This was a game of big plays, or more accurately, a game of big mistakes and missed opportunities. It was a tale of two halves. BAL took the first half, and PIT took the second half.
The biggest play of the game was the 58-yard pass to Antonio Brown to the BAL 4-yd line on a 3rd and 19 play, which was worth 0.46 WPA for the Steelers. Until that pass, BAL, despite its comedy of self-inflicted wounds, still had a 0.60 WP. With a stop there, they would have had 2 minutes to put together a FG drive to break the tie. Earlier in that same drive, Hines Ward caught a 12-yd pass on 3rd and 10, worth 0.22 WPA, which was the second biggest play of the night for PIT. A stop there would have given BAL a firm upper hand as well.
One of the boldest decisions of the playoffs so far had to be the 4th down QB sneak by Roethlisberger early in the 4th quarter. With the score tied at 21, on 4th and less than a yard at the BAL 14, Tomlin passed up the near-sure thing go-ahead FG. For that decision to make sense, the break-even conversion probability would need to be at least 50%. Fortes fortuna adiuvat.
Other notable big plays: The Ravens' three second-half turnovers cost -0.04, -0.16, and -0.22 WPA, totaling -0.42 WPA. The Terrell Suggs strip-sack returned for a TD by an alert Cory Redding cost the Steelers -0.19 WPA.
Well, their luck had to run out sometime. One game proves nothing, even a blow-out like this, but it was hilarious to watch ESPN's Sports Reporters Sunday and see the likes of Lupica and Albom struggle to comprehend such an upset. They threw up all the usual fallacious narrative nonsense: momentum, wanting it more, playing under the big lights. Frankly, I'm not sure what all the excuses were because none of it made sense.
What the numbers have been saying since before mid-season is that GB is really, really good but a bit unlucky, and ATL was average at best but very lucky. Turnover luck plus some very timely unforced miscues by opponents are what gave ATL their #1 seed, and we saw what happened when the football gods stopped smiling on Georgia.
Aaron Rodgers' performance was one of the best of his career: 0.50 WPA, 27.0 EPA, and 68.2% Success Rate. Think about what 27 EPA means. It's not just "27 points;" it's 27 net points generated. Another way of looking at it is 27 points above what the average QB contributes.
One note on strategy--I'll credit Mike Smith with going for the onside kick much earlier in the game than most coaches would have. Even down by a boat-load of points, he was still playing to win and didn't care about the final score if he lost. Unfortunately, we can't say that about all the head coaches this weekend. Congratulations, Coach. You're the Advanced NFL Stats Coach of the Week.
This game went according to script, and Pete Carroll read his lines perfectly. Judging from his game plan, I bet his pregame speech went something like, "Let's go out there and try not to be embarrassed too badly!"
SEA's first series of the game: Run, run, pass, punt. Imaginative.
Then on their second possession, after falling behind by 7, SEA starts to throw on 1st down. Two straight conversions and a third down completion gives them a 4th and 1 on the CHI 40. The opponent's 40-yard line is right in the sweet-spot to go for it! Punts are so worthless and conversions are so valuable that the numbers say offenses should be going for it all the way up to 4th and 10.
I'm sure if we asked Pete Carroll why he didn't go for it, he'd say, "I wasn't confident in our ability in short yardage situations." Ok. Then don't make it a goal line dive play. Throw a slant, or a slant & go, or a screen, or a bomb. Anything. Why play into the defense's hands with the dive play? You can't get 1 yd? Then why did you even show up for the game?
Down 21-0 coming out of halftime, SEA dials up it's best stuff on offense. Run for no gain, run for no gain, incomplete pass, punt. Look, here's the deal, Seahawks: You didn't need 3 TDs in the 2nd half. You needed 3 TDs more than whatever CHI is able to score. Run, run, pass, punt ain't gonna do it.
Later in the 3rd period, down 28-0, SEA makes it to the CHI 9...and they kick a FG to make it 28-3. Congratulations, you avoided the shutout, which, judging by the decisions from the SEA sideline, appears to have been Pete Carroll's only goal all along.
At 11:25 in the 4th qtr, SEA finally gets in the end zone to make the score 28-10. Just imagine that had SEA gone for the conversions in those two instances I mentioned above and succeeded. It's not inconceivable that the score would have been 28-21 at that point. Who knows? A little game pressure on Cutler could easily have forced him into blunder. A surprise onside kick or a trick play or two could have made this into a game to remember.
But hey, the Bears played a heck of a game. Cutler was great with a 0.41 WPA and 19.9 EPA and no interceptions.
How did the Jets' offense manage to get the best of NE? Small ball. The Jets attempted only 5 passes beyond 15 yards. Consequently, Mark Sanchez made very few mistakes, yielding zero interceptions and zero sacks. He had a 53.8% Success Rate, taking advantage of the bendable NE defense. (Exactly the strategy that the stats suggested would work.) Even the Jets' biggest offensive play of the day was a short pass over the middle to Jerricho Cotchery, who ran to the NE 13-yd line, worth 0.16 WPA.
Tom Brady made the biggest mistake of the game, throwing an interception to David Harris who was headed for a TD until chased down by Alge Crumpler. I love hustle plays like that. As it stood, the play was worth -0.27 WPA, but it could have been bigger if not for Crumpler's tackle, which alone was worth 0.06 WPA.
Trailing 7-3 at the 1:14 mark in the 2nd quarter with a 4th and 4 from their own 38, NE attempted a fake punt play. Patrick Chung bobbled the snap and was stopped short of the line of scrimmage. The result cost NE -0.05 WPA. There are two considerations with fake punts or FG attempts. The first is whether or not a fake provides a better chance of conversion than a regular offensive play. A 4th and 4 conversion attempt outside the red zone is successful about 55% of the time. Belichick must have thought he had better than a 55% chance of converting with the trick play.
The second consideration is whether the punt (or FG attempt) is a better proposition in terms of WP than going for the conversion in any form. In this case, due to the combination of score and time remaining, NE only needed a 29% chance of conversion to make it worth while. (I just wish there were more fake punts and FGs so we can have enough data to make some probability estimates.)
Belichick made the right call going for the 2-point conversion to make it a 3-point game at the end of the 3rd quarter. He also, smartly, ran it in. At the rate the game was going, it was unlikely NE was going to have multiple chances to score again. This was the high-water mark for NE in the second half. Unfortunately for NE, the Cotchery catch-and-run came on the subsequent Jets drive.
But later, when NE pulled within a TD late in the 4th quarter, Belichick should have gone for the 2 point conversion (2PC) again. The reason is simple mathematics. Assuming a miracle onside kick recovery and another TD (which we would for any of this to matter at all), here are the possibilities:
A) XP + XP = tie (.50 WP)
B1) 2PC + XP = win (1.0 WP, occurs 48% of the time)
B2) failed 2PC + 2PC = tie (.5 WP, occurs 25% of the time)
B3) failed 2PC + failed 2PC = lose (0 WP, occurs 27% of the time)
With a 48% probability of success for the 2PC and a virtual 100% success rate for an XP, the 2PC strategy wins a a total of 48% + 1/2 * 25% = 60% of the time.
The top players on offense this weekend were QB-Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler, WR-Antonio Brown and Hines Ward, and TE-Greg Olson. Oh, RB you ask? The answer is no one. Seriously.
The top players on defense include: Cory Redding, David Harris, Terrell Suggs, Tramon Williams (again), and Ryan Clark.
Here are the match-up pages for the forthcoming conference championship games:
NYJ at PIT
GB at CHI
The numbers would point to a GB-PIT Super Bowl.