Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

29 Dec 2015

Clutch Encounters: Week 16

by Scott Kacsmar

We have nine games with comeback opportunities to go over this week, including three overtimes, but I wanted to start with a game that will not be featured below. For the first time in his career (71 games including playoffs), Russell Wilson lost a game without having a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity. Seattle's 85-game streak without a blowout is technically still alive due to the score being 16-10 and 23-17 in the fourth quarter, but the Seattle offense was unable to get a possession with a one-score deficit. That has not happened to the Seahawks since a loss to Dallas 80 games ago in 2011. Somehow, backwards-hat Jeff Fisher pulled this one out in Seattle, but it was just one of several surprising results in divisional rematches in Week 16.

A year ago I did a study of divisional rematches and found that the results of the first game did not correlate well with what happened in the rematch. The average turnaround was 4.2 points in scoring margin. Teams change a lot over the course of a season, so it is hard to expect very similar results. Michael Vick, Le'veon Bell, Joe Flacco, and Steve Smith all started in the Week 4 game between the Steelers and the Ravens. None of those players were active in Sunday's rematch, and none have been active for the last several games for both teams. The presence of those players affects how those teams play, yet the status quo for team stats is to treat them as one entity with 15 games' worth of data at this point.

Teams are constantly changing throughout the season, making it hard to trust the averages as meaningful numbers for the current week's matchup. A team's season is more like 16 entities belonging to the same population. Some parts are constant, but not enough as we would like due to injuries and disappointing performance.

I always like to cite a lyric from a Grade song to explain covering the NFL. "And I'm one-hundred percent that I'm not sure, because every time you think you got it, it changes."

Do not get me wrong. I think this site and the others like it do a great job of explaining why teams win and lose games. Between the metrics and game-charting data, we can cover the game and its players better than ever before. But I keep getting more and more jaded about the prospects of predictive analysis, and this is only my fifth season of covering the NFL. What should we have been looking at that would have predicted Seattle's slow start, the ensuing crazy five-game stretch by Wilson and Doug Baldwin, and then Sunday's dud against the Rams? Where are they going from here with the playoffs coming?

St. Louis swept Seattle this season, but its Week 16 win could hardly have been more different from its victory in Week 1. That day, Nick Foles threw some very good vertical passes against a secondary that was missing holdout Kam Chancellor and starting newcomer Cary Williams. Foles turned out to be a poor acquisition for the Rams this season. On Sunday, his replacement Case Keenum had a very "game manager" performance, hitting one big pass to Kenny Britt. Chancellor returned months ago to improve the defense (though he missed this game with an injury) and Williams was released weeks ago. In Week 1, Todd Gurley was inactive and Marshawn Lynch was active. The opposite was true in Week 16. Jimmy Graham and Robert Quinn were expected to be huge contributors to these teams this year. They are both on injured reserve. Russell Okung was also out on Sunday.

Those are just a few major differences between the games, yet here is one thing that remained the same: Wilson attempted 41 passes in both games. He has never thrown more than 37 passes in his other 69 starts. St. Louis has usually played Wilson and this offense tough in the eight meetings since 2012, so maybe a 23-17 final was not so surprising in the rain. Then again, Wilson had one of the most prolific games of his career in St. Louis when he threw for 313 yards and rushed for 106 yards in 2014.

Yes, this has gone knee deep into "gee, the NFL produces some crazy shit each week!" territory, but I just find it fascinating how this game seems to be getting less predictive despite more data being collected than ever before. I think less practice time, more injuries, and more passing (which has higher variance than running) in the last few years is driving up the unpredictability, but this is where I have to end my rant and get on with the regularly scheduled program.

If we knew everything that was going to happen, then this would be a boring job. The surprises are what keep things so interesting each week. While I would never stop anyone's pursuit of getting better at predictive analysis, I fully acknowledge that I am much better at explaining things after they happen instead of being a fortune teller. I love to write this column to look at the close games and hold the right people accountable for why those games were won or lost, or why they should have turned out differently. I will always prefer to explain why Bill Belichick kicked off in overtime instead of trying to figure out what the hell he's going to do next.

Game of the Week

New England Patriots 20 at New York Jets 26

Type: GWD (OT)
Head Coach: Todd Bowles (2-3 at 4QC and 3-3 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Ryan Fitzpatrick (9-34 at 4QC and 12-35-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Bill Belichick did what in overtime? Deny Tom Brady the ball, are you kidding me?

Well, he did it first in a bigger game in 2013, and no one complained then because the Patriots went on to win in a wind-influenced decision. Mike Zimmer kicked off in overtime earlier this season, and no one paid attention because it was Vikings-Rams, but he won too. Now Belichick has done it twice, and this one resulted in a loss, so of course the pitchforks are out, but I think it was a very reasonable move. I practically beg for a coach to do this every other overtime game, so hopefully this outcome does not deter Belichick or anyone else from doing it in the future. Overtime has changed, and going first on offense is no longer an automatic decision.

It is good we have something like this to talk about, because the game itself was not the most thrilling. The Week 7 matchup was better. This time, the Jets kicked another field goal in the fourth quarter, but they should have been content to take a 20-13 lead, and any 49-yard field goal from Randy Bullock is gravy. The defense had to stop Brady and the offense three times, but they only succeeded twice. Brady found Rob Gronkowski on two fourth downs to keep the drive going before James White embarrassed David Harris on a juke for a walk-in touchdown with 1:55 left to tie the game.

When the Jets got the ball back, Ryan Fitzpatrick was just inches too long on a deep pass to Quincy Enunwa that could have set up a winning field goal. The Patriots got the ball back and ran out the clock. Some might argue the Patriots should have pushed the ball with 25 seconds left similar to what Washington did on Saturday night, but this offense is not built to attack the sidelines with deep routes, which is really what you need there. Kneeling for overtime made sense.

So there we were with the coin toss. A lot of the outrage, fake or not, really comes from the way CBS and Dan Fouts called this sequence. Matthew Slater had a look of confusion on his face, but you clearly heard "We want to kick off that way" from him, because he knew Belichick wanted to kick. The only confusion was getting to choose which side to kick from. Fouts had the nerve to say "Slater was trying to correct the mistake and [official] Clete Blakeman wouldn't let him!" No, there was no controversy here. The mistake was Slater should have clarified which end to kick from, but he said kick, so the Patriots did not get to choose the direction. Belichick stands by the decision and it is hard to blame him.

It just so happens that Enunwa hit a big play for 48 yards and Eric Decker smoked Malcolm Butler for a 6-yard touchdown to wrap this one up quickly. It looks bad when Brady never leaves the bench, but you have to consider the matchup and how your team is playing when deciding to kick off or receive in modified overtime. There is no perfect strategy, and it is a case-by-case decision. This just happened to be a bad week to kick off since all three home teams took the ball first and won the game.

That brings the record to 38-32-3 (.541) for the team receiving first in modified overtime. That may be looking better, but keep in mind the team receiving first is on a nice 10-3 stretch since Week 6. The record was under .500 just a couple of months ago. The sample size is still too small to really know what the advantage is, but I think it can be very close to .500 down the road. It is definitely better than the old system where the coin toss was basically deciding around 60 percent of overtime games.

Other numbers are in Belichick's favor. The Jets are just the 13th team in 73 games to score an opening-drive touchdown, so 82.2 percent of the time both teams have touched the ball at least once. That touchdown rate of 17.8 percent sounds awfully familiar. First, it is a safe assumption that a team receiving first will have to drive 80 yards for the touchdown due to the kickoff rule change in 2011. In 73 games, 72.6 percent of the teams going first started their drive at or inside the 20. The average start was just the 22.5. Only nine teams started at the 30 or better. Only one team started in opponent territory, and that was St. Louis in Week 1 after Seattle's Pete Carroll tried an onside kick, which is something else we need to see happen more often. (An onside recovery counts as an opportunity for both teams to possess the ball, so the kicking team can then win on a first-drive field goal.)

So the long field is expected, but if you get the stop, then the kicking team's average field position for its drive is the 30.0. That is a nice advantage when you know just a field goal will win the game. On any field length, the average offense scores a touchdown on 21.2 percent of its drives. When starting at their own 20 or worse, offenses have scored a touchdown on 17.6 percent of drives in 2015. It is 18.7 percent for drives starting at exactly the 20. These numbers are consistent with the past few seasons. The average defense should be able to prevent a long touchdown drive about 82 percent of the time.

But these are not your average teams. First, let's check the numbers in the two games against each other this year, heading into overtime. The Jets scored four touchdowns on 21 drives (19.0 percent), but New England also scored on a defensive touchdown in the third quarter on Sunday. The Patriots scored four touchdowns on 19 drives (21.1 percent), but that includes one on a short field (47 yards) and one at the end of the last game where the Jets basically let Gronkowski score with an embarrassing blitz. On Sunday, the Patriots scored just one touchdown on nine drives, and needed two fourth-down conversions to do so. Brady did not have his safety valves in Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. He lost his left tackle Sebastian Vollmer in the first quarter, and the Jets were starting to get pressure in the fourth quarter. This sure did not look like an offense that was likely to drive 80 yards for a touchdown, and Belichick had to be considering all of these things.

There was also the memory of the Denver game from Week 12 where the Patriots, after losing Gronkowski, received first when they definitely should have kicked first. The Patriots went three-and-out, Denver started at its own 43 and put the game away with a long touchdown run by C.J. Anderson. That one was even more favorable to kicking off than this game. Going three-and-out really hurts. The Jets entered Week 16 as the No. 2 defense at forcing three-and-out drives (29.3 percent).

Can you guess who No. 1 was? The Patriots have forced a three-and-out on 33.3 percent of opponent drives this season, best in the league. I removed drives that started with under a minute in a half, and the Patriots have faced 68 drives that started at exactly the 20-yard line this season. They allowed a touchdown on 11 of them (16.2 percent). The Jets have scored a touchdown in that situation on 19.4 percent of their drives and allowed a touchdown on 13.5 percent of such drives. Now for a horrific defense like the Saints, that number is actually 43.4 percent (23-of-55). Putting that defense on the field over Drew Brees would be lunacy, but neither of these defenses are anywhere close to that level. For most, engineering a long touchdown drive of 80-plus yards is going to happen in that range of 15 to 20 percent of the time. It is still hard to do in this game.

Why spend all this time talking about the touchdown? A team can go first, kick a field goal, and still play great defense to end the game and win too. But how do you know you won't end up punting, allowing a few first downs and giving up a game-winning field goal in sudden death? There is value in going on defense first so you know exactly what you'll need on the next drive when true sudden death kicks in. This is why the standard in college football overtime is to go on defense first. Here, there is a fear you can lose the game without touching the ball, but it rarely happens. Compare the 13 times that has happened to the 14 times a team has turned the ball over on the first drive, including two return touchdowns to end the game immediately. You also get the benefit of the team going first playing conservatively and sticking to three-down football for its drive. Once they get into field goal range, few are willing to go all-out for the touchdown, which is really the major advantage of going first. You need that touchdown.

The defense's goal, no matter which drive number it is, is to never allow a touchdown. If you give up a field goal, it is not the end of the world anymore. Your offense will get a shot, and it will get to play four-down football with no real concern about the clock. Think about how rare that is. So many drives late in the game are bogged down because you are playing against the clock. You get limited to sideline routes and cannot run the ball. Here, the entire playbook and field are open to an offense, but we have only seen this situation 14 times so far. After those 14 field goals, four teams tied the game with a field goal, a fifth missed, and the other nine all failed to score. As you'll read later, the latest attempts were pretty disappointing.

All things considered, Belichick thought this was the best thing to do, and I agree with him on this one. It may not be the best thing to do the next time the Patriots go to overtime, but it was more than respectable here.

Just under a quarter (24.7 percent) of modified overtime games have ended with a team kicking off, getting the ball back, and kicking a game-winning field goal on the second possession. That feels not only ideal, but is still the most common ending through 73 games.

Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind

Cincinnati Bengals 17 at Denver Broncos 20

Type: 4QC/GWD (OT)
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 4 (14-10)
Head Coach: Gary Kubiak (17-38 at 4QC and 24-39 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Brock Osweiler (2-2 at 4QC and 2-2 overall 4QC/GWD record)

If we get games like this in the playoffs, then it is going to be a great finish to what has not been a quality regular season. This was virtually a playoff game on Monday night. The Bengals were playing for a first-round bye, which deserves credit as a means of advancing in the playoffs. The Broncos needed a win to make sure they were even in the tournament, not leaving things to chance in Week 17. While both teams had some limitations with their backup quarterbacks' lack of experience showing at times against talented defenses, it made for an evenly matched contest.

It was all Cincinnati early, as the Bengals moved the ball with ease and converted their first seven third-down attempts. However, games can change on one play. Mike Nugent missed a 45-yard field goal that would have given the Bengals a 17-0 lead late in the second quarter. Brock Osweiler found Emmanuel Sanders for 35 yards on a blown coverage, and that led to a field goal. Denver had to feel OK at the half, because Cincinnati's lead felt like one you see in the NBA that usually evaporates in the second half. Think of a team that keeps stroking three-point shots, but has not established any interior presence. That's basically what the Bengals did in the first half. A.J. McCarron kept hitting passes at the sideline on what were some really great catches, which you do not expect him to keep doing against this defense. Jeremy Hill was still not effective on the ground, and the Bengals only scored three points in the second half.

Denver finally started balancing the possession time and got some third-down stops. In the fourth quarter, C.J. Anderson made an incredible run with several broken tackles on his way to a 39-yard touchdown to put the Broncos up 17-14, Denver's first lead of the night. To his credit, McCarron answered back with some quality passes to set up Nugent for a 52-yard field goal. He was good this time for the tie.

Anderson had what could have been a killer fumble at the Cincinnati 27 with 4:05 left after a massive hit, but Denver's defense held and got Osweiler the ball back. He had 1:40 to drive for the winning field goal and did a good job to get Owen Daniels and Bennie Fowler involved after some quiet weeks in this offense. Gary Kubiak fell victim to thinking that a 40-yard field goal on a cold night was a great way to end the game. What's even worse is when the quarterback takes a dive in the backfield to lose a few more yards just to center the ball. Osweiler did that and Brandon McManus was left with a 45-yard field goal try to put the Broncos into the playoffs. He was a liability a year ago, but has been very solid this season. Fans are going to be nervous as hell the next time he has a kick like this, because he made Mike Vanderjagt proud with one of the worst shanks you will ever see in a big spot.

A tie would have actually been beneficial to both teams, but a win was important for Denver's pursuit of that first-round bye.

In overtime, I could not fault Denver for taking the ball first. The offense had gained more than 50 yards on each of its last three drives, and after that kick, you almost want to implore the offense to get a touchdown and not put McManus back out there. Osweiler did a good job of throwing from some awkward platforms throughout the game and saved a quick three-and-out by converting a third-and-10 to Daniels, who really came up big late. He then got some impressive catches by Demaryius Thomas, who has not had a very clean season of catching the ball. Daniels nearly caught a pass down the seam in front of the goal line, but Reggie Nelson laid a great hit on him to jar the ball loose. Thankfully there was no flag for hitting someone too hard here, because it was great defense to save the game. Osweiler was off the mark in the end zone for Thomas on third down.

That meant it was McManus time again, but you have to make a 37-yard field goal in this league, pressure or not. He was perfect to give the fans a sigh of relief, and the Broncos a 20-17 lead.

The Bengals had plenty of time to answer to give this great game a classic finish, but we nearly got some more Monday night controversy after referee Ed Hochuli blew another fumble call in Denver. McCarron's last play in college was a fumble in the Sugar Bowl in a comeback situation. Against Denver, he also fumbled on the first play of a drive, but most just saw it as a dangerous incomplete pass live. On replay, you could see McCarron lose control of the ball before throwing a forward pass, so this should have been reversed to a fumble with clear recovery by a Denver defender to end the game. McCarron loves to compare himself to Tom Brady, so he kind of got his Tuck Rule moment here when Hochuli upheld the ruling of an incomplete pass. In an incredible "ball don't lie" moment, McCarron then fumbled a decent snap on the very next play and DeMarcus Ware recovered to punch Denver's ticket to the postseason.

That was a pretty weak unforced error to end the game, but count it as another huge takeaway for the Denver defense in crunch time.

San Diego Chargers 20 at Oakland Raiders 23

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 5 (17-12)
Head Coach: Jack Del Rio (23-49 at 4QC and 33-49 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Derek Carr (5-12 at 4QC and 5-12 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Watching the second half of this game on Christmas Eve was like unwrapping 16 rotten presents -- one present for each drive. The NFL should have just made this a Saturday double-header with Redskins-Eagles, but here we were watching a game between two losing teams on the holiday. Nothing may have symbolized the poor play better than Oakland getting penalized for holding on a field goal on fourth-and-25 to take points off the board for San Diego, leading 17-12. Ladarius Green had a 30-yard touchdown taken away by Scrooge, because who knows what is a catch anymore? Naturally, Josh Lambo was wide left on the ensuing 48-yard field goal and San Diego used half the quarter to not add to the lead.

There are worse outcomes than that lengthy time consumption. For instance, imagine completing a pass to tight end David Johnson for his first catch of the season, only to see him fumble the ball and have it returned to the San Diego 3 with 4:47 left. That was the gift of the night, and a struggling Derek Carr immediately cashed in with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree (the fade worked, a Christmas miracle) and a two-point conversion pass to Seth Roberts for a 20-17 lead. Lambo redeemed himself and the Chargers, though, kicking a 45-yard field goal to tie the game and send it in to overtime.

In overtime, Oakland won the toss and received, but there was no reason to have faith in an offense that had netted 21 yards on its previous nine possessions combined. But there was not much reason to have faith in the defense either. This drive, one of the season's ugliest to win a game, nearly self-destructed quickly with holding penalties, but the Raiders overcame a second-and-29 thanks to a penalty for this good-looking hit by rookie Denzel Perryman.

Oh, I guess the sound of a hard hit is worth a flag these days. Where exactly is football heading if this is considered an illegal hit on a defenseless receiver? Oakland kept driving, reaching the 10-yard line after Roberts caught a tipped ball for a 33-yard gain.

This was Charles Woodson's last home game, as he announced he will retire after this season. It was an emotional night and there was talk of Woodson playing on offense like he did so many years ago in college at Michigan. The Raiders could have used a shot in the arm many times on offense on the night, but waited until the perfect Hollywood moment to try sending Woodson out on a high note. He entered the game on first down and took a handoff, looking to throw a game-winning pass to Carr, but the Chargers were wise to this trick. The play ultimately went down as a rush for minus-3 yards, the first and likely last rush of Woodson's NFL career. That just kind of sunk the drive and brought out Sebastian Janikowski for the 31-yard field goal.

The Chargers then had the rare opportunity of getting to play four-down football without worrying about the clock, but San Diego's drive faded in four plays. Green dropped a low pass on first down and the Chargers were soon looking at a fourth-and-3 to extend the game. Philip Rivers has thrown for a ton of yards this season, but there is a lot of emptiness to those numbers with San Diego's lack of scoring. He was feasting on rub routes to Dontrelle Inman earlier in this game, but it was unclear what the plan was on the final play. Rivers has a bad tendency to want to adjust the play at the last second, and his rush to beat the play clock may have led to a poor fourth-down attempt. Inman was open on a nice route, but Rivers' pass was nowhere even close to the receiver. Bah, humbug. Oakland still has a chance to finish .500 in Jack Del Rio's first season.

Chicago Bears 26 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers 21

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 1 (14-13)
Head Coach: John Fox (36-51 at 4QC and 45-58 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Jay Cutler (21-28 at 4QC and 25-30 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Sunday's only fourth-quarter comeback was literally the easiest go-ahead situation an offense can face: first-and-goal at the 1-yard line with 15:00 remaining and a 14-13 deficit. Regardless of field position, the team leading by one point with a quarter to go is actually more likely to lose the game based on win probability. Chicago was driving after a Doug Martin fumble, and Jay Cutler finished the drive with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Ka'Deem Carey, who lined up at fullback. Carey was wide open on the play-action pass after no one bothered to cover him out of the backfield. Chicago led 20-14.

Taking that lead was easy, but making it stand up for a whole quarter was the difficult part. Jameis Winston threw deep for Mike Evans, who had a step on Tracy Porter, but the pass may have been just a hair too far and too wide. Evans tried to make the adjustment, some would mark this as another drop in what has been a disappointing season for the second-year wideout.

That was really the best opportunity Tampa Bay had to answer, because Winston's pass on third-and-9 hung in the air too long, allowing Kyle Fuller to break on the ball. Cutler converted two third downs to set up a 50-yard field goal by Robbie Gould for a 23-14 lead with 9:04 left.

On Tampa Bay's next drive, a bad third-down snap forced the Buccaneers into a longer field goal (52 yards), and Connor Barth was unable to connect to make it a one-score game again. Gould added another field goal with 1:07 left. Austin Seferian-Jenkins actually snatched a Hail Mary in the end zone for a 43-yard touchdown, but only one second remained on the clock. Regardless of score, you would like to see defenses getting back to playing these a bit tougher, as that's the third success in December alone.

Chicago recovered the onside kick to end the game. Tampa Bay had crawled back into the playoff mix at 6-6, but promptly lost three straight. This drops Lovie Smith to 0-2 against the Bears.

Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind

Panthers at Falcons: Lose to Blaine Gabbert, Beat the 14-0 Team

Carolina had been playing with fire all year, going 10-0 in close games on its way to 14-0. The most comfortable win of the season happened just two weeks ago: a 38-0 shutout against these fast-fading Falcons. Like I said in the beginning, divisional rematches can be like night and day, but two weeks and a venue change did not seem like it would account for a 45-point swing between these teams.

But there were differences. Some were just subtle and not very impactful, like Carolina having Charles Tillman available instead of Bene Benwikere at cornerback. Others were more noticeable. In Week 14, Ted Ginn and Jonathan Stewart accounted for 214 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns for the Panthers. On Sunday, Stewart was inactive and Ginn missed 14 snaps, about a quarter of the game. After injuring his knee in the second quarter, Ginn only had one target and no catches.

Like a true underdog, Atlanta shrunk the game down to 16 possessions by committing to the run despite some ineffectiveness (3.2 yards per carry on 24 handoffs), and doing well on third downs (9-of-15). An incredible 70-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Julio Jones on a third-and-13 put the Falcons ahead for good at 14-10 with just over 17 minutes left in the game. From there, the Falcons were in survival mode, having to withstand four drives from the Panthers in the fourth quarter.

Atlanta sure did not make things easy on itself. Ryan failed to corral a bad snap in scoring territory, and Josh Norman recovered the fumble and brought it to the Atlanta 36. The defense was able to hold for a three-and-out, but Graham Gano's 47-yard field goal made it a 14-13 game with 7:59 left. Roddy White came up with two big catches on a good drive that took the clock down to 2:23 with Shayne Graham adding a 37-yard field goal. The task was clear: touchdown or bust for Cam Newton and the offense. Atlanta quickly stiffened and defensed two passes to set up a fourth-and-5. Newton went to his go-to target in Greg Olsen, but the pass was nowhere close.

With 1:48 left and Carolina having one timeout, the game was not over, but the Falcons should have been able to run the clock to less than 15 seconds before the Panthers got the ball back. The Falcons botched this situation so badly that Carolina ended up with 90 seconds to score a touchdown. The moment Atlanta was penalized for a false start on first down, the strategy should have shifted to taking three knees. No offense is likely to run for a first down in a predictable running situation when facing first-and-15. Take the safest approach and do the knees so you don't do something stupid like fumble or go out of bounds or commit a penalty to stop the clock. Go max protect and let the quarterback linger to take a few more seconds if you have to, but the Panthers were going to be in a ridiculous situation with three knees.

What did the Falcons do? They managed to commit two more penalties on runs, an illegal formation and a hold, both of which stopped the clock. That was an unbelievably bad drive, and it is hard to accept that the ensuing 54-yard field goal was also a wise decision because of the field position they would have given up with a miss. At least Graham made the kick to give the Falcons some cushion at 20-13, but Newton was going to get 90 seconds to answer with an 80-yard drive. After a 19-yard gain, the Falcons ended the drama when Vic Beasley made the highlight of his rookie season by stripping the ball from Newton for the game-ending fumble.

Another perfect season bid bit the dust, but the Falcons were still eliminated from the playoffs later that evening. Not sure how a team can lose to Blaine Gabbert and still take down a 14-0 team that slaughtered them two weeks ago, but this is the NFL in a nutshell.

Steelers at Ravens: It's the Games That Got Small

Picture a team that has attacked the toughest part of it schedule with a dominant passing game to help rack up 30 points in six consecutive games, a franchise record. This team had just beaten three division leaders in a row and has three victories over 10-win teams this season. This team came back from a 17-point deficit against the No. 1 defense in the NFL, cementing its status as the squad nobody wants to play in January. A week of praise was expected. Then, as a 10-point favorite against a struggling rival starting its fourth different quarterback, this team thought simply showing up was the only requirement for another win.

By now, you should be able to identify this team as Mike Tomlin's Steelers, because the standard is always the standard. They are the masters of playing up or down to the competition. In a physical game with the Ravens, of course they came out and threw one pass beyond the line of scrimmage in the first quarter while handing off 11 times, the opposite of what has been working against a defense that ranked 29th against the pass and ninth against the run. The Steelers rushed for 90 yards in the first quarter, but it was the team's first scoreless quarter after scoring in 21 straight frames. They rushed for 20 yards the rest of the way and the prolific passing game never got in rhythm. While Ben Roethlisberger having his worst game of the season is not so much on the coach, you can question the game plan and lackadaisical approach, because it has been a consistent problem with this team for years now.

As we looked at earlier this season, the Steelers offense rarely shows up on the road against the lesser teams, especially against lesser quarterbacks. Since 2013, the offense averages 17.2 points per game and has not scored more than 20 points in 12 straight road games against non-playoff teams. In 10 road games against playoff teams in that same time, the offense has averaged 24 points per game, reaching 30 points in half of those contests.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Anti-Road Warriors on Offense (2013-15 Games vs. Non-Playoff Teams)
Year Week Opp Record Opposing QB Result OFF DVOA OFF Pts Note
2013 4 at MIN 5-10-1 Matt Cassel L 34-27 13.3% 27 Played in London
2013 6 at NYJ 8-8 Geno Smith W 19-6 -6.2% 19 -
2013 8 at OAK 4-12 Terrelle Pryor L 21-18 -30.6% 18 Trailed 21-3
2013 12 at CLE 4-12 Jason Campbell W 27-11 15.4% 20 Defense added pick-six in 4Q
2013 13 at BAL 8-8 Joe Flacco L 22-20 29.6% 20 Game-tying 2PC failed w/1:03 left
2014 5 at JAC 3-13 Blake Bortles W 17-9 7.2% 10 Defense added pick-six in 4Q
2014 6 at CLE 7-9 Brian Hoyer L 31-10 -14.9% 10 Only TD came w/2:36 left in game
2014 10 at NYJ 4-12 Michael Vick L 20-13 -26.8% 13 80-yd TD pass w/1:16 left
2014 11 at TEN 2-14 Zach Mettenberger W 27-24 10.9% 20 Early pick-six; needed 11-pt 4QC
2014 15 at ATL 6-10 Matt Ryan W 27-20 31.1% 20 Pick-six (2Q) was game's first TD
2015 3 at STL 7-8 Nick Foles W 12-6 -2.9% 12 B.Roethlisberger injured in 3Q
2015 5 at SD 4-11 Philip Rivers W 24-20 0.7% 17 Pick-six in 3Q; won on final play
2015 16 at BAL 5-10 Ryan Mallett L 20-17 17 Had scored 26+ in six straight games

Sure, drop 30 points in Seattle, nearly have a big rally in New England, but also get swept by the 2015 Ravens, who are otherwise 3-10 this season. Some will point to the rivalry aspect of Sunday's game, but John Harbaugh outcoached Tomlin despite a far inferior roster on the field. What do guys like Ryan Mallett, Chris Givens, and Chris Matthews care about the Steelers-Ravens rivalry? Some of them just joined the team in the last couple of weeks, yet they had a major impact in this game. Mallett, probably just happy to have another NFL job, played arguably the game of his career, consistently finding open receivers for 274 passing yards and no turnovers.

After Roethlisberger threw his second interception of the day, Mallett found two big plays in the Pittsburgh secondary on the way to another touchdown. Baltimore led 20-10 and could have put the game away with a 101-yard pick-six after the Steelers inexplicably tried to throw into a tight window from an empty backfield on first-and-goal at the 1-yard line. They were extremely fortunate that Courtney Upshaw was lined up in the neutral zone to negate the play. DeAngelo Williams ran in the touchdown, but the Steelers were still down 20-17.

The Steelers wasted two timeouts in the third quarter, which is just another sign of when the offense is having a really incompetent day. In getting the ball back with 2:55 left, this was likely going to be the last opportunity for the offense to salvage the day. Upshaw redeemed himself by getting through Alejandro Villanueva for a low sack of Roethlisberger. A screen to Williams only gained 3 yards before the two-minute warning. On third-and-15, you knew Roethlisberger would probably go deep, but he may have been better off trying to get at least half of the chunk. Martavis Bryant was the target down the field, but he was falling down while trying to make the tough catch.

On fourth-and-15, Baltimore rushed four. Roethlisberger tried the other side with Markus Wheaton, but the pass was off the mark again. The Steelers were down to 1:49 and one timeout, but the Ravens did not blow this like the Falcons did. Pittsburgh got the ball back with just four seconds left, which was time enough for a lateral that never really materialized. This game just did not materialize for the Steelers, and it should have been given as much importance as any of the previous matchups with the playoffs at stake.

Tomlin has coached the Steelers since 2007. In that time, road teams favored by at least 10 points are 46-8 straight up. The Steelers have three of the eight losses. They also failed to cover in ugly prime-time wins over the Curtis Painter-led Colts and Tyler Palko-led Chiefs in 2011. The only other road team to be favored by at least 10 points this season was Seattle in Baltimore in Week 14. The Seahawks won 35-6, taking care of business as they should have.

Since 2012, the Steelers have the fourth-best record (15-11) in the NFL in games against teams with a winning record for the season. They usually get up for the big games, recently taking down Cincinnati and Denver in back-to-back weeks. Only the Patriots (20-12), Seahawks (21-13), and Broncos (20-14) have a better record than Pittsburgh against winning teams. Those three teams have combined for 13 playoff wins in that time, with six conference championship game appearances, four Super Bowl berths, and two championships. Compare that to the Steelers, who have a single home playoff loss on their resume.

When you continue to ignore the small games, there won't be that many big games to play. Pittsburgh now must root for the Jets to lose to the Bills to make the playoffs. Even that is a moot point if the Steelers do not come out prepared to beat Cleveland.

Cowboys at Bills: Not What We Expected This Year

Remember when this was going to be a frigid game in Buffalo between Tony Romo's offense and Rex Ryan's tough defense? We couldn't even get the weather right this year. Both of these teams greatly disappointed this season for various reasons. You can take Romo and Dez Bryant away for most of the year, but Dallas still finds a way to stay in most games. The problem is the Cowboys are 3-9 at game-winning drive opportunities, the most losses in the league this year.

Even with Kellen Moore starting his first NFL game, the Cowboys only trailed 9-6 in the fourth quarter. Moore found Terrance Williams on a third-and-19, and Williams made a good move after the catch to turn that into a first down instead of a punt. However, Moore was unable to hook up with Williams on two more passes, including some third-down miscommunication, leading to a Dallas punt. That actually turned out to be Dallas' eighth and final possession of the game.

With 6:53 left, Buffalo kept things on the ground and all but put the game away with a 50-yard touchdown run by Mike Gillislee with 2:25 left. Gillislee only has 23 carries this season, but he has touchdown runs of 60 and 50 yards. That is one fewer 50-yard touchdown run than LeSean McCoy has in his career, and one more than Thurman Thomas had in his Hall of Fame career.

Lucky Whitehead fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and Buffalo ran out the clock in a forgettable 16-6 win.

Colts at Dolphins: Even Clipboard Jesus Got Hurt

This feels like the week to reminisce about what was and what could have been. When these teams met early in their current regimes in 2012, Andrew Luck dazzled and Ryan Tannehill came up short at the end for Miami. That kind of sums up their next two seasons as well, but both quarterbacks have been among the least effective starters this year. With the Colts losing their grip on the AFC South, Luck's miserable season appears to have ended in Week 9. Tannehill's problems with handling pressure, throwing deep, and making good ALEX decisions have lingered into his worst season yet. Even a brilliant one-handed catch by Jarvis Landry led to just a field goal after three failed plays from the 9-yard line. Miami trailed 18-12 with 5:17 to go.

Charlie Whitehurst again replaced an injured Matt Hasselbeck, but hurt his hamstring on a scramble. He should have gone down in bounds, but actually ran out of bounds to take a third-down sack and stop the clock with 2:56 left. Time management has been excruciating to watch this season, and that's a league-wide problem right now. Miami gladly saved its final timeout there and got the ball back with 2:48 to drive 80 yards.

Tannehill had an eventful drive with three sacks, a roughing the passer penalty, and a 28-yard scramble to remind us he is more athletic than the human piñata he sometimes seems to be. He overcame some of those adverse moments to lead Miami to a first-and-goal at the 5-yard line with 40 seconds left. You can pretty much call anything there, but Miami went with four shotgun passes. The Colts brought the blitz on third down, but Darius Butler made a great play in the end zone to break up a pass intended for Landry. On fourth-and-ballgame, Miami had one of the ugliest plays of the season as it looked like only the center knew the snap count. Three Colts converged on Tannehill with most of the Dolphins still in their stance for a game-ending sack.

The Colts have their own issues and may need to clean house too, but they are still in better shape than Miami, which again spent a ton of cash in the offseason to miss the playoffs.

Browns at Chiefs: Not Enough Manziel Magic

A small number of players throughout NFL history have had the athleticism to play quarterback and still be a viable running threat. Most of the few blessed with those skills were usually on teams with good defenses and run-based offenses where the quarterback had to be the playmaker. You could get away with less at the skill positions thanks to the quarterback's dual-threat ability to create offense. That is the kind of team model Buddy Ryan's Eagles tried to build with Randall Cunningham in the late 1980s. Some eventually develop their passing skills like Cunningham, while others fade quickly like Tim Tebow. Michael Vick falls somewhere in the middle, and we know the influence he has had on recent players such as Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, and Colin Kaepernick.

Johnny Manziel is that type of athletic quarterback, and he just became the 19th player since 1960 to pass for 100 yards and rush for 100 yards in the same game. Perhaps more interesting is that it took Manziel 15 appearances and eight starts to have a 4QC/GWD opportunity. Cleveland is not exactly built to win shootouts, and Mike Pettine's defense has disappointed, to put things lightly. However, against Kansas City the defense did enough to keep this a 17-10 game heading into the fourth quarter.

A fake punt helped, but Manziel scrambled around to engineer a 21-play drive that consumed 12:01 off the clock -- the longest NFL drive in the last four seasons. However, this only led to a field goal after Manziel was flagged for intentional grounding and was wide of the mark on third-and-goal from the 18-yard line. Yeah, that sounds like a Cleveland drive. Down 17-13, Manziel misfired three times from the Kansas City 30, including a fourth-down pass that was so uncatchable that it feels criminal to give Travis Benjamin a target.

Alex Smith could have iced the game on a following third-and-5, but threw a bubble screen to Travis Kelce for a 1-yard gain. Yeah, that sounds like a Kansas City drive.

Kansas City's conservative offense will cost them eventually, but even here Manziel was 70 yards away from the go-ahead touchdown with 1:52 left. His scrambling can be a time consumer in this situation, but he mostly stuck to the pocket here. There was a questionable decision to not spike it after a first down, but overall the drive was decently done in getting to the Kansas City 32. That was where things stalled, getting to a fourth-and-10 with 15 seconds left. Manziel quickly found Darius Jennings for a 14-yard gain, but the offense was unable to get another play off from the 18. Manziel threw off his helmet in disgust. That one was frustrating, because even if Jennings had gone down immediately, you still had a pretty slow referee having to spot the ball at center. Even with an extra two seconds, the Browns might not have had any time to run a spike. Assuming the sideline routes are covered, you almost want to throw to the middle of the field so that the referees can hopefully spot the ball faster.

After starting 1-5, the Chiefs have won nine in a row to make the playoffs, where they could end up in Houston, the site of the team's last playoff win in the 1993 season.

Season Summary

Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 66
Game-winning drives: 82 (plus six non-offensive game-winning scores)
Games with 4QC opportunity: 144/240 (60.0 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 33

Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro-Football-Reference. Screen caps come from NFL Game Pass.

Posted by: Scott Kacsmar on 29 Dec 2015

9 comments, Last at 30 Dec 2015, 10:55am by xxbigkidxx

Comments

1
by Travis :: Tue, 12/29/2015 - 7:09pm

You could argue the Patriots should have pushed the ball with a timeout and 25 seconds left ...

The Patriots were out of timeouts.

3
by Scott Kacsmar :: Tue, 12/29/2015 - 7:20pm

Right you are. Some curious timeouts by them on the Jets' previous drive.

2
by Led :: Tue, 12/29/2015 - 7:18pm

It looked like the Broncos started playing a lot of zone in the second half (quarters coverage, or maybe a two deep) and the Bengals had guys open. McCarron either couldn't read the zone or he was too uncertain to make the throws. His hesitation left him vulnerable to the rush, but I thought the Bengals line did a good enough job for McCarron to complete his drop and pull the trigger. He just didn't. It's funny because he was so decisive in the first half. I don't know how often the Broncos showed zone looks in the past, but it was surprising how the Bengals seemed completely unable to cope with it.

4
by Phil :: Tue, 12/29/2015 - 7:31pm

Do you really believe the Steelers "ignore the small games?" Or are they just an inconsistent team with a great offense and a below-average defense? When the offense struggles, the Steelers are going to have a tough time—the defense just isn't good enough anymore. The D-line is young and good. The LBs...they're OK. The secondary is bad, though, and it's hard to pull away from anyone in the NFL now with a poor secondary. The Steelers are never out of games from either direction, as either team's passing game can keep it close.

Behind The Steel Curtain had a good post last year about this "Tomlin is bad against bad teams" narrative, and found it was mostly just perception. They've lost more in the last few years to bad teams because, well, they haven't been as good recently: http://www.behindthesteelcurtain.com/2014/11/13/7216363/are-the-steelers...

6
by Hurt Bones :: Tue, 12/29/2015 - 7:39pm

I was thinking this. The Ravens also played a lot of deep zone and six dbs and often just put six in the box. They pretty much dared the Steelers to run on them and they did very well running. But it put a crimp in the Steelers’ passing offense. The Ravens also got decent pressure rushing four which they haven’t been able to do very well this year, but Za'Darius Smith has really started to come on.

8
by Scott Kacsmar :: Wed, 12/30/2015 - 9:55am

I don't think that BTSC study acknowledges what other teams have done. We can all agree the Steelers of 2012-2015 are not quite the same as the Steelers of 2007-2011, who had a better defense, but not as much offensive talent. But the 2012-15 teams are still some of the better in the league and they continue to beat some of the best in the league. They are comparable to NE/SEA/DEN in that category (win% vs. winning teams), and I included playoff games for those records, so that helps those teams out while only adding an 0-1 record to the Steelers.

The W-L record in the "small games" is definitely not as bad as it's painted, but I think that perception comes from how bad the Steelers looked even in games they ultimately won. Like I mentioned, the 2011 games in prime time against the Colts and Chiefs were terrible. Those teams had enough talent to blow those teams out, which was what Vegas and common sense expected to happen. They were nail-biters that went down to the wire. While Pittsburgh won both games, playing the way they did against such inferior opponents is why Tomlin continues to get criticized for how they approach games as heavy favorites.

I think this really goes back to 2009 for Tomlin. His first two years, the worst loss was to the 2007 Jets in OT, but anyone can lose one game like that. In 2009, the Steelers dominated a San Diego team that finished 13-3. They beat the Vikings who were 6-0 at the time with Favre. They won in Denver on a Monday night when the Broncos were 6-1, though that was the Josh McDaniels fade year. So that team was 6-2 with some great wins, then lost five in a row, including games to the lowly Chiefs, Raiders and Browns. That was Tomlin's "unleash hell in December" year. So after losing those five games, the Steelers managed to beat two playoff teams in Green Bay and Baltimore, which adds to the frustration of how they could have that five-game losing streak in the middle.

However, that was one season. The 2010-11 teams were similar to 2007-08 in that they mostly just lost to good teams. I know the performances were ugly at times in 2011, and the Tebow playoff loss is unforgivable, but it's true that this is more of a false perception to the bad vs. bad teams thing than actual proof like 2009.

2012 did see the Steelers play up and down to the competition all year. The lowest point was probably trailing 10-0 at home to a Chiefs team that did not have a regulation lead all season, and this was Week 10. Again, that's a game they ultimately won (in OT after a Cassel INT), but as a 13-point home favorite, it felt like a loss.

The 2013 team probably just wasn't that good period. But that 0-4 September against three teams that failed to break .500 still looks pretty bad. Expectations were much higher than that. Another year of losing in Oakland, though really not many games that were remarkable wins or losses.

2014 definitely had them playing up and down to the competition. Some real ugly wins again (JAX, TEN). I knew they would struggle with the lowly Jets after Roethlisberger threw 12 TD against two playoff teams (Colts/Ravens). Classic road game dud there. Actually very similar to this year's three-game stretch of CIN-DEN-BAL. Two bad home losses to the putrid NFC South. Just another year of doing their best work against playoff teams (also scored 42 pts in CIN) and their worst against scrubs.

Summarizing this season by pointing out 3 wins over 11-win teams (ARI/CIN/DEN) and getting swept by the banged-up Ravens. The loss in KC (1-5 at the time) with Landry Jones starting looks a hell of a lot better in retrospect, but just think of the huge implications that is having on the playoff chase. And they still beat Arizona, possibly the best team in the NFL this year, by 12 points with Vick throwing for 1 yard at halftime and Jones coming off the bench.

If you can name another team in the NFL with that kind of maddening combination of big wins and bad losses over an extended period of time, I'd love to see it. And I don't think Jeff Fisher's Rams compare, because no one in their right mind expects those teams to be better than 8-8. The Steelers have playoff expectations each year, but have only advanced in the playoffs one time since winning Super Bowl XLIII.

9
by xxbigkidxx :: Wed, 12/30/2015 - 10:55am

As a die hard Steelers fan this type of play really irritates me as a fan and it has happened consistently since Tomlin has been head coach. People love to pick on the defense but I personally have been impressed with the defensive play this year. We have pressured the QB a lot better and we have come up with timely turnovers which has not been the case in quite a while in Pittsburgh. Does our secondary need work, most definitely we have to address CB and safety needs in the draft desperately. But I like what we have in our D-line and LB's. I really believe the future is bright.

Our offense deserves a lot of blame as well for some of our defensive issues in games. Instead of long time consuming drives we are constantly trying to wham-bam it down the field and there are a lot of games this year where our defense is spending way to much time on the field. They are going to get tired and with our secondary issues we are going to get burned. Haley gets credit for what he has done with Ben and this offense BUT he has no idea on how to change gears. He only has one speed. There are games where we need to use D. Williams, run the clock down to 1 and hand it off. Put together a 6-7 minute drive and give our defense a breather. Way to many 3 and outs this season and that blame should not be put on our defense. Putting games away doesn't always mean running a 2 minute drill to score more points when its not needed. Haley and Ben may have created a high powered offense BUT unless we are building a double digit lead against teams like the Colts and 49ers we have no idea on how to put games away late. Example (our first meeting against the Bengals)

There is not enough blame on Tomlin and he really needs to be held accountable. A few things off the top of my head that 4th down fake punt against Seattle and the fact that he actually went ahead with it STILL after taking a timeout really kills me, that fake punt could have not been designed any worse and honestly at the time there was no need for that play and that play could have possibly cost us that game.

The first meeting against the Bengals its a tight game BUT we were in control for that entire game and we decide to throw the ball late and Ben throws a costly INT inside the 20 setting the Bengals up for the game winning TD. You cannot expect the D to bail us out when they left it all on the field that game and a game we had dominated for probably 55 mins. It was up to our offense to put that game away. The defense did their job that game.

The play call against Denver to decide to THROW on second down as if they were going to trick the Denver defense. I am not sure what Haley has to prove but that was the most ridiculous play call of all time and for Ben NOT to throw the ball away and throw it into double coverage and have it picked off just left me shaking my head. Luckily that time around our D came up HUGE. I am not an NFL expert but if your a Steelers fan you were sitting at home on your couch ready to punch the TV because if you truly follow the Steelers they way they were lined up YOU KNEW they were going to throw, I started swearing before the ball was even snapped.

Baltimore only scored 20 pts Sunday..in today's NFL thats nothing. Yes our D got torched but if you follow the Steelers you know every time we play a QB we have never seen before we seem to constantly have problems no matter the talent level of that QB. That has to fall on the entire coaching staff from the top down on terrible preparation. I understand that Baltimore always plays us tough but Baltimore is having a terrible year and the are no where near the team they have been and to be swept by them especially in a game we needed to win is inexcusable. We were completely out coached and out played by players who could not make the starting rotation on the Steelers on both sides of the ball. It was a joke.

Ben played absolutely horrible Sunday. It had nothing to do with Baltimore playing the cover 2 it had to do with his piss poor decision making. He spent the entire game trying to FORCE the ball to Antonio Brown instead of checking down and throwing it to his other talented receivers. I don't get it. Against Seattle he knew Brown was going to be locked down the entire game Miller, Wheaton and Bryant had amazing games. Sunday he ignored all of them and was determined to prove to everyone that he was going to get the ball in Brown's hands no matter what coverage was being played. Which led to two HORRIBLE INT's. It was like they were not playing to win the game it was more like they were trying to pad a stat sheet..either way they failed on both ends. Again I know Ben has a reputation for having crap games vs. lesser talent on the road BUT this game should have been an URGENCY MUST WIN scenario for these guys. They should have come into this game with a completely different attitude. But it is something that happens time and time again and someone has to take the blame.

There have been way to many games is Tomlin's reign as head coach where we have come out completely flat against lesser competition and he needs to be held accountable. I am tired of his press conferences after games that make no sense what so ever. He repeats the same tired crap after a loss over and over again and absolutely nothing changes and something needs to change.

If we do not make the playoffs this year it should not fall on our defense, it needs to fall on Tomlin, Haley and the ridiculous play calls, decisions and the play of Ben during crunch time and the lack of motivation, preparation and urgency that is needed each and every week in a 16 game season.

5
by Snoth :: Tue, 12/29/2015 - 7:32pm

I agree with Belichick the offense wasnt fit for an 80 yard drive in overtime. No Dola or Edelman no Vollmer no Waddle i'll take my chances and hope for the best.

7
by mehllageman56 :: Tue, 12/29/2015 - 10:25pm

Don't agree with you about the excitement level of this Jets/Pats game. It was massively more entertaining than the earlier matchup to this Jets fan.

Winner's Bias.