This game was something. Each week when this article gets put together, there’s one or two really big plays and the rest are meaningful but don’t have a massive impact on the result. That was not the case in the 33-31 New York Giants loss to the Carolina Panthers. There were numerous big plays and big swings, especially in the second half.
These are the biggest plays in the game, by Win Probability Added (WPA) and Expected Points Added (EPA). Explainers here (WPA) and here (EPA).
Both WPA and EPA presented from the perspective of the offense.
Not so special teams - 14:21, second quarter
EPA: -7.22 | WPA: -16.6 percent
So this happened.
The Giants have struggled to find success on punt returns, so Odell Beckham Jr. got the call in this game. He had a 15-yard return early in the game, but this play was as bad as they get and Beckham wasn’t trying to return it. In an attempt to push the closest defender away and let the ball get into the end zone, the ball instead brushed off Beckham’s leg, bounced around, an in another comedy of errors with more Giants trying to jump on the ball, it ended up in the end zone in Carolina’s possession for a touchdown.
When you need something done … - 6:48, second quarter
EPA: 5.54 | WPA: 18.3 percent
In an interview with ESPN that aired pre-game, Odell Beckham said he was disappointed in the lack of deep passes for the offense this season. So he did it himself. On a second-and-18, Beckham took a backward pass from Eli Manning and unloaded a throw with a defender in his face across the field to an open Saquon Barkley for a 57-yard touchdown. Trick plays with wide receiver throws often create ample space for the throw, but the degree of difficulty on this throw was not easy. The play not only gave the offense a needed boost, it saved the Giants from a likely punt following a 2nd and 18.
A poor defensive hold - 4:22, third quarter
EPA: 3.08 | WPA: 10.7 percent
Carolina lined up to punt on fourth-and-8 from the Giants’ 41-yard line, but an encroachment penalty on Kareem Martin moved it up to a fourth-and-3 and the Panthers chose to keep the offense on the field. The result of the play was initially incomplete, but a hold was called on B.W. Webb away from the throw. The five-yard penalty allowed the Panthers drive to continue and Webb’s extra 15-yard penalty for making contact with an official made it worse. Three easily avoidable penalties could have cost the Giants, but they ended up not mattering all that much because...
Dueling interceptions, part 1
Cam Newton to Curtis Riley - 3:44, third quarter
EPA: minus-4.3 | WPA: minus-11.7 percent
...three plays later Cam Newton threw an interception. After a holding penalty, the Panthers faced a second-and-20 at the Giants’ 26. Newton had time to throw and ripped a pass up the middle toward rookie tight end Ian Thomas, but the throw was off-line (or Thomas didn’t cut his route correctly) and the ball was placed perfectly into the waiting arms of Curtis Riley, who returned it for another 12 yards.
Eli Manning to Mike Adams - 1:38, third quarter
EPA: minus-5.94 | WPA: minus-12 percent
But not to be outdone, Eli Manning gave the ball right back to the Panthers on the following drive. This first-and-10 play looks like an RPO — the right side of the line plus a pulling Will Hernandez run blocked — with the read based on the pre-snap box count. With six men on the line and one more directly behind them, Manning decided to throw — not the wrong decision with one-on-one coverage outside. But at the snap, pressure got through on the right side and Mike Adams, one of the Panthers on the line, dropped back into coverage. With the need to get the ball out quickly, Manning threw into what he thought would be an open window for Beckham one-on-one. But Manning never saw Adams drop back and the throw went straight to the defender.
Catch CMC - 11:28, fourth quarter
EPA: 3.39 | WPA: 13.1 percent
Carolina went nine plays and 68 yards on the drive following the interception, capped off by an 18-yard touchdown pass to Christian McCaffrey. It was a beautiful play design by the Panthers to get McCaffrey into space. Carolina came out in shotgun with a 2x2 formation and McCaffrey in the backfield to the right. At the snap, the two receivers on the right side ran slants to the inside, which pulled all the defenders away from the sideline. That opened everything up for McCaffrey to take a swing pass, turn the corner, and score.
The touchdown gave the Panthers a two-score lead, 27-16.
Dueling interceptions, part 2
Eli Manning to Mike Adams, again - 10:41, fourth quarter
EPA: minus-3.74 | WPA: minus-11.3 percent
It didn’t get much better for the Giants on the next drive — one that lasted only two plays ended with another Eli Manning interception. After a 1-yard Saquon Barkley run on first down, the Giants faced a second-and-9. The Giants tried to go downfield again — something that worked well in this game — but Manning didn’t really step into the throw and the pass floated up the field instead of the sideline where Sterling Shepard was located. Again, Mike Adams was in perfect position for the interception.
Cam Newton to Janoris Jenkins - 9:08, fourth quarter
EPA: minus-5.86 | WPA: minus-22.1 percent
But, Newton would not be outdone. While Newton threw the first pick of the game and Manning answered on the following drive, the two switched roles in the fourth quarter. Three plays after the Panthers picked off Manning, Newton threw another interception intended for Ian Thomas. With pressure from Landon Collins in his face, Newton threw outside of Thomas and into the waiting arms of Janoris Jenkins, who turned into a punt returner and gained another 29 yards of zigging and zagging after the pick, down to the Carolina 34.
Beckham gets one - 8:16, fourth quarter
EPA: 3.65 | WPA: 13.1 percent
It only took the Giants two plays to find the end zone. The first was another one-yard run from Barkley. But the second was a 33-yard strike to Odell Beckham for his first receiving touchdown of the season. It was a perfect strike to Beckham in the end zone and the second-most improbable completion of the week across the entire league, per Next Gen Stats, with a completion probability of just 15.1 percent. Beckham came close to a receiving touchdown earlier in the game, but a great defensive play by James Bradberry knocked the ball out of Beckham’s hands. With Bradberry again in great coverage here, Beckham was able to hold on.
The touchdown and the successful two-point conversion brought the Giants within three points — 27-24.
All the Wright moves - 3:27, fourth quarter
EPA: 3.02 | WPA: 5.8 percent
On the next drive, the Panthers faced a fourth-and-1 from the Giants’ 44. Carolina kept the offense out on the field and the Giants expected a QB sneak. They lined up seven players on the line of scrimmage and sent all of them. Christian McCaffrey ran to the flat out of the backfield, which pulled the shallow defender, Eli Apple. That left Jarius Wright wide open with Curtis Riley a step slow to cover. The deep pass gained 27 yards. Carolina would eventually kick a field goal to go up six points with just over two minutes remaining.
Barkley breaks free - 1:15, fourth quarter
EPA: 3.57 percent | WPA: 2.2 percent
There’s a theory for a leading team that it’s better to be up three late in the game, than up by four, five, or six points. With the typical timidness of NFL play-calling, a team trailing by three is more likely to play for a field goal to tie instead of playing aggressively for a touchdown to win. But a team down by four-to-six points knows it needs a touchdown will have no choice but to have that aggressive mentality.
That’s what happened when the Panthers went from up three to up six and the Giants made sure to go down the field quickly. They went 75 yards in just four plays, the biggest of which was a 40-yard pass to Russell Shepard that gave the Giants a first-and-10 at the Carolina 15 with just over a minute remaining. Getting into that situation skyrocketed the Giants’ win probability, which is why the win probability for Saquon Barkley’s 15-yard touchdown catch looks so low compared to all the other plays listed.
Barkley only got four targets in the game, but two of them were for the game’s biggest plays. The Giants sent Barkley out of the backfield and lucked out with defensive end Efe Obada in coverage. Obada started to rush the passer but turned in coverage once Barkley left the backfield and once that happened, it was too late. Barkley leaped into the end zone for a touchdown and the extra point gave the Giants a 31-30 lead.
Gano is good - 0:06, fourth quarter
EPA: 3.75 | WPA: 98.1 percent
If this game wasn’t weird enough, there was this final drive. There was the inside run on third-and-1 at the Giants’ 46 with 30 seconds left and no timeouts remaining. Even as the refs marked a first down, the Panthers didn’t have a lot of time push the ball further down the field. After a spike and incomplete pass, the Panthers stayed at the 46 and brought on Graham Gano for a game-winning 63-yard field goal — something you can see by the win probability added, didn’t have a real good chance at happening. But we all know what did happen and how this game improbably ended.