Welcome to Week 3 of the Backdoor Cover, a weekly dive into statistical oddities, game theory, analytics and gambling outcomes from around the NFL.
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With the Colts leading the Titans 28–27, having already dug out of a 13-point hole and needing desperately to avoid falling to 0–3, Andrew Luck handed the ball off to Frank Gore at midfield. Gore rushed for 25 yards, his longest play from scrimmage of the young season. A Tennessee penalty tacked onto the end of the run put Indianapolis in the red zone, and Gore ended the drive with a six-yard touchdown run.
In the midst of that 25-yard run, Gore moved up to 19th on the all-time rushing list, passing Hall of Famer O.J. Simpson. With the touchdown, he passed Corey Dillon and slid into 18th.
Of the 17 players above Gore on the list, 13 are Hall of Famers (and LaDainian Tomlinson is a shoo-in for Canton when his time comes). Gore trails Edgerrin James by 999 yards, but with Fred Taylor and Steve Jackson well within range, the 32-year-old veteran is placing himself almost exclusively among Hall of Famers.
That’s not to say Gore has now had a better career than Simpson, who led the league in rushing four times in a five-year span from 1972–76. Simpson also has better yards/game and yards/carry rates than Gore, whose raw total is boosted by virtue of playing a 16-game schedule.
Here’s a comparison between them:
So Simpson had a more prolific NFL career (not mention that Heisman trophy at USC). But with Gore still playing, and not just chasing a ring with Luck and the Colts but contributing to the cause, he is moving up the leaderboard into some select company.
Feats of Strength
A 40-point win isn’t particularly new, as the league has seen at least two of them in each of the last 10 seasons. But a 40-win point for the Cardinals is very rare. This was the first time the Cardinals won a game by 40 points since Nov. 1, 1970, when the franchise still played in St. Louis.
It’s possible this may became a regular occurrence though. The Cardinals had only scored 47 points once since moving to Arizona in 1988 and now they’ve done it in consecutive weeks.
The Cardinals are the 11th team since the merger to score 47 points in back-to-back games. The 2007 Patriots are the only team to do it three games in a row, and the Cardinals will get their chance to match them next week against the Rams.
In my weekly chronicling of how the new extra point rules affect game theory decisions throughout the league, I’ve broken down two-point conversions attempts into three categories and looked at the particular situation with teams trailing by seven late in the game.
This week, another late-game situation caught my eye: Teams that are up by one point and then score a touchdown to extend their lead.
Within a matter of minutes, the Texans and Colts found themselves in the same spot.
The Texans were up 10–9 against the Buccaneers and scored a touchdown to make it 16–9. The Colts were up 28–27 against the Titans and scored a touchdown to make it 34–27. Both teams faced a decision: Kick an extra point to go up by eight, or go for two and potentially lead by nine.
This situation is not new (Chase Stuart wrote about it at Football Perspective in 2012), but making the extra point less of a gimme has the potential to change the way some teams think about it.
Going up eight forces the opponent to make a two-point conversion. Going up nine forces the opponent to score twice (and puts the game out of reach if the clock is close enough to zero). There’s risk involved, but the worst-case scenario is still a seven-point lead.
There are a handful of factors to weigh, but breaking down this scenario to its most simplistic form leads to one question: Is your team more likely to convert a two-point attempt than your opponent? If so, and if you think those rates are both higher than 50%, going for two and putting the game out of reach could be smart. If not, and you think your opponent has less than a 50% chance of converting, it might be better to take the safe play and force them make it.
However, the safe option is no longer quite as safe, as Houston learned Sunday.
The Texans had less incentive to go for two, as with 9:14 left in the game it was less likely to truly put the game to bed. Randy Bullock actually missed the extra point, so the Texans had to give the Bucs back the ball with a seven-point lead. They held on and won 19–9, but had Bill O’Brien known Bullock would miss the kick, he might have been tempted to take a chance.
The Colts made their extra point with 2:51 on the clock, and the eight-point cushion came in handy when the Titans scored with just 47 seconds left. The Colts stuffed the Titans’ comically inept two-point conversion try and sealed a two-point win, so it all worked according to plan. But to play devil’s advocate, they were one yard away from being at the mercy of the whims of overtime and perhaps wishing they’d tried to put the game away when they had the chance.
This is all hypothetical, as anything that happens on the field this season will be too small a sample size to draw any conclusions. But once a team or teams commit to being aggressive (we’ll see if the Steelers change their ways with Michael Vick replacing Ben Roethlisberger), they ought to consider every scenario where they may be able to squeeze an advantage.
Great Moments in Vegas
The Giants led 18–6 after three quarters, an odd score thanks partly to the Giants’ blocked punt for a safety on the Redskins’ opening possession. With 3:40 left, and the Redskins trailing 25–6, Chris Thompson hauled in a pass from Kirk Cousins and plunged into the end zone. Crucially, the Redskins converted a two-point conversion to make the game 25–14 (39 total points).
At this point, the sensible thing for the Giants to do would have been to run the ball and milk the clock. But the Giants have proven this season they have no interest in optimal clock management. So Eli Manning tossed up an ill-advised deep ball that was deflected but somehow caught by Rueben Randle and run 41 yards into the end zone. The extra point made it 32–14, a push for the moment. Then Rashad Ross ran back the ensuing kickoff return 101 yards for a Redskins touchdown, and there was the magic 53 points and the over.
So the Giants and Redskins combined for 31 points in the first 56 minutes, then scored 22 points in 32 seconds—a flurry that made some folks in Vegas very happy, and had others shaking their heads at the Giants’ clock-killing and kickoff coverage.
The SuperContest is the self-proclaimed biggest pro football handicapping contest in the world, run by the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. Contestants bet against the spread, picking any five games they want each week. The entrance fee is $1,500, so with more than 1,700 entrees this year the prize pool totals more than $2.5 million.
The lines are finalized on Wednesdays, even though picks aren’t due until Saturday morning. This can be a huge factor if, for instance, Drew Brees gets ruled out at 2 p.m. Friday.
Popular Pick: The Panthers were listed at -4.5 in the SuperContest against those Brees-less Saints, despite closing at -9.5 by kickoff at the Westgate. So it’s no surprise Carolina was the most popular pick in the SuperContest, selected by 713 out of 1,724 entries (41.4%). The Panthers did cover, though not comfortably. Down 27–16, the Saints scored a touchdown with 4:50 remaining to trim the deficit to 5. An extra point would have covered the spread, but the Saints smartly went for a two-point conversion. The try was unsuccessful, preserving a five point win and a Panthers cover for SuperContest purposes. But there are a lot of bettors who lost money this weekend betting Carolina somewhere between -5.5 and -9.5.
Stay Away: On the other end of the spectrum, the Saints were the least picked team. This doesn’t always happen, as entrants can opt to avoid games altogether. In both of the first two weeks, the most-and least-picked teams came from different games. But this week 46 (2.7%) actually went with the Saints. Maybe those bettors liked the Saints’ chances with Luke McCown, maybe they simply submitted their picks early. There were 233 entries that picked the Giants or Redskins, and if you pick the Thursday game you have to turn in your whole sheet early. Some of those 233 probably wish they had waited.
Spoiler Alert: The Colts were the second most popular pick in the league, posted at -3 against the Titans. While they fought like crazy to come back and win the game outright, their 35–33 win failed to cover the spread, hanging a loss on 637 (36.9%) of the pool.
I’m not actually a SuperContest entrant, I just pick along on Twitter. After back-to-back 3-2 showings, I entered Week 3 at 6-4.
Here were my Week 3 picks:
Four-and-oh! My best week of the season so far, regardless of what happens with my Monday night pick. It’s a bit premature to take a victory lap (about 14 weeks premature), but I’m humming along at 10-4 with 14 out of 85 picks in the bank.
Fun Final Scores
The Patriots scored early and often, crushing the Jaguars 51–17.
Despite being unaffected by this season’s uptick in two-point conversions, the beatdown still produced a rare final score in pro football history. This is only the second NFL game that finished 51–17, and let’s just say you didn’t catch the first of these box score doppelgängers on Sunday Ticket. The Chicago Bears whipped the Boston Yanks 51–17 on Nov. 21, 1948.
The ’48 Yanks played their home games in Fenway Park, and this program appears to confirm this game was at Fenway. So the NFL’s only 51–17 games in history were staged at Fenway and Gillette Stadium, the modern-day homes of the Red Sox and Patriots. It took more than half a century, but Boston/New England finally evened the score.