NFL Analysis


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Ranking NFL’s Best, Worst Coaching Decisions From Championship Games

Lions HC Dan Campbell stands at the podium
Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell speaks with the media, the day after losing the NFC championship game to the San Francisco 49ers, in a news conference in Allen Park on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024.

Our look at the good and the bad coaching decisions from this past week’s games is informed by metrics such as expected win probability added (xWPA).

Best, Worst Championship Game Coaching Decisions

Second-worst: Ravens’ offense stagnates

The situation: Baltimore has the ball fourth-and-4 at its 47-yard line with 1:52 to go in the second quarter

The decision: Punt

The result: Kansas City gets the ball at its 11-yard line, and the Ravens go the rest of the game without scoring a touchdown

Down seven points near the end of the second quarter, the Baltimore Ravens opted to punt on fourth-and-4. This would be the Ravens’ third consecutive scoreless possession following their first (and only) touchdown of the game in the first quarter.

Going for it would have been worth 1.9 points of xWPA; perhaps the Ravens believed points would be easier to come by judging by the first few drives of the game. Going for it on your 47-yard line may seem risky, but after Baltimore’s initial touchdown, the offense went seven consecutive possessions without a score.

This particular decision will surely be looked back upon as a missed opportunity.

Second-best: 49ers try to get on the board

The situation: San Francisco has the ball fourth-and-6 at Detroit’s 30-yard line with 7:58 to go in the first quarter

The decision: Field goal

The result: Jake Moody’s 48-yard attempt is no good

The San Francisco 49ers started things off slowly (before eventually unloading in the second half), as their first drive of the game resulted in a missed field goal. A field goal attempt was worth 0.8 points of xWPA over going for it. Even with six yards to go, going for it would have been defensible, but xWPA analysis says the 49ers made the best choice in this scenario. 

Interestingly, San Francisco didn’t face a single fourth down the entire game where xWPA said it was favorable to go for it — and, indeed, the 49ers never went for it. This goes to show that while it can pay to be aggressive, it doesn’t pay to be reckless.

David Montgomery stopped before the end zone
Lions running back David Montgomery gets wrapped up by the defense during the fourth quarter of the Lions' 34-31 loss in the NFC championship game in Santa Clara, California. (Eric Seals-USA TODAY NETWORK)

Worst: Lions… but not what you think

The situation: Detroit down by 10 points with third-and-goal from the 1-yard line with 1:05 left and all three timeouts

The decision: Handoff to David Montgomery for a loss of two yards

The result: The Lions score on fourth down to cut the deficit to three points but were forced to burn a timeout in the process

Much has been made about the Detroit Lions’ “too aggressive” fourth-down play-calling that resulted in two turnovers on downs in the second half (where the 49ers scored 27 unanswered points). 

But anyone who has been reading our coaching decision coverage probably won’t be surprised to learn that, while the outcomes were less than desirable for the Lions, our xWPA model agreed with the decision to go for it in both instances.

What about the decision to kick a field goal at the end of the first half? This play was basically a toss-up, with the model only finding a 0.2-percentage-point advantage in favor of going for it. In this type of scenario, it’s important to remember that because it’s the end of the half, the opponent won't be disadvantaged by field position if you fail.

The Lions’ egregious mistake in this game wasn’t a fourth-down decision but this mishandled third down. By calling anything other than a pass into the end zone, Detroit ran the risk it would need to burn one of its three timeouts, which is exactly what happened.

As a result, the Lions’ only hope was an onside kick, which had a tiny probability of success. If they had saved their timeout, they would have opened up another path to getting the ball back with a defensive stop. Instead, when San Francisco recovered the ball, the game was over.

Best: Chiefs start strong

The situation: Kansas City has the ball fourth-and-2 at the Baltimore 41-yard line with 9:11 to go in the first quarter

The decision: Go for it

The result: Patrick Mahomes’ pass to Travis Kelce is complete for the first down, and the Chiefs eventually score a touchdown on their first drive

In the same game, the Kansas City Chiefs faced a similar situation to the above one for the Ravens, but unlike Baltimore, Kansas City went for it. 

The decision to go for it was slightly easier for the Chiefs considering they had a 12-yard advantage and two fewer yards to go, but we’ve seen plenty of teams punt in similar spots. The Mahomes-led Chiefs are usually aggressive on their first drive, and that aggression paid off.

Kansas City was rewarded with the first down and the eventual touchdown. 

The decision to go for it was worth 3.2 points of xWPA, and they would take advantage of their early lead to become AFC champions for the fourth time in five years.

This article was written by Matthew Lim and Matt Manocherian.