When Tony Romo threw an interception with 1:57 remaining and the Cowboys and Broncos tied 48-48 on Sunday, the Cowboys were probably going to lose no matter what. But would they have had a better chance if they had simply allowed the Broncos to score a touchdown, rather than keeping them out of the end zone long enough for the Broncos to run the clock down to two seconds remaining, call a timeout and kick the game-winning field goal as time expired?
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett says his team discussed the scenarios but ultimately decided to play defense, rather than allow the Broncos to score a touchdown with enough time left on the clock for the Cowboys to get the ball back and try to force overtime.
“You’re balancing the idea of getting a stop there,” Garrett said, via the Dallas Morning News. “If you get a stop there, they kick the field goal and you give yourself a much better chance to tie the football game coming back. You have no timeouts and all that, so you weight those out. We decided to try to make the stop on third down and they made it by about an inch.”
According to a statistical analysis published at Deadspin, the Cowboys made the wrong call. Once the Broncos got a first down with 1:49 to play when Peyton Manning hit Demaryius Thomas for a 13-yard completion at the 11-yard line, the Cowboys would have been more likely to win the game if they had allowed the Broncos to score on the next play. The Cowboys’ chances wouldn’t have been great in that scenario, down 55-48 with less than two minutes remaining. But their chances would have been better than the alternative of allowing the Broncos to keep running time off the clock.
The Broncos essentially sealed the win when Knowshon Moreno picked up a first down — but didn’t score a touchdown — on third-and-2 with 1:40 left in the game. That allowed Manning to take a knee three times and set up Matt Prater’s game-winning chip-shot field goal. Moreno getting a first down but not a touchdown on that run was the worst-case scenario for the Cowboys. If Moreno had been stopped short of a first down, the Broncos would have kicked a field goal on the next play, and the Cowboys would have gotten the ball back down three points. And if the Cowboys had allowed Moreno to score a touchdown on that run, Dallas at least would have gotten the ball back with a chance to send the game into overtime.
As it turned out, the Cowboys stopped Moreno only after he got the first down, when it would have been better just to let him get into the end zone.