An erratic but improving offensive line played a big part in Denver's championship win.
29 Oct 2013
by Scott Kacsmar
After one viewing of the Week 8 schedule, I expected we were going to be in for a pretty rough week as the standout game was Dallas at Detroit with not much else to offer.
Indeed, we had a season-low seven games with a comeback opportunity, including one decided by 24 points and two that did not qualify until the final 27 seconds. At least the week's best game on paper turned in one of the best finishes in recent memory.
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 10 (27-17)
Win Probability (GWD): 0.09
Head Coach: Jim Schwartz (13-26 at 4QC and 15-26 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Matthew Stafford (10-16 at 4QC and 12-16 overall 4QC/GWD record)
As we looked at before the season, when Matthew Stafford leads a game-winning drive, it's usually a very dramatic scene. Sunday may have been the best yet as he passed the legendary Bobby Layne for the most fourth-quarter comeback wins (10) and game-winning drives (12) in team history.
For three quarters, it did not appear we would get a fantastic finish from this offensive slop-fest. The Lions trailed 10-7 at halftime. Their lone touchdown was a rarity: it was just the third time since 1999 an offense (no special-teams fakes) converted on fourth-and-2 (or longer) inside the red zone in the first quarter of a tied game, according to Pro-Football-Reference. Teams almost always take the points (a field goal) in that situation. Keep this in mind as we discuss what happened later.
Calvin Johnson's monster day (caught 14-of-16 targets for 329 yards) did have one blemish as he lost a fumble in the third quarter, which was Detroit's fourth giveaway of the game. However, the Cowboys only turned those gifts into 10 points, taking a 13-7 lead into the fourth quarter as Dez Bryant started to let his teammates hear about it on the sideline.
A Stafford fade pass fell incomplete, setting up a fourth-and-goal from the two. After going for it in this situation earlier, Jim Schwartz took the conservative route and kicked the field goal with 13:13 to play. One could easily argue going for it again, but at the time, it was a low-scoring game.
Apparently Bryant's outburst sparked something as Tony Romo found rookie Terrance Williams on a quick slant for a 60-yard touchdown. Detroit answered quickly with its own 80-yard touchdown drive as Joique Bell scored from one yard out. Romo squeezed a pass to Bryant on the sideline through a Cover-2 defense, and Louis Delmas' blown diving tackle attempt let Bryant rumble all the way to the house. Stafford answered with a 54-yard lob that Johnson plucked from the air between multiple Cowboys, and Reggie Bush finished the drive with a one-yard touchdown run.
Dallas had 3:27 to burn in a 27-24 game, but Detroit had all three timeouts. After picking up one first down via penalty, Dallas ran the ball twice to set up a third-and-12. At the time I liked giving Romo a chance to convert with Detroit having two timeouts left. In hindsight, this needed to be a run or Romo needed to hit the ground instead of throwing the ball away to stop the clock. As the Saints showed in New England two weeks ago, stopping the clock is a killer in these situations. Teams only convert on a third-and-12 pass about 24 percent of the time.
Stafford had 2:24 left at his own 33. In another move reminiscent of the Patriots-Saints game, Stafford did Detroit a favor by failing on this drive as quickly as possible. Stafford was sacked, then threw a six-yard pass to Brandon Pettigrew, who could not squeeze a ball on third-and-12. On fourth down, Stafford's pass was nearly intercepted on a rebound as the Lions went four-and-out.
Dallas had 1:24 left at the Detroit 31 with the Lions still having two timeouts. Doing the math, a quick three-down stop would give Detroit the ball back with barely 20 seconds to play. Romo could take three knees and a Dallas punt would put the Lions in tough field position, down 27-24. Three knees and a long (nearly 50 yards) field-goal attempt to go up 30-24 would leave Detroit with 20 seconds to go 80 yards for the touchdown.
You can also run the ball too, which Dallas did three times. Normally this would win the game, but the Cowboys made a grave error when Tyron Smith was penalized for holding on the third-down run. Even with Detroit obviously declining, the clock stops. Ouch.
Dan Bailey made the 44-yard field goal, but Stafford was going to have 62 seconds left at his own 20 to aggressively drive for the win. If the Cowboys missed the field goal, the odds of this game going to overtime go way up as Detroit likely would have gotten conservative once they reached field-goal range. Instead, the Lions played four-down desperation football the whole way, just like New England two weeks ago.
Bush started the drive with a no-gain catch, but did get out of bounds. Stafford went to Johnson for 17 yards, putting him over 300 for the day. This was followed by a quick spike. Next came the play of the drive.
You need a big chunk play on a drive like this and Stafford delivered with a 40-yard pass to Kris Durham. Not only was it pinpoint down the left sideline, dropping over Orlando Scandrick before any safety could come over, but it led Durham out of bounds to stop the clock. At the Dallas 23 with 33 seconds to play, this win was now possible.
Johnson went right up the seam for a 22-yard gain to the 1-yard line as safety Jakar Hamilton, just called up from the practice squad, again came over too late. Johnson was actually tackled four times inside the 3-yard line in the game, which has become a familiar scene to his fantasy owners.
Stafford hurried the offense to the line, motioning as if he was going to spike the ball. Instead, he surprised everyone with a brilliant play: he jumped into the pile on a quarterback sneak, extending the ball out to break the plane for the game-winning touchdown with 12 seconds left. Eat your heart out, Bart Starr.
I love the quarterback sneak, but what makes it even harder to stop in these situations is that the quarterback can just reach out with no fear of a fumble as the play is dead as soon as he breaks the plane. There was some risk as a stuff would possibly end the game without Detroit having enough time to run another play, but this was as high percentage as any play you could run.
Dallas tried a lateral play, but that was stopped uneventfully at the Dallas 39. Detroit (5-3) gets the big 31-30 win and had a franchise-record 623 yards of offense. You could not crucify Romo this time, but the failures of the Dallas offense throughout the game are hard to ignore.
Still, what people will remember is the final drive as it was one of the great ones. It's just the 20th time in my database (since 1981) a team took over in the final 75 seconds, trailing by at least four points and went on a game-winning touchdown drive:
|Game-Winning Touchdown Drives in Last 75 Seconds, Down 4+ Points (Since 1981)|
|11/22/1981||BUF||Joe Ferguson||Roland Hooks||NE||17-13||W 20-17||0:35||0;05||73|
|9/19/1982||PHI||Ron Jaworski||Leroy Harris (RUN)||at CLE||21-17||W 24-21||0:52||0:22||65|
|12/26/1982||SLC||Neil Lomax||Roy Green||NYG||21-17||W 24-21||1:07||0:27||70|
|9/20/1987||SF||Joe Montana||Jerry Rice||at CIN||26-20||W 27-26||0:02||0:00||25|
|11/11/1990||SEA||Dave Krieg||Paul Skansi||at KC||16-10||W 17-16||0:48||0:00||66|
|11/3/1991||ATL||Billy Joe Tolliver||Michael Haynes||SF||14-10||W 17-14||0:53||0:01||80|
|9/6/1992||CHI||Jim Harbaugh||Tom Waddle||DET||24-20||W 27-24||1:05||0:01||74|
|9/20/1992||GB||Brett Favre||Kitrick Taylor||CIN||23-17||W 24-23||1:07||0:13||92|
|8/31/1997||CIN||Jeff Blake||Carl Pickens||ARI||21-16||W 24-21||1:10||0:38||63|
|9/8/1997||KC||Elvis Grbac||Andre Rison||at OAK||27-22||W 28-27||0:58||0:03||80|
|11/22/1998||SD||Craig Whelihan||Charlie Jones||KC||37-31||W 38-37||0:51||0:09||63|
|10/7/2001||ARI||Jake Plummer||MarTay Jenkins||at PHI||20-14||W 21-20||1:09||0:09||74|
|12/8/2002||CLE||Tim Couch||Quincy Morgan||at JAC||20-14||W 21-20||0:47||0:00||53|
|12/14/2008||SD||Philip Rivers||Vincent Jackson||at KC||21-16||W 22-21||1:11||0:36||61|
|10/3/2010||BAL||Joe Flacco||T.J. Houshmandzadeh||at PIT||14-10||W 17-14||1:08||0:32||40|
|11/21/2010||NYJ||Mark Sanchez||Santonio Holmes||HOU||27-23||W 30-27||0:49||0:10||72|
|9/24/2012||SEA||Russell Wilson||Golden Tate||GB||12-7||W 14-12||0:46||0:00||46|
|12/2/2012||IND||Andrew Luck||Donnie Avery||at DET||33-28||W 35-33||1:07||0:00||75|
|10/13/2013||NE||Tom Brady||Kenbrell Thompkins||NO||27-23||W 30-27||1:13||0:05||70|
|10/27/2013||DET||Matthew Stafford||Matthew Stafford (RUN)||DAL||30-24||W 31-30||1:02||0:12||80|
Note: Consider this more of a documented list than an inclusive one.
Twice in one month now? Not bad. Stafford's score was just the second rushing touchdown on the list as the rest were all passes. You may remember some of them well, including a few Hail Mary's. At 80 yards, this is tied for the second longest drive.
Stafford finished with 488 passing yards as Johnson had 329 receiving -- the second most in NFL history behind Flipper Anderson's 336-yard game in 1989. That game had its own great finish -- it actually would have ended in regulation if the Rams did not miss a 52-yard field goal. In overtime, Anderson added 40 yards, so had it not been for that missed field goal, Johnson would have the record right now.
For Stafford, this is the fourth time he has taken over in the final three minutes of a game and led his offense 80-plus yards for a game-winning touchdown. No other active quarterback has done it more than three times.
So his mechanics may forever bug the purists, but if you like drama, Stafford's a good watch. Of course it always helps when his freakish wide receiver has days like this.
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 7 (21-14)
Win Probability (GWD): 0.63
Head Coach: John Fox (31-43 at 4QC and 40-48 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Peyton Manning (40-45 at 4QC and 52-50 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Even in a game decided by 24 points, Peyton Manning engineered his record-tying 51st game-winning drive and became the first quarterback to lead 40 fourth-quarter comeback wins. While atypical for 34 minutes, this game's finish was quintessential 2012-13 Broncos: too many mistakes, but more great plays and a second-half surge.
The scoring bonanza took a few detours as these teams went into halftime in a 7-7 tie as Denver's offense was pinned inside its own 10 three times. When Manning lost a career-high fourth fumble on the season and threw a pick-six because Demaryius Thomas let DeAngelo Hall outmuscle him for the ball, the Redskins claimed a 21-7 lead.
Then the 38-0 run came.
One 75-yard march was backed by another for 83 yards, but Denver was stopped at the 1-yard line as the third quarter ended. Facing a fourth-and-goal, Denver made the obvious choice to go for it and Manning changed the formation to a bunch right, getting good pick action to free Joel Dreessen for the game-tying touchdown pass.
Washington went three-and-out in 27 seconds after three incompletions by Robert Griffin. A terrible 15-yard punt by veteran Sav Rocca gave Manning the ball at the Washington 35. It only took one play for a 35-yard running back screen to Knowshon Moreno to create the game-winning touchdown with 14:19 remaining.
On the ensuing drive, Von Miller registered his first sack of 2013 and forced Griffin to fumble the ball. The Denver defense put in arguably its finest performance of the season. The offense added a field goal for a 31-21 lead.
The rest of the game was a blur of Griffin sacks, big hits, and interceptions. When it was all over, Griffin was on the trainer's table as Kirk Cousins joined the parade with a pick-six to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, providing the final seven points of a 45-21 scoreline. The whacky fourth quarter featured six interceptions and one fumble, and made Peyton Manning the first player to ever have three games with four or more touchdowns and three or more interceptions.
Denver outscored Washington 31-0 in the fourth quarter -- the fourth time since 1940 a team produced a 31-0 fourth quarter. Though rare, this is the ninth time a team won by at least 24 points while still needing a fourth-quarter comeback and/or game-winning drive. The Broncos now have the largest margin of victory by a team trailing by more than four points entering the fourth quarter:
|Largest Margins of Victory with 4QC/GWD (Since 1940)|
|1T||Washington||Sammy Baugh||11/14/1948||Detroit||Down 21-19||W 46-21||25|
|1T||Baltimore||Johnny Unitas||12/16/1962||Minnesota||Down 17-14||W 42-17||25|
|1T||Green Bay||Bart Starr||11/21/1965||at Minnesota||Down 13-10||W 38-13||25|
|4T||LA Rams||Norm Van Brocklin||10/26/1952||Chicago||Down 7-3||W 31-7||24|
|4T||LA Chargers||Jack Kemp||12/4/1960||at Oakland||Down 17-14||W 41-17||24|
|4T||Buffalo||Joe Ferguson||11/26/1978||NY Giants||Down 17-14||W 41-17||24|
|4T||Tennessee||Vince Young||11/15/2009||Buffalo||Tied 17-17||W 41-17||24|
|4T||New England||Tom Brady||9/30/2012||at Buffalo||Tied 21-21||W 52-28||24|
|4T||Denver||Peyton Manning||10/27/2013||Washington||Down 21-14||W 45-21||24|
|10||Green Bay||Aaron Rodgers||9/14/2008||at Detroit||Down 25-24||W 48-25||23|
|11||Kansas City||Len Dawson||11/2/1969||at Buffalo||Down 7-6||W 29-7||22|
Denver's mastery of the second half is nothing new. Last season, the 2012 Broncos set a NFL record with 299 points after halftime. I have been charting their 2013 progress as they now have the most points after halftime through eight games of a season with 208 points.
|Most Points Scored in Second Half (2HPts) Thru X Games, Since 1940|
|8||Broncos||2013||208||Note: 1950 Rams played 12-game season|
Since 2003, the Oakland Raiders are 31-53 (.369) at home, but 3-0 against the Pittsburgh Steelers -- their best record against any team in that time. These trips from Pittsburgh to Oakland's black hole of losing might as well be a trip to The Twilight Zone for the Steelers, who have capped off disappointing seasons with mind-numbing losses out west.
The first play from scrimmage set the tone as Terrelle Pryor, on a simple zone-read option, kept the ball for a 93-yard touchdown run -- the longest run in NFL history by a quarterback.
Afterwards, it was less about what Oakland did offensively, which wasn't much, and more about the plethora of mistakes the 2013 Steelers continue to make in all phases of the game. One area that appeared solid was kicking, but one week after I praised Shaun Suisham for the first time in my life, he missed a 34-yard field goal before halftime and a 32-yard field goal in the third quarter -- the latter meant a drive consuming 9:11 of clock came up empty.
As Pittsburgh's kicker, Suisham was 43-of-46 (93.5 percent) on field goals under 40 yards coming into the game.
The misses would actually matter as Ben Roethlisberger once again tried to lead a rally from a 21-3 deficit in the fourth quarter. He threw a poor interception on a deep ball to Emmanuel Sanders, but got the ball back in great field position after a turnover and extended a play under pressure for a touchdown to Sanders.
The Raiders went three-and-out, but so did the Steelers after Antonio Brown dropped a would-be 25-yard gain on third-and-15. He made up for it with a 44-yard punt return, but three plays later Brown again sabotaged the comeback by deflecting an interception into the waiting arms of Tracy Porter.
Pittsburgh remained alive with 4:22 left after another three-and-out from Oakland. Starting at his own 17, Roethlisberger moved the offense down the field well, but there could have been more urgency in a 21-10 game. The killer moment of this drive came when Roethlisberger used a timeout with 1:43 to go at the Oakland 12. At that point, you are better off taking the five-yard penalty as every timeout is precious.
Le'Veon Bell eventually scored on a two-yard touchdown run and Sanders showed great effort on a two-point conversion scramble after getting the ball on a trick play. It was 21-18, but after Oakland recovered the onside kick, that lost timeout loomed large. Pittsburgh stopped Darren McFadden on three consecutive runs, but the Steelers' final attempt started on their own 3 with 18 seconds left to get into field-goal range or complete a Hail Mary.
It's one of two comeback attempts this week that featured a 0.01 Win Probability. Roethlisberger's meaningless 33-yard completion to Sanders ended the game and probably ended another Pittsburgh season.
Kansas City's games are starting to follow a predictable pattern: slow starts where the offense settles for field goals, the opponent stays within one score in the fourth quarter, but the defense shuts the door, typically with a sack.
Expectations were low with the Cleveland Browns starting their 20th different quarterback since 1999, Jason Campbell, but it's not like he can be much worse than Brandon Weeden. Campbell actually finished with very respectable numbers against the No. 1 pass defense: 22-of-36 for 293 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and one sack. He did have nine failed completions.
The Browns trailed 13-0 early as Alex Smith threw his first touchdown since Week 4, but at one point Campbell led the Browns to 17 points on three drives. Smith felt the pressure this week with Cleveland registering six sacks on the day, including two on one drive in the fourth quarter with the Chiefs leading 20-17.
With 11:43 left, Campbell went deep for Jordan Cameron and the big tight end came down with the 37-yard reception. Willis McGahee's nine-yard run was called back for a huge holding penalty on Joe Thomas. There may have only been one Kansas City sack this week, but it was crucial as Justin Houston forced the Browns into a second-and-29 situation. One failed draw and one failed screen later, and Cleveland was punting again.
The Chiefs went three-and-out, but Davone Bess continued his rough day catching footballs by muffing the punt return. The Chiefs failed to score as Smith again went down on a sack, but it used up more clock and the Browns were out of timeouts.
Campbell, 7-26 (.212) at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities, had 3:55 left at his own 16. He converted a third-and-9 with an 11-yard pass to Cameron to prevent another three-and-out. Two plays later Thomas committed his second holding penalty of the quarter as he grabbed Tamba Hali, forcing Campbell to scramble for a negated 13 yards. Hali was offsides on the next play, negating another Campbell sack. On second-and-15, Campbell scrambled for eight yards as pressure was coming on every play now.
Campbell was too low for Bess on third down, bringing up a fourth-and-7 at the Cleveland 31 with 2:12 left. Campbell scrambled to his right before throwing back over the middle to a sliding Bess, who dropped the difficult pass. That's a must-have catch that did not require a super-human effort to make with the game on the line.
The Chiefs ran Jamaal Charles three times and kicked a field goal. Campbell had 17 seconds left and 80 yards to go. Josh Gordon made a nine-yard grab, but the offense could not get another play off in time. For the fourth straight week, the Chiefs thwarted a fourth-quarter comeback attempt.
It is my duty to cover every comeback attempt, but this game was a farce and only a fluke allowed for Matt Barkley, subbing for the once-again injured Michael Vick, to have the faintest of chances in the final minute. The Giants built a 12-0 lead on four field goals as Eli Manning threw third-down incompletions, but not any interceptions. That lead extended to 15-0 in the fourth quarter where it looked like it would hold, but a bad snap on a punt sailed over Steve Weatherford's head and his feeble attempt to recover led to a touchdown for the Eagles with 4:11 left.
The Giants recovered an onside kick and burned clock by producing one first down. By the time the Eagles got the ball back, Barkley had 27 seconds left at his own 16 in a 15-7 game (Win Probability: 0.01). It only took two plays before Barkley's game-ending interception -- the rookie's fifth turnover in just 10 drives. That makes 10 straight losses at home for the Eagles and just three offensive points in the last eight quarters at home.
The offensive revolution will be put on hold as apparently it's not as fun to count how many plays a team runs when it can barely complete a forward pass.
Seemingly every season a team with few expectations has a winning September before quickly fading into obscurity as their flaws become too difficult to conceal. The Arizona Cardinals were that team last year. In 2013 it looks like the Miami Dolphins, once 3-0, have assumed the role, dropping a fourth straight game.
Things started well with a balanced Miami attack producing a 17-3 halftime lead and the defense held Tom Brady and his swollen hand to 25 passing yards. Driving into the red zone with a chance to bury the Patriots, a third-down sack pushed a potential Caleb Sturgis' kick to 46 yards. It hit the right upright, giving the Patriots new life and sending the Dolphins into a downward spiral. They were held scoreless on all seven second-half possessions.
The New England offense immediately answered with a 64-yard touchdown drive, forced a sack-strip off Ryan Tannehill and scored another touchdown to tie the game less than four minutes after the missed field goal. Stephen Gostkowski put the Patriots ahead for good with a 48-yard field goal with eight seconds left in the third quarter, so semantics (and a timeout) took away the game-winning drive from Brady's growing collection.
The Dolphins were bit by a series of unfortunate events in the fourth quarter. Tannehill drove to the New England 46, but his inaccurate pass was intercepted by Marquice Cole after being set up on a volleyball-like tip by Devin McCourty.
Brady was sacked from behind and fumbled the ball. New England recovered, but it would have set up a third-and-29 situation out of scoring range. Olivier Vernon was penalized 10 yards for an illegal bat of the ball, favorably giving the Patriots a first down at the Miami 13. That's a 32-yard difference in field position.
Four plays later Stevan Ridley plowed in for the touchdown and the Patriots led 27-17. It was very similar to a 2011 loss Miami suffered in New England after leading 17-0 at halftime. This time, though, the Dolphins failed to score again after Sturgis' 39-yard field goal was blocked with 2:42 left and Tannehill threw a desperation interception on fourth-and-24 with 45 seconds on the clock.
Despite Brady passing for 116 yards and the offense again having a miserable third-down performance (2-of-10), the Patriots survived another scare and have distanced themselves in the AFC East at 6-2.
The Rams surprisingly gave Seattle all it could handle in a game that was largely forgettable minus the final drive. Russell Wilson was sacked seven times and the offense's only real contribution was an 80-yard touchdown pass to Golden Tate, producing a 14-6 lead late in the third quarter.
On the ensuing drive a sequence followed that summed up the quality of this one:
This drive crept into the fourth quarter and St. Louis settled for a field goal after Clemens was sacked on third down. Seattle went three-and-out after a third-down drop by Jermaine Kearse. The Rams lined up for a 50-yard field-goal attempt, but Greg Zuerlein was wide right with 8:28 left. Chris Long ended Seattle's final drive with his third sack of the night.
Clemens had 5:42 left to drive 97 yards for the win. Blasphemy, you say? It almost happened thanks to a strong running game that produced 35 carries for 189 yards on the night. Clemens did complete his first three passes on the drive for 47 yards as the Rams wisely took their time.
A run by Daryl Richardson set up a first-and-goal at the six as the clock ticked under a minute. Clemens threw incomplete to Austin Pettis. Richardson ran for four yards and Jeff Fisher used his first timeout. Clemens threw incomplete, but the Seahawks were offsides, putting the ball at the one-yard line. With two timeouts, I am running the ball here. The Rams have zero rushing touchdowns in 2013, but let's remember the quarterback was Kellen Clemens (15-of-31 for 158 yards and two interceptions on the night).
Richardson was stuffed for no gain. I would have called timeout immediately as any penalty likely would result in a first down and multiple plays. Instead, Fisher let the clock go down to four seconds, putting the game on one last fourth-down play. A defensive penalty would reward an untimed down, but there was enough time to get multiple plays should there be a fourth-down penalty. It's not like this putrid Seattle offense was going to do anything with 10 or 15 seconds left.
What do you call on the last play? The Seahawks brought pressure and Clemens threw a fade that was nowhere close to the target (Brian Quick). Game over.
That's disheartening to allow a bad offense to drive 96 yards, but at least it wasn't 97. Seattle's a NFC-best 7-1 with only three road games remaining.
Fourth-quarter comebacks: 31
Game-winning drives: 39
Games with 4QC opportunity: 74/120 (61.7 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 17
18 comments, Last at 31 Oct 2013, 10:17am by JoeyHarringtonsPiano