Trailing the Saints by 3 points with 2:52 left to play Monday night, the Falcons faced a 4th and 6 from their 43-yard line. With two timeouts and the two-minute warning in their pocket, they chose to punt, hoping to make a stop and get the ball back with enough time to tie or win in a final drive. Did Coach Mike Smith make the right call?
A punt in this situation typically nets 37 yards, which would give the Saints a first down at their 20. This would give the Falcons a 0.15 Win Probability (WP).
Fourth-and-6 attempts outside the red zone are successful about 44 percent of the time. A success gives the Falcons a first down at (at least) their 49-yard line, worth 0.37 WP. A failure, giving the Saints the ball at Atlanta’s 43, would mean a 0.12 WP for the Falcons. All would not be lost. A stop or even allowing a field goal still gives the Falcons time for a touchdown drive, which when all four downs are available, are successful more often than many realize.
In total, the fourth-down conversion attempt would be worth 0.23 WP.
The conversion attempt would have been the percentage play, by a margin of 0.23 to 0.15. One way to think of it is that the Falcons’ decision to punt lopped between a third and a half off their chance of winning. The Saints wound up winning, 17-14.
I also think game-specific considerations would tend to favor going for the conversion and keeping the ball out of Drew Brees’s hands. Normally offenses ahead in that situation are very reluctant to do anything but run straight ahead, making them predictable and easy to stop. But the Saints trust Brees to make completions.