Should The Atlanta Falcons Have Kicked a Field Goal Last Night?

By Natalie Kitroeff and Boris Chen

Last night, facing a stubborn 4-point deficit, the Atlanta Falcons made a decision that was exciting and statistically questionable. 

With 2:24 remaining in the game, the Falcons were staring headlong into the black hole that is the New Orleans Saints defense, 34 yards away from the end zone and a much longer 4th-and-15. 

The underwhelming 17-13 score belied the general feeling of boredom that reigned supreme at the Georgia Dome Thursday. The cliches that commentators often weaponize in scenarios like these don’t really apply. It was neither a “defensive battle” nor a hard fought “game of inches.” 

Both quarterbacks seemed relatively unbothered by the idea that this was a professional competition. Matt Ryan was so ambivalent that he stopped just short of the end zone after making a break for it late in the 2nd quarter, as if he thought stealing a base was good enough. 

Samuel Jackson, who was in attendance, respectfully disagreed. 

At 2:24, the Falcons had three options: try to get a first down and continue the drive, punt the ball, or kick a field goal, and hope that the fairly good Atlanta defense would withstand a Saints drive and give Mr. Ryan a chance to march down the field far enough to give the team a shot at another field goal.

They opted to kick a 52-yard field goal. Matt Bryant, an above average kicker, missed. But that’s besides the point, because he should never have gotten the chance to. 

Let’s analyze Atlanta’s three options with the aid of Brian Burke’s 4th down calculator.

1) Field goal attempt: The plan was kick a field goal, then hope for a 3-and-out (or onside kick), and another field goal. Based on the calculator, the chance of making the 54-yard FG attempt was 52%. If converted, the Falcons would have had a 12% chance of winning from there. If failed, they would still have a 5% chance of winning. 

All this sums to a 9% win probability for the FG attempt. (Even if we assume the FG is a 100% lock, it’s still only a 12% win probability for this option)

2) Go for it: The Falcons would have had a 19% chance of making the 1st down on 4th and 15. If they converted, they would have had a 47% chance to score a td from there and take the game. If they failed to convert, they still would have had a 4% chance of taking over the ball again and win with a touchdown.

This gives a 12% win probability for the go-for-it option.

3) Punt: The last option was punt from the NO 34, pin the Saints deep in their own territory, hope for decent field position on a Saints punt, and have a final shot at the end zone.  

The punt option nets a whopping 31% win probability.

So there it is. Punting, the boring option, was more than three times more sensible than kicking the field goal. And the route that seems more insane than any, trusting Matt Ryan’s arm on a 4th and 15, would have been a better bet than trying for three points. Football, like all things, is weirder than you think.    

Natalie Kitroeff is an Eagles fan. She works at the New York Times.