Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

25 Nov 2016

Clutch Encounters: Are the Lions Just Lucky?

by Scott Kacsmar

The three-game Thanksgiving slate did not include a team with a losing record coming into the day, so expectations were high for some meaningful, quality football. For the most part, Thursday delivered just about what we have come to expect from all six teams this season.

The Lions and Vikings waged a defensive battle that was largely determined by third downs and the fourth quarter, similar to their Week 9 meeting. Once again, Detroit came back in the end to take control of the NFC North with five games to play.

Washington and Dallas both have very good offenses and suspect defenses, but the Cowboys are more consistently efficient this season, and proved so at home again in their 10th straight win. If you can believe it, the Cowboys are just the eighth team in NFL history to have a winning streak (playoffs included) of at least 10 games where they scored at least 24 points in every game. Dallas failed to crack 400 yards of offense for the first time since Week 2, coming up just short of a new single-season record for consecutive 400-yard games. After Washington failed on its second onside kick of the fourth quarter, Dallas put the game away with a bubble screen from Dak Prescott to Cole Beasley in a 31-26 win.

Even though Pittsburgh defeated the Colts (without Andrew Luck, who was out with a concussion) by a 28-7 margin with the type of offensive dominance we expected, the game was closer than the final score suggests. Scott Tolzien helped engineer some long drives, but once the Colts turned a drive that lasted 11 minutes and 22 seconds into zero points, this one lost its shot at any late drama. According to Pro Football Reference's Drive Finder, this was the 13th longest drive in duration since 1998, and only the third among that group to not score any points.

The Washington-Dallas game was the 98th game this season decided by a one-score margin or tie. The 2015 regular season had the highest rate of games (54.7 percent) decided by eight points or fewer since 1994, but 2016 is going to challenge that record at 59.8 percent through the early stages of Week 12.

Games Decided By 0-8 Points Since 1994
Rk Season Games Decided by 0-8 PTS Pct.
1 2016 164 98 59.8%
2 2015 256 140 54.7%
3 1994 224 121 54.0%
4 2002 256 137 53.5%
5 2001 248 128 51.6%
6 2003 256 132 51.6%
6 2011 256 132 51.6%
8 1995 240 123 51.3%
9 2010 256 131 51.2%
9 2012 256 131 51.2%
9 2013 256 131 51.2%
12 1997 240 120 50.0%
12 1998 240 120 50.0%
12 1999 248 124 50.0%
15 2006 256 126 49.2%
16 2005 256 123 48.0%
17 2000 248 119 48.0%
18 1996 240 115 47.9%
19 2004 256 121 47.3%
20 2007 256 120 46.9%
20 2009 256 120 46.9%
22 2008 256 118 46.1%
23 2014 256 110 43.0%

No team in 2016 has epitomized the close finish better than the Detroit Lions, the first team in NFL history to have each of its first 11 games decided by seven points or fewer. More history was made in Detroit on Thursday, and that is where we will focus a special Friday edition of Clutch Encounters.

Game of the Week

Minnesota Vikings 13 at Detroit Lions 16

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 3 (13-10)
Head Coach: Jim Caldwell (22-25 at 4QC and 25-25 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Matthew Stafford (24-33 at 4QC and 27-33 overall 4QC/GWD record)

The early kickoff in Detroit on Thanksgiving had built up a reputation as football's little appetizer, with the Lions often getting blown out in a game of little relevance. However, this year was begging to be different. The Lions had won their last three Thanksgiving games, but this one was a battle for first place in the NFC North between two 6-4 teams. The rhythmic first quarter -- with each offense putting together a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive -- was a mirage for what transpired the rest of the afternoon as each team settled into its usual shell. Only field goals were scored the rest of the way. Neither running game really took off, while Matthew Stafford's accuracy was erratic, and Sam Bradford tricked people with a 31-of-37 passing performance that included 15 failed completions, tied for the second most in a game since 1989.

The Minnesota Story: So Many Servings of Negative ALEX

One could easily argue that the third-down approach from Minnesota's passing offense was the deciding factor in this game. While the struggles of the offensive line are well known, and the absence of No. 1 wideout Stefon Diggs did not help matters, we also know that Detroit ranked 32nd in pass defense coming into the week. Regardless of system or the players around him, Bradford has always had a tendency to throw short of the sticks on third down, or what we call negative ALEX passes. Other than 2013, Bradford has always ranked 20th or lower in ALEX (he was 34th in 2015 with Philadelphia), and 25th or lower in Short%, which is the percentage of third-down passes that were thrown short of the sticks.

This season, Bradford ranked 30th in ALEX on third down (minus-0.4) and 32nd in Short% (50.6 percent), but still managed the 10th-highest conversion rate (44.3 percent). That is usually an unsustainable combination for long-term success. Bradford's primary struggles have been on third-and-long, where he only converted 23.1 percent of his passes through Week 10.

In Detroit, Bradford was 8-of-9 on his third-down passes, but his ALEX was a miserable minus-5.2, and he only converted one time. It is likely not a coincidence that his lone conversion came on the only play where he threw beyond the sticks, and that decision followed a timeout late in the third quarter. That drive extended into the fourth quarter with the game tied at 10, but a chop block penalty set the Vikings back to a first-and-25. Bradford hit three short passes in a row, all failed completions, to set up new kicker Kai Forbath for a 28-yard field goal and 13-10 lead. According to ESPN Stats & Information, for the game, Bradford's average pass length was 3.43 yards, the second-lowest game in the NFL this season.

When the game was tied again in the final minute at 13, Bradford got a little greedier than usual, and forced a bad pass on third-and-7. Even that throw was barely to the sticks, and may have been inches short of a conversion, but cornerback Darius Slay was right on the spot for a huge interception that he returned to the Minnesota 20 with 30 seconds left.

That set up Matt Prater for Detroit's 40-yard game-winning field goal with no time left, and that risky throw may serve as a reminder for why Bradford rarely attacks defenses down the field.

The Detroit Story: Timely Again

We won't pretend that the 2016 Lions have been mad bombers in the passing game, or that Matthew Stafford's aggression is the main difference between the success of his offense compared to Bradford's. If you have followed the Lions since Jim Bob Cooter took over as offensive coordinator at midseason last year, then you know Detroit has gone to more of a dink-and-dunk attack, which Stafford has thrived at. Stafford has 39 touchdowns to nine interceptions with a 67.8 completion percentage in his last 20 games, all of which have been under Cooter. He ranked 22nd in ALEX (plus-0.4) and 21st in Short% (43.2 percent) through Week 10, so he has been more aggressive on third down than Bradford, but overall, the Lions run the third-shortest passing game in the NFL this year, only ahead of the Vikings (Bradford) and Chiefs (hey, Alex Smith) in air yards per pass.

Still, there is a clear difference from Minnesota's offense in that with the game hanging in the balance, Stafford has been reliable enough to make the necessary plays. Down 13-10, Stafford stepped up and launched a bomb on second-and-15 that fell incomplete, but he managed to scramble for a 15-yard gain to convert on the next play. Detroit's odd decision to run Theo Riddick on third-and-7 backfired, but the Lions soon had the ball back after Bradford produced his fifth failed completion of the fourth quarter.

Detroit soon faced a critical third-and-8 from its own 18 with 3:03 left, but Stafford overcame a messy pocket to deliver a strike to Anquan Boldin for 29 yards. After getting into the outskirts of field goal range with two minutes left, Detroit really made a tactical error in throwing the ball on second and third down with only a yard to go for the first down. Stafford overthrew Marvin Jones on a touchdown opportunity, and a swing pass to Riddick lost a yard in the flat. A run should have been called there to move the chains, and perhaps force the Vikings to use more timeouts.

Prater's 48-yard field goal tied the game with 1:45 left, and the ensuing drive was when Bradford killed Minnesota's chances with the Slay interception returned to the Minnesota 20. Stafford simply took a knee before the kicking unit returned with four seconds left, so this was one of those ultra-cheap game-winning drives. I thought Detroit misplayed this situation too. With three timeouts left, the Lions should have legitimately run the ball once or twice before kicking the field goal. After a Sunday, in which 12 extra points were missed from 33 yards away, why would you be content with a 40-yard field goal to win the game? But the Lions were, and Prater was good again for another victory over the Vikings on the final play of the game.

2016 Lions: Really Clutch or Really Lucky?

Detroit is the first team in NFL history to have seven fourth-quarter comeback wins in its first 11 games. In fact, the only other team with that many in a regular season was the 2009 Colts, also coached by Jim Caldwell. Those Peyton Manning-led Colts notched their seventh comeback in the 14th game of the season before later losing to New Orleans in the Super Bowl. The only other quarterback to lead seven fourth-quarter comeback wins in a season was Eli Manning, two years later with the 2011 Giants. His seventh comeback was in Super Bowl XLVI, the team's 20th game that season. Not sure anyone is going to peg the Lions for Super Bowl LI, but crazier things have happened.

Of course, it helps to rack up a comeback count when you trail in the fourth quarter of every single game like Detroit has this season. However, ESPN had an incredible stat to put this in context:

Obviously, the 2016 Browns have also trailed in every fourth quarter, but that team is 0-11, which is what you tend to expect from a team bad enough to trail late every week. The 4-73 record backs that up. Detroit's 7-4 record looks unbelievable in this comparison, but is it just a case of incredible luck? I have recapped each comeback this season in previous Clutch Encounters columns, and it is hard to view this as a Tim Tebow-esque run of incredible breaks. Then again, Matt Prater was Tebow's kicker in 2011, so maybe we are in that territory. Are we? Say what you will about Caldwell, but he has done this before, and Stafford has his own track record of late-game triumphs.

Let's clear up some myths about the 2016 Lions. First, Detroit actually led to start the fourth quarter in four of its comeback wins this season. Two more games were tied, and only against Jacksonville did the team trail (and even then by just three points) after three quarters. Oddly enough, Detroit's biggest lead of the season through three quarters was 12 points, which it blew at home to Tennessee after a crazy fourth-down touchdown catch by the now-retired Andre Johnson. But the seven Detroit comebacks have been from an average deficit of 3.3 points, and none greater than seven points. By comparison, when the Manning brothers led their seven comeback wins, both faced an average deficit of 5.7 points.

To say that Detroit has been a slow starter and strong finisher would not be very accurate, at least not according to DVOA thru Week 11. Here is where the Detroit offense and defense stacks up by quarter, including all late and close situations (score within eight points after halftime).

2016 Lions: DVOA By Quarter Thru Week 11
Quarter Offensive DVOA Rk Defensive DVOA Rk
1 -0.9% 13 11.5% 28
2 0.3% 18 15.7% 24
3 -2.4% 16 39.7% 32
4/OT 0.7% 13 12.4% 21
Late & Close -1.7% 13 23.5% 31

Detroit's offense has been fairly average in each quarter, with its highest DVOA ever so slightly coming in the fourth quarter. Through Week 11, Stafford's 131 DYAR in the fourth quarter/overtime was hardly any better than his DYAR in the first (129), second (136) and third (181) quarters. In fact, the third quarter has clearly been Stafford's best this season, including 27.9% DVOA compared to -1.3% DVOA in the fourth quarter. Stafford did throw a game-ending interception in the Tennessee loss, and struggled in Chicago in Week 4.

Defensively, the team has been a mess, but the fourth quarter is also the unit's best quarter, albeit still ranked 21st and a dreadful 31st in late-and-close situations. Still, four very timely interceptions in the final two minutes of games have been helpful in securing the comeback wins. But is it really that unreasonable to pick off Case Keenum in crunch time; or get a late desperation bounce from Blake Bortles, or Bradford yesterday; or to see Carson Wentz unload a deep ball on first down in a 24-23 game? OK, that Philadelphia finish was pretty fortunate, including the Ryan Mathews fumble recovery with 2:34 left, but the Eagles have also been poor in close games in recent seasons.

If we came up with a split for VERY late-and-close, like the final two minutes of the fourth quarter and any play in overtime, then that might show Detroit in its best light. The major difference between Detroit being a historic comeback team versus a competitive 4-7 team is what Stafford has done in the very late stages of three games.

  • Week 1 at Indianapolis: Detroit trailed for the first time in the game, 35-34, with 37 seconds left, but had all three timeouts. Stafford completed three passes for 50 yards, and Prater's 43-yard field goal with four seconds left won the game.

  • Week 7 vs. Washington: Detroit trailed for the first time in the game, 17-13, with 1:05 left, but again had all three timeouts left. Stafford attacked the middle of the field on a 75-yard drive that ended with a perfect 18-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin with 16 seconds left in a 20-17 win.

  • Week 9 at Minnesota: Detroit trailed for the first time in the game, 16-13, with 23 seconds and no timeouts left. Stafford delivered a 27-yard strike to Andre Roberts and was able to get the spike off with enough time for Prater to nail a 58-yard field goal to force overtime. In overtime, Detroit got the ball first and went on a game-winning touchdown drive with Golden Tate's nifty footwork creating a 28-yard touchdown.

That's three games where Detroit trailed for the first time in the final 65 seconds. Without some MVP-caliber heroics from Stafford, we would be talking about the Lions as the unlucky team that blew too many games. Obviously, the Minnesota game in particular is the real tipping point here, since Blair Walsh had a bad day of kicking for the Vikings, and Prater came through with a very tough 58-yard kick to force overtime. That was the one that would keep you up the longest if you were trying to recreate it as a Madden Moment with no timeouts left.

Overall, Detroit has managed its timeouts well to help itself succeed in these late-game situations, Stafford has made some very timely throws to his receivers, Prater has been rock solid on his kicks, and the defense has made a few game-ending takeaways.

The 2016 Lions are not some kind of all-time lucky fluke team. They are a deeply flawed team that has been special when it needed to be, and that so far has led to a 7-4 record and first place in the division. From this point forward, any other comeback win will just be adding to a record, so we'll have to see if things teeter off here, or if the team just gets stronger and wins more comfortably on the way to what looks like a playoff berth.

Season Summary

Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 48
Game-winning drives: 54
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 101/164 (61.6 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 26 (and one tie)

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 25 Nov 2016

12 comments, Last at 29 Nov 2016, 7:49pm by LionInAZ

Comments

1
by ammek :: Fri, 11/25/2016 - 6:29pm

I bet Bradford is the first QB to complete more than 30 passes at a 75% clip against a single opponent twice within the same season, and lose both games. And he's done it against the #32 pass defense.

2
by LionInAZ :: Fri, 11/25/2016 - 11:32pm

The Lions had a strip sack and an interception overturned by very close calls, so it seems to me that luck conspired to make this game closer than it could have been.

3
by BJR :: Sat, 11/26/2016 - 8:35am

One thing the 2016 Lions and the 2009 Colts have in common (other than Jim Caldwell) is the combination of a strong passing, and weak rushing offense. Being forced to abandon the run entirely when behind in late game situations is/was probably to the benefit of their offensive efficiency, and might explain some of their relative over-performance in those situations.

5
by LionInAZ :: Sun, 11/27/2016 - 1:03am

Abandoning the run in late games is not a characteristic of the 2016 Lions, unless you mean during drives in the last 60 seconds.

7
by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Sun, 11/27/2016 - 9:12am

I wish it were, though. Watching this offensive line trying to run block is painful. It's been that way for Stafford's entire career, for some reason. They are decent at pass pro, however. I wish they would just accept that they're not good at running and adopt a 2002 Raiders-like playcallling approach.

4
by ChrisS :: Sat, 11/26/2016 - 9:53pm

On defense they are lucky/flukey as hell. They have 7 interceptions and 4 of them have been on their opponents last drive of the game. That is unsustainable.

6
by LionInAZ :: Sun, 11/27/2016 - 1:23am

Is it? If your opponents are trying to come back desperately on the final drive I would expect more INTs on risky throws. It's not as if the Lions have faced a lot of elite QBs this year.

8
by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Sun, 11/27/2016 - 9:15am

True, there have been plenty of examples of defenses that aren't good overall, but get a disproportionate amount of INT's because the opposing offenses are forced to take risks to keep up (like the 2011 Packers). I don't know if I've ever seen that condensed down to only late/close situations.

9
by ChrisS :: Sun, 11/27/2016 - 4:29pm

I agree that interceptions are more likely in those situations but not to this extent. Using PFR I got a 4% interception rate in the 4th quarter down by less than 8 points over the last 10 years against a 2.8% interception rate over all game situations.

10
by jmaron :: Mon, 11/28/2016 - 11:02am

According to Football Reference, in the Lions 7 wins, the opponents probability of winning in the 4th quarter peaked at following:

Indy 99%
Phil 86%
Rams 91%
Wash 99%
Minn 99%
Jack 65%
Minn 80%

In their loses Det had a probability of winning peak in the 4th quarter at

Tenn 93%
GB 10%
Chic 53%
Hous 19%

So only 2 games Det played all year didn't flip the script in the 4th quarter. And in 7 games the winning team overcame a 80% chance of losing.

Man I should watch more Det games.

11
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Tue, 11/29/2016 - 9:57am

Said no one ever.

12
by LionInAZ :: Tue, 11/29/2016 - 7:49pm

Hey, on the basis of unpredictability, the Lions are the most exciting team in the NFL. Who wouldn't want to watch that? Better than watching the Chiefs offense...