The first thing to know is, it's not a seat-of-the-pants situation, or singularly a "gut" feel.
Mainly, there are percentages involved and for the most part, the New Orleans Saints believe those percentages are tilted in their favor.
And, for the vast majority of the time, they've been correct.
The Saints (14-3) compiled the best record in the NFL during the regular season partly because they had the (insert one or all) smarts, chutzpah, daring, vision to take advantage of fourth-down opportunities better than almost any team.
During the regular season, the Saints converted 13 of 16 fourth-down attempts – the second-best percentage (81.3) in the league, and the third-most conversions, but on just the 17th-most attempts.
Then, New Orleans dialed up a couple of fourth-down plays against Philadelphia in their NFC Divisional playoff game, on the same drive, and were successful on each in the 20-14 victory. The first was a 4-yard run by Taysom Hill off a fake punt on fourth-and-1 from their 30-yard line in the second quarter, and the second was a 2-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to Keith Kirkwood on fourth-and-goal, to pull the Saints to within 14-7.
As usual, New Orleans believed the percentage of success slanted in its favor. But, too, the confidence that it took to make the calls – all of them, all season long – has been nothing but a positive for the Saints, the top-seeded team in the conference entering Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the Rams (14-3) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
"Where you're at in the game, field position, how's the game going," Coach Sean Payton said. "There's a handful of things relative to a decision like that. Where you're at on the field and then, what type of game you feel like you're in. It can vary. We spend a lot of time with the numbers and yet, sometimes it's your gut as well."
In the season opener, a 48-40 loss to Tampa Bay, it wasn't so much gut as it was necessity. The Saints trailed Tampa Bay 48-24 in the fourth quarter, so going on fourth-and-4 from the Buccaneer 13-yard line simply made sense for a team that needed touchdowns more than field goals.
Against Atlanta on Sept. 23, a 43-37 overtime victory, it was understanding the way the game was being played, and knowing it was developing into a scoring fest. So, trailing 29-23 in the fourth quarter, Brees' touchdown pass on fourth-and-goal from the 1, giving the Saints a 30-29 lead, was critical.
Against Baltimore, it was understanding the preciousness of possessing the football – the Saints had five fourth-down attempts, and converted four. They had four attempts and three successful conversions – on fourth-and-1, fourth-and-1 and fourth-and-2 – on the game's opening drive to set the stage. That helped lead to a 24-23 victory, and a lopsided time of possession advantage (33:31 to 26:29).
Most Saints fourth-down attempts have been by the offense. When it has been left to the special teams, Hill, the backup quarterback who has played more roles than Samuel L. Jackson, has been the leader.
He has been involved in three successful conversions out of punt formation – a 10-yard pass to Justin Hardee on fourth-and-2 from the Saints' 33-yard line, in the second quarter against the Giants; a 4-yard run against Baltimore on fourth-and-1 from the Saints' 34-yard line in the first quarter; and the run against the Eagles on Sunday.
The only time Hill has been unsuccessful was as a quarterback – fourth-and-1 at the Ravens 4-yard line, he fumbled and Baltimore recovered. On the conversions, especially from punt formation, the adrenaline burst has been palpable.
"I think you look at every situation that we've done that," Hill said. "There was one in Baltimore where we didn't end up scoring on the drive, but the other ones we did. I think that momentum just transitions and everyone can feel it and be energized. You're stealing a possession and guys feel that and feed off of it, so now there's that newfound energy as we take the field again offensively. I think the results kind of speak for itself."
The results have helped shape the season, for a Saints team that hasn't been bashful about assuming the risk.
"That's why you practice, that's why you plan," Brees said. "Because you don't want to get caught in a situation and feel like you don't have an answer.
"Part of the reason you work so hard, and the reason everybody stays up so late during the week, is to make sure that we have the calls that we're confident with when it comes to those situations."