by Scott Kacsmar
When the most anticipated game on the early-season schedule has a finish like the Broncos and Seahawks had, then we must do a special Monday edition of Clutch Encounters. When else will we see two teams lead the league in DVOA in consecutive years, meet in a Super Bowl and meet in the following season with both of them still heavy favorites?
Sometimes a marquee matchup actually does live up to the hype in the NFL. Once in a while, we also end up with the domination that was Super Bowl XLVIII by Seattle. On Sunday, the Broncos had an opportunity to prove they can hang with the defending champions in their building where the Seahawks are now 19-1 since 2012. This technically may have been a rematch, but 13 of Denver's 22 positional starters from the 43-8 debacle were different this time around.
By the end of the game we had a classic that would have been a worthy replacement for February's disappointment, but it was still an ending that left many football fans craving more from this matchup of the league's best teams.
Game of the Week
Denver Broncos 20 at Seattle Seahawks 26
Type: GWD (OT)
Win Probability (GWD): 0.53
Head Coach: Pete Carroll (16-34 at 4QC and 22-38 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Russell Wilson (8-9 at 4QC and 11-10 overall 4QC/GWD record)
What's made Denver vs. Seattle so intriguing is the Peyton Manning-led offense against Seattle's dominant defense. After seeing eight quarters of this, we can comfortably say the Seahawks have owned that matchup. However, what ultimately decided Sunday's game was Denver's defense trying to chase Russell Wilson in the Seahawks' offense.
For some time it did not look like we were going to get a memorable finish. Denver's defense started well with a three-and-out and a sack in the first quarter -- two things it never did in the Super Bowl. The offense fumbled on the first play again, but at least this time it was a Montee Ball carry and not something simple like a snap. Denver's over-commitment to the run, including two handoffs on third-and-long, was not working. The Broncos had 13 carries for 16 yards in the first half, and that includes the 9-yard run Ball had when he fumbled. Denver can cite losing tight end Virgil Green to injury, but Seattle's defense looked too fast for the Broncos to ever get any rushing production.
Seattle built a 17-3 halftime lead on two touchdown passes from Wilson. As the game wore on in the second half, Denver's offense looked similarly outmatched as it did in the Super Bowl. The difference was a lack of turnovers (and a held-in-check Percy Harvin) kept the margin closer. The offense could do nothing on the ground and Manning had to get rid of the ball quickly to neutralize some of the pass rush.
At one point between the second and fourth quarters, the Broncos punted on eight consecutive drives. Where would the offense come from when every throw was so contested with tight coverage? The vaunted Denver screen game produced two yards on six plays. Just like the Super Bowl, yards after the catch were nearly impossible to come by for Denver.
Still 17-3 in the fourth quarter, things looked dire for the Broncos. Pete Carroll's only lost three double-digit leads since 2010, and the biggest lead was 12 points. The turnaround was started by the Denver defense. DeMarcus Ware sacked Wilson at the 1-yard line and a gang of defenders swarmed Marshawn Lynch in the end zone for a safety to make it 17-5. Denver's offense had its eighth punt, but the defense again responded with Aqib Talib tipping a Wilson pass into an interception by Chris Harris. Now Manning only had to go 19 yards and that woke up the offense. Julius Thomas caught a 3-yard shovel pass for a touchdown, extending Manning's streak to 46 consecutive games with a touchdown pass.
Seattle needed to respond in a 17-12 game, and it was an interesting development to see wide receiver Brian Walters get four targets on the drive. Two of the plays were successful, but not the last one as Wilson couldn't complete the throw under some pressure.
Manning had his chance with 6:07 left, needing to drive 81 yards. A game-winning drive would give him 52, breaking his tie with Dan Marino (51) for the all-time record. The great finish was shaping up, as was Denver's offense. Suddenly Wes Welker started getting free underneath with some blocking help, and he quickly made three catches for 41 yards. After a Denver timeout with 2:25 left and the ball at the Seattle 24, Manning made his biggest mistake of the day: he hopelessly tried to hit Welker in the seam, but found Kam Chancellor for an interception. Earl Thomas destroyed Welker on the play, but they played on and the Seahawks were already in field-goal range after the long return. Lynch picked up a first down and Talib added 12 yards on a penalty for dropping an elbow. Still, Denver had the two-minute warning and two timeouts, so there was time to get the ball back.
Three Lynch runs only gained three yards, but Seattle kept things safe with the percentage plays and kicked the 28-yard field goal. Manning had 59 seconds left at his own 20 with no timeouts, down 20-12 in the toughest environment in the league. That's a 0.04 win probability situation on average, and maybe lower given the way the first 59 minutes played out in this one.
Expectations were low, but a chance is a chance. Denver came up with one of the greatest drives this situation has ever seen. This was a pure "Madden Moment," especially given Denver's strategy looked like a video game. Make your quarterback scramble to the left and use the directional pad to redirect the receiver's route down the field. Emmanuel Sanders, who had a monster day (11 catches for 149 yards), was open, but Manning's wounded duck couldn't connect with him. Seattle rushed three again, but Manning escaped it and went to the same play. This time Sanders was waiting for the ball and gained 42 yards. Manning hurried to the line for the spike and this was suddenly very interesting.
Ronnie Hillman slipped on a short pass, which turned out to be a good incompletion for Denver. Manning converted the third-and-10 with a touch-throw to Demaryius Thomas at the sideline for 12 yards. Down to 24 seconds, Manning used the same route concepts from earlier with Jacob Tamme breaking wide open down the left side for a 26-yard touchdown in the end zone. Stunningly, the Broncos moved the ball 80 yards in 41 seconds without any timeouts.
This would be all for naught without the two-point conversion, of course. Seattle rushed four, but Manning had time behind a seven-man protection scheme. Waiting for the route to develop, he delivered a strike to Demaryius in the back of the end zone. Thomas made a great effort to tap both feet in before going out of bounds and things were tied at 20 with 18 seconds to play.
How rare was this? I have data on all 120 one-minute drills that have led to wins since 1981. I also have data on every failed comeback attempt since at least 1991, keeping in mind the NFL did not adopt the two-point conversion until the 1994 season. The AFL used it back in the 1960s.
The Broncos are the first NFL offense to score a game-tying touchdown and two-point conversion on a drive that started in the final 60 seconds. You knew it was special when you watched it given the mystique of Seattle's defense and the general toughness of the situation, but this was truly a one-of-a-kind drive. Here's a table showing all 20 one-minute drills since 1981 that were touchdown drives with the team absolutely needing a touchdown (down by 4-8 points). "DL" is drive length (yards). Denver has one of the four 80-yard touchdown drives and is only the second where the offense had no timeouts left (TOL).
|NFL One-Minute Drills: Touchdown Drives, Down 4-8 Points (Since 1981)|
|DEN||Peyton Manning||at SEA||9/21/2014||L 26-20 OT||8||0:59||8||80||0:18||0|
|NO||Aaron Brooks||at JAC||12/21/2003||L 20-19||7||0:11||6||75||0:00||0|
|STLC||Neil Lomax||at CLE||9/8/1985||W 27-24 OT||7||0:33||7||63||0:04||3|
|TEN||Ryan Fitzpatrick||ARI||12/15/2013||L 37-34 OT||7||0:44||7||54||0:10||0|
|NYG||Eli Manning||at DAL||10/16/2005||L 16-13 OT||7||0:52||7||52||0:19||1|
|CHI||Shane Matthews||CLE||11/4/2001||W 27-21 OT||7||0:24||7||47||0:00||1|
|DET||Shaun Hill||at TEN||9/23/2012||L 44-41 OT||7||0:16||7||46||0:00||0|
|CIN||Boomer Esiason||at CLE||12/2/1984||W 20-17 OT||7||1:00||7||28||0:01||0-1|
|SEA||Dave Krieg||at KC||11/11/1990||W 17-16||6||0:48||7||66||0:00||0|
|SD||Craig Whelihan||KC||11/22/1998||W 38-37||6||0:51||7||63||0:09||0|
|CLE||Tim Couch||at JAC||12/8/2002||W 21-20||6||0:47||7||53||0:00||0|
|SF||Joe Montana||at CIN||9/20/1987||W 27-26||6||0:02||7||25||0:00||0|
|KC||Elvis Grbac||at OAK||9/8/1997||W 28-27||5||0:58||6||80||0:03||0|
|SEA||Russell Wilson||GB||9/24/2012||W 14-12||5||0:46||7||46||0:00||0|
|NE||Tom Brady||CLE||12/8/2013||W 27-26||5||1:00||6||40||0:31||0|
|ATL||Billy Joe Tolliver||SF||11/3/1991||W 17-14||4||0:53||7||80||0:01||2|
|BAL||Joe Flacco||MIN||12/8/2013||W 29-26||4||0:45||7||80||0:04||2|
|BUF||Joe Ferguson||NE||11/22/1981||W 20-17||4||0:35||7||73||0:05||0|
|NYJ||Mark Sanchez||HOU||11/21/2010||W 30-27||4||0:49||7||72||0:10||0|
|PHI||Ron Jaworski||at CLE||9/19/1982||W 24-21||4||0:52||7||65||0:22||2-3|
Note: I am missing data on failed comebacks for 1981-1990 for a few teams, so there may be more losses to add, but I know I have everything in the two-point conversion era.
If that drive wasn't enough, overtime seemed destined to make this an instant classic. However, the Seahawks won the toss and received. I find it very unlikely Manning would have driven the length of the field again using a less aggressive approach, but you can't fault Seattle at all for wanting the ball first here.
Through the first 41 modified overtime games, only six were decided by a first-drive touchdown, which Seattle did to Chicago in 2012 despite a stunning late score after a Jay Cutler to Brandon Marshall connection. Seattle took control at its own 20 with a methodical drive with no gain longer than 12 yards. Wilson was in control in the shotgun and continued driving Denver's front crazy with his scrambles. Under pressure, he would find an escape route and complete a short pass, throw the ball away or gain a few yards himself. Denver had two third-and-short opportunities to stall the drive, but Wilson converted both with scrambles. Moving the ball to the 6-yard line, Seattle clinched the game with Lynch's plunge into the end zone with 9:14 left.
I predicted a 27-20 Seattle win this weekend, but they don't kick extra points in overtime, so 26-20 it is. Still, it's hard not to look at the ending and think there was something missing here. It's too bad this wasn't Super Bowl XLVIII, because a game with that many viewers would likely draw enough ire to the NFL to improve the overtime system. The NFL's not about who can score first. In the ultimate team game, it's not just about one offense against one defense. We deserve to see both offenses get the ball. We should have been able to see if Manning could hit some more plays against that defense, or if the "Legion of Boom" would clinch the win with another turnover. The true marquee matchup in this game was irrelevant in overtime, because Seattle just so happened to win the coin flip. There has to be a better alternative to this.
In the one-minute drills table, you can see five teams lost the game, including the 2003 Saints with the River City Relay and the 2012 Lions in overtime after a Titus Young Hail Mary tied the game. Ryan Fitzpatrick led a wild comeback last year against Arizona, but threw an interception in overtime.
That means since at least 1991, only Eli Manning and Peyton Manning have lost a game in overtime without touching the ball again after having led a one-minute touchdown drill. It's rare in general to see an offense get a game-tying or even go-ahead score, only to still lose the game without ever taking possession again. I keep track of such drives, which have no real fancy name, but are noted with this "ngbb" distinction for "never got ball back."
Here's a table to show just how many "ngbb" losses each of the 13 active starters with experience back to at least 2008 have had in their careers. I also included what percentage of their overall failed comebacks and game-winning drives these losses make up.
|Games Lost After Tying/Go-Ahead Scoring Drive and NGBB|
|Quarterback||NGBB Losses||4QC/GWD Losses||Pct.|
So the Manning brothers have experienced this the most times and the most often with only Jay Cutler ranking in between the two in terms of percentage. In some cases the offense could have done a better job, such as getting a touchdown instead of a game-tying field goal, but that doesn't always apply. Sometimes the offense does exactly what it's supposed to, and the defense just can't get the ball back.
Denver can take some solace in defeat, knowing the defense stepped up in the second half and the offense made some timely plays to say the least. Maybe the third time will be the charm, or maybe this is the end for this matchup. The teams won't meet in the regular season again until 2018. By that time Manning will be retired and the Seahawks will have a much different roster, trying to hold on to the glory of now. The odds are stacked against a Super Bowl rematch, but after this game, more people would probably welcome one.
We'll run Clutch Encounters for the rest of Week 3's games at its usual Tuesday time.