When the Tide Really Turned

I’m not sure who this “Tony Dungy” character is, but he seems to think he knows a lot about the Colts. Dungy claims that it was Pierre Garcon’s dropped pass in the second quarter that turned the tide. Some people think it was the three-and-out after the Colts defense’s heroic goal-line stand. Others might point to the interception return as the pivotal event of the game.

But it wasn’t Garcon’s drop. It wasn’t the three-and-out. And it wasn’t the interception. Let’s peel away all the ‘momentum’ mumbo-jumbo, and look at exactly what turned the game.

In the 4th quarter with only 10 minutes left to play, Peyton Manning led an efficient drive into Saints territory. At this point the Colts were up by 1 and threatening to go up by 8. But the drive stalled, leaving a 4th and 2 at the Saints’ 46. Manning didn’t even bother checking with Caldwell. He called the team to the line and set up a great play, completing a 14-yard pass to Reggie Wayne. This was the high-water mark for Indianapolis in the 4th quarter. The Colts’ Win Probability (WP) at this point was 0.71.

On the ensuing series the Colts ran for a 2-yard gain on 1st down. Then on second down, Manning threw a screen to Austin Collie who was hit for a 3-yard loss by Malcolm Jenkins. The Colts now faced a 3rd and 11 at the Saints’ 33. Manning threw incomplete deep to Collie, who was defended by Jonathan Vilma. With the drive stalled, the Colts’ WP fell from 0.71 to 0.59, a drop of -0.12 for the 3-down sequence.

Not liking his chances on 4th and 11, Caldwell called in veteran Matt Stover, known as much for his modest range as for his accuracy, to attempt a 51-yard field goal. A 4-point lead would be good. That’s more than a field goal, and at that point in the game, it would have meant a 0.68 WP for the Colts. Stover missed, and the Colts’ WP dropped another -0.12 to 0.47. Prior to the kick was the last point at which the Colts’ had the upper hand.

Those four plays—a run for 2 yards, a screen for a loss of 3, an incomplete pass, and a missed FG—are what really turned the tide. The Colts went from a 71% chance of winning to a 47% chance, all in a matter of a minute and a half. That single series cost -0.24 WP.

The Saints took advantage of the resulting field position and scored a touchdown to take a 7-point lead. But the Colts still had a decent chance to win. With over four minutes to play, Manning led another drive into Saint’s territory, this time to the 31-yard line. On 3rd and 5 Greg Williams called the perfect blitz, and Tracey Porter read the play perfectly. His interception return for a touchdown was worth 0.21 WP. While certainly spectacular, and while it ended any practical hope for the Colts, it was not quite as decisive as the otherwise unremarkable series of 4 downs on the previous possession. Although the interception was the final dagger in the heart, the previous drive was when the fight was won.

In my mind, Jenkins and Vilma deserve as much credit as Porter. Greg Williams’ call was absolutely perfect too. He put all the chips on the table on that 3rd down. His defenders were all one-on-one against Clark, Wayne, and company. I’m not sure if he was thinking this, but had the Colts’ scored a TD on that play, it still gives Drew Brees and his offense 3 full minutes to put together a possible game-winning FG drive. Had Manning converted for a 1st down, he would have burned as much clock as he could on his way to score. It was the ideal situation for an all-or-nothing gamble.

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13 Responses to “When the Tide Really Turned”

  1. Charlie says:

    That Vilma play was pretty awesome. They blitzed the safety that was lined up over collie. Manning knew he'd have a linebacker matched up on Collie going down the seam, and Vilma's coming all the way from the middle of the field, and beats Collie to the ball. The Colts got exactly what they wanted, but Vilma made an amazing play.

  2. Tarr says:

    I can't really get too worked up over the Garcon drop when Colston had a similar brain fart earlier.

    The INT-TD was the "game over" play, but the Colts still needed to score just to make it a 50/50 game.

    As a Colts fan, that 3-down sequence was definitely the "there goes the lead" moment for me. The WR screen to Collie, particularly, was painful. (Terrible block by the lineman on that play, BTW.) I can't fault the deep throw on 3rd down because the Colts have made a living going down the field on 3rd down all year. And at 4th-and-11... I mean, there were really no good options. I can't fault the decision to kick, even though I really doubted he would make it.

  3. Chris says:

    Manning actually cited that series in his post game conference as being the critical turning point (though the interception clearly haunted him).

  4. Dan says:

    Before Stover attempted that field goal, I said that the Colts should either go for it or punt, but that trying the field goal was not an option. It was a real bonehead call in my opinion. You already have the lead, so no need to make a 42-year-old attempt a very long kick that, if missed, gives the Saints great field position. With Manning at the helm, I'd have gone for it on 4th down. If he misses, you're still better off than a missed field goal. A punt would have been conservative, but an effective one would have been quite valuable. There's just not a huge upside to trying such a long field goal.

    That decision by Caldwell was in contrast to the smartly aggressive decisions that Sean Payton made all game long. The Saints were playing to win. The Colts were hoping to win.

    Brian, any chance you could run the numbers of those three decisions in that situation: FG attempt, go for it, punt? Using league-wide averages would be unfair, because the Colts had been converting third downs pretty well in the game.... and Stover is 42.

  5. Jay says:

    Indeed, Vilma's defended pass on 3rd and 11 changed the game. However, you have to credit the Saints for excellent clock management. They drove down the field and scored with about 5:40 left. This meant that even if Peyton Manning drove down the field and came back to tie or lead, the saints would have enough time for a 2 minute field goal drive to win the game (just like the patriots in 2002 and 2004).

    Also, if Manning scored on that drive when the score was 17-16, he should have went for two. A nine point lead is a two score game, putting the saints in an incredibly hard situation if they cannot put together two scoring drives and stop the Colts empty at least once.

  6. Ian says:

    Some numbers you didn't mention, the alternatives to the FG attempt. Had the Colts punted for a touchback, their WP would have been .54. If they had downed a punt inside the 10, it would have been .57. Either way, they'd still have been favourites.

    I did think at the time that it was asking a lot for Stover to hit from 51 yards (it's asking a lot from most kickers to stick one over from there, especially in a case when a miss wipes out your 1-pt lead due to EPA). Sometimes punting is the better option.

  7. James says:

    I'm suprised I haven't heard anyone bring up Vinatieri yet. He was on the sideline, on the roster, but was a "healthy scratch". Not that I really think he would have made a difference (likelihood is he would have missed it too), just surprised no one is flipping out that the "most clutch" kicker was watching from the sideline.

  8. LamKram says:

    Interesting that the drop in the Colts WP over the 4 downs was virtually identical to the drop in the Patriots' WP when they failed to convert the infamous 4th-and-2 against the Colts. The difference, of course, was that for the Patriots the drop occurred as the result of a single play. Hence all the post-game furor. No one in the media or the blogosphere is freaking out about those 4 downs.

  9. Anonymous says:

    It's Tracy Porter not Travis Porter. Travis Porter is a rapper I think.

  10. Andy says:

    The main problem here was that the Colts didn't think through the third down play, and put themselves in a no win situation on 4th. They were in a no punt zone, and their kicker had a low probability from the area. So they should have treated the situation like they had two more downs. They could have run the ball up the middle, and probably gotten the first down assuming the Saints were looking throw all the way. Even if they only got a few yards, they would have been in a much better position. They would have had a much more manageable 4th down, or a kick within Stover's reasonable range. Of course this all assumes that throwing the ball for a first down was not a high percentage play. It only wasn't because the Saints knew it was coming, and once teams catch on to using all 4 downs the equation will change.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Would it have been a better play if Porter stepped out of bounds at the 1? Take three kneeldowns and make Indy burn their TOs, then kick the field goal. What's the WP for down by 10, no timeouts left, 2:45 left, about to receive a kickoff?

  12. Mister says:

    Last graff: It's Vilma not Wilma. Wilma is part of a modern stone age family, I think.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I have to agree with Ian etc regarding the FGA and it comes back to another point previously aired and emailed

    Much is talked about the change to KO, returns and opening field position for a drive but little in the context of assessment of a kicker's effective range (KER) and the fact that a miss, in the context of the game is the equivalent to a QB being sacked and the subsequent fumble being recovered by Def

    If we then tie the KER in with the established fourth down conversion data, it would have been much better to punt than gift field position with the 7-8yard bonus

    That said, three points at that point in the game may well have proved crucial, so this is where the KER comes in

    Substitute with someone like Jason Elam then its a no-brainer

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