Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

14 Oct 2014

Clutch Encounters: Week 6

by Scott Kacsmar

Week 6 featured nine close games, or three fewer than a wild Week 5, but there were some real quality finishes. Even Thursday Night Football decided to get interesting for the first time this year. We just failed to get a winner in Cincinnati after the highest-scoring overtime tie in NFL history.

Game of the Week

Dallas Cowboys 30 at Seattle Seahawks 23

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 3 (23-20)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD starting with 8:16 left): 0.32
Head Coach: Jason Garrett (15-17 at 4QC and 19-19 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Tony Romo (22-30 at 4QC and 26-32 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Two years ago the Seahawks hosted Dallas and took an early 10-0 lead after returning a blocked Chris Jones punt for a touchdown. Tony Romo followed that up with an interception and the Cowboys abandoned the run, calling 41 passes to just 14 handoffs. Russell Wilson, making his first home start, had an efficient day and the Cowboys struggled to stop the run. Seattle won 27-7 to start an impressive run of home dominance.

That was two years ago. On Sunday, the Cowboys returned to Seattle as a different team. Sure, they still watched a Chris Jones punt get blocked for a touchdown to give the Seahawks an early 10-0 lead. They still fumbled on special teams. There was a botched snap between Romo and his center. The mistakes were still there, but this Dallas team stuck with the run, Romo made great plays and the defense pressured Wilson into several bad decisions. The Cowboys were good enough to overcome their mistakes to win in the toughest environment to play in the NFL. That doesn't happen in recent years.

If you take away the special teams goofs, this game looked more like a rout by Dallas. The 30-23 score isn't even indicative of how in control of the trenches the Cowboys were. From Seattle's perspective, this was a game of inches, and the Seahawks kept coming out on the short end of numerous big plays, especially in the second half.

These were a handful of passes where something was just slightly off with Seattle, whether it was Wilson's accuracy or the receiver failing to hang onto the ball. There was also some really tight coverage to force pass breakups, much like we're used to seeing from the Seahawks.

The mistakes of both teams led to a 20-20 fourth quarter. For as good as Dallas' offensive line has been, it did suffer some big penalties on Sunday. A holding call on Ronald Leary wiped out an impressive 19-yard throw by Romo. Jones' short punt gave Seattle great field position at the Dallas 42, but Wilson threw three defensed passes. Steve Hauschka was good on the 48-yard field goal and Seattle led 23-20 with 8:16 left.

This wasn't prime time, but it was a national game in the late afternoon, which is a setting of many of Romo's worst moments. Having tracked his whole career in this situation, I had pretty high expectations of how he'll perform, but the popular perception was that he would blow the game. This was even the site of his first classic blunder with the botched hold in the postseason.

But the fact is that Romo is reliable and he proved it again with his 26th game-winning drive. He kept the drive going with a high, but accurate throw to Dez Bryant to beat Richard Sherman on third-and-5 for 16 yards. Another big holding penalty on the line led to a third-and-20. That's when Romo delivered what could be the play of the year. He avoided a sack and managed to find Terrance Williams down the right sideline for a 23-yard gain. Williams did a toe-tap that could rival Santonio Holmes in Super Bowl XLIII. This wasn't a Super Bowl, but you can't do any better in Week 6 in such a crucial moment:

That saved the game for Dallas. DeMarco Murray came in as far and away the league's leading rusher, but he found things to be much more difficult against Seattle's top-ranked run defense. That all changed at the perfect moment. Three power runs featuring impressive vision and cuts from Murray covered the final 46 yards on the drive, including the 15-yard touchdown run with 3:16 left to put him over 100 rushing yards for the sixth time this year. Dallas led 27-23.

Were you expecting a great finish now? The Seattle offense continued to struggle, even inexcusably burning its final timeout before a fourth-and-6 with 2:40 left. Dallas rushed four and Wilson rushed a throw that never had a chance.

The Cowboys needed to think runs, and stuck with the ground game on all three plays in easy field goal range. The problem was that Tyron Smith was penalized for holding on the third-down run, just like he was in Detroit last year with Dallas clinging to a small lead. Even though the penalty was declined, that still stopped the clock with 1:12 left. That's an absolutely crucial mistake that saved the opponent nearly 40 seconds. At least Dallas led by seven (after the field goal) instead of six like they did in the Detroit collapse, but it was very similar.

Wilson needed to drive Seattle 85 yards in 65 seconds. Both of these teams know that's far from impossible given the drives engineered by Matthew Stafford and Peyton Manning against their defenses in this situation. But after a 10-yard completion, Wilson wasted one of his cleanest pockets of the day with a bad throw deep over the middle that was intercepted by Rolando McClain to clinch the stunning victory.

Two years ago the Cowboys were a pass-happy, mistake prone, mediocre football team. On Sunday, they beat the defending champions at their own game: power running, smart decision making from a mobile passer, pressuring the quarterback and covering receivers tightly. The days of 8-8 will end if this continues.

Clutch Encounters of the Tying Kind

Carolina Panthers 37 at Cincinnati Bengals 37

Type: 4QC and OTC
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 7 (Cincinnati trailed 31-24)
Head Coach 1: Marvin Lewis (23-56-1 at 4QC and 34-56-2 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback 1: Andy Dalton (6-14-1 at 4QC and 11-14-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Head Coach 2: Ron Rivera (7-17-1 at 4QC and 7-18-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback 2: Cam Newton (7-17-1 at 4QC and 7-18-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Remember when the Panthers didn't have any receivers this offseason? That changed quickly with some help from rookie Kelvin Benjamin. The Bengals were missing three of their very best pass catchers against Carolina with A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert all inactive. So how did a game between what were previously thought to be two great defenses turn into one of the most legitimate shootouts in years?

Neither team ever led by more than seven points, but the finish could have been dramatically different if Graham Gano did not miss a 38-yard field goal on the second play of the fourth quarter. Carolina led 24-17 at the time, but left easy points on the field. Andy Dalton answered with a 36-yard touchdown pass to Mohamed Sanu, who had a career-high 11 catches for 120 yards. Cam Newton answered right back, even converting a fourth-and-2 along the way to Benjamin. Greg Olsen's touchdown put Carolina ahead again with 4:50 left, but Adam Jones returned the ensuing kickoff 97 yards to the Carolina 3. Jeremy Hill only needed one carry to tie the game again at 31.

Newton then missed high on an interception to Reggie Nelson. Hill appeared to have the go-ahead touchdown, which again would have really altered the finish, but Andre Smith was penalized for holding. He followed that mistake up with a false start, leading to a 38-yard field goal by Mike Nugent. Down 34-31 with 2:11 left, Newton had plenty of time to get the field goal. He found a hole on fourth-and-2 with a power run for 5 yards to keep the drive alive. Low on time, the Panthers settled for Gano's 44-yard field goal and overtime.

The Bengals won the toss, but failed to win the game after Dalton was thrown for a loss on third down in scoring territory. Nugent was good on the 42-yard field goal. In 43 modified overtime games, this is the seventh time a team started with a field goal, creating that unique situation of four-down football without a real clock constraint. This is the third time a team answered back with a field goal of its own. The Panthers took their time with Newton practically acting as the team's running back with 17 carries for 107 yards. In addition to those runs, Newton had 46 passes, but he wasn't sacked once. With all day to throw, he nearly had the game-winning touchdown to Jerricho Cotchery, who couldn't make a play on the ball in the end zone with Jones in coverage. Cotchery was the master of the "uncovered score" last year when he had 10 touchdowns in Pittsburgh, but this was a big missed opportunity.

Ron Rivera could have gone for it on fourth-and-1 (sound familiar?) to try getting the win, but settled for Gano's 36-yard field goal to tie with 2:19 left. Given how good Newton is in short-yardage situations, that's a tough one to pass up, but you have to wonder if the lack of competitiveness in the NFC South played any role in the decision. Even with a loss the Panthers would still be in first place. If this was later in the season with the impact of a win more obvious for playoff standings, then maybe the call would have been different.

Dalton had 2:19 to get a game-winning field goal, starting at his own 20. Despite missing those top receivers, he finished 33-of-43 for 323 yards. He seemingly hit a dagger with a 24-yard strike to James Wright. Tack on 15 yards for roughing the passer and the Bengals were at the Carolina 16, well within range to kick. With 34 seconds and two timeouts left, it wouldn't hurt to try running two plays to get even closer, but Dalton gave himself up in the middle of the field on a 2-yard loss and the Bengals ran the clock down to two seconds before calling timeout. That's really conservative, but kickers should be automatic from this range in today's game.

With all the pressure of a ghastly tie on his shoulders, Nugent blew it and was wide right on the 36-yard kick as time expired. He is only the fourth kicker to ever miss a field goal in overtime with no time remaining.

This actually joins the 2012 tie between the Rams and 49ers as the second game in NFL history in which both quarterbacks led their team from behind in the fourth quarter, only to end in an overtime tie. That overtime featured five possessions. Last year's tie between Green Bay and Minnesota had six. This only had three because of how long the drives were.

Why do we have ties anyway? It's not like the system's really broken. There have now been 20 overtime ties since the system was first introduced in 1974. In 18 of the 20 games you can blame at least one of the kicking units for not giving us a real outcome. Some are more egregious than others, such as the time Neil O'Donoghue missed three field goals in overtime with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1983, including a 19-yard kick.

NFL Overtime Ties and the Field Goals That Would Have Prevented Them
Home Road Year Date Result Missed FG in OT
CIN CAR 2014 10/12/2014 T 37-37 CIN-M.Nugent: 36-yd FG w/0:00 left (WR)
GB MIN 2013 11/24/2013 T 26-26 -
SF STL 2012 11/11/2012 T 24-24 SF-D.Akers: 41-yd FG w/8:07 left (WL)
STL-G.Zuerlein: 58-yd FG w/2:42 left (WR)
CIN PHI 2008 11/16/2008 T 13-13 CIN-S.Graham: 47-yd FG w/0:07 left (WR)
PIT ATL 2002 11/10/2002 T 34-34 PIT-T.Peterson: 48-yd FG w/10:58 left (BLK)
ATL-J.Feely: 56-yd FG w/0:01 left (BLK)
WAS NYG 1997 11/23/1997 T 7-7 NYG-B.Daluiso: 54-yd FG w/3:18 left (WL)
WAS-S.Blanton: 54-yd FG w/0:02 left (SHR)
BAL PHI 1997 11/16/1997 T 10-10 BAL-M.Stover: 53-yd FG w/2:21 left (WR)
PHI-C.Boniol: 40-yd FG w/0:00 left (WL)
CLE KC 1989 11/19/1989 T 10-10 KC-N.Lowery: 47-yd FG w/0:03 left (SHR)
NYJ KC 1988 10/2/1988 T 17-17 NYJ-P.Leahy: 44-yd FG w/5:09 left (WR)
GB DEN 1987 9/20/1987 T 17-17 GB-A.Del Greco: 47-yd FG w/10:58 left (SHR)
DEN-R.Karlis: 40-yd FG w/0:09 left (WL)
PHI STLC 1986 12/7/1986 T 10-10 STLC-E.Schubert: 40-yd FG w/10:55 left (BLK)
PHI-P.McFadden: 43-yd FG w/1:33 left (WL)
STLC-E.Schubert: 37-yd FG w/0:05 left (WR)
ATL SF 1986 10/19/1986 T 10-10 -
DET PHI 1984 11/4/1984 T 23-23 DET-E.Murray: 21-yd FG w/10:16 left (RP)
STLC NYG 1983 10/24/1983 T 20-20 STLC-N.O'Donoghue: 44-yd FG w/8:50 left (WL)
STLC-N.O'Donoghue: 19-yd FG w/1:03 left (WR)
STLC-N.O'Donoghue: 42-yd FG w/0:20 left (WR)
BALC GB 1982 12/19/1982 T 20-20 BALC-D.Miller: 44-yd FG w/10:54 left (BLK)
GB-J.Stenerud: 47-yd FG w/1:56 left (WR)
MIA NYJ 1981 10/4/1981 T 28-28 NYJ-P.Leahy: 48-yd FG w/0:00 left (WR)
TB GB 1980 10/12/1980 T 14-14 GB-T.Birney: 36-yd FG w/0:00 left (WR)
GB MIN 1978 11/26/1978 T 10-10 MIN-R.Danmeier: 21-yd FG w/4:00 left (WR)
GB-C.Marcol: 40-yd FG w/0:17 left (WL)
MIN LARM 1976 9/19/1976 T 10-10 LARM-T.Dempsey: 30-yd FG (BLK)
DEN PIT 1974 9/22/1974 T 35-35 DEN-J.Turner: 41-yd FG
Key: WR (Wide Right), WL (Wide Left), BLK (Blocked), SHR (Short), RP (Right Post)

This one had a lot of potential heroes and goats that could have changed the outcome, but the play that will be remembered most is Nugent blowing the field goal. It's likely this tie will have some impact too, with both the Bengals and Panthers the favorites in their divisions right now.

Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind

Green Bay Packers 27 at Miami Dolphins 24

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 7 (24-17)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD starting with 2:04 left): 0.32
Head Coach: Mike McCarthy (13-33-1 at 4QC and 19-35-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers (7-25 at 4QC and 11-27 overall 4QC/GWD record)

If there was a game this season to build a case study from for fourth-quarter decision making, then this would be the game to use. We had textbook examples of "kick it or go for it," a four-minute offense, and a two-minute drill.

A slow start was followed by 38 total points in the second half. Miami came back in the fourth quarter and proceeded to take a 24-17 lead on a 5-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace. Green Bay's drive stalled in the red zone and Mike McCarthy was faced with the first major coaching decision in the final five minutes: do I go for it on fourth-and-6 or kick the 30-yard field goal with 4:13 left?

I liked the decision to kick here. Green Bay needed two scores to win the game anyway, so get the high-percentage field goal now, then use the two timeouts and two-minute warning to get the ball back and drive for the game-winning touchdown with hopefully little time left. If this was fourth-and-2 or shorter, then they probably should have gone for it, but fourth-and-6 is usually a defensive stop.

Miami had 4:09 to burn with the precarious 24-20 lead. You have to be pretty aggressive in the four-minute offense when playing a team like Green Bay. Ryan Tannehill came out throwing from the shotgun, but Clay Matthews knocked down his pass to stop the clock. Tannehill converted on second down, so credit to Joe Philbin for staying with the pass. However, on the next second down, disaster nearly struck when Tannehill was sacked, but a penalty for illegal use of hands gave Miami an automatic first down. The only bad news was that it stopped the clock with 3:10 left and the Packers still with one timeout.

Tannehill was hot in the second half, so an argument could have been made to stick with him here, but the Dolphins ran for a yard on first down and Green Bay used their third timeout. Where things went really wrong was the ass-backwards strategy on second and third down. Tannehill tried to throw on second-and-9, but Matthews again forced an incompletion. Their third-and-9 play had to be a pass, but the Dolphins fooled no one with a run for a yard against a run blitz. That brought the clock down to 2:15, but a subpar punt and a 17-yard return by Micah Hyde meant Rodgers only needed to manufacture 60 yards in 2:04.

Burning off the extra 40 seconds simply isn't a big deal here, because 2:04 is still an eternity for offenses to drive 60 yards. The win probability calculator doesn't even move between having 3:00 (0.33) and 2:15 (0.33) in this situation.

Why would the probability change? All that loss of 40 seconds did was give Miami less time to answer a Green Bay go-ahead touchdown. You can't count on any offense to milk the clock when it absolutely needs a touchdown. If the scoring opportunity is there, the player's going to take it in a four-point game every single time. It's not like Larry Fitzgerald thought about going down at the 1-yard line in Super Bowl XLIII so Ben Roethlisberger didn't have as much time to get a score. He scored with 2:37 left. Any defensive stop in the final two minutes and the game is over.

Miami should have either passed on both downs, or ran on second down to burn clock, then set up a third-down pass that could have won the game by giving the Dolphins a first down at the two-minute warning. Miami did things backwards, and the 1-yard run on third-and-9 was a worthless attempt that actually gave the Packers a better shot at winning in the final seconds.

James Starks started the Green Bay drive well with a 12-yard run out of the shotgun to get to the two-minute warning. Miami's front four applied good pressure on Rodgers and nearly won the game with a strip-sack, but T.J. Lang saved the day by recovering the ball. With the crowd into it on fourth-and-10 and the Packers trying to regroup after the sack, Philbin made another error by calling a timeout with 1:07 left. I'm not going to cite momentum, but clearly the Miami defense was doing an adequate job with the players on the field and by calling a timeout, the Packers were able to settle down and pick the perfect play for fourth-and-10. You have to let that one play out.

Miami rushed four again, but Rodgers got the throw off at the last possible moment and found Jordy Nelson (who else?) for 18 yards after Brent Grimes fell down. Grimes had a rough final quarter against Nelson. Green Bay continued to live dangerously with the late downs. Starks barely gained enough to convert a third-and-10.

Randall Cobb got into the drive with a really poor play. He fell down after catching a 4-yard pass he was better off dropping. With the clock running, most teams would have spiked the ball with 12 seconds left at the Miami 16 to set up a few shots at the end zone. In the Stadium of Many Name Changes where Dan Marino once ruled, Rodgers pulled out perhaps the most famous fake spike since Marino beat the Jets 20 years ago. With Cortland Finnegan playing as far off as he was from Davante Adams, there was a great chance this was going to work.

That's extreme confidence in a rookie receiver. If he gets tackled in bounds, the game is over. I loved the play when watching it live, because it's such a smart idea to make the touchdown easier. Too many teams would try for the difficult 16-yard throw. Jake Delhomme in 2008 against San Diego was the first quarterback I think I noticed to take advantage of the defense in this situation by throwing to an open receiver at the sideline to make the touchdown easier. That wasn't a fake spike that day, but the logic was the same.

On further review, I'm less enamored with this play, because if Finnegan would have attacked the catch instead of hesitating, he might have brought Adams down to end the game, or at the very least he wouldn't have given up a whopping 12 yards to make the touchdown much easier. But the trickery created some confusion in Miami's defense, and that's probably why Finnegan was afraid to miss the tackle, because he wasn't sure if anyone was behind him to save the touchdown.

Miami used another timeout, but this one was far less egregious than the previous. With six seconds left, Green Bay could get off two plays if necessary. Miami had to expect a quick pass into the end zone. When tight end Andrew Quarless split out wide and drew the assignment of linebacker Philip Wheeler, the Dolphins were toast. Cue the back-shoulder throw. Quarless had the 4-yard touchdown with three seconds left and Wheeler not even laying a finger on him. You're better off applying the Duke Williams coverage and making the Packers try again.

Miami had two seconds to answer, but a lateral-filled mess just resulted in Julius Peppers adding a fumble recovery to his career stats.

While some of the networks' post-game coverage made it sound like this is old hat for Rodgers, it's actually the first game-winning drive in his career that started in the final four minutes with Green Bay trailing by more than two points. It was touchdown-or-bust and he broke the Dolphins and Philbin, his former offensive coordinator. Rodgers knows he needed this one too. It's his sixth game-winning touchdown pass, but probably the second most memorable after last year's play to Cobb in Week 17 in Chicago.

San Diego Chargers 31 at Oakland Raiders 28

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 7 (28-21)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD starting with 4:18 left): 0.42
Head Coach: Mike McCoy (5-6 at 4QC and 5-7 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Philip Rivers (18-40 at 4QC and 21-43 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Tony Sparano's first game as interim coach in place of the fired Dennis Allen could not have started much better. Derek Carr hit Andre Holmes for a 77-yard touchdown on the third play from scrimmage and the Raiders played their best game of the season against their toughest opponent yet. The offense failed to score more than 14 points in the first four games before the bye week, but Carr threw his fourth touchdown pass with 10:01 left in the fourth quarter to take a 28-21 lead.

This was turning into one of the season's biggest shockers, but Philip Rivers and the Chargers have broken the hearts of Oakland fans many times before. While the Oakland offense was much improved, the defense still struggled. Much like Green Bay in Miami, the Chargers used two drives to take care of the touchdown deficit. Oakland's defense stiffened in the red zone and Nick Novak kicked a 30-yard field goal with 5:52 left to cut the score to 28-24.

That's a lot of time for Oakland to burn, and Carr helped San Diego's cause with some jittery throws. After a near-interception, Carr threw another pass away, but lost 13 yards for intentional grounding. Keenan Allen had a career-long 29-yard punt return to the Oakland 39, and that noise you heard was the sound of inevitability.

Rivers made a rare scramble for a first down before turning things over to newfound back Branden Oliver, who had four effective carries in a row to cover the final 29 yards, including the 1-yard touchdown with 1:56 left. San Diego led 31-28. For a little speed guy, Oliver runs very physically too.

Oakland was still in decent shape with plenty of time for at least a game-tying field goal. The drive almost ended immediately after Carr was sacked and fumbled. Fortunately, there was a face mask penalty for 15 yards. Carr was protected better and completed two passes for 20 yards to the San Diego 45. With 80 seconds left, this was not the time to force things. Carr again had good protection, but lofted a deep ball for Brice Butler that was intercepted by rookie Jason Verrett at the San Diego 5. It was a 50/50 ball and the defense won this battle to secure the win.

We'll chalk that up as a rookie mistake by Carr, who otherwise had a fine day. Passing numbers are off the charts now, but Carr is the 11th true rookie since the 1970 merger to have a game with four touchdown passes. Only Cade McNown (1999) and Trent Edwards (2007) failed to have successful NFL careers. The other names on the list include: Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III, Matthew Stafford, Jake Plummer, Drew Bledsoe, Troy Aikman and Jim Plunkett. That's not bad company.

Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind

Colts at Texans: Thursday Night Football Done Right, Minus the Last Drive

I was never a big fan of recapping Thursday games, because you tend to forget some of the finer details over the weekend. This year I haven't needed to do a Thursday game, because the average margin of victory was 29 points through the first five weeks. Nothing was even close to being within one score late, and when the Colts led 24-0 in Houston after one quarter, we looked to be on the verge of another blowout.

Hell, the game started so poorly, we were even getting "Next Gen Stats" without any numbers from CBS:

Then a competitive game finally started to break out. Andrew Luck and J.J. Watt were billed as the stars, and both certainly delivered, but so did T.Y. Hilton and Arian Foster. Not so great was Bill O'Brien in his first prime-time game as an NFL head coach. Down 33-21 and facing fourth-and-5 with 14:23 left, O'Brien decided to kick a 37-yard field goal. That's a horrible decision given that the Texans needed at least two touchdowns and were playing one of the game's best offenses. Randy Bullock made things worse when he missed the kick wide right.

On a big third-and-12, Luck hurried a snap from his center and it was fumbled. Of all people, Watt was able to get into the pile and scoop up the ball to return it for a touchdown, his third of the season. Houston was only down 33-28 now. I thought 24-point comebacks were supposed to be rare. There have only been 21 successful attempts, but here we were again with a team in striking distance. At this point it's just like a normal one-score game.

Ryan Fitzpatrick turned things around after a miserable start, but Andre Johnson ruined his go-ahead drive. Johnson was penalized for offensive pass interference, then he fumbled a pass at the Indianapolis 41 with 4:38 left. Before CBS' Jim Nantz could even introduce him, former official Mike Carey butted right in with "Nope, never had it. Incomplete." Oh, really? One angle clearly showed Johnson took three steps before losing the ball. Carey was patently wrong and the call was confirmed as a fumble.

Houston used its final timeout to set up a massive third-and-6 with 2:26 left. A first down would clinch the game for the Colts. But on this night, Watt did about all he could as one defender to bring his team back. He swatted down Luck's pass, giving him a final line of three pass deflections, two sacks, three tackles for a loss, four quarterback hits and a fumble return score.

Fitzpatrick had 2:15 to drive 91 yards for the win without a timeout. He started well with a 12-yard pass to Johnson to get to the two-minute warning. However, there's a good reason Fitzpatrick has the worst record among active starters at overall game-winning drive opportunities. He is 9-32-1 (.226) overall and 7-31 (.184) when excluding tied situations. Whether it was with the Rams, Bengals, Bills, Titans or now Texans, Fitzpatrick gets too careless with the football in crunch time.

The Colts rushed four. Fitzpatrick tried pulling the ball down to scramble, but Bjoern Werner forced the decisive strip-sack fumble. DeAndre Hopkins could have dived on the ball to possibly save the drive, but he was pretty nonchalant about things.

The lost fumble was Fitzpatrick's 18th turnover in a failed fourth-quarter comeback opportunity. Only Philip Rivers (22) has more turnovers in that situation among active players since 2005. Until the Texans can upgrade at quarterback, this rivalry is going to play out similarly, with Watt needing a superhuman effort to keep Houston close to Luck and the Colts.

Broncos at Jets: The Rahim Moore Outlier

Believe it or not, all five Denver games have made it into Clutch Encounters this season. Going back to last year's postseason, the Broncos have led by 11 to 21 points early in the fourth quarter in five games of their last seven games. Four of those games turned into one-score contests, and the fifth (the AFC Championship vs. New England) was a two-point conversion away from the Patriots making it five out of five. The Broncos have been making things interesting even after taking sizable leads. It helps when the Broncos commit 11 penalties for 101 yards in a sloppy road performance.

There was never great control of the Jets on Sunday. The offensive line struggled and Peyton Manning was sacked twice. He still threw three touchdown passes and the Broncos led 24-7 late in the third quarter, but the Jets mounted another comeback. Geno Smith played much better this week (which isn't saying much) and found ex-Denver receiver Eric Decker for a 2-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.

The Jets were only down 24-17 and the undisciplined Broncos made another costly mistake when Andre Caldwell hesitantly returned a kickoff to his own 6. The Jets forced a three-and-out, but still started at their own 33 after a 52-yard punt. Aqib Talib played tight coverage on Decker on third down, forcing a Jets three-and-out.

Manning had 5:05 to burn and used the short-passing game to convert a pair of third-and-six plays. Wes Welker's 8-yard catch gave the Broncos a first down with two minutes left. Given that the Jets only had one timeout, the plan at that point really should have been three runs. Denver ran it twice, but on third-and-6, Manning made it an obvious pass from the shotgun. He fit one in to Emmanuel Sanders, but Sanders couldn't hang on in tight coverage. This was a bit of a shock as a Denver run likely takes the clock down to 20 seconds (at best) after the punt. Either way, the punt by Britton Colquitt was good again, pinning the Jets at their own 5.

Von Miller earned his paycheck here. First he knocked down a Smith pass in the end zone and then nearly sacked Smith for a safety. On third-and-14, Talib read Smith all the way for an easy pick-six to make a 31-17 final that was far more difficult for Denver than the score would suggest.

Maybe it's a conservative John Fox philosophy, or maybe it's defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio's tactics, but the Broncos have had issues holding onto big leads. But when the game tightens up at the end, the defense has been very good, coming away with a few big interceptions or other splash plays. The following table shows every game with a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity (offense down by eight points or less) against Denver's defense since 2012.

Denver Broncos Defense: Fourth-Quarter Comeback Attempts (Down 1-8 PTS), 2012-14
Date Opp. QB Ahead Final Time Drive Result
9/9/2012 PIT B.Roethlisberger 25-19 W 31-19 3:00 T.Porter pick-six w/1:58 left
10/15/2012 at SD P.Rivers 28-24 W 35-24 3:52 C.Harris pick-six w/2:05 left
11/4/2012 at CIN A.Dalton 24-20 W 31-20 11:42 C.Bailey INT w/8:38 left
11/18/2012 SD P.Rivers 30-23 W 30-23 0:23 E.Dumervil sacks Rivers to end game
11/25/2012 at KC B.Quinn 17-9 W 17-9 0:11 D.Bruton INT w/0:00 left
1/12/2013 BAL J.Flacco 35-28 L 38-35 OT 1:09 70-yd TD pass to J.Jones w/0:31 left
9/15/2013 at NYG E.Manning 24-16 W 41-23 15:25 C.Harris INT w/14:53 left
10/6/2013 at DAL T.Romo 48-48* W 51-48 2:39 D.Trevathan INT w/1:57 left
10/27/2013 WAS R.Griffin 28-21 W 45-21 14:18 V.Miller strip-sack w/13:15 left
11/10/2013 at SD P.Rivers 28-20 W 28-20 6:43 Incomplete on 3rd-and-16 w/3:37 left
11/24/2013 at NE T.Brady 24-21 L 34-31 OT 14:32 J.Edelman go-ahead TD rec. w/13:13 left
12/1/2013 at KC A.Smith 35-28 W 35-28 3:32 Incomplete on 4th-and-4 at DEN 13 w/1:46 left
12/22/2013 at HOU M.Schaub 16-13 W 37-13 15:21 M.Adams INT w/14:11 left
9/7/2014 IND A.Luck 31-24 W 31-24 2:58 Incomplete on 4th-and-6 at DEN 39 w/1:51 left
9/14/2014 KC A.Smith 24-17 W 24-17 3:20 Incomplete on 4th-and-2 at DEN 2 w/0:15 left
10/5/2014 ARI L.Thomas 27-20 W 41-20 13:48 Three-and-out w/12:20 left
10/12/2014 at NYJ G.Smith 24-17 W 31-17 0:56 A.Talib pick-six w/0:15 left
*Trailed earlier in 4th quarter; allowed 15 points to Dallas in quarter

Note: not every drive is listed for each game.

The Broncos are 15-2 in these games. The New England loss wasn't really on the defense in the fourth quarter and overtime. Manning threw an interception to set up the Patriots on a short field and in overtime, a muffed punt set up the Patriots' game-winning field goal. The 2013 Dallas game was rough for the defense, but Danny Trevathan picked off Romo at the end to set up Denver's winning kick.

The only true blemish is in the biggest game on the list: the 2012 AFC Divisional game vs. Baltimore. We all know what happened there when Joe Flacco let one rip for Jacoby Jones with Rahim Moore in coverage. Aside from that outlier, the Broncos have been solid in the close games, but would prefer to close things out earlier than they have been lately.

Jaguars at Titans: Scobee-Do Only When It's the Colts

Under Mike Munchak, the 2011-13 Titans lost games to some of the worst teams in the league: the 0-13 Colts of 2011, the 1-9 Jaguars of 2012, last year's Texans before they went on a 14-game losing streak and last year's 0-8 Jacksonville squad. The coach is now Ken Whisenhunt, but fresh off the biggest blown lead at home in NFL history, the Titans nearly fell in Nashville again to a winless Jacksonville team that entered with the league's worst point differential (minus-102).

Don't get me wrong. The Titans haven't been a good team for years, but the Jaguars entered the week 32nd in DVOA. At least rookie quarterback Blake Bortles has brought some excitement to the offense. He also comes with mistakes behind a very inexperienced supporting cast. After a game-opening drive for a touchdown, the offense continued to stall and watch the Titans take a 16-7 lead in the fourth quarter.

When Cecil Shorts fumbled at the Titans' 10-yard line with 4:25 left, it felt unlikely this would ever get back to a one-score game with enough time remaining. Bortles got the ball back and scrambled to his own 40 with two minutes to play, still down 16-7. Shorts atoned for his fumble with two tough catches before Bortles found Clay Harbor open down the seam on third-and-15. The Titans made a weak attempt on the tackle and Harbor had a 20-yard touchdown.

Out of timeouts, the only way Jacksonville could get the ball back was to recover an onside kick. The ball took a favorable bounce off a Tennessee player and Michael Griffin muffed the catch. The Jaguars had life at their own 42 with 36 seconds left. With the way one-minute drills go these days, this could easily have turned into a 17-16 win with one great throw.

A pass deflection at the line cost Bortles four seconds. Shorts caught a 13-yard pass, but stayed in bounds. Bortles spiked the ball, then found Allen Hurns near the sideline for 8 more yards. Hurns' momentum led him out of bounds, because with better body control he could have gained a few more yards. With 12 seconds left the Jaguars should have tried one more play to the sideline, especially given how soft the Titans played the bunch formation on the Hurns reception, using a three-man rush and big cushions in coverage).

Jacksonville settled for the 55-yard field goal attempt. Josh Scobee has made some big game-winning kicks in his career. Oddly enough, all of them were against the Colts (51, 53 and 59 yards). That's still a tough kick when you need the lower trajectory, and sure enough the Titans were able to get a block by Sammie Lee Hill. Scobee is now 23-of-38 (60.5 percent) on field goals of at least 50 yards in his career.

There won't be many games more winnable for the Jaguars this year than this one. They should have trusted the offense to make one more play to help Scobee. How big would an extra 5 yards have been? Eighteen of Scobee's 23 makes from 50-plus are in the 50- to 53-yard range.

Redskins at Cardinals: George-Michael Bluth Won't Kiss This Cousins

Just like the Jets, the Redskins have started 1-5 with: a win over a pushover, an embarrassing rout, and a league-worst 0-4 record at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities against competition that's simply a cut above.

We had not seen Carson Palmer since Week 1 due to a nerve injury, but he returned to action and played well. He helped extend the Cardinals to a 20-13 lead early in the fourth quarter. Washington avoided turnovers for three quarters on the road, but imploded down the stretch. Jerraud Powers stripped Andre Roberts of the ball to set up a field goal by Arizona. Down 23-13, Kirk Cousins missed a throw badly for an interception, but Arizona helped by throwing three incomplete passes instead of burning clock with just over six minutes to play. Bruce Arians has to rein things in a bit in that situation with the two-score lead. Cousins responded with another bad interception, but got the ball back quickly and threw a 5-yard touchdown to Pierre Garcon with 2:17 left.

Without any timeouts the Redskins, had no choice but to try the onside kick. The kick failed to travel 10 yards and obviously didn't work. Two wise runs by Arizona set up a third-and-2 with 1:21 remaining. This should be a running down in the NFL too, but teams usually pass. However, Palmer ran a bootleg that fooled no one and lost 3 yards. That was a bit surprising given how bootlegs usually convert.

This left some mild drama with 35 seconds left, but I like that Arians took the delay of game penalty instead of trying a very long field goal for a cursed six-point lead. Just punt and pin them deep, and that's exactly what Arizona did. Cousins needed 86 yards in 29 seconds, but the Arizona defense only needed one play to thwart another comeback attempt. Under minimal pressure, Cousins threw an awful pass right to Rashad Johnson for a game-clinching 28-yard pick-six, the third interception of the quarter. Arizona has yet to suffer an interception on any of its 178 passes this season.

49ers at Rams: Can Anyone Close in This League?

On Monday night the 49ers scored a touchdown in the final minute of each half, but only one was necessary. Trailing 14-0 early, San Francisco got back on track with Colin Kaepernick's 80-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Lloyd, who beat Janoris Jenkins on a double move with 14 seconds left before halftime. You just never see long scores like that before halftime, and ESPN even said during the broadcast this was the latest long score in a second quarter since 1970.

Austin Davis' hot start turned cold thanks to the 49ers' pass rush, and the Rams were down 24-14 in the fourth quarter. San Francisco failed on numerous opportunities to put this game away. Vance McDonald tried to snatch a touchdown away from Vernon Davis in the end zone. Bypassing the field goal, Jim Harbaugh went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 2, but Carlos Hyde never had a real path to a score. I liked the decision to go for it, because a 17-point lead in the final six minutes is practically a guaranteed win. A 13-point lead opens up a team to lose by a point, while a 10-point lead will undoubtedly let conservatism creep into the minds of the opponent with the field goal an option.

Frank Gore got the carry on another fourth-and-short, but he too was stuffed for no gain with 4:19 left. The 49ers had just 27 handoffs for 52 yards on the night. The Rams settled for a late 38-yard field goal, but failed on the onside kick with 2:23 left. After St. Louis used its final timeout, the 49ers had two or three plays to gain 5 yards and end this one. Instead of giving the mobile, highly-paid Kaepernick a run-pass option on one of the best nights of his career (343 passing yards, three touchdowns, zero turnovers), the 49ers ran Hyde twice for two yards and punted.

Again, why are quarterbacks being paid so much if teams would rather hand the ball off to a rookie and hope the defense doesn't blow the lead? Fear of an interception is as cowardly as it gets. Quarterbacks are throwing interceptions on 2.4 percent of their passes in 2014, which would be a record low. In this situation, the quarterback knows better than to be risky, and in the 49ers' case, Kaepernick can run with the best of them to keep the clock moving. Are they afraid of a sack? Well, that still keeps the clock running and the 2014 Rams have just one sack in five games, the fewest since the sack became an official stat in 1982. Imagine that with this expensive defensive line.

Now this wasn't the direst of situations. Up 24-17, most of the league would be content with running, punting and making Davis drive the Rams 91 yards in 65 seconds. But we know even if the opponent was better and if the lead was smaller (four to six points), a lot of those same teams would still run and punt with their tail tucked between their legs.

Two plays into the drive Dontae Johnson read Davis all the way and made a pick-six, which was the third of Week 6 in the final minute by a leading team. None of them were necessary, but they sure made the final scores look better for the winners.

Maybe I'm just a dreamer, but having your best player pick up a couple of yards and ending the game with a few kneeldowns still feels like the ideal way to close games in this league. That's not as dramatic, but I'm just aiming to maximize win probability while minimizing the level of exertion and risk of injuries.

Season Summary
Fourth-quarter comebacks: 22
Game-winning drives: 26
Games with 4QC opportunity: 54/91 (59.3 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 18

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 14 Oct 2014

15 comments, Last at 15 Oct 2014, 1:02pm by iron_greg

Comments

1
by apk3000 :: Tue, 10/14/2014 - 2:54pm

WAS NYG 1997 11/23/1997

Ah, the Gus Frerotte headbutts the wall game.

2
by Deelron :: Tue, 10/14/2014 - 2:58pm

"Vance McDonald tried to snatch a touchdown away from Vernon Davis in the end zone."

Have to disagree on this one, I'd have it the other way around watching it live, either way the TEs were awful (fumble/drops/slamming into each other) for the 49ers that game.

3
by Scott Kacsmar :: Tue, 10/14/2014 - 3:09pm

Neil O'Donoghue clearly the worst offender on the OT list. Like I just told someone on Twitter, he fittingly has the lowest FG% (59.3 percent) of any NFL kicker to start his career since 1977 (min. 50 FGA). On the day he missed those three kicks, it was 56 degrees, cloudy and minimal wind in St. Louis.

6
by Travis :: Tue, 10/14/2014 - 3:37pm

To be as fair as possible to O'Donoghue, it was a Monday Night game, so the temperature had dropped all the way to 54 by kickoff.

5
by iron_greg :: Tue, 10/14/2014 - 3:27pm

Rather than making the case that the Broncos were simply unlucky to have that Rahim Moore blemish, maybe they're lucky to be 15-2 in these contests? I only count four below average QBs there (Geno, Thomas, Schaub, Quinn).

I count 9 turnovers generated by the defense in those 17 4QC situations (nice table by the way). That seems...a bit fortuitous even with the adjustment for the opponent's desperation to regain the lead.

By DVOA, Baltimore noticeably outplayed Denver in that game anyway except on ST. I'd say the outcome was the proper and deserved one even if the circumstances were pretty fortunate for Baltimore on that particular drive. I think the stakes make it seem more of an outlier when in truth, it is possibly an outlier that Denver went 15-2 in these games (i'm sure you have the data on how that stacks up to other teams in the same time span?)

Let me put it this way: if Denver hadn't endured those two losses under improbable circumstances, they'd be 17-0 in 4QC defense situations....doesn't that scream outlier too?

10
by Ryan :: Tue, 10/14/2014 - 4:13pm

Not with Peyton Manning. I know that sounds homer-ish, but his career numbers back it up.

11
by iron_greg :: Tue, 10/14/2014 - 5:26pm

No it makes some sense but I figured that in many of these situations, Manning's work was done and it was on the defense. Manning gave his team the lead and 15 of 17 times, the defense did what it was supposed to do. That seems to me that 15-2 is a pretty good track record for a defense (even though 1 of those came at the worst time)

12
by Scott Kacsmar :: Tue, 10/14/2014 - 6:37pm

I have things broken down by offenses, so I don't have the defensive numbers neatly put together. Took me a little time to prepare the Denver table. Allowing 2 4QC in 41 games sounds pretty good to me. The 3rd GWD allowed by Denver since 2012 was of course Seattle in Week 3 (not a 4QC since they didn't trail). That too was in OT, so every GWD against Denver was in OT, including two after a turnover.

I think 15-2 is an outlier in the sense that it's the kind of record we'd expect from a top team (or the top). The Broncos have been a No. 1 seed the last two years and probably favored to do so again this year.

I'd have to verify this again, but I think the 2001-07 Patriots were 45-2 at defending 4QC attempts before SB 42. Now that's insane. Only A.J. Feeley (2004 Dolphins) and Peyton (2006 AFC-C) broke them before New York's drive.

One thing helping out Denver in that table is the average lead was 5.9 points, so the opponent usually needed a TD, and that was often just to tie the game. Not like they were being asked to hang onto a 1-point lead for 12 minutes that often. So that helps you get to 15-2. Manning turning some of those takeaways into points to build a two-score lead also helps.

15
by iron_greg :: Wed, 10/15/2014 - 1:02pm

Gotcha, thanks for the clarification Scott. And wow 45-2, that is absurd. Really helps validate the notion that the playoffs can sometimes be strange and even random. Granted the playoffs have better teams so of course defending 4QC becomes more difficult against elite teams playing for their season but still.

4
by Travis :: Tue, 10/14/2014 - 3:25pm

[Nugent] is only the fourth kicker to ever miss a field goal in overtime with no time remaining.

FWIW, Roger Ruzek of the Eagles missed a 38-yarder with no time left in overtime in the last game of the 1993 season, but the 49ers roughed him on the play. Ruzek was good from 28 on the retry.

7
by Noah Arkadia :: Tue, 10/14/2014 - 3:44pm

"I'm not going to cite momentum".

Why can't we say momentum is a new element that comes into play -be it strategy, technique, personnel, or other- which gives a team a momentary advantage until the opponent adjusts? If the word is so laden with magical connotations we don't want to use it, maybe we can call it initiative.

------
Who, me?

8
by Bobman :: Tue, 10/14/2014 - 3:49pm

Thanks for bringing up Scobee's only game winning 50+ yard kicks. It's like pouring lemon juice in a paper cut. Witch! You could add in the late Rob Bironas as well--he killed the Colts on a couple late, improbably kicks, including one over 60. Humperdink! Humperdink! Humperdink!

9
by DisplacedPackerFan :: Tue, 10/14/2014 - 3:54pm

You know after seeing how Philbin handled things for the Dolphins I actually started to wonder if Rodgers and McCarthy's issues in come backs might have had something to do with him, because they seem to have gotten better at since he moved on, and there were things that happened to Miami that I recall happening to Green Bay that wiped out what would have been comebacks for Rodgers. It's not a nice thing to say about Joe, and it probably has nothing to do with it, but I did wonder.

13
by Scott Kacsmar :: Tue, 10/14/2014 - 6:46pm

FWIW, the Philbin-Tannehill Dolphins are 5-13 (.278) at 4QC/GWD. That's one of the worst records in the league, but I don't think Philbin was responsible for many big decisions in GB, so I wouldn't make that connection. Since Philbin left, the Packers are 7-10-1 at GWD opportunities. What's changed a little, and again I don't think Philbin matters here, is GB's had some bigger-margin losses since 2012 (12 NYG, 12 SF NFC-DIV, 13 PHI, 13 DET, 14 SEA, 14 DET). Before that Gaints game it used to be that every loss was at least very close for GB.

In Miami, I think the problem in 2012 was mostly the rookie QB and things were a bit better last year. 0-2 this year with some really stupid play-calling.

14
by lrargerich :: Tue, 10/14/2014 - 11:48pm

Scott your column was great, you are the only writer that dissected almost everything that happened in the Dolphins-Packers game.
I'd like to add a critic to the final timeout taken by Philbin and ask you what you think.

After Miami takes the timeout Rodgers sees the formation and points to Quarless telling him the route to run. He is basically telling the whole world the play but Miami can't stop it because they can't call consecutive timeouts so I wonder if this has ever been considered.

After a defensive timeout the offense has some freedom to audible?