Trailing by 11 points late in the fourth quarter, Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule did something unusual. He kicked a field goal... on first down.
Here's the situation: Down 24-13, Carolina faced third-and-1 at its own 45-yard line. Teddy Bridgewater fired a slant to wide receiver D.J. Moore, who was hit by three Packers at once just beyond the 50. But Moore bounced right off all three players and scooted downfield for what eventually became a 40-yard gain -- the Panthers' longest play of the night.
He went out of bounds at the Green Bay 15 with 2:08 on the clock.
That's when Rhule decided to send kicker Joey Slye onto the field for a 33-yard kick. Slye knocked the ball through the uprights with 2:04 remaining, cutting the Green Bay lead to 24-16.
Slye booted the ensuing kickoff through the end zone. The Packers ran one play before the two-minute warning and gained seven yards. They ran Aaron Jones into the line for a one-yard loss on second down, after which the Panthers used their final timeout. Brian Burns then screamed around the edge for a sack on third down, and the Panthers got the ball back with 55 seconds on the clock, needing to go 80 yards for a game-tying score (and two-point conversion).
Carolina's final drive ultimately went nowhere, but Rhule's gambit was an interesting one nonetheless.
So, why did the Panthers play it that way, and were they right to do so, regardless of whether the gambit actually "worked?"
Let's first note that the Panthers only had one timeout remaining. With just over 2 minutes left in the game, they probably only had time to run one play -- maybe two -- before kicking if they wanted to preserve the "extra" timeout the two-minute warning afforded them. (It's worth noting that given the way they played it, they ended up getting exactly what they wanted.) Any experienced Madden player will tell you that field-goal-before-touchdown is typically the way to go in these late-game situations, but there's usually less time left on the clock when pursuing that strategy. Going for the kick before the two-minute warning might be pushing it.
Taking a shot or two at the end zone obviously had merit, too, especially because the Panthers made very few forays into the red area all evening. If you get that close, why not try for six and make the game as close as possible? There's also the reality that if you miss the two-point conversion, you're going to need an extra score, and you'd rather know that as early as possible.
But there was also no guarantee the Panthers would have made it into the end zone at all if they tried for the touchdown instead of kicking away; and if they didn't, they might not have had enough time on the clock to get the ball back after a kickoff. At least, not if they kicked deep, as they ended up doing in the actual game.
There was also the option to try an onside kick, though, either after the field goal or after trying for a touchdown and either succeeding or kicking a field goal with less time on the clock. That's another chance to get the ball for a second time in an attempt to tie or win the game.
Additionally, if the Panthers tried to get in the end zone and actually succeeded, they may have only needed a field goal on their final drive rather than a touchdown, depending on what happened with the two-point conversion. If they got there on their first try, they may have even still had the two-minute warning left to stop the clock. If not, they may have had less time on the clock, but perhaps that would have motivated them to try an onside kick, which could have resulted in better field position for their final drive than they actually ended up with.
All of this is to say, it was an extremely complicated decision, with a whole lot of competing factors. The Panthers played it the way they wanted and got the right sequence of events, but didn't end up being able to put together a game-tying drive in the end. Would things have worked out differently if they tried to get the touchdown first? We'll never know, obviously. But there was a pretty valid reason to play it the way they did, even if it only partially worked.