Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

23 Sep 2014

Clutch Encounters: Week 3

by Scott Kacsmar

The beauty of focusing on the NFL's close games is that I don't have to re-watch the Thursday night bloodbath when Tampa Bay imitated a professional football team in Atlanta. That was easily one of the worst efforts I have ever witnessed, but we thankfully won't be covering that here. This week's classic moment came in the Super Bowl rematch, but we recapped that historical finish in a special Monday edition of this column.

Here we have the week's other seven games with a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity. That's a smaller number than usual, but that's because the Lions, Saints and Giants each extended their lead to a two-score margin to start the fourth quarter and never looked back. This was a great week for studying the four-minute offense, with some big opportunities wasted by Cleveland and Dallas. We start with a team that did successfully run out the clock.

Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind

Washington Redskins 34 at Philadelphia Eagles 37

Type: GWD
Win Probability (GWD starting with 10:07 left): 0.53
Head Coach: Chip Kelly (3-3 at 4QC and 4-3 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Nick Foles (4-6 at 4QC and 5-6 overall 4QC/GWD record)

It's hard for Nick Foles to get any respect, especially outside of the City of Brotherly Love. Football purists think he's a system quarterback taking advantage of Chip Kelly's brilliant mind. Analysts say he's missing a ton of opportunities in this offense against subpar competition so far. Statheads have written off his 2013 touchdown-to-interception ratio as a fluke ripe for regression this year. Even casual fans of the female persuasion probably see Foles as the lovechild of Napoleon Dynamite and Stephen Merchant instead of the prototypical "hunk" quarterback.

Let's see if everyone can agree that Sunday was a big step forward for Foles. Washington was up to the task with Kirk Cousins leading the offense to 34 points with his 427 passing yards. Due to injuries, a disqualification and Lane Johnson's suspension, Foles was basically working behind a backup offensive line. There was no running game to speak of. LeSean McCoy, hurt on his second carry of the day, finished with 19 carries for 22 yards. Darren Sproles had an 18-yard run on the Eagles' opening possession, but he fumbled the ball. Oh yeah, the Redskins also led 17-7 despite Foles not even making a mistake yet.

Foles brought the Eagles back before halftime, but the offensive fireworks continued into the second half with a 27-27 game to start the fourth quarter. Both offenses tried some ugly screens on third-and-long, to the dismay of the Football Outsiders staff. But the best scoring opportunity was Kai Forbath's 33-yard field goal. He hit the upright with 10:07 to play, and that's when things got really wild.

Foles missed Brent Celek to set up an apparent diving interception by Washington. On the return, Foles was absolutely demolished on a blindside cheapshot by Chris Baker. Jason Peters came to his quarterback's defense and that brought a ruckus (and a DQ for both players) with dozens of players involved. On review, the pass was overturned to an incompletion, so that return and big hit never even had to happen. This will certainly make the rematch entertaining, but we had a good one going here with the score tied.

Foles, in obvious pain, stayed in the game and overcame some tough down-and-distance situations. Jeremy Maclin finished the drive with a 27-yard touchdown after a simple go route down the seam. Maclin's had himself a bit of a historic start to the season. Through three games, he's caught two game-winning touchdowns (this one and the Jacksonville score) and a game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter in Indianapolis. In just 10 games together, Foles and Maclin have already combined for three game-winning touchdown passes, first doing so in Tampa Bay in 2012.

This play was the game-winner thanks to Cousins not being on the same page with Niles Paul. Malcolm Jenkins made the interception and the Eagles added three points on a 51-yard field goal. Roy Helu gave Washington's improbable comeback a boost with a 55-yard gain on a screen pass. He finished the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run and Washington trailed 37-34 with 4:16 left. Two runs by McCoy gained nothing and Foles threw out of bounds on third down.

Cousins had it made with the ball at the Philadelphia 41 after a short punt (win probability: 0.41). However, Washington's offense tanked at the worst moment. Alfred Morris was held to no gain on first down. Cousins threw two dangerous passes to the right sideline, quickly bringing up fourth-and-10. They weren't going to trust Forbath on a 59-yard field goal attempt, so they had to go for it here. Cousins threw behind Pierre Garcon and the Eagles took over. After McCoy lost a yard, the Eagles knew the Redskins had one timeout left, so a first down would win the game. While most teams would run on second down, Kelly let Foles win the game with a great pass to James Casey for 19 yards.

The Eagles are the first team in NFL history to start 3-0 after trailing by at least 10 points in each game. Doing so against Jacksonville, Indianapolis, and Washington might not forecast a bright future, but this doesn't feel like 2012 all over again for Philadelphia. The Eagles are producing offense even with injuries and Foles missing some plays. He made more than his share on Sunday and picked up his third game-winning drive in three games. Only three other quarterbacks have started a season with three game-winning drives: Charley Johnson (1966 Cardinals), Brian Sipe (1979 Browns) and Boomer Esiason (1988 Bengals). That Cincinnati offense was fast-tempo and balanced, and they made it to the Super Bowl with Esiason having an MVP year.

Foles may not be ready for the biggest stage and honor in the league just yet, but he's gotten the job done every week this season. It doesn't always look pretty, but Foles has never been about the looks. Check the scoreboard. F---ing score points, as Kelly would say.

Dallas Cowboys 34 at St. Louis Rams 31

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 4 (24-20)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD starting with 13:25 left): 0.31
Head Coach: Jason Garrett (14-17 at 4QC and 17-19 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Tony Romo (21-30 at 4QC and 24-32 overall 4QC/GWD record)

The start was ugly, but Jerry Jones got himself some glory hole with a big second half. Dallas tied the franchise record with a 21-point comeback win, and in the process, Tony Romo moved past Roger Staubach for the most game-winning drives (24) in Cowboys history. By now the Romo critic has already downplayed this by noting it was just the Rams, it was Week 3 and not the playoffs, and Romo is the reason the Cowboys needed a 21-point comeback in the first place.

It was the Rams, it was Week 3, but Romo was down 14-0 after completing each of his first five pass attempts for 39 yards. It's not his fault DeMarco Murray fumbled in the first quarter for the third straight game this year, or that the defense was shredded by the inexperienced Austin Davis on two touchdown drives. What was (partially) Romo's fault was the pick-six by Janoris Jenkins in the second quarter to make it 21-0. That wasn't the sharpest route by Dez Bryant, but Jenkins jumped the play. Romo only threw four other incompletions in the game, and this mistake sparked the big comeback. Romo got some retribution on Jenkins with a 68-yard touchdown to a completely wide-open Bryant in the third quarter to make it 21-17. Why was he so open? Big double move with Romo using play action plus bad St. Louis communication is a deadly combination. The big lead had evaporated and the Dallas defense was stepping up.

Davis looked good early in just his second start. He had Jared Cook for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, but Cook failed to make the easy catch. The Rams settled for a field goal, taking a 24-20 lead. How big of an asshole is Cook? He shoved Davis on the team sideline after the play. Way to have accountability.

Speaking of drama, cue the first game-winning drive opportunity of Dallas' 2014 season. From Romo's perspective, this was a beauty. A blocking penalty on Jason Witten put the ball 91 yards away from the end zone, but Romo feasted on third downs. He scrambled for 16 yards to convert a third-and-13, then hit Terrance Williams for 20 yards on third-and-14. Jenkins, part of an eventful day, was flagged 33 yards for pass interference on Bryant. Romo finished the march with another third-down conversion, getting an easy 12-yard touchdown on the slant to Williams.

Romo brought Dallas back, but could the defense hold the lead? We got a quick answer when Bruce Carter intercepted a forced Davis throw and returned it for a touchdown on the first play of the drive. Dallas led 34-24 with 5:58 left, but we've seen this show before. Davis responded well to the mistake by leading an 80-yard touchdown drive. With 2:36 and three timeouts left, the onside kick wasn't necessary. After Dallas picked up one first down via penalty, the drive came down to a third-and-3 with the Rams out of timeouts. This is where the Dallas offense had to help the defense and get those three yards. Whether it was Murray on the ground in this revamped running game, or Romo making the critical throw, the Cowboys couldn't afford to give the Rams two minutes to get a field goal or game-winning touchdown.

Romo threw the ball quickly from an empty set, but he flat-out missed an open Lance Dunbar in the flat. Dallas punted, but at least the Rams were down to 1:58 with no timeouts. Davis needed about 45 yards to give Greg Zuerlein at least a shot on the field goal. He picked up one first down, but got greedy in looking for a big play. Davis missed badly and Morris Claiborne -- the one and only -- came down with the game-clinching interception. I guess he's reached his one-pick quota for the year.

Facing adversity on the road, the Cowboys came through with a long drive and picked off two passes to secure the win. That's great, but we know this will be forgotten by most people the next time they don't find a way to win. Such is the Dallas soap opera.

Baltimore Ravens 23 at Cleveland Browns 21

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 4 (21-17)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD starting with 1:58 left): 0.40
Head Coach: John Harbaugh (13-24 at 4QC and 20-27 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Joe Flacco (13-23 at 4QC and 20-26 overall 4QC/GWD record)

There's not much separating the Browns from being 0-3 or 3-0 right now. The record is 1-2 after another last-second finish, but Cleveland has been surprisingly solid on offense despite the Josh Gordon suspension. For the first time in team history, the Browns have scored at least 21 points and had zero takeaways in three consecutive games.

On Sunday, just one more first down would have been enough for Cleveland. A back-and-forth affair for three quarters, the Browns failed to build on their 21-17 lead when Billy Cundiff hit the upright on a 50-yard field goal attempt. That had to make Baltimore fans smile on what had been an otherwise dismal week.

The fourth quarter brought out the best and worst in Brian Hoyer. His 70-yard bomb to a wide-open Taylor Gabriel set up another scoring opportunity, but Hoyer decided to throw the ball on third down after scrambling 4 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.

The world may have stopped on its axis if Johnny Manziel did this, but any quarterback in the NFL should know better here. Cundiff's ensuing 36-yard field goal attempt was unsuccessful thanks to Baltimore's block. Joe Flacco drove the Ravens into the red zone thanks to a 31-yard pass interference penalty on rookie Justin Gilbert. Veteran quarterbacks, like Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees, have enjoyed picking on the rookie this month. Gilbert just didn't play the ball here. Fortunately, the Ravens were held to a field goal, but Cleveland only led 21-20 with five minutes to play.

To this point, Hoyer was 19-of-22 for 290 yards in what could easily be argued as his finest pro performance, silly gaffe on the previous drive aside. But he didn't finish the game properly. Haloti Ngata got a piece of Hoyer's first down pass to force an incompletion. Then under pressure on third down, Hoyer couldn't hit the mark. The quick three-and-out gave Baltimore a good chance, but Eugene Monroe was embarrassed by Desmond Bryant, leading to a 6-yard loss in the backfield. Flacco missed Torrey Smith on third-and-16, but it wouldn't have mattered given the offensive pass interference penalty. Baltimore had to punt with 2:35 left.

In this situation, you can run the ball twice to make Baltimore use its last two timeouts, perhaps setting up a third down that could ice the game with a conversion. That's exactly what happened, and with 2:09 left, Hoyer had a third-and-7 to win the game. There was a window to fit the throw into Andrew Hawkins, but Hoyer was too inaccurate again, missing his final three throws of the game. The Browns had to punt from their own 10. Flacco started at the 50, only needing a field goal and having 1:58 to do so. That's too easy in this game, which is why the four-minute offense is so crucial.

On the second play of the drive, Flacco went deep for Steve Smith, who beat Joe Haden for 32 yards. That pretty much wrapped this one up. Justin Tucker is no Cundiff, and the Ravens ran down the clock to set up his 32-yard game-winning field goal. Naturally, he nailed it and the Ravens escaped with the 23-21 win.

Cleveland's defense (Haden in particular) will get slammed for the game-winning drive, but two missed field goals and a failure to finish offensively created that avoidable situation. It's not asking a lot for one good kick or one better pass from Hoyer on what was otherwise a solid performance by the improving Browns.

Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind

49ers at Cardinals: Bruce Arians, the Mad Scientist

Both teams entered the week with some of their best players either suspended or injured. Arizona started Drew Stanton at quarterback again, but he was solid. Winning this game just adds to the impressive resume Bruce Arians has built in the last three seasons. Try naming another coach who gets more success out of less talent. Arians guided the 2012 Colts to a most improbable 11-5 finish given the close wins and talent deficiencies. In last season's 10-6 finish he pulled off the only win any team has had in Seattle in the last 20 attempts even though Carson Palmer threw four interceptions.

This year's 3-0 start has been built on shutdown defense late in the game. Arizona is the fifth team in the last 30 years to start 3-0 without allowing a single point in the fourth quarter. Helping the cause, the 49ers are the only team in the last three seasons to go scoreless in the fourth quarter in the first three games. Colin Kaepernick started hot with back-to-back long touchdown drives, but the 49ers were scoreless on their final six drives. A touchdown pass from Stanton put the Cardinals ahead, 20-14, late in the third quarter.

Kaepernick was very aggressive with 13 rushes on the day, but his run to set up a fourth-and-1 was called back after a Jonathan Martin clipping penalty. Phil Dawson's 45-yard field goal attempt was blocked. Arizona put together a long drive, overcoming a second-and-30 situation thanks to some catches by Larry Fitzgerald. However, Fitzgerald fumbled at the 4-yard line with 6:54 to play. That unexpected blunder turned a sure two-score Arizona lead into a 95-yard chance for the 49ers. They only made it 5 yards.

Arians' support of bringing pressure in pressure moments has continued to pay off. The Cardinals rushed six to force an incompletion, followed by safety Tony Jefferson's disguised blitz to get a huge sack. Even on third-and-19 Arizona still brought five to force a bad throw from Kaepernick. With 3:57 left, this was the quintessential four-minute offense situation. Arizona continued to be aggressive, calling a second-down pass, which is nearly unheard of in these moments. It was incomplete, as was the third-down pass, but Chris Cook was penalized 21 yards for defensive pass interference. That's a penalty this past preseason, but on Sunday it was a bit of a soft call. There was plenty of contact between receiver and defender.

Three runs by Andre Ellington sunk the 49ers. On third-and-6, Ellington had a big hole for a 20-yard gain right up the gut. Stanton took three knees and the Cardinals went with a relatively safe 34-yard field goal to ice the game at 23-14 with 29 seconds left.

I'm not sure what voodoo magic Arians picked up on his unceremonious exit from Pittsburgh, but his aggressive approach has been working well.

Raiders at Patriots: Oakland's Not the Worst Team in the NFL

The most dominant football team I have ever watched was the 2007 Patriots, but only if we're talking the first half of the season when they started 10-0. In the 11th game, against a Philadelphia team starting quarterback A.J. Feeley, the Patriots were a stunning 24.5-point favorite. The Eagles gave them all they could handle in a 31-28 loss. The following week the Patriots were 18.5-point favorites in Baltimore, but an emotional squad again nearly snatched perfection away from Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in a 27-24 finish. Those games exposed some flaws in this unstoppable machine, which eventually was stopped in the Super Bowl by New York.

So why am I talking about the 2007 team in 2014? On Sunday, the Patriots were 14-point favorites for the first time since 2012. This looked like an easy win over struggling Oakland, right? Well, dating back to that Philadelphia game in 2007, the Patriots are 2-11 against the spread (13-0 straight up) when they are favored by 14 or more points.

Oakland didn't bring much offensively, but the revamped defense held its own against a New England offense that just hasn't clicked like usual this season. Oakland shut the run down, and when Brady's not targeting Julian Edelman (10-of-13 for 84 yards), the Patriots aren't very productive. It was still surprising to see a 10-9 game to start the fourth quarter, eventually extended to 16-9 by field goals.

Derek Carr had three drive opportunities in the fourth quarter to lead the first comeback of his career. The first ended when Latavius Murray was stuffed on a third-and-1 run. The second was another three-and-out after Carr lofted two dangerous passes into coverage. After a New England three-and-out keyed by a sack of Brady, Carr had 3:12 left and 62 yards to go. His best throw of the quarter went for 18 yards on a back-shoulder throw to James Jones with Darrelle Revis in coverage. Carr tried two deep shots down the left sideline, and an iffy pass interference call went against Logan Ryan for 24 yards. With both guys making contact, it's best to not throw a flag there. That put the ball at the 6-yard line.

Before the ghost of Al Davis could crack a smile, the referees evened things up a bit. Darren McFadden apparently scored an easy touchdown, but rookie Gabe Jackson was penalized for holding. The block was initially clean, but Patrick Chung turned around and Jackson continued to take him down to the ground. It was still first down and the Raiders were in no hurry. Carr had good protection, but his short pass clanked off the hands of Denarius Moore and deflected off Ryan, and Vince Wilfork, of all people, came down with the game-clinching interception. The Patriots ran out the final 51 seconds for a win far closer than anyone imagined it would have been going in.

Chiefs at Dolphins: NFL Equivalent of a Dark Match

If Broncos-Seahawks was the main event, then this was a dark match. Even with only three games in the late afternoon, this one was still met with little fanfare. There wasn't a score until midway through the second quarter. Kansas City eventually won 34-15, but Miami was actually 47 yards away from the lead with just less than ten minutes to play. The play-calling was very suspect. With second-and-1 at the Kansas City 47, Ryan Tannehill scrambled out of the shotgun and fired a deep ball out of bounds. On third-and-1, he looked for a big play-action pass, but succumbed to the pressure for a second sack on the drive. Think a simple run might have been smarter on either down? Lamar Miller had a solid game in replacing the injured Knowshon Moreno.

Miami punted and Frankie Hammond returned the ball 47 yards. Knile Davis (132 rushing yards) was effective in place of the injured Jamaal Charles, and Alex Smith was efficient with three touchdown passes. He capped off the drive with a 4-yard score to Joe McKnight and the Dolphins trailed 27-15 with 4:35 left. Miami was stopped twice on fourth down in that time, and the Chiefs padded the score with a touchdown when some knees would have worked just fine to end this one.

The Chiefs have continued to look better since Week 1, while the Dolphins have only gotten worse. I still wouldn't be surprised to see both teams finish in the muck of AFC mediocrity.

Bears at Jets: You've Got Red on You

The Bears and Jets have appeared in this column for all three weeks, so that tells you their records could be anything right now. They also appear because they're not very good teams capable of putting a team away early. Even when the Bears jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead, thanks in part to a ridiculous pick-six thrown by Geno Smith 32 seconds into the game, the lead never felt safe. The Jets actually should have taken a lead in the second quarter, but the referees blew the whistle on what should have been a Jay Cutler fumble returned for a touchdown. That was the most incompetent call of the night, but far from the only mistake.

Matt Forte couldn't get the running game going, Brandon Marshall and seemingly every defensive back on the team was ailing, but the Bears did enough to stymie the Jets in the red zone: one touchdown on six trips. The Jets also did themselves few favors with play-calling. Down 24-16 in the fourth quarter, the Jets settled for a 42-yard field goal instead of going for it on fourth-and-2 at Chicago's 24 with 9:56 left. I don't love the call, but I'm OK with the kick since a team down eight is going to have to score twice anyway to win the game.

The problem was, Chicago answered with a fantastic drive. When Rex Ryan sends an all-out blitz on third-and-9, he doesn't expect Cutler to float a 13-yard pass to Alshon Jeffery. Well, maybe based on film he should expect that, but it was still a great play. Cutler was eventually sacked on third down by Muhammad Wilkerson, who left injured. The reliable Robbie Gould made the 45-yard field goal with 3:10 left.

Smith had another chance, needing 80 yards and a two-point conversion. If Denver's last drive in Seattle was the greatest drive to force overtime, then this would have been a contender for the ugliest. The drive should have ended right away with Smith throwing a pass right to linebacker Jonathan Bostic on the first play. Bostic dropped the ball on what should have been an easy pick. At best, maybe the Jets get it back with a 30-19 deficit and little time left. A 3-yard pass to rookie tight end Jace Amaro barely converted fourth-and-3. This was a play where the physics likely prove he was short of the first-down marker, but without any conclusive video evidence, they had to stick with the call on the field of a first down. Four plays and this was like pulling teeth for the Jets to gain 10 yards.

On a second-and-4, Smith scrambled to his right, but instead of throwing the ball away, he ran out of bounds, gifting Willie Young a sack and losing two yards in the process. That wasn't the only time he failed to throw the ball away on the night. On third-and-11, Greg Salas broke open for a 51-yard catch-and-run. Unfortunately that just moved the ball to the red zone, where the Jets struggled all night. Bostic was flagged for a ridiculous defensive holding for one first down, but it would be the Jets' last.

Smith, missing someone like the injured Eric Decker in this situation, misfired on a few throws to set up a critical fourth-and-5 at the Chicago 9. His poor pass to Jeremy Kerley did not give the receiver a chance to land inbounds. Kerley caught the ball, but he was in the white. Game over.

Marc Trestman has been an NFL head coach for only 19 games, but this was the 15th time the Bears were in a tight, one-score game in the fourth quarter. He'll take the 9-6 record, but things rarely come easy for this team. The Jets were masters of "win close, lose big" last season, but have dropped two comeback attempts the last two weeks. They still need work in those crucial areas known as turnovers and red zone.

Season Summary
Fourth-quarter comebacks: 11
Game-winning drives: 14
Games with 4QC opportunity: 28/48 (58.3 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 9

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 Sep 2014

1 comment, Last at 24 Sep 2014, 4:38pm by mehllageman56

Comments

1
by mehllageman56 :: Wed, 09/24/2014 - 4:38pm

While that last gasp pass wasn't great, and throwing a jump ball to a 5 9 receiver is a dumb idea, the ball didn't take Kerley out of bounds, the defensive back face guarding him did. Which makes that DPI penalty against Walls in the first quarter look even more obnoxious.

I'm not saying the refs lost the game for the Jets, they lost because of Geno's actual mistakes (the interceptions that cost them points and gifted the Bears a touchdown) and poor playcalling. You have the ball at the opponents' 14 yard line, down 8, with a minute 40 left, you have a young qb prone to mistakes and a battering ram at running back, why pass on every play?