The math behind the missed opportunities

Paul Sancya/AP Photo

Tom Brady could only wonder what might have been.Super Bowl XLVI between the New York Giants and New England Patriots featured several key moments on which the outcome of the game could have swung significantly.

The ESPN Analytics Team looked at a few of those moments and analyzed them based on our historic win probability data from the past 10 seasons. Here’s what we found.

How much should the Patriots rue their missed opportunities?

The Patriots just missed converting two plays that would have made a significant difference in the outcome of the game.

A couple plays after Tom Brady threw an interception for the game’s only turnover early in the fourth quarter, Ahmad Bradshaw fumbled with the Giants deep in their own territory.

Fortunately for Bradshaw and the Giants, Chris Snee recovered the ball at the 11, keeping possession of the ball.

Had the Patriots recovered the fumble, their win probability would have jumped to from 69 percent to 78 percent. So the inability to recover Bradshaw’s fumble cost the Patriots nearly 10% in terms of win probability.

Similarly, with the Patriots facing a 2nd-and-11 from the Giants 44, leading 17-15 with 4:06 left in the fourth quarter, Wes Welker dropped a pass from Tom Brady at the Giants 21.

Suppose he made the catch and gained six more yards after the catch (he had some space around him and would probably have been able to pick up a few yards). In that case, the Patriots would have had a 1st-and-10 from the Giants 15, and their win probability would have increased from 73 percent to 84 percent.

Should the Patriots have let the Giants score?

With the Giants having the ball inside the Patriots 10 with just over a minute to go, the Patriots had a decision to make: let the Giants score right away and leave as much time as possible for their offense, or play defense and hope for a turnover or missed field goal.

The math shows that the Patriots were in a deep hole either way.

If they held the Giants out of the end zone and made them attempt a last-second field goal, it would have had a very high likelihood of success.

This season, NFL kickers were 37-for-38 (97.4 percent) on game-tying or go-ahead field attempts from inside of 26 yards (the longest field goal attempt the Giants likely would have ended up with) with under a minute and a half left in the 4th quarter.

On the other hand, the Patriots’ win probability after Bradshaw’s touchdown with 57 seconds remaining was only 3.4 percent.

This is confirmed by historical analysis of similar situations.

The Patriots took over on their own 20, needing a touchdown to win the game and 57 seconds to go 80 yards.

Since 2001, NFL teams beginning a drive between their own 10 and own 30 when trailing by four to eight points (in other words, needing the touchdown) with between 40 seconds and 1:15 left in the fourth quarter have scored a touchdown just twice on 63 such drives, a 3.2 percent success rate.

So essentially the Patriots were choosing between a 2.6 percent chance of winning via a missed field goal (maybe a bit higher if you account for the very small likelihood of a fumbled snap or something like that) and a little bit better than a three percent chance of winning with a game-winning touchdown drive after letting the Giants score.

Either way, the decision had a very small impact on the overall outcome – the Patriots had essentially lost the game on the preceding plays of the Giants’ final drive.

What were the biggest plays of the game?

Here are the biggest plays of the game in terms of changes in win probability from before to after the play.

Biggest Win Probability Swings
Super Bowl XLVI

1. Ahmad Bradshaw’s rushing touchdown in the final minute raised the Giants' win probability from 74 percent to 97 percent.

2. Tom Brady’s touchdown pass to Danny Woodhead in the final seconds of the second quarter raised the Patriots' win probability from 42 percent to 56 percent.

3. Eli Manning’s 38-yd pass to Mario Manningham with just under four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter raised the Giants’ win probability from 37 percent to 49 percent.