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» Seventh Day Adventure: Week 13

The biggest game this week is the Iron Bowl, where the playoff hopes of Alabama, Auburn, and Georgia hang in the balance.

23 Dec 2014

Clutch Encounters: Week 16

by Scott Kacsmar

Unlike Week 15's heavy dose of failure, seven teams in Week 16 scored game-winning points in the fourth quarter or overtime, tying a season high. Plenty of history was made this week, but San Diego's comeback win in San Francisco stands out. That game gives 2014 a total of five comeback wins from a deficit of at least 21 points. That's a new record, beating out 1999, 2011, and 2013, all of which had four such comebacks.

Game of the Week

Denver Broncos 28 at Cincinnati Bengals 37

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 1 (28-27)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD starting with 3:30 left): 0.74
Head Coach: Marvin Lewis (25-57-1 at 4QC and 36-57-2 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Andy Dalton (8-15-1 at 4QC and 13-15-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Maybe we can put the Bengals' prime-time blues meme to rest for at least 24 hours after Monday night's big win to clinch a playoff spot. The last team with a winning record that lost to Marvin Lewis in prime time was the 2006 Ravens. If you include the playoffs, the Bengals had lost 13 straight games on a national stage against winning opponents. When Andy Dalton missed high to A.J. Green for a pick-six not even five minutes into the game, this looked like the start of another disaster.

However, Jeremy Hill's 85-yard touchdown run let the Bengals exhale and exposed a weakness in Denver's vaunted run defense, which was missing its usual starting interior linebackers. Cincinnati finished with 207 rushing yards, the second most allowed by a Jack Del Rio defense since 2012. Dalton was certainly nothing special on a night filled with screens and nine failed completions, but he did enough to not lose the game.

Denver's new-look offense was facing its first test on the road against an opponent it had not already faced. The results were quite bad. From the first snap the Bengals showed their usually unimpressive pass rush was going to be a problem for Denver's offensive line, which failed to establish the run in a sluggish first half. Once the Broncos shifted back to their usual pass-heavy offense, Peyton Manning had a four-drive stretch that resulted in a missed field goal and three touchdowns to take a 28-27 lead into the fourth quarter.

It was another game where Twitter went from thinking Manning should retire at halftime to acknowledging another dominant performance. Then the fourth quarter started and Denver looked sluggish again with a one-point lead. Adam Jones ran Demaryius Thomas' route for him and intercepted a bad Manning pass. Reggie Nelson was penalized for taunting, placing the ball at the Denver 38. The Bengals had fantastic field position on the night, starting five drives inside Denver's 45. This one did not result in any points after a quick three-and-out.

Special teams were another brutal area for Denver. Brandon Tate returned a punt 49 yards to the Denver 12. Cincinnati again failed to gain a first down, but was able to kick a field goal on what actually became the game-winning drive. Yes, this might be the weakest game-winning drive of the 2014 season, but it is what it is.

Denver had a chance to change the outcome, but a big officiating blunder came on a crucial third-and-6. Manning hit Thomas for a 27-yard gain, but a rare facemask penalty was called on Thomas at the beginning of the play. You almost never see this get called on the receiver. To make matters worse, there was no flag for Thomas getting held on the route. At worst that should have been offsetting penalties, but instead Denver faced a third-and-18, and Manning was sacked.

The Bengals picked up a first down thanks to a soft roughing the passer call, but had to punt with 4:04 left. In a two-point game, you would have expected Manning to use the clock and methodically drive the field for a go-ahead field goal. On third-and-1, whether the Broncos are a passing team or even a fake running team, you would have liked to see a running play. Manning instead threw from the shotgun and made a terrible decision and a poor throw off his back foot for an easy pick-six to Dre Kirkpatrick. To make the whole play a disaster, Thomas did not run a good route, but that ball probably should have never been passed in the first place. Denver should have let Anderson get the carry on a draw, and game on.

Denver still had three timeouts with 2:41 left, but a 37-28 score is hard to overcome in that situation. Anderson broke a 27-yard run on third-and-4 and Denver used its first timeout. Again, where was that call earlier on third-and-1? With 1:14 left, Manning forced another pass to Thomas that was intercepted by Kirkpatrick's diving effort to effectively end the game. Manning threw four interceptions for the sixth time in his career, tying Tom Brady and Eli Manning for the most such games among active players.

The 2014 Broncos will go down as the worst offense on the road in terms of DVOA in Manning's career, but that's probably a moot point the next two games when they are playing Oakland and likely a home playoff game. The question is, can this offense succeed in New England in the AFC Championship Game? Nothing we have seen this season suggests they can. Then again, small-sample history did not like the Bengals' chances in this one, but Cincinnati outclassed the Broncos under the bright lights in every phase of the game.

You just never know.

Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind

San Diego Chargers 38 at San Francisco 49ers 35

Type: 4QC/GWD (OT)
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 14 (35-21)
Win Probability (4QC starting with 3:30 left): 0.19
Win Probability (GWD starting with 14:06 left in overtime): 0.63
Head Coach: Mike McCoy (7-8 at 4QC and 7-9 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Philip Rivers (20-42 at 4QC and 23-45 overall 4QC/GWD record)

From bolo to YOLO, Philip Rivers endured a bulging disk in his back to join the club of 25 quarterbacks with 20 fourth-quarter comeback wins in one of his best yet on Saturday night in San Francisco. Rivers persevered through a woeful start to throw four touchdown passes in overcoming a 21-point deficit.

This was a signature game for the 2014 49ers. Over the 60-plus-minute contest, they showed everything they could have been this year, and also every flaw they have picked up along the way. For the seventh time in team history the 49ers blew at least a 17-point lead at home. That's the second time this season after Chicago got them in Week 3.

San Francisco rushed for 355 yards, the most by a losing team since 1940. San Francisco rushed for 257 more yards than San Diego, the third-largest margin for a losing team since 1940. We just had stats like this in Week 13 when the Jets blew a home game to Miami after a huge rushing performance. However, the Jets only scored 13 points. San Francisco dropped 35 and still lost. Before Week 13, home teams were 187-2 since 1950 when outrushing the opponent by at least 200 yards. That record now sits at 187-4. And you wonder why Jim Harbaugh and Rex Ryan will be looking for new jobs this offseason.

Colin Kaepernick was frustrating to watch as a passer, but dynamic as a runner with 151 rushing yards, including a 90-yard touchdown that put the 49ers ahead 35-21 through three quarters. San Diego eventually answered with Antonio Gates breaking wide-open for a 21-yard touchdown with 5:15 left. As we have watched several times this year, the 49ers did not let Kaepernick throw to protect the lead. He was relegated to his usual quarterback sweep to the left on third down, but the Chargers snuffed that out for a loss of a yard. Kaepernick even ran out of bounds to stop the clock, though I did not think that was a huge deal with 3:38 left and the Chargers having all three timeouts. If anything, he saved himself 40 seconds to answer any game-tying drive from Rivers.

Rivers needed to drive 80 yards. I thought he got away with intentional grounding on the second play of the drive, but CBS' Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts never even mentioned it. The 49ers had several chances to end the game. Rivers tried to scramble on a third-and-2, but was sacked and fumbled the ball. The Chargers were fortunate to recover. On fourth-and-8, Eddie Royal made an excellent diving catch for 17 yards. On fourth-and-10, Dontrelle Inman (who?) came through with a 17-yard gain. Rivers took a sack and used his final timeout, but answered back with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Malcom Floyd to tie the game at 35.

The ensuing kickoff left Kaepernick with 26 seconds at his own 28, and he gave the one-minute drill a decent shot. Phil Dawson was short on a 60-yard field goal as time expired in regulation. In overtime, the 49ers won the coin toss and elected to receive. That was probably the right call with the way Rivers heated up in the half, but you still have to take advantage of being aggressive when going first on offense.

On the second play of overtime, Quinton Patton took an end around for 20 yards, but Eric Weddle made a great tackle to force a fumble. Fumble luck was on San Diego's side again and the Chargers were in business at their own 38. Rivers hit two short passes for 18 yards and Ronnie Brown finished things off on the ground. For some reason Mike McCoy let the play clock go down before taking a timeout to try a 40-yard field goal on second down. Nick Novak is a fine kicker, but I would have ran another play or two just to be safe. Novak made the field goal and the comeback (or collapse if you are reading this from the other perspective) was complete.

Rivers is the 15th-fastest quarterback to 20 fourth-quarter comeback wins.

Fewest Games to 20 Fourth-Quarter Comeback Wins
Rk Quarterback Games to 20th 4QC Age Date
1 Johnny Unitas 98 30-194 11/17/1963
2 Matt Ryan 109 29-183 11/16/2014
3 Ben Roethlisberger 115 29-207 9/25/2011
4 Tom Brady 126 30-148 12/29/2007
5 Eli Manning 131 31-019 1/22/2012
6 Randall Cunningham 136 34-275 12/27/1997
7 Tony Romo 140 33-245 12/22/2013
8 Peyton Manning 141 30-191 10/1/2006
9 Jake Plummer 142 31-328 11/12/2006
10 John Elway 144 31-190 1/4/1992
11 Dan Marino 146 31-012 9/27/1992
12 Y.A. Tittle 147 36-011 11/4/1962
13 Drew Bledsoe 152 31-233 10/5/2003
14 Joe Montana 154 33-098 9/17/1989
15 Philip Rivers 156 33-012 12/20/2014
16 Warren Moon 159 37-353 11/6/1994
17 Fran Tarkenton 160 32-269 10/29/1972
18 Jim Kelly 164 36-200 9/1/1996
19 Drew Brees 168 33-266 10/7/2012
20 Dan Fouts 169 34-153 11/10/1985
21 Kerry Collins 173 35-280 10/5/2008
22 Joe Ferguson 178 36-207 11/16/1986
23 Dave Krieg 179 36-045 12/4/1994
24 Vinny Testaverde 182 37-335 10/14/2001
25 Brett Favre 222 35-042 11/21/2004

Minnesota Vikings 35 at Miami Dolphins 37

Type: 4QC and game-winning safety
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 7 (35-28)
Win Probability (4QC starting with 4:35 left): 0.15
Head Coach: Joe Philbin (7-16 at 4QC and 7-16 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Ryan Tannehill (7-16 at 4QC and 7-16 overall 4QC/GWD record)

For the second year in a row, the Vikings were part of one of the most unexpected fourth-quarter scoring explosions in NFL history, with a combined 41 points scored on Sunday in the final 15 minutes. Last year the Vikings and Ravens combined for 36 points in the final 125 seconds. Minnesota also finished on the losing side of both games, because for the second year in a row the Dolphins followed a game-tying drive with a rare game-winning safety. This is actually the latest in regulation (41 seconds) that a team ever had a game-winning safety.

NFL's Game-Winning Safeties in the Fourth Quarter/Overtime
Team Date Opp Result Score Safety Play Win Type
SD 11/15/1970 @BOS W 16-14 Tied 14-14 Joe Kapp sacked in end zone by Joe Owens NON-OFF
MIN 10/12/1975 NYJ W 29-21 Down 21-20 Greg Gantt punt blocked OOB by Joe Blahak w/7:14 left NON-OFF
DAL 9/25/1983 NO W 21-20 Down 20-19 Ken Stabler sacked in end zone by Anthony Dickerson w/1:58 left 4QC + NON-OFF
NO 9/13/1987 CLE W 28-21 Tied 21-21 Bernie Kosar sacked in end zone by Bruce Clark w/9:45 left NON-OFF
MIN 11/5/1989 LARM W 23-21 OT Tied 21-21 Dale Hatcher punt blocked OOB by Mike Merriweather w/12:46 left 4QC + NON-OFF
BUF 10/5/1997 DET W 22-13 Tied 13-13 Barry Sanders tackled in end zone (B.Smith, P.Hansen) w/2:12 left NON-OFF
ARI 10/24/2004 SEA W 25-17 Down 17-16 Donnie Jones punt blocked OOB by Gerald Hayes w/8:50 left NON-OFF
CHI 11/14/2004 @TEN W 19-17 OT Tied 17-17 Billy Volek sack-fum.; Adewale Ogunleye makes EZ tkl w/11:43 left 4QC + NON-OFF
NE 9/10/2006 BUF W 19-17 Tied 17-17 J.P. Losman sacked in end zone by Ty Warren w/8:33 left 4QC + NON-OFF
MIA 10/31/2013 CIN W 22-20 OT Tied 20-20 Andy Dalton sacked in end zone by Cameron Wake w/6:38 left (OT) 4QC + NON-OFF
MIA 12/21/2014 MIN W 37-35 Tied 35-35 Jeff Locke punt blocked OOB by Terrence Fede w/0:41 left 4QC + NON-OFF

The first play of the fourth quarter was a 1-yard touchdown run by Lamar Miller to put Miami ahead 21-17, paving the way for a great finish. Ryan Tannehill later rifled a touchdown to Mike Wallace with 6:39 left. I thought that was another situation where a team could have gone for a two-point conversion to try extending the lead to nine points, but the Dolphins did what every team has always done and kicked the extra point for an eight-point lead. Teddy Bridgewater led a good touchdown drive, and Matt Asiata tied the game with a two-point conversion run. On the kick return, Jarvis Landry slipped and fumbled on his own as an unforced error. That was disastrous as the Vikings recovered at the Miami 5 and only needed one Asiata run to take a 35-28 lead.

Tannehill still had 4:35 to answer on what was one of the best days of his career with 396 passing yards and four touchdown passes. He dropped back on every play of the drive, but had to convert a tough third-and-14 in the red zone. Tannehill lofted a pass to Wallace in the end zone and drew the pass interference flag on Xavier Rhodes. I really didn't like that call. The players did their "patty cake" thing where they contact each other simultaneously and Rhodes was looking back for the ball, which landed out of bounds. That should not draw a flag for anything. Maybe the worst part is that the flag was for contact at the 3-yard line and not in the end zone, so they basically penalized the cornerback when both players were grabbing.

On the next play Tannehill fired another pass over the middle to running back Damien Williams, who did just enough to break the plane for the touchdown. On the ensuing kickoff, Cordarrelle Patterson put the Vikings in a bit of a hole with a return out of the end zone to just the 13. That also wasted six seconds he could have saved by simply taking a touchback. Sure, Patterson is an explosive player, but time and field position were big here.

Minnesota had all three timeouts left. Bridgewater scrambled for 2 yards and used his first timeout. Pressure forced a high pass from Bridgewater on second down. With Miami having one timeout left, the Vikings were almost compelled to try converting on third-and-8 instead of just running to milk most of the clock and punting for overtime. Cameron Wake sacked Bridgewater after abusing right tackle Mike Harris. Miami called timeout, and Jeff Locke had to punt out of his end zone. The low snap did him no favors, and Terrence Fede came in for the block. The ball was knocked out of the end zone for a safety and Miami led 37-35. Blair Walsh then had a decent bounce on the rare "onside free kick" but the ball went out of bounds. Tannehill was able to take three knees to end the game.

The Dolphins actually join the Vikings as the only franchises with multiple game-winning safeties in the fourth quarter or overtime. Out of the six fourth-quarter comebacks that were followed by a game-winning safety, Tannehill has led two of them. This is only the fourth time the safety came via a blocked punt.

Detroit Lions 20 at Chicago Bears 14

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 4 (14-10)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD starting with 8:20 left): 0.29
Head Coach: Jim Caldwell (13-17 at 4QC and 15-17 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Matthew Stafford (15-25 at 4QC and 17-25 overall 4QC/GWD record)

The Lions clinched a playoff spot on Saturday after Philadelphia's loss, but the potential for a higher seed was still on the table Sunday in Chicago against a team that willingly benched Jay Cutler for Jimmy Clausen. To everyone's surprise, Clausen (two touchdown passes) outplayed Stafford (two red-zone interceptions) through three quarters as Chicago led 14-10. Detroit's kicking woes crept up again, after Matt Prater's 37-yard attempt was blocked with 11:02 left.

Stafford's struggles continued on the next drive, but on third-and-10, Corey Fuller ran right by Tim Jennings, who interfered with the receiver for a bad 46-yard penalty. Joique Bell then showed off an impressive array of moves on a 17-yard touchdown run. Detroit led 17-14 with 7:15 left.

Ndamukong Suh buried Clausen on third-and-8 for a quick three-and-out. Detroit had 5:34 to kill and rode Bell into the red zone. A false start and incompletion to Reggie Bush helped the Bears hold the Lions to a field goal.

Chicago trailed 20-14 and had 2:30 left to drive 79 yards for its first win over a team with a winning record since knocking out Aaron Rodgers in Week 9 last season. Clausen was doing his job to start the drive, but Alshon Jeffery dropped two passes. The first should have been a catch, but Darius Slay at least knocked the ball away. The second drop was inexcusable on third-and-10 on what would have been a first down. On fourth-and-10, Clausen was haunted by the Ghost of Jay Cutler's Past. He forced a deep ball to Jeffery and Glover Quin made an impressive interception. Since the play ended with 1:56 left, Stafford was able to take three knees to end the game. That was Clausen's only turnover of the game, but his receivers did him few favors with so many dropped passes.

This was the fifth fourth-quarter comeback of the season for Detroit, which is a franchise record. Only the 1993 Lions had more game-winning drives, notching their sixth in the regular-season finale against Green Bay. We will see if history repeats itself next week, but these ugly wins are not a good formula for success at Lambeau Field.

New England Patriots 17 at New York Jets 16

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 3 (13-10)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD starting with 1:08 left in third quarter): 0.48
Head Coach: Bill Belichick (43-70 at 4QC and 58-71 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Tom Brady (33-29 at 4QC and 45-31 overall 4QC/GWD record)

If this was Rex Ryan's last stand as coach of the Jets, the effort was fitting for his tenure. The defense was impressive in holding the Patriots to 17 points with no play gaining more than 17 yards. The problems were with game management and the struggling offense. That sounds like a broken record, but the tune is still so familiar.

There was a great example in this game of why the Patriots usually get the better of the Jets. Up 13-10, Geno Smith was hit as he threw and Jamie Collins had an easy interception to set up Tom Brady at the New York 38. Brady capitalized on the field position with a touchdown drive capped off by Jonas Gray's 1-yard run. To their credit, the Jets answered with some impressive third-down conversions, but stalled in the red zone and settled for a field goal to make it 17-16. Much like Smith had done earlier, Brady threw under pressure, and his inaccurate pass was tipped and intercepted, setting the Jets up at the New England 30 with 7:18 left. Did the Jets capitalize on their great field position like New England had? Not at all. Smith was sacked on third-and-4, pushing the field goal attempt to 52 yards. Even worse, the Jets used a timeout with the field goal unit on the field. Vince Wilfork was able to get a piece of the ball, and the kick was short with 5:16 left.

The great offense used a short field to score a touchdown, while the bad offense lost yards and missed a potential game-winning field goal. That's just one of the key differences between these teams.

With Julian Edelman out, Brady used Danny Amendola as his replacement, targeting the receiver on four consecutive plays, but it was a screen on third-and-7 that was most critical. The ruling on the field was a first down, but Ryan challenged the spot, which is usually very hard to win. Sure enough, the play was upheld and Ryan lost a second timeout with 4:03 left. Amendola picked up another first down running a little arrow route that Wes Welker and Edelman have done hundreds of times over the years.

With under three minutes to play, the Patriots turned things over to Brandon Bolden on the ground. The Jets used their final timeout before a crucial third-and-1. Bolden found a path on the outside and picked up 17 yards to clinch the win.

The outmatched Jets played New England very well in both games this year, and may have had their own season sweep if Folk had made some long field goals or had a better offense to get him closer. Is that enough to save Ryan's job? Probably not, but he should make a hell of a defensive coordinator again for someone.

Philadelphia Eagles 24 at Washington Redskins 27

Type: GWD
Win Probability (GWD starting with 1:31 left): 0.70
Head Coach: Jay Gruden (1-7 at 4QC and 3-7 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Robert Griffin III (4-15 at 4QC and 6-15 overall 4QC/GWD record)

In a virtual must-win game, the Eagles reached perhaps the lowest point of the Chip Kelly era. Even against a bad Washington team, it's hard to win with 13 penalties, two missed field goals, and two turnovers. Philadelphia managed to rally from a 24-14 deficit in the fourth quarter to a tie, but failed to close the deal.

Mark Sanchez had tunnel vision for Zach Ertz, who finished with 15 catches for 115 yards. Ertz was the target on five consecutive plays, helping to move the ball to the Washington 48. On third-and-4, Sanchez threw a pass flat-footed to Jeremy Maclin, but Bashaud Breeland came away with the big interception. Washington started its drive at its own 42 already with a win probability of 70 percent.

Robert Griffin III was solid in his return as the starter, and he only needed to hit one pass to Pierre Garcon for 23 yards to get into field-goal range. At the end of the play the Eagles were charged with roughing the passer for the third time in the game, placing the ball at the Philadelphia 20 with 1:23 left. That was a dire situation for Philadelphia, but the Eagles had all three timeouts and enough time to stop the Redskins, then answer. However, Connor Barwin jumped offsides and cost the Eagles a massive five yards, setting up first-and-5. Alfred Morris gained 7 yards for a new set of downs and the Eagles burned their first timeout with 1:09 left.

At that point, the best strategy for Philadelphia would have been to let Washington score a touchdown and give Sanchez, who once led four one-minute drills in a 12-game span (2010-11), enough time (with those two timeouts) to answer. In the last four years, kickers have made 97 percent of their field goals with the ball spotted inside the 10-yard line. With only two timeouts left, the Redskins were almost guaranteed a short field-goal try in the final 10 seconds. It's ridiculous for any coach, especially one who is supposed to have an analytical background, to think they can overcome that disadvantage without a gross case of good luck.

Of course the biggest problem with the "let them score" strategy is that the opponent may be wise enough to not take the score, but you still have to force them to make that decision. Brian Westbrook can relate to this. Washington really should not have been running plays, and should have just taken some knees instead. Eventually, Kai Forbath came on and nailed the 26-yard field goal with five seconds left.

Have I ever mentioned how I hate the squib kick? In this touchback-heavy era with the kickoff at the 35, kicking deep should be the norm. Washington tried to squib kick, but the ball hit an Eagles player and Sanchez had possession at the 50 for one Hail Mary attempt. Sanchez climbed the pocket and launched the ball into the end zone, but three Eagles were bunched together and David Amerson emerged from the pack of Redskins to knock the ball away.

The Eagles are eliminated from the playoffs after a 9-3 start. The only other teams to do that since the 12-team playoff format began in 1990 are the 1993 Dolphins and 2008 Buccaneers. At least those Dolphins had Dan Marino coming back in 1994. At least those Buccaneers were moving in a new direction, even if Raheem Morris and Josh Freeman did not work out. Where are the Eagles headed with such a poor secondary and question marks at quarterback? If not for the Saints and 49ers, the Eagles would be pegged as the most disappointing team of 2014.

Cleveland Browns 13 at Carolina Panthers 17

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 3 (13-10)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD starting with 9:52 left): 0.39
Head Coach: Ron Rivera (8-19-1 at 4QC and 8-20-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Cam Newton (8-19-1 at 4QC and 8-20-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)

I was kind of hoping to watch Derek Anderson start against his old team to see if he could have success beyond the Buccaneers and garbage time this season, but it was good to see Cam Newton return after his truck accident. The Cleveland pass defense was stingy in not allowing any receiver to crack 50 yards. Combine that with Cleveland's continued offensive struggles and we had a 10-6 game to start the fourth quarter.

Brian Hoyer replaced an injured Johnny Manziel and showed, for at least one play, the advantage of being a veteran. He read Carolina's blitz and quickly got rid of the ball to Jordan Cameron down the middle of the field. Roman Harper, showing the disadvantage of being too veteran in the secondary, was caught peeking at the wrong receiver and Cameron had an easy path to an 81-yard touchdown with 9:59 left.

Newton put the offense on his back, gaining 63 of the drive's 66 yards with his arm and legs. After scrambling, he found a wide-open Jonathan Stewart for a 9-yard touchdown with 7:07 left.

Down 17-13, Hoyer immediately tried to answer, but hung a deep ball for Travis Benjamin, and Josh Norman made a great interception. Norman had a nice return inside the Cleveland 30, but Benjamin stuck with the play and forced Norman to fumble, giving the ball back to the Browns. This wasn't quite Marlon McCree fumbling a Tom Brady interception in the playoffs, but that could have been really costly with Carolina's division title hopes on the line.

The Browns netted 9 yards of field position, but two negative plays created a third-and-21 situation. Cleveland ranked just 27th in third-and-long DVOA to start Week 16. Josh Gordon caught an 8-yard pass and the Browns punted with 3:24 left. Mike Pettine saved his two timeouts for after the two-minute warning, but Newton used a second-and-9 to rifle a pass to Ed Dickson for 34 yards. After Stewart carried twice, the Panthers had a third-and-5 at Cleveland's 40 with 1:47 left and the Browns out of timeouts. How many times are we going to see Ron Rivera's Panthers in this situation where one more first down ends the game? Again the call was pretty conservative with a run, but Stewart's great cutback earned the first down and 30 yards total to ice the victory.

For a change the Panthers came through with a game-winning drive and a successful four-minute offense in the same game. The win means the 2014 NFC South finishes with a 10-29-1 record in non-division games, barely ahead of the 2008 NFC West (10-30) for the second-worst record since 2002. Carolina could become the first 7-8-1 division winner in NFL history next week with a win in Atlanta.

Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind

Falcons at Saints: Final Nail in the Bizarro Season

Since the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era started in 2006, the Saints have never lost more three consecutive home games. Payton had won 20 home games in a row, including a 44-23 shellacking of the Packers this season. But since that win, the Saints have done nothing but lose in the Superdome, dropping their last five home games. It's a shocking turnaround, but the Saints have been doing the opposite of what's expected all season.

Getting swept by the Falcons is another first in this era for New Orleans as Matt Ryan thoroughly outplayed Brees. The meetings have usually been high scoring, but the Saints were stuck on seven points for about 54 minutes. Keep in mind those seven points came from the 1-yard line after a 99-yard kick return to start the game. You would not have guessed the Falcons were one of the worst defenses in the league from this game. After a league-low 16 sacks coming into Week 16, the Falcons took Brees down five times while Ryan built a 20-7 lead through three quarters.

It is hard to keep the Saints down for 60 minutes, and the first play of the fourth quarter was crucial. Jimmy Graham caught a pass at the goal line, but two Atlanta defenders wrestled the ball away for a fumble. It was surprising not to see forward progress stopped before the fumble. On review, there were not any definitive angles of Graham scoring a touchdown, but it was very close. By this time, you would like to see the NFL implement better technology to judge a play like this with better accuracy.

Brees was finally able to move the offense on his next drive, converting on third-and-goal with a sure touchdown to Graham. With 5:48 left, the Falcons stuck with the short-passing game, but the Saints tackled the catch well and forced a punt.

Down 20-14, the stage was set for Brees in this crucial NFC South battle. He had to drive the Saints 90 yards, but he had 2:40 and two timeouts, so time was not a big issue. After an overthrow to Marques Colston, Brees tried to hit Nick Toon on the right sideline, but Robert McClain jumped the route for an interception. It has been that kind of year for Brees, with several huge mistakes coming at the worst possible moments.

The Falcons were already at the 13-yard line and had little motivation to do anything more than run the ball three times. Matt Bryant added a 32-yard field goal for a 23-14 lead. Brees drove the Saints to the 8-yard line in the closing seconds, but took another sack and fumbled the ball. Osi Umenyiora picked up the ball and had one of the most leisurely 86-yard touchdown strolls you will ever see as time expired. The Falcons won 30-14, but the final 10 points were directly from Brees turnovers.

The Saints are finished, leaving the NFC South to fittingly be decided in a game between the Falcons (6-9) and Panthers (6-8-1) next week.

Bills at Raiders: Buffalo's Black Hole Is Deeper Than Oakland's

If any team can relate to Oakland's extended period of misery, it is Buffalo. The 26-24 loss ensured a 15th consecutive postseason without the Bills. The outcome was all too familiar for Buffalo fans, with an ineffective offense and a defense that failed to live up to expectations after last week's impressive upset over Green Bay. The game was there for the taking in the fourth quarter after Kyle Orton threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Scott Chandler with 14:54 left to cut the Oakland lead to 19-17. The defense stuffed Latavius Murray on a third-and-1 run to put the Bills in position for a go-ahead score.

Even though C.J. Spiller was back in action, the Bills' running game was about as exciting as the Homeland season finale. Spiller lost 4 yards on his four carries, and the Bills finished with 13 yards on 13 carries. So it was not unreasonable for Buffalo to pass on third-and-1 from its own 46, but Orton's dangerous throw was knocked down by Ray Ray Armstrong. There have been some questionable punts from the Bills this year, though with 8:22 left, keeping it a two-point game felt necessary with the way the offense was playing. Of course, a 34-yard punt did not help matters.

After such respectable efforts against offenses led by Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers in the last two weeks, Buffalo managed to let Derek Carr scramble and hit a 51-yard bomb to Andre Holmes on third-and-22. Oakland has not made a conversion like that since 2007 when Daunte Culpepper threw for 27 yards on third-and-23 to LaMont Jordan. Speaking of blasts from the past, two plays later Darren McFadden ripped off a 25-yard run to the 1-yard line. The pass was one thing, but in an obvious running situation the Bills should have been able to stop McFadden and hold the Raiders to a field goal to keep it a one-score game. McFadden's previous long run this season was 17 yards. Carr finished the drive with a 1-yard touchdown pass off play action to fullback Jamize Olawale with 2:51 left. Buffalo trailed 26-17.

Justin Tuck sacked Orton, who went on to throw his second interception of the day. Buffalo's two timeouts led to Sebastian Janikowski's 48-yard field goal attempt, but he was wide left with 1:55 left. That probably wasn't going to be consequential, but Orton went into checkdown mode with Fred Jackson and quickly marched to the Oakland 30. Robert Woods caught a 30-yard touchdown with 1:09 left, but recovering an onside kick was Buffalo's final playoff hope. Not only did the Bills fail to recover, but they were offsides on the kick.

Titans at Jaguars: Farewell Until Next Year, Bad Thursday Football

What better way to end a poor season of Thursday Night Football than to have a pair of 2-12 teams from the AFC's worst division? Surprisingly, the caliber of play was not that bad. Charlie Whitehurst paced the Titans to an early 10-0 lead, but down 14-10 in the fourth quarter he short-armed a throw on fourth-and-2, turning the ball over on downs. Jordan Todman only needed one play to practically double his season rushing yardage on a 62-yard burst for a touchdown.

Tennessee settled for a field goal with 6:06 to play. Jacksonville's offense extended its drive thanks to a brutal pass interference penalty on Coty Sensabaugh that never should have been called. One more first down would have ended the game, but the Jaguars were conservative with a handoff, setting up fourth-and-1 at the Tennessee 37 with 1:14 left. When you are up 21-13, why not just run the quarterback sneak and end this thing? Run something to get a yard. Punter Bryan Anger (a third-round pick, in case you forgot) punted to the end zone to net a whopping 17 yards of field position.

Whitehurst was able to throw for 20 yards on the drive's first play. Derek Hagan nearly had a 30-yard catch at the Jacksonville 15, but he caught the ball out of bounds. Whitehurst scrambled to the Jacksonville 35 and had just eight seconds left with no timeouts. That should have been a good Hail Mary finish, but the Jaguars got pressure with a three-man rush. Left tackle Jamon Meredith was no match for Chris Clemons coming off the edge. Whitehurst was able to avoid him, but Sen'Derrick Marks cleaned up with the game-ending sack. Marks got the attention for doing the Johnny Manziel "money" celebration after his sack, but credit the Clemons pressure for blowing the play up and clinching a third win for the Jaguars.

Our final tally for the 16 games on Thursday night this season includes one fourth-quarter comeback and game-winning drive, which was the highlight of the slate with Oakland's premature celebration against Kansas City. Otherwise, there were five games with a failed 4QC opportunity and countless more mistakes by CBS' Mike Carey.

Season Summary
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 60
Game-winning drives: 66
Games with 4QC opportunity: 126/240 (52.5 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 41

Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro-Football-Reference. Win Probability comes from Advanced Football Analytics. Screen caps come from NFL Game Rewind.

Posted by: Scott Kacsmar on 23 Dec 2014

12 comments, Last at 27 Dec 2014, 12:17am by spujr

Comments

1
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Tue, 12/23/2014 - 4:20pm

That Jimmy Graham replay is yet another example of how racist NFL player selection favors black men.

;)

3
by Travis :: Tue, 12/23/2014 - 4:38pm

It seemed to me that Graham's left foot never touched the ground until after he was knocked back to the 1 (just after that picture), so Graham never established possession/completed the catch while holding the ball in the end zone.

5
by Tomlin_Is_Infallible :: Tue, 12/23/2014 - 4:51pm

ooooh. nice

--------------------------------------
The standard is the standard!

6
by collapsing pocket :: Tue, 12/23/2014 - 5:54pm

I noticed that too, though for some reason it wasn't mentioned on the broadcast. His foot didn't appear to touch down until the ball was coming loose.

Of course, if he never established possession of the ball, then how could he have fumbled it?

7
by Scott C :: Tue, 12/23/2014 - 6:03pm

Yeah, either it is a catch, and forward progress is when he is in the air being pushed back (with a fumble if he did not cross the goal line), or it is not a catch and not a fumble.

9
by Tim F. :: Wed, 12/24/2014 - 12:35am

The left foot comes down before the strip. I would say the stripping action supports that it was a reception. I can see them saying there is not indisputable evidence, but it seems like a poor call initially and its poor that there isn't better tech to be certain. But it is a bang-bang play — so even though that "plane crossing" usually goes to the offense, that it was so close and quick... even in stills or slo-mo... I don't think it's horrendous or scandalous that the officiating crew made an error.

2
by Tomlin_Is_Infallible :: Tue, 12/23/2014 - 4:25pm

Ahhhhhh time for some parallax calculations...........
--------------------------------------
The standard is the standard!

4
by deus01 :: Tue, 12/23/2014 - 4:50pm

The penalties in the Denver-Cincinnati game killed it for. It's annoying seeing so many marginal calls have a pretty significant impact on the result and seemed to really drag things out.

8
by lrargerich :: Tue, 12/23/2014 - 8:20pm

The Washington-Philadelphia ending was too sad, they are paying those coaches millions and they have no clue how to play the end-game. Chip Kelly must let the Redskins score because there's no other option and I'm 100% sure the Redskins not only would have scored but they would have celebrated and they would have no clue about what they just did.

With the zillions assitants the coaches have today, how expensive would be to have a "game strategy assitant" or something like that? You can't punt here, you have to kneel there, let them score, don't score. Simple assignments to make this game smarter.

10
by spujr :: Wed, 12/24/2014 - 6:51pm

I was confused about the first interception by the Bengals. One referee was making the signal of an incomplete pass then they ruled it an interception. I haven't been impressed with the coaching decisions this year for Den. I don't see them making appropriate adjustments and it seems all their losses occured using the same defensive strategy. I wish Den could trade Fox for Harbaugh.

11
by intel_chris :: Thu, 12/25/2014 - 1:16pm

I had originally posted this in the preview of the game (after the game), but due to spujr comment on the coaching decisions, I hope it will generate some discussion here.

First of all, as a Denver homer, I think the DEN-CIN game played out to my fears. As to not mattering, I disagree. With NE so close to losing to NYJ, there was still a sliver of hope for HFA. That evaporated in Q4.

I will agree with Scott's comment that it was a very watchable game. While I dislike watching my team lose, at least it was to an opponent that was playing well (and when they weren't playing well, I could imagine that was due to my team playing well or at least on their way to winning.)

Now to the questions--what happened in Q4? I mean I know that PM threw at least two crucial interceptions, or if you count that Thomas take-away (which I'm sure most people don't) was it three? Yay for the defense holding up to keep that one from being a score (after the gift taunting call). Actually, there is a specific question, was that take-away due to PM throwing the ball to someone who was too well defensed? I mean credit the defender, he certainly fought for the ball, but did he have a chance only because the ball was late or poorly thrown?

But, also, was there a change of tactics at the start of Q4. My eyes aren't enlightened enough to tell. It seemed like something changed, and DEN went back to 3-and-outs (or n-and-outs), but enough punts (and ints) that they were giving up field position regularly. It seemed like it could have been more of a rout than it was.

On the other hand, it didn't seem like they had switched from the Q3 passing game back to the Q1/2 plays. And despite the miscues on passes, it didn't look like the same confusion from the 1st half. In fact, I wonder seriously about the ints as being mostly on PM and poor throws where the defender easily had jumped the route (or perhaps good defense where the defender did a good job of jumping the route). Again, I'm not sophisticated enough to know whether it is a blame or credit situation, or perhaps some proportion between the two.

Of course, as Q4 continued and CIN got further ahead the blitzing also seemed to get more effective. That is certainly something that worries me. Although in most cases PM gets rid of the ball quickly and thus is generally not as impacted by pressure as other QBs, or at least that's the Koolaid I was given to drink, it seems this year in these come-from-behind situations (NE, STL, CIN), that has not consistently worked, and the pressure has led to ints in desperation time. Is there something about the quality of those three defenses that changed the situation?

On the other hand, I also wonder whether they attempted to run it enough. It seemed like part of the problem was that they were passing nearly every down and CIN was keying on that.

12
by spujr :: Sat, 12/27/2014 - 12:17am

I don't want to take the win away from Cin by complaining of poor referring or a "off day" for PM. They certainly played very well on defense and seemed to have an answer to everything the Den offense sent them. It seems to me that even so PM was not sacked often he was making poor decisions due to pressure from the outside LB. Maybe this is a reaction/quick reflects thing that will give critics more firepower to voice their opinions that PM is getting too old. Again, it seems to me that the Den coaching staff should be able to make adjustments to accommodate PMs weakness. Why didn't they utilize the TE position more? Being so relient on the running in the first 2quarters then on the passing on the 3rd and 4th made Den very predictable for Cin and probably contributed to the Ints. As Scott pointed out Den had a very winnable situation prior to the 3rd interception. There was bad weather, poor calls, key injuries, and an away game that all leads to a difficult game to win for Den. Cin played good and deserved the win, but I don't think it is fair to say this is the beginning of the end for PM or Den. However, as a Broncos fan I hope the coaching staff makes better adjustments and improve the front line for PM.