Last night's Patriots-Colts game ended in spectacular fashion, with the majority of the sports world coming down hard on Bill Belichick's decision to go for it on 4th and 2 from his own 28 yard line with just over two minutes remaining. The Patriots led by 6, and Indy had 1 timeout remaining. The Colts had fought back from deficits of 17 points to start the 4th quarter, and 13 points with only 4 minutes remaining.
After watching Indy put together two quick 79 yard touchdown drives, each taking roughly two minutes (5 and 6 plays respectively), Belichick didn't want to give Indy QB Peyton Manning a chance to win the game, and elected to try to convert a first down, which would have sealed the game for the Patriots.
Obviously, when Belichick's gamble failed, the entire Monday Morning QB universe came down on him for his "horrendous decision." Advanced NFL Stats, however, attempts to quantify the expected value of the decision to go for it instead of punting:
"With 2:00 left and the Colts with only one timeout, a successful conversion wins the game for all practical purposes. A 4th and 2 conversion would be successful 60% of the time. Historically, in a situation with 2:00 left and needing a TD to either win or tie, teams get the TD 53% of the time from that field position. The total WP for the 4th down conversion attempt would therefore be:
(0.60 * 1) + (0.40 * (1-0.53)) = 0.79 WP
A punt from the 28 typically nets 38 yards, starting the Colts at their own 34. Teams historically get the TD 30% of the time in that situation. So the punt gives the Pats about a 0.70 WP.
Statistically, the better decision would be to go for it, and by a good amount. However, these numbers are baselines for the league as a whole. You'd have to expect the Colts had a better than a 30% chance of scoring from their 34, and an accordingly higher chance to score from the Pats' 28. But any adjustment in their likelihood of scoring from either field position increases the advantage of going for it. You can play with the numbers any way you like, but it's pretty hard to come up with a realistic combination of numbers that make punting the better option. At best, you could make it a wash."
What seems like an asinine decision is actually probably pretty close when you run the numbers. Obviously, the probabilities are not exact - Indy may be more likely (maybe 70%) to score from the Patriots 30 yard line, and less likely to score from their own 35 yard line with 2 minutes and one timeout. New England may be closer to 70% to convert the first down attempt. Indy also may get better field position if New England punts - or they may fumble the punt (like Buffalo fumbled the Pats' kickoff with 2 minutes remaining in week 1!) - it's not an exact science. The point is that perhaps Belichick's apparently insane decision wasn't quite as crazy as it seemed. I'd use the estimates of 70% for New England to convert the first down, 70% for Indy to score if the Patriots failed to get the first down, and 30% for Indy to score if they got the ball inside their own 35 yard line. Those assumptions yield a win percentage of 79% for "going for it" and 70% for "punting." I think we actually need to DECREASE the win percentage for "punting" though, because Indy may get better field position.
Now, what I have a problem with is the strategy change the Pats made in the fourth quarter - playing a softer defense - not quite a prevent D, but one that allowed Manning to pick them apart for two quick scoring drives. Against many teams, when you're up by 17, this strategy is ok - but against Peyton Manning and the Colts, who run a precision no huddle offense, taking less than 12 seconds to re-snap the ball after each completion, time just doesn't become an issue for them. Similarly, when the Patriots had the ball on their final two drives, they shouldn't have tried to kill the clock - they should have kept up the offensive pressure that Indy couldn't stop all game long.
Anyway, this was a gutwrenching loss for Pats fans - it will be interesting to see if the anger at Belichick is tempered over the next week as fans try to understand his likely considerations - or if they will view him as having jumped the shark and become a crazy old man.