The New York Jets lost to the Chiefs due to a buildup of forgotten plays
If you took a poll of New York Jets fans asking why the team lost to the Kansas City Chiefs, the most prevalent responses would likely be “Zach Wilson‘s fumble” or “the referees.” To a large extent, both of those answers can be correct, as we’ll see. Still, in virtually any one-score NFL game, the deciding plays are produced by a series of taken and missed opportunities that converge to final key moments.
Looking back at the swings in win probability throughout the Jets-Chiefs game reveals exactly what those opportunities were for the Jets. Since New York came up short, the focus is on the plays they didn’t make rather than those they did. For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll ignore scoring plays, as those inherently have the biggest impact on win probability.
What were the plays that cost the Jets the most against Kansas City?
1. (-23.6%) (7:30 Q4, 2nd & 9) Z.Wilson FUMBLES (Aborted) at NYJ 46, RECOVERED by KC-T.Wharton at NYJ 47.
The Jets make a CRUCIAL mistake 😬
Zach Wilson fumbles the snap and the Chiefs recover the fumble! pic.twitter.com/1onDJt6VfF
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPoints) October 2, 2023
Unsurprisingly, Wilson’s fumbled snap was the most costly play for the Jets in terms of directly impacting win probability. They went from a 43.2% chance of victory all the way down to 19.6%.
Situationally, the fumble was costly in multiple ways. It gave the ball back to Kansas City with multiple chances to put the game away—either by running out the clock (as they eventually did) or by scoring a touchdown to take a multi-score lead. It also wiped out the Jets’ opportunity to score themselves.
The Jets had the ball near midfield on a second-and-long with 7:30 left. Although Greg Zuerlein had missed a 52-yard field goal earlier in the game, his kicking range is around 55-58 yards. That meant the offense needed a first down plus a few more yards to have a chance to tie.
2. (-12.7%) (6:21 Q4, 3rd & 23) P.Mahomes scrambles up the middle to NYJ 35 for 25 yards (A.Amos). PENALTY on NYJ-C.Mosley, Illegal Contact, 5 yards, enforced at NYJ 35.
Patrick Mahomes had five scrambles in this game, and four went for first downs. Three were on third down with 12+ yards to go. This was the longest one, gaining 25 yards on 3rd and 23. With 6:21 to go in the game, the Chiefs were backed up to their own 40 after a holding penalty. A stop here would have given the Jets a chance to drive down to tie or even win.
Instead, since the Jets predictably play man coverage on third down, the middle of the field parted like the Red Sea for Mahomes. The Chiefs’ win probability rose from 69.7% all the way to 82.4%. That’s a pretty hefty swing.
The one problem with this play was that Jermaine Johnson was clearly and obviously held with no call. That would have caused offsetting penalties, forcing a repeat of third down. With Mahomes’ track record in the game, who knows what would have happened. Still, the chances of converting a 3rd and 23 are very low even for the best quarterback in the NFL.
— Charles Robinson (@CharlesRobinson) October 2, 2023
3. (-9.4%) (13:34 Q4, 2nd & 3) P.Mahomes pass short left to R.Rice to NYJ 25 for 18 yards.
This is one of the more forgotten plays of the game considering how much of a difference it made. Why would a random 2nd and 3 completion to Rashee Rice cause the third-largest non-scoring play swing in win probability?
A big part of it was field position. The Chiefs had the ball on the Jets 43. The 18-yard reception moved them to the 25, within easy Harrison Butker field goal range. If the Jets had been able to hold Kansas City short of the first down, they likely would have been forced to punt. Considering that Andy Reid is one of the more conservative coaches in the NFL, that likelihood is even higher.
The Chiefs’ win probability rose from 51.9% to 61.3% on this one play. It was a significant difference but is largely overlooked.
4. (-8.6%) (14:03 Q1, 2nd & 8) P.Mahomes pass short left to T.Kelce to NYJ 38 for 16 yards.
This was a much earlier play, occurring on the first drive of the game. The Chiefs had a 2nd and 8 from their own 46. The 16-yard reception was Kansas City’s first foray into Jets territory and increased their win probability from 44.4% to 53%.
5. (-7.0%) (:30 Q2, 4th & 1) G.Zuerlein 52-yard field goal is No Good.
The Jets had a 4th and 1 from the Kansas City 34 with 30 seconds remaining in the first half. They were trailing 20-12 and had been driving down to try for a potential game-tying touchdown. Unfortunately, a second-down drop by Michael Carter had led to a third-down pass to Garrett Wilson that fell a yard short of the first down marker. Rather than going for it, Robert Saleh chose the field goal attempt. Zuerlein doinked it off the right upright and out.
Although the “go boost” (increased win probability when going for it vs. other options) was only +1.56% on this play, which doesn’t seem significant, the actual range of outcomes should have persuaded Saleh to go for it.
- Zuerlein hits 52-yard field goal (61.6% probability): 20-15, Chiefs get the ball back with roughly 25 seconds left at their own 25.
- Zuerlein misses 52-yard field goal (38.4%): 20-12, Chiefs get the ball back with roughly 25 seconds left at their own 44. (This is what happened.)
- Jets get the first down (65.4%): they still have two timeouts with the ball at the Chiefs 33 (or beyond), and they have a chance to drive down either for an easier field goal and to run out the clock on the first half or even get a touchdown.
- Jets miss the first down (34.6%): Chiefs get the ball back at their own 34 with roughly 25 seconds left.
Notice that the highest probability was that the Jets would convert the first down. Furthermore, Zuerlein is not so reliable in the 50+ range despite his ‘Greg the Leg’ and ‘Legatron’ monikers. He was 6-for-11 (54.5%) from 50+ in 2022, and he had -1.627 field goals over expected from that range, which ranked 28th out of 32 qualified kickers.
Therefore, despite the Jets’ weaknesses in short-yardage situations, it made more sense to try to go for it in that situation. Of course, hindsight is 20/20 due to Zuerlein’s miss, but the correct call in the first place would have been to go for it.
Although Saleh explained that they felt the field goal attempt was inevitable because of the dwindling time, making the field goal attempt easier and keeping the ball out of Mahomes’ hands as long as possible should have been superseding priorities. Mahomes gave the Jets a gift by throwing an interception to C.J. Mosley, but it does not negate the mistake Saleh made.
What is not in the top five
Notice that Sauce Gardner‘s holding penalty does not fall in the top five over here. It cost the Jets 6.4% of win probability, which was the seventh-most impactful negative play for the Jets other than scoring plays. It would have been the ninth-most if it included Isiah Pacheco’s and Noah Gray’s touchdowns.
Now, that does not mean Sauce’s penalty wasn’t impactful or that Jets fans have no right to be angry at the referees. Still, Mahomes’ 25-yard run on 3rd and 23 sank the Jets more than Sauce’s penalty, at least in terms of win probability.
Win probability is not the sole way to determine importance in a game. After all, it can only determine the win probability changes up to that point, not retroactively. If a team’s win probability is already very slim, failing to convert a play will not decrease win probability that much even if converting the play could have increased the win probability tremendously.
Still, it’s interesting to take a look at the game from this perspective, particularly in regard to the Rashee Rice catch. It’s also notable that although Wilson’s fumble was the most egregious loss of win probability, three of the next four were defensive plays—perhaps indicating that the cumulative defensive effort was to blame for the loss more than a single Wilson play.
Ultimately, giving up 23 points to the Chiefs is nothing to be ashamed of. Still, for a team boasting about ’85 Bears aspirations, the Jets’ defense has fallen short through four weeks.
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