Patriots better off running late vs Cardinals

September, 18, 2012
9/18/12
11:26
AM ET
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesThe Cardinals had just a 37.3 percent chance of winning after Ryan Williams' late fumble.
On an NFL Sunday with several exciting endings, the Arizona Cardinals-New England Patriots game stood out. The obvious reason was that Arizona – a team already on its second starting QB and nearly a two-touchdown underdog – came into New England and pulled off a remarkable upset.

Beyond that, this game also had the two biggest plays of the weekend in terms of win probability added – that is, the change in each team’s chance of winning from before the play to after the play. The more unexpected one that made the last few seconds matter in the first place was the Ryan Williams fumble and Vince Wilfork recovery with just over a minute left that gave the Patriots’ first-and-10 at the Arizona 30-yard line.

The Cardinals went from having a 92.6 percent chance of closing out the win to just 37.3 percent as the Patriots took over in field goal range trailing by only two points.

But surrounding that game-altering play were two Patriots’ decisions that had a sizable impact on the outcome.

Two-Point Conversion Play Call

Clearly there is no case for the extra point down two with under three minutes to go, which is when the Patriots attempted the potential game-tying conversion. But the call for whether to run or pass can be examined further.

Since 2001, NFL teams have converted 55.7 percent of two-point conversion attempts when rushing, compared to 41.7 percent when passing. Even when just looking at the last few years as the league has become more pass-happy, those percentages remain about the same. So though NFL teams pass on nearly three-quarters of two-point attempts, the data favors keeping the ball on the ground.

But of course the Patriots, with Tom Brady and a pass-heavy offense, are better when passing on two-point conversion attempts, right? Not so fast. Since 2001 (entering Sunday), the Patriots were 9-for-12 on rushing 2-point conversion attempts, compared to just 7-for-16 when passing.

They had successful runs on each of their three previous two-point attempts, yet they chose to throw the ball and came up short.

Settling for a 42-Yard Field Goal Attempt

After the fumble gave New England renewed life with 1:01 left, Brady threw the ball twice (around a TD that was nullified by a penalty), with one completion.
Stephen Gostkowski
Gostkowski
But after a penalty moved them back to the 23 with 0:46 left, the Patriots settled for a run to center the ball, ran down the clock, then spiked the ball with five seconds left to set up a 42-yard game-winning attempt.

Although Stephen Gostkowski had gone 3-for-3 on field goals beyond 45 yards earlier in the day, a 42-yarder is no gimme. Since 2011, NFL kickers have made 42-yarders an average of 77 percent of the time.

Gostkowski himself was 16-for-22 (73 percent) on kicks of 40-44 yards in his career before Sunday’s miss. And if you look more specifically at similar “pressure” situations – go-ahead or game-tying kicks from that range in the final 30 seconds of the 4th quarter or overtime – the league conversion rate drops down closer to 60 percent.

If the Patriots even attempted to move the ball farther and got about 10 more yards, the kick would have been a much higher percentage. NFL kickers are 88 percent on kicks from 30-34 yards, and above 80 percent even when you look at late-and-close kicks from that distance. Gostkowski is 34-for-36 in his career from that range.

Granted, the Patriots were out of timeouts and there was a risk of a turnover or further loss of yardage. But just a few yards would have made a sizable difference in the chance of Gostkowski’s field goal going through the uprights, and maybe the Patriots would have avoided the upset.

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