On Dec. 23, the 8-6 Dallas Cowboys trailed the New Orleans Saints 31-17 late in the fourth quarter. Dallas’ path to victory seemed obvious: score two quick touchdowns and kick two extra points, then win the game in overtime. The first half of the plan worked perfectly. The Cowboys scored a touchdown and added the PAT with 3:35 left, then got another TD and PAT with 15 seconds to go. In overtime, however, the Saints forced Tony Romo’s crew to punt, then drove for the winning field goal. That’s how it goes in the NFL—sometimes you do everything right and the luck doesn’t go your way.
Well, that’s likely how the Cowboys saw it. But in reality, Dallas fouled up the end game, succumbing to a fallacy that statisticians have recognized for going on five decades but NFL coaches have yet to comprehend. In a game they were desperate to win, the playoff-hungry Cowboys bowed to gridiron conventional wisdom and played for a tie. When his team scored that late touchdown to cut the lead to eight, head coach Jason Garrett should’ve made a call that seems radical only because nobody’s smart enough to do it. He should have gone for two.