Clutch Encounters: Week 16

Clutch Encounters: Week 16
Clutch Encounters: Week 16
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Scott Kacsmar

Some of the best games on paper never make it to this column because they were not the close encounter we expected. Colts-Chiefs, Patriots-Ravens and Bears-Eagles each lacked in competitiveness down the stretch (or earlier) in Week 16. Sunday night might as well have been one long cigarette break for Jay Cutler. We did have 10 comeback opportunities and it's good to know the Dallas Cowboys are reliable enough to give us a great finish.

Will that still be true in Week 17 when Dallas has to beat the Eagles in another de facto playoff game without everyone's favorite tragic hero?

Game of the Week

Dallas Cowboys 24 at Washington Redskins 23

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 9 (23-14)
Win Probability (4QC, 14:56 left): 0.14
Win Probability (4QC/GWD, 3:39 left): 0.24
Head Coach: Jason Garrett (13-16 at 4QC and 16-18 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Tony Romo (20-29 at 4QC and 23-32 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Taking the field with the outcome of Philadelphia's night game still unknown, the Cowboys faced a must-win situation in Washington. For the fourth straight game it was a backup quarterback standing in their way, but the Cowboys did an admirable job against Kirk Cousins, who gained 73.1 percent of his passing production with Pierre Garcon's 144-yard receiving effort. That big day by one receiver helped the Redskins to a 17-point scoring run, taking a 23-14 lead one play into the fourth quarter.

Naturally, the attention shifted to Tony Romo.

Only twice in his career was Troy Aikman able to lead Dallas to victory from a two-score deficit in the fourth quarter. Roger Staubach did it four times. Romo needed his sixth such win and, as some like to say, he needed to put the team on his back.

That back all but broke six plays into the drive. Romo spun away from pressure and found Miles Austin for a third-down conversion, but he was limping significantly after the play. When Romo could barely execute the handoff on the next snap, it did not seem likely he would be able to finish the game. Like in 2011 when he broke a rib against San Francisco, he stayed in and toughed it out.

Romo converted a fourth-and-6 with a 20-yard gain to Cole Beasley. The drive stalled on third-and-goal when Romo's pass was too high for Dez Bryant. Dan Bailey kicked the 25-yard field goal and the Cowboys needed a stop on the next Washington drive. Washington picked up one first down, but Orlando Scandrick defensed the ball well on third down and Romo got his shot.

He had to drive his offense 87 yards in 3:39, all while dealing with the injury and facing the pressure of an elimination game, but he had a shot. On the fourth play of the drive, he rolled out and found Terrance Williams wide open down the field for a 51-yard gain. It may have been a touchdown if Romo wasn't hurt. The play was also a reminder of how awful the Washington defense has been all season.

Bryant took a short pass 17 yards down to the Washington 4 and the Redskins used their second timeout. With 2:16 left, the first-down call absolutely had to be a run. That's not because of last week's criticism for not running, but just the most logical thing a team can do before the two-minute warning, which came after DeMarco Murray's 3-yard run to the 1-yard line.

Gimpy quarterback, time needs to come off the clock, so why not run it again? Murray was stopped for no gain. On third-and-goal, Murray nearly blew the game with a terrible decision to turn a 3-yard loss into a 9-yard loss by going backwards. After all the talk about giving Murray more carries, three runs in a row put Dallas in a difficult fourth-and-goal at the 10 situation with 1:16 left and no timeouts. This was the game.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, teams were 8-of-44 (18.2 percent) since 2001 at converting fourth-and-goal plays that needed at least 10 yards for the touchdown.

Was Romo going to throw a desperation pick or was there going to be a great play negated by penalty like past failed comebacks for Dallas?

Romo kept his cool in the pocket, moved out when he could, and found Murray near the end zone where the back was able to score the go-ahead touchdown with 1:08 left. Dallas led 24-23, but that just meant the defense had to come out one last time.

Cousins began the drive with a 4-yard completion, but could not throw it in the ocean the rest of the way. There may have been miscommunication, but no player on the field had a shot at either of his last two passes, including a fourth-and-6 with the game on the line.

The defense held and Romo could exhale. The 23rd game-winning drive of his career ties him with Roger Staubach for the most in team history. All the excitement built up over the win evaporated quickly on Monday when we first heard that Romo is reportedly out for the season with a back injury (herniated disk in the lumbar region) that will require surgery.

If there's any silver lining to the injury, it's that Romo finishes 2013 with a 1-0 record in elimination games. No one can write that he blew it this year. No matter what happens on Sunday night, Romo did a fine job for most of the season in carrying this flawed team as far as he could.

Truly clutch wins like this one should be just as prominent in the Romo story as the Green Bay loss is for the critics, but I have a feeling that if Kyle Orton pulls his best Matt Cassel impersonation and shreds the Eagles, then comebacks like this one will continue to be footnotes in the narrative.

Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind

Pittsburgh Steelers 38 at Green Bay Packers 31

Type: GWD
Win Probability (GWD): 0.86
Head Coach: Mike Tomlin (15-33 at 4QC and 24-37 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger (23-34 at 4QC and 33-39 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Earlier in the week, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said it was "easy" to pick rookie running back Le'Veon Bell over Green Bay's Eddie Lacy. What would he call the decision at the end of the game to score a touchdown that gave Green Bay new life instead of setting up a game-winning field goal?

Before we can get to that, it was clear the rookie running backs were ready for this one. Both ran it well in the snow with Bell rushing for a career-high 124 yards, but his first career fumble deep in his own end in the third quarter set this game on an awkward path.

After review the officials got the fumble right. Green Bay failed to punch it in and had to settle for a field goal, which was blocked. The Steelers tried to scoop and score on the play. Ryan Clark had clear possession and lateraled the ball back, but it was dropped. Ziggy Hood batted the ball forward and out of bounds. The referee wound up penalizing the Steelers for an illegal bat and gave the Packers a first down. Yes, the Packers somehow regained possession. I do not see any way that could have happened as Clark clearly had the ball for the Steelers and it was a blocked kick on fourth down. At worst it should have been marked off half the distance to the goal and a first down for Pittsburgh.

Lacy scored a touchdown, but Ben Roethlisberger put the Steelers back ahead with his scoring toss to Matt Spaeth. The Steelers led 24-21 and the defense quickly added to it with Cortez Allen scoring on one of the strangest pick-six plays you'll ever see. Matt Flynn was run into by his own teammate, tight end Andrew Quarless, and the ball came out poorly for an easy pick. Flynn's little spin after the throw just added to the theater.

Pittsburgh was in control at 31-21 until Roethlisberger's worst pass of the day was intercepted by A.J. Hawk to end the third quarter. The Packers needed a double-digit second-half comeback for the third week in a row without Aaron Rodgers. The good field position (Pittsburgh 23) from the pick only led to a field goal, but Flynn's 31-yard pass to Jordy Nelson helped set up John Kuhn for a touchdown run to tie the game with 7:14 left.

Pittsburgh converted a fourth-and-1 at midfield, but later Roethlisberger came up short on a third-down pass. Green Bay was pinned at its own 8 with three minutes to play. Facing a third-and-8 after the two-minute warning, Flynn tried to scramble for the first down, but Troy Polamalu forced a fumble. The Steelers were in business at the Green Bay 17.

Ideally, the Steelers would run enough plays so Green Bay exhausts all three timeouts and Shaun Suisham kicks the game-winning field goal with no time. That never happened once Roethlisberger went for the touchdown and missed on a second-down pass. He threw again on third down, but it only gained five yards.

After a disappointing drive, Tomlin was content with sending the field-goal unit out there for a 27-yard kick. That's when Christmas came early in the form of Nick Perry jumping offsides on the field goal. Now the Steelers had a first down and Green Bay had to try letting them score. Bell could have scored on the first run, but the Packers tackled him at their own 1-yard line and called their final timeout with 1:28 left.

This should have been a clean getaway. All Pittsburgh had to do was take two knees and Suisham could have kicked the game-winning field goal with just a couple of seconds left on the clock. The field was not perfect, but even if we adjust harshly for conditions, this had to be at least a 90-percent kick.

As expected, the best winning strategy was never even considered by Tomlin. Bell scored the touchdown and we still had a ballgame. Rarely does a team try to score the touchdown here. According to Pro-Football-Reference, the Steelers are the fifth team since 1999 to score a touchdown in the red zone in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter in a tied game when they could have ran the clock down to practically zero for a game-winning field goal.

The most egregious example belongs to the 2004 Vikings (Mike Tice alert) against Detroit. The Lions had just used their final timeout with 1:44 left. On third-and-2, Moe Williams scored on an 11-yard touchdown run. If he stopped short of the end zone, the Vikings could have won 24-21 on a field goal with no time left. Joey Harrington led a great touchdown drive, but the Lions botched the extra point. Minnesota lucked out.

Pittsburgh's touchdown decision looked even worse when Micah Hyde returned the kickoff 70 yards to the Pittsburgh 31 with 1:14 left. Nelson got out of bounds after a 7-yard catch and Quarless made a big grab over the middle for 19 yards. James Starks got the carry to the 1-yard line, but afterwards the Packers made a fatal error. Tackle Don Barclay was penalized for a false start after the Packers tried to hurry up and run it again. That requires a 10-second run off.

Green Bay had 10 seconds left, which should have been enough for two plays, but either miscommunication and/or another officiating error had the clock get down to three seconds before the Packers ran another play. Flynn's pass was too high in the end zone and the game was over after one shot at the end instead of two.

It was still one shot too many for the Steelers to allow since this game should have been wrapped up with a lot less tension if the proper strategy was used.

Neither of these teams wants to go away quietly this season. The Steelers' absurd playoff scenario actually had a lot go right in Week 16 to keep them alive. Even after defeat, Green Bay can still win the NFC North this Sunday.

New Orleans Saints 13 at Carolina Panthers 17

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 3 (13-10)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD): 0.17
Head Coach: Ron Rivera (6-17 at 4QC and 6-18 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Cam Newton (6-17 at 4QC and 6-18 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Everyone knew this rematch with the NFC South title on the line would play out much differently than the 31-13 drubbing the Saints dished out in Week 14. That's just what happens to teams at night in the Superdome.

But a 10-6 game to start the fourth quarter? That was a bit unexpected. New Orleans won most of the statistical battles, including holding the Panthers to 0-of-9 on third down, but Drew Brees was sacked six times and intercepted twice. Steve Smith left early with a sprained PCL and the Carolina offense produced very little outside of DeAngelo Williams' 43-yard touchdown run.

Terrible field position on consecutive drives had the Saints backed up at their own 3, but Jimmy Graham got them out of a bind with a 46-yard catch after the ball was nearly picked off. Graham finished the 97-yard drive with his athleticism helping out on the 5-yard touchdown with 6:37 left. New Orleans led 13-10.

Carolina went three-and-out. The Saints had 4:52 to burn, but Brees threw low and incomplete on second down before taking his sixth sack of the day for another quick three-and-out drive. Cam Newton did not look good in this one. He tweaked his ankle, was not effective running and his throws were sailing high. He took a sack to start the drive before throwing two short passes to Greg Olsen for another three-and-out.

Ron Rivera faced a fourth-and-7 decision at his own 36 with the clock running under 2:30. Going for it has to be strongly considered with two timeouts left and Brees on the other side. Rivera went for it in Miami, also down by three, in arguably a tougher situation on fourth-and-10 at his own 20 with one timeout, but more time overall remaining (2:33, so two clock stoppages total). Due to the short completion, the clock was at 2:04 when the punt happened, so the Panthers actually wasted the two-minute warning.

Rivera may have simply trusted his defense more than his offense on Sunday, but it was a conservative decision. This was starting to look like the New England game for the Saints where they could not put the game away in the four-minute offense. With 1:57 left, the Saints ran it twice so the Panthers used their last two timeouts. The plays only gained a yard so it was third-and-9. Game over if Brees converts, but stopping the clock and giving Newton close to 100 seconds is a big risk. So it's hard to fault the run, but the main point is the Saints need to be much more productive in these four-minute situations.

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The run gained a yard and the Saints punted with 1:02 left. Thomas Morstead only got off a 37-yard punt, allowing the Panthers to start at their own 35 with 55 seconds left.

Basically, Newton had himself a Tim Tebow day. His drop-back success rate before this drive was 4-of-24 (16.7 percent), but the defense kept the score down and he had a chance to be the hero. He started with a perfect fling to Ted Ginn Jr. for a 37-yard gain. Ginn even got out of bounds and already the Panthers were in field-goal range with the goal shifting toward the touchdown.

After a pass was batted at the line, Newton found Olsen despite decent coverage for a 14-yard gain. A spike stopped the clock. Rob Ryan sent a safety blitz, but Newton shrugged Malcolm Jenkins off with ease and Domenik Hixon made a diving catch in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown with 23 seconds left. Brees drove his offense into position for a Hail Mary attempt, but the pass was knocked down to end the game and put Carolina in control for the division.

It's the 12th lost comeback -- a game where the quarterback led the offense back to a fourth-quarter lead, but still lost -- for Brees. That's almost undoubtedly the most in NFL history, but the offense is not always blameless when that happens. The Saints could have iced the game on their own terms, but once again gave a team three late opportunities, and the defense failed miserably on the last drive.

How bad was the last drive? Teams leading by 1-3 points in the final minute rarely give up the game-winning touchdown. Often the opponent will play for the field goal, but the Panthers basically needed three plays to get in the end zone. I have done a lot of research on one-minute drills going back to 1981 and this is just the eighth time a team started a drive in the final minute of the fourth quarter, down 1-3 points and scored a game-winning touchdown. Here are the eight drives:

Game-Winning Touchdown Drives by Teams Down 1-3 Points in Final Minute of 4th Quarter (Since 1981)
Team Quarterback Oppt. Date Final Down Start End DL (Yds) Notes
MIA Dan Marino NYJ 11/10/1985 W 21-17 3 0:58 0:41 56 50-yd TD pass to Mark Duper
PHI Randall Cunningham WAS (A) 9/17/1989 W 42-37 2 0:57 0:52 4 4-yd drive following Gerald Riggs fumble
ARI Boomer Esiason PHI 11/24/1996 W 36-30 1 0:45 0:14 66 24-yd TD pass to Marcus Dowedell
CLE Tim Couch NO (A) 10/31/1999 W 21-16 2 0:15 0:00 75 56-yd Hail Mary TD pass to Kevin Johnson
CIN Jon Kitna PIT (A) 11/30/2003 W 24-20 3 0:57 0:13 52 18-yd TD pass to Matt Schobel
DEN Kyle Orton CIN (A) 9/13/2009 W 12-7 1 0:34 0:11 87 87-yd TD pass to Brandon Stokley (deflection)
JAC Blaine Gabbert IND (A) 9/23/2012 W 22-17 1 0:56 0:45 80 Cecil Shorts 80-yd TD (catch-and-run)
CAR Cam Newton NO 12/22/2013 W 17-13 3 0:55 0:23 65 14-yd TD pass to Domenik Hixon

Not your typical finishes, given the 4-yard drive, a Hail Mary, a ridiculous deflection for the Broncos and a couple of big plays. Carolina executed as well as any of these teams.

Since 1981, there have been 118 one-minute drills in wins. Ninety-one have ended with a field goal compared to just 27 for a touchdown drive:

One-Minute Drills (1981-2013)
Deficit Drives FG TD FG%
0 (tied) 57 53 4 93.0%
1-2 30 25 5 83.3%
3 16 13 3 81.3%
4-6 12 0 12 0.0%
7 3 0 3 0.0%

One-minute drills to win games continue to become more common. There were 30 in 1981-89, 26 in 1990-99, 36 in 2000-09 and already 26 since the 2010 season. Few have been as important as Carolina's.

Just a few weeks ago the discussion in the NFC was about if any teams could go into New Orleans and Seattle and win a playoff game. Now there are scenarios where both teams could just be the wild cards.

Arizona Cardinals 17 at Seattle Seahawks 10

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 1 (10-9)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD): 0.44
Head Coach: Bruce Arians (7-3 at 4QC and 10-3 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Carson Palmer (16-42 at 4QC and 24-42 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Count me in for spitting out the Seattle Kool-Aid that made us believe this team was close to a Super Bowl lock due to its home-field advantage. When Carson Palmer can throw four interceptions and still come away with a victory, the cloak of home invincibility has been removed.

Since 1970, road teams with at least four interceptions are 28-432-1 (.062). Seattle's struggling offense somehow only turned the picks into three points due in part to Steven Hauschka missing a 24-yard field goal. For a large part of the game, each team only had three points in this battle of two of the NFL's best defenses.

It's not like I hate defensive slugfests, but when there's such little offense involved, the game can be hard to watch. This one had 28 possessions and half of them ended with a punt. The third quarter was especially difficult, but a facemask penalty helped get Arizona on the board with another field goal for a 6-3 lead. Seattle's Robert Turbin badly fumbled the ensuing kickoff (unforced error) and the Cardinals had a great shot at a two-score lead.

On the second play of the fourth quarter -- a phrase that appears four times in this week's column -- Palmer threw arguably his worst interception of the day. The floater under pressure was picked in the end zone by Richard Sherman. Seattle went three-and-out after Russell Wilson was sacked twice. Two defensive penalties cost Seattle 36 yards and the Cardinals added another field goal for a 9-3 lead with 10:39 left.

Wilson's usually got a fourth-quarter drive in him. He got things started with a 28-yard pass to Golden Tate, who tried to make a move after the catch. Jerraud Powers forced a fumble, but the ball went directly to Jermaine Kearse, actually gaining eight more yards for Seattle. Four plays later Wilson found Zach Miller wide open in the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown. Covering the tight end has been a big problem all season for the Cardinals.

Arizona had plenty of time to answer. On third-and-5 at the Arizona 49, Seattle's Malcolm Smith was flagged for a suspect defensive holding call. This was one of those plays where the receiver and defender both initiate contact with each other.

Let them fight it out.

For as much contact as Seattle usually gets away with, this was a soft call. Later, on third-and-6 Palmer made his best throw of the day. The 36-yard touchdown to Michael Floyd had good coverage from Byron Maxwell, but the throw dropped in perfectly down the left sideline. Rashard Mendenhall converted on the ground for the two points and Arizona led 17-10 with 2:13 left.

Wilson had one timeout and 74 yards to go. He had 108 passing yards for the entire game, so certainly a difficult task. His pass to Doug Baldwin was low, but it took a high bounce and Karlos Dansby made the wild interception. Now it would seem physically impossible that the ball would bounce that high just from hitting Baldwin's forearm, but even after review, the ruling on the field stood.

I think it's incomplete for logical reasons, but this is one of those dreaded "go with the ruling on the field" situations. Arizona ran it once for a first down and the upset was clinched. I said earlier in the day the way Seattle was going to lose at home was in a low-scoring game where the defense allows a late game-winning drive. Arizona pulled that off and Bruce Arians improves to 10-3 in games with a game-winning drive opportunity since last year.

New York Giants 23 at Detroit Lions 20

Type: 4QC (Team), GWD (OT)
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 7 (20-13)
Win Probability (GWD): 0.55
Head Coach: Tom Coughlin (41-77 at 4QC and 50-80 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Eli Manning (25-31 at 4QC and 30-33 overall 4QC/GWD record)

After blowing a fourth-quarter lead for the fifth time in six games, the Lions (7-8) have been eliminated from the playoffs. Their collapse from a 6-3 start isn't necessarily one of the worst in history, but it will be remembered as the year Detroit could not take advantage of starting quarterback injuries in the NFC North, thanks in part to a problem with turnovers (at least three giveaways in each of the last six games).

The Lions trailed 13-3 at halftime, but the team did rally to take a 20-13 lead early in the fourth quarter. Theo Riddick capped off a 63-yard touchdown drive with a 2-yard run and Matthew Stafford completed the two-point conversion to Joseph Fauria.

Technically, the New York offense did have two attempts at a comeback, but went three-and-out on both drives. However, consider this a "no decision" for Eli Manning and his offense, because the comeback was accomplished by the defense. With 5:06 left, Stafford threw for Fauria, but the pass went off the tight end's hands and right to Will Hill, who returned it 38 yards for the game-tying touchdown. That one's not on Stafford. Apparently, Fauria's not useful outside of the red zone.

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Now a 20-20 game, it took eight more possessions to decide a winner. Manning had a decent shot at the Detroit 49 with 28 seconds left, but he badly overthrew his receiver for an interception. The game went to overtime and the Giants received first after winning the coin toss. Michael Cox returned it deep from his end zone out to the New York 49 -- the best starting field position for any team to start modified overtime (38 games).

After a 15-yard pass to Brandon Myers, Manning handed off to Andre Brown, who fumbled at the Detroit 29. Dorin Dickerson had a bad drop with no one around him on first down, then the Lions were penalized for holding to set up second-and-20. On third down, Stafford could not fit the pass in there to his receiver and the Lions went three-and-out.

Manning converted a big third-and-9 with a 26-yard pass to Rueben Randle. The Giants were also penalized for holding in overtime. That led to a fourth-and-7 at the Detroit 42. Why not go for it at this point of the season? Tom Coughlin did and Manning converted with a 15-yard pass and sliding catch by Jerrel Jernigan. Manning tried one more pass before centering the ball for the kicking unit.

Josh Brown nailed the 45-yard field goal and Manning earned his 30th game-winning drive. It's also the seventh game-winning drive allowed by the Lions in 2013. After going 3-8 at game-winning drive opportunities in 2012, the Lions are in the same ballpark at 3-7 this season.

Tennessee Titans 20 at Jacksonville Jaguars 16

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 3 (16-13)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD): 0.39
Head Coach: Mike Munchak (7-12 at 4QC and 10-13 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Ryan Fitzpatrick (7-29 at 4QC and 9-30-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Somehow, Tennessee's attempt to avoid a season sweep at the hands of the Jaguars became the deciding game for second place in the AFC South this year. Jacksonville led 16-6 in the third quarter, but Tennessee's offense finally began to move the ball with an 80-yard touchdown drive. Ryan Fitzpatrick impressively scrambled for a 3-yard gain on fourth-and-2 at the Jacksonville 39 on the final play of the third quarter. A defensive holding penalty would have made the play good for a first down even if Fitzpatrick was short of the marker.

On the second play of the fourth quarter, Nate Washington was wide open for a 30-yard touchdown with 14:25 left. Down 20-16, the Jaguars had three opportunities. On the second drive, Maurice Jones-Drew was buried behind the line on a fourth-and-1 run at the Tennessee 20. With 5:25 left, the field goal was an option, but for this offense, the prospects of gaining 1-20 more yards versus a 37-yard make and having another good drive are hard to argue with.

The Titans ran the ball on eight consecutive plays, picking up two first downs before punting it back. Chad Henne had 68 seconds to drive the offense 80 yards. While such drives sound less daunting by the week, this was obviously too much for the talent-strapped Jaguars. Two plays into the drive, George Wilson undercut Marcedes Lewis for the game-clinching interception.

It was Henne's 13th career interception during a failed game-winning drive opportunity. Since 2008, the only quarterbacks with more such interceptions are Philip Rivers (15) and Fitzpatrick (18).

Cleveland Browns 13 at New York Jets 24

Type: GWD
Win Probability (GWD): 0.51
Head Coach: Rex Ryan (13-19 at 4QC and 18-20 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Geno Smith (2-2 at 4QC and 5-2 overall 4QC/GWD record)

This game only had 18 total possessions, so it was not the dreadful offensive showcase some may have expected from these teams. However, the Browns were particularly bad through the air with Jason Campbell completing just 18-of-40 passes for 178 yards and two interceptions.

The Jets trailed 10-0 early, but tied things with Geno Smith mostly operating out of the shotgun. A long drive started in the third quarter carried into the fourth with the game still tied. A key play was Smith's 17-yard completion to Jeremy Kerley on third-and-13. On the second play of the fourth quarter, Smith tossed his second touchdown of the game to David Nelson.

Cleveland answered with a 50-yard kick return and soon moved into the red zone, but a false start wiped out a touchdown and the Browns ended up settling for a 21-yard field goal and 17-13 deficit. Smith engineered a 14-play, 80-yard drive with four third-down conversions. The last was a 17-yard scramble for a touchdown by Smith on third-and-2 to take a 24-13 lead with 3:19 left.

Ed Reed intercepted Campbell to put an end to this one -- Cleveland's eighth failed fourth-quarter comeback in 2013, tying Houston and Washington for the most in the league. The Browns are just 3-22 (.120) at fourth-quarter comebacks since 2011.

But much credit should go to New York's efficient offense for this win. Smith produced three touchdowns, no turnovers and became the fifth rookie quarterback in NFL history with at least five game-winning drives.

Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind

They could have added a t-shirt and ham sandwich.

Buccaneers at Rams: The Mighty Quinn

Mike Glennon is a big quarterback to bring down, but he's not particularly strong like a Cam Newton or Ben Roethlisberger. The Rams sacked him seven times and shut down the run. Bobby Rainey had just 20 carries for 37 yards. Kellen Clemens dinked and dunked with his 20 passes for 158 yards and Zac Stacy paced the offense with 33 carries for 104 yards.

The Rams led 17-13 to start the fourth quarter and extended the lead with a 25-yard field goal. Glennon faced a third down at midfield, the Rams rushed six and the rookie quarterback fumbled the ball on a sack. Clemens hit Chris Givens with a high 21-yard pass and the Rams were able to add another field goal for a 23-13 lead with 3:15 left.

The Buccaneers turned it over on downs after the two-minute warning when Robert Quinn sacked Glennon on fourth-and-10. Tampa Bay got it back one more time, but it was too late. On Glennon's last four drop backs, Quinn registered two sacks and one pressure that was close to being another sack. He's been a force all season and has 18 sacks, a new franchise record.

Broncos at Texans: Triumph and Tragedy

Speaking of records, the Denver Broncos have been setting a bunch of them all season, but lost in the 37-13 final was the fact that this was just a 16-13 game to start the fourth quarter.

Denver hit another rough patch offensively with three straight three-and-out drives to start the third quarter. On the second play of the fourth quarter, Matt Schaub scrambled to his right, forced a sideline pass to DeAndre Hopkins, but Mike Adams made a great interception. With the ball at the Houston 28, one had to expect the takeaway would get the Denver offense back on track.

It did. Two plays later, Manning hit Eric Decker with a 10-yard touchdown pass and the expected rout was on. Manning finished the next two drives with touchdown passes, giving him the record of 51 in just 15 games. The Broncos are the first team to have four receivers with at least 10 touchdown receptions in a season. Manning's 2004 Colts were the first to do so with three receivers.

In 2004, Manning broke the touchdown record in dramatic fashion with a touchdown to Brandon Stokley on a game-tying drive against San Diego in a game that decided the No. 3 seed in the playoffs. This time, it was against the 2-13 Texans with a 30-13 lead and 4:28 to play. They can't all be perfect moments. Houston is the first team to fail to score at least 17 points against Denver this season.

Manning's latest feat is the best example in NFL history of a player setting a record, losing it, only to regain it later with another dominant season (and for a whole different team to boot). Manning also passed for 400 yards, putting him in striking distance of the single-season yardage record. Finally, Denver needs 28 points in Oakland to become the first 600-point team in NFL history and just 18 points to break the 2007 Patriots' scoring record (589 points).

Falcons at 49ers: Not "The Catch"

Did you hear this was the last regular-season game in Candlestick Park? It may not be the last game there this season should the unexpected playoff scenarios continue to unfold, but it's not like the 49ers made things easy on themselves in this one. The Falcons led 10-3 at halftime, but finally the San Francisco offense showed up in the second half.

The 49ers scored 17 straight points to take a 20-10 lead in the fourth quarter. Atlanta was able to answer back with a beautiful 39-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Roddy White, who went vintage with 12 catches for 141 yards on the night. We talked about a team like the Saints not playing well with the late lead, but the 49ers continued the second-half domination. Kendall Hunter ripped off a 45-yard run to set up another touchdown.

San Francisco led 27-17 with 5:04 left and Twitter was overflowing with playoff scenarios. The Falcons kept clawing away, converting a fourth-and-2 at their own 28 to White. Tony Gonzalez finished the 80-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown catch. There was a seemingly bogus roughing the passer penalty on Ahmad Brooks, which is big since it is 15 yards on the kickoff. Atlanta was able to recover the onside kick after NaVorro Bowman whiffed on the recovery.

Amazingly, the Falcons were already at the San Francisco 30 with 2:09 left, down 27-24. It was in the NFC Championship last year when Atlanta failed to deliver in the red zone in another comeback situation against the 49ers. Harry Douglas caught an 11-yard pass and the game hit the two-minute warning. Gonzalez caught a pass for nine yards, then the Falcons blew it again in the situation that's plagued them for all of 2013.

First of all, it was second-and-1 with 1:31 left. Just run the ball. Steven Jackson was signed for a reason. Atlanta had all three timeouts, so the clock was never an issue. The Falcons were 10 yards away from the go-ahead touchdown, which a team should only want to score with as little time as possible here. The field goal is a last resort.

Instead of running, Ryan threw a tightly contested pass to Douglas. Tramaine Brock was right there to defend the pass and he helped knock it into the air. Bowman came over and in a "right place, right time" situation, intercepted the ball and returned it 89 yards for a touchdown with 1:10 left. The 49ers were going to win 34-24 with one last classic score in Candlestick. That's a good way to bolster any Defensive Player of the Year candidacy and it clinched a playoff spot for the 49ers.

I got ahead of myself on Twitter during the play, forgetting the Falcons had all three timeouts, so Bowman going down short of the end zone does no real favors here. I will always believe if the Falcons had fewer than two timeouts, Bowman should have gone down immediately to end the game. With two timeouts, there's still an argument to go down short of the end zone, but it's splitting hairs at that point.

A laughable drive by the Falcons finished things off. Matt Bryant was even going to attempt a pointless 53-yard field goal with seconds remaining before Jim Harbaugh called a timeout. The game ended when Ryan's Hail Mary was intercepted by Brock in the end zone.

If anyone needs a late gift idea for the Falcons, try a book on red-zone execution for the offense. Losses against the Saints (twice), Dolphins, Patriots, Jets and now 49ers all saw major failures in that area. That one aspect of the game may not sound huge, but it's arguably the biggest difference between 4-11 and 10-5 for this team.

Season Summary
Fourth-quarter comebacks: 67
Game-winning drives: 82
Games with 4QC opportunity: 148/240 (61.7 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 39

Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro-Football-Reference. Win Probability comes from Advanced NFL Stats. Screen caps come from NFL Game Rewind.


10 comments, Last at 26 Dec 2013, 12:39pm

1 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 16

Unfortunately, based on post-game commentary ESPN is not counting this as an "elimination game" for Romo, since the Eagles had not yet won their SNF game. Soooo the win will not help Romo in this arbitrary category which no other QB that I can think of has ever had attached to his name.

On a different note, the article here mentions that the deep pass to Terence Williams on the final drive might've been a touchdown if Romo was healthy (because he underthrew it a bit). Certainly true, but this has actually been an issue for Romo throughout the season-- he's been short on several deep balls, most notably on FOUR big ones in the Green Bay game, two to Dez Bryant. This seems a much more prevalent issue for him than it has been in years past. Makes one wonder if the offseason back surgery and lingering soreness or disc issues were hurting him even before this past week's aggravation.

2 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 16

Watching the Steelers game at the bar, I actually left after the field goal penalty, saying to my nephew, "it's over." I just assumed Tomlin would take a couple knees and kick the field goal. Needless to say, I was surprised when I got home. Really dumb decision by Tomlin.

3 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 16

Are you ever not an insufferable douche, Scott? Or are you the epitome of the troll living in their mom's basement? Cam Newton has a "Tim Tebow" kind of day? Tebow couldn't have strung those three throws together if there wasn't a defense on the field.

You are truly a piece of self-aggandizing work, and FootballOutsiders is so much worse off with your ilk among them. Such a shame.

4 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 16

Hi Scott,
Very nice article. Marry Christmas.

About the illegal batting.

If you take a look at the play Clark is tripping while he gets the ball, so he is going to the ground. In the process of going down a player must mantain control of the ball to complete the catch. By lateralling the ball Clark never completed the catch and therefore there was never a change of posession as the ball didn't cross the line of scrimmage.

It's the Calvin Johnson rule, it doesn't matter if while tripping Clark took 2 or 3 steps or if his knee was down, he voluntarily lost control while going to the ground. Not a catch!

The ruling on the field was -in my opinion- perfect.

PS: I didn't know Newton's girlfriend visited FO.

9 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 16

"Stafford threw for Fauria, but the pass went off the tight end's hands and right to Will Hill, who returned it 38 yards for the game-tying touchdown. That one's not on Stafford."

As much as it pains me, being the local Stafford apologist, I have to disagree. The pass was high and wide (Stafford later admitted he overcompensated to try to keep the ball away from the covering defender), which is why Fauria couldn't haul it in. If that pass is on target, it's a first down. Fauria has very reliable hands.

"Apparently, Fauria's not useful outside of the red zone."

I'm going to assume this was tongue-in-cheek, since I would expect that a writer on an advanced stats site wouldn't make such conclusions based on a sample size of 1.
(So I guess I've now also become the local Fauria apologist).

10 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 16

Definitely wasn't a perfect pass, but I thought it hit in him both hands and he could have made that play or at least not deflect it right to the defense.

And the "Apparently," does mean it was tongue-in-cheek.