The Art of an NFL Comeback

By Will McMillan

Kick now and save time for later?
Kick now and save time for later?

Mismanagement of the clock as the game or the half winds down seems to be a part of NFL culture; we all know that the way in which a team’s final possession is handled, right down to the second, can have a profound effect on the outcome of the game. However, a much less scrutinized situation occurs whenever a team is down by more than one score and will require a touchdown with or without a 2-point conversion as well as a field goal, to at least tie the game in the fourth quarter. Factoring in the use of timeouts, there are a lot of different ways that coaches can attack this scenario, and it’s likely that if you’ve watched a lot of NFL football over the years, you’ve seen at least one attempted comeback that made you wonder whether or not your team’s bosses made the right call. So, what is that right call? Down by 9 to 11 points (and therefore within range of tying with a touchdown and a field goal, and maybe a two point conversion), is it best to kick a field goal as soon as you reach a reasonable range, thus maximizing your time for a last-second touchdown drive? Or is it smarter to try to score a touchdown on your first drive (at least until you reach 4th down) since you will need to get one at some point anyway? I have only given one argument for each strategy, and of course the number of timeouts that a team has and the amount of time on the clock are bound to influence a team’s decision. To try to deconstruct this complex choice, I have analyzed a full season of game data to find scenarios of interest. From the 2008 NFL regular season and playoffs, I found 43 games in which one team was behind by 9 to 11 points with under 5 minutes to play and had the ball. These parameters may end up to be too wide (in the case that teams score with enough time left that they can kickoff deep even without a full array of timeouts), but at least this way I can be sure that I will not miss any meaningful games.

This type of analysis is difficult because it is impossible to observe the counterfactual, what would have happened if the opposite decision had been made. Nonetheless by analyzing each game’s situation it is possible to draw conclusions on the effectiveness of each strategy. Of the 44 games  that a team trailed by 9 to 11 points, only a handful allow for any insightful analysis. There are only 14 instances where we can say with certainty what strategy a team is employing, while the other 30 trailing teams lost their chance before this point. It is important to note that I have included teams that missed an onside kick in my grouping of “non-analyzable scenarios”, regardless of whether that team had just scored a touchdown or a field goal. This was done because nothing is shown about the effectiveness of going for a touchdown first versus a field goal if you have an unsuccessful onside kick. Assuming that a team is equally likely to recover an onside kick after scoring a touchdown as they are after a field goal, these scenarios tell us nothing useful statistically. This is the most complicated example of a non-analyzable scenario – a game where the trailing team does not show us their strategy. If you interested in only the results scroll down to ‘Analysis’. If you are interested in the methods too, below is a breakdown of the games starting with a list of the different non-analyzable scenarios, along with the game number classifications from my list further down:

Some Non-Analyzable Scenarios:

A: Turnover (Fumble, Interception, or Downs) on 1st possession, not sure if going for TD or FG

1, 3, 7, 9, 11, 16, 17, 19, 21, 22, 23, 25, 26, 28 (2nd possession), 29, 30, 33 (2nd possession), 35, 38, 39, 40, 41, 43, 44

B: Made FG on 1st possession, missed onside kick

2, 10, 31, 34

C: Ran out of time on 2nd possession, not sure if going for TD or FG

1, 41

D: Made TD on 1st possession, missed onside kick

13, 14

E: Ran out of time on 1st possession, not sure if going for TD or FG

(Game #) 12

F: Punt on 1st possession, didn’t get ball back



*Note: Some games appear in more than one category, but only one is needed to remove the game from consideration


This already knocks out the majority of the cases available for study, but this still tells us something useful (but sensible): if your team is down by more than 8 points with less than 5 minutes left, then its chances of even being in a position to tie or win are pretty slim. When they find themselves in this bind, NFL head coaches are looking for a chance to have a chance, and it seems that most are tripped up by this first hurdle. It’s a tough thing to navigate an NFL comeback, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a bounce or two go your way, but there were in fact 14 games in 2008 when teams seemingly had the opportunity to catch up if they played their cards right. What this all boils down to, then, is: How big is that if? Do teams that get to make the TD versus FG call make the right call? I expect that this will be a tough thing to discern from this data, but something that we can indeed look at is whether one strategy is less harmful to a team’s chances of winning. That is, does electing to go for a field goal first have fewer negative effects on a team’s chances of winning than going for a touchdown first? This is really what coaches should be asking themselves when it comes time to make this decision, and this is in fact my hypothesis. I think that the safer option of kicking a field goal first is the best option, since it keeps teams in the game for longer and allows them to then judge the best opportunity to go for the win with the security of being down by only one score.

Here is the list of analyzable games (based on being able to see what strategy the trailing team is using AND being able to see the effectiveness of this strategy):

5, 6, 8, 15, 18, 20, 24, 27, 28, 32, 33, 36, 37, 42

These games are bolded below in the list of all games that were studied.

Game Number, Final Score, Week Number:

1. NYG 16, WAS 7    W. 1

2. TEN 17, JAX 10   W. 1

3. GB 48, DET 25    W. 2

4. NE 19, NYJ 10    W. 2

5. BUF 24, OAK 23    W. 3

6. TB 27, CHI 24 (OT)    W. 3

7. MIN 20, CAR 10    W. 3

8. PHI 15, PIT 6    W. 3

9. DAL 27, GB 16    W. 3

10. KC 33, DEN 19    W. 4

11. TB 30, GB 21    W. 4

12. SD 28, OAK 18    W. 4

13. WAS 26, DAL 24    W. 4

14. ATL 27, GB 24    W. 5

15. DEN 16, TB 13    W. 5

16. DAL 31, CIN 22    W. 5

17. NE 30, SF 21    W. 5

18. ATL 22, CHI 20    W. 6

19. BUF 23, SD 14    W. 7

20. HOU 28, DET 21    W. 7

21. WAS 14, CLE 11    W. 7

22. MIA 25, BUF 16    W. 8

23. TEN 31, IND 21    W. 8

24. NYJ 26, BUF 17    W. 9

25. BAL 37, CLE 27    W. 9

26. MIA 26, DEN 17    W. 9

27. CAR 17, OAK 6    W. 10

28. CAR 31, DET 22    W. 11

29. TEN 24, JAX 14    W. 11

30. HOU 16, CLE 6    W. 12

31. NYG 37, ARZ 29    W. 12

32. KC 20, OAK 13    W. 13

33. SF 24, NYJ 14    W. 14

34. CIN 20, WAS 13    W. 15

35. IND 31, DET 21    W. 15

36. SD 22, KC 21    W. 15

37. BAL 33, DAL 24    W. 16

38. SD 41, TB 24    W. 16

39. TEN 31, PIT 14    W. 16

40. SEA 13, NYJ 3    W. 16

41. OAK 27, HOU 16    W. 16

42. GB 31, DET 21    W. 17

43. PHI 26, MIN 14    Wild Card

44. PIT 23, BAL 14    AFC Championship

As shown above, there were 14 games in 2008, or almost one per week, in which the trailing team had a chance to tie or take the lead based on their choice between kicking a field goal first and going for a touchdown first. Here are the game-by-game accounts of what happened in these cases, along with some additional notes about the strategy used by the team trying to catch up:

Game #5:

BUF 24, OAK 23

BUF down 9 w. 6:23 left and 1 T/O left, scored TD w. 4:09 left, kick off deep, got ball back w. 2:24 left, FG on last play to win *TRAILING TEAM WINS

The Bills got it done by pushing the ball all the way down the field and did not stop to attempt a field goal once they were in range. They may have acted differently had they faced a 4th down, but their offense was in rhythm, so getting the TD first was definitely the right call here, and it allowed Buffalo to pull off the win.

Strategy: TD first, kick deep

Result: Successful, win

Effect of Strategy: Positive, TD first was correct decision

Game #6:

TB 27, CHI 24 (OT)

TB down 10 w. 6:38 left and 3 T/O left, FG w. 3:16 left, kick off deep, got ball back  w. 1:49 left and 2 T/O left, scored TD w. 0:10 left, won in OT


In another nice comeback, Tampa Bay took the opposite strategy from Buffalo in the previous case, going for the field goal first. This decision, in combination with some effective defense, worked well because the Bucs got the ball back with plenty of time to score a touchdown, and they then went on to win in overtime.

Strategy: FG first, kick off deep

Result: Successful, win

Effect of Strategy: Positive, FG first was correct decision


Game #8

PHI 15, PIT 6


PIT down 9 w. 2:26 left and 2 T/O left, got to PHI 22 with 1:29 left, but kept attacking until they had 4th and 10 on PHI 22 w. 0:37 left, chose to go for it, turnover on downs


This is the textbook case of a team that should have gone for a field goal first; Pittsburgh had a chance for a makeable field goal with 90 seconds left, but chose to go for the touchdown, and then made the same decision even on 4th down. Kicking a field goal would have saved them a lot of time, and ultimately, would have been their only shot at having a second possession since they turned the ball over as they pressed towards the end zone. This is a big factor in the belief that a field goal is always a better option.

Strategy: TD first

Result: Turnover on first possession, loss

Effect of Strategy: Negative, FG first was correct decision

Game #15:

DEN 16, TB 13

TB down 10 w. 7:20 left and 3 T/O left, scored TD with 2:08 left, kicked off deep, DEN ran out clock with two first downs *TRAILING TEAM LOSES

Here, Tampa Bay’s problem was that they did not have enough time left to compensate for Denver’s success running the ball. It would have been better to kick a field goal as soon as they were in range to do so, and then to try to get a quick stop (or even try an onside kick if they felt the defence would not get a stop). In this case where more time would be on the clock, Tampa would have had more margin for error on defence and might have been able to give up a first down and still get the ball back.

Strategy: TD first, kick off deep

Result: TD, but couldn’t get ball back, loss

Effect of Strategy: Negative, FG first was correct decision


Game #18:

ATL 22, CHI 20

CHI down 9 w. 5:56 left, made FG w. 4:05 to go (4th down), ATL had long kickoff return but missed short FG, CHI gets ball back, scores TD to go up 1 w. 0:17 left, ATL still won on FG as time expired *TRAILING TEAM LOSES

Chicago played this about as well as they could have, and Atlanta’s quick drive at the end to get into field goal range was pretty unlikely. Their special teams (on Jerrious Norwood’s long return) and defence (at the end of the game) let them down, but given the circumstances, the Bears did the right thing and were just victims of bad luck.

Strategy: FG first, kick off deep

Result: Successful, equal turns of unpredictable good and bad luck (in the case of this study, at least) contributed to loss

Effect of Strategy: Positive, FG first was right decision since it led to what should have been a win

Game #20:

HOU 28, DET 21

DET down 10, made FG with 4:21 to play (no chance for TD), kicked deep w. 1 T/O left, got ball back w. 0:10 left, ran out of time *TRAILING TEAM LOSES

Detroit’s defence let them down here, but kicking the field goal was definitely the right call – the Lions could have gone for it on 4th down but put their faith in Jason Hanson and elected to try a 54-yard field goal. This was a much higher-percentage play than a pass attempt on 4th and long. Detroit chose to kick deep thinking they could get the ball back with about 2 minutes left and 1 timeout (or a little more time and no timeouts) , as long as they did not give up any first downs.

*STRATEGY SIDENOTE* This game also brings up the interesting possibility of a surprise onside kick. Assume that this sort of onside kick is more likely to work than a regular, anticipated one. If Detroit lined up like they were going to kick deep (which would have been acceptable based on the fact that they still had a timeout and a lot of time to work with) and actually used a surprise onside kick, there would be a greater chance of them recovering the ball, which would be great from their perspective. More importantly, I believe that Houston recovering the onside kick would not hurt them very much in this situation. Detroit would need a stop whether they kicked deep or used this method, and I propose that teams would be very hesitant to attempt the 45 to 50 yard field goal that would be presented to them if they were stopped without gaining a first down after recovering an onside kick. Thus, Detroit, still needing a defensive stand, has little to lose (loss in field position is not great compared to deep kickoff) by attempting a surprise onside kick in this situation rather than kicking deep.

Strategy: FG first, kick off deep

Result: Defence couldn’t make a stop, loss

Effect of Strategy: Positive, FG first was right decision (but then possibility of surprise onside kick)

Game #24:

NYJ 26, BUF 17

BUF down 9 w. 2:12 left and no T/Os, got to NYJ 25, threw INT


This is a tough call, but I would say that, given the fact that there were only two minutes left when the Bills got the ball on their own 37, they should have taken the 3 points as quickly as possible, knowing that they would have to attempt an onside kick however they scored. This would leave them which as much time as possible to score on their second possession. Ultimately, this game shows that kicking a field goal first is less risky and will impact a team less negatively than a touchdown, since only in the latter case are turnovers and costly penalties a possibility.

Strategy: TD first, then onside kick

Result: Turnover, loss

Effect of Strategy: Negative, FG first was right decision given how little time was left once in field goal range

Game #27:

CAR 17, OAK 6

OAK down 11 w. 1:44 to go and no T/Os, drove to CAR 40 w. 0:18 left, tried one pass (incomplete), then missed 58-yd FG


This doesn’t tell us much because Oakland’s offence was so slow at getting up the field that they basically had no choice but to attempt a very long field goal.

Strategy: FG first, then onside kick

Result: Ineffective on offence, missed FG, loss

Effect of Strategy: Inconclusive

Game #28:

CAR 31, DET 22


DET down 9 w. 4:44 to go and 2 T/O left, punted, got ball back down 9 w. 2:41 left and 1 T/O left – turnover on downs before could tell if going for FG or TD


Though we cannot see whether or not Detroit would have preferred a touchdown or a field goal, this game is included in the analysis because it explores another option: punting the ball. Detroit didn’t come close to winning this game, so it may be that punting with under five minutes to go is never a wise move, but I will trust the coaches on this one in knowing the feel of the game, which is not something that I could measure. In fact, this game was only included because it fit the parameters – Detroit had the ball down 9 to 11 points with under 5 minutes to go, but the fact that they were comfortable punting suggests that the time constraint was too wide. If we start looking at this game when Detroit begins its second possession, we cannot say anything about the FG versus TD dilemma.

Strategy: Punt, not sure if they would have gone for FG or TD first

Result: Turnover on next possession, loss

Effect of Strategy: Inconclusive

Game #32:

KC 20, OAK 13

OAK down 10 w. 5:22 left, drove to KC 33, made 51-yd FG on 4th down w. 2:59 left, had 3 T/O left so kicked deep, didn’t get ball back


Oakland tried three times to advance the ball even though they were in field-goal range and only settled for a field goal on 4th down. They could have saved 28 seconds by attempting the field goal on 1st down with 3:27 left in the game, and this may have been enough to allow them to get the ball back late. This may be another case where the surprise onside kick detailed in the log for Game #20 above would have been useful, since Oakland had little to lose by trying to surprise the Chiefs (see above explanation of this strategy).

Strategy: FG first, then kick deep

Result: Defence couldn’t get a stop, loss

Effect of Strategy: Positive, FG first was right decision (but then possibility of surprise onside kick)

Game #33:

SF 24, NYJ 14

NYJ down 10 w. 6:05 left and 2 T/O left, punted w. 2:41 left, got ball back down 10 w. 2:28 left and 2 T/O, INT before could tell if going for FG or TD


This game again explores the option of punting, which the Jets did with 4:28 left and 2 T/O left. We can’t discern anything that pertains to the purposes of this study, and this again suggests that the time parameter was too forgiving.

Strategy: Punt, not sure if they would have gone for FG or TD first

Result: Turnover on next possession, loss

Effect of Strategy: Inconclusive


Game #36:

SD 22, KC 21

SD down 11 w. 4:55 left and 3 T/O left, scored TD w. 1:19 left (was in FG range w. 2:09 left), missed 2-pt conversion, successful onside kick, scored another TD w. 0:36 left, missed 2-pt conversion, KC missed 50-yd FG on last play


Here is an interesting case. If we assume that San Diego would have missed its 2-point conversion attempt(s) no matter what, then kicking a field goal first would have been a mistake because they would have then come up 2 points short even with a touchdown on their second drive. Their clock and situational management was therefore correct based on them missing the conversions, but the Chargers still needed a degree of luck to win this game since Kansas City got in position to kick a game-winner and missed. The successful onside kick was, of course, very important. This was a strange ending to the game; the Chargers’ strategy might only make sense retrospectively, but that is not what I am looking at in this study.

Strategy: TD first, then 2-pt conversion, then onside kick

Result: Score TD, missed conversion, but got onside kick and scored again, win

Effect of Strategy: Positive, TD first was right decision (and only decision that would have given them a chance, as it turns out)

Game #37:

BAL 33, DAL 24

DAL down 9 w. 6:30 left, scored TD w. 3:54 left, again down 9 w. 3:32 left, scored TD w. 1:41 left, still had 3 T/O left so kicked deep, gave up another TD w. 1:18 left, turnover on downs before could tell if going for TD or FG


This game had a ton of scoring at the end of the 4th quarter, and Dallas’ poor defence is definitely the most blameworthy here. Had they stopped Baltimore after kicking to them with 1:41 left, they would have been in great shape, so it seems that going for the TD first with their own offence in such a rhythm was the right call. However, the defence was so bad (giving up TD runs of 77 and 82 yards when they knew Baltimore was running it) that a surprise onside kick, or even a traditional one if they liked that option better, may have been advisable with 1:41 to go (before the second TD was to occur). Suffice to say, with even average defence at the end of the game, Dallas likely would have won.

Strategy: TD first, then kick deep

Result: Scored TD, but defence let them down repeatedly, loss

Effect of Strategy: Positive, TD first was right decision (but may have been better to try an onside kick rather than kicking deep)

Game #42:

GB 31, DET 21


DET down 10 w. 7:16 left and 3 T/O left, got to GB 30 w. 3:53 left (in FG range) but penalty soon after pushed them back, INT on 4th down


This game demonstrates the risk of going for a touchdown first, and it was a penalty that ultimately did the Lions in (giving them their perfect 0-16 record…although the number of times they appear in this study of close game suggests that they weren’t really that terrible). I again question the coaching decision to not go for a field goal with their reliable kicker as soon as possible, and instead risk playing themselves out of the game right away by going for a touchdown.

Strategy: TD first, not sure what kick they would have done

Result: Turnover, loss

Effect of Strategy: Negative, FG first was right decision


As I mentioned earlier, this study of many different games, in which there is immense variation from case to case, was not likely to reveal a clear pattern in the form of one strategy leading directly to a team winning a game, but I was hoping to find that one strategy would be less negatively impactful on a team’s chances of doing so. It may have come from watching my Mike Tice-led Vikings of the mid-2000s go for a touchdown from the 20 yard line on 4th down when down 10 points every week (or at least it seemed like every week), but I have always felt that kicking a field goal first was usually the right move, especially when a team’s offense wasn’t capable of rolling down the field for a touchdown – and this seems to often be the case with defenses expecting the pass. At the very least, I thought coming into this study that I would find that teams that attempt field goals first are less likely to lose as a direct result of this strategy than those that go for touchdowns first. This counts all decisions made in the first 55 minutes of the game that got the team behind by more than one score as unimportant for this study. From my analysis, I believe that this is indeed what I have found.

Best Strategy FG first TD first Inconclusive
Correctness % 8/1457.1% 3/1421.4% 3/1421.4%

The above table shows that in 8 of the 14 games that were possible to study during the 2008 regular season and playoffs, kicking a FG first was definitely the least harmful, and therefore the best, strategy for a trailing team to employ. 57.1% may not seem overwhelming, but it towers over the 21.4% of games in which going for a touchdown first would have been the best option a team based on the given scenario. The 3 inconclusive cases come from issues with the time constraint, as 2 of them involved punts and 1 involved there not being enough time to make a judgment, so one should keep in mind that if the time had somehow been managed a little better in each game, the 57.1% likely would have been higher. Meanwhile, the fact that I have only used one season of games so far is a potential source of error (I will talk more about this in a little bit).

A definite complication of this study is the play-to-play and game-to-game unpredictability of the NFL, and this makes it difficult to come up with any strategic theory that is consistently accurate. However, I think that the findings of this study are tied to this very idea. When a team is in position to realistically kick and make a field goal that will pull them to within one score of tying the game, it means that the team has overcome the risks of penalties, sacks, turnovers, and other obstacles up to that point. It may be, then, that “Don’t press your luck” is a good mantra for NFL teams to adopt, as the results from 2008 suggest that taking these three points is a far safer and far more beneficial option. There are cases detailed above where this is very clear – teams that go for touchdowns first run the risk of any of these obstacles overcoming them and ruining their chances for a comeback before they score once, whereas teams that kick a field goal first will at least face this same adversity while only one score back. At the core of this dichotomy is the idea that to keep oneself alive in a game for longer is to increase the time over which one’s team can get a big play that is still meaningful.

This is likely not the most statistically convincing of analyses, but I do believe that there is a trend here that will reveal itself more fully if a more in-depth analysis is undertaken, involving more seasons and more games. It may be that other seasons will show that this same strategy (field goal first) is definitely stronger and more correlated with winning, or I may find that this is not the case at all. Furthermore, I hope to explore some more tangential strategies similar to the surprise onside kick that I discussed multiple times in the game logs, and to discuss their relation to the issues at hand.

Clearly, a comeback of this degree in the NFL is a rare occurrence, but I hope to have shown that there are indeed steps that coaches can take to maximize their chances of being successful in this regard. Stay tuned for my next update on this research.

Sources: Schedules and Game Play-by-Plays from

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  • Since I finished this, the Titans and head coach Jeff Fisher provided another example of why the touchdown-first mentality is rarely the correct one, when he kept his kicker on the sideline down 10, even down to the last snap. That game was pretty blatantly mismanaged, but I think it stands to show that there are many more risks associated with trying for the touchdown first, from penalties to turnovers to players staying in bounds when they need to preserve the clock.
    Hopefully your fantasy season isn’t in jeopardy because you were playing someone who got Kerry Collins’ or Bo Scaife’s garbage points at the end of the game. But if it is, you probably know what I’m talking about.

  • Hey Will great analysis. It obviously needs more season to form a better reliability but really good starting point. There was a game at the weekend where a similar scenario happened and the commentator was screaming for them to kick a field goal but they went for the TD and ran out of time.

  • I like that you did an analysis of games, but I think your conclusions on each of them are not well analyzed. I think you use the outcome to base your decisions instead of what had a higher chance of helping the team.
    For example you claim that Pittsburgh should have gone for the field goal when they got to to the 22 of the opposing team with 1:29 remaining. Your conclusion of this seems to stem from their failure, but that is not the right analysis. You should go by probability of winning. You should compare the probability of TD + onside kick recovery + field goal in under 1:29 with 2 TO versus FG + onside kick recovery + TD. Note that TD from the 22 + FG from the 40 (where they would recover an onside kick, they would need a bit less than 30 yards) seems more likely than FG from the 22 + TD from the 40 (needing 60 yards). You could use that on TD + FG they need about 55 yards whereas on the other one they need 60 yards. From that point of view, it already seems like going for the TD is better, but you could make this rigorous by looking at databases compiling probability’s of TD’s from different ranges.

  • I agree with Enrique, your individual game conclusions are completely subjective. I think this is a great concept to explore, although I have an issue with two parts of the methodolgy (besides the overal subjectivness of it). One, many of the listed games have a lot of time left on the clock. 7 minutes left, down 11 or less, no team is in desperation mode. Two, the typical Madden theory is to kick the FG on first down, yet in many of the cases above, the FG is kicked on 4th down (which is a typical decision at any time in the game). What I think could be really interesting is to set up a scenario, say down 10, 2 minute warning, no timeouts, 1st down at the opponents 33 yard line (a 50 yard field goal). What is the probability of winning based on 1) long FG + onside kick + TD (includes possible desperation throw into the end zone from any distance), 2) TD + onside kick + FG (where the team needs to get to the 33 or so), or 3) gain yards for a shorter kick (at the expense of time) + onside kick + TD. Hopefully you’ll have a chance to explore this topic some more.

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