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There Were 35 Plays More Costly To The Patriots Than Stephen Gostkowski’s Missed Extra Point

Did you hear? Stephen Gostkowski, FiveThirtyEight’s Football Player of the Year,1 missed his first extra point since his rookie season, and it cost the New England Patriots a chance to win the AFC championship game and repeat as Super Bowl champions. For shame.

Yes, Gostkowski was an important part of getting them there in the first place. Yes, he went 2 for 2 on 3-point field goals and sent all four of his (non-onside) kickoffs for touchbacks. And yes, the miss did come in the first quarter. But see, if he’d made that kick and everything else in the game played out exactly the same way over the next 47 minutes, and the Patriots — down 1 point after their counterfactual final drive — decided to kick an XP instead of going for two, and Gostkowski made that one as well, and the Patriots won in overtime, on the road, they would be getting ready for the big game right now. And in case that logic wasn’t proof enough, Gostkowski himself confessed!

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To some extent, this line of thinking is natural. Holding people who commit minor sins accountable for major negative results that flow from them is deeply ingrained in modern society. For example, if someone runs a red light and nothing bad happens, he may be cited and fined. But if he hits another car, he may incur civil liability and be sued for damages. If he hits and kills a pedestrian, he may open himself up to criminal liability and be prosecuted. In all three cases, the person may have committed the same sin, but its consequences would stem from the results.

But if this were actually a tort case, there is no chance Gostkowski would be held responsible. Even if we presumed he did something wrong — which is a dicey proposition because some amount of human error is built into the expectation for kickers — it could never be considered a proximate cause of the Patriots’ loss, because from the perspective of expectation, things that happen early in games are all pretty fungible.

For about the first two-thirds of a game, a 1-point lead is worth about the same as 20 yards of garden-variety field position. The following chart looks at game situations where both teams have all of their timeouts and an equal chance of winning before the game started. One team is at first and 10; the question is: Would that team rather have a 1-point lead and be on its own 20-yard line, or be in a tie game on the 40?2

morris-gostowski-1

For the most part, early in games, points and yards are practically interchangeable, and 1 point — even when it’s the difference between having a lead or not — isn’t really a big deal.3

To that end, here are the 36 plays that most hurt the Patriots’ chances of beating the Broncos, sorted by how much of an impact they had on the Patriots’ expected win probability, from Pro-Football-Reference.com’s play-by-play:4

QTR TIME DOWN DESCRIPTION WIN % CHANGE
4 0:12 4th & 4 Two Point Attempt: Tom Brady pass incomplete intended for Julian Edelman, conversion fails -35.4%
4 0:12 Stephen Gostkowski kicks onside 6 yards, recovered by Shiloh Keo and returned for 3 yards -16.4%
2 14:41 2nd & 10 Tom Brady pass incomplete short right intended for Rob Gronkowski is intercepted by Von Miller at NWE-20 and returned for 4 yards -12.7%
2 4:15 3rd & 5 Tom Brady pass incomplete deep left intended for James White is intercepted by Darian Stewart at DEN-36 and returned for 8 yards -11.1%
1 0:46 3rd & 4 Peyton Manning pass complete deep left to Emmanuel Sanders for 34 yards (tackle by Malcolm Butler) -10.5%
4 13:39 3rd & 1 C.J. Anderson left tackle for 30 yards (tackle by Devin McCourty) -9.7%
4 2:25 4th & 6 Tom Brady pass incomplete short middle intended for Rob Gronkowski (defended by Aqib Talib) -9.7%
4 6:03 4th & 1 Tom Brady pass complete short left to Julian Edelman for -1 yards (tackle by Chris Harris and Aqib Talib) -9.1%
3 9:49 3rd & 10 Peyton Manning right tackle for 12 yards (tackle by Logan Ryan) -8.5%
1 7:37 2nd & 11 Peyton Manning pass complete deep middle to Owen Daniels for 21 yards, touchdown -7.7%
2 13:51 3rd & 6 Peyton Manning pass complete short right to Owen Daniels for 12 yards, touchdown -7.6%
4 2:30 3rd & 6 Tom Brady pass incomplete short middle intended for Danny Amendola (defended by Kayvon Webster). DEN challenged the incomplete pass ruling, and the play was upheld. -7.3%
2 7:46 3rd & 3 Tom Brady sacked by DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller for -6 yards -6.4%
2 0:38 4th & 3 Brandon McManus 52 yard field goal good -6.3%
4 2:30 3rd & 1 Penalty on Marcus Cannon: false start, 5 yards (no play) -6.2%
1 12:54 3rd & 10 Peyton Manning pass complete short right to Emmanuel Sanders for 11 yards (tackle by Malcolm Butler) -6.0%
1 9:47 3rd & 6 Peyton Manning pass incomplete short left intended for Demaryius Thomas. Penalty on Logan Ryan: defensive pass interference, 14 yards (no play) -6.0%
1 5:05 1st & 10 Steven Jackson middle for 5 yards (tackle by Derek Wolfe). Penalty on Bryan Stork: unnecessary roughness, 15 yards -6.0%
3 0:45 3rd & 10 Tom Brady sacked by Von Miller for -4 yards -5.8%
4 0:21 3rd & 4 Tom Brady pass incomplete short middle intended for Julian Edelman -5.6%
3 13:25 4th & 15 Britton Colquitt punts 53 yards, returned by Danny Amendola for 1 yard (tackle by Cody Latimer) -5.1%
4 7:30 1st & 10 James White middle for -1 yards (tackle by Shaquil Barrett and Danny Trevathan) -5.1%
4 6:51 2nd & 11 Tom Brady pass incomplete deep right intended for James White -4.7%
3 2:48 4th & 11 Britton Colquitt punts 53 yards -4.6%
1 11:35 2nd & 11 Peyton Manning pass complete short right to Jordan Norwood for 13 yards (tackle by Logan Ryan) -4.5%
1 6:56 3rd & 3 Tom Brady pass incomplete short right intended for Rob Gronkowski -4.5%
2 2:34 4th & 14 Britton Colquitt punts 48 yards, fair catch by Danny Amendola -4.3%
4 2:33 2nd & 1 Tom Brady pass incomplete short left intended for James White -4.2%
3 10:35 3rd & 10 Tom Brady pass incomplete short middle intended for Danny Amendola (defended by Chris Harris) -4.0%
3 9:01 1st & 10 Peyton Manning pass complete short right to Cody Latimer for 13 yards (tackle by Logan Ryan) -3.8%
3 6:42 1st & 10 Tom Brady sacked by Von Miller for -6 yards -3.6%
1 13:17 3rd & 8 Tom Brady pass incomplete short middle intended for Rob Gronkowski -3.6%
3 0:49 2nd & 10 Tom Brady pass incomplete short right intended for Julian Edelman -3.4%
1 9:03 2nd & 3 Peyton Manning pass complete short middle to Andre Caldwell for 15 yards (tackle by Justin Coleman) -3.4%
4 8:23 1st & 10 Tom Brady pass incomplete deep right intended for Rob Gronkowski -3.4%
1 1:53 Stephen Gostkowski kicks extra point no good -3.3%

The blame game that inevitably follows close outcomes in sports (and elsewhere) can be infuriatingly good fun. But people favor easy-to-score counterfactuals over murky ones and in general don’t create ad hoc narratives along the lines of, “Wow, that incomplete pass in the third quarter cost them a chance to win that game,” even though it may have been much more consequential than an early extra point.

Footnotes

  1. Who actually uses his feet ^
  2. This chart uses an expected wins model created by Brian Burke of ESPN’s Stats and Info Group. ^
  3. In fact, even the difference between being up 1 and up 2 early in the game is almost identical to the difference between being up 1 and tied. Aside from its point value, having the lead early just doesn’t matter much. ^
  4. Note that their win probability model may vary slightly from Burke’s (i.e., PFR suggests Gostkowski’s missed XP hurt the Patriots’ chance of winning by 3.3 percentage points, while Burke’s model says 3 percentage points). Also, ESPN and PFR don’t always agree on the exact times when plays took place. E.g., Gostkowski’s kick appears to have taken place with 1:49 left in the quarter, but PFR records it as 1:53 — the time of the previous play. However, on the field goal by Brandon McManus in the second quarter, ESPN records the time left as 33 seconds, when the clock had been stopped at 38. Rather than going through every discrepancy, this table reflects PFR’s version of events. ^

Benjamin Morris researches and writes about sports and other topics for FiveThirtyEight.

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