Dissecting the Epic Battle Between the Chiefs and Bills
NFL Divisional - After the first three games of the NFL divisional round playoffs were completed, it was hard to imagine it could get any better. Then, the Chiefs and Bills proceeded to play one of the greatest games in NFL history on Sunday night. This Game-Winning Chance (GWC) chart, generated by the EdjSports simulation model, provides a visual representation (from the Chiefs’ perspective) of the volatility that defined the late stages of the game. The conversation after the game centered on some key fourth down decisions, the final kickoff in regulation, and the fairness of the overtime rules. We will address them in that order.
Key Fourth Down Decisions
As indicated in the following tables, the Chiefs gave up 7.7% GWC on two (high confidence) fourth-down errors while the Bills cost themselves 10.9% GWC on two (high confidence) errors. As mentioned last week, the “high confidence” tag is used when the model’s play call recommendation still holds after a very strong counter-case is applied to the original decision. High-powered offenses such as these are typically under greater scrutiny for fourth-down aggressiveness. This is evident in the Bills' decision to punt on fourth-and-1 from their own 34-yard line in the third quarter. A first-down attempt would have been risky for sure, but on average the punt costs the Bills more than 7% in GWC, especially at a time when the Chiefs were having great difficulty stopping Josh Allen.
The Kickoff at 13 Seconds
Much has been discussed during the past 24 hours regarding Buffalo’s strategy to kick a touchback. Some have suggested a squib kick was called for to limit the return potential and to burn a few precious seconds. Assuming the Chiefs would have been disciplined enough to fall on the ball, very little time would have been burned, and the Chiefs may have had a better starting position than the 25-yard line. The more compelling strategy would have been a short kick to around the 10-yard line to induce a return. Empirical data from the past 20 years show that kick returns burn about 7 seconds of game clock on average. The expected starting position for the Chiefs on such a kick would still have been around the 25-yard line, but now they would likely have time for only one offensive play. Of course, this strategy provides an opportunity for a long gain on a kick return, but this possibility also exists on an extra play from scrimmage. Regardless of the Bills’ choice in this situation, Patrick Mahomes’s execution was extraordinary at a time when the Chiefs' GWC had dropped into single digits.
Most observers had a strong suspicion that whoever won the coin flip and chose to receive was going to win this game. Fortunately for Kansas City, the flip landed heads and Mahomes marched his Chiefs downfield for the victory. This raises the deeper question regarding the fairness of the current overtime rules. Since the rules were updated in 2012 to award a win on a first possession touchdown, the receiving team has won 56.6% of the time with a standard deviation of about 4%. While this doesn’t represent a particular bias to either team (the coin flip is, of course, 50/50), it does argue for a different format that doesn’t allow the coin toss to play such a big role in the outcome. Last year, the Baltimore Ravens re-introduced a proposal for the “Spot and Choose” overtime rule, which seemed to gain some traction although most believed it would take years for adoption. This idea was first introduced by Football Outsiders back in 2003. After last night’s thrilling finish, this proposal is sure to be revisited. In fact, the debate has already begun.