Chase, from the comments:
I agree that blitzing is not necessarily a good underdog strategy, because limiting possessions seems to be the biggest underdog key. People talk about controlling the clock, but that doesn’t make any sense in a vacuum. When Miami held the ball for over three times as long as the Colts in that Monday Night game last year, people talked about how brilliant it was to keep Manning off the field for 45 minutes.
But the Colts and Dolphins had the same number of possessions in the game, so who cares? The point isn’t to hold the clock, the point is to minimize variance. That’s the real advantage of controlling TOP, but giving up a ton of big plays on defense and having a methodical offense won’t help you win games no matter how great your TOP is.
So what can an underdog do?
(1) There is one real way to win the all-important possessions battle: control the ball at the end of each half. Combined with other possessions-minimizing techniques, you could end up with 9 possessions to your opponent’s 8 possessions, which is a legitimately valuable edge. If you get the ball with 8 minutes left, it probably makes sense to start thinking about a 2-for-1 with possessions. If you get it with 5 minutes left, figure out if you should go 2-for-1 or if you can drain all 5 minutes. With 3 minutes left, you have to ensure that you have the ball last. Do that in both halves, and you’ve stolen a possession (ideally, scoring a TD with as close to triple zeroes as possible).
(2) Going for it on 4th down is another obvious underdog strategy. In addition to it being a legitimate favorite strategy — going for it on 4th down is the correct play far more often than conventional wisdom dictates, and the correct player is almost always a good favorite strategy — it helps increase variance.
(3) Kicking field goals is almost certainly a loser. Going for it on 4th and G from your opponent’s 10 may not sound like a great idea, but even if you only gain 5 yards, odds are you will prevent the other team from scoring. The more times you can force your opponent to start drives inside their own 10, the better, because research shows that teams are overly conservative in that area. Only in blatantly obvious FG situations should an underdog kick — punting and trying to pin inside the 5 is also a good strategy.
(4) On defense, I think bend but don’t break is the correct strategy. If you can force the opponent to chew up clock and kick a FG, that’s a big win. Chewing up clock conquers all, I think. Once again, the goal should be 9 possessions to 8. Although obviously TOs would be very nice.
(5) On offense, chewing up clock is good but scoring touchdowns is better. I think whatever play is TD-maximizing, whether it’s going for it on 4th down, being run heavy, being pass heavy, being trick-play heavy, whatever, is the goal. A flea-flicker that goes for a 60-yard TD might turn it into a 10-to-9 possessions game, but who cares if you score a TD on that possession?
(6) On offense, I think a modified no-huddle offense following plays where the clock is running is the key. Following a run or completion that lands in bounds (or out of bounds before the clock stops in the final 5 mins), the offense should immediately run up to the LOS to prevent the defense from substituting. Then, they should simply milk the clock for the full 40 seconds (with some variance so defenders can’t time the snap) by doing whatever. Actually calling the play, wasting time, twiddling their thumbs, it doesn’t matter. But preventing defensive substitutions would seem to be a strong underdog strategy.
(7) Special teams would be the overlooked key here. Winning the field position battle, the hidden yardage in football, is an easy way to level the playing field.
My only question: Is it more important for an underdog to limit the overall number of possessions or the relative number of possessions (or both?). This analysis seems to indicate that there are too few onside kicks. For more, see also here and here and here.
But, see this surprising result:
… The team receiving the ball [at the beginning of the first half] consistently lost the half (except in 2008)…. The receiving team will have as many possessions if not one more than the kicking team [during that half]. Yet the data clearly show that the kicking team has won more game halves than the receiving team….
I next ran the data to see how teams receiving the ball at the start of the second half succeeded. The data show the game results of the team receiving the ball in the second half. Again, the team kicking to open the second half won more games than the receiving team.