Examining Frank Reich’s controversial decisions in Colts’ playoff loss to Bills

To be frank, not a great day to be Frank.

The Colts were handed a 27-24 playoff loss by the Bills on Saturday, and there was a lot baked into that score: Reviews, debates over 2-point conversions, challenges and points left on the field all grabbed headlines in the wild-card thriller.

Despite the score sticking how it did, some people were left wondering just what head coach Frank Reich was thinking throughout the afternoon. While the Colts barely came up short — the game was determined by their very last drive with just over two minutes left — there were a few different situations that unfolded that left their fans scratching their heads.

Indianapolis made it competitive at the end, but the loss had people pretty angry at Reich. Here is a breakdown of three of his debated decisions:

Didn’t kick the field goal before half

If you believe in “momentum,” then the Colts had a ton of it heading toward halftime.

With a 10-7 lead, the Colts opted to go for it on a fourth-and-goal from the 4-yard line, aiming for a touchdown rather than the easy points from inside the five. The fourth-down play failed, and the Bills then marched down the field 96 yards to take a 14-10 lead heading into halftime.

Reich’s supposed reasoning is sound: the reason you go for the touchdown in that situation is out of respect for the Bills’ offense, one of the best in football. Having to stay ahead of them is key, and the ensuing Bills’ drive was indicative of that offense — they went 96 yards in a minute-and-a-half for the score.

While it’s unfair to expect the game to fold out exactly the way it did had Indy actually kicked the field goal, those three points may have been the gap in the final score.

Questionable fourth-quarter challenge

The Colts had no timeouts left when they took over with just over two minutes remaining in the game, and one questionable and eventual failed challenge left Reich and Indy with just one timeout for the remainder of the game. 

Bills running back Zack Moss lost control of the football in the fourth quarter — and eventually had to be carted off — but Moss’ knee was clearly down before the ball popped loose on his rush attempt. As Moss was tended to, Reich threw his red flag, leading to a failed challenge and the Colts being docked a timeout.

On the final drive of the game, Indianapolis had an opportunity to score to put them ahead or tie. Unfortunately, they also couldn’t really work the middle of the field to put them in better position, given that they had no timeouts remaining; a near-direct result of Reich’s questionable challenge earlier in the frame. 

Quarterback Philip Rivers was instead left to work the sidelines, a strategy that, well, you may not want in the year 2021.

Two-point attempt in the fourth

Somewhat surprisingly, Reich’s decision to attempt a 2-point conversation in the fourth quarter while down 24-16 is easily the most defensible thing on the list.

The  analytics-savvy folks make it clear: Assuming that you have to, at minimum, score another touchdown while in that situation to keep pace with the Bills, going for two makes sense. Here’s why:

ESPN’s Seth Walder explains that the odds of failing two, 2-point conversions aren’t high. So it was actually the right call — if you go by the numbers.

So, the most defensible turns out to be the most controversial, but none of the decisions equalled a W for the Colts on Sunday.

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