NFL Week 14 - In the late stages of a poker tournament, as the number of big blinds starts to dwindle, skilled poker players recognize the necessity of taking binary action. ‘Push or fold’ becomes the optimal strategy. Similarly, fourth-down strategies in the late stages of a football game can become justifiably more aggressive. However, these decisions still require careful calculation and are often quite complex, especially when the game is close.
As the Buffalo Bills were mounting a comeback Sunday afternoon against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, some difficult decisions arose for Sean McDermott during the fourth quarter and in overtime. Before we get to that, let’s look at some earlier decisions that were somewhat costly to the Bills in terms of their Game-Winning Chance (GWC).
|9:32 Q2||Trailing 10-0||Fourth-and-goal, Bucs’ 3-yard line||Field goal attempt||Go||-2.2% GWC|
|12:35 Q3||Trailing 24-3||Fourth-and-2, Bills’ 45-yard line||Fake punt, Go||Go||+0.6% GWC*|
|2:19 Q3||Trailing 24-10||Fourth-and-3, Bills’ 45-yard line||Punt||Go||-1.4% GWC|
*While we agreed with going for it, the fake punt strategy seemed unnecessary. It was a mathematically defensible decision to attempt the first down, and simply putting the ball in Josh Allen’s hands seemed more appropriate.
Now moving on to the Bills’ final drive in regulation and the first possession of overtime.
|1:48 Q4||Trailing 27-24||Fourth-and-4, Bills’ 40-yard line||Go||Go||+19.7% GWC|
|0:22 Q4||Trailing 27-24||Fourth-and-2, Bucs’ 7-yard line||Field Goal||Field Goal||+7.9% GWC*|
|8:58 OT||Tied 27-27||Fourth-and-4, Bills’ 31-yard line||Punt||Punt||+2.1% GWC|
With no timeouts remaining, the Bills’ decision to go for it on fourth-and-4 from their own 40-yard line is a no-brainer. Anything else is suicide. The final choice in regulation to kick the field goal is far more interesting. However, there just wasn’t enough time on the clock to justify going for it, as the Bills were out of timeouts. Two timeouts would have slightly tipped the decision in favor of going for it. Finally, the fourth-and-4 choice in overtime is about as highly leveraged as a decision can be and surprisingly close. The Bills correctly chose to punt, which produced 2.1% more wins on average, per the simulation. If it was a fourth-and-2 rather than a fourth-and-4, it would have been a break-even decision to go for it.