It didn't cost the Cardinals the game, but for a minute there, it sure looked like Bruce Arians had gotten Arizona into all kinds of trouble. Before the coin tosses, before the Larry Fitzgerald catch-and-run to start overtime, and before the game-winning shovel pass, there were three minutes of despair for Cardinals fans, when appeared their head coach might have cost them the game.
To some, it might have seemed inexplicable. If you pay close attention to Arians, though, his decisions late in the fourth quarter characterized a level of aggressiveness which has come to define his tenure in Arizona.
Arians is not selectively aggressive or a smidge more aggressive than your typical coach or aggressive when he wants to be. Arians is aggressive as a point of principle, as a tenet of his coaching philosophy. He coaches the way you might coach when you were all but run out of the league as a coordinator into retirement at age 59, only to miraculously become a head coach at 61. Arians coaches like he has nothing to lose. Not only is it admirable, I'm not sure that it's really all that wrong.
Arians took a lot of flak for the first of his two hyper-aggressive decisions during the fourth quarter of Saturday night's 26-20 overtime win over Green Bay in the NFC divisional playoffs. It came on second-and-8 from the Green Bay 22-yard line with 2:34 to go and the Packers, down four points, out of timeouts. With the book telling the Cardinals to run the ball into the line twice and take the clock down to 1:20 before attempting a field goal to go up seven, Carson Palmer instead tried to end the game. He threw a fade route to Fitzgerald that fell incomplete, stopping the clock.
After a third-down run, a successful field goal, and a kickoff return, the Packers took over with 1:50 to go. The decision handed the Packers about 35 seconds, time which came in handy when Aaron Rodgers needed every last second on the clock to set up an incredible game-tying touchdown on the final play from scrimmage. (More on that play in a minute.)
It's possible that Palmer might have checked to a pass play at the line of scrimmage; the timing of the pass suggested that it was a designed fade to Fitzgerald once the Cardinals saw that Fitz had one-on-one coverage, and Arians looked angry after the play. It seems unlikely, though, because this isn't anything new for the Cardinals. In fact, Arians routinely goes for the jugular in this exact situation. When teams are all but guaranteed to run, Arians and the Cardinals often throw the football.
They pulled a similar move in three different close games earlier this season:
In Week 1, up 24-19 on the Saints with 1:44 to go and New Orleans down to one timeout, the Cardinals had the ball on their own 45-yard line for a second-and-8. Instead of running, Palmer threw to David Johnson, who took it to the house for a game-sealing 55-yard touchdown.
In Week 7, up 26-18 on the Ravens with 2:32 to go and Baltimore out of timeouts, Arizona had a second-and-10 on their own 44-yard line. Palmer dropped back to pass and took an intentional grounding penalty. The Cardinals punted before clinching the win with an interception in the end zone.
In Week 12, up 19-13 on the 49ers with 1:12 to go and San Francisco holding two timeouts, the Cardinals faced first-and-10 on their own 22-yard line. Instead of running three times to try to seal the game, Palmer threw an 11-yard completion to John Brown, allowing the Cardinals to kneel three times and run out the clock.
It's a pretty clear habit: Arians wants to be proactive to try to seal up games when he can, and he's not going to wait until third down (when opponents might be more likely to expect a pass attempt) to do so. It's no surprise he threw on second down here, given that a first down in the field of play would have allowed the Cardinals to kneel four times and end the game.
You might argue that a fade wasn't the highest-percentage pass, but it had a high floor, given that the struggling Palmer wasn't likely to take a sack, interception, or penalty on such a quick pass, and the most likely outcome of the drive was still going to be a makeable field goal attempt. The fact that the Cardinals were basically relying on rookie Johnson -- who fumbled four times on 183 touches during the regular season -- as their primary back also didn't hurt matters. You can imagine Arians might have had visions of Jeremy Hill fumbling in his head.
Hail Mary defense
Rodgers' fiery streak showed up on the final play from scrimmage in regulation, when he miraculously managed to complete his second Hail Mary of the drive and his third in a matter of weeks by finding Jeff Janis in the end zone for a 41-yard touchdown. The obvious comparison made in the immediate aftermath of the play -- once the screaming and involuntary dancing died down -- was to the Hail Mary the Lions allowed to these same Packers in Week 13. While the outcome of the play was the same, the defensive decision-making was far different.
Conveniently for us here, the NFL's posted side-by-side video of the scoring Hail Mary plays against the Lions and the Cardinals. Start by watching the score against Detroit. Note what the Lions do at the snap; they rush three and drop eight players into coverage. Memorably, two of those players were were dropped into intermediate zones to try to prevent the Packers from pulling off a series of laterals, which would have been incredibly unlikely under just about any circumstances. It was a waste of two players who could have either been used to rush the passer or drop into coverage.
Now, watch the Cardinals' side of the play. Arians and defensive coordinator James Bettcher do not mess around. It is about as different from the Detroit defensive plan as possible. They send seven defenders after Rodgers at the snap. The Packers keep seven in to try to give Rodgers enough time to throw, but the protection breaks down quickly and Rodgers has to spin away from the pressure. He manages to do a pirouette, reset his feet, and launch a 55-yard bomb across his body vaguely towards the end zone in one of the most blissfully stunning and athletic seconds you'll ever see on a football field, before Janis outleaps two Cardinals (notably Patrick Peterson) for the game-tying score.
Quite frankly, this is a much more efficient defensive concept than what the Lions were trying to do; there are far fewer wasted players on the field, the Cardinals force Rodgers into a superhuman feat, and still have a two-versus-one advantage in terms of the jump ball in the end zone. It's also possibly in part a reaction to the earlier bomb, when the Cardinals rushed four on fourth-and-20 and Rodgers calmly poked a hole in a zone 60 yards downfield to hit Janis and extend the game.
More than the previous play, though, this is simply another reflection of how the Cardinals have played defense under Arians, Bettcher, and former defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. They blitz more frequently than any other team in football: 46.3 percent of opposing pass plays, since the start of the 2013 season. The average team blitzed on 31 percent of pass attempts over that same timeframe.
When the Cardinals really need a stop, though, they turn up the heat to another level. It's an arbitrary split, but I looked at passes on third and fourth down in the fourth quarter while the game is within seven points or fewer to try to find similar situations to the ones the Cardinals were facing on Sunday. Over the past three seasons, the average team has blitzed on 39.4 percent of their dropbacks in those spots. Arians' Cardinals teams have sent extra pressure on 45 of the 65 dropbacks they've seen in those moments, or 69.2 percent.
Most of the time, it has worked. I can recall two narrow games in 2014 in which the Cardinals repeatedly sent pressure late and had it turn out well: their 18-17 win over the Chargers in the opener, and their 24-20 victory over the Eagles in Week 8. Arians' teams blitz and force you to make adjustments. When the situation really matters, why shouldn't they blitz more? Why shouldn't teams make decisions to try to win games in lieu of playing conservatively and hoping that the other team makes a mistake for as long as possible?
I think you can take some issue with Arians' choice to throw the football on second down, but I understand his logic. The Cardinals are where they are, in part, because they have a pair of brash leaders (including general manager Steve Keim) who take risks. Who trade for Palmer when his value is lowest and draft Tyrann Mathieu. Who throw downfield and blitz more than anybody else in football. Who attack first and trust their ability to succeed. That seems noble, not naive.
The irony, of course, is that they're advancing at the expense of the Packers and coach Mike McCarthy, who leaves the postseason in the wake of another game management blunder. Last year, it was McCarthy's hyper-conservative decision-making early in the game which cost the Packers critical points they would need later in the contest.
This year, it was not going for two after the Hail Mary. Kickers hit 94.2 percent of their extra points this year; that figure rose to 97.6 percent indoors, and Crosby was 36-for-36 this year, so let's just be kind and say that Crosby's going to tie the game 98 percent of the time. (Vikings fans will tell you that no kick is automatic.) So 2 percent of the time, the Packers lose without ever getting to overtime.
If the Packers do go to overtime, they're going to be underdogs. The Cardinals were seven-point favorites heading into the contest; after taking out the vig, the implied odds from the Vegas money line suggested that the Packers had a 26 percent chance of winning the game. Green Bay had certainly played better than they had during Arizona's regular-season blowout in the previous matchup, but they had lost Randall Cobb and needed two Hail Mary completions to tie the game.
It's almost always better for the underdog to try to turn the game into a shorter contest. Taken to an extreme, if you're playing Steph Curry one-on-one and you start with the ball, it's better to play to one than 11, because you might fire off a jumper and get lucky, but you're not going to hit 11 shots over Steph without giving him the ball.
Even an aggressive estimate would suggest that the Packers had, say, a 40 percent chance of winning the game if it went into overtime. Factor in the aforementioned possibility of a missed Crosby extra point and you're down to a 39 percent shot if you kick the extra point. The chances of the Packers converting their two-pointer are almost definitely better than 39 percent. The league has converted 48.1 percent of its attempts over the past three years, with the Packers going 5-for-9. Give the Cardinals credit for a tough defense and take into consideration that the Packers don't have a great running game. You're still going to find it difficult to come up with a scenario in which the chances of winning the game heading into overtime are better than converting a two-pointer.
And if you really want, pretend for a moment that the percentages are tied. There's also the small matter of the M-word. If you believe that momentum is a meaningful concept in terms of how teams win and lose football games -- and I am admittedly skeptical -- why would you ever let the game slip into overtime? Having knocked the Cardinals onto the ropes with one of the more stunning sequences in playoff history and with a minute to figure out which play you wanted to run while referees reviewed the touchdown, why wouldn't McCarthy think that his chances of winning the game were better with one immediate play?
All things weren't equal, and that included Arizona's coaching advantage. McCarthy played it safe yet again, and it ended up costing his team another postseason in the prime of the 32-year-old Rodgers' career. He coached to put off losing as long as possible. Arians coached to win, and while it raised some eyebrows and nearly cost his team the victory, he made far more defensible decisions than his counterpart.
McCarthy's choice was safer and attracted far less attention, but that doesn't make his decision the correct one. Instead of going by the book, McCarthy could take a page out of Arians'. A lot of coaches should.