When Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow scored a game-tying touchdown with 1:58 to play and kicker Evan McPherson barely made the extra point to go ahead by one, here’s a question that some may have asked themselves.
Would the Bengals have been better off if they’d missed the extra point?
Although the Ravens got down the field fairly easily and positioned themselves for a walk-off game winner by future Hall of Famer Justin Tucker, they had a score-or-else, win-or-lose mindset, thanks to the fact that they trailed by a point. Their mindset would have been very different if the game had been tied.
If the game had been tied, failure to score would have resulted in overtime, not a loss. The entire field wouldn’t have been four-down territory. While it never got to fourth down for the Ravens during the eventual game-winning drive, that’s the mindset that would have pervaded the entire effort.
It’s one of the most common counterpoints to overtime rules that guarantee possession after a score. The team that has the ball first is in three-down mindset. The team trailing in the game has a four-down attitude.
A decade ago, many of the analytics-driven realities of today’s NFL would have seemed like utter madness. (To some, they still do; people paid to announce pro and college games routinely respond to a team that goes for two when scoring a touchdown while behind by 14 points like Estelle Costanza reacting to her first taste of Merlot.) Would it be crazy for a team to deliberately take a knee after scoring a touchdown to tie a game late in order to remove the incentive of the other team to cut it loose in an effort to secure the win?
Currently, the possibility would be regarded as nutty. As batshit crazy as it seemed in the mid-1990s when Cowboys coach Barry Switzer went for it on fourth and one from his 29 late in a tie game at Philadelphia. (Said Eagles coach Ray Rhodes at the time, “I don’t think my gonads are that big.”) But it’s fair to ask whether there’s a sweet spot between, say, two minutes to play and two seconds left where it makes mathematical sense to give the ball back to the opponent without putting them in a four-down mindset, and rolling the dice on overtime.
Maybe no such sweet spot exists. In hindsight, however, it’s fair to wonder whether things would have ended differently if the Ravens had gotten the ball back late in a tie game. Which would have happened if McPherson’s kick that went over the top of the goal post had been determined to be no good. Which makes the scenario something worth plugging into a fancy-schmancy Ivy League algorithm in order to decide whether it ever makes sense to score a game-tying touchdown and simply take a knee for the try.