Christian McCaffrey needed one yard and he didn't get it, and that was the moment the tide turned for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday night.
No, not that stop of McCaffrey. Read on to find out what I mean.
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, sometimes it goes down to the last play. Whether it comes early or late, every game is going to have a turning, the moment when the eventual winner takes over as the favorite to win and never relinquishes its hold. It's just not always obvious at the time what that moment is.
That's what we're looking for in our Turning Point series this season. After each Buccaneers game 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.
Week One Turning Point: Third-and-One Stop of Christian McCaffrey at TB45, 12:32 of Q4
Outcome: Tampa Bay 20, Carolina 14
· Buccaneers kick a field goal (Matt Gay) at 5:36 of the first quarter for a 3-0 lead
· Panthers kick a field goal (Joey Slye) at 8:26 of Q2 to go up, 6-3
· Buccaneers score a touchdown (Chris Godwin reception) at 1:20 of Q2 to go up 10-6
· Panthers kick a field goal (Joey Slye) at 7:51 pf Q3 to go up 12-10
· Buccaneers score a touchdown (Peyton Barber run) at 4:20 of Q3 to go up 17-12
As I noted last week in the Bucs-49ers turning point analysis, the score that puts the winning team ahead for the last time is not necessarily going to be that moment. Last week, the turning point actually came shortly before that final lead change. In Charlotte on Thursday night, the Buccaneers' turning point came a full eight game minutes after the Bucs took their last lead on Peyton Barber's 16-yard, third-quarter touchdown.
The biggest play of the game was Vernon Hargreaves' fourth-and-one stop of Christian McCaffrey at the Buccaneers' two-yard line with 1:22 left in regulation. I'm not going to try to change anyone's mind on that. The game was very much in doubt at that moment, and had McCaffrey picked up the first down or even scored, the Buccaneers surely would have swung heavily to underdog status.
But the win probability chart still had the Buccaneers favored to win before McCaffrey took that last direct snap, faked a reverse and tried to get around the left end. Yes, their win probability essentially shot to 100% after the play, but it wasn't technically a reversal of fortune.
Rather, that was the work of defensive linemen Beau Allen and Will Gholston about 11 game minutes earlier. After Barber was trapped in the end zone for a safety to make it a three-point game with 13:21 left in the fourth quarter, the Bucs had to free-kick it back to Carolina, and the Panthers started their next drive at their own 46. The combination of the two-point safety and the great field position pushed the win probability percentage across the line in Carolina's favor. It was at 50.7% against the Bucs when McCaffrey ran over left guard for four yards to the Bucs' 45-yard line. That put Carolina into a third-and-one and Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner sent in a jumbo package with a sixth offensive lineman as an eligible player.
There was no subterfuge to the play. Cam Newton handed the ball to McCaffrey who tried to follow his big men over right guard for the necessary yard. Instead, Allen and Gholston stood strong and McCaffrey got nothing. Carolina chose to go for it on fourth-and-one but Newton was pressured into a quick throw and he missed Curtis Samuel downfield.
Bucs Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles was ready for Turner's third-and-one gambit.
"They went to a jumbo package, brought in an extra offensive lineman," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "Todd had a really good plan for that, got everybody lined up and guys executed the defense extremely well."
The Panthers didn't have the win probability edge for long. When Allen and Gholston teamed up for their big stop, the chart swung right back in the Bucs' favor, at 54.7%. There were still many tense moments ahead, and the game could have flipped one more time, or even multiple times. But in retrospect, this was the point at which the visiting became the favorites.
I cheated just a tiny bit on this one, as there was an extremely brief moment just a minute later when Carolina got just over 50%. But it wasn't really a turning point. The sack of Jameis Winston by Jermaine Carter and Mario Addison caused a small flip in the chart, but all it took to swing it back in the Bucs' favor was a four-yard pass to Godwin on the next play. Even another sack on third down and a punt didn't turn the Panthers back into favorites.
So, as we rightfully praise Hargreaves for his game-saving play this week, let's save a little applause for Beau Allen and Will Gholston, too. It may not have been obvious at the time but their third-down stop earlier in the same period was critical to the eventual outcome.