Heading into Week 12, there were a near-record number of close games decided by eight points or fewer. Those 85 games in the first 11 weeks of the season were the second-most ever, just behind the 1988 season (86 games decided by a possession or less during the first 11 weeks).
This week, there were nine games that fall into that category, two that were decided in overtime. This means that coaching decisions and strategy are even more important as close games could come down to one play call or one decision to either go for it on fourth down or punt it away. It is always easy to question a coach’s decision after the fact, but, regardless, here are a few questionable decisions I noticed this weekend.
Denver at Kansas City
Kansas City jumped out to an early lead Sunday against the Broncos as the Chiefs had scoring drives on their first two possessions. But after those two drives, the score was only 6-0 after the Chiefs settled for a pair of red-zone field goals. This strategy might not typically come into question, but when you are a struggling 1-9 football team playing against an explosive offense with Peyton Manning under center, you might consider going for it on fourth down and go for the seven points rather than the three.
The Chiefs had three yards and two yards to gain on the respective fourth downs, one of which was spotted on the Broncos’ 4-yard line. Even if only one of the gambles paid off with a touchdown, that still gives you more points than the two field goals.
Worst-case scenario: You don’t earn the first down, but you surrender the ball with Denver backed up on its own goal line and you win the hidden yardage battle of field position. Instead, the Chiefs took the two field goals and went into the second quarter with a 6-0 lead. That is less than a one-possession lead, which is nothing against Manning. He quickly erased it with an 11-play, 94-yard scoring drive in the second quarter.
The Chiefs could have used those extra points, as they eventually lost the game 17-9. It would have been nice to see a desperate team playing in front of a desperate home crowd play a little more aggressively.
Minnesota at Chicago
Chicago had an 18-point lead early in the fourth quarter Sunday when the Vikings had the ball at the Bears’ 8-yard line on third-and-2. Rather than hand the ball off to Adrian Peterson, the league’s best running back and rushing yards leader this season, the Vikings instead asked the league’s (arguably) worst starting quarterback to throw it on third and fourth downs. Two incompletions later, the Vikings turned the ball over on downs and still faced an 18-point deficit.
I have no problem with the Vikings going for the touchdown being that close to the end zone in the fourth quarter of a three-possession ball game, but why not let your running back secure the first down? Especially if you are already know you are going for it on fourth down? At that point in the game, Peterson was averaging right at five yards per carry, and he finished the game with 108 yards on 18 carries — an even better average of six yards per carry.
Why the Vikings took the ball out of his hands is hard to understand. Then again, even later in the fourth quarter with less than three minutes remaining, the Vikings once again went for it on fourth down, this time needing only one yard for a new set of downs. They handed it off to Peterson, and he was stuffed for no gain. So what do I know, anyway?
Atlanta at Tampa Bay
The Falcons held a one-point lead and were attempting to run out the clock late in the fourth quarter against the Buccaneers on Sunday. The drive stalled, and they faced a fourth-and-11 from Tampa Bay’s 30-yard line with 12 seconds remaining. There is no question that you kick the ball in that situation, but the type of kick is what matters.
The Falcons elected to kick the field goal, and Matt Bryant missed it, giving the ball back to the Bucs with eight seconds remaining at the 38-yard line. If the kick was good, the Falcons go up by four and force the Bucs to score a touchdown rather than only a field goal, but with so little time and no timeouts remaining, the Bucs would have had to go for broke either on the kick return or their first offensive play because they wouldn’t have had enough time to run a play and either get out of bounds or run their field goal team on to the field. So I’m not sure going up by four really helps them in the first place.
With the miss, the Falcons allowed the Bucs to gain possession with a god shot at getting in pretty decent field-goal position, giving them the chance to run one sideline play. Although it wasn’t enough to get into field-goal range, it was enough to get them close enough to launch a Hail Mary into the end zone. That is exactly what happened and resulted in the Falcons intercepting the desperate heave.
Even still, punting it would have probably been the better kicking option for two reasons.
First, you can run out more clock with a punt as the team huddles over the pooch punt waiting for the ball to settle before touching it down. Rather than running off the four seconds on the field goal, they could have probably run off double that or more on the punt.
Second, you pin them deep ,and now, with even less time on the clock, you force them to get a 95-yard touchdown — way too long for a Hail Mary.
On the contrary, there is the argument that the Bucs could have rushed all 11 players at the punter and there is a greater chance a punt is blocked than a field goal. But in that situation, you can even tell your players to hold, grab their jerseys, do anything to not allow a defender to get past you for the block. Even if the holding penalty is called, the time still runs off the clock and then you just line up to do the exact same thing. Even if the clock runs out, you can’t end the game on a penalty, so you just snap the ball with double zeroes on the clock and then take a knee.
Then again, the Falcons have won four games by four points or fewer this season, so it is hard to question their late-game management.