So that was something. The Green Bay Packers lost to the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday afternoon, dropping a 34-31 decision in overtime and losing a game that they probably should have won. And yet, there are plenty of reasons to see this game as a positive for Green Bay even amidst the disappointing result.
Let’s start with the bad, though: The Packers’ first-round bye odds plummeted with their loss to Indianapolis. Prior to the game, a win would have given GB a 51% chance at netting the one-seed, per FiveThirtyEight. Those odds now sit at just 21%. Because of the new playoff format, the one-seed is the utmost importance this year, and now GB is playing from a game behind New Orleans (whom they have a tie-breaker over), but may fall behind Tampa Bay tonight (who has a tie-breaker over them). Using FiveThirtyEight’s simulator, the only time GB breaks the 50% threshold for the one-seed is by winning out at 13-3. Now that is possible, as the only good team GB plays the rest of the season is Tennessee in week 16, but it’s still pretty unlikely to even run the table against the rest of the schedule considering NFL games are rarely no-brainer wins (except you, Jets).
Continuing with the bad, the turnovers in the game were terrible. If you turn the ball over four times and end up with a minus-2 turnover margin, you’re probably going to lose, and there’s a decent chance you’re getting blown out. The Packers were sloppy with the football and it cost them.
Enough with the bad though, because we all feel cruddy enough about the game. I actually think this game was a relatively positive one for Green Bay long-term, and I want to explain why in a few parts.
Passing on a Good Defense
The Colts came into week 11 with the sixth-best pass defense by EPA/play and fourth by DVOA. This was a very good defense. They have allowed only -0.002 EPA/play on pass plays this season, but Green Bay put up 0.18. While 0.18 is far from Aaron Rodgers’ norm this season (he a 0.347 EPA/play this season), it is significantly higher than what Indianapolis has allowed. His EPA+ (EPA minus Defense’s Seasonal EPA allowed) from the game of 0.182 is about the same as turning 2020 Teddy Bridgewater into 2020 Patrick Mahomes. He did have an interception that was certainly a bad throw, but the fumble he is credited with appeared to not be his fault on the botched snap. Botched snaps are also very random and I don’t see any predictive value in them going forward. Sometimes bad stuff happens.
In fact, Green Bay dominated the game on a play-by-play basis in basically all facets:
GB pass EPA/play: .18— rcon14 (@rcon14) November 23, 2020
IND pass EPA/play: .09
GB rush EPA/play (non-aborted snaps): -.07
IND rush EPA/play: -.14
GB pass/run ratio: 40/17
IND pass/run ratio: 39/43
Early down GB P/R ratio: 31/15
Early down IND P/R ratio: 26/35
Our biggest question coming into the game was whether Green Bay’s offense could go toe-to-toe with a great defense, and I feel they pretty thoroughly answered that they could.
This game was bizarre. Weird stuff happens in NFL games all the time, but this game had a lot of weird stuff. The first one is Darrius Shepherd’s disaster. He was about two inches away from giving Green Bay disastrous field position on one kick return. He averaged a measly 19 yards per return on his other chances. Only one qualified kick returner in the NFL has a worse average in 2020 and none were below 21 yards in 2019.
I’m not sure why Shepherd is even on the field ever, let alone on returns. Shepherd’s fumble on the kick return was actually only the fourth-biggest play of the game, but it cost GB 5.5 EPA. This isn’t the first time Shepherd has cost Green Bay a ton of points. His nightmare game against Detroit last year is on the Mount Rushmore for bad games. The interception that hit him in the face was worth -6.8 EPA and his fumble on the punt return was worth -6.6. The only reason that game was close last year was because Darrius Shepherd gifted Detroit nearly two touchdowns worth of EPA.
I have a soapbox for why does Darrius Shepherd get to do stuff.
He’s a bad athlete, he has bad ball security, he has poor production, and has made several mind-numbing decisions on punt and kick returns. Stop intentionally putting the ball in the hands of a Division-II quality athlete. If the Packers stop putting the ball in Shepherd’s hands, they would have saved themselves nearly a touchdown worth of points against the Colts, though that sequence thankfully only turned into a field goal.
As you probably guessed, the biggest EPA play in the game was the botched snap. Green Bay was driving all over Indianapolis and then the Linsley/Rodgers exchange didn’t work and they lost the ball. That was worth 5.8 EPA. A botched snap might be the flukiest play in all of football, and it really bit the Packers on Sunday.
Overall, fumble luck was not on Green Bay’s side. Green Bay fumbled the ball three times and lost all of them. On average, teams recover around 57% of their own fumbles. On Sunday, Green Bay recovered none. Green Bay was also able to force a fumble on Indianapolis, but missed two others by milliseconds.
The first was this one on a very near catch-and-fumble:
You could make the case that Burton was making a football move turning up the field, but there’s no way that’s ever getting overturned via replay. It’s a very close one, but only milliseconds away from being a fumble.
The same can be said for this bizarre play:
I’ve watched this frame-by-frame a dozen times and am still not sure exactly if it’s a fumble or an incompletion or if the rules of physics just fell apart for a brief moment. Rivers’ bizarre throwing motion makes it all the more complicated. If Smith arrives quite literally a half-second earlier, this is a fumble and a go-ahead scoop-and-score.
Bad Clock Management
Spike/no-spike decisions are hard to make in real-time. The quarterback is trying to get people lined up, trying to figure what play to call, trying to map out the time left with play options and distance from the end zone, and it all has to be done in just a few seconds. I don’t place a lot of blame on quarterbacks who mess it up on the margins. It’s incredibly hard to do.
But Green Bay messed up twice on Sunday. According to Frank Frigo of EdjSports, between the two spike decisions, Green Bay lost a total of 10% win probability.
Frank goes onto say that you can’t necessarily say that GB threw 10% away with those decisions since it’s obviously a bit more complicated than the WP models make it, but it is pretty clear that they were sub-optimal decisions.
Over time, teams tend to win about 50% of their one-score games. Last year’s Packers team was incredibly fortunate and went a ridiculous 9-1 in games decided by eight or less last year, including playoffs. That is what most people meant by “not a real 13-3 team.” They were significantly outplaying their performance by winning a bunch of close games at unsustainable rates. In 2020, Green Bay now sits at 2-2 in one-score games with wins over Jacksonville and New Orleans and losses to Minnesota and Indianapolis. Although the 2020 team will likely finish with a worse record, it is a much better team, particularly as a passing offense, which is the most important part of football.
In Green Bay’s Super Bowl season back in 2010, they lost a number of one-score games in increasingly hilarious/frustrating fashion. They finished the season 4-6 in one-score games with narrow losses behind Matt Flynn against Detroit and New England. They then ripped off three one-score game wins around a nuclear blowout of Atlanta en route to a Super Bowl.
The Packers blew a major opportunity to take a stranglehold on the one-seed in the NFC on Sunday. That is a severe blow to their Super Bowl hopes. On the other hand, Green Bay outplayed Indianapolis pretty substantially. The loss falls on some weird plays — a ball slipping out of MVS’ hands, a botched snap, and a kick return fumble from a non-NFL player. There’s a more normal version of this game where Green Bay wins by 14 points. I don’t think I can say the same for a big Indianapolis win.