Every NFL game, save the occasional tie, eventually has a winner and a loser. Sometimes it's obvious early which team will come out on top, as with Baltimore's thrashing of Miami on Sunday. Sometimes its decided on the last play, like the Chargers' overtime touchdown to beat the Colts on the same afternoon.
Whether it comes down to the wire or one team pulls away a little earlier, every game has a turning point. The majority of NFL games remain in doubt well into the second half, and if you pause on at any particular moment you might believe one team has the edge. Five minutes later, you might feel differently.
After each Tampa Bay Buccaneers game this season, we're going to look for that turning point, the moment when things swung in favor of the eventual winner. 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.
Week One Turning Point: 23-yard Pass Interference Call on Carlton Davis, 13:17 of Q3
Outcome: San Francisco 31, Tampa Bay 17
· 49ers kick a field goal (Robbie Gould) at 11:08 of the first quarter for a 3-0 lead
· Buccaneers score a touchdown (Vernon Hargreaves interception) at 8:41 of Q2 to go up, 7-6
· 49ers score a touchdown (Richie James reception) at 12:31 of Q3 to go up 13-7
The turning point of a game is not necessarily when the eventual winning team goes ahead on the scoreboard for the last time. In this particular case, it was the sequence that led up to that James touchdown noted above.
The Buccaneers had taken over the edge in win probability just before halftime when Davis recovered a Deebo Samuel fumble at the Buccaneers' 23-yard line. Prior to that turnover, San Francisco was given a 54.6% chance of winning, presumably due to the strong possibility that they were about to score the go-ahead points. After the 49ers fumbled that scoring opportunity away, the win probability chart immediately swung back in the Bucs' favor at 55.0%.
The 49ers got the ball first to start the third quarter but the Bucs' percentage held pretty steady as the visitors fell into a third-and-10 situation at their own 37. And that's when the turning point arrived.
San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo launched a ball deep down the middle of the field in the direction of wide receiver Kendrick Bourne. The ball sailed well over the receiver's head and landed far out of reach, but Davis was flagged for pass interference. The result was a 23-yard penalty adjustment that took the ball across midfield and to the Bucs' 40-yard line. Had Davis not been penalized, the 49ers almost surely would have punted and the Buccaneers, in possession of the ball, would have likely seen their win probability percentage go up a little bit, at least for the time being.
Instead, after that penalty the chart flipped in San Francisco's favor. They were still only riding a 51.1% win probability, but that would change drastically a few moments later and the 49ers would never dip below 50% again. Two plays after the penalty, Garoppolo hit James deep down the right sideline for a 39-yard score – the 49ers' only offensive touchdown of the game – and the visitors' win probability jumped to 70.8%.
The Buccaneers did manage to make it close again. After scoring a touchdown with six minutes left in the third quarter to make it 20-14 they got the ball back near midfield after a missed 57-yard field goal try by Robbie Gould. They achieved a first-and-goal at the nine and the win probability for San Francisco dipped all the way to 52.2%. However, that sequence would end in a failed fourth-down attempt from the two-yard line and the Niners' probability shot back up.
The Buccaneers also got it back to 55.9% in San Francisco's favor on the next drive when Ronald Jones ran 16 yards for a first down at the Niners' 11, with the home team still trailing by six. However, when that drive ended in a sack and a field goal, the 49ers' probability once again began a steady climb to the eventual 100% mark at the end of the game.
The pass interference penalty on Carlton Davis in the third quarter did not erase the Buccaneers' chances of winning the game on Sunday, not even close. But judged in retrospect, it was the moment in which San Francisco took over from Tampa Bay as the favorite and never gave it back.