Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships
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
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.
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