Right from the start, it was going to be tough for the Seahawks and Texans to come away with road victories on Saturday.
Seattle was a 6.5-point underdog by kickoff in Atlanta, while Houston came in at a staggering plus-17, the second-largest spread for a playoff game since 1978. Both teams were competitive, but neither really came close to winning. The Seahawks gave up 19 points in the second quarter en route to a 36-20 loss, while the Texans were within eight points in the fourth before collapsing and losing 34-16.
Both teams left big plays on the field. The Seahawks had a long Devin Hester punt return called back for a holding penalty at the line of scrimmage (an 88-yard penalty based on where they would have had the ball vs. where they ended up) which led to a safety. The Texans had a rare dime from Brock Osweiler fall through Will Fuller's hands in the end zone, costing them a touchdown. Those were frustrating missed opportunities.
It was also frustrating, though, to see both teams coach and make conservative in-game decisions. Pete Carroll and Bill O'Brien each faced opportunities and repeatedly chose the "safer" bet, which didn't do their respective teams any favors. Both head coaches managed their games like they were the favorites, ignoring the matchups they were facing in the process. It's a lesson they'll want to keep in mind this time next year, and one that Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy, in particular, should heed against Dallas on Sunday.
By their very nature, underdogs have to take risks. Playing a favorite -- especially a large favorite like the Patriots -- heads-up is asking to be overwhelmed. Underdogs have to find what Malcolm Gladwell refers to as "David strategies" against Goliaths such as the Patriots and Falcons on the road. It's one of the weird psychological paradoxes of the NFL: Teams rarely admit they're not the favorites, but they do often note that there are many out there who doubt them.
NFL teams can't dramatically shift their strategy overnight to press the same way basketball or soccer teams might, although one recent example would be the Jets shifting overnight from a primarily man-based coverage scheme to heavy zone packages to confuse Tom Brady and win in Foxborough during the 2010 playoffs. In most cases, though, teams can't change their stripes overnight.
A more plausible way for them to shift gears is to be more aggressive in the red zone and on fourth down. Just about every model which uses historical data to gauge win expectancy suggests teams are far too conservative in those situations. Coaches who are underdogs against great offenses, as was the case in both games on Saturday, can't settle for field goals or pass up fourth-and-short opportunities, and as a result, miss out on chances to match points with offenses that are too good to keep down for 60 minutes.
O'Brien plays it way too safe
In O'Brien's case, the CBS coverage repeatedly reminded us that he had said he wanted to just try to keep things close until the fourth quarter and then hope to catch a break or force a turnover to win. The problem was that his team had run out of breaks to catch by then, and his incredible pass defense had gassed out after harassing Brady for most of the night. O'Brien's team was close in the fourth quarter and then gave up 10 unanswered points without ever seriously threatening the opposition.
O'Brien's breaks instead came earlier in the game, and despite fielding what has been a dismal offense all season, the former Patriots offensive coordinator failed to take advantage of some rare missteps by his former employers. You could forgive O'Brien for kicking a field goal on fourth-and-4 from the Patriots' 15-yard line in the first quarter, but coaches in his shoes need to go for it on fourth-and-1, even when his team is on its own 37-yard line early in the second quarter. The Texans were down 14-3 and ran the risk of being overrun with a stop, but they also run that same risk against a great offense by punting. Only hyperaggressive (and often intelligent) teams like the Ravens might consider going for it in that situation in a regular-season game, but the game situation behooves the Texans to go for it in that spot.
The Texans' decision to punt ultimately worked out when Brady surprisingly threw the first of his two interceptions on the next play, but again, O'Brien didn't use the field position to his advantage. Houston moved the ball to the Patriots' 9-yard line, but after Akeem Hunt came up 3 yards short of the marker on a third-and-long screen, O'Brien sent out his field goal unit.
You can't trade field goals with an offense like the Patriots and expect to win, especially when you're already down 11 points. When your offense is incapable of steadily moving the ball downfield, short fields from turnovers are gifts you need to capitalize on. It's far more likely you'll end up with another chance to kick a field goal later in the game than you will end up in the red zone for a likely touchdown opportunity. Brian Burke's AFA model suggested that the Texans needed just a 31 percent chance of converting to justify going for it.
Fortunately, the Texans got another gift and didn't waste it when the otherwise-brilliant Dion Lewis fumbled the ensuing kickoff away, with Osweiler punching it in to C.J. Fiedorowicz for a score on second down to make it 14-13. (Models would also suggest they should have gone for two to try to tie the game, even in the second quarter, but that's less important.) O'Brien would then punt on fourth-and-5 on New England's side of the field, the sort of decision you make when you're playing in what is likely to be a low-scoring game in which field position would be difficult for both offenses overcome. While his defense held up temporarily after a punt that netted all of 26 yards, this was not one of those games.
Down 17-13 in the third quarter, O'Brien again punted from no-man's land on fourth-and-4 from the Patriots' 41-yard line. The Patriots then drove 90 yards in eight plays to score a touchdown and go up 11 points. After a third (longer) punt inside Patriots' territory, O'Brien got a second gift from Brady, who threw his second interception of the game after throwing two picks all season. Down 11 in the fourth quarter, the Texans drove to the Patriots' 28-yard line. On fourth-and-4, O'Brien called again for a field goal to draw within eight points, which Nick Novak hit.
The argument that the Texans would eventually need a field goal while down 11 is foolish on its face. Think about how many things have to go right for that scenario to play out:
You have to hit the field goal, which is hardly a gimme in its own right.
You have to prevent the Patriots from scoring again.
You have to hope for a fourth turnover from a team which is famously loathe to give the ball away or expect to generate a long possession from your offense, which has been awful all season and produced just two drives of 30 yards or more all game, and those produced a total of three points.
You have to hit a two-pointer, which is about a 50-50 proposition.
And even then, if you do all that, you have to go to overtime, which is bad for an underdog, given that a favorite is more likely to exhibit its dominance over a longer period of time. (Think about what's more likely: you beating LeBron James in a single game of one-on-one in which one point earns you the win, or you beating LeBron James in the majority of 10 games of one-on-one.) You need to try to win the game, and you're unlikely to end up this close to the end zone again the rest of the way.
O'Brien kicked and never was any closer. The Patriots made it to midfield and punted, at which point Osweiler threw an interception deep in his own territory. Lewis rumbled in two plays later and the game was basically over, and O'Brien threw in one more punt on fourth-and-5 from his own 30-yard line with 10:29 to go. By the time the Texans made it back to where they had kicked from previously, they were down 34-16 with 3:17 left and had no chance of winning. Osweiler promptly sailed his third interception of the day to seal things.
Carroll made it easy on Atlanta
Meanwhile, in what might have been the final game at the Georgia Dome, Carroll did little to make life easier for his Seahawks. Seattle's often-dominant pass defense was compromised by injuries and facing a tough matchup against MVP candidate Matt Ryan and Atlanta's league-best offense. Russell Wilson & Co. got off to a great start, driving 89 yards on the opening possession to score a touchdown while taking eight and a half minutes off the clock, but it ultimately was Seattle's only touchdown drive for the first 56 minutes of the game.
Carroll couldn't have known what would happen, of course, but many of his decisions were too conservative in a vacuum. Kicking a field goal on fourth-and-6 from the Atlanta 15-yard line was reasonable enough, but it was disappointing to see Carroll decide to punt on fourth-and-1 from his own 39-yard line late in the second quarter. Outside of some rare situations, fourth-and-1 should be an opportunity for underdogs to hold onto the football, especially with a mobile quarterback like Wilson.
The Seahawks got what they wanted when the ensuing Jon Ryan punt was downed at the 1-yard line, but it was for naught when Ryan drove the Falcons 99 yards for a touchdown. Carroll couldn't have done much about that, but he didn't use any of his three timeouts during the three-minute drive, leaving Seattle with just 59 seconds of clock. A holding call on an ill-advised Hester return from 8 yards deep in the end zone left Seattle with the ball on its own 8-yard line, but with three timeouts, Wilson had plenty of time to move the ball downfield to set up for a field goal (in a dome no less) to make it a one-score game.
Instead, mysteriously, the Seahawks handed the ball to backup running back Alex Collins twice, running the risk of a fumble with little upside, to end the half. It's a bizarre decision: If you want to give up (and you shouldn't), why not kneel three times given Atlanta had only two timeouts? And why wouldn't you want to try to score against a middling pass defense given how much success the Seahawks had enjoyed throwing the ball downfield?
I'm not one to argue that an end-of-half field goal would have given the Seahawks momentum heading into the final 30 minutes, but those three points could have come in handy. And if Carroll didn't have enough faith in Wilson to try to score without turning the ball over, he might as well not have sent the team out for the second half. Atlanta promptly took the ball after halftime and drove 75 yards for another touchdown. Carroll's aforementioned fourth-and-1 punt, designed to keep the game close, came with the game at 12-10. By the time Wilson took his next meaningful snap on offense, the score was 26-10.
Seattle was chasing the game by this point, but Carroll continued to coach like a guy who was up by 16 points, not down by 16. He punted on fourth-and-2 from his own 31-yard line, only to be bailed out by a procedure penalty and given a new set of downs. The Seahawks then drove into the red zone, but on fourth-and-6 from the 8-yard line, down 16 points, Carroll called for a Steven Hauschka field goal. Burke's model sees this as downright foolish; the Seahawks needed just a 25 percent chance of converting to justify going for it. His team still needed two touchdowns, and they were facing a Falcons team that was dictating the terms on offense. Hauschka should have been kept on ice.
The game was never really close afterward. Atlanta kicked a field goal on its next possession, and then Carroll punted on fourth-and-4 from his own 31-yard line down 16 with 14 minutes to go. Again, Carroll was asking his defense -- down a star safety and two of its top three cornerbacks -- to come up with multiple stops while his offense needed to score two touchdowns and a pair of two-point conversions just to force what would have been about a 45 percent shot of winning in overtime. The Seahawks were never meaningfully close to competing the rest of the way.
Take note, Green Bay
While Mike Tomlin's Steelers are only a slight underdog in the night game in Kansas City and are frequently aggressive anyway, McCarthy is the one who needs to keep this in mind as he approaches his team's tilt with the Cowboys on Sunday afternoon. He has made conservative mistakes as the underdog in years past.
Two years ago in the NFC Championship Game, he kicked consecutive first-quarter field goals on fourth-and-1 from the Seattle 1-yard line with league MVP Aaron Rodgers under center. Then, having shown sufficiently little faith in his running game, McCarthy relied heavily on it to try to hold the lead in the second half, sticking to the fallacious idea that his team would be in good shape if it ran the ball 20 times in the second half. Racking up carries to win is simply not a real thing. To steal an idea from Bleacher Report writer Mike Tanier, the Packers might as well just have started running plays out of victory formation in the second half, given how closely correlated that is with winning. The Packers were still unlucky to lose, but they left the door just ajar for the Seahawks when they should have closed it.
Then, last year, McCarthy was gifted one of the most exciting comebacks in football history when Rodgers completed two Hail Mary passes on one drive against the Cardinals to make the score 20-19 with no time remaining, pending the extra point. McCarthy had just shocked an entire stadium of fans and an opposing defense which had all but won the game. The Cardinals had no timeouts to try to catch their breath. If you believe in momentum, the Packers had it in spades. They were also seven-point underdogs before the game, meaning that they were also comfortable underdogs over a longer stretch of play.
Their odds of converting a two-pointer to win were almost unquestionably higher than their chances of beating the Cardinals in a freshly restarted game. McCarthy, however, took his foot off the gas and kicked the extra point. The Cardinals promptly won the coin toss, completed a pass to Larry Fitzgerald for 75 yards on the opening play of overtime, and scored a touchdown to end the Packers' season two plays later.
Yes, McCarthy did go for it on fourth-and-1 last week against the Giants, and the play backfired. But he shouldn't let that discourage him from taking more chances against the Cowboys.
McCarthy referred to himself as a "highly successful" coach earlier this year, and it's true that he is accomplished in many ways. His game management in the playoffs over the past two years, though, has been sorely lacking. He would do well to rely on the lessons he has learned from those mistakes and the decisions made by O'Brien and Carroll on Saturday to inform the choices he makes against the Cowboys this afternoon.