When is taking three points when you need 13 to tie with time running out in the fourth quarter a good idea? It happened Sunday in Tennessee.
With 7:03 left in the game, down 13 on the road to the Titans, facing a 4th-and-11 at the Tennessee 12-yard line, Ravens coach John Harbaugh chose to kick a field goal to cut the margin to 10. At the time it seemed like a strange decision: Harbaugh still had his three timeouts, plus the two-minute warning in his arsenal, but still, many Ravens fans must have thought it was the wrong move to shave a mere three points off a two-score lead with so little time remaining. But was it?
Converting 4th-and-11 at any point during the game is hard, but even harder when the game is on the line. Last season there were 126 4th-down attempts greater than six yards, and the conversion rate was just 33 percent. Baltimore's offense was not moving the ball effectively against the Titans for most of the game. To make matters worse, they were just three of 10 on third down prior to this decision. Just gaining yards in this game was difficult for the Ravens. So gaining 11 yards on just one down might have been a reach.
Conventional thinking would have you believe that if the Ravens convert the 4th down and eventually score they are just one possession away from tying or possibly winning the game. However if the Ravens failed to convert, essentially the game is over, in part because the Ravens will need two touchdowns to win, which would require recovering an onside kick -- really long odds. What Harbaugh did by kicking the field goal was keep his team in the game and hope he could play a field-position game (with help from the new kickoff rules) thus putting his team in position to kick the tying field goal.
Here was Harbaugh's thought process: By cutting the lead to 10, Harbaugh hopes his defense holds the Titans to a three-and-out so he can get the ball back without burning a timeout. Then he wants to drive down the field and score a touchdown, cutting the lead to three. Harbaugh hopes he can accomplish this before the two-minute warning, thus gaining an extra timeout. (Remember, timeouts when a team is trailing are reserved for a sack or long passing plays, not just randomly stopping the clock -- that's what spiking the ball is for.) After the Ravens score, his kicker must kick the ball out of the back of the end zone, eliminating any return. With time running out, every yard is vital. If the Ravens hold the Titans to another three-and-out, forcing a punt, they now only need to move the ball into field-goal range for a shot at sending the game into overtime.
Under this scenario, Harbaugh kept his team alive -- albeit barely. By kicking the field goal, his players then had to execute every scenario perfectly -- which they failed to do. However by kicking the field goal, he spared his team from having to recover an onside kick. And assuming his defense played well, he also removed the need to move the ball down the field and find the end zone twice when his offense had been stagnant all day.
I really liked the call, because his offense was not playing well and he desperately needed any kind of points. On the ensuing drive Tennessee actually made a mistake by throwing an incomplete pass, but Matt Hasselbeck made a great throw on third down, and then pleaded to the bench to run the ball the next few plays. The Titans kept the ball away from the Ravens and eventually added an insurance field goal of their own for the final winning margin of 26-13.
I really wish the Harbaugh scenario could have played out to show everyone that taking the three under the right conditions is not a bad idea.
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi