Think back to Week 10 of the 2011 season. The Atlanta Falcons were playing host to the New Orleans Saints, and they were tied at 23 going into overtime. The Falcons got the ball, and were unable to get a first down on their first three tries. Their defense had stopped Brees earlier in the overtime period, but rather than punt, the Falcons decided to go for it on a 4th & 1 from their own 29-yard line. You know the history: the Falcons were unable to convert, they left the Saints with a short field to get a field goal in overtime which would be a sudden death situation, which they eventually achieved. For days and weeks afterward, the decision to go for it was questioned, and for good reason. Perhaps the defense would have held up had the Falcons punted; maybe the result would have been the same. Hindsight is 20/20, and it didn’t work in the Falcons’ favor on that occasion.
A series of events eerily similar unfolded on Sunday in the Georgia Dome, only this time the Falcons came out on the winning end. The Panthers got a 4th & 1 on the Falcons 45-yard line. Cam Newton had already run a QB sneak, and fumbled. Carolina recovered the ball, but regardless, he was short of the first down marker. With a 6’5″, 250 lb behemoth of a quarterback who is great at leaping over the pile for the extra yard, one might think it would behoove the Panthers to go for it, maintain possession of the ball, and absolutely prevent the Falcons from having any opportunity to win the game by taking a knee and running out the clock.
Carolina head coach Ron Rivera did the smart thing and elected to punt the football. It worked out beautifully: the punt was downed at the Atlanta 1-yard line, meaning the Falcons would have to go 99 yards to get a touchdown, all without a timeout, and with an o-line that was very porous throughout the entire day. Even though Carolina didn’t run out the clock completely, there is no way they lose the game, right?
Even though Rivera did all the right things, there is no connection between the punt and the 59-yard bomb that Matt Ryan threw from his own endzone to Roddy White on the opposite 40 yard line that eventually set up the game winning field goal.
One thing it does do is make a person really think and scratch their heads. It really makes you think you’re damned if you do (go for it), and damned if you don’t (if you punt). More than anything else, it shows what an interesting game football is and how completely unpredictable the NFL really is. No team has any business getting a field goal starting on their own 1 with only 59 seconds left on the clock and no timeouts. The Falcons came out on the winning end of it this time, but history shows that in the end, the gods of football even everything out.