Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships
Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Scott Kacsmar

The best Championship Sunday on paper in a long time did not fully live up to expectations, but it was still a satisfying day of football, leading to a dream matchup of the NFL's top offense against the top defense in Super Bowl XLVIII. Both No. 1 seeds won their conference for just the second time in the salary-cap era (since 1994).

We had two rivalry games with a team in each having a very impressive streak of competitiveness that made us expect two close games, but in the end we only got one. Still, the NFC Championship will probably go down as a classic and it helps when Richard Sherman sounded like he was gearing up for entry into the Royal Rumble in his post-game interview with Erin Andrews.

Game of the Week

San Francisco 49ers 17 at Seattle Seahawks 23

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 4 (17-13)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD): 0.37
Head Coach: Pete Carroll (16-33 at 4QC and 21-37 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Russell Wilson (8-8 at 4QC and 10-9 overall 4QC/GWD record)

I am not a big fan of division rivalries, because most of the teams have little history together. The 49ers and Seahawks met just six times before division realignment in 2002. Not until last season were both teams relevant, but after this game, I can say I'm looking forward to how this rivalry progresses. The NFC now has its equivalent to Steelers-Ravens and these teams probably have more overall talent than those teams did.

The last two games in Seattle were routs, but not this time. If anything, the 49ers looked to be on their way to a big road win with a 10-0 lead in the second quarter. Russell Wilson had a very shaky game, and I think all stat guys were stunned to see his traditional line look so good given what the eye test showed. The pressure was significant, but some of the scrambling decisions were reckless and harmful to the offense. He wasn't making a lot of positive plays like earlier this season. Wilson fumbled on the very first snap of the game, gifting the 49ers three points. He tried a few 50/50 deep balls and did hit one for 51 yards to Doug Baldwin to get the Seahawks on the board. Marshawn Lynch tied the game in the third quarter with an impressive 40-yard touchdown run.

Colin Kaepernick had a very strange game. His numbers in his first five playoff games were outstanding -- this is something we'll look at in detail in the coming weeks -- but the Seahawks offer a much different challenge on the road for any quarterback. Kaepernick went into halftime with 3-of-5 passing for 17 yards (two failed completions). That means the Seahawks held Drew Brees and Kaepernick to 51 passing yards in the first half (four total quarters) this postseason. What Kaepernick did well was an incredible effort to scramble under pressure, including a 58-yard gallop that helped him reach halftime with 98 rushing yards (finished game with 130). Kaepernick's 507 postseason rushing yards in six games already rank second to Steve Young (594) for the most career postseason rushing yards by a quarterback.

Kaepernick showed off his passing prowess in the third quarter with a laser that went through Earl Thomas' hands into Anquan Boldin's possession for a 26-yard touchdown. Baldwin's 69-yard kick return (he also had six catches for 106 yards) helped set up a field goal for Seattle. Down 17-13, the Seahawks had possession again, but Wilson made a costly throwaway that failed to reach the line of scrimmage, resulting in a 16-yard loss for intentional grounding to end the third quarter.

Not good to start a fourth-quarter comeback with a third-and-22 at the 50, but the short pass to Zach Miller for 15 yards gave Pete Carroll options. Seattle seemed content with a 52-yard field goal attempt, but called a timeout with the play clock running down. Then the offense returned for fourth-and-7. Seattle lined up in trips right and ran "all verts" with a seven-man protection scheme. Jermaine Kearse beat Carlos Rogers for the 35-yard touchdown on a great pass from Wilson. The intriguing part was San Francisco jumping offsides, giving Seattle a free play. I am not sure if the Seahawks have a built-in audible to run all verts on a free play, but that's incredible recognition on the fly by all the receivers and Wilson picked the right one to throw to. Seattle led 20-17 with 13:44 left.

The 49ers put the ball in Kaepernick's hands (zero fourth-quarter carries for Frank Gore) and he had a dreadful quarter. Things started going sour with a delay of game penalty that turned third-and-1 into third-and-6. Kaepernick moved to his left, but Cliff Avril got to him from behind to force the strip-sack and the Seahawks were six yards away from a potential deathblow. Things really fell apart for San Francisco when Kearse was stripped of the ball and stud linebacker NaVorro Bowman had clear possession and was down by contact, but no official caught that part of the play, which is ludicrously not reviewable. The Seahawks were awarded possession after the scrum and Bowman tore his ACL in horrific fashion on the play. Hopefully the NFL will make sure such a play is reviewable next year, because the 49ers should have had the ball.

Carroll made the smart decision to go for it on fourth-and-1, but some justice was served when Wilson and Lynch could not get the handoff completed and the Seahawks turned the ball over to San Francisco with better field position at the 15. But two plays later Kaepernick made a horrible throw to Boldin that was easily intercepted by Kam Chancellor. Kaepernick must thank his defense and the sputtering Seattle offense for not putting the game away with a touchdown (again). Seattle settled for the 47-yard field goal and the dreaded six-point lead with just 3:37 left.

Now into aggressive, four-down football, Kaepernick needed a 78-yard touchdown drive to put San Francisco back in the Super Bowl. The 49ers were too nonchalant on the drive's early plays, setting up a fourth-and-2 at the 30 with 2:01 left. If they didn't waste the two-minute warning by taking so long, the 49ers could have actually punted the ball given they had three timeouts and Seattle's offense was not very threatening. A failure to convert might have ended the game as a field goal would give Seattle a 26-17 lead. Teams converted on fourth-and-2 with a 46.5 success rate from 2009-2012 and it was around 62 percent this season. The fact that Jeff Fisher is the only coach since 1999 to punt on fourth-and-short in the last 2:40, trailing by one score, probably proves going for it was the right call.

Kaepernick scrambled again and Gore made a clutch catch for 17 yards to convert and hit the two-minute warning. On a third down, Kaepernick was able to float the ball over the defender this time to Michael Crabtree for 16 yards. The 49ers used their first timeout with 55 seconds left and Kaepernick went to Vernon Davis for 11 more yards, putting the ball at the Seattle 18.

This is the most nerve-racking scenario in the NFL -- a team trying to hold on to a four- to six-point lead in the final minute. No defense, especially the top-ranked one, wants to go down as giving up the game-winning touchdown this late in the game, but the 49ers had a great shot with two timeouts remaining and a solid drive in progress.

But the red zone was another area where Seattle's defense ranked No. 1, and while the 49ers have improved in that area, there are still some issues. Kaepernick likes to force the ball to Crabtree and he picked a bad time to do that on first down with Richard Sherman on the coverage in the end zone. Sherman tipped the ball to linebacker Malcolm Smith for the game-ending interception and Kaepernick's third turnover of the quarter, all with the 49ers down by just 3-6 points.

With two timeouts in mind, there are clearly at least two options underneath that would have been easy throws to get the 49ers closer.

First down does not have to be for all the glory, but that's what Kaepernick decided and Sherman made a great play in the ultimate game of inches.

After the Kyle Williams fumbles in the 2011 NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl loss with the goal-line stand, this probably only ranks as the third-toughest defeat for Harbaugh's 49ers, who will have to step up to the criticism of not winning in Seattle for the third time in a row. Following Sherman's "choke" taunt directed towards Kaepernick and the criticism he shared about Crabtree, the next meeting between these teams will easily be one of the most anticipated games of 2014. (The second meeting between these teams might be the most anticipated game of 2014. Please, NFL, schedule it for Week 17.)

Wilson tied Andrew Luck for the most fourth-quarter comeback wins (eight) through a quarterback's first two seasons. The Super Bowl should be another fantastic game and finish. Seattle has had a fourth-quarter lead in 29 consecutive games while Peyton Manning has had a fourth-quarter lead in 13 consecutive playoff games.

Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind

Maybe next season Tom Brady will get that high-five.

Patriots at Broncos: No "NFL Classic Games" Feature Required Here

There was once a belief that a team was doomed if Bill Belichick had time to dissect a first matchup on tape, but the facts show otherwise. Belichick's Patriots are 9-0 in the playoffs against a new opponent and 9-8 in a rematch. Sunday was another rematch, but the Week 12 meeting with New England's spectacular 24-point comeback was never going to be useful tape for this game. The goofy fumble luck, terrible weather, and significant changes to the cast of characters guaranteed that.

The difference showed right away with Denver taking control and surprisingly never letting the Patriots get closer than 10 points in the second half. New England's running game was never a factor (held to 57 yards), Tom Brady missed some big throws early and Belichick's defense only forced Peyton Manning's offense to punt once after another very efficient day with 507 yards. How often do you see an offense average 60.5 yards per drive like Denver did? The Broncos played great and the Patriots did some loopy stuff like throw deep to Matt Slater on third-and-3.Manning-Brady games are never shootouts, but there's usually a comeback attempt and some late drama. This was the 15th meeting, but only the third time Brady never had a lead.

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Yet even when the Broncos took a 23-3 lead with 12 minutes left, there was no reason to count the Patriots out. They always make it close, right? As I first put out there after the comeback win over Denver, the Patriots had one of the longest streaks of competitiveness in NFL history: 63 consecutive games (including playoffs) where they either led, were tied, or were down by just one score (1-8 points) in the fourth quarter. The only longer documented streak belongs to the 2008-12 Packers (69 games). The 1988-92 49ers also had a 63-game streak.

Interestingly enough, Seattle's Russell Wilson had his own streak going back to college at 63 games coming into Sunday and he was able to extend it to 64 games. The Seahawks are at 50 games, so another "comfortable" Denver win in the Super Bowl would be extremely impressive.

But Denver does not make things easy with the lead. Playing a little softer -- sticking with what works for the whole game is apparently taboo -- the Broncos allowed Brady to finally get in rhythm and make a game of it late. An answer drive from Manning ended with Matt Prater's 54-yard field goal and New England trailed 26-10 with seven minutes left. Here's another crazy fact: only three teams in NFL history have erased a 16-point deficit in the fourth quarter with two touchdowns and two two-point conversions, but only one team (2004 49ers) actually went on to win the game too.

Brady put together a second 80-yard touchdown drive, capped off by his 3-yard scramble touchdown after Denver sent a two-man rush. A two-point conversion would have pushed the streak to 64 games and pressured Denver into another four-minute offense situation with 3:07 left, but the Broncos stuffed Shane Vereen on the rushing attempt. That kept it at 26-16, Eric Decker caught the onside kick this week on a great day of ball security for the Broncos and Manning ran out the clock for the second week in a row.

For as flawless as Denver looked at times and as lifeless as the Patriots started, we were one play and two yards away from enjoying a very interesting final three minutes. With these recent streaks by teams like New England, Green Bay and Seattle, it just shows how tough it is in the NFL to dominate a quality team from start to finish.

Season Summary
Fourth-quarter comebacks: 74 (72 wins)
Game-winning drives: 91
Games with 4QC opportunity: 163/266 (61.3 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 43

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.


39 comments, Last at 21 Jan 2014, 7:54pm

1 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

"Kaepernick scrambled again and Gore made a clutch catch for 17 yards to convert and hit the two-minute warning. On a third down, Kaepernick was able to float the ball over the defender this time to Michael Crabtree for 16 yards. The 49ers used their first timeout with 55 seconds left and Kaepernick went to Vernon Davis for 11 more yards, putting the ball at the Seattle 18."

Had Crabtree run out of bounds (he definitely had the chance), SF could have saved their first timeout. After the interception, SF could have had all three timeouts remaining. This could have forced Seattle to run their offense instead of kneeling three times. Or, Seattle still might have knelt down three times, and risked a punt with 12 seconds remaining. Either way, SF's odds would have been substantially higher (though still small) with the extra timeout.

7 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

"Or, Seattle still might have knelt down three times, and risked a punt with 12 seconds remaining."

Most likely, Seattle would do what Baltimore did against the Niners in the Super Bowl, and waste as much time as possible before taking a safety on 4th down. They did just that at Carolina last year with the same 6-point lead.

2 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

According to an interview with one of the Seattle receivers, they had different routes for that play but Wilson told them in the huddle they were going to hard count to draw the off-sides, and to be ready to run verts if they got it. Pretty smart work by either Bevell or Wilson on that one.

3 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

I'm curious - was the other endpoint of the 63-game streak the drubbing in New Orleans during the Saints' Super Bowl season? That's the last game I can remember the Pats being completely humiliated (worse than yesterday). Or was it the playoff game against the Ravens?

My other point is simply to vent against spoiled Pats fans who are complaining about all sorts of things, from Talib's "toughness" to Brady's passing. One person complained that the game was "embarrassing." No - Super Bowl XX was "embarrassing". Yesterday was simply a loss.

12 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

Believe it or not, the 2010 Browns handed the Patriots their worst defeat of the last few years. The final score was 34-14 and the Patriots were never closer in the 4Q than 27-14. Huge game from Peyton Hillis.

Also, there are two ways to do these types of streaks. The 63 games is for just being within one score in the 4Q, but you can also do one that's even more impressive: having possession of the ball in the 4Q and being down one score. Russell Wilson's accomplished that in every game of his streak.

The Patriots' other worst game was also a playoff game against the 2010 Jets. The final score was 28-21, but the offense never had possession down one score late. But in the 54 games since 2011 prior to yesterday, the Patriots did accomplish that.

4 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

I don't think I have seen this mentioned elsewhere yet, but am I the only one who heard Phil Simms say that a player had gotten 'hard...I mean hot' in the first half of his game.


5 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

So Seattle's everyone's against us mantra has finally become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This team has finally confirmed that this game really isn't for the well-adjusted.

8 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

"He tried a few 50/50 deep balls and did hit one for 51 yards to Doug Baldwin to get the Seahawks on the board."

A throw to a wide-open receiver is a 50/50 pass? If anything, Wilson slightly underthrew it and Baldwin had enough space to slow down a bit to catch it; he probably would've gotten a touchdown had he caught it in full stride. Wilson also had an early miss to Kearse, the successful touchdown to Kearse (far more a 50/50 pass, although more like 80/20 for Seattle's receivers) and a good deep middle pass to Willson that got knocked out. Wilson's deep passing was fine last night; it was the blitzes he couldn't handle.

11 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

It's the Barnwell school of analysis: if you take away Seattle's big plays and credit the opponent with big plays that didn't happen, Seattle obviously would have lost. I don't find it particularly enlightening, but I guess there's an audience for it. On the plus side, I had Monday afternoon in the Narrative Pool for the first appearance of "sputtering" to describe the Seahawks' offense, so that's nice.

Obviously the Seahawks' offense will have to improve significantly if they are to have any hope of beating a quality team like San Francisco to get to the Super Bowl. Why, I don't think Russel Wilson could crack 200 yards passing against a legendary front seven like the 49ers have.

19 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

Obviously. Though I find it interesting and not at all a bit biased that going into the game everyone was saying San Fran was "hot" and "on a roll" and how their offense was "clicking" with all their receivers back - having scored 23 against Carolina and 23 on Green Bay. But Seattle scores 23 on New Orleans and 23 on San Fran and their offense is "sputtering".

Then same said people can't understand how Wilson's stat line looked so good when it didn't pass the "eye test". I suggest they change the tint on their glasses.

27 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

Oh good Lord, give it a rest.

It's annoying enough listening enough to athletes going on about how "nobody believes in us", but at least they're doing it to give themselves a psychological edge and build their own mythology.

Listening to fans pull this stuff is just so pathetic and irritating. I know that the Patriots have been the most successful team of the past 15 years but does that mean that EVERYONE has to act like them and their fans?

While we're here, Seattle had an offensive DVOA yesterday of -25%. "Sputtering" would be a nice way to put that. "Sucking" would be a more accurate description.

10 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

Considering how many injuries there were to Denver's defense, although the narrative was that only NE had injuries, it's amazing how well they've played the last two weeks. They have been great against the run and have generated a timely pass rush with mostly back-ups.

Denver's offense has evolved into much more of a ball control unit, with three drives over 7 minutes in the last two weeks and averaging 35 minutes in time of possession in the playoffs. It's no coincidence that the change in offensive philosophy has coincided with Denver's defensive resurgence. Denver's defense is at its best when it's watching #18.

13 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

They really have changed things up for the playoffs. Manning's being very smart and accurate with the football and for an offense that averaged 12 drives per game in the regular season, they've had 8 in each playoff game, running out the clock on the final drive both times.

I love how the defense has played for three quarters, but with the three-score lead you can see the dreaded prevent defense and veterans like Rivers/Brady are too good to not pick that apart. Creates some unnecessary drama.

If "All Russell Wilson Games Are Close Eventually" then I wonder if we'd get a similar result if Denver plays the way they have been. Wilson seems content with a wild scramble play on every drive if he gets enough dropbacks. That could help Denver's pass rush, which has been surprisingly good this postseason.

Though I have to believe Denver's offense will have more punts in the 1st quarter than they've had the last two games combined (1).

14 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

Denver's defense matches up well against Seattle's offense in that the one thing they have consistently done well is stop the run, and Seattle needs to run to set up the pass.

Seattle's defense also matches up well against Denver's offense. They have a CB who can lock down DT, and considering lesser CBs than Sherman have shut him down (Davis-IND, Taib-NE 11/24, Williams-BAL playoff game) it's likely Sherman does the same. Seattle has a lot of speed rushers that are similar to the guys that have given Chris Clark and Orlando Franklin problems. I wouldn't be surprised to see Knowshown with 10 catches.

15 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

I don't think it's as easy as comparing one-on-one matchups like that; they mean nothing when Denver uses pick plays. Also, teams have continually been sacrificing a lesser receiver to Sherman's side of the field to free up their top receivers, with Quinton Patton being used for that purpose for the Niners. Plus, it's not like Manning even throws deep all that often anyways.

17 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

Andre Caldwell, go take Richard Sherman out of the game since Manning will never throw to you on him.

But I don't think Denver is like Manning's old offense in that Marvin was always on the right, Reggie on the left. For example, Demaryius has 41 catches on the left side of the field this year, 38 to the right and 15 over the middle. They'll move him around and get him on Maxwell, just like the 49ers had Crabtree on different players often yesterday. Thomas won't get shut down. He can't if Denver's going to have success.

22 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

The pick plays will be a problem for Seattle, but Seattle's press man/zone mix will disrupt the Broncos timing and make it harder for Manning to get those quick throws, which in turn will put more pressure on Manning. With Manning being a non threat on the ground, Seattle won't have to spy him (in the second half, they put TWO spies on Kaep), so that means their secondary will be able to cover more of the field.

It should be quite the chess match.

16 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

Denvers defense might not be all that advantageous a match up.

Despite what happened against the Ravens last year, as a group,
Denver still seems to allow receivers to run right by them no matter
what the situation. Edelman wide open obviously, but also, what,
16 seconds to go 'til half and the patriots at the 20 and _Collie_
gets pretty open 40 yards downfield. It wasn't Brady's day or
they go into half time tied despite some Denver domination otherwise.

I haven't seen too many Seatle games, but isn't the long
ball how they, at least try, to score their points?

24 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

"but I'm not sure Wilson's as confident as a Brady/Rivers to let it go without holding onto the ball first"

He should take note of the result of the free play, which was that two receivers got open deep; I'm going to guess he still wouldn't have thrown into that without the offsides. It feels like he should take many more chances with deep shots than he currently does.

28 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

The argument here is we have no idea what the route combination would have been without the offsides. A different play would have been run, and on 4th and 7, it probably wasn't going to be everyone in the end zone.

So, good tactical awareness to send everyone deep at the flip of a switch, but "it would have worked without the offsides" is moot because it wouldn't have even been attempted.

29 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

So attempt it then! The defense could see that it was offsides, so they should've known that Seattle would be trying to throw deep (because every team does that) and they still couldn't stop it. Three go routes with the other two players in to block and to leak out for a checkdown. The go-routes should also free up the middle of the field in case Wilson needs to scramble. The play has been quite successful in the past for Seattle, so it's been shown to work.

23 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

Not sure how Wilson's wild scramble plays HELP Denvers pass rush. It's because Seattle's oline pretty much makes Wilson one of the most pressured QB's in the NFL that he has to make those wild scramble plays. He may get sacked four times out of 10, but on one or two of those plays he hits a wide open WR deep and on a couple more he hits Baldwin for a first down.

36 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

I generally agree and my further point above was that the Denver defense seems incapable
of playing it smart and taking away the long pass when it makes
sense to do so.

Although I don't say this from detailed study but from what I've seen their
last 3 playoff games:

Baltimore: pretty much the only thing that can lose them the game is a
long touchdown. Somehow the receiver is wide open behind the cornerback and
the safety blows it.

San Diego: a couple score lead and as long as SD uses up some time driving
the game is in the bag. 4th and 3 leads to a 40 yard touchdown to a wide
open receiver.

NE: 16 seconds in the half and on their own 20. The only way they score
is a 40 yard play. Collie, who can't be all that fast can he?, gets wide
open 40 yards down field.

If the game plan is, for example, to take away the long ball when Wilson
scrambles (just give up the 10 yarder for a first), I'm not sure Denver's
defensive backs can do it. They'll still get burned.

30 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

The 49ers couldn't beat both the Seahawks and the officials, it's that simple. The botched call on Bowman wasn't that important, but the no-call on roughing the punter really ripped the 9ers. Why don't they give these officials white canes and hire professionals?

31 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

>Belichick's defense only forced Peyton Manning's offense
>to punt once after another very efficient day with 507 yards.
>How often do you see an offense average 60.5 yards per drive like Denver did?

I'm struggling to come up with an integer (number of drives) that I can multiply by 60.5 and get 507, any help? Doubt they had 8.4 drives.

35 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

Just personal preference and usual standards. I did think that sentence might cause a problem for anyone willing to do the math. But any time you see someone mention how many yards an offense gained, it's almost always total yardage. No one's going to bother going through to see how many false starts and pass interference penalties were added or subtracted to that number. But when we do drive stats, it is all about where you started and where you finished.

37 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

I see your point, and I recognize that the traditional way is gross yards gained, but net yards might be an improved stat to report in future (much like net punting yards seems to be reported as often as or more often than gross punting yards these days), although it could take a bit more time to calculate.

33 Re: Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships

As for the 49ers, watching their red zone struggles in the last 2 postseason losses (the Super Bowl and at Seattle this past Sunday), it makes me wonder how much time they truly spend on red zone offense.

John Fox admitted after the playoff win over the Chargers that they made working on their late game offense a priority throughout the offseason and during the season after not really emphasizing it that much in 2012, it paid off in that game for sure, with the 49ers.....who knows.