by Scott Kacsmar
The endings may not have been as wild as last week, but six of the eight division leaders lost in Week 15, creating many intriguing playoff scenarios for the final two weeks.
We also learned that FOX's Tim Ryan is a fan of Kellen Clemens and that he's "fun to watch." That was about the entertainment climax of Saints-Rams, but we have nine games with a comeback opportunity this week, starting with the moment where you didn't even have to be near a TV to feel a great disturbance in Dallas …as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and the Packers fans rejoiced over their silence in the House Jerry Built.
Game of the Week
Green Bay Packers 37 at Dallas Cowboys 36
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 12 (36-24)
Win Probability (4QC, 7:55 left): 0.06
Win Probability (4QC/GWD, 2:46 left): 0.37
Head Coach: Mike McCarthy (11-34-1 at 4QC and 17-36-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Matt Flynn (3-3-1 at 4QC and 3-3-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
The Dallas Cowboys and Tony Romo are about as easy to defend as Jodi Arias. No team has more game-winning drives (12) since 2011, but no team has as many epic collapses as the Cowboys, especially in front of a nationally-televised audience like the setting was once again on Sunday.
Since 1999, home teams are 505-3 (.994) when leading by at least 23 points. The Cowboys, of course, have two of the losses. In fact, the Cowboys are the only franchise in NFL history to lose two home games where they squandered a lead of at least 23 points.
It's like watching a soap opera where most viewers expect a twist ending, except it's not even a twist because everyone expected a gag-job. Rational viewers are surprised when it happens, because history says it usually does not play out that way. The ending also clouds the events that led us to that point. This happened before with Romo having a great duel with Peyton Manning earlier this season in a 51-48 loss. Romo's late interception stole the headlines and much of the rightful blame from the defense. The same is true of this week's game, which tied the largest comeback in Green Bay history.
Before we can get to the picks, let's go back to the root of the comeback/collapse.
Dallas had a strong first half with 332 yards of offense, but not enough plays were made in Green Bay territory, causing the offense to settle for four early field goals. The defense played well and the Cowboys led 26-3 at halftime. It's hard to complain over a 26-point half, but the Cowboys really should have had more.
Then the blitzkrieg came, kicked off by a 60-yard run for Eddie Lacy. The Packers engineered five consecutive touchdown drives, and three of those went 80 yards. It likely never would have happened without some incredible plays by Jordy Nelson. For the first touchdown, he stole the ball from Orlando Scandrick in the end zone on a third-down play. If Green Bay kicked a field goal or failed to score there, things could have been very different.
It's not like Dallas stopped scoring. Green Bay needed every one of those 34 second-half points. But another long drive by the Cowboys ended with a Dan Bailey field goal thanks to a holding penalty. On the ensuing drive, Nelson made a spectacular 21-yard catch to convert a third-and-10 and Green Bay was in the end zone again.
There's been plenty of criticism of Dallas for running the ball seven times in the second half. Up 29-17, Romo used play-action to find DeMarco Murray wide open in the flat, but he dropped the ball. That will set any offense back. FOX's Troy Aikman called the game and criticized Dallas for two straight passes in this situation. I'm a big believer in broadcasters having too much impact on building a game's perception and I think Aikman and Joe Buck contributed negatively to this one.
In a 12-point game with more than a quarter to play, a team cannot afford to go into a shell and worry about running the clock down. Green Bay just put together back-to-back 80-yard touchdown drives, so Dallas needed points. Their best players are involved in the passing game. Had Murray made a simple catch for some easy yards and another 40 seconds off the clock, the play-calling criticism may not have been as loud as it became.
Romo was sacked on third down at his own 2-yard line and the Cowboys went three-and-out. A big punt return put the Packers at the Dallas 22-yard line as the game moved into the fourth quarter, and Green Bay went the short 22 yards for another touchdown. James Starks went 11 yards on a middle screen with 12:47 left in a 29-24 game. Two plays later, Romo appeared to throw an interception to Tramon Williams, but the play was overturned on replay by referee Walt Coleman.
This was the beginning of what, in my opinion, was a poor streak of officiating. I don't feel there was enough evidence on review to show the Williams interception definitely touched the ground, and the call should have been upheld. Then Dallas picked up a first down on encroachment which probably should have been a false start instead, and 15 more yards on a soft facemask penalty. Those yards put Romo in position to connect with Dez Bryant, who made a great effort to get both feet in for a touchdown on third down. It was the Cowboys' first third-down conversion of the game (they started 0-of-7).
So at 36-24 with 7:55 left, there was some breathing room, but we've seen Dallas blow such a lead before. Lacy and Flynn continued to move the Green Bay offense, which was doing anything it wanted at this point. In the red zone, Flynn found James Jones for a 3-yard touchdown with 4:17 left. Dallas again came out throwing. Romo converted a third-and-12 with a 13-yard slant to Bryant. Murray carried for four yards and Green Bay used its second timeout with 2:58 left.
Then came controversy.
Most fans expected a second-down run. Instead, we watched Romo avoid a sack from untouched rusher Clay Matthews before throwing an interception to Sam Shields at the 50-yard line.
One thing I rarely write or talk about is the quarterback's ability to call audibles at the line or change the plays. I stay away from it because it's not something we are privy to with any real certainty of who made the decision to run the play or change it. Coach Jason Garrett shed some rare light on this part of the game when he threw Romo under the bus for throwing instead of handing off.
Dallas certainly could have ran the ball and Green Bay may have used its final timeout. One third-down conversion and Dallas would have been able to run out most of the clock. At worst, Flynn would need a touchdown drive in the last two minutes on a long field.
Had Matthews not rushed the play to throw off Romo's timing, the pass would have worked for a big gain to Miles Austin. But that pressure caused the throw to be late and Shields was able to recover for a huge interception.
Green Bay again kept its offense balanced with Lacy's production and Flynn's passing to move into the red zone. This is one "let them score" strategy where the offense would have gladly taken the points (unlike San Francisco last week), but that's such a tough call to willingly give up a five-point lead. Dallas used two timeouts and Lacy plunged in for the 1-yard touchdown with 1:31 left.
However, there was hope when Green Bay failed to convert the two-point conversion (Flynn threw incomplete), keeping it a 37-36 game. These late two-point conversion failures came back to haunt Green Bay twice last year in losses to the Seahawks and Colts.
Romo had 91 seconds and a timeout to redeem himself, only needing a field goal and starting at his own 20-yard line. He found Cole Beasley for a 9-yard gain, but when Romo went back to him on the next play, there was miscommunication and Tramon Williams made the diving interception. It was not ruled a pick until replay reversed the original call of incomplete, but it was legit and it essentially ended the game.
We can blame this pick on miscommunication because Beasley stopped his route short and Romo threw an out route, expecting him to keep going towards the ball. Beasley made the smarter play as Romo's pass would have been a minimal gain at best. So this pick is on Romo more than anyone. Romo has to live with both picks -- which easily could have been three in the quarter -- but we can't just overlook how bad the Dallas defense performed once again.
But enough about Dallas already.
We also have another fascinating Green Bay comeback with Flynn (299 yards and four touchdowns) at quarterback. Last week, the Packers won after trailing by two scores in the second half for the first time since 2004. This week they did it again. Flynn also had the 16-point fourth-quarter comeback that produced a tie against Minnesota.
The largest comeback wins in the careers of Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers were just 14 points. Rodgers is only 5-24 (.172) at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities while Flynn is 3-3-1. The incredible part is Flynn's only made eight significant appearances in the NFL (six starts). The only game that wasn't close was the 2010 Thanksgiving game in Detroit.
How can Mike McCarthy's Packers be making improbable comebacks with Flynn at quarterback that they almost never made successfully with superior quarterbacks in Favre and Rodgers?
The controversial, long-shot reasons: Favre was a poor decision maker. He was careless with the ball and blew too many comebacks with turnovers. Rodgers, on the other hand, is too risk-averse in these situations. He'd rather hold onto the ball and take a sack instead of making the "hero" play. Flynn is a seventh-round pick who entered the league without expectations and as a backup. He's a failed starter who has lost several jobs, so he plays the game with no pressure or concern about what happens to him.
The simpler, more probable reasons: Green Bay finally didn't blow it against Atlanta and Dallas. The defense didn't allow Matt Ryan and Tony Romo to lead game-winning field goal drives at the end, denying Flynn comebacks the way Rodgers has been denied in the past. Matt Bryant actually missed a go-ahead field goal last week. Flynn is also really good against poor defenses as long as he has a great set of receivers. His comeback over the 2011 Lions was a product of being in a shootout with a Detroit defense that played in two of the biggest passing shootouts in NFL history in consecutive weeks. This season, the Vikings, Falcons and Cowboys are three of the worst pass defenses in the league and have blown many games at the end.
That latter explanation certainly seems a lot more likely. But if the Packers continue to have comeback success with their backup and not with their future Hall of Famer, then it just adds to an awkward element of Green Bay history, where the team's greatest comebacks featured the likes of Lynn Dickey, Don Majkowski, and Matt Flynn instead of Bart Starr, Brett Favre, and Aaron Rodgers.
For reference, here are the 27 games in NFL history where a team has come back to win after trailing by at least 23 points:
|NFL's Comeback Wins From Deficit of 23+ Points|
|Date||Winner||Loser||Largest Deficit||Halftime Deficit||Final|
|10/27/1946||Eagles||at Redskins||24||24 (24-0)||W 28-24|
|10/20/1957||Lions||Colts||24||18 (21-3)||W 31-27|
|10/25/1959||Eagles||at Cardinals||24||17 (17-0)||W 28-24|
|10/23/1960||Broncos||Patriots||24||17 (17-0)||W 31-24|
|12/15/1974||Dolphins||Patriots||24||7 (24-17)||W 34-27|
|12/4/1977||Vikings||49ers||24||10 (10-0)||W 28-27|
|11/12/1978||Oilers||at Patriots||23||16 (23-7)||W 26-23|
|9/23/1979||Oilers||at Bengals||24||14 (24-10)||W 30-27 OT|
|9/23/1979||Broncos||Seahawks||24||10 (20-10)||W 37-34|
|12/7/1980||49ers||Saints||28||28 (35-7)||W 38-35 OT|
|9/12/1982||Packers||Rams||23||23 (23-0)||W 35-23|
|11/22/1982||Raiders||Chargers||24||17 (24-7)||W 28-24|
|9/16/1984||Patriots||Seahawks||23||16 (23-7)||W 38-23|
|12/1/1985||Vikings||at Eagles||23||20 (20-0)||W 28-23|
|11/8/1987||Cardinals||Buccaneers||25||11 (14-3)||W 31-28|
|9/26/1988||Raiders||at Broncos||24||24 (24-0)||W 30-27 OT|
|11/6/1988||Cardinals||49ers||23||16 (16-0)||W 24-23|
|11/10/1991||Eagles||at Browns||23||13 (30-17)||W 32-30|
|12/6/1992||Rams||at Buccaneers||24||24 (27-3)||W 31-27|
|1/3/1993||Bills||Oilers||32||25 (28-3)||W 41-38 OT|
|9/21/1997||Bills||Colts||26||16 (26-10)||W 37-35|
|10/23/2000||Jets||Dolphins||23||16 (23-7)||W 40-37 OT|
|1/5/2003||49ers||Giants||24||14 (28-14)||W 39-38|
|10/2/2011||Lions||at Cowboys||24||17 (20-3)||W 34-30|
|10/15/2012||Broncos||at Chargers||24||24 (24-0)||W 35-24|
|11/24/2013||Patriots||Broncos||24||24 (24-0)||W 34-31 OT|
|12/15/2013||Packers||at Cowboys||23||23 (26-3)||W 37-36|
Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind
New England Patriots 20 at Miami Dolphins 24
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 3 (20-17)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD): 0.35
Head Coach: Joe Philbin (5-10 at 4QC and 5-10 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Ryan Tannehill (5-10 at 4QC and 5-10 overall 4QC/GWD record)
For the fifth week in a row, the Patriots trailed in the fourth quarter, only to take the lead. It was the second time they lost that lead and the game by a 24-20 final, just like in Carolina. For the eighth time this season, Tom Brady was driving down the field in the final minute with the game hanging in the balance.
Sometimes he gets the amazing game-winning touchdown to Kenbrell Thompkins, like he did against New Orleans. Other times -- three this season, to be precise -- he throws a game-ending interception inside the opponent's 30-yard line.
That's the type of razor-thin margin the Patriots are operating under this season due to so many key injuries. Of course, the Dolphins have their own problems and could not afford another loss as they try to make the playoffs for only the second time since 2002.
New England started well this week, opening up a 10-0 lead, but Miami picked it up late in the first half and that carried over for the rest of the game. Each team botched a field goal, but with the game tied 10-10, Miami took the lead on the first play of the fourth quarter with Ryan Tannehill's 2-yard touchdown pass to Daniel Thomas.
The Patriots put together a long drive, but things stalled in the red zone. Without Rob Gronkowski for the rest of the season, the red zone will continue to be difficult. Aaron Dobson and Thompkins were also out this week, so it was really just Brady throwing to Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola with no tight end threat, even though Michael Hoomanawanui had a brilliant one-handed touchdown catch in the second quarter. New England settled for a 23-yard field goal while the Dolphins went three-and-out.
Down 17-13, Brady went to work with Amendola and Edelman, who combined to catch 23-of-33 targets for 270 yards on the day. Edelman, who has one of the highest punt return averages (12.5) in NFL history, is great in open space and he showed it on a 24-yard touchdown catch with 4:07 left.
Stephen Gostkowski has been excellent this year, but not on Sunday. His kickoff went out of bounds, putting Miami at the 40. The Dolphins appeared to be wasting the gracious gift after Tannehill was sacked. On third-and-16, he completed an 11-yard pass to Brian Hartline at the Miami 45. The clock moved under three minutes and Joe Philbin kept his offense on the field. I liked the call given Miami's inability to stop New England's short passing attack (due in part to injuries among the Miami defensive backs). Often a team will call timeout to set a play like this up, but Miami went to the line and got it done.
The execution was far from perfect. Tight end Charles Clay motioned out wide. Tannehill showed a slight hesitation and did not throw a great pass to Clay on a wide receiver screen, but with enough blocking and a great move, Clay was able to avert disaster and convert for a 6-yard gain.
On the second play after the two-minute warning, Rishard Matthews made another great catch down the sideline for 24 yards. Tannehill threw incomplete on first down. Then on second down, he spotted Marcus Thigpen covered by Dont'a Hightower, but the linebacker never turned around for the ball and Tannehill fit it in for the go-ahead touchdown with 1:15 left.
But could the defense finish the job with New England still having all three timeouts and 75 seconds left? We've looked at the table of game-winning touchdown drives in this situation and Brady's already pulled it off twice this season. The hat can only hold so many rabbits, but three timeouts made this one possible.
Miami helped by jumping offsides twice on the drive. Brady converted a fourth-and-8 with a 12-yard pass to Amendola, then used his second timeout. Amendola was open again over the middle for 24 yards and Brady hurried the offense to spike it at the Miami 31-yard line.
At that point, the Dolphins should have realized there was no deep threat on the field, and Shane Vereen was held in check all day, so the ball was going to either Amendola or Edelman, usually with a throw under 10 yards. That's how this offense is going to be until the young outside receivers return. Yet the Patriots kept making those plays. Edelman picked up 12 on third-and-10, and the Patriots used their final timeout.
On first down at the Miami 19-yard line, Brady had his best shot at the win with a pass to Amendola over Michael Thomas, a safety the Dolphins had just signed off San Francisco's practice squad a few days before the game. He had no practice snaps. It was not quite Lee Evans vs. Sterling Moore in the 2011 AFC Championship, but Thomas made a worthy pass defense to break up a game-winning touchdown.
An offsides penalty moved New England to the 14-yard line, and then a similar throw to the Amendola play only hit Edelman on one hand. On third down, Brady lobbed a high pass to Hoomanawanui. That brought up fourth down. Miami rushed four, Brady threw it quickly, but Thomas left Amendola for Austin Collie and had an easy play in the end zone for the game-clinching interception.
From 1995-2012, the Patriots had three lost comebacks -- games where New England came back in the fourth quarter to take a lead, but ultimately lost. In the last month, they have two, at Carolina and at Miami. The comeback win snapped Miami's seven-game losing streak against the Patriots.
Baltimore Ravens 18 at Detroit Lions 16
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 1 (16-15)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD): 0.47
Head Coach: John Harbaugh (12-22 at 4QC and 19-25 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Joe Flacco (12-21 at 4QC and 19-24 overall 4QC/GWD record)
With one swing of the leg on Monday night, the entire playoff picture in both conferences changed dramatically. Justin Tucker hit one of the greatest clutch kicks in regular-season NFL history, but it will mean even more should Baltimore or Green Bay capitalize with another improbable Super Bowl run.
All night, Detroit kept shooting itself in the foot with picks and drops while the Ravens continued to settle for field goals. Detroit is clearly an offense with plenty of talent, but protecting the ball is also a skill and it's an area where the Lions continue to struggle. Matthew Stafford threw three interceptions, giving the Lions five consecutive games with at least three turnovers. (They're 1-4 in those games.)
The second interception came in the fourth quarter with the Lions down 12-10. Baltimore took over at the Detroit 34-yard line, but actually lost a yard on the drive. Justin Tucker made the 53-yard field goal and Baltimore led 15-10 with 8:06 left.
Stafford overcame an offensive holding penalty with a 21-yard throw to Calvin Johnson. Brandon Pettigrew later caught a big pass over the middle for 18 yards. John Harbaugh challenged the catch, but it was upheld and the Ravens lost a timeout. With the clock at 2:27, Detroit faced third-and-9. This had to be four-down territory as it was too late to risk a field goal. Stafford found Joseph Fauria down the seam in the back of the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown, and Fauria did a funky dance, because he is Joseph Fauria and that's his thing.
The two-point conversion is absolutely critical for the team ahead by one point. Baltimore had to spend a second timeout to get the proper defense on the field. Detroit lined up with a quad formation to the right, but Stafford threw left to Johnson in the end zone. Johnson was unable to come down with the catch, so Detroit only led 16-15.
Jacoby Jones had a good kick return out to the Detroit 33-yard line, giving Joe Flacco 2:14 to lead the game-winning field goal drive. Flacco had taken a shot to the knee earlier in the quarter and the offense did not start well. After some bad passes and a false start, it was third-and-15, but Flacco plunged the first dagger into the Lions' hearts with a 27-yard pass to Jones as the two-minute warning hit.
Jones then caught a pass for no gain, Flacco missed his tight end Dennis Pitta, and it was third-and-10 at the Detroit 45-yard line. A most unusual play was called next, and like with the Dallas discussion, I am not going to criticize Flacco, offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell or John Harbaugh without knowing who called it in. Let's just say the Ravens collectively screwed up.
Ray Rice took a shotgun draw for just two yards. It was not clear if Baltimore was going to go for it on fourth-and-8, but a 61-yard field goal sure did not sound like a great proposition. Jim Schwartz probably should have called timeout immediately, so if Baltimore did kick, then he would have had over a minute for his offense to answer. He did not. Baltimore called their timeout with 43 seconds left, and sure enough, Tucker came out for the kick.
I think the Harbaugh decision to kick is less of a mistake than the decision to run the ball on third-and-10 when Flacco makes the big bucks to make those big throws like the one he had just made to Jones three plays ago.
Tucker has done an incredible job to start his two-year career. Including the playoffs, he's now 69-of-74 (93.2 percent) on field goals and has made 33 in a row. (He was also the top kicker in our kickoff ratings a year ago, though he's only average this season.) This was a dome kick and Tucker had already made five in the game, so he had a good feel for what he could do.
The kick leaned right and snuck just inside the goal post with enough distance with 38 seconds left. It's the third-longest game-winning field goal in NFL history:
|Longest Game-Winning Field Goals in NFL History|
|Tom Dempsey||11/8/1970||NO||DET||Down 17-16||W 19-17||0:00||63|
|Matt Bryant||10/22/2006||TB||PHI||Down 21-20||W 23-21||0:00||62|
|Justin Tucker||12/16/2013||BAL||at DET||Down 16-15||W 18-16||0:38||61|
|Rob Bironas||12/3/2006||TEN||IND||Tied 17-17||W 20-17||0:07||60|
|Josh Scobee||10/3/2010||JAC||IND||Tied 28-28||W 31-28||0:00||59|
|Note: Last season, Arizona's Jay Feely made a 61-yard game-tying field goal against Buffalo with 1:09 left. He then missed a 38-yard game-winning field goal with 0:00 left. Arizona lost in overtime.|
Poor Detroit is on there twice. The Lions still had a shot to win this game thanks to three timeouts and the ball at the 20-yard line. However, Stafford ended things quickly with an ugly interception thrown to Matt Elam, the same rookie who created a buzz this week by calling Calvin Johnson "pretty old." Ray Rice broke off a 19-yard run and Schwartz didn't even bother using his timeouts, which just would have meant three knees by Flacco.
Between the kicks and picks, the failed two-point conversion gets overlooked here, but should Detroit have converted, one has to wonder if Baltimore still would have tried such a long kick just to get a tie. At the very least, we could have had overtime in this one. As this season has shown plenty of times, it's not that hard for offenses to move into field-goal range in a hurry, so those conversions are almost as important as the touchdown these days.
Arizona Cardinals 37 at Tennessee Titans 34
Type: GWD (OT)
Win Probability (GWD): 0.68
Head Coach: Bruce Arians (6-3 at 4QC and 9-3 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Carson Palmer (15-42 at 4QC and 23-42 overall 4QC/GWD record)
It was the almost-classic finish that never seemed possible for Tennessee. Down 20-17, Rob Bironas was short on a 50-yard field goal, Arizona added an insurance touchdown and Ryan Fitzpatrick threw an ugly pick-six. The Cardinals led 34-17 with 6:13 left, but the Titans kept it interesting.
Fitzpatrick hit 8-of-9 passes on the drive (Kenny Britt dropped a touchdown) as the Titans moved 67 yards for a touchdown. Okay, but 3:12 remained and two more possessions were required. The onside kick failed, but a penalty on the extra point helped the field position and Arizona conservatively ran it three times as the Titans used all of their timeouts to force the three-and-out.
A great punt pinned the Cardinals at their own 7-yard line with 2:42 left. Too often in these cases a team takes up most of the time trying to get the touchdown. Tennessee had a long field to go, but Fitzpatrick continued making plays with his arms and legs, using two spikes to stop the clock. He's actually pulled this type of rare comeback off before, doing it in his NFL debut in 2005 against Houston.
On third-and-2 at the Arizona 6, Fitzpatrick scrambled and had a receiver open, but he failed to connect. The Titans kicked the field goal, making it 34-27 with 47 seconds left. To the best of my knowledge, no team since 1999 kicking the field goal first when down 9-11 points late has ever won the game. The only one getting the ball back and scoring the touchdown was Washington in 2003, but the tying two-point conversion failed.
It's always difficult to complete a comeback when an onside kick is involved, but the Titans recovered one at their own 46 with 44 seconds to play. Fitzpatrick found Kendall Wright for 26 yards and he was able to get out of bounds to stop the clock. Under more pressure, Fitzpatrick threw a perfect pass to Wright down the middle of the field for 20 yards. The offense hurried to the line to spike it and just like that the Titans were eight yards away from the score.
After an incompletion to Britt, Fitzpatrick gunned one to Michael Preston at the 1-yard line and he fell into the end zone for the score with 10 seconds left. It required 208 yards of offense, a three-and-out, four clock stoppages and a huge onside kick, but the Titans erased a 17-point deficit in just over six minutes. Let that be a reminder of what's possible in the NFL.
Should Mike Munchak have ridden that "wave of momentum" and gone for two? In modified overtime, the home team was 22-12-2 (.639). When the Cardinals were offsides on the extra point, the argument becomes much stronger since the ball would have been at the 1-yard line, but Munchak still went with the extra point.
That meant overtime. Tennessee won the toss and received, but as always, to make it count a team has to aggressively play for the touchdown. Tennessee started at its own 24-yard line, and on the first play, Fitzpatrick gave fans a scare with a potential game-ending pick-six, but the ball clearly bounced off the ground. He then hit Nate Washington with a 33-yard strike, but after taking a hit as Fitzpatrick threw his next pass, it was well short with the receiver never realizing it was coming his way. Antoine Cason had his second pick of the day.
That put Arizona at its own 46-yard line. Carson Palmer simply completed one pass over the middle to his tight end for nine yards. Rashard Mendenhall then took four consecutive carries for 17 yards. After the Titans stuffed a pair of runs, Bruce Arians had Jay Feely come on for a third-down kick. Feely was good from 41 yards out and the Cardinals (9-5) have won six of seven.
In modified overtime, the team receiving first is now 18-17-2 (.514), so the NFL should be happy about that change.
Chicago Bears 38 at Cleveland Browns 31
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 7 (24-17)
Win Probability (GWD): 0.70
Head Coach: Marc Trestman (4-3 at 4QC and 4-4 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Jay Cutler (16-19 at 4QC and 20-20 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Jay Cutler made his return from injury with one of his signature performances, meaning he made dangerous throws that were intercepted (one returned for a touchdown) as well as big plays in leading his 20th game-winning drive.
Both teams took advantage of big plays on defense as each had a pick-six and Cleveland took a 24-17 lead in the third quarter after returning a Martellus Bennett fumble 51 yards for a score. The Browns had a chance to build on that lead in the fourth quarter, reaching the Chicago 27, but a holding penalty and two incompletions forced a punt from the 37-yard line.
The punt did pin Chicago at its own 5-yard line, but one 30-yard pass interference penalty on Leon McFadden instantly changed field position. On third-and-11, Cutler threw a bomb that should have been intercepted (would have served as a good punt so there's no faulting the decision here), but safety Tashaun Gipson made Rahim Moore proud with his misjudgment of the ball and mistiming of his jump. Alshon Jeffery came down with the 45-yard touchdown to tie the game.
Cleveland went three-and-out after Jason Campbell short-hopped a ball to an open Josh Gordon on third-and-14. Devin Hester returned the punt 21 yards and Cutler was in business at the Cleveland 36-yard line. A 19-yard run by Matt Forte set up a goal-to-go situation. On third down, Cutler fired a 4-yard strike to Earl Bennett for the go-ahead touchdown with 5:41 left.
It is Cutler's 14th game-winning touchdown pass in the fourth quarter or overtime. (Tom Brady leads all active players with 17.)
Following one first down, Campbell threw three incompletions and the Browns punted. After the Browns used their third timeout, Forte gained 24 yards on a third-and-9 run. If that wasn't back-breaking enough, Michael Bush broke off a 40-yard touchdown run with 2:17 left.
Bush actually should have taken a slide short of the end zone. The clock would have gone down to two minutes and Cutler would have taken three knees to end it at 31-24. Instead, Cleveland was able to go 80 yards in 68 seconds after Gordon caught a 43-yard touchdown. Before that play, he had just two catches for 23 yards.
With 59 seconds left, the game came down to the onside kick. The recovery did not go Cleveland's way last week against New England, nor would this one work for the kicking team. Brandon Marshall recovered it to end the game.
Cleveland (1-7) joins Atlanta (1-7), Washington (1-7), Pittsburgh (1-7), Houston (2-7) and Tennessee (2-7) as the six teams with a league-high seven failed fourth-quarter comeback attempts this season. Chicago (4-3) joins Indianapolis (3-2), Seattle (3-2) and New England (5-4) as the only teams above .500.
Buffalo Bills 27 at Jacksonville Jaguars 20
Win Probability (GWD): 0.52
Head Coach: Doug Marrone (2-5 at 4QC and 3-6 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: EJ Manuel (1-2 at 4QC and 2-3 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Down 20-13 to start the fourth quarter, Chad Henne pleased the few fantasy owners who actually cared about this game with a short pass that gained 30 yards on third-and-12 to Jordan Todman, an injury replacement for Maurice Jones-Drew. Two plays later, Marcedes Lewis caught the game-tying touchdown pass on a tight end screen.
Robert Woods came through for Buffalo, catching passes of 20 and 18 yards on the ensuing drive. EJ Manuel finished it off with an easy 1-yard touchdown pass off play-action to fullback Frank Summers with 9:35 left.
Jacksonville put together a long, 15-play drive that even saw Henne make an 11-yard run out of the read option. But after reaching the 1-yard line, Todman lost four yards on the ground. Henne was nearly intercepted on second down, then he was picked off in the end zone by Stephon Gilmore on a lazy loft.
Buffalo tried nothing fancy and just handed it off three times to Fred Jackson for four yards. Henne got the ball back one last time with 1:46 left at his own 25-yard line. This is where the Jaguars needed Cecil Shorts, but he was inactive with a groin injury. Nothing worked on this drive. Henne's failed scramble gained three yards, he nearly threw another pick, then protection broke down with cornerback Nickell Robey charging in untouched for a sack.
On fourth-and-15, Henne's deep pass for Mike Brown was intercepted out of bounds and the Bills had a fifth win clinched.
Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind
|Brad Nessler: "And there's two of the best that have ever played the position."|
Chargers at Broncos: Familiar Strategies Fuel Upset
Every loss by the Peyton Manning-led Broncos gets overanalyzed with questions about his arm strength, playing in the cold, "big game bravado," and other nonsensical critiques. Usually, the simple explanation for the loss works best.
The Chargers simply executed what has been a sound strategy in the past against Manning: keep him off the field by shortening the game and force him to have to play perfect football. Denver's defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio used to try this against Manning when he coached Jacksonville. Now he had it done to him with Philip Rivers playing efficiently (166 passing yards on 20 attempts), but pacing the offense with a productive running game (41 handoffs for 168 yards).
San Diego's been doing this all year as no team entered Week 15 with fewer drives on both sides of the ball. Unlike Manning's Indianapolis teams, the Broncos often have 11-plus drives in a game, but this time it was nine and there were three consecutive three-and-outs as San Diego took control with a double score to take a 24-10 lead in the third quarter.
Denver actually had San Diego stopped for a three-and-out, but an offsides penalty on the punt on fourth-and-4 proved to be most costly. While San Diego ultimately punted, that one penalty cost the Broncos almost seven minutes of possession time. That's huge in a game with limited possessions. San Diego's punt drive lasted 8:20, which is the eighth longest punt drive since 1999, according to Pro-Football-Reference.
San Diego did two other things it typically does to a Manning team. The first was shutting down the run and forcing him to be one-dimensional. Denver had just 11 carries for 18 yards, which is the weakest rushing support Manning has had in any game of his career that he finished:
|Peyton Manning's Worst Rushing Support|
|9/14/2008||at MIN||W 18-15||17||25||1.47|
|12/18/2008||at JAC||W 31-24||16||31||1.94|
The three worst games all coming against San Diego should not be considered a coincidence. Denver's worst rushing game in 2012 was 59 yards in San Diego.
Another battle won by San Diego is field position as Denver started four drives inside its own 11-yard line. Three of those were after punts by Mike Scifres, who famously backed up Manning's offense five times inside the 10 in a 2008 Wild Card playoff game.
The epic punt drive backed Denver up to its own 11-yard line, but Manning finally got the offense back on track with precision not seen since the opening-drive touchdown. Wes Welker did not play, but Andre Caldwell stepped in with team-highs in targets (10), catches (six) and yards (59). He caught a crucial 15-yard pass on fourth-and-6, then finished the drive with a touchdown on a screen pass. Denver trailed 24-17 with 10:25 left in the game.
Denver's defense botched another three-and-out by committing a pass interference penalty, but did get the ball back to the offense with 5:50 left. However, Scifres nearly fumbled the ball and still got off a great punt to pin Manning at his own 3-yard line. He's only led four touchdown drives of 97-plus yards in his career.
A horse collar penalty on Eric Weddle helped open up some space at the Denver 33-yard line, but on the next play, Manning held onto the ball and as he went to throw it, he was hit by Corey Liuget and the ball popped up into the air. Thomas Keiser came down with the interception. It was similar to the interception Manning had in Indianapolis this season when he was also hit on the throw.
San Diego added a 35-yard field goal and Denver had 2:36 left and no timeouts, down 27-17. The drive took too long as every pass was completed inbounds. When Caldwell failed to grab a low ball on third down, it meant the Broncos (295) were held under 300 yards for the first time with Manning. Matt Prater made the 42-yard field goal with 29 seconds left, but the poor onside kick attempt went out of bounds.
Denver is still the favorite for the AFC's top seed, but should the Chargers sneak into the playoffs, the Broncos may regret not eliminating them when they had the chance. It's not a good matchup for Denver and it all starts with San Diego's ability to shorten the game.
Jets at Panthers: Captain Comeback Closer
The legend of "Riverboat Ron" has overshadowed the real-life persona of Ron Rivera, but in the third quarter he made a decision worthy of the nickname. Leading 16-6 with 7:55 left and facing a fourth-and-2 at the Jets' 14, Rivera kept the offense on the field. Cam Newton was pressured and his pass fell incomplete, ending the offense's streak of nine conversions on fourth down.
According to the Pro-Football-Reference play finder, this was the only play of its kind since 1999. No other offense has gone for it on fourth-and-two (or longer) in the red zone in the third quarter with a two-score lead. There have been a few fake field goals (and botched snaps), but the three other offenses to go for it all led by at least 21 points.
I would have kicked the field goal as the Jets have scored the second fewest points in the league and one should assume Carolina was not done scoring for the day. The Jets capitalized on the stop when the offense drove 86 yards for a touchdown to make it 16-13.
Getting the ball back in the fourth quarter, the Jets stalled immediately after a holding penalty on Brian Winters set up first-and-20. Geno Smith scrambled for three yards to bring up fourth-and-9. Disaster struck when Ryan Quigley's punt was blocked and the Panthers took over at the 14-yard line. The ground game used four plays to add a touchdown and 23-13 lead. Smith had avoided turnovers to that point, but on third-and-11 he forced a pass to Santonio Holmes that was intercepted by Captain Munnerlyn, who returned it 41 yards for a touchdown with 8:17 left.
The Jets did respond with a 72-yard touchdown drive, but Carolina ran out the final 3:49 on the clock (literally) after the onside kick failed.
Redskins at Falcons: You Play to Win the Game (And Raise the Trade Value of the Backup QB)
Mike Shanahan's bizarre benching of Robert Griffin for Kirk Cousins seemed like it would produce good initial results on Sunday, but a lot of that had to do with the matchup against Atlanta's putrid defense. Washington did pile up 476 yards of offense in the battle of 3-10 disappointments, but seven turnovers by the Redskins -- the most by any team in a game this season -- made this one painful to watch at times.
Yet even with the minus-5 turnover differential, Washington only faced a 24-20 deficit in the fourth quarter. Alfred Morris carried the ball to the Atlanta 10-yard line, but lost his second fumble of the day. After getting the ball back, Cousins threw an interception on the first play of the drive. Atlanta only gained six yards, but Matt Bryant added the 51-yard field goal for a 27-20 lead with 3:25 left.
With all three timeouts, Cousins went to work with a short-passing attack to move the ball into the red zone. No play gained more than 14 yards on the drive and Atlanta's pass-rush was nonexistent. After getting the ball to the 3-yard line with 22 seconds to play, Cousins threw his third touchdown of the game (he also had 381 yards) with Santana Moss making the catch.
Shanahan went for the two-point conversion to win the game in regulation. In a more meaningful game, it would probably be better to kick the extra point and go to overtime, which is a fairer system these days. When it's a brutal 3-10 season and the Redskins are trying to showcase the backup quarterback, going for the win with 18 seconds left sounds just fine.
Atlanta rushed five, Cousins rolled to his right to throw, but the pass was tipped by Desmond Trufant and fell incomplete. The onside kick squirted loose -- it was a difficult day for the "hands teams" around the league -- but Atlanta did recover to end the game.
Shanahan is the first coach to attempt a do-or-die two-point conversion twice, succeeding in 2008 with Denver in the game referee Ed Hochuli blew with a botched fumble call on Jay Cutler.
|Do-or-Die Two-Point Conversions Since 1994|
|JAC||11/19/1995||at TB||0:37||Fail, L 17-16|
|CHI||10/12/1997||GB||1:54||Fail, L 24-23|
|MIN||12/15/2002||at NO||0:05||Success, W 32-31|
|TB||11/13/2005||WAS||0:58||Success, W 36-35|
|DEN||9/14/2008||SD||0:24||Success, W 39-38|
|KC||11/9/2008||at SD||0:23||Fail, L 20-19|
|HOU||1/1/2012||TEN||0:14||Fail, L 23-22|
|WAS||12/15/2013||at ATL||0:18||Fail, L 27-26|
The one-point loss is the smallest margin of defeat for a road team with a minus-5 turnover differential since 1940. For the Falcons, it must be refreshing to watch the other team fail to finish in the red zone for a change.
Fourth-quarter comebacks: 62
Game-winning drives: 75
Games with 4QC opportunity: 138/224 (61.6 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 37