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Week 4's biggest decisions: Bill Belichick hurt Patriots' chances; Colts rewarded for boldness

Which teams got it right on fourth-down and 2-point conversion calls in Week 4 of the 2021 NFL season -- and which teams got it wrong? The Next Gen Stats analytics team uses the Next Gen Stats Decision Guide powered by AWS to break down the numbers behind the decisions that shaped the game.

Bill Belichick makes two costly fourth-down decisions

On a rainy night in Foxborough, highlighted by Tom Brady's return to Gillette Stadium, Belichick made two suboptimal fourth-down decisions that resulted in the loss of 15.4 percentage points in expected win probability. 

FOURTH QUARTER: With 0:59 remaining and the Patriots (trailing 19-17) facing a fourth-and-4 from the Buccaneers' 38-yard line, New England's Nick Folk attempts a 56-yard field goal. The ball hits the left upright, and the kick is no good.

This decision by Belichick -- which cost the Patriots 10.3 percentage points in win-probability value -- is one of the more complex calls we've seen this season, with so many different factors influencing the final numbers. Let's break down each of the components:

Conversion probability: 

  • Folk had a 45.1 percent chance of making a 56-yard field goal, according to our field-goal probability model, which takes into account real-time weather and humidity data.
  • If the Patriots had gone for it -- with 4.4 yards to go, as measured by ball-tracking data -- their chances of converting were 52.3 percent.

Win probability:

  • If Folk had made the kick, the Patriots' win probability would have been 52.3 percent -- given that Brady and the Bucs would have gotten the ball back with just under one minute left, with two timeouts and trailing only 2 points, this was almost a 50-50 proposition for the home team.
  • If Mac Jones and the offense had converted for a first down, their win probability would have jumped to 65.3 percent, with Folk presumably having the chance to end the game with a more probable field goal, with less time on the clock for Brady and Co.
  • Missing the field goal or failing to convert would mean a loss, as we saw.

By combining the likelihood of each outcome with its effect on the outcome of the game, we can calculate the expected win probability of each decision. Before the play, the value of kicking a field goal was 24.3 percent. The value of going for it was 34.7 percent. The difference -- 10.3 percent in favor of going for it -- represents the magnitude of the recommendation.

SECOND QUARTER: With 2:00 remaining and the Patriots (leading 7-3) facing a fourth-and-2 from the Buccaneers' 44-yard line, Belichick opts to take a delay-of-game penalty, setting up a punt.

Belichick is known for his mastery of the middle eight, i.e., the last four minutes of the second quarter and the first four minutes of the third quarter. On Sunday night, however, Belichick and the numbers were not aligned -- and it cost the Patriots. 

According to the NGS model, going for it was the optimal decision by 5.1 percent. Jones and the offense would have had a 59.7 percent chance of converting if they'd gone for it, and they would have had a better than 60 percent chance of winning the game if they'd converted. Instead of putting themselves in position to go up by multiple scores, the Patriots punted it away, and we know what happened next: Brady led an eight-play, 69-yard drive, resulting in a 44-yard field goal by Ryan Succop with just 13 seconds left on the clock. And the Buccaneers got the ball to start the second half. 

Frank Reich calls QB sneak in his own territory

The Colts' head coach was featured in our preseason look at the NFL's best fourth-down decision makers of 2020 -- and he made it back on our radar with this unconventional call:

SECOND QUARTER: With 1:25 remaining and the Colts (leading 7-3) facing fourth-and-inches from their own 27-yard line, Indianapolis' Carson Wentz gains 2 yards on a QB sneak for the first down.

As we outlined a week ago, fourth-and-inches situations are especially favorable opportunities for an offense to go for it. According to our ball-tracking data, the Colts were a mere 0.2 yards away from the first-down markers here. At such a short distance, the Colts had a 72 percent conversion probability, protecting them from the downside of giving the ball back to the Dolphins in field-goal range with a chance to score before halftime. The NGS model identified going for it as the optimal call by 4.1 percentage points in expected win probability -- 53 percent if going for it, compared to 48.9 percent if they'd punted.

Sean McVay and Co. miss opportunities on fourth down

McVay has a reputation for being one of the best play callers in the NFL, but the Rams have tended to be among the more conservative teams on fourth down. In the loss to division-rival Arizona, McVay chose to either punt or kick a field goal when the numbers said to go for it on his first four fourth-down situations -- with the Rams losing a combined 11.3 percentage points in expected win probability across those four decisions. McVay's two most costly calls:

SECOND QUARTER: With 3:25 remaining and the Rams (trailing 21-10) facing fourth-and-goal from the Cardinals' 4-yard line, Los Angeles' Matt Gay makes a 22-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 8.

This was McVay's most suboptimal decision of the game, costing the Rams 4 percentage points in win probability value. The made field goal actually decreased the Rams' win probability from 28 percent to 25 percent. If they'd converted and scored a touchdown? The team would have had a roughly 39 percent chance to win. This was ultimately the inflection point in the contest, as Los Angeles never had a greater than 30 percent chance to win the rest of the way, according to the NGS win-probability model.

THIRD QUARTER: With 6:28 remaining and the Rams (trailing 27-13) facing a fourth-and-4 from the Cardinals' 27-yard line, Gay misses a 46-yard field-goal attempt wide right.

Once again, McVay elected to kick a field goal on fourth-and-4, but this time, the degree of difficulty was much greater (with a 67 percent make probability). Even if Gay had made the field goal, though, the decision to keep a two-possession game to two possessions is tough to justify. The NGS Decision Guide recommended going for it by 3.4 percent. Matthew Stafford and the Rams' offense would have had a 48 percent chance of converting on fourth-and-4.

Urban Meyer gives the ball away late -- and never gets it back

By failing to put the Bengals away when they had a chance, Meyer and the Jags missed out on a shot to claim their first win of the season. But before we get into that, let's explore an instance of Meyer making the right call on fourth-and-1 from the Bengals' 1-yard line, even if the play was not successful:

SECOND QUARTER: With 59 seconds remaining and the Jaguars (leading 14-0) facing a fourth-and-goal from the Bengals' 1-yard line, Jacksonville's Trevor Lawrence is stuffed for no gain.

When an offense has the ball at their opponent's 1-yard line, it is almost always in their best interest to take advantage of their proximity to the end zone and go for the touchdown. In fact, of the 223 fourth-and-1 situations that have come up across the NFL since 2016, the Next Gen Stats Decision Guide recommended going for the touchdown on all but two of them. Our model recommended Jacksonville go for it here by 4.2 percentage points in win probability value, driven by the unit's chances of scoring a touchdown on the play (70 percent). 

Even with the Jaguars failing to convert, the Bengals had to start their next drive backed up against their own end zone. Instead of pressing for a score, Cincinnati ran out the clock to avoid any risk of a safety.

FOURTH QUARTER: With 5:40 remaining and the Jaguars (tied 21-21) facing a fourth-and-4 from the 50-yard line, Jacksonville's Logan Cooke punts 40 yards to the Cincinnati 10-yard line.

Instead of trusting 2021's No. 1 overall draft pick (Lawrence) to gain 4 yards, which the NGS model gave the QB a 44 percent chance of doing, Meyer gave the ball back to 2020's No. 1 overall pick (Joe Burrow). Successfully converting would have moved the Jags into enemy territory in the waning minutes of a tied contest, and they would have been favored to win, with a 59 percent win probability. If they'd failed? The win probability would have dropped to 31 percent. Instead, Meyer's decision to play for field position instead of possession cost his team 2.5 percentage points in expected win probability -- and the offense never got the ball back, as Burrow drove Cincy 73 yards to set up the winning kick.

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