Turning Point: Saints' Third-Down Turnaround

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints ended up scoring a combined 55 points on Sunday in the Superdome, but the game started out a little slow. The first four drives of the game ended in three punts and a field goal, with New Orleans taking a 3-0 lead almost to the end of the first period.

The Buccaneers did manage to take their first lead of the game with 10 seconds left in the opening quarter, on a two-play drive following a Sean Murphy-Bunting interception. What neither the Saints nor the Buccaneers accomplished in that quarter was a successful third-down conversion, as the visitors went 0-3 and the home team was 0-4.

Here's how I felt about that situation as the first quarter came to an end:

Unfortunately, I was right. The Saints converted all three of their third downs in the second quarter and eight of their final 11. The Buccaneers, meanwhile, finished 3-11 in that category, with all three successful conversions coming on one 18-play touchdown drive. On Monday, Head Coach Bruce Arians pointed to a pair of Saints third-down plays during a second-half drive as being particularly damaging to the Bucs' hopes. One was a 20-yard catch by Michael Thomas that converted a third-and-10 from the Saints' nine-yard line; the other was three plays later when Alvin Kamara took a short pass eight yards on a third-and-three.

Those conversions maintained a 91-yard drive that ended up producing the game-winning points. Had the Bucs not allowed Thomas to convert that first one, they likely would have gotten the ball back near midfield after a punt, trailing by just seven points with a whole quarter to play. It's understandable that Arians thought those two third-down plays were the key to the Bucs' inability to rally, and he's certainly right. However, it was an earlier play by Kamara on a different third down that turned the game's tide for the final time, in terms of win probability.

This season, we're looking for the final Turning Point in every game. After each Buccaneers contest we're going to find the moment when things swung in favor of the eventual winner and never swung back. We're going to do so using the "Win Probability" charts on ESPN.com. At any given point in the game, that chart displays the percentage that each team could be expected to win, based on data from similar situations in thousands of historical games. Unless one team gets above 50% at the very beginning of the game and never dips below that mark, there is going to be a single point where the team that eventually wins goes from underdog to favorite for the final time.

View photos of Tampa Bay's Week 5 matchup against New Orleans.

Week Three Turning Point: Alvin Kamara's Third-Down Run Leads to Saints' First Touchdown

Outcome: New Orleans 31, Tampa Bay 24

Lead Changes/Ties:

·    Saints kick a field goal (Wil Lutz) at 3:58 of the first quarter for a 3-0 lead

·    Buccaneers score a touchdown (Chris Godwin reception) at 0:10 of the first quarter for a 7-3 lead

·    Saints score a touchdown (Michael Thomas reception) at 10:13 of the second quarter for a 10-7 lead

·    Buccaneers kick a field goal (Matt Gay) at 5:33 of the second quarter for a 10-10 tie

·    Saints score a touchdown (Jared Cook reception) at 0:32 of the second quarter for a 17-10 lead

Tampa Bay won the game-opening coin flip and took the ball but still started out on the underdog side of the win probability chart, with the Saints at 59.2%. They stayed there and saw their percentages go down for most of the first quarter before Chris Godwin's 26-yard touchdown with 10 seconds left in that period. That bumped the line on the win probability chart over into the Bucs' favor, though only at 51.5%, and that didn't last long.

The Saints began driving towards midfield on the ensuing possession and the chart almost immediately flipped back in their favor. Even when facing a third-and-seven at their own 40, the Saints were still given a 53.0% chance of winning. That jumped immediately to 58.4% after that third down was successfully converted.

Strangely, though, the odds inched back into the Bucs' favor even as New Orleans' drive continued. And when Jordan Whitehead stopped quarterback Teddy Bridgewater on a scramble to the Bucs 16, Tampa Bay became favorites by 54.5%. Presumably the possibility that Tampa Bay's defense would force a field goal attempt and thus hold onto the lead made the situation brighter for the visiting team.

However, Bridgewater handed off to Kamara on the next play, with the Saints needing two yards to move the chains, and Kamara got just enough to make it happen. Just like that, the win probability chart swung back into the Saints' good graces, as they were considered to have a 59.9% chance of winning with a first down at the Bucs' 14. Bridgewater hit Thomas for a 14-yard touchdown on the next play and that number surged to 64.6%. The line would not favor the Buccaneers for the rest of the day, even though they did come back and tie the game at 10-10 five minutes later.

That field goal by Matt Gay reduced the Saints' win probability to 53.5%, but that's as low as it would go. New Orleans scored a touchdown just before and just after halftime, and the resulting 14-point lead had their win probability all the way up to 87.5%. Even when Peyton Barber scored to make it a one-touchdown game again, the Saints' number only dropped to 73.5%.

There were 26 combined third-down attempts in Sunday's game, and far too many of them were won by the Saints. Arians believed that to be the difference in the game, and he's probably right. And one of those third downs in particular was where New Orleans took control of the game for good.

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