A game script is not set in stone. It is not preordained and it is not sent from the heavens before kickoff.
A game script is born from the moments that happen after the first whistle, each one contributing to determine which team is writing the future of the matchup.
As anyone who has been reading this site throughout the playoffs has seen, I have come to believe that predicting these games is about predicting the course a game will take.
It is about looking at the strengths, weaknesses, and intersections of both within the context of a game. If Team A does X how will that impact Team B? Will they do Y or Z?
Ultimately, this has been effective. After a disastrous 0-4 Wildcard weekend, I have gone 5-1 the past two weekends, primarily on the back of trying to predict and map out games. It is what allowed me to see value in the Titans against the Ravens, but then access the value the Chiefs offered over those same Titans. Ditto for the Packers against the Seahawks, but then the Niners over the Packers.
Although we can certainly keep this in mind for next season, my theory is that this is a strategy that really offers value in a playoff vacuum. The reasons for this are numerous, but essentially it boils down to the fact that there are fewer games (predicting 32 game scripts for Week 15 would be both impossible and less effective), teams are focusing solely on these games (not looking ahead), and each team is playing all its cards (rather than saving anything in its playbook).
So today, with this methodology providing some potential long-term playoff betting value for us, we look at how a game script is born. We look at how a team can exert its will to create the type of game environment it wants to play in, as well as how a team can fail to do so.
But before we do, let’s game script out the coming two weeks for Owl Eat Football.
Given the fact that the big game is not until the beginning of February, and the fact that after that game we may not have as captive of an audience, we will not be doing our Super Bowl preview until the Thursday before the big game. In the intervening time, though, we will have the following:
Today - Championship Game Recaps + WORMS posted
Thursday - State of the Parliament Address (A look at the future of OEF)
Tuesday 1/28 - 2019 Lessons Learned (aka why running the football is overrated)
Thursday 1/30 - Super Bowl Mega Preview (including Props, Lines, Totals, Best Bets)
One last note on WORMS, because we have been developing and retooling it throughout this season, The Night Owl and I will be releasing two different WORMS for the Super Bowl: one predicated on the data from the entire season and a second built solely on playoff performances. Having seen these numbers already, they both provide some really interesting opportunities.
But today is not about Owl Eats Football. It is not about WORMS. It is not about the Super Bowl. No, today is about two football games that were both controlled by the home team, and which, ultimately, showed us the importance of controlling the flow of a game to reflect the environment you want to play in.
Here is the Championship Weekend Recap - The creation of a game flow:
TEN @ KC
At the risk of giving away too much about how I feel about the Super Bowl, this Chiefs team is as close to game script proof as you can get.
Whether they jump out to a big lead or fall behind early, they have an offense that can put up points so quickly that the only thing that matter is how many times they are going to get the ball.
And in that lies the answer to how this game script came to be. The Chiefs forced the Titans to give up the ball too often in the early goings, putting the pressure on the Titans to be more and more perfect as the game went on.
It is not often that a team can get out to a 10-0 lead and be putting themselves behind the eight ball, but that is exactly what Tennessee did.
You see, Kansas City is unique in that they force another team to plan to score as frequently as possible right from the opening kick. I know I said game scripts aren’t written in stone before the first whistle, but it is safe to say that you can’t play the Chiefs and expect to win with 17 points.
So in my mind, this game was going to be uphill for the Titans from second one. It became almost vertical when the chose to play for a field goal on their first possession.
After matriculating down the field, Tennessee had first and ten from the Kansas City 16. At this point, running plays in the red zone in Kansas City with Patrick Mahomes yet to touch the football, you have to be planning to do everything you can to score a touchdown.
You have to ensure that you will be able to have the ball as often as possible with the lead. You have to have a four down plan.
First down was a four yard run, putting the Titans ahead of the sticks, but they quickly reeled off two incompletions to create fourth and six and a field goal attempt from the 12. This is quite possibly where they lost control of this game.
If, instead, they had managed to create a fourth and two, or if they had gone for fourth and six, the Titans would be guaranteeing themselves the chance to not have to play from behind for most if not all of the first quarter.
We talked about how Tennessee was needing to play from in front, and this field goal severely limited their chances to do so.
Now, I can hear a chorus of voices crying out that the Chiefs went three and out and the Titans scored a TD to go up 10-0, so this wasn’t actually that bad.
I hear you, but the reason this was bad was not because of the score at the end of one, but rather the score midway through the third.
The Chiefs, after going down 10-0, then went on to score three touchdowns in a row and touchdowns on five of their next six possessions. Tennessee was playing the score at the moment without considering the number they had to hit to win the game. They left four points on the field in a game where they were going to need to squeeze every point out of their offense to win.
By kicking a field goal there, Tennessee was essentially saying that they would worry about scoring more later. They put the pressure on their future selves to take it off of their then present selves. Essentially, not playing to go for it on fourth down and kicking that field goal said “we think we will be able to get touchdowns at the same rate as Kansas City the rest of the game, and that this three points will then be the difference in the game”. That’s a bad bet, and one that should have been obviously flawed to them in that moment.
Granted, Kansas City is incredibly unique, and you might be seeing some of the seeds of my Super Bowl prediction here. When you play them you are going to need to adjust to their reality a little bit. But when Tennessee had a chance to do that while exerting controlling the game, they instead allowed KC a sliver of daylight.
A sliver is all Patrick Mahomes needs and the Titans lost their lead by half and were outscored 35-14 after going up 10-0.
It can be hard to see the big picture in moments early in the game, but when we are talking game script, it is always preferential to have the pen in hand rather than ceding it to your opponent. Tennessee kicked the can down the road, handed the pen to Mahomes, and never got a better chance to write themselves into the Super Bowl.
GB @ SF
They say there is more than one way to skin a cat, but what they neglect to tell you is that all of those ways leave you with a skinless cat.
In less disturbing terms, no matter how you dominate a game, the end result is domination.
Whereas KC dominated the Titans through the air, San Francisco beat Green Bay on the ground.
The most instrumental component to this was that the Packers allowed the Niners to get out to an early lead and then deploy a game plan that was risk averse and played to their strengths. They put as much blocking on the field as they could on offense, neutralizing the Packers pass rush, limiting Jimmy G’s exposure to high leverage situations, and tiring down a defense that was going to need to rely on big plays to win this game anyway. On defense, this created 37 drop back for Aaron Rodgers and allowed the Niners to wreak havoc in the backfield.
As Niners fan Alex noted, Aaron Jones killed the Niners on the first few possessions, but quickly found himself out of the game. We will return to this next week when we talk about running being a consequence of winning and not vice versa, but in this game it was a sign that the Niners used the game flow to take away one of the Packers two true weapons.
So clearly the Niners successfully deployed their game plan, and clearly they dictated the way this game would be played. But how?
I hate to pin it all on one play, but that’s what I’m going to do. The Packers were already in an incredibly leveraged situation as underdogs on the road to a team that had blown them out earlier in the season. Their path to winning this game was maximizing their opportunities early and forcing the Niners away from their desired game plan.
That all fell apart when they didn’t go for it on fourth and one from midfield on their first drive.
It may sound hyperbolic, but when they punted in that situation, it was clear to me they were punting away control of the game. They were counting on the other team to lose the game rather than giving themselves a chance to win, and that is a losing strategy on the road against the most complete team in your conference.
But let’s break this down before we go too negative against Cheese Head Nation.
The game began with a stop for the Packers. In hindsight, this was such a rare occurrence that it seems crazy that it ever even happened, but it did. Tevin Coleman rushed twice for nine yards, but then was stuffed on third and one and the Niners were forced to punt from their own thirty four.
At this point, the Packers had created a situation where they would have a chance to score first in the game and also receive the second half kick-off. They had earned the right to dictate the tempo and context of each half and that was huge.
Things continued to go as well as they could for Green Bay as they gained 16 yards in their first two plays, and sat at first and ten on their own 41. They then pushed forwards for nine yard to midfield, setting up a fourth and one from the 50. Aaron Rodgers was 3-3 to three different receivers and Aaron Jones had rushed twice for 13 yards. Their offense had yet to be stopped and they were at a point where they could have dictated the course of the game by maximizing their possessions.
Just from a common sense perspective, if you think that the opposition has a better chance of winning than you do, then you have to take the opportunity to eat into that if you can. If you have the chance to make a play that increases your chance of winning, you have to do it. This case is especially egregious because a punt is a guaranteed “turnover” but going for it will only result in a loss of the ball about 40% of the time.
The Packers valued 39 yards of field position over an opportunity to score first and to put the Niners in the game script that Green Bay wanted.
You can imagine a world in which Green Bay keeps rolling down the field and scores and then the Niners make an offensive mistake (a hold, a sack, a drop, a miscommunication) and Green Bay has a chance to go up two scores.
Instead they punted away control of the game and the next five possessions were: SF TD, GB punt, SF FG, GB punt, SF TD.
This game seemed incredibly lopsided, and it was, but the Packers lost because they did not play as underdogs. They did not try to win the game when they had a chance, but rather tried to put off making decisive plays.
When you have the ball as an underdog, you need to treat it as the opportunity to write the game script. The Packers treated it like a hot potato and passed it off to San Francisco to let them write it, hoping they’d make a mistake.
They didn’t and now we get two teams in a Super Bowl that have yet to play in a game script they didn’t like.
You couldn’t write it any better than that.