Bill Belichick may have made one of the gutsiest calls in Super Bowl history: instructing his defense to allow the Giants to score the go-ahead touchdown with just a minute remaining. The only gutsier move would’ve been for the Giants to respond by not scoring. Instead, Ahmad Bradshaw’s six-yard run and subsequent pratfall into the end zone may have been the most counterproductive score of all time.
That run came on second down, with 1:04 remaining. Here’s why the Giants didn’t want a touchdown in that situation. The best-case scenario for New York would have been to run the ball one more time, draining the clock and forcing the Patriots to expend their final timeout. Then, with just a few seconds remaining, send in the field goal unit for what would have been a 99 percent kick in perfect indoor conditions to take the lead by a point, leaving virtually no time for the Patriots to respond. Using Win Probability (a simple estimate of who’s going to win based on score and other variables), we know that if Bradshaw been able to stop his momentum and fall prior to scoring, the Giants would have had a 0.98 WP—in other words, a 98 percent chance of winning.
While it looked as if Bradshaw was pulling the video-game trick of burning an additional second or two prior to scoring, he told reporters after the game, “I tried to declare myself down and tapped down. My momentum took me into the end zone.” When he scored, the Patriots had a minute left and one timeout, which typically amounts to a 0.88 WP. The touchdown actually cost the Giants 0.1 WP and unnecessarily kept the Patriots’ hopes alive.
The smartest play of all would’ve been for Belichick to have allowed the touchdown even earlier. The Patriots certainly could have done so on the play prior to Bradshaw’s touchdown run, when he was stopped for a one-yard gain, forcing New England to burn its second timeout. In fact, they probably should have allowed a touchdown as early as the two-minute warning. That’s the point at which the Win Probability of receiving a kickoff down by four or six points (0.23) exceeds the Win Probability of trying to stop the Giants from bleeding the clock dry (0.2). The Patriots would have had almost two minutes, two timeouts, and all four downs available to get a touchdown and steal the win. The lesson: New England didn’t lie down soon enough.