According to the 'win probability' chart produced by NFL Next Gen Stats, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had less than one percent chance of victory with four-and-a-half minutes left in the fourth quarter in their Divisional Round playoff game against the Rams. The fact that the Buccaneers got that probability back to what was essentially a coin flip before it was all over is remarkable, if ultimately unsatisfying.
The Rams beat the Buccaneers, 30-27, on Sunday on Matt Gay's 30-yard field goal as time expired. The final drive used up the game's last 42 seconds after a nine-yard fourth-down touchdown run by Leonard Fournette had tied the game, completing a 24-point comeback. That late rally turned what had appeared to be a desultory blowout into one of the more memorable games in Buccaneers franchise history.
With seven minutes left in the third quarter, NGS already had the Rams with a 99% win probability. This was with the Buccaneers beginning a drive at their own 25, trailing 27-3. That drive ended in a Ryan Succop needle that didn't move that probability needle at all. The Buccaneers did improve to a 6% chance moments later when Jamel Dean forced a fumble by Cooper Kupp that Sean Murphy-Bunting recovered in Rams territory, and they got to 9% after that takeaway led to a Leonard Fournette touchdown at the end of the third period.
Still, the Bucs' chances of victory, according to NGS, never got appreciably interesting until the game got very crazy in the last five minutes. It was after Tom Brady's fourth-down pass attempt to Cam Brate with 4:31 left that the chart nearly gave up on the Buccaneers, with the Rams' probability sitting at >99%. The Bucs' defense got a quick stop after that failed fourth down and then Brady hit Mike Evans on a stunning 55-yard touchdown pass to make it 27-20 with 3:20 left in regulation, but even then NGS only gave the home team a 7% chance of victory.
Two big plays got the odds almost back to even after that. The two moments that did the most to positively affect the Bucs' chances of winning on the evening were Cam Akers' fumble, forced by Ndamukong Suh with 2:25 left, and Fournette's aforementioned touchdown run on fourth-and-one with 42 ticks left on the clock. The former play improved the Bucs' victory chances from 7% to 23%, and the latter got it from 23% all the way up to 43%. Those odds even got to 48% for the Bucs after Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul collaborated on a one-yard sack of Matthew Stafford on the first play of the game's final drive.
Surprisingly, Kupp's 20-yard catch out to the Rams' 44, on which he ran out of bounds with 28 seconds left, only improved their odds of winning from 52% to 56%. The less said about the final two snaps of the game, the better.
The Buccaneers continued to emphasize bigger personnel groupings in their final game following the loss of several wideouts to injury and the absence of All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs. Tampa Bay actually started the Divisional Round game against the Rams with three tight ends on the field, something they had not done in any of their previous 18 contests.
During the regular season, the Buccaneers had '11' personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers) on the field for 66.5% of their plays, and that package was quite successful. The Bucs averaged 6.67 yards on those plays and had a success rate of 57%. A play is deemed successful by NGS if it does one of the following things: gains 4+ yards on first down; gains at least half of what is needed for a first down on second down; gains a first down on third or fourth down.
In their two postseason games, the Buccaneers only fielded 11 personnel on 49.7 of their snaps, and they were far less effective when they did so, gaining 4.10 yards per play with a success rate of just 44%.
Making up most of the difference was an uptick in the usage of '12' groupings, which feature one back, two tight ends and two receivers. That usage jumped from 18.2% in the regular season to 29.4% in the postseason. Overall, the success rate with that group didn't change much – 49% in the regular season to 50% in the playoffs – but the yards per play took a big leap from 4.92 to 6.71.
Tampa Bay even upped its usage of three-tight end sets ('13' personnel) in the postseason to 11.9%. It was just 3.9% in the regular season. However, they didn't get much more out of it on a per-play basis, improving in success rate from 34% to 41% but declining in yards per play a bit from 3.43 to 3.35.