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07 Nov 2017

Clutch Encounters: Week 9

by Scott Kacsmar

Week 9 did not help the cause for this season's lack of competitive, quality football. In fact, it was one of the least competitive weeks in years, with only five of the 13 games featuring a comeback opportunity, and with only one success.

There were only two other games that were even within a score in the fourth quarter. The Titans beat Baltimore 23-20, but the Ravens never could get possession of the ball with a one-score deficit in that one. A failed onside kick with 46 seconds left was the final nail in the coffin. Chiefs-Cowboys was the game of the week on paper, and it delivered plenty of thrills along the way with Dallas taking a 21-17 lead into the fourth quarter. But a third straight long Dallas touchdown drive put the Cowboys ahead 28-17, which became the final score. Alex Smith then threw his first interception of the season, making the final five minutes forgettable. The Chiefs have lost three of four after being the league's last unbeaten team at 5-0.

At least Seattle gave us another comeback to talk about. It was just the opposite result of last week's classic shootout with Houston.

Game of the Week

Washington Redskins 17 at Seattle Seahawks 14

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 4 (14-10)
Game Winning Chance Before: 15.1 percent
Game Winning Chance After:93.7 percent
Win Probability Added: 78.6 percent
Head Coach: Jay Gruden (7-17-1 at 4QC and 13-17-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Kirk Cousins (7-16-1 at 4QC and 11-16-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)

While variance in DVOA is among the lowest we have ever tracked this season, Russell Wilson and the Seattle offense challenged those numbers. After a career-high 452 passing yards in last week's 41-38 comeback over Houston, Wilson was working on one of his least impressive passing games in his career. Seattle trailed 10-2 to start the fourth quarter, and the only Seattle points were on a safety when Kirk Cousins, working behind a mashed-up offensive line, was sacked in the end zone.

Fortunately, Wilson redeemed himself with a big fourth quarter, but not everything went well. After a 10-yard touchdown pass to Luke Willson with 11:48 left, the Seahawks were right to try for the game-tying two-point conversion. They were very wrong to dust off the old pick play that lost Super Bowl XLIX on Malcolm Butler's interception. This time, receiver J.D. McKissic was playing the role of Ricardo Lockette, and D.J. Swearinger wasn't fooled at all by Jimmy Graham's attempt at a pick. Swearinger picked off the pass and tried to return it for two points of his own, and he gave it quite the effort. I love that Washington understood the situation and tried to lateral this ball a few times to score here.

For as fun as that was, this really hurt Seattle later in the game. The Seahawks got the ball back after Washington's backup line caused a few more penalties and allowed sacks of Cousins. Seattle oddly used its first timeout with 2:31 left after a third-down run by Washington that was whistled dead at 2:52. If Pete Carroll had just let that clock go, after the punt, Seattle should have had time to run one play before the two-minute warning, like they ended up doing, but would have had all three timeouts left instead of two.

Wilson used his legs consistently to find easy throws and even scrambled for another first down himself. The drive was almost going too fast too soon with Seattle only needing a field goal to win. Doug Baldwin broke wide open down the field and Wilson found him for an easy touchdown with 1:34 left. The Seahawks used a second timeout before the two-point conversion, which again was too high of a throw from Wilson to Graham. So Seattle led 14-10, but had it gotten the first conversion to tie the game, this would have been an extra point to give Seattle a 17-10 lead. At worst, Washington forces overtime with a touchdown and extra point, so that first two-point miss was really crucial.

However, what if there wasn't a Seattle touchdown at all? Remember, it was 10-8, so a short field goal on the final play to win the game would have been a sound strategy. Baldwin could have gone down at the 1-yard line, forcing Washington to use its second timeout with about 1:33 left. According to EdjFootball, Seattle's Game Winning Chance on this first-and-goal at the 1 would have been 86.3 percent, or almost identical to what it was after Baldwin scored, but before the two-point try failed. Wilson then could have taken three knees, costing Washington its final timeout, and leaving about 10 seconds left for Blair Walsh to kick a field goal from 22 yards away. Now maybe that's the issue. Walsh was 0-for-3 on his field goals on Sunday, and we know he has missed a chip shot before under pressure. But if he couldn't make this kick, then maybe he doesn't deserve to hold onto his job. On this fictional fourth down at the 4-yard line, Seattle's GWC would be 91.3 percent, or its highest in the game. The argument is certainly interesting to not give Cousins a chance, but in the heat of the moment, and given Walsh's history, I cannot blame Baldwin for scoring. If the game was tied, then yes, he absolutely should have gone down, but Seattle still trailed.

You would like to think you can protect a 70-yard field from a touchdown with 1:34 left, but we also know Seattle's defense has been vulnerable in these spots over the years. Cousins hasn't been at his best in these moments, but he took some chances on this drive. Under pressure, Cousins threw a great pass down the field to Brian Quick, who made a nice adjustment for a 31-yard gain. On the very next play, Cousins went deep again and Josh Doctson came through with a 38-yard diving grab. Doctson held on this time, unlike his big drop in the end zone against the Chiefs in Week 4. Rookie corner Shaquill Griffin didn't even bother to touch Doctson down, so this was almost a touchdown. Not touching a receiver down was a problem in a few games this weekend. This isn't college anymore.

Seattle used its final timeout with 1:02 left. Letting Washington score right away really was the best strategy to make sure Wilson got the ball back with the most time possible. Rob Kelley scored on the ground on first down, and Washington led 17-14. Wilson had 59 seconds to answer from his own 25. I really wanted to see Walsh get a chance to redeem himself, or miss a fourth field goal on the day like Kris Brown once infamously did for the Steelers against Baltimore 16 years and one day before this game to the date.

The chance never came. Wilson was getting time to throw, and found Paul Richardson for a 26-yard gain to the Washington 38. I think Wilson should have been looking to spike the ball immediately since the clock was the biggest issue, but he called another play and the snap came at 15 seconds. Terrell McClain just got a piece of Wilson's leg to bring him down for a sack. Wilson tried to throw the ball away, but his knee was clearly down before the ball was released. The call on the field was correctly ruled a sack, but replay stopped the game with four seconds left to do a review. Had the call been reversed to an incompletion, Seattle would have gotten those yards back, and more importantly, a few valuable seconds would have been added to the clock. Since the call was confirmed, however, the clock started on the referee's ready-for-play signal. Basically, the Seahawks got a bit of a gift, since an obvious sack and running clock may have left the Seahawks out of time before they could have spiked the ball. Also, Jay Gruden should have let Seattle rush the final snap instead of quickly using his timeout. That just gave the Seahawks time to set up an obvious Hail Mary, which had a similar look to the Fail Mary play from 2012. But this time, Golden Tate wasn't there, and there would be no controversial Seattle win.

Seattle had been 15-0 in the Wilson era (since 2012) when outgaining an opponent by at least 190 yards, but lost this game after outgaining Washington by 193 yards. NFL teams are just 18-136 (.117) when getting outgained by at least 190 yards since 2012.

Washington is an interesting 4-4 team. It has the two nice road wins over the Rams and Seahawks, and arguably the best collection of losses in the league with two games to the Eagles, and close ones against Dallas and Kansas City. Washington really hasn't played a poor game this season, but the upcoming schedule remains tough with Minnesota, New Orleans, and at Dallas to close November. If the Redskins can survive this month (go 2-2 at least), then a strong finish is possible to get to 10-6. We could even be looking back at this comeback as the potential tie-breaker with the Seahawks come playoff time. It was a big road win for this franchise, and we don't often say that about Washington.

Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind

Falcons at Panthers: Go Home, Julio, You're Drunk

The Falcons blew another double-digit lead, as a 10-0 advantage turned into a 20-10 deficit before the fourth quarter. Carolina, with plenty of help from Cam Newton's 86 rushing yards, dominated the ground game, outrushing Atlanta 201 yards to 53. Things may have been even more lopsided if Jonathan Stewart had not lost two fumbles in Atlanta territory in the first quarter.

Atlanta called just four runs in the second half compared to 21 passes, which won't help offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian's sinking credibility with fans. There were also some questionable calls for screen passes, such as a bubble screen to Taylor Gabriel on a big third-and-8 at the Carolina 40. However, while a good tackle stopped the play for a 1-yard gain, the Falcons went for it on fourth-and-7. What can we really criticize Sarkisian for when Julio Jones drops a wide-open pass in the end zone?

The blown coverage was stunning enough, but how does a receiver of Jones' caliber not make that easy catch? Jones doesn't catch many touchdowns despite his elite status, but I'm afraid this will be how we remember his year, and possibly Atlanta's 2017 season following the Super Bowl loss.

The game wasn't over just yet. Matt Ryan got into the no-huddle offense and led a 92-yard touchdown drive to make it 20-17. The defense forced a three-and-out after Newton threw incomplete on third-and-8, saving the Falcons one timeout. Ryan had plenty of time (2:18) from his own 21 to at least set up Matt Bryant for a game-tying field goal, but the Falcons never gained a first down. The first play of the drive was a big letdown as a swing pass to Devonta Freeman lost 3 yards. Freeman would have been better off dropping the ball. It didn't even make sense from a design standpoint since the two receivers on that side took off downfield, leaving no one to even block for Freeman. Kurt Coleman buried him for the loss, which also brought up the two-minute warning.

While pressure affected Ryan on the next two downs, his pocket was pristine on fourth-and-13. His throw was far from perfect to Gabriel, who may have been contacted in the back a bit early, but the refs were probably right to not throw a flag. Atlanta was 0-for-3 on fourth down.

The Panthers took over in great position to run out the clock, though on fourth down, Newton did have to dance around, avoid a sack, and throw a pass out of bounds to burn off the final seven seconds. That would have been Pisarcik-like if Newton had been stripped for a fumble return, but he did what he had to do on the play. It made more sense than trying a field goal.

Carolina deserved the win, but I cannot help but feel that Atlanta let another one slip away here. With only one convincing win (Green Bay) and only one convincing loss (at New England), no team tiptoes a line between 1-7 and 7-1 like the Falcons this year. In the end, 4-4 is a perfectly suitable record for this team, but expectations were obviously higher than this at the midway point.

Colts at Texans: A Savage Season

The game was hardly germane after what happened on Thursday to these two teams. First, the Colts made it official that Andrew Luck would not play this year. Hours later, the devastating news broke that Deshaun Watson had torn his ACL in practice, ending his historic rookie season. What could have been an exciting four-team race in the AFC South has turned into a battle between the Jaguars and Titans, with these two teams falling out of relevance. It's really a sad turn of events.

At least T.Y. Hilton still shows up to play against Houston. His 80-yard touchdown in the third quarter, aided by Houston's failure to touch him down, gave the Colts a 17-7 lead that seemed too large for Tom Savage, who had yet to lead the Houston offense to a score this season. Houston's first points came on a Jacoby Brissett fumble returned for a touchdown. When the deficit grew to 20-7, Savage only had 9:12 left to make his mark.

Then again, these are Chuck Pagano's Colts, the same team that allowed Brock Osweiler to erase a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter in Houston last year. The Colts came in with three blown fourth-quarter leads this season, tied with the Giants for most in the league, and Savage soon had the Texans on the verge of Indianapolis' fourth blown lead.

First, Savage needed a 138th-career pass attempt to throw his first NFL touchdown, so at least Ryan Lindley's record (229 attempts) is safe. But a 34-yard touchdown to DeAndre Hopkins with 6:11 left tightened things up at 20-14. The Colts did not do a good job of burning clock. Jack Doyle mistakenly went out of bounds on a completion and then thought he was interfered with on a third-down misfire. Savage had plenty of time (3:10) to drive 80 yards for the game-winning touchdown, but time still became an issue, especially with Houston's YAC-limited offense not able to get out of bounds after any completion. Hopkins almost had another touchdown, but was unable to tap his second foot down a la Santonio Holmes in Super Bowl XLIII.

After Hopkins caught another pass to set up first-and-goal at the 7, Houston could have immediately used its final timeout with 37 seconds left instead of trying to run a play. You definitely don't want to waste a down with a spike there. Head coach Bill O'Brien thought the timeout was worth saving to talk about a fourth-down play, but a good offense shouldn't need all four cracks to get this touchdown to win the game. By the time Houston snapped the ball for its first-down play, 18 seconds remained, so the team almost cost itself the chance to have four snaps with this strategy.

On first down, Houston's Game Winning Chance peaked at 58.0 percent, but pressure was effective against Savage even though the Colts were only rushing four defenders at him. His throws were rushed and inaccurate. On fourth-and-ballgame, veteran left tackle Chris Clark was beat by Jabaal Sheard for the game-deciding strip-sack.

Obviously Savage needed to get the ball out there to give someone a chance, but it wasn't a good play design by the Texans. Hopkins drew double-coverage in the end zone, but the only other player Houston used on that side was running back Lamar Miller, who struggled to get open in the slot. He likely would have been better served as an extra blocker in the backfield.

Let's just hope that when these teams meet next year, it will be with a healthy Watson and Luck. Even without them, this was one of the most dramatic finishes of Week 9, but that says more about the week than anything.

Raiders at Dolphins: The Overachievers Bowl

Oakland and Miami have almost never appeared on NBC's Sunday Night Football since it became the flagship game of the week in the NFL in 2006. The Raiders have had three appearances in the last 12 months, but only showed up one other time, way back in 2006. Miami's had just one other appearance since 2006. Obviously, this looked like an attractive game to schedule since both teams made the playoffs last year, but those records were always pretty misleading given the plethora of close wins and close calls.

Last season, Oakland had the smallest scoring differential (plus-31) in NFL history for a 12-win team. The Dolphins pulled off the rare feat of going 10-6 despite being outscored on the season (minus-17 differential). This year, Oakland has been disappointing with a 3-5 start, while Miami cemented itself as the worst 4-3 team ever with a minus-60 scoring differential.

Sunday night's outcome really matched the rest of this season. Even though Oakland had a worse record, the Raiders have played better football than Miami, and better football won this game on a night of returns. Oakland running back Marshawn Lynch returned from his one-game suspension and scored two touchdowns in arguably his best game yet this year. Jay Cutler returned from his one-game absence from a rib injury and definitely played his best game yet for the Dolphins -- not that the bar was high. For the first time in his NFL career, Cutler finished a game with at least 300 passing yards, three touchdown passes, and zero interceptions.

It's just that some of that production came far too late on what was a very dink-and-dunk night again for Miami. The Raiders still don't have an interception on defense through nine games, an NFL record, but they didn't need one to turn the Dolphins away in crunch time. After Ndamukong Suh forced a strip-sack on Derek Carr in the fourth quarter, Miami took over at its own 48, trailing 20-16. However, Jarvis Landry was penalized for holding on the first play, and the Dolphins went three-and-out. After getting the ball back again in great field position at its own 45, Miami again self-destructed with a first-play holding penalty by center Mike Pouncey. Oakland was able to answer with an 87-yard touchdown drive to take a 27-16 lead with 4:37 left.

NBC's Cris Collinsworth was talking a bit too prematurely about the game being over at that point, especially given the things Miami has had go its way in Adam Gase's tenure. When Cutler threw an incompletion on fourth-and-19 with 2:53 left, it did look to be over. However, Carr threw a third-down interception that basically served as a punt, and Cutler responded with another touchdown drive after getting a brilliant one-handed catch from DeVante Parker. A two-point conversion made it 27-24 with 1:32 left, but an onside kick recovery was Miami's last hope. It's also about the only thing missing from Gase's close-game BINGO sheet. It didn't work out though, and the Raiders were able to run out the clock.

Miami's previous eight losses were all by 13 or more points, so the 3-point defeat is unusual for Gase. On the one hand, his offense may be getting back on track, but on the other hand, Miami won't see Oakland's porous defense again this year.

Cardinals at 49ers: Beathard Not Beat Hard This Time

These teams started the season with Carson Palmer and Brian Hoyer as their quarterbacks. Neither suited up on Sunday, and now Hoyer is Tom Brady's backup in New England again. David Johnson was expected to be Arizona's star running back, but instead we watched future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson earn a career-high 37 carries for 159 yards. Pierre Garcon was San Francisco's No. 1 wide receiver, but injury has ended his season too. In Garcon's place, Marquise Goodwin and Aldrick Robinson each caught just 2-of-8 targets from C.J. Beathard, the rookie who was making his third start.

It is harsh just how things have changed so much since these same two teams metin Week 4, a game that was also won by Arizona. There could still be big changes to come after the 49ers traded for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo last week, but no matter which quarterback suits up for the 49ers, there is a real talent deficiency he'll have to overcome.

Down 17-10 in the fourth quarter, Beathard delivered two good passes in a row, but Goodwin dropped a sure first down, and tight end Greg Kittle lost control of another gain that was challenged and correctly ruled incomplete. The 49ers lead the NFL with more than 20 dropped passes this season, which was the same problem last year with a different cast and scheme. Arizona took over in good field position and rode Peterson hard to another field goal for a 20-10 lead that was insurmountable for the overmatched 49ers. Beathard had a pass tipped at the line at the Arizona 9 that was intercepted by Karlos Dansby with 2:28 left, making the final two minutes uneventful.

The 49ers are now 0-9 with a 0-6 record at game-winning drive opportunities. The next-worst opportunity record is 0-5 by the Giants, San Francisco's next opponent.

Season Summary

Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 24
Game-winning drives: 38 (plus one non-offensive game-winning score)
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 71/132 (53.8 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 13

Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro Football Reference. Screen caps come from NFL Game Pass. Game Winning Chance (win probability) data is from EdjFootball.

Posted by: Scott Kacsmar on 07 Nov 2017

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