Breakdowns

The Urgency Meter: Analyzing the 4th Down Decisions for Bills at Patriots in Week 16

Fourth down

One of the most impactful fixtures from the Week 16 slate was the rematch of the Bills v Patriots in Foxborough. With first place in the AFC East on the line, each individual decision mid-game could have great consequences on the postseason. Thankfully, we were treated to eight big fourth-down decisions. Let’s dive in and see how those decisions were executed and the impact they had on the final result.

Decision Number One

The Bills opened their offensive game by driving down to the Patriots four-yard line, before having to decide between a 21-yard field goal offering almost a guaranteed three points or attempting to go for it with two yards to the first down or four to the end zone. The numbers to decipher were as follows:

​​Probability of First Down:  40.98 %

FG Distance:  21

Average Expected Points from Drive:  2.08

Average Expected Points if Kick:  2.97

Average Expected Points for Patriots on Current Drive:  1.35

Average Expected Differential:  -7.27

Average Expected Points Rest of Game Bills:  13

Average Expected Points Rest of Game Patriots:  21

Urgency Meter Score: 0.67

Getting the necessary two yards for the first down was only 41% likely according to the model offering expected total points of 2.08. This is lower than the 3 points expected for a kick and so if everything else was held constant, the optimal decision here would have been to take the field goal. 

However, as the score differential was 0 points at this moment in the game, the model’s decision here will largely be based on who is expected to win the game. The model had forecasted the Patriots to score 21 points for the rest of the game, with the Bills only expected to score 13 points after the current drive. The model thought those field goals would not be enough when the game is tied and this lead to an Urgency Meter Score of 0.67 and hence a need to go for it in this instance. 

What Actually Happened?

The Bills did indeed go for it here and scored a touchdown on the play. Correct decision.

Decision Number Two

The Patriots were now down seven points and on their second drive. They were approaching the halfway line before their drive looked like it would be stopped short. Time for a decision on fourth and one. Punt or go for it?

Probability of First Down:  47.55 %

FG Distance:  68

Average Expected Points from Drive:  2.01

Average Expected Points if Kick:  0.03

Average Expected Points for Bills on Current Drive:  1.95

Average Expected Differential:  -1.22

Average Expected Points Rest of Game Patriots:  18

Average Expected Points Rest of Game Bills:  13

Urgency Meter Score: 0.53

The success of the fourth down appeared to be slightly below a coin toss at 48%. A field goal distance of 68 yards in December outdoors would not have garnered much attention either. Given the circumstances of the Bills opening touchdown and the current drive that had appeared to stall, the model determined that the Bills were now expected to win the game, but only by one point. 

With the game expected to be so close an Urgency Meter Score of 0.53 represents a decision that is also close to a coin toss, this time however it sides with the Patriots eventual decision to go for the first down.

What Actually Happened?

The Patriots did secure the first down before marching on down the field for a rushing touchdown. One correct decision a piece.

Decision Number Three

With the game now tied, Buffalo drove the field once again before getting stopped on third down at the Patriots eight-yard line. This was an incredibly similar situation to the Bills first fourth down decision given the field position and the fact that the game was tied. The Bills elected to kick the points here instead of going for it, representing somewhat of a contrasting style. Had the coaches seen something they didn’t like or what was the basis of their decision? The numbers suggest the following:

Probability of First Down:  34.78 %

FG Distance:  24

Average Expected Points from Drive:  1.76

Average Expected Points if Kick:  2.97

Average Expected Points for Patriots on Current Drive:  1.49

Average Expected Differential:  -2.95

Average Expected Points Rest of Game Bills:  10

Average Expected Points Rest of Game Patriots:  16

Urgency Meter Score: 0.57

A similar situation provides a similar recommendation. The model once again understood that there was an almost guaranteed three points on offer but expected the Patriots to win the game and so still believed in the premise that field goals would not be enough when a first down is within achievable range.

What Actually Happened?

The Bills took the field goals and were successful in their attempt, leading to a three-point lead.

Decision Number Four

Now with a three point lead, the Bills once again drove into the Patriots red zone, making it all the way to the one-yard line. Another contentious decision to be made and with Sean McDermott already choosing once to go for it and once to take the field goal, it was very interesting to see his pattern of thought alter as the game progressed. 

Probability of First Down:  48 %

FG Distance:  19

Average Expected Points from Drive:  3.83

Average Expected Points if Kick:  2.99

Average Expected Points for Patriots on Current Drive:  1.2

Average Expected Differential:  -3.4

Average Expected Points Rest of Game Bills:  8

Average Expected Points Rest of Game Patriots:  16

Urgency Meter Score: 0.58

With only a three point lead and a 48% probability of getting the touchdown, the average expected points from the drive would be as follows:

(Probability of touchdown * points for touchdown) + (probability of extra point * one point) (0.48 * 6) + (0.95 * 1) = 3.83

3.83 is obviously greater than the three points a field goal would secure and so going for it in this isolated moment would be the optimal decision. 

When factoring in the rest of the game’s possessions and also the Patriots field position should the Bills fail their attempt, the optimal decision provided by the model is still to go for it in this case, with an Urgency Meter Score of 0.58.

What Actually Happened?

The Bills did go for it and the play unfolded in a similar fashion to the first fourth down decision they had but with opposing results. The Patriots then took over on downs before going three and out. With their deep field position, the Bills returned the punt into Patriots territory to start their next drive. A just result for what appears to be a great decision by the Bills on fourth down.

Decision Number Five

On what was now becoming a rolling play and a great case study for fourth down decision making, the Bills yet again got held on third down, forcing a fourth and two from the Patriots thirty-four yard line. With a longer field goal to consider here, the Bills continued to elect to try and use all four downs to get the first down. There was 2:15 left in the first half at this point and so clock management was also to be factored in here.

Probability of First Down:  40.98 %

FG Distance:  50

Average Expected Points from Drive:  1.69

Average Expected Points if Kick:  2.25

Average Expected Points for Opposition on Current Drive:  2.0

Average Expected Differential:  -2.64

Average Expected Points Rest of Game Home:  8

Average Expected Points Rest of Game Opposition:  14

Urgency Meter Score: 0.57

The model appeared to clearly favor the Patriots in winning this game as even with less time on the clock now than the previous decisions, the Patriots were forecasted to score another fourteen points from this moment onwards, with the Bills only predicted to score eight points on ensuing drives. 

Once again, this is the primary reason for the model suggesting to go for it in this situation, with the Bills up three points. 

What Actually Happened?

The Bills successfully converted their fourth down attempt, before going on to get a touchdown. Just to remind again that this was still a rolling play from the previous fourth down decision where the Bills failed in their attempt but managed to stuff the Patriots in their own end zone leading to an excellent starting field position when the Bills got the ball once more. A clear case of understanding the lack of punishment you might get from taking a risk deep into opposition territory due to the field position they would start their drive with.

Decision Number Six

With the Patriots now down thirteen points getting late into the third quarter, it was time for them to start putting up scores. Their drive stalled on the Bills twenty-two yard line, with the Patriots deciding between a thirty-nine yard field goal or inches to the first down:

Probability of First Down:  47.55 %

FG Distance:  39

Average Expected Points from Drive:  2.32

Average Expected Points if Kick:  2.92

Average Expected Points for Bills on Current Drive:  1.1

Average Expected Differential:  -8.22

Average Expected Points Rest of Game Patriots:  9

Average Expected Points Rest of Game Bills:  6

Urgency Meter Score: 0.69

By now, the Bills had run up the score to the point that even this model and its clear affinity for the Patriots, believed that the Bills would now win the match. With the Patriots now expected to lose by eight points, field goals would certainly not be enough to keep pace with the Bills. The Urgency Meter Score of 0.69 suggests a strong need to go for it in this instance.

What Actually Happened?

The Patriots appeared to also have understood the assignment here, going for it and successfully converting the first down. This drive continued, leading to decision number seven.

Decision Number Seven

The Patriots progressed down the field to the Bills ten-yard line before electing to go for it on fourth and three. Having already gone for it on this drive, it would have been a curious decision to elect the field goal. 

The model suggests at this point, with even less time remaining and less yardage to getting a touchdown, that there is an even greater need to go for it now compared to the previous decision for the Patriots.

Urgency Meter Score: 0.74

What Actually Happened?

The Patriots converted the first down before scoring a touchdown and bring the score to 20-14 to the Bills.

Decision Number Eight

With the game now poised at 26-21 to the Bills with four and a half minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Bills were faced with possibly their biggest decision of the evening. The decision came on fourth and one at the Patriots thirty-three yard line. A field goal, a punt, and going for it were all decisions to weigh up here:

Probability of First Down:  48 %

FG Distance:  50

Average Expected Points from Drive:  1.96

Average Expected Points if Kick:  2.25

Average Expected Points for Opposition on Current Drive:  1.78

Average Expected Differential:  4.3

Average Expected Points Rest of Game Home:  1

Average Expected Points Rest of Game Opposition:  2

Urgency Meter Score: 0.39

With little time remaining and a five-point lead, the model did not like the Patriots chances of overcoming that and so offered an Urgency Meter Score of 0.39 suggesting that there is no major need to go for it here. 

An average expected points from a field goal of two points suggests that two in every three kicks from this distance are successful

A punt would likely stuff the Patriots to within their own ten yard line but should it goal out the back of the end zone, the Patriots ensuing drive on average would score two points over the course of time, enough to give the Bills the win. 

The model did not hate this decision and does not factor into account emotional elements such as believing in your players and laying a psychological blow to a rival, but felt that the decision that gave the greatest increase to their chance of winning was in fact to not go for it here.

What Actually Happened?

The Bills converted the fourth down before completing the drive with a touchdown and eventually winning the game 33-21.

In Conclusion

This fixture with so much on the line was a great opportunity to analyze and attempt to understand the decision making process of coaches and teams. What stood out was the Bills first two decisions were near identical and yet they elected for different options splitting the decision-making one apiece for field goals and first down conversion attempts. 

The Bills scored three touchdowns that had contributions from big. fourth down decisions. This was out of a total of five decisions labeled above. Out of the two they did not score touchdowns on, they scored a field goal on one, and on the other, they stuffed the Patriots by their end zone leading to a touchdown drive.

Both teams significantly increased their points total by deciding in line with the numbers the majority of the time in what was an excellent match-up between two of the AFC heavyweights. 

Fourth-down decision-making appears to be having a major impact on the outcome of the playoff hunt.

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