Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

05 Jan 2016

Clutch Encounters: Season Review/Week 17

by Scott Kacsmar

Depending on how long you have been following the NFL, this may have been the worst season you have watched in a long time, if not the worst. The weekly double dose of Phil Simms calling games with "expert" officiating advice from Mike Carey is not helping any of us, but there were more serious reasons too. A steady flow of big injuries have taken their toll and continue to resonate as we head into the playoffs. There were not many good teams, and some of the annual contenders (such as the Packers and Colts) were at their weakest in years. Even the DVOA dynasty in Seattle feels a little more vulnerable heading into the playoffs this year.

On the other hand, this season brought the top and bottom teams a little closer together and there were 19 more games with a 4QC/GWD opportunity this year than in 2014. There were 12 such games in Week 17 alone, which led to a very entertaining final day with plenty of twists and drama. Now we should have an unpredictable postseason with the potential for some classic games. Sometimes you have to endure the rough journey to get to an incredible ending, just like season five of Six Feet Under.

Included at the bottom is a table to recap all the close-game results for the 32 teams this season.

Game of the Week

San Diego Chargers 20 at Denver Broncos 27

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 3 (20-17)
Head Coach: Gary Kubiak (18-38 at 4QC and 25-39 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Peyton Manning (44-51 at 4QC and 57-56 overall 4QC/GWD record)

The Broncos took the field knowing the only thing standing between them and the AFC's No. 1 seed was a four-win San Diego team. As it turned out, Denver was its own worst enemy with five early turnovers, typically a death sentence no matter how bad the opponent. Denver could have slid down to the fifth seed with a loss, so all eyes were glued on this game with so much hanging in the balance. Then Gary Kubiak really amped up the drama by benching Brock Osweiler and inserting Peyton Manning (the active backup for the first time in his career) into the game even though the fifth turnover had been a fumble by C.J. Anderson. Osweiler had done some good things and was not the main problem, yet the hook came.

Manning had not played since Week 10, and there was a legitimate belief that he would never play in another NFL game. Yet here he was in Week 17, taking the field with the No. 1 seed on the line and San Diego leading 13-7. As if he never left, Manning immediately drove the Broncos on an 80-yard touchdown drive, though this offense was much more about the run the rest of the way. Manning only threw for 69 yards on 5-of-9 passing, but he looked healthy, in control, drew two offsides penalties, and was even taking snaps from under center.

The spark in the Denver offense was obvious, but Philip Rivers almost extinguished it with one play. With 13:09 left, Rivers found Tyrell Williams completely wide-open for an 80-yard touchdown pass to take a 20-17 lead. You rarely see coverages blown this badly, let alone by a cornerback like Aqib Talib and a defense as respected as Denver's this year.

Manning answered right back with two completions to Emmanuel Sanders for 33 yards, which were really his biggest contributions as a passer in this game. The drive ended with a game-tying field goal. Later, Rivers was high on a pass for an interception that was returned all the way to the San Diego 23 with 4:50 left. On Manning's first 54 game-winning drives, he always completed at least one pass. Here, operating from under center, he did not even have to attempt a pass as Ronnie Hillman took the first-down carry for a 23-yard touchdown with 4:44 left.

Down 27-20, Rivers had his chance to answer, with the expectation that San Diego would go for two after a touchdown. However, three failed plays in a row cost the Chargers a timeout and set up a fourth-and-6 at the Denver 40. Williams then got open down the field, but he was unable to adjust to a ball Rivers threw behind him that Chris Harris nearly intercepted. Denver then ran Anderson three times, and he put the game away -- along with all the AFC playoff seeding -- with a 12-yard run on third-and-7.

Let's keep this half in proper context. Manning had 10 dropbacks, and half were successful. The offense scored 20 points on his first five possessions, but he leaned on a running game that produced 141 yards on 17 carries. He may have beaten San Diego with his mind more than anything here. Coming into this game, San Diego's defense ranked 22nd against the pass and 30th against the run. I wrote the San Diego chapter in Football Outsiders Almanac 2015. Four of the most important players to this defense were Corey Liuget, Eric Weddle, Brandon Flowers, and Jason Verrett. None of them were active on Sunday, along with all the other injuries San Diego has endured over a 4-12 season. This was a bad defense and the Broncos were picking them apart in every way, but five big turnovers when Osweiler was in the game hurt the scoreboard.

With that said, the decision for the playoffs should be obvious for Kubiak. Start a healthy Manning. His experience is invaluable, and he was playing better before the setback with multiple injuries at midseason. Osweiler did a solid job this year, but he is young and will have his chances. This is probably it for Manning, and Denver's defense is going to be the key to this run regardless of the quarterback. Kubiak pulled Osweiler at such an odd time that it seems impossible he can go back now. John Elway brought in Manning to win a Super Bowl, and this may be the team's best shot yet with a wide-open playoff field and home-field advantage belonging to these Broncos.

Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind

New England Patriots 10 at Miami Dolphins 20

Type: GWD
Head Coach: Dan Campbell (1-3 at 4QC and 2-3 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Ryan Tannehill (9-21 at 4QC and 10-21 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Even though the AFC's No. 1 seed was on the line, the Patriots looked like an offense experimenting with plays unlikely to work just to make sure they don't use them in the postseason. Yes, maybe that was the cunning plan, because I cannot envision any scenario where falling to the No. 2 seed was strategically smart. Tom Brady missed all six passes he threw further than 10 yards. He managed seven failed completions on just 12-of-21 passing. He took some nasty hits and two big sacks in the fourth quarter when the Patriots trailed 17-10. And like that, he was gone, taken out in the final two minutes with the Patriots needing a 10-point miracle. Given the lackadaisical approach to the entire game, it makes no sense why Brady and a guy like Rob Gronkowski weren't just given the whole day off. New England only mustered 196 yards of offense.

On the other side, Ryan Tannehill played his best game of the season. He hit several deep balls and delivered in crucial situations. He also got some help from his rookie receiver, DeVante Parker, on a 46-yard contested catch against Logan Ryan. That set up a 2-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Cameron with 6:58 left. After the defense forced a three-and-out, Tannehill went to work with 4:41 left. His 19-yard scramble on third-and-11 was a game-changing play. That helped Miami extend to a 20-10 lead. The Patriots then went four-and-out with Jimmy Garoppolo making a rare appearance in relief of Brady.

Brady suffered a high ankle sprain in the game, which could certainly have an impact on his postseason. We won't have a good idea of how limited he is until we see him play again. Jeff Garcia missed three games in 2003 with a high ankle sprain. Peyton Manning broke many records in 2013, but there was actually a six-game "slump" in the middle of his season after he suffered a high ankle sprain against Jacksonville. He did not miss a game, but more hits can aggravate the injury, and the Patriots giving up plenty of hits on their quarterback right now. Finally, there is the case of Ben Roethlisberger, who suffered a high ankle sprain in 2011. He played fine the night it happened, but was terrible in a game 11 days later when he clearly could not move to protect himself anymore. Even after sitting out a game and having weeks pass, Roethlisberger struggled in a playoff loss in Denver one month to the date after his ankle injury.

Only time will tell if Brady has the same fate this season, right down to the part of playing in Denver, which could happen now that the Patriots have lost the top seed after this bizarre trip to Miami.

New Orleans Saints 20 at Atlanta Falcons 17

Type: GWD
Head Coach: Sean Payton (20-36 at 4QC and 28-39 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Drew Brees (26-50 at 4QC and 39-57 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Both offenses played very well as expected in a game with 16 total possessions, but this was a really odd fourth quarter. The game was tied at 17 and both teams saw long drives end with fumbles by running backs from the 3-yard line. Matt Ryan appeared to have the Falcons in line for a go-ahead field goal, but Andy Levitre committed one of the dumbest penalties of the season with a late hit that cost his team 15 yards and brought out the punting unit. On the first play of his next opportunity, Ryan forced a bad pass to a drifting Devonta Freeman that was intercepted by Jamarca Sanford at the Atlanta 25 with 1:42 left. The Saints were able to run for a first down and set up the game-winning field goal, from 30 yards by Kai Forbath, as the final play.

That made me realize we never actually had a 4QC attempt since there was no deficit in the quarter until time expired. I had to change the semantics of the weekly summary to "Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity" to reflect rare situations like this. There has not been a game like this in the NFL since the Colts beat the Titans in Week 17 of the 2010 season, Peyton Manning's last GWD for Indianapolis. I started writing weekly recaps in 2011, so this was a first.

The Falcons were the 21st team since 1960 to start 2-0 with a pair of fourth-quarter comeback wins, and they are the 14th team on that list to miss the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Saints managed to go 7-9 despite the defense allowing one of the finest passing seasons in NFL history: 4,755 yards, 45 touchdowns, nine interceptions, 8.7 yards per attempt, and a 116.2 passer rating.

Detroit Lions 24 at Chicago Bears 20

Type: GWD
Head Coach: Jim Caldwell (15-23 at 4QC and 18-23 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Matthew Stafford (17-31 at 4QC and 20-31 overall 4QC/GWD record)

We spent the Week 6 matchup groaning about the absurd coaching decisions by John Fox and Jim Caldwell. This was another close one, with the only stakes being the winner getting to finish 7-9. After Chicago tied the game at 17, Matthew Stafford led his 20th game-winning drive, capped off with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Eric Ebron with 8:46 left. Stafford quietly threw 32 touchdowns this season. Maybe it was quiet since his average touchdown traveled 9.8 yards, the lowest in NFL history for anyone with at least 23 touchdown passes in a season. The next benchmark is when Bobby Hebert averaged 9.2 yards on his 22 touchdown passes for the 1996 Falcons. Stafford's 6.5 air yards per pass was the lowest in the NFL in 2015. Only one of Stafford's touchdown throws gained 30 yards this season, and that was the 36-yard touchdown to Calvin Johnson in the third quarter of this game. You can probably expect some red zone regression for the Lions in 2016.

Down 24-20, Jay Cutler was 37 yards away from a go-ahead touchdown at the two-minute warning. He threw deep for Deonte Thompson, who had catches of 36 and 45 yards on his only two targets of the season, but Glover Quin came over to intercept this one. On a third-and-5, Stafford then found Johnson on a slant for an easy first down to ice the game.

Marc Trestman went from Chicago to Baltimore (offensive coordinator) this year, but the Bears and Ravens led the league with nine games decided by four points or less points. Both went 4-5, and with these Bears, you really are looking at a 6-10 team that easily could have been 2-14 or 10-6 if a few field goals and dropped passes had gone the other way. "Fox Ball" is alive and well, and it was impressive how competitive this team played despite the no-name cast on defense and the fact that the top three wide receivers combined to miss 30 full games. Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett also missed eight games between them. Fox, offensive coordinator Adam Gase, and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio did a good job this year even if the final record does not reflect it.

St. Louis Rams 16 at San Francisco 49ers 19 (OT)

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 3 (16-13)
Head Coach: Jim Tomsula (2-2 at 4QC and 2-2 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Blaine Gabbert (3-8 at 4QC and 3-8 overall 4QC/GWD record)

No team has appeared less often in Clutch Encounters this year than San Francisco, which appeared only six times. We definitely saved the worst for last. Leave it to Jeff Fisher to cement another 7-9 season by losing to Jim Tomsula's knock-off 49ers. The game-tying field goal only came after Blaine Gabbert missed a pitch on a third-and-1, which the 49ers were fortunate to recover to save the possession. Tomsula was pretty much a dead coach walking all year, but we can put the final nail in his coffin when he decided to punt on fourth-and-4 from the St. Louis 37 with 1:39 left in a tied game. Are you kidding me? The punt was a touchback too.

That of course led to overtime, where the inferior offense took the ball first against the better defense in the game, and the 49ers punted. Greg Zuerlein had a 48-yard field goal attempt to win the game for the Rams, but the kick was blocked with 4:49 left. Please, the last thing we needed was another tie between these teams. Bless the 33-yard screen pass to Quinton Patton that set up Phil Dawson for the 23-yard game-winning field goal.

Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind

Vikings at Packers: The (Optional) NFC North Title Game

If there was ever a good time to choke away a 20-3 lead in a game with the division title on the line, this might have been it. Minnesota's "punishment" for such a blown lead would have been another trip next week back to Green Bay, which has struggled mightily for a few months now. See if the Packers can beat you a third time this year, because the "reward" for Minnesota winning this game is now a date with the Seahawks on Sunday afternoon. Good luck with that.

The Vikings built that lead without even playing that well as both teams had questionable effort in the regular season's final game. We may not be talking about this one if Cordarrelle Patterson had not fumbled, courtesy of kicker Mason Crosby, on a 70-yard kick return. That could have set Minnesota up for a two-score lead again, but instead the Packers had the ball back, only down 20-13. The drive came down to a fourth-and-goal from the 13 with 2:18 left. There have been some mind-numbing field goals kicked in the final three minutes this season, but I actually think the Packers should have kicked the field goal here. The Packers had two timeouts and the two-minute warning left. Teddy Bridgewater only threw for 99 yards, and you could have counted on Minnesota being conservative on the next drive. Kick the 31-yard field goal and get the ball back with more than 100 seconds left to score the game-winning touchdown late.

Green Bay of course hesitated and burned its second timeout, meaning the only choice was to go for it. Historically, fourth-and-13 is converted about 18 percent of the time. Similarly, third-and-13 plays from the 13-yard line convert 16 percent of the time. Rodgers was likely to throw to the end zone in this situation. Passes thrown into the end zone from the 13-yard line have scored touchdowns about 35 percent of the time since 2006, though that includes down-and-distances where the defense may not have been expecting the longer throw. Any way you cut it, fourth-and-13 was a bad situation to be in, and the Packers needed this just to tie the game. The pass Rodgers ultimately threw had about a zero percent chance of working since it went right to Xavier Rhodes for an interception. That even gained 7 yards of field position for the Vikings.

Bridgewater then nearly botched a handoff with Adrian Peterson on first down, but the Vikings recovered to complete their predictably bland three-and-out drive. Green Bay still had a pretty solid shot with 58 seconds to go 58 yards, but had terrible execution on a play with 15 seconds left. With three receivers against one defender, this little screen to Richard Rodgers should have worked if James Jones and Randall Cobb had blocked Rhodes, but the corner made the play to bring up fourth down. Cobb did nothing value-added on the play. When teams get into these rare situations and the defense gives them these unique looks, they need to do unconventional things like blocking one player with two guys. It is inexcusable for this play to only gain a yard.

Instead of two cracks at the end zone, the Packers had to scramble just to get the fourth-down snap off. No spike here. Rodgers beat the clock and threw another Hail Mary, but the Vikings were smart enough to knock this one down to win the NFC North.

Jets at Bills: The Most Ryan Fitzpatrick Game Ever

I am just going to paste this in from our mega-sized Week 10 recap of Bills-Jets, because it is even more fitting now:

"When I was a kid I was into the Jets, and then I got older and I got into girls. And then, I got back into the Jets, because I realized there's times when a girl won't f*ck you, but the Jets will always f*ck you."

-- Comedian Artie Lange on a story his uncle told him about the Jets when he was younger.

The Jets, winners of five straight, just needed to beat former coach Rex Ryan and to get into the playoffs. Ryan Fitzpatrick was looking to make the playoffs for the first time in his career, fittingly with a win over the team for which he had started 53 games. It was too Hollywood of a script to be real. But the knock on Fitzpatrick in Buffalo (and everywhere else he has been) was the consistent breakdowns with turnovers in big spots. Only good enough to get you beat close. Fitzpatrick became the first quarterback in franchise history to throw 30 touchdowns in a season, but this fourth quarter could go down as the worst moment of his career.

Fitzpatrick has the physical tools to succeed at his position, but doing it consistently for a season has always been a problem. Despite his overstated reputation of being a Harvard man, Fitzpatrick's mental game is also a liability, specifically in the decision-making department. For example, when trailing 19-17 with the playoffs on the line and the ball at the opponent's 14, a quarterback should know to not force a pass into the end zone for an interception. The go-ahead field goal is in your back pocket. But Fitzpatrick did so and Leodis McKelvin made him pay with a huge interception with 10:43 left.

Buffalo turned that into a long drive for a field goal, taking a 22-17 lead, the same final score as Week 10. That night the Jets hurt themselves with bad ALEX decisions on crucial downs. Here, Fitzpatrick was forcing things. Under pressure, his pass at the two-minute warning was underthrown and easily intercepted by Manny Lawson. The only remaining hope was a third drive with 44 seconds left and the Jets needing 82 yards. Fitzpatrick threw a perfect pass to Kenbrell Thompkins near the Buffalo 35, but the receiver was separated from the ball on what could have been a huge gain. Now Fitzpatrick just had to force things, and he was intercepted for a third time to seal the Jets' fate. Pittsburgh's win in Cleveland sent the Steelers to the playoffs as the sixth seed instead of the 10-6 Jets. Fitzpatrick had his best season yet this year, but the Bills had his number in both matchups, intercepting five passes and limiting him to a 43.7 percent completion rate and 5.3 yards per attempt.

Among active quarterbacks, Fitzpatrick's 12-36-1 (.255) record at 4QC/GWD opportunities is the worst in the league. Since entering the NFL in 2005, his 25 interceptions in 4QC/GWD opportunities are the most in the league, and he has the worst interception rate (minimum 200 attempts) at 7.2 percent.

Passing in 4QC/GWD Opportunities, 2005-2015
Quarterback Passes Cmp% TD TD% INT INT% Rk
Kerry Collins 206 52.4 3 1.5% 3 1.5% 1
Cam Newton 254 54.7 13 5.1% 4 1.6% 2
Donovan McNabb 345 53.3 6 1.7% 7 2.0% 3
Matthew Stafford 459 54.9 19 4.1% 10 2.2% 4
Ryan Tannehill 226 57.1 10 4.4% 6 2.7% 5
Tony Romo 557 63.6 28 5.0% 15 2.7% 6
Carson Palmer 499 61.1 21 4.2% 14 2.8% 7
Ben Roethlisberger 565 59.5 27 4.8% 16 2.8% 8
David Garrard 239 58.6 10 4.2% 7 2.9% 9
Tom Brady 533 59.5 25 4.7% 16 3.0% 10
Aaron Rodgers 362 61.3 18 5.0% 11 3.0% 11
Peyton Manning 457 62.4 25 5.5% 14 3.1% 12
Sam Bradford 210 59.5 7 3.3% 7 3.3% 13
Matt Ryan 524 61.1 14 2.7% 18 3.4% 14
Joe Flacco 493 55.4 17 3.4% 17 3.4% 15
Jason Campbell 251 57.0 6 2.4% 9 3.6% 16
Quarterback Passes Cmp% TD TD% INT INT% Rk
Drew Brees 631 64.3 28 4.4% 23 3.6% 17
Kyle Orton 274 58.0 9 3.3% 10 3.6% 18
Matt Schaub 431 62.2 13 3.0% 16 3.7% 19
Jay Cutler 451 58.8 27 6.0% 17 3.8% 20
Philip Rivers 610 56.7 22 3.6% 23 3.8% 21
Eli Manning 604 58.9 38 6.3% 23 3.8% 22
Matt Hasselbeck 306 62.4 14 4.6% 12 3.9% 23
Andy Dalton 284 57.0 8 2.8% 12 4.2% 24
Russell Wilson 234 59.0 14 6.0% 10 4.3% 25
Alex Smith 289 54.0 9 3.1% 13 4.5% 26
Matt Cassel 306 53.3 15 4.9% 14 4.6% 27
Jake Delhomme 227 58.1 8 3.5% 12 5.3% 28
Mark Sanchez 264 49.6 7 2.7% 14 5.3% 29
Chad Henne 227 48.0 7 3.1% 13 5.7% 30
Brett Favre 337 54.6 9 2.7% 21 6.2% 31
Ryan Fitzpatrick 348 56.6 12 3.4% 25 7.2% 32

Steelers at Browns: Help from Buffalo… And Cleveland

For the fifth time since 2008, Pittsburgh is headed to the playoffs. Also for the fifth time since 2008, the Browns lost to the Steelers in Week 17 and promptly fired their head coach. Mike Pettine is the latest departure after going 3-18 in his last 21 games. By comparison, the Steelers are a pillar of consistency with the same head coach, quarterback, and general manager in that time. However, sometimes they frustrate fans with the kind of no-show performance they put on display last week in Baltimore with so much on the line. You never want to rely on another team deciding your playoff fate, but that was the position the Steelers put themselves in, needing a win here against Cleveland and also a Buffalo victory over the Jets.

The mistakes throughout this game were still troubling for a team in a must-win situation, but the Browns also helped the Steelers out in the form of Austin Davis. The backup, starting for a concussed Johnny Manziel (who was starting for Josh McCown, out for the season with a broken collarbone), repeatedly took bad sacks and forced dangerous passes throughout the afternoon. Yet he still had the Browns in a 17-12 game with possession in the fourth quarter. Then he tried to retreat from a Lawrence Timmons sack and fumbled the ball at the Cleveland 8. Ben Roethlisberger only needed one play to turn that into a touchdown pass to Markus Wheaton, followed by a two-point conversion pass to Fitzgerald Toussaint, who was subbing for the injured DeAngelo Williams (ankle) in what could be the fourth time since 2007 that the Steelers lost their lead running back right before the playoffs.

Cleveland fumbled the ensuing kickoff, which Pittsburgh recovered to add a field goal for a 28-12 lead with 7:40 left. At that point, it was just a matter of watching the scoreboard and Davis throw negative-ALEX passes on fourth down. As the Ryan Fitzpatrick interceptions mounted in Buffalo, the Steelers could breathe a sigh of relief, knowing they would be in the postseason after all.

Ravens at Bengals: To the Bitter End

On the bright side, the Bengals won 12 games just as the franchise did when it reached the Super Bowl in 1981 and 1988. Unfortunately, Andy Dalton's status for the playoffs next week is in doubt, and A.J. McCarron has some clear limitations with his lack of experience. Even in this game the JV Ravens led 9-7 at halftime before the Bengals rallied with a 33-yard touchdown drive, a 38-yard touchdown run by Jeremy Hill on a fourth-and-1, and a 54-yard field goal by Mike Nugent to go up 24-9. That will not likely work in a playoff run against teams like Pittsburgh and New England. (McCarron also relied on short fields in his start against the 49ers, when three touchdown drives covered a grand total of 67 yards.) Hill's previous long run this year was 17 yards, so he is unreliable. And the Bengals were 0-of-9 on third down.

Baltimore had a rough year, but still kept things close even when it was unexpected. The problem was a 3-9 record at game-winning drive opportunities, which matched Dallas for the most losses in the league. Ryan Mallett actually threw 56 passes with only one sack in his second start for Baltimore, but the offense was largely ineffective this week. After a late touchdown drive to cut it to 24-16, Mallett got the ball back with 41 seconds left, needing to drive an improbable 91 yards. He forced a pass under some pressure and was intercepted by Rey Maualuga, who did a very foolish thing and tried a lateral from the 12-yard line in the closing seconds.

Raiders at Chiefs: Two Seasons Turned Around

By now everyone is familiar with Kansas City turning a 1-5 start into a 10-game winning streak, but what about Oakland's decline after a promising start? Even after a tough loss in Pittsburgh, the 4-4 Raiders seemed to be on the right track before finishing 3-5 with every win by the skin of their teeth (three points each). Every loss except for the Week 1 dud against the Bengals was close for the Raiders this year as well, so it was an exciting season and they will be a trendy wild card pick in 2016. But if there is a reason to be concerned, it would be the way Derek Carr finished his season over the last eight games. Look at these splits for his first two seasons:

Derek Carr Passing Splits
Split Pct. YPA TD INT Sacks PR DVOA Avg. QBR
2014 (Rookie Season) 58.1% 5.46 21 12 24 76.6 -14.9% 38.2
2015 (Weeks 1-9) 63.7% 7.67 19 4 8 104.3 23.6% 62.2
2015 (Weeks 10-17) 58.7% 6.31 13 9 23 79.2 -13.6% 36.4

Carr was getting a lot of recognition earlier this year, but the second half of his season resembles his rookie struggles. This seems to be schedule-based as the Raiders have played Kansas City (twice), Denver, Green Bay, and improving units like Minnesota and Detroit in the second half of the season. That will increase your sacks and drop your production in big plays and touchdowns. Amari Cooper has also been hurt, though that does not explain Michael Crabtree's steep decline coinciding with Carr's struggles in Weeks 10 to 17.

In this game, Oakland hung around at 23-10, and for the second week in a row, a penalty nullified its opponent's field goal in the fourth quarter. The Chiefs were driving for nearly nine minutes, but came away empty-handed after a weird fake field goal failed. It may have been a pooch punt attempt with mixed signals, but either way Oakland had life and Carr put together a nice drive, finishing with a 31-yard touchdown pass to Crabtree. Oakland used its three timeouts to get the ball back, but Carr needed to drive 89 yards in 1:34, down 23-17. The sixth sack of the day nearly ended the game, but instead set up a third-and-21 after a spike. A little dumpoff made little sense with fourth down to come, but Oakland should have been able to do more in 22 seconds. The whistle even blew at 13 seconds to end the play, which should have allowed Oakland time to get off the final snap. But the urgency was not there, and the game ended without a fourth-down play.

During its 10-game winning streak, the Chiefs have thwarted six comeback attempts.

Titans at Colts: What, Jeff George Was Busy?

The Colts needed 10 game outcomes to break their way in the season's last week just to make the playoffs. Only six worked out, but maybe the biggest feat was winning a game with Josh Freeman and Ryan Lindley splitting time at quarterback. Both had been signed on Tuesday before the game. The Titans clinched the No. 1 pick in the draft by also using two backup quarterbacks, including trick-shot artist Alex Tanney down the stretch.

Tanney nearly led the Titans back from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter, having a chance for one last drive with a 30-24 margin and the ball at midfield. Delanie Walker bobbled a pass at the sideline, which was huge since Jerrell Freeman took Tanney down for a 14-yard sack on the next play, setting up fourth-and-21. Tanney was wise enough to throw to the sticks for Walker, but Greg Toler broke up the pass to clinch a .500 record for the Colts, who went 8-2 (the second-best record in NFL) in close games despite the quarterback situation this year. The problem was six more bad performances, including two home losses that were not as close as the score suggests against the Saints' poor defense (when they trailed 27-0) and the New England loss best remembered for the time Griff Whalen danced with the devil in the pale moonlight.

Eagles at Giants: A Quietly Lopsided Series

The first game of the post-Chip Kelly era for the Eagles was a success, even if it was a meaningless 35-30 shootout win against the Giants, who said goodbye to Tom Coughlin on Monday after 12 seasons. Coughlin lost two playoff games to the Eagles back in 2006 and 2008, but has anyone even noticed just how lopsided this rivalry has been since those days? In 2008, the 11-1 Giants lost a home game to the Eagles shortly after a certain wide receiver shot himself in a night club. Since that point, the Giants are just 3-13 against Philadelphia. We usually see this matchup in prime time every year, and this season's 27-7 beatdown in Philadelphia on a Monday night in Week 6 was one of just two losses that were not close for the Giants this year.

This one was close, which just meant another disappointing finish for New York. The Eagles saved the Giants a good 40 seconds by throwing an incomplete pass on third-and-8 before punting with 1:43 left. In a game with higher stakes, that would have been a questionable decision. Eli Manning had a chance to drive the offense 80 yards for the win, but only made it 22 yards. Hakeem Nicks had a big drop inside the Philadelphia 40, which led to wasted time and a spike from Manning. The Eagles got good pressure the rest of the way and Manning's pass on fourth-and-10 really never had a chance to connect.

Since leading a record-tying eight game-winning drives in that magical 2011 Super Bowl season, Manning has led eight game-winning drives in the last four seasons combined, with zero playoff berths.

Season Summary

Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 68
Game-winning drives: 87 (plus six non-offensive game-winning scores)
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 156/256 (60.9 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 33

The following table shows a summary of each team's success in close games this season. First, the offense's record in games with a 4QC opportunity is shown. As a reminder, that is games having possession in the fourth quarter (or overtime) with a one-score deficit. Next is the overall 4QC/GWD record, which also includes the games where the score was tied in the fourth quarter or overtime. The number of games lost in which the team had a fourth-quarter lead is also shown. The last section shows the team's overall record in close games, which are defined as games involving a 4QC/GWD opportunity on either side of the ball.

NFL 2015 Regular Season Close Game Summary (4Q/OT)
OVERALL OFFENSE BLOWN ALL CLOSE GAMES
Team Record 4QC Pct. 4QC/GWD Pct. 4Q LEADS Games W-L Pct. CG%
CAR 15-1 3-1 0.750 4-1 0.800 0 11 10-1 0.909 68.8%
IND 8-8 2-2 0.500 4-2 0.667 2 10 8-2 0.800 62.5%
ARI 13-3 1-2 0.333 4-2 0.667 0 9 7-2 0.778 56.3%
DEN 12-4 5-3 0.625 6-3 0.667 2 13 10-3 0.769 81.3%
MIN 11-5 1-2 0.333 2-2 0.500 0 7 5-2 0.714 43.8%
KC 11-5 1-3 0.250 1-3 0.250 2 9 6-3 0.667 56.3%
SF 5-11 2-2 0.500 2-2 0.500 1 6 4-2 0.667 37.5%
CIN 12-4 3-3 0.500 3-3 0.500 2 8 5-3 0.625 50.0%
HOU 9-7 3-3 0.500 3-3 0.500 0 8 5-3 0.625 50.0%
WAS 9-7 2-3 0.400 3-3 0.500 3 8 5-3 0.625 50.0%
GB 10-6 2-4 0.333 2-4 0.333 0 10 6-4 0.600 62.5%
ATL 8-8 4-4 0.500 5-5 0.500 2 12 7-5 0.583 75.0%
PIT 10-6 2-4 0.333 3-5 0.375 3 11 6-5 0.545 68.8%
BUF 8-8 1-5 0.167 2-5 0.286 1 10 5-5 0.500 62.5%
DET 7-9 2-4 0.333 3-4 0.429 2 10 5-5 0.500 62.5%
MIA 6-10 2-4 0.333 3-4 0.429 0 8 4-4 0.500 50.0%
NE 12-4 2-4 0.333 2-4 0.333 1 8 4-4 0.500 50.0%
NYJ 10-6 2-4 0.333 3-4 0.429 1 8 4-4 0.500 50.0%
PHI 7-9 0-4 0.000 2-4 0.333 3 8 4-4 0.500 50.0%
TB 6-10 2-6 0.250 3-6 0.333 2 11 5-6 0.455 68.8%
CHI 6-10 4-5 0.444 4-7 0.364 3 12 5-7 0.417 75.0%
NO 7-9 1-5 0.167 3-6 0.333 2 10 4-6 0.400 62.5%
OAK 7-9 4-8 0.333 4-8 0.333 3 13 5-8 0.385 81.3%
SEA 10-6 2-4 0.333 2-5 0.286 5 8 3-5 0.375 50.0%
STL 7-9 1-3 0.250 1-5 0.167 2 8 3-5 0.375 50.0%
JAC 5-11 3-6 0.333 4-7 0.364 3 11 4-7 0.364 68.8%
BAL 5-11 3-9 0.250 3-9 0.250 4 14 5-9 0.357 87.5%
NYG 6-10 1-8 0.111 2-8 0.200 5 12 4-8 0.333 75.0%
DAL 4-12 2-9 0.182 3-9 0.250 4 12 3-9 0.250 75.0%
TEN 3-13 2-7 0.222 2-7 0.222 4 9 2-7 0.222 56.3%
SD 4-12 1-8 0.111 2-8 0.200 5 10 2-8 0.200 62.5%
CLE 3-13 1-7 0.125 1-7 0.125 1 8 1-7 0.125 50.0%

Baltimore led the league with 14 close games, but only went 5-9 in those contests. Assuming better health next year, expect the Ravens to rebound nicely. Seattle rebounded from its slow start this year, but the Seahawks, Chargers, and Giants finished with five blown fourth-quarter leads each, the most in the league.

Denver led all teams with five 4QC wins and six 4QC/GWD wins this season. Chip Kelly's Eagles were the only team to not have a 4QC win. Interestingly enough, last year's Super Bowl teams (the Patriots and Seahawks) are the only playoff teams this year to not have a winning record in close games. But if those teams are to lose this postseason, you can almost guarantee it will be a close finish. The 49ers went 4-2 in close games, but that is because they only played a league-low six of them. Most teams comfortably beat the 49ers.

There are two teams in the playoffs this year that have not blown a fourth-quarter lead since 2013: Arizona and Houston. The Cardinals are obvious with how much we talk about Bruce Arians' close-game success, but the Texans are a surprising team with 18 wins in Bill O'Brien's two seasons. Sure, there is a lot of AFC South involved in that, but the Texans will have a chance this week to win a playoff game against the Chiefs.

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 05 Jan 2016

13 comments, Last at 06 Jan 2016, 8:17pm by Noah Arkadia

Comments

1
by Noah Arkadia :: Wed, 01/06/2016 - 11:24am

About Miami - New England, I've got a strong impression that, with the linebacking being awful for Miami this year and Jelani Jenkins out with an injury, the Patriots thought it would be like stealing from a blind man to concentrate their gameplan around exploiting rookie UFA Neville Hewitt with delayed handoffs, shovel passes and in general simply running the ball, and isolating him in coverage, too. But Hewitt played an amazing game, stuffing those running plays and going as far as defending Gronkowski down the sideline one-on-one with success.

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2
by RickD :: Wed, 01/06/2016 - 11:45am

"Given the lackadaisical approach to the entire game, it makes no sense why Brady and a guy like Rob Gronkowski weren't just given the whole day off"

That would have been a bit too obvious. Belichick was supposed to try to win. Openly thumbing his nose at the possibility of getting a #1 seed would have triggered two weeks of media attacks.

3
by Noah Arkadia :: Wed, 01/06/2016 - 12:52pm

If you're playing your starters, what upside is there to not trying to win? It's not like there isn't film of the team from the previous 15 games that you don't want to "show your hand". As if you needed a special super-gameplan to beat the Dolphins, anyway! Also, homefield advantage is valuable.

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Who, me?

9
by RickD :: Wed, 01/06/2016 - 2:20pm

Honestly I don't know exactly what the coaches were thinking. It seemed clear that, at the least, they were trying to minimize Gronk's exposure by having him run sideline routes as opposed to his usual routes across the middle. The play-calling felt more like they were simply trying to exhaust the playbook as opposed to calling the optimal play for each situation. I think Brady needed to be in there to see whether he could connect with receivers on sideline routes.

It's probably true that they would have been happy to have the #1 seed, but that avoiding injuries was the highest priority.

Homefield advantage is nice, but think about this: right now the two hottest teams in the AFC are Pittsburgh and Kansas City. If exactly one of the two wins (reasonably likely) they go to play at the #1 seed and the #2 seed has an easier matchup. The only way the #2 seed has a significantly tougher matchup is if both Cincy and Houston win.

So there are a lot of thoughts. I don't know what the exact reasoning was, and I'm concerned that the Pats were actually playing at their true current level on Sunday. But not very concerned.

12
by johonny :: Wed, 01/06/2016 - 5:11pm

When the day started there was a decent chance they would not see Pittsburgh. They were facing the very real prospect of Denver with a back up QB, KC with Alex Smith, The Jets with Santa Claus, the Texans with QB to be named later, and the Bengals with a back up. The Pats went run heavy in the first half and Miami wasn't exactly stopping the run well all year, when it was clear Miami (much to everyone's amazement) game planned well for what New England was doing, they went pass heavy in the second half. It was pretty clear they were staying away from Miami's strength (insane all out pass rush) and their weakness (severely injured Oline). What no one expected was Miami's oline would hold up well all day, Miami's young WR would play so well, and the luck bubble would favor Miami in some low percentage heaves by Tannehill. In their first meeting Miami did little to nothing with the ball and their offense was so unorganized all year, you could see how the Pats thought 10-13 points was the Dolphins ceiling so long as they didn't turn the ball over. If you think about a totally amazing result by Miami. This Miami team somehow beat the Texans 44-26. Wow talk about a bad day for the Texans.

13
by Noah Arkadia :: Wed, 01/06/2016 - 8:17pm

They absolutely weren't playing at their true level, but I don't think it was intentional in any way. It was simply one of those days. I don't think the game plan was bad, either, it just didn't work. In part, like I said, it was Hewitt amazingly being in perfect position all day against a lot of misdirection and trickery (draws, shovel passes and the like). We're talking about a reserve undrafted rookie linebacker in one of the worst units in the league stepping up here. It would have surprised exactly no one if the Pats had run all over Miami.

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Who, me?

4
by Hoodie_Sleeves :: Wed, 01/06/2016 - 12:57pm

There aren't enough roster slots or healthy guys to give everyone important the day off. Especially when we're talking about good blocking TEs on a team whose offensive lineman is made up of whoever happens to be hanging around Gillette on game day.

Belichick probably looked at it and figured that giving Brady the day off increased the overall likelihood of injury to offensive players (as 90%+ of the time they're practicing with him), and that giving Gronk the day off increased Brady's chance of getting injured.

6
by Travis :: Wed, 01/06/2016 - 1:09pm

And then Brady got hurt anyway, and in the second half Belichick still had an injured Brady drop back on 20 of 27 plays, only pulling him when the game got to must-recover-an-onside-kick territory. How does that make any sense if they weren't trying to win?

7
by Noah Arkadia :: Wed, 01/06/2016 - 1:36pm

Say that Belichik thinks that NOT resting his starters increases the likelihood of everyone staying healthy -or that it wasn't a possibility, even. How does it follow that you wouldn't try to win, especially with homefield on the line?

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Who, me?

5
by tuluse :: Wed, 01/06/2016 - 12:58pm

Is Belichick really a coach who cares about "media attacks"?

8
by RickD :: Wed, 01/06/2016 - 2:13pm

To the extent they distract his football team, yes.

10
by roguerouge :: Wed, 01/06/2016 - 4:48pm

Part of it was that they only had like 37 players who could play, according to one player after the game. Shortening the game as much as possible with running plays and slow play makes sense in that context.

11
by Travis :: Wed, 01/06/2016 - 4:58pm

Even if that were the case (43 Patriots played, with the three who only played a handful of snaps being normal backups not being listed on the injury report, and three active players never played), that only explains the first half. How do you explain the second half, when an injured Brady, with a healthy backup, dropped back 20 times?