Bill O'Brien's Late-Game Decisions Cost the Houston Texans a Better Chance at a Win
Rookie quarterbacks don’t beat Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots, especially in Foxborough. Belichick entered Sunday 8-0 against rookie quarterbacks at home as head coach in New England thanks typically to aggressive defensive game plans used to put those quarterbacks under pressure and confuse them with coverages. Belichick left the stadium on Sunday with that record upped to 9-0, but it was a close call as Deshaun Watson and the Houston Texans had the Patriots on the ropes.
Watson was, for the most part, able to escape New England’s pressure and create plays when some others in his position wouldn’t have been able to do the same. By Net Expected Points (NEP), Watson’s 0.17 Passing NEP per drop back was the ninth-best quarterback performance of the week.
With one minute remaining in the game, the Texans had a 93.8 percent win probability, per numberFire Live. While an eventual 25-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Brandin Cooks was the game-winner, capping an eight-play, 75-yard drive, Houston could have done more to maximize its chances to win.
The Texans only had a 25.6 percent chance to win when the game kicked off, meaning they should have taken every opportunity to increase their win expectancy, but the opposite occurred a few times throughout the game. It was Houston coach Bill O’Brien who made a few decisions that helped along the New England comeback.
Extra Point Down 2
O’Brien’s first blunder came midway through the third quarter. The Patriots had just scored a touchdown on their first drive of the half to take an eight-point lead. After the touchdown, New England had an 86.4 percent chance to win with 27 minutes of game time remaining, per our models.
Watson and the Texans drove down the field on a 10-play, 70-yard drive that finished with a 12-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ryan Griffin. With the score, Houston was down two with 7:12 left in the third quarter and a 28.2 percent chance of winning the game. But instead of trying to tie the game, O’Brien sent out the kicking team to go down by one.
In terms of win probability and Net Expected Points (NEP), the decision didn’t really change anything -- Houston got the one point against an expected one point for a PAT. But when a team is a big underdog on the road with less than a 30 percent chance of winning the game anyway, why not keep the offense out and try to tie the game? There’s not a signifcant difference in being down by one and down by two with a failed conversion at that point in the game. It’s an unnecessarily conservative call with no upside. It’s the type of mentality that leads to other decisions like…
Kicking Field Goal on 4th and 1, 2:33 remaining
Houston kicked a field goal on its next offensive drive to take a two-point lead. After forcing two New England punts sandwiched around one punt of their own, the Texans drove 49 yards to the New England 18 and faced a 4th-and-1. Houston had a 3rd-and-1 on the previous play, but a Lamar Miller run didn’t gain enough. After a measurement, the Texans were this short -- about a Deshaun Watson backside away.
With about a half-yard to go, O’Brien didn’t even think about going for it. The field goal team went out immediately and the kick was good, giving the Texans had a five-point lead with just under two and a half minutes to go. Brady would now have to score a touchdown to take the lead. That might sound great, but Houston lost win probability by kicking the field goal in that situation. With the converted field goal, the Texans’ win probability dropped nearly five percent from 81.7 percent to 76.8 percent. This was a decision to not lose more than to try to win, but it still managed to increase the team's odds of losing.
After the failed third down by Miller, New England called their second timeout. A first down at that moment could have iced the game with roughly a 97.9 percent win probability, while a failure would give the Patriots about a 45 percent chance to win.
Had the Texans converted, at worst, they could have kicked that field goal with around 40 seconds remaining if they didn't gain any additional yards. With just one time out for New England and the two-minute warning left, Houston would have been in no rush to run plays, and New England would have been out of timeouts as soon as the first down was picked up.
But even with a failure, New England would have to drive into field goal range with just one time out against a defense that had already hit Brady eight times during the game. While a similar drive did eventually happen for the Patriots, that’s not something O’Brien should be expecting at that time. Putting faith in his defense would have been allowing them to defend the two-point lead from inside New England’s own 20. The Patriots also would have known they just needed a field goal to win the game, which could have led to more conservative passes on the following drive.
Instead, the Texans actually gave up eight yards of field position after the kickoff, allowing the Patriots to start on their own 25. They also had the knowledge a touchdown was needed, which led to Brady pushing the ball downfield.
Not Immediately Calling Timeout During Final Drive
New England would eventually score, but the Texans had one more opportunity -- down by three points with 23 seconds and one timeout remaining, though just a 7.5 percent chance of winning. Watson completed his first pass to DeAndre Hopkins for 21 yards down to Houston’s 46, which upped Houston’s win probability to 13.7 percent.
By the time the Texans took their next snap, their win probability had already dropped 3.2 percent.
Hopkins caught his pass with around 12 seconds remaining, but instead of an immediate timeout call, the Texans rushed to the line in confusion before a timeout was eventually called with just two seconds left in the game. This is what losing a chance at winning without running a play looks like.
Some of the blame could be placed on Watson, but ultimately, that call comes from the head coach, especially when it's a rookie quarterback, and that call just never came. Watson would have to heave the ball into the end zone on the next play, and it resulted in an interception. To that point, Watson had done enough to keep his team in the game. It's hard to say the same about his coach.
None of these plays single-handedly lost the game for the Texans. But when all put together, it was truly a masterclass in not pulling off the upset as an underdog.