by Scott Kacsmar
This is the NFL's 94th season. Even if we ignore the era without stats (1920-31) or when players had to play on both sides of the ball (pre-1950), that's a lot of seasons and thousands of games in the books. Yet Sunday produced things we have never seen before, like a 64-yard field goal by Matt Prater in Denver or the most bizarre 34-20 snow game ever in Philadelphia. Some lateral-filled tomfoolery almost worked in Pittsburgh at the end of each half.
Only seven games had a comeback opportunity this week, but the quality of finishes, especially from Sunday's early timeslot, was the stuff that dreams are made of.
Game of the Week
Minnesota Vikings 26 at Baltimore Ravens 29
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 5 (12-7)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD): 0.07
Head Coach: John Harbaugh (11-22 at 4QC and 18-25 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Joe Flacco (11-21 at 4QC and 18-24 overall 4QC/GWD record)
A NFL-record six lead changes in the fourth quarter? The fourth game ever with both teams scoring at least 20 points in the fourth quarter? Thirty-six points scored in the final 125 seconds? This was madness, especially since Matt Cassel was involved.
It should easily go down as one of the greatest finishes in NFL history, but Baltimore making the playoffs as defending champions will help determine if it is remembered. If you don't believe me, here's a test: How many people recall the 2009 Raiders-Steelers game producing five consecutive go-ahead touchdown drives with Bruce Gradkowski becoming the first and only quarterback to ever throw three go-ahead touchdown passes in the fourth quarter? That's one of the closest comparisons to what happened in Baltimore on Sunday.
For three quarters, this was a mundane punt-fest between bad offenses in the snow, which just made the finish that more incredible.
Baltimore led 7-6 as the weather eased up, but Joe Flacco's interception late in the third quarter set the Vikings up in great field position at the Baltimore 33. On the second play of the fourth quarter, Cassel threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Jerome Simpson, but the two-point conversion pass failed. Minnesota led 12-7.
Vonta Leach was stuffed for no gain on a fourth-and-1 at the Minnesota 21 with 10:36 left. The next drive was another Flacco interception, but this one on a deep ball basically served as a punt, picked off at the Minnesota 10. After the Vikings went three-and-out, Baltimore got it back with 6:32 left and went on a 64-yard touchdown drive that would normally serve as the last score of a game. In his first game back from injury, Dennis Pitta caught a 1-yard touchdown from Flacco on fourth-and-goal with 2:05 left. Even after a false start and pressure on Flacco, he found Torrey Smith wide open in the end zone for the two-point conversion. Baltimore led 15-12.
Cassel had two minutes left at his own 32. Simpson was open over the middle for 27 yards. On a simple shotgun handoff, Toby Gerhart went right down the middle of the field, plowing through two defenders -- to say it's been an adventurous season for James Ihedigbo would be an understatement -- for a 41-yard touchdown run with 1:27 left.
Now if only the Vikings would have kicked it deep here. Jacoby Jones fielded the short kick and had no problem blowing past everyone on the field, including kicker Blair Walsh for an all-too-easy 77-yard kick return touchdown with 1:16 left. Now the game was entering into all-time territory as Baltimore led 22-19.
Cassel had 1:11 left at his own 21. That's still plenty of time with apparently two timeouts for at least a game-tying field goal. Cassel had to throw it away on first down and had his pass deflected on second down. The screen was an odd call on third-and-10, but Cordarrelle Patterson just needed to set one blocker, embarrass the hell out of Matt Elam with a subtle move and he was off to the races again for a 79-yard touchdown with 45 seconds left. Rarely do we see runners taking off for long touchdowns this often in a full game, let alone three in one minute.
Now leading 26-22, Minnesota should have had this one finally. Baltimore did have two timeouts, but going 80 yards for a touchdown in 45 seconds is the stuff of legends. We detailed it with Matthew Stafford against the Cowboys earlier this season.
The timeouts mattered as Flacco was able to use the deep middle of the field for a 35-yard pass to Marlon Brown to start the drive. That only took seven seconds. Flacco nearly took a sack but was just able to get rid of the ball. He overthrew Pitta and the pass was intercepted, but Chad Greenway was penalized for pass interference. That was a rough call (though not the worst on Sunday) as there was a little bit of contact, but it really did not impede the receiver, who slipped anyway. That was an 18-yard penalty, but more importantly it negated the pick.
After an incompletion, Flacco threw on the run to Pitta for 18 yards down to the Minnesota 9. Baltimore called its final timeout with 10 seconds left. With time for two plays, it only took one for Brown to come down with a great catch in the back of the end zone for the game-winning touchdown with four seconds left.
At least it appeared to be the game-winner. The Ravens had to keep the ball away from Patterson. They did with a short kick, which was harmlessly returned to the Baltimore 48. If the Vikings would have pulled off some lateral-filled return for a game-winning touchdown with no time left, this may have instantly became the greatest ending in sports. Or life.
Just engineering the final drive in this situation alone, regardless of the previous scores, would have been worthy of high praise. Doing it after all the madness that went on just makes this one an all-timer.
Cassel becomes the fifth quarterback ever to throw two go-ahead touchdown passes in the fourth quarter and lose the game. Drew Brees did it last against the 49ers in the 2011 NFC Divisional.
After updating my table of game-winning touchdown drives in the final 75 seconds, down by 4-plus points since 1981, Flacco and Tom Brady appear twice now. That's four times this season league-wide:
|Game-Winning Touchdown Drives in Last 75 Seconds, Down 4+ Points (Since 1981)|
|11/22/1981||BUF||Joe Ferguson||Roland Hooks||NE||17-13||W 20-17||0:35||0:05||73|
|9/19/1982||PHI||Ron Jaworski||Leroy Harris (RUN)||at CLE||21-17||W 24-21||0:52||0:22||65|
|12/26/1982||STLC||Neil Lomax||Roy Green||NYG||21-17||W 24-21||1:07||0:27||70|
|9/20/1987||SF||Joe Montana||Jerry Rice||at CIN||26-20||W 27-26||0:02||0:00||25|
|11/11/1990||SEA||Dave Krieg||Paul Skansi||at KC||16-10||W 17-16||0:48||0:00||66|
|11/3/1991||ATL||Billy Joe Tolliver||Michael Haynes||SF||14-10||W 17-14||0:53||0:01||80|
|9/6/1992||CHI||Jim Harbaugh||Tom Waddle||DET||24-20||W 27-24||1:05||0:01||74|
|9/20/1992||GB||Brett Favre||Kitrick Taylor||CIN||23-17||W 24-23||1:07||0:13||92|
|8/31/1997||CIN||Jeff Blake||Carl Pickens||ARI||21-16||W 24-21||1:10||0:38||63|
|9/8/1997||KC||Elvis Grbac||Andre Rison||at OAK||27-22||W 28-27||0:58||0:03||80|
|11/22/1998||SD||Craig Whelihan||Charlie Jones||KC||37-31||W 38-37||0:51||0:09||63|
|10/7/2001||ARI||Jake Plummer||MarTay Jenkins||at PHI||20-14||W 21-20||1:09||0:09||74|
|12/8/2002||CLE||Tim Couch||Quincy Morgan||at JAC||20-14||W 21-20||0:47||0:00||53|
|12/14/2008||SD||Philip Rivers||Vincent Jackson||at KC||21-16||W 22-21||1:11||0:36||61|
|10/3/2010||BAL||Joe Flacco||T.J. Houshmandzadeh||at PIT||14-10||W 17-14||1:08||0:32||40|
|11/21/2010||NYJ||Mark Sanchez||Santonio Holmes||HOU||27-23||W 30-27||0:49||0:10||72|
|9/24/2012||SEA||Russell Wilson||Golden Tate||GB||12-7||W 14-12||0:46||0:00||46|
|12/2/2012||IND||Andrew Luck||Donnie Avery||at DET||33-28||W 35-33||1:07||0:00||75|
|10/13/2013||NE||Tom Brady||Kenbrell Thompkins||NO||27-23||W 30-27||1:13||0:05||70|
|10/27/2013||DET||Matthew Stafford||Matthew Stafford (RUN)||DAL||30-24||W 31-30||1:02||0:12||80|
|12/8/2013||BAL||Joe Flacco||Marlon Brown||MIN||26-22||W 29-26||0:45||0:04||80|
|12/8/2013||NE||Tom Brady||Danny Amendola||CLE||26-21||W 27-26||1:00||0:31||40|
With respect to Baltimore having two timeouts, this drive was the only one to go 80 yards with under 50 seconds to start with and it's the third-latest starting time on the list.
There will be more great finishes to come, but not many will rival what took place here.
Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind
Cleveland Browns 26 at New England Patriots 27
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 12 (26-14)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD): 0.32
Head Coach: Bill Belichick (41-67 at 4QC and 56-68 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Tom Brady (31-26 at 4QC and 43-28 overall 4QC/GWD record)
This season the Patriots have turned into the NFL equivalent of Friday the 13th. We spend the first half watching a load of crap before the second half gets heavy on mutilation and that sinking feeling that no one can kill this beast no matter what they try. Rinse and repeat for sequel after sequel.
In comeback wins against Miami, Denver, Houston and Cleveland, the Patriots were outscored 64-10 in the first half, but owned the second half by a 112-41 margin.
Sunday against Cleveland may have been the most improbable yet.
Tom Brady has been shut out in the first half 12 times in his career, but this was the second home game in a row it's happened as Cleveland led 6-0. The damage really came in the third quarter. Rob Gronkowski tore his ACL and MCL on a hard hit to the knee by T.J. Ward, Brady lost a fumble, and then Josh Gordon went 80 yards for a touchdown.
Cleveland led 19-3, but did make a few tactical errors. The Browns should have kicked an extra point when it was 12-0 early in the third quarter instead of attempting (and failing) on the two-point conversion. It could have been a 20-3 game when Gordon scored instead of 19-3 with 1:25 left in the third quarter.
The last team to keep the Patriots down multiple scores for the entire fourth quarter was Cleveland in 2010 (34-14 final). Right on cue, the Patriots answered quickly. Shane Vereen split out wide and ran a simple go route against a linebacker for a 50-yard reception. Vereen finished with 12 catches for 153 yards and the New England running backs actually had 218 receiving yards in the game.
Vereen finished the drive for a touchdown and Julian Edelman caught a two-point conversion with six seconds left in the third quarter. The Patriots were down 19-11 heading into the fourth quarter, extending the streak of competitiveness to 59 games.
On the next drive, things stalled after Brady was penalized for intentional grounding and was sacked on third down. There was no more Gronkowski, but there was still Stephen Gostkowski, who drilled a 50-yard field goal. It may not fit into the definition of a clutch kick, but every point was big in this one and that kick was not easy on a cold day.
Cleveland kept the pressure on as Jason Campbell played very well with 391 passing yards and no turnovers. On the second play of the drive Gordon took a reverse for 34 yards. He chipped in 151 receiving yards after back-to-back efforts over 200 yards. Arguably the best Campbell-to-Gordon connection was a 19-yard completion on third-and-17 with Aqib Talib draped all over Gordon. Jordan Cameron caught a 16-yard pass down to the New England 5.
Willis McGahee gained one yard on first down and the Patriots used their second timeout with 2:43 left. There's a decent chance the Patriots would have used their last timeout after a run on second down. It's probably too conservative in Foxboro to run the clock down to the two-minute warning and kick a field goal to make it 22-14, but it's an option. Last week's discussion had several people suggest having the two-point conversion is a huge benefit, but that's a moot point when Campbell throws a touchdown off play-action to a wide-open Cameron on second down with 2:39 left for a 26-14 lead.
Just some food for thought on the situation: the game had a better chance of going to overtime had Cleveland led 25-14 instead of 26-14. Now the Patriots would aggressively play for two touchdowns to win. Down 11, a field goal is still in play.
Normally, any of these leads are safe at this point in the game. It takes a miracle (or two) to blow it, and that's just about what happened. Brady started at his own 18 and soon hit Edelman for a 23-yard pass to the New England 47 at the two-minute warning. That also comes back to last week's discussion in that it's harder to manufacture points when starting inside of two minutes. The Patriots were already at midfield by that time.
The entire 11-play drive was all Edelman and Vereen. Brady spiked it once and New England did use its final timeout after a Vereen run for no gain. On third-and-goal, Brady found Edelman for a 2-yard touchdown with 1:01 left. That's nice, but the onside kick usually makes these scores irrelevant.
However, there was a significant penalty on the touchdown for a hit on Edelman by Jordan Poyer.
That was ruled a hit on a defenseless receiver, even though it was clean, on time and with the shoulder instead of the helmet. Yet another horrible call on a defender trying to do his job and make a play on the ball.
The penalty gets assessed on the kickoff, which was a huge deal given it put the ball at the 50. New England had the league's longest drought with an onside kick recovery. Fittingly, it was the 1994 AFC Wild Card against Cleveland (with Bill Belichick as Browns head coach) when New England last recovered one. These are supposed to be really hard, but the Patriots squibbed one up the middle and recovered at the Cleveland 40 with a minute left.
If we stop and remember that this was New England going against Cleveland, then it all starts to make sense. Looking to deliver more heartbreak to the factory of sadness, Brady started with a 10-yard pass to Danny Amendola. The clock was running and Brady went deep for Josh Boyce, but the pass was overthrown in the end zone.
However, one of the worst flags I have ever seen came out for pass interference in the end zone, gifting the Patriots 29 yards and a first-and-goal from the Cleveland 1. This call showed everything that's wrong with pass interference: it is inconsistently applied and a huge penalty for meaningless, incidental contact that did not alter the play, but grants the offense a huge reward anyway. DPI should be something blatant that warrants a flag, especially in that situation. The referee would have feared for his life (like Jimmy Smith once did) in Cleveland to make the same call (yes, this reference again) but I guess that's why they call it home-field advantage.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, the pass interference penalty provided the largest increase in win probability (33.3 percent) for the Patriots in the game. Given the amount of illegal contact that's allowed during NFL games, this penalty was absurd.
(Ed. Note: It was extra absurd given the amount of illegal contact that Jerome Boger's crew allowed during this game, specifically. As I noted repeatedly on Twitter during the game, Boger's crew has called Illegal Contact only twice the entire season, although he's called an average number of DPIs. Players often complain that they understand that different crews will call things different ways, but that they want consistency during the game. Calling this DPI really didn't fit with how the game had been called up to this point. -- Aaron Schatz)
Surprising no one, Brady cashed in with the touchdown pass to Amendola with 31 seconds left. The two-point run did fail, keeping it a 27-26 game. Campbell was at his own 20, but that's a tough drive without a timeout left. He was able to find Cameron for two big plays for 31 yards, getting a spike after the last one with a second left.
Billy Cundiff couldn't make a 32-yard field goal in Foxboro in the playoffs in 2011, so making a 58-yard game-winning kick in the cold did not seem likely, yet it's still the best option. That would have been some revenge kick. But while it was straight enough, it was too short and the game was over.
Brady led six fourth-quarter comebacks in 2009-12 combined. He has a career-high five this season and this was the 31st of his career, tying him with Joe Montana for the fifth most in NFL history. Here's a comparison of the two for their 31 comebacks:
|Fourth-Quarter Comeback Game Stats|
|Split||Tom Brady||Joe Montana|
|Average final score||26.3 - 22.9||26.4 - 21.8|
|Strength of schedule||0.518||0.521|
|Passes per game||41.4||34.9|
|Passing yards per game||294.1||277.6|
|Yards per attempt||7.11||7.95|
|Wins vs. teams .500+||16||16|
|Wins vs. teams <.250||4||2|
|4QC with 2+ INT||7||9|
|Playoff 4QC wins||4||5|
|Game-winning TD plays (QB)||12||16|
|Game-winning TD drives||16||23|
|Game-winning FG drives||14||7|
|4QC record||31-26 (.544)||31-29 (.517)|
Note: A lost comeback is a game where the quarterback met every requirement for a fourth-quarter comeback except for winning the game (e.g. Brady in Super Bowl XLII). Also, each quarterback had one comeback with a non-offensive game-winning score, so that's why the splits for field goals and touchdowns add up to 30 instead of 31.
A lot of similar numbers here, but I would give the edge to Montana for doing it so often on the road and playing better overall. Also, his drives were often more memorable, as they were finished with touchdowns like on "The Catch" or in the Super Bowl to John Taylor. The knock on Brady's "clutchness" has always been about all the times the kicker made the actual winning play, but those numbers have turned around in recent years.
Sunday was the largest fourth-quarter comeback of Brady's career at 12 points, but it will likely be lumped together with the rest of this strange odyssey the Patriots have been on in the last month.
Detroit Lions 20 at Philadelphia Eagles 34
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 8 (14-6)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD): 0.23
Head Coach: Chip Kelly (1-2 at 4QC and 1-2 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Nick Foles (2-5 at 4QC and 2-5 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Chip Kelly should never forget the first fourth-quarter comeback win of his NFL coaching career. In a snow game unlike any other, the Lions and Eagles combined for 54 points without a single point coming from a kick. The harsh conditions, including about eight inches of snow, forced some NFL tendency breakers we may not see again for a long time. For starters, the teams combined for seven two-point conversion attempts, converting three of them.
Frankly, the first half of this game was putrid football with only the incredible imagery providing eye candy. Nick Foles finally threw his first interception of the season and Detroit turned it into a 20-yard touchdown drive. That was the only score of the half. In the third quarter, Jeremy Ross returned a punt 58 yards for a touchdown and Detroit led 14-0.
We finally had a game thanks to the snow letting up a bit. The Eagles got the offense moving and on the board, but the rare two-point conversion attempted while down by eight failed. The next drive was kept alive by a pathetic roughing the passer call on Nick Farley for a hit that couldn't have been any cleaner.
LeSean McCoy put together one of the best fourth-quarter performances a running back has ever had. It started with a 40-yard touchdown run. The two-point pass failed, but Ndamukong Suh was suspiciously flagged for defensive holding. Bryce Brown converted from one yard out to tie the game.
It lasted 14 seconds as Ross returned the ensuing kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown with 14:20 left. Detroit lined up to try a two-point conversion, which would have been the first in NFL history in the fourth quarter for a team who just took a six-point lead. Previously, seven teams since 1994 failed on the extra point kick, but none actually attempted the two-point conversion.
Neither would Detroit as a false start penalty negated the play. Detroit called timeout and decided to clear some space for the extra point. It was the only kick attempt of the day and of course it was blocked, leaving the game at 20-14.
Three plays later McCoy again ran through the heart of Detroit's defense for a 57-yard touchdown run, then we experienced a first in NFL history. With the game tied 20-20, the Eagles went for two with 13:13 left and Foles completed the pass to Riley Cooper for a 22-20 lead. In 1969, the Bills tied Kansas City 19-19 with a touchdown run by O.J. Simpson. The AFL had the two-point conversion, but Buffalo came out in a kick formation. It was a fake and Marlin Briscoe threw to Wayne Patrick, who dropped the ball. Kansas City won 22-19 after getting a field goal.
So Sunday was the first time in an NFL game a team attempted a two-point conversion in the fourth quarter of a tied game.
Detroit went three-and-out following three inaccurate passes by Matthew Stafford. McCoy opened the drive with a 26-yard run followed by a 20-yard scramble from Foles and a 17-yard run from Brown. Foles finished the drive off with a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-goal from the Detroit 1, which is just another rarity.
This is also where the conditions hurt as the Eagles had to go for another two-point conversion, up 28-20. It's the first time a team has ever gone for a two-point conversion with an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter. Foles' pass was incomplete, keeping it a one-score game. Joique Bell showed off a hurdle and picked up 28 yards on a short pass. Then disaster struck.
Stafford could not control a bad snap and did a poor job trying to recover the ball. It goes down as the fifth fumble of the game credited to Stafford, who has one of the lowest fumble rates in NFL history. It was the first one he lost and it was costly. This game, by itself, raised Stafford's career fumble rate from 0.93 percent to 1.11 percent.
Chris Polk got in on the action with a 38-yard touchdown run. His two-point run failed, but at 34-20 with 2:58 left, it did not matter. Detroit went four-and-out and the Eagles ran out the final 2:33, complete with Brent Celek sliding after a 27-yard catch on fourth-and-12. He would have easily scored, but why bother? The game was so over the clock operator did not even get the ending right. Celek was down before the 1:50 mark, yet the Eagles did not run their next play until the 50-second mark.
In the quarter, McCoy rushed for 148 yards and the Eagles scored 28 points. This won't help change the "soft dome team" narrative for Detroit.
Miami Dolphins 34 at Pittsburgh Steelers 28
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 4 (28-24)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD): 0.23
Head Coach: Joe Philbin (4-10 at 4QC and 4-10 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Ryan Tannehill (4-10 at 4QC and 4-10 overall 4QC/GWD record)
So much for Miami not being able to win in cold, snowy Pittsburgh. That would have been the narrative in most years, but the Steelers are a loss away from their first losing season since 2003. Fighting for that last Wild Card spot in the AFC, the Steelers almost turned in one of the greatest plays in NFL history that could have propelled them to a playoff run. Instead it was just another mistake that dropped the team to 1-7 on fourth-quarter comeback opportunities.
Even after rallying from a 17-7 deficit to take a 21-17 lead in the third quarter, the Steelers promptly gave back the lead. Pittsburgh forced the issue to shut former receiver Mike Wallace down, but Wallace has done a good enough job of being unproductive himself this season. While Wallace had two catches for 19 yards, the defense had no answers for tight end Charles Clay (97 yards and two scores). If he wasn't left wide open, then the Steelers just could not tackle him.
Pittsburgh was driving to start the fourth quarter. Ben Roethlisberger split the defense with a perfect 16-yard pass to Jerricho Cotchery for the go-ahead touchdown with 14:56 left. Earlier in the game, Roethlisberger (215) moved past Terry Bradshaw (212) for the most touchdown passes in team history.
Each team then punted twice. With 4:31 left, Miami started at its own 20. On the second play of the drive, Daniel Thomas exploded for a season-long 55-yard run. That's the 11th play of 50-plus yards allowed by the Steelers this season (most in the league). Earlier in the game Ryan Tannehill had a 48-yard run on a simple zone-read option.
On second down, Tannehill hit a short pass to Clay, who broke three tackle attempts by two defenders (Cortez Allen and Troy Polamalu) for a 12-yard touchdown with 2:53 left. Miami led 31-28.
Since 2011, Pittsburgh's defense has allowed five game-winning touchdown drives of 80-plus yards. The Steelers allowed four such drives from 1990-2010.
Bad plays at inopportune moments have been a big part of Pittsburgh's season. Needing at least a field goal, the offense had one of its worst drives of the game. Le'veon Bell was not looking for Roethlisberger's pass on first down. A bomb on second down failed to connect. On third down, Nolan Carroll had a little contact on Emmanuel Sanders, but Sanders has to make that catch (sound familiar?).
With 2:33 left, going for it at your own 10 on fourth-and-10 is hardly an attractive option. It became a necessity when the Steelers used their second timeout. Miami rushed four and Roethlisberger moved out of the pocket and started scrambling quickly. He may have had a throwing option if he kept going to his right. He wasn't fast enough to pick up the first down and came up two yards short. To make matters worse, new center Cody Wallace picked up a personal foul for a late plunge into the pile.
Given a first-and-goal at the Pittsburgh 9, Miami could have put it away with a touchdown, but just called three runs and kicked a 27-yard field goal to lead 34-28. This gave the Steelers one final shot: 80 yards in 63 seconds without a timeout to win the game. The pass protection began to break down and Roethlisberger took a big sack on second down. He nearly went down again on third-and-16, but flipped the ball to Bell, who was able to lateral to Sanders to the Pittsburgh 21.
The clock was running, but the Steelers were able to get the final play of the game off. Roethlisberger completed to Sanders, who was wide open around his own 38, and from there the lateral circus began. It started on the right side of the field, but the fourth lateral made it back to Roethlisberger, who flipped one to Antonio Brown at about the Pittsburgh 33 on the left sideline. It may have been a forward lateral, but no flag was ever thrown.
Brown made an incredible effort to outrun Miami's tired defenders and had one man to beat. He put on a little move that did just enough to free his path to the end zone, and I am not ashamed to admit I screamed at the TV at this point. These plays rarely ever work, so we cherish the Stanford-Cal band play, the River City Relay, Trinity college and anything like it. In this case, the extra point would have given Pittsburgh a 35-34 win.
But CBS' Dan Fouts delivered the bad news that Brown was ruled to have stepped out of bounds at the Miami 12 and the game was over without a miracle. The evidence was indisputable:
It's hard to fault Brown when he's running so fast and trying to make that last move on Chris Clemons, but this was a golden opportunity that would have instantly gone down in NFL lore, not to mention help the Steelers in the AFC. Sometimes it can just be a cruel game of inches.
Seattle Seahawks 17 at San Francisco 49ers 19
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 1 (17-16)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD): 0.43
Head Coach: Jim Harbaugh (9-6-1 at 4QC and 10-9-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Colin Kaepernick (3-3-1 at 4QC and 4-5-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
The Seahawks continue to give us reasons to write that they are a much different team on the road. It's been the home team emerging victorious in all four meetings in this rivalry the last two seasons. The difference in talent between the 49ers and Seahawks is very small, yet the combined score has been 32-23 in San Francisco and 71-16 in Seattle.
This was far more enjoyable to watch than the blowouts in Seattle. The offenses exchanged scores in the first half, but each team only mustered a field goal in the second half as the defenses took control. Colin Kaepernick was sacked twice on third down in the fourth quarter as San Francisco clung to a 16-14 lead.
Golden Tate returned a punt 38 yards to the San Francisco 27. Russell Wilson converted a third-and-7 with a pass to Jermaine Kearse, but the two were unable to connect in the end zone on third-and-8. Steven Hauschka made the 31-yard field goal to give Seattle a 17-16 lead with 6:20 left.
Starting at his own 20, this was a big spot for Kaepernick. His two game-winning drives last season each consisted of one pass to Michael Crabtree, and this one was actually no different. After a 3-yard scramble, Kaepernick completed a 6-yard pass to Crabtree and Bruce Miller converted the third-and-1 on the ground. Frank Gore made a cut and looked like he would score, but Richard Sherman tracked him down inside the red zone and Gore went down at the 18 for a 51-yard run. A younger Gore may have scored, but it was actually a good thing he didn't this time.
Seattle used its final two timeouts after stopping the conservative 49ers on consecutive runs. Some will not take kindly to Kaepernick being credited for a game-winning drive here, but he did provide the second-most crucial play of the drive. On third-and-7, Kaepernick was in an empty set and took the shotgun snap for a designed run off left end. He picked up eight yards for the big first down at the Seattle 7. Without that play, we could easily be looking at a 20-19 Seattle victory.
The play took long enough that San Francisco's next snap came with 2:39 remaining on first down. Seattle's best strategy was to let San Francisco score, as detailed here by Advanced NFL Stats. With Seattle out of timeouts, it was certain that a run, staying inbounds, would bring the game to the two-minute warning, then two more runs would take the clock down to under 35 seconds. These could even be kneel downs just so there's no risk of a fumble and the fact that Phil Dawson should be automatic on any kick under 30 yards (he's 117-of-123 on field goals from 20-29 yards).
That's the proper strategy for San Francisco, which it did execute with three Gore runs and Dawson's 22-yard field goal with 26 seconds left.
For Seattle, it's easy to say Pete Carroll needed to tell his defense to let the 49ers score, but there's no reason the 49ers had to take that score. It would have been foolish as a 22-17 lead means a two-point conversion. Should that fail, the Seahawks would have had over two minutes to go for a game-winning touchdown drive, which is low percentage (roughly 20 percent), but not uncommon from a five-point deficit. Even at 24-17, Russell Wilson is good enough to lead his offense down the field to force overtime in that situation.
None of the runs by Gore looked like Seattle tried to let him score, though it was the only real hope of getting the ball back with enough time to win the game. Dawson's kickoff did not reach the end zone, but Tate returned it to only the Seattle 16. Dawson could only hope there would not be a 2002 repeat when his Browns and Dwayne Rudd blew it against the Chiefs.
If any team knew a field-goal drive was highly improbable, but possible here, it should be Seattle. Last season the Seahawks watched Jay Cutler start at his own 14 with 20 seconds left before finding Brandon Marshall for 56 yards on one of the greatest plays we have ever seen to set up a tying field goal. Seattle still won in overtime that day.
This time, Wilson only had 21 seconds left (win probability: 0.04) and needed at least 40 yards for Seattle to even think about a kick. He did all he could really do by launching a 60-yard bomb, but the receiver fell down and Eric Wright made the game-ending interception.
Some of the most famous "let them score" moments have come in Super Bowls (XXXII and XLVI), but when a team is that desperate, the odds are likely in the offense's favor not to take the score. San Francisco played it perfectly on Sunday.
Atlanta Falcons 21 at Green Bay Packers 22
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 5 (21-16)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD): 0.42
Head Coach: Mike McCarthy (10-34-1 at 4QC and 16-36-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Matt Flynn (2-3-1 at 4QC and 2-3-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Normally, Mike McCarthy's Packers completing a big comeback would be worthy of more press, but this game lost serious luster without Aaron Rodgers and the poor season Atlanta (now 3-10) has endured. Still, Green Bay rallying back from a 21-10 deficit in the second half brings attention to some mind-blowing stats:
- In his career (2006-13), McCarthy started 2-38-1 (.061) when trailing by at least seven points in the second half.
- New England has won four games when trailing by double digits after halftime since Week 8 of this season alone.
- The NFL's other 31 teams have all won multiple games after trailing by two scores in the second half since 2006, but Green Bay was 0-31-1 under McCarthy.
Well make it 3-38-1 and 1-31-1 for McCarthy now. Amazingly, Matt Flynn (not Brett Favre or Rodgers) has been the quarterback for the 16-point comeback tie and the first comeback win from a two-score deficit in the second half for the Packers in almost nine years.
Atlanta led 21-16 to start the fourth quarter, but Matt Ryan took a blindside sack and fumbled the ball. Twenty-one yards away from the lead, Flynn completed both of his passes on the drive, capping it off with a 2-yard touchdown to Andrew Quarless with 12:01 left. Flynn overthrew the two-point conversion, keeping it a 22-21 game.
As has often been the story this season, Atlanta drove into scoring territory before stalling. Harry Douglas had a bad drop on a third-down screen that set up fourth-and-12 and Matt Bryant was short on a 52-yard field goal on a lousy day in Green Bay where the wind chill was below zero. Punting was certainly an option with 6:47 left.
Green Bay went three-and-out. Ryan again had the Falcons just outside of scoring range, but soon faced a fourth-and-5 at the Green Bay 33. That’s two yards closer, but based on how short the last kick was, going for it was the preferable option at the two-minute warning. Tony Gonzalez just could not make the tough catch with good coverage by Jarrett Bush. Eddie Lacy had three carries as the Falcons spent the rest of their timeouts to force a three-and-out.
After an excellent 62-yard punt by Green Bay, Ryan had just 44 seconds left at his own 9. Jacquizz Rodgers picked up 13 yards on a dump-off pass before Roddy White caught an impressive 21-yard throw and got out of bounds with 21 seconds left. After a throwaway, Ryan found Douglas inside the Green Bay 40, but he dropped it. Hard to know if he would have been able to get out of bounds with 11 seconds left, so the game may have ended there.
Ryan forced one to a similar spot (Green Bay 37) on the other side of the field, but the desperate heave was intercepted by Bush to end this one. Green Bay's had to grind without Rodgers, but two uncharacteristic comebacks to produce a tie and win have kept the Packers very much alive in the NFC North.
Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind
Texans at Jaguars: Matt Schaub's Last Kubiak Projection
|Wade Phillips: Gary, can you take D.J. Swearinger with you?|
After a week with so many dramatic finishes, we have just one failure to report, and it is fittingly the biggest failure of the 2013 season. The Houston Texans lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars for the second time in 12 days to extend their 11-game losing streak.
That sentence would have been considered the writing of a pure lunatic just three months ago after Houston overcame a 21-point deficit in San Diego to start 1-0. Since then the Texans have lost a league-high eight games with a game-winning drive opportunity.
This one looked like an early knockout with the sloppy, careless Texans falling behind 14-0 early. Houston finished with 14 penalties for 177 yards and rookie safety D.J. Swearinger picked up three penalties as part of one of the worst defensive performances you will ever see. Starting quarterback Case Keenum was benched in the third quarter for the second time this season after an ineffective outing.
Schaub was sharp off the bench and helped turn a 24-10 deficit into 24-20 with 11:31 to play. When he converted a third-and-20 with a 22-yard pass to Andre Johnson (13 catches for 154 yards on the night), it felt like Houston was going to pull this off and perhaps the two would save their jobs. There was even a most ludicrous playoff scenario still valid for the 2-10 Texans.
Then a few reminders of seven years of frustration took over. Schaub had a second-and-1 at the Jacksonville 12, but bypassed a scramble for a first down and hesitated before throwing an incompletion. After Ben Tate was stuffed for a 1-yard loss, the Texans could have actually kicked a field goal to make it 24-23 with just less than four minutes to play. Houston still had all three timeouts, the two-minute warning and the odds of getting the ball back are better than not getting it, not to mention Jacksonville's offense was nothing special on the night. Chad Henne completed 12-of-27 passes and Maurice Jones-Drew left the game with an injury.
Going for it is not a bad decision at all, but it should not be an automatic call. Kicking a 30-yard field goal, getting the ball back and going on a game-winning field goal drive with no time left to win 26-24 is a perfectly reasonable strategy. As Sunday showed, moving the ball in the final minute into field-goal range is not as hard as it used to be.
But Schaub had Johnson wide open all the way across the field and hesitated to pull the trigger. After some pressure, he forced a bad pass late to Johnson and the Texans turned it over on downs.
A terrible second-down pass by Henne still drew 35 yards on pass interference (Kareem Jackson), but another inaccurate throw on third-and-11 saved Houston about 30 seconds. Schaub had 2:21 left at his own 22, down 24-20.
It only took two plays before Schaub threw a horrific interception as he must not have seen linebacker Geno Hayes over the middle. Texans fans witnessed a familiar sight -- it was Schaub's 15th career interception in the fourth quarter or overtime with the game tied or at a one-score margin.
Jacksonville added a 39-yard field goal to make it 27-20 with 25 seconds left. One could argue punting inside the 10 works there too and avoids the miss or the potential big return on the kickoff, but at this point Houston looked finished no matter what. Schaub lost 18 yards on a sack to put the cherry on top for the Jaguars, who have won four of their last five games.
Kubiak's firing was no surprise -- tenured coaches almost never survive an 11-game losing streak in a season. Good luck picking a team on that list with more talent. The 2013 Texans already have eight losses by seven points or less. The record is nine (1983 Buccaneers, 1989 Chargers, 1998 Panthers and 2011 Vikings). Houston's next coach will take over with a lot of pieces in place and potentially the No. 1 pick in the draft, so a quick rebuild is possible, but the swift fall from grace is truly one to behold.
Fourth-quarter comebacks: 58
Game-winning drives: 69
Games with 4QC opportunity: 129/208 (62.0 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 35