One thing hasn’t changed for the Redskins this year—they are involved in a lot of close games. In 2010, twelve of their 16 games were decided by seven points or fewer. This year after a relative laugher in the opener, when they beat the Giants by 14, their other three games have been decided by one, two, and seven points.
A useful tool for analyzing plays close games is the Win Probability Calculator on the Advanced NFL Stats website. You can plug in any game situation—score differential, time remaining, field position and down and distance—and it will tell you the chances of the team in possession of the ball winning the game. The calculation is based Advanced NFL Stats’ database of every play run in the NFL since the 2002 season.
If you run the win probability immediately before a key play and immediately after it, you can see what impact the play had on a team’s chances of winning.
For example, let’s look at the third and 21 play in Dallas. With that down and distance at their own 30, tailing by one with 2:20 left to play, the Cowboys had a .15 win probability. If you flip that around, a team in the Redskins’ situation ends up winning the game 85 percent of the time.
After Tony Romo completed the pass to Dez Bryant and the facemask penalty on DeAngelo Hall gave Dallas a first and ten at the Washington 25 with 2:08 left the win probability had been turned almost completely upside down. At that point, the Cowboys had a 76 percent chance of winning.
Rex Grossman’s fumble on the drive after a field goal gave Dallas a two-point lead was the last straw but it had much less impact. At the beginning of the drive from their own 20 with 1:40 left, the Redskins only had a .28 win probability. Right before the play, on second and 10 at the Washington 43, the Redskins’ win probability had dropped to .19. So, the Redskins had only a one in five chance of winning before the fumble and the chances dropped to near zero after it.
The third and 21 play has by far the highest impact of any single play this year but the Redskins overcame some pretty long odds in the fourth quarter to beat the Cardinals. After Kevin Kolb threw a 73-yards touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald to put Arizona up by eight in the fourth quarter, Washington had just a .14 win probability when they took their next snap.
Things weren’t much better when the Redskins faced fourth and three at the Arizona 18 with 5:23 left to play. But Grossman’s touchdown pass to Santana Moss on the play increased Washington’s win probability from .17 to .31.
After Graham Gano booted a field goal to give the Redskins a 22-21 lead with 1:45 left, the Cardinals still had a 30 percent chance of winning when they got the ball at their own 20 after the ensuing kickoff. That chance dropped to near zero on the first play of the drive after Byron Westbrook forced a fumble and Reed Doughty recovered it at the Cardinals 32.
One much-discussed play that did not have a major impact on the Redskins’ chances of winning was the interception Rex Grossman threw late in the game against the Rams. At the snap of the ball on first and 10 at their own 20, the Redskins led by seven with 5:45 left to play. They had a .92 win probability at that point. After James Laurinaitis picked off Grossman’s pass giving the Rams the ball at the Redskins’ 19, the Redskins still had a 75 percent chance of winning the game.