teammates in uncharacteristically signaling for the opposing touchdown, his true intent may have been revealed.
If Stafford didn’t manage to execute the final drive, most of the prior details would be a trivial footnote. However, when the opening was provided by Gurley, Stafford was only too happy to take advantage of it.
An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after the Lions’ last second touchdown added an extra layer of uncertainty to what should have been a formality. The extra point was moved back to the 30-yard line, resulting in a more difficult kick to avoid overtime.
Prater put the finishing touches on a most unlikely comeback when he had to kick a 48-yard extra point for the win.
While both head coaches had the right idea, sometimes the execution by the players can get in the way. Detroit’s best opportunity to win was indeed to let Atlanta score right away, provided the Falcons accept the offer. Although it was not the Falcons’ intent, scoring immediately reduced their Game-Winning Chance (GWC) by 9.1% according to a simulation by the EdjSports model. While Gurley certainly deserves much of the blame, it may have been misguided to hand him the ball in the first place. If the Falcons simply take a knee and avoid the risk of a turnover, they are guaranteed a chance at a game-winning field goal of minimum difficulty. The Falcons would then have a GWC of 94.7%. By scoring the touchdown and giving Stafford 1:04 and no timeouts, the Falcons’ GWC drops to 85.6%. We can debate how likely the Lions might be to succeed on a game-winning drive, but it should be clear that it is well in excess of 5.3% (the chances of Atlanta missing the field goal). The unsportsmanlike penalty after the Lions’ touchdown reduced the success rate of the extra point from approximately 94% to 75% and would stand to cost the Lions -9% GWC on average.