The NFC Championship game ended with some controversy on Sunday, with the Green Bay Packers opting to kick a field goal in the closing minutes rather than attempting to tie the game on fourth down. The Packers trailed by eight, and were faced with a fourth-and-goal from the 8-yard line with just over two minutes left on the clock. It seemed like trying to score a touchdown and then tie the game with a two-point conversion was the only possible consideration, but the Packers surprised everyone by instead sending the field goal unit onto the field to cut the deficit to five. The Buccaneers took the ball back and secured the win after a couple of first downs.
At first glance, there doesn’t appear to be an argument for what the Packers did, but given the magnitude of the situation, it seems worthwhile to dig further into the numbers. One of the unique perspectives that sports betting allows for is the capability for odds-based analysis, and that’s exactly what we’ll try to do here. So let’s take a look at how the live betting market reacted to the Packers' decision-making via the odds at DraftKings Sportsbook.
Quick disclaimer: the odds shown above are an aggregate of the odds that were available before each play, because odds generally shift over the course of the 40 seconds between snaps.
So to backtrack for a second, the Buccaneers kicked a field goal to extend their lead to 31-23 with just under five minutes to go in the game. The Packers then drove down the field and reached the 8-yard line with 2 1⁄2 minutes left on the clock. The live betting line had shrunk to just +138 for Green Bay and -188 for Tampa Bay at that point, with the Packers seemingly very likely to score to set themselves up for a chance to tie the game on a two-point conversion. The next three plays were all incomplete passes, however, and the odds shifted somewhat heavily in the Buccaneers’ favor as a result. The live moneyline at that point was +300 for the Packers and -455 for the Buccaneers, with a pivotal fourth-down appearing to be the Packers’ final hope. But they kicked a field goal instead, and as you can see here, the betting odds only moved marginally in Tampa Bay’s direction.
This way of determining the quality of the decision is obviously just based on one data point, and there's nothing overly concrete to see in the numbers. But the lack of a concrete answer is exactly the thing to focus on — the decision wasn’t an easy one and the live betting lines bear that out. Now it’s possible the Packers could have missed the short field goal and because of that maybe the before and after the analysis isn’t the best way to break this down, but nonetheless, we’re looking at minimal change after a chip shot kick. So while it’s not clear whether Packers’ coach Matt LaFleur had some math behind his move or just went with his gut, let’s at least give him the benefit of the doubt and outline the reasons why his move might have made sense.
To start, an 8-point deficit is a very different situation than being down seven, because a touchdown only gives you roughly a 50 percent chance to tie the game on a two-point conversion. And even if the Packers had tied the game, there was still plenty of time left for the Buccaneers to get into field goal range and win the game in regulation. And even if the Packers managed to stop the Bucs at that point, they’d still have been left with about a coin flip chance to win in overtime after that. So, even if they had scored the touchdown on fourth down, the Packers would have still been fairly unlikely to win the game.
All of that may or may not have been intuitive, but the other tricky part of this to remember is that the Packers were only on the 8-yard line. Our usual fourth down considerations involve much shorter distances to the goal line, and those scenarios get the added benefit of pinning the opponent at the goal line in the event of a miss. The 8-yard line is obviously not the same as the 4-yard line or the 2-yard line in terms of touchdown success rate, but it also isn’t the same in terms of probability of regaining possession afterward either. It’s easier to stop an opponent who’s up against it’s own goal line, but the 8 is far enough away that it wouldn't restrict play-calling to such an extreme extent.
The last variable to mention is that the Packers could have onside kicked after the field goal, and it’s unclear whether or not that would have been the right move. Either way, there was still a pretty good chance for Aaron Rodgers and co. to get the ball back with only a five-point deficit and try to win the game, but the defense wasn’t able to get the stop and put them in that position. In reality, there’s no math that can fully account for all of these factors, and numbers may never be able to properly adjust for the personnel in question either. But the thing that numbers like this do tell us is the general sense of a situation, and in this case, they show that the decision was probably more complicated than it seemed.
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