Should the Patriots Have Let the Colts Score?

After the Patriots' failed 4th down conversion attempt in the now epic game against the Colts, they wound up facing a Colts offense with a 1st down on the Pats' own 14-yard line. With 1:20 on the clock, the Patriots could have allowed the Colts to score an easy touchdown, yielding a 1-point lead, but giving the Patriots a shot to take the lead back with a possible FG drive. Or, they could have played straight defense, hoping to keep the Colts out of the end zone.

I'll take a look at league-wide averages, and then we can make adjustments from there. Against a team needing a TD, playing straight defense yields a TD about 62% of the time. This means the Patriots would have a 0.38 Win Probability (WP).

Allowing the Colts to score gives the Patriots a 1-point deficit and a first down at around their own 30 (or so) following the kickoff. The league-average chance of scoring either a FG or TD in that situation is about 20%, for a 0.20 WP. Below is a graph of the "30-second drill," which shows the probability of scoring a FG or TD when a team has a first down and is down by 1, 2 or 3 points with 25 to 35 seconds left in the game.

Right now, the numbers appear to favor playing straight defense. It's 0.38 WP for the straight defense and 0.20 WP for the matador maneuver.

But now a few particulars--The New England offense was able to move the ball pretty well, so you'd have to think their chances of responding with a FG might be higher than 20%. But then again they had no timeouts, and time was already tight. Still, we've seen Brady do it before.

On the other side of the coin, you'd have to think that Manning was at the top of his game, and the Patriots defense was on its last legs. You could make the case the Colts offense was far more than 62% likely to score the TD from the 14.

The better you think the Colts offense was, the better it would have been to let them score from the 14. And the better you think the Patriots offense was, the better it would have been to let the Colts score. Both of the particular considerations of the situation weigh in favor of letting the Colts score. Whether those particular situations are enough to make the call to allow the TD depends on how strong you think each offense is. But if you're "playing the percentages," you try to stop the Colts.

Still, there is a lot of uncertainty. (There are a few 'about's and 'typically's in my analysis above.) Allowing a team to take the lead like that should require a good deal of certainty. The Colts were probably more than 62% likely to score, but by how much? I'm not sure there's enough confidence to make that call, but it certainly would have been defensible.

[Edit: I added the graph above and refined the numbers since the original posting.]

  • Spread The Love
  • Digg This Post
  • Tweet This Post
  • Stumble This Post
  • Submit This Post To Delicious
  • Submit This Post To Reddit
  • Submit This Post To Mixx

16 Responses to “Should the Patriots Have Let the Colts Score?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Brian - another key variable should be how much time is left when the Colts score. If the Patriots let them score, it's about 1:10. But even if the Patriots try to stop the Colts, the Colts might have still scored with :45 or 1:00 left, which would allow the Patriots some time for a response. This factor would greatly increase the WP of playing straight defense.

  2. Algonad says:

    How about the stop of Addai at the goal line? I don't think I would have let them score from the 14 but once they got to the goal line, it seems like they should have let Addai score. I think that would have given them 30-40 seconds to score a field goal.

  3. Rico says:

    Do you let them score from the 14? I guess not. That maybe the smart move WP-wise, but you should let them earn the win. But they should've let Addai walk in instead of tackling him at the NE 1. At this point it makes no sense to think you can keep the Colts out of the endzone with 4 tries. It's not that Addai would've done a MJD kneel. He was running in. Let him go and try to get a FG with about 70 seconds left.
    And Brian, I guess your WP backs that up if you calculate it after the Addai run.
    Not saying that the Pats win it if let Addai score, but they had no chance after the 1&goal from the NE 1.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Maybe the Patriots could have started out playing real defense, but as soon as Addai broke up the middle it was a terrible, terrible decision to stop him at the 1-yard line...and then subsequently stop him on the next rushing attempt.

    There are a few other factors that push this decision towards the 'matador' school of thought at that point (besides both the Patriots and Colts offenses being far greater than league averages):
    1. The Patriots would be playing the entire drive with a 4-down mentality. Therefore, a first down resulting in a spike would still yield 3 more passing downs
    2. Gostkowski is one of the best kickers in the NFL (THE best in last year's small sample size).
    3. The kicking conditions were ideal given that the game was being played indoors.

    If the Patriots had let Addai score they could have had the ball with 1-minute left in the game to go 40-50 yards for a good to great chance for the win -- assume they start at their own 30 and need to get to the Colts' 30 (47-yarder) to 20 (37-yarder). I'd like their chances.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Brian - Congrats on your well-deserved exposure over the last two days.

    Could you provide a little more detail on the stats that lead you to write that the expected net of a punt in that situation?

    You have the expected net of the punt at 38 yards. Is that an indoor/outdoor figure? If so, how would it change for punting indoors?

    Would you adjust at all for the fact that Indy had not attempted to return any of Hanson's earlier punts, and a fair catch would seem very likely in that circumstance?

    It seems to me that the expected distance of the punt is the key component of this analysis and yet it hasn't sparked many questions, at least from what I've seen on this blog and others.

    Congrats again on all the debate you've helped produce. - Mikey

  6. Anonymous says:

    I am a fan of using probability to analyze situations like this.

    However, I think in some situations, this being one of them, you can begin to trend toward some pretty absurd conclusions.

    To intentionally give up a lead there would have to be an overwhelming reason.

    I agree with the 4th down call... I don't mind the MJD kneeldown... however I think this suggestion is ridiculous and ignores many variables of the situation.

  7. Anonymous says:

    It is not ridiculous. The Colts did the exact same thing in a playoff games agains the Chiefs a few years back. It was a total shootout, and the Colts let the Chiefs score so that they could get the ball back in the final minutes of the game. In that circumstance, neither defense could stop either team.

    And if the Pats lets the Colts score, the Pats only need a field goal, not a touchdown. That would have been very possible with a minute left, because both defenses were bagged near the end of this game.

    Great website by the way!!

  8. Ian Simcox says:


    Great posts. And thank goodness for Belichick. All this talk of 'go for it on 4th down' is finally starting to get somewhere and I hope that Bill would make that same call again.

    One question that has been asked in the comments and would be interesting to know. Would it have made sense for Brady to run back and take a safety, or would the net position be the same as punting (I'm not sure what the difference is between net field position of traditional punts and safety punts)?

  9. slushhead says:

    I rarely like the idea of letting a team score unless that team is in a situation in which they can win with a field goal. However, I do think the probabilities should influence defensive play-calling. The Patriots may have been better served to play aggressively for the first few plays, sending blitzers and leaving man coverage deep. If they can get a sack, or perhaps stop a run short, they will have increased their WP. If the Colts score, Brady gets the ball back with about a minute to get into field goal range.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Brian, I love your articles. On a related item to this, could you please analyze the end of Superbowl 32 between the Packers and Broncos? With the game tied with 1:47 to go, the Broncos had 2nd and goal on the 1 yd line. Packers had 2 timeouts.

    Holmgren instructed his team to let Denver score so the Packers could get the ball back. Some criticized this decision afterwards. But statistically, was it the right call?

  11. Xeifrank says:

    Another minor thing that I am not sure is being taken into consideration is the chances of the Colts missing the extra point on both the "matador" and "non matador" Colt touchdown scenarios.
    vr, Xei

  12. Anonymous says:


    Another poster mentioned it already, but...

    You missed a pretty important part in determining the value of playing straight up defense. Unless the Colts score on the last play of the game, you are going to get the ball back. Sometimes it might be only a few seconds, but other times you will have 45+ seconds left.

  13. Anonymous says:

    "You missed a pretty important part in determining the value of playing straight up defense. Unless the Colts score on the last play of the game, you are going to get the ball back. Sometimes it might be only a few seconds, but other times you will have 45+ seconds left."

    Very good point....

    I missed this too. The sentence below assumes that if you score the TD, you win the game. Obviously, a score greatly increases the Colts' WP, but it doesn't make it 100%

    "Against a team needing a TD, playing straight defense yields a TD about 62% of the time. This means the Patriots would have a 0.38 Win Probability (WP)."

    I'm not really sure how to calculate the exact WP after TD. We'd have to look at the probability the Colts would score with 45 seconds left and the probability that the Pats could get a tie with 45 seconds and repeat the process.

    I'm conservatively using a 95% probability the Colts win the game after scoring. That would change a 62% score probability into a 59% IND Win probability with straight defense. That means 41% NE win prob.

    Thats not a drastic change but 41 vs 36 is a big enough difference from 38 vs 36 that it changes from virtual tie to strong preference for straight defense.

    I actually strongly suspect that the number is lower than 95%.

    95% implies score at any point between now and the end and the Pats have a 5% probability to win.

    Obviously if they score with 0 seconds left, New England has a 0% probability. If they score right now, they have a 36% probability.

    To say that they have only a 5% probability if they score at any point in between 0% and 36% is extremely conservative on the low end.

  14. Pete says:

    Did you factor in the 98-99% for the extra point? It's not much, but with the WP so close, it slightly increases the potential benefit to the Patriots (a missed XP causes the Colts touchdown to tie the game rather than give them the lead).

  15. Pete says:

    Re: calculating the exact WP after TD. I think there's a way to do it based on the formula for expected probability of getting a field goal with x amount of time left in the game. I think it involves calculus (ugh!).

  16. zlionsfan says:

    One problem with allowing the Colts to score is that you can't be sure they'll do it right away. Imagine the Patriots defense not trying to tackle and the Colts offense not trying to score ... it wouldn't necessarily have turned out too differently.

Leave a Reply

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.