Every game is a series of plays, but not all plays are created equal. Some plays have more meaning than others and have a bigger impact on the final outcome. We can anecdotally talk about the big plays or we can use win probability to put a number on each play’s impact. Some of the biggest win probability swings might not be plays you’d immediately think about in a recap, but sometimes it’s the little things that eventually set up the bigger plays that have the most significance. Each week we’re going to look at those plays through the lens of win probability and see how the game was actually won and lost.
As a 3-point underdog, the New York Giants opened their game against the Jacksonville Jaguars with just a 40.9 percent chance of winning per numberFire’s win probability model, but it didn’t take long for that to swing.
Win probability below will be presented from the Giants’ perspective.
Keelan Cole’s 31-yard catch
Win probability swing: -4.26 percent
It started early. On the second offensive play of the game, the Jaguars had one of their biggest plays with a 31-yard pass from Blake Bortles to Keelan Cole. Cole didn’t have to do much on the route — a straight go that blew right past Janoris Jenkins. This helped flip the field early for Jacksonville — from inside their own 20 to midfield. Nine plays later the Jaguars kicked a field goal to go up 3-0.
Stuffed at the goal line
Win probability swing: -4.04 percent
The Giants drove down the field at the end of the first quarter, but stalled in the red zone. The worst play of the bunch was a four-yard loss on a Saquon Barkley run. This is one of the things we’ve talked about for knowing when and how to run the ball. The Giants lined up with just one wide receiver, ensuring there’s a 10-man box for Barkley to run into. Those aren’t great odds for a successful run if the line is blocking well and as we saw, this line was not blocking well. Just about every part of the line got overwhelmed and Barkley was hit in the backfield. A second-and-4 turned into a third-and-8 and an odd call for an Odell Beckham end around. The Giants had to settle for a field goal instead of taking the lead.
Yeldon sets up his touchdown
Win probability swing: -5.16 percent
Late in the second quarter the Giants were still just down three points, but the Jaguars were driving. Jacksonville faced a second-and-6. A stop would have set up a longer third down and perhaps a field goal attempt, but that’s not what happened. Instead, T.J. Yeldon ran for a 15-yard gain down to the 1-yard line to set up a touchdown on the next play.
This gain is on the linebackers and Landon Collins. B.J Goodson was handled by tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Alec Ogletree and Collins both overcommitted to stopping the run, which left no second level to stop Yeldon. Curtis Riley came over to stop the back before reaching the end zone, but the Jags would score one play later for a two-score lead.
Sack in the red zone
Win probability swing: -5.85 percent
But the Giants would drive themselves back into scoring position. They faced a second-and-9 from the 19 with 50 seconds remaining. They would leave that play with third-and-16 from the 26 because of a sack.
This is another play when pressure came from everywhere. Edge pressure from Lerentee McCray initially caused Manning to step up in the pocket, but Calais Campbell was waiting after blowing past Will Hernandez. If Campbell didn’t get the quarterback, Malik Jackson was free to clean it up.
Another problem on this play is it had slower developing routes. Manning was ready to throw at the top of his drop but nothing was open. He’s not hit until about three seconds after the snap — more than his 2.7-second average on the day — but he was rushed earlier and there was nowhere to go with the ball.
A Jalen Ramsey penalty on third down gave the Giants another chance, but they still had to settle for a field goal to end the half.
Stuffed on fourth down
Win probability swing: -6.19 percent
Going for it on fourth-and-2 from the 37 was the right call. The play itself left a lot to be desired. Motion can be a great thing to create open lanes and mismatches for the offense, but on this play Evan Engram’s motion brought an extra defender to the play side — one who went unblocked and made the tackle on Barkley before the first down line.
Inside runs from shotgun in short yardage situations aren’t the worst play calls like some would make you believe, but require some level of adequacy up front — something that didn’t exist all game.
The Bortles keeper
Win probability swing: -7.26 percent
What makes the read option dangerous is the threat of a quarterback run. It makes the key defender decide who he’s going to take — crash the running back or stand ground against the quarterback. Forcing the defender to make the call should make the quarterback’s call correct almost all the time. It’s why the read option is more than just a fad. But what really makes it dangerous is when the defense ignores the threat of a quarterback keep when the quarterback has the ability to keep it. That’s what happened here and happened on the long Danny Etling run in the fourth preseason game. No Giant put any thought into the possibility of a Bortles keep and he was free to run 41 yards down the field.
The Jaguars were still forced to punt on the drive, but instead of a stop deep in Giants territory and good starting field position for the offense, the Giants started the next drive at their own 15.
A big third down
Win probability swing: +7.28 percent
On that next drive, the Giants — down 13-9 — had a third-and-5 from their own 20. They ran a quick swing pass to Barkley, which was the best use of the back in the passing game. Guard Patrick Omameh and center Jon Halapio got out in front of the play and blocked well down the field for a gain of 18. A holding penalty on the ensuing first down derailed the rest of the drive and the Giants were forced to punt again.
Myles Jack wasn’t down
Win probability swing: -21 percent
While the Giants realistically saw their win probability around 30 percent, the game really didn’t get out of hand until a pick-6 from Myles Jack. Yannick Ngakoue blew past Ereck Flowers so fast the right tackle could only give him a pat on the back. That forced Manning to step up, but defensive tackle Arby Jones was there to tip Manning’s throw after he beat Omameh. The ball fell into Jack’s hands and he took it in for the score. The 21-percent win probability swing was the biggest for any single play in the game.
Barkley doing Barkley
Win probability swing: +14.18 percent
But the Giants weren’t done. With under 11 minutes left in the game, Barkley ripped off a 68-yard touchdown run to bring the score within five points after a failed two-point conversion. The run was everything you’d want from a highly drafted running back — a run up the middle, taken to the sideline with multiple missed tackles forced along the way. However, we can use WP to see the little mistakes that compounded and still left the Giants as huge underdogs at this point in the game. The run — the second biggest single-play swing of the game — bumped the Giants’ win probability from 7.4 percent to just 21.3 percent
A muff to ice
Win probability swing: -8.64 percent
With under a minute left in the game and no timeouts remaining, the Giants only had an 11.4 percent chance at a win. But they forced a punt for the opportunity to make one final drive for a score. But the punt was muffed by Kaelin Clay and recovered by the Jaguars, leaving the Giants offense on the sideline. Jacksonville’s win probability went up to 99.9 percent and the game was officially over two kneels later.
Let’s talk about late fourth down decisions
On the second-to-last drive, the Giants faced a fourth down decision that impacted a future fourth down decision. With 8:06 left in the game, the Giants had a fourth-and-1 on their own 35. At this point, still down by five, the Giants had a 9.7 percent win probability. At this point as trailing underdogs, the Giants should be trying anything to boost their chances of winning the game. But instead, Pat Shurmur called for the punt team. A false start turned the fourth-and-1 into a fourth-and-6 so the official win probability swing wasn’t impacted much, but the Giants made a blunder by not going for it on the short fourth down.
Per the pro-football-reference win probability calculator, the Giants could have upped their chances of winning up to 20.5 percent with just a 1-yard gain. A failure to convert would have only dropped the Giants’ chances of winning to four percent, a risk well worth taking with the potential swing on a conversion. A punt to the 25 — the result of the play — still put the Giants at 9.7 percent. This was a decision to put off losing, not trying to win. Yes, failing deep in your own territory would look bad, but converting would have kept the offense on the field and allowed it to keep driving. What’s the point in having a running back picked second overall and the highest paid offensive lineman in the league if you don’t trust them to pick up a yard? Even on the ugly failed fourth down conversion earlier in the game, the Giants still picked up a yard.
The decision to pass up the short fourth down came back later when the Giants were forced to go for it on fourth-and-6 with under two minutes left in the game. So often it works that way — a team passes up a short fourth down attempt earlier and gets faced with a more difficult distance later in the game. These are little decisions that can give a team a bigger edge and knowing to go for it in these situations can lead to better and more aggressive play in situations when it really matters more. Look at what the Philadelphia Eagles did last season on their way to the Super Bowl. When we talk about plays that change a game, they can just as easily be a call that’s made or not made by the head coach just as much as a long run by the star running back. This call might not have mattered that much against the Jaguars, but a similar one could later in the season and the Giants should be fully prepared to put themselves in the best position to win.