Clutch Encounters: Wild Card

Clutch Encounters: Wild Card
Clutch Encounters: Wild Card
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Scott Kacsmar

If you like winning road teams, injured cornerbacks, early timeouts and quarterbacks running with the football, then Wild Card weekend delivered in a big way. Three games featured a fourth-quarter comeback with the potential for one team to use the final four or five minutes to set up a game-winning field goal. We almost watched all four road teams win, but 21 years and one day after the greatest comeback in NFL history, the Chiefs blew a 28-point lead in Indianapolis. That means the three biggest comebacks in playoff history have all come on this aptly named Wild Card weekend.

Game of the Week

Kansas City Chiefs 44 at Indianapolis Colts 45

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 10 (41-31)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD): 0.19
Head Coach: Chuck Pagano (4-4 at 4QC and 5-4 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Andrew Luck (8-5 at 4QC and 11-5 overall 4QC/GWD record)

No one will have a problem remembering the first playoff win for the Andrew Luck-era Colts. Down 38-10 with just under 29 minutes to play, the Colts rewrote the book on what's possible when a team just keeps making plays. In the 94-year history of the NFL, this was just the third time a team erased a 28-point deficit and won the game (first win in regulation):

NFL History's 28+-Point Comebacks
Date Team vs. Largest Deficit Points Final
9/24/1944 CHI GB 28-0 28 L 42-28
10/7/1951 PIT GB 28-0 28 L 35-33
11/27/1960 DEN BUF 38-7 31 T 38-38
12/7/1980 SF NO 35-7 28 W 38-35 OT
1/3/1993 BUF HOU 35-3 32 W 41-38 OT
9/25/1994 MIA MIN 28-0 28 L 38-35
12/16/2012 NE SF 31-3 28 L 41-34
1/4/2014 IND KC 38-10 28 W 45-44

I like to stress how the playoffs are an unpredictable beast, but this game really blew away all expectations. Such an epic game deserves an epic recap, so we are going to break it down from beginning to end with a different format than usual for Clutch Encounters.

Rest over rust

If anyone expected the Chiefs to show some rust from resting their starters in Week 17, that was quickly vanquished by a 14-play, 82-yard opening drive for a touchdown. The Chiefs actually scored 31 points on their first five drives -- deadly prolific scoring the postseason has not seen since the Peyton Manning-led Colts lit up Denver 10 years ago.

Jamaal Charles: Value of a running back?

On the sixth play from scrimmage, Jamaal Charles went down with a concussion and missed the rest of the game. He's the best offensive player on the team and was expected to be a big part of the game plan. However, running back is commonly known as one of the most replaceable positions on a team and backup Knile Davis did play well in Charles' absence. The Chiefs essentially scored all of their 44 points without Charles, so it's hard to say his injury was a big factor in the loss.

Alex Smith's mobility

The loss of Charles actually opened up the passing game for Alex Smith, who played arguably the finest game of his career. Smith had a career-high 56 dropbacks. His 378 passing yards were 68 more than his previous high game. His four touchdowns are the second most in his career, with only the game where he threw five against Oakland three weeks ago -- Charles really deserves the credit for the screen passes -- having more.

Smith added 57 rushing yards and his mobility was a huge factor in the game. The Colts kept getting close with the pass rush, but he kept escaping it and made plays with scrambles, designed runs, or an unexpected shovel pass to his fullback.

Smith had a lot of success with slants to Dwayne Bowe, who after a long disappointing season finally came up big with 150 receiving yards and a touchdown. Smith also hit one big deep ball with a 79-yard strike to ex-Colt Donnie Avery for a touchdown in the second quarter. Avery left the game with an injury, which certainly did not help the offense in the second half.

The Colts' three cornerbacks -- Vontae Davis, Greg Toler and Darius Butler -- were all banged up and had a difficult time sticking with Bowe and the other receivers. Smith's mobility to extend plays did not help matters, as he did just about anything he wanted early.

Smith's best drive may have been in the second quarter when he converted on third down four times. The drive consumed 7:23 and put the Chiefs ahead 31-10 just before halftime.

Luck's early misfortunes

Andrew Luck started the game with a brilliant drive that featured nothing but short, quick passes. He completed all seven for 74 yards, including a 10-yard touchdown to T.Y. Hilton to tie the game at 7-7. The coaching staff of the Colts has been criticized for not letting Luck loose early in games, but this drive had a clear plan and purpose.

However, Luck soon found himself trailing 24-7 in the second quarter despite only throwing two incompletions at the time. Both misses were solely due to pressure in the pocket. It's hard to find a situation like this in the regular season, let alone the postseason, where a quarterback can literally make just two small mistakes and trail by three scores. Contributing to the early deficit was a one-play drive that saw Trent Richardson fumble on his only touch of the day.

Luck did make some costly errors of his own. Down 31-10 before halftime, he took a sack from Justin Houston, who finally made his return from an elbow injury. With the ball at the 50, Luck forced a bad throw and it was intercepted. Fortunately for Indianapolis, the Chiefs ran out of time before adding on any points.

If there was any hope of a comeback, it would have to start in the third quarter, and the Colts received the kickoff. Luck immediately threw his worst pass of the day and Husain Abdullah made the easy interception -- Luck's second in two passes. The Chiefs only had to go 18 yards for a touchdown and led 38-10 with 13:39 left.

Every big comeback has a catalyst

Most people, myself included, stuck a fork in the Colts at this point. Despite nearly a whole half remaining, the Colts seemingly had no answers for the Chiefs offense and Luck was screwing up behind poor pass protection. Like we learned with the 1992 Oilers-Bills, a team needs a ton of little things to go right for such a massive comeback to be possible.

The spark for this comeback came when Luck fired a deep ball for young receiver Da'Rick Rogers. It was a 50/50 ball at best, but Rogers made a spectacular catch for 46 yards -- his only catch of the day. Donald Brown ran for a 10-yard touchdown on the next snap.

Robert Mathis ignites defensive turnaround

That was a nice score to make it 38-17, but the defense had to come up with a turnover if this was ever going to work. Kansas City did stay pass-happy, which may be an argument for the loss of Charles being huge, but let's remember Andy Reid is the head coach of the Chiefs. He only knows one way of calling a game and Smith was playing fantastic at the time.

But on the last six drives, Smith really failed to impress and the Chiefs only scored six more points. While he was holding the ball long, he was still being decisive in the first half. It took one bad play for the game to change again. Robert Mathis got to a scrambling Smith in the backfield for another of his classic strip-sack fumbles and the Colts recovered. Mathis has done that 43 times in the regular season, which is a NFL record.

Luck took advantage of the short field and some better protection to get another touchdown. Brandon Flowers went out with an injury on the scoring play, which was another big injury for the Chiefs.

The Indianapolis defense came through with a three-and-out, but that was quickly wasted when Luck threw inaccurately to Hilton, who bobbled the pass for Luck's third interception of the game. Abdullah had another one, though this was really more bad luck than bad Luck.

The Chiefs had a golden opportunity at the Indianapolis 28, but the defense made another big stand by forcing a three-and-out field goal. The Chiefs led 41-24, but a lot of time still remained.

Quick-strike Colts key comeback

One of the biggest reasons the Colts were able to pull off this historic comeback was that they scored quickly, often working from the no-huddle offense. The Colts had seven scoring drives and the longest one lasted 4:02. Four of the touchdown drives lasted fewer than two minutes, and four were at least 80 yards in length.

Luck only needed 101 seconds to take the Colts 80 yards for another touchdown, finishing with a great throw over the linebacker to Coby Fleener for a 12-yard touchdown. The Colts trailed 41-31 to end the third quarter.

Game of inches: Smith's big miss and Luck's plunge

On the first play of the fourth quarter, Smith had a golden opportunity to extend the lead to 48-31. Running back Cyrus Gray got behind the defense down the right sideline, but Smith just missed the deep throw, which has always been a criticism of his game. Smith could not take advantage of the blown coverage and could not find a receiver on third down, forcing the Chiefs to punt from the Indianapolis 41.

Luck had to start at his own 10 and nearly went three-and-out after a bad drop by LaVon Brazill, but converted on third-and-10 to Hilton for 16 yards. Hilton had a monster game with 13 catches on 18 targets for 224 yards and two scores. It's hard to believe the Chiefs could keep leaving him so open, but that's how the whole game went for him. No other receiver for the Colts had more than 54 receiving yards.

Dunta Robinson seemed to especially struggle covering Hilton, and on this drive, Hilton had three more catches to move the ball into Kansas City territory. Eventually getting to a second-and-goal at the Kansas City 2, Brown took the handoff but fumbled on his way to the end zone. The ball bounced off an offensive lineman and went right to Luck, who instinctively lunged forward for the touchdown.

Can we brand this play "Fumble Luck?" That's an instant part of NFL playoff lore and the Colts were only down 41-38.

Chief concern

The Chiefs suffered another injury when Davis went down, leaving the running back duties to Gray for the remainder of the day. The game was slipping away and the Chiefs really needed a touchdown on this drive. The field goal for a six-point lead would do little good given how well the Colts were now playing on offense.

What really killed the Chiefs on this drive was having to burn two timeouts on consecutive plays at midfield. Reid has faced a lot of clock management criticism in his career and it will only intensify after this game. Those timeouts are so precious in the fourth quarter and the Chiefs would badly need them later.

Official mistakes?

In between the timeouts, Smith converted a third-and-7 with a 27-yard pass to A.J. Jenkins on that illegal screen the Chiefs have been getting away with all season. This capture is a bit blurry, but it shows the illegal pick action (offensive pass interference) that happens to free up the receiver before the catch:

When will we see a penalty on this play?

The drive stalled when Smith had two failed completions. The second one was interesting, as Dexter McCluster ran out of bounds with 5:40 left. The clock should have momentarily stopped until the ball was ready for play, then it should have kept running as it was outside of five minutes. The clock stayed at 5:40 all the way until the snap on the field goal, which Ryan Succop made from 43 yards out. That did not seem to impact the ending, but it reeked of home-field clock advantage.

Luck completes the comeback

Luck had 5:36 to drive 80 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. We had not seen him in this situation since the Sunday night game in Houston in early November, but he was about to repeat some of that success. First, Luck had to convert a third-and-5 with an 11-yard pass to Fleener with Eric Berry in tight coverage. Justin Houston was injured on the play. He and Tamba Hali both were not playing at full health the whole game, and the pass rush really dried up in the second half for the Chiefs.

With Houston out, Luck used his famous hard count to freeze the rushers just enough before the snap. He stepped up against the four-man rush and threw a beautiful strike to Hilton for a 64-yard touchdown. Kendrick Lewis never had a chance. The Colts now led 45-44 with 4:21 left, but did they score too quickly?

The last drive

Kansas City had some tough injuries, but the team leading by 28 points usually finds a way to finish the game with a win. One time-consuming drive for a field goal was all the Chiefs needed. Timeouts were not an issue. The running back situation was not a huge issue when passes were mostly needed. Succop could redeem himself after his miss last week.

The Colts were not ready for the first play, expecting a false start to be called. Bowe picked up an easy 25 yards and followed it with 13 more on that play-action quick slant Tom Brady has made popular in recent years. The Chiefs ran the ball for three more yards to the Indianapolis 39. At this point, one could argue another run should have been called to make the Colts think about using their two timeouts to save time.

The Chiefs went with a pass instead, and Mathis and Cory Redding collapsed the pocket around Smith. He threw the ball away, but it was clearly intentional grounding, which set up a huge third-and-17. The Chiefs went with that same screen again, but this time the Colts were better prepared and held it to six yards.

If Justin Tucker was the kicker, then maybe the Chiefs would have gone for the 60-yard field goal. Succop is just not as good, indoors or not. Reid used his final timeout after the break for the two-minute warning, but that's no big deal. The game was all going to come down to fourth-and-11. If the Chiefs converted, they would be in field-goal range and would not need a timeout. If they failed, they weren't going to get the ball back with much time to realistically do anything anyway. The play had to be perfect.

The Chiefs got a favorable matchup with Bowe in single coverage down the right sideline, but Smith led him too far out of the field of play and Bowe could not get his second foot inbounds. The pass was incomplete and the Colts had pulled off the second-largest comeback in NFL history.

Both quarterbacks compiled huge numbers in the third-highest scoring playoff game ever, but in the end, Luck hit the deep pass in the fourth quarter and Smith missed twice. The win clinched more milestones for Luck. He has the most fourth-quarter comebacks (eight) and game-winning drives (11) for a quarterback in his first two seasons. The Colts are an inconceivable 16-2 in games decided by one score since 2012. This one may have never reached that point had Rogers not made the big catch, if Smith hit Gray, if Brown's fumble bounced forward instead of to Luck, or if Reid didn't waste his timeouts. So many things had to happen to create a 45-44 win.

The film industry can spend years of planning to create one great film. These teams poured in an unscripted 210 minutes of action on Saturday to deliver an instant classic experience that no football fan will ever forget.

Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind

San Francisco 49ers 23 at Green Bay Packers 20

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 4 (17-13)
Win Probability (GWD): 0.54
Head Coach: Jim Harbaugh (10-6-1 at 4QC and 12-9-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Colin Kaepernick (4-3-1 at 4QC and 6-5-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)

What's the reward for going 12-4 in the regular season like San Francisco did? It's a trip to 8-7-1 Green Bay with a game-time temperature of 5 degrees and a minus-10 wind chill. Even the Packers would probably have preferred to play in San Francisco on Sunday, which is what should happen under an improved playoff system.

Weather and playoff fairness talk aside, the field held up and the teams combined for a very good 43 points on just 18 drives (2.39 points per drive). The California team adjusted well with Colin Kaepernick going sleeveless. Not even referee Ed Hochuli, covered up with his Bane-like mask, dared to show the guns. Hochuli's crew also swallowed their whistles for a game that featured a lot of uncalled contact for both teams.

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San Francisco was in complete control of the game early, forcing the Packers into three straight three-and-out drives in the first quarter. However, despite moving the ball well, the 49ers stalled in the red zone and only led 6-0. A bad pass by Kaepernick was intercepted by Tramon Williams, giving the Packers a much-needed spark. Aaron Rodgers finally put together a drive and finished it with a great touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson to take a 7-6 lead. Kaepernick answered immediately thanks to a 42-yard scramble. He was not as prolific as his record rushing performance (181 yards) against Green Bay in last year's playoffs, but he led all players on the weekend with 98 rushing yards. Dom Capers' defense has yet to find an answer for Kaepernick. If he's not scrambling or using the read-option, he's finding Anquan Boldin (Week 1) or Michael Crabtree with consistent success against this battered defense.

For as many players as the Packers were missing, the defense did a respectable job in this one. San Francisco led 13-10 at halftime. Green Bay's drive chart was odd as all five drives in the first and third quarters were punts, but the other four resulted in 20 points. The Packers were driving to start the fourth quarter on the strength of their running game, which finished with 29 carries for 113 yards.

Green Bay faced a fourth-and-2 at the San Francisco 30 with 13:28 left. Under better conditions, this would have been a field-goal attempt, but that's a bit too far with the weather getting even colder as the game went on. The Packers went for it and the play turned out to be one of the most memorable of the game. Rodgers moved around in the pocket, looked like he was going to take a certain sack, but somehow escaped to find Randall Cobb for a 26-yard completion. On replay, it's fairly easy to see the Packers got away with a huge holding penalty, but good luck getting that call in the NFL playoffs.

Two plays later, John Kuhn scored a 1-yard touchdown run and badly missed his Lambeau leap. With 12 minutes left, the 49ers wasted no time in getting the lead back. Kaepernick had another big 24-yard run, the referees actually flagged Davon House for defensive holding after he had gotten away with much worse earlier in the game, and Kaepernick finished with a perfect strike to Vernon Davis for a 28-yard touchdown. San Francisco led 20-17 with 10:31 left.

Eddie Lacy played well in his playoff debut, but on the next Green Bay drive he dropped a pass with no one around him. Rodgers flipped a pass to Kuhn to convert a third down and hit another big play to Cobb for 25 yards to set up a first-and-goal at the 9.

But that's where the Green Bay offense did not deliver. Getting cute on first down, the Packers handed it off to Cobb out of the backfield for just a 1-yard gain. Spreading it out on second down, Rodgers scrambled out of the pocket to his right but threw the ball away to set up a huge third-and-goal. Barely beating the play clock, Rodgers tried to buy time again, but his third-down scramble only gained two yards and the Packers had to settle for the 24-yard game-tying field goal. Crosby converted with 5:06 left.

Starting at their own 20, the 49ers had a great opportunity to go down the field for a game-winning kick for the second week in a row. The offense was featuring a steady dose of Kaepernick and very little of Frank Gore at this point. On the third play of the drive, Kaepernick came very close to giving the Packers a gift with a poor throw to the left sideline. In a game that mirrored some of the 2007 NFC Championship with the weather and scoring pattern, Kaepernick almost played the Brett Favre role here, but Micah Hyde could not come down with the high pass for the interception.

That was pretty dangerous. Needing a big third-and-10 conversion, Kaepernick delivered with a 17-yard gain to Crabtree, who played an excellent game with eight catches for 125 yards. Gore got into the action with an 11-yard gain on a short pass and the game hit the two-minute warning. Not really in field-goal range at the Green Bay 38, Kaepernick faced another big third-and-8. It felt obvious he would either throw to Crabtree or scramble again. Sure enough, he made another big scramble and was able to get the corner for an 11-yard gain that really clinched this one. Runs by Gore made the Packers use their final timeouts, but the 49ers were able to run the clock down to three seconds.

Phil Dawson came through on the 33-yard field goal for the win. The Packers came very close to blocking the kick, but House was actually offsides, so it would not have counted. Technically, this goes down as the eighth "lost comeback" (first in playoffs) for Rodgers, who had a career playoff-low 177 passing yards, but he'd probably be the first to tell you the Packers needed a stronger start and a touchdown at the end.

Jim Harbaugh continues his impressive streak of three playoff appearances and at least one win to begin his career. He is 12-9-1 (.568) with a game-winning drive opportunity -- the best record among all active coaches (minimum 15 opportunities). He's doing more to earn that "Captain Comeback" nickname as a coach than he did as a player.

New Orleans Saints 26 at Philadelphia Eagles 24

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 1 (24-23)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD): 0.53
Head Coach: Sean Payton (17-25 at 4QC and 23-27 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Drew Brees (23-40 at 4QC and 34-46 overall 4QC/GWD record)

The Saints finally have a road playoff win, but wasn't this supposed to be Saturday's high-scoring game? Maybe these two teams were drained from watching the drama in Indianapolis, because this one had a very slow start. Things picked up later, but despite the perception of aggressiveness that comes with Sean Payton and Chip Kelly, both coaches made safe decisions down the stretch. We essentially got the borderline anti-climactic ending the Chiefs failed to deliver in the weekend's first game.

However, the first three plays from scrimmage set a central theme for the night: the Saints ran the ball very well. Mark Ingram gained 17 yards on the first play of the game and the Saints finished with 31 handoffs for 172 yards. Pierre Thomas was inactive, but that did not matter with a deep running back committee. On the other side, the Eagles brought the best rushing offense in the league, but the Saints did a respectable job to hold LeSean McCoy to 77 yards on 21 carries -- his longest run was 11 yards. The Eagles had a -6.1% rushing DVOA, which is their fourth-worst game of the season.

The Saints needed that rushing edge, because Drew Brees was not at his best, especially early. He went into halftime with just 98 passing yards on 18 attempts and threw two interceptions. In fact, Brees finished the game with a 49.7 QBR compared to 75.9 for Nick Foles. That is the fourth-largest negative differential by a winning quarterback in the playoffs since 2006, replacing another Brees playoff win:

ESPN QBR's Biggest Playoff Winner Differentials (2006-13)
Rk Date Game Winning QB QBR Losing QB QBR Difference
1 1/3/2009 AFC-WC Philip Rivers 25.3 Peyton Manning 75.4 -50.1
2 1/14/2007 NFC-DIV Rex Grossman 27.5 Matt Hasselbeck 57.0 -29.5
3 1/8/2011 AFC-WC Mark Sanchez 45.6 Peyton Manning 74.3 -28.7
4 1/4/2014 NFC-WC Drew Brees 49.7 Nick Foles 75.9 -26.2
5 1/24/2010 NFC-C Drew Brees 49.1 Brett Favre 72.4 -23.3
6 1/13/2013 NFC-DIV Matt Ryan 77.8 Russell Wilson 90.8 -13.0
7 1/7/2007 NFC-WC Jeff Garcia 46.3 Eli Manning 57.9 -11.6
8 1/14/2012 NFC-DIV Alex Smith 58.1 Drew Brees 69.0 -10.9
9 1/17/2010 AFC-DIV Mark Sanchez 37.4 Philip Rivers 47.8 -10.4
10 1/20/2008 AFC-C Tom Brady 18.9 Philip Rivers 27.4 -8.5
11 1/6/2007 NFC-WC Matt Hasselbeck 44.1 Tony Romo 50.0 -5.9
12 1/6/2013 NFC-WC Russell Wilson 36.0 Robert Griffin III 38.6 -2.6
13 1/13/2007 NFC-DIV Drew Brees 40.4 Jeff Garcia 42.0 -1.6
14 1/20/2013 NFC-C Colin Kaepernick 94.8 Matt Ryan 95.6 -0.8
15 1/7/2012 NFC-WC Drew Brees 90.4 Matthew Stafford 90.5 -0.1

Fortunately, Foles was not hitting any big plays early and the Eagles only led 7-6. It was just in Week 14 when the Saints went into halftime with a 7-6 deficit at Carolina, but rarely do we see this team involved in such a low-scoring half.

The scoring picked up in the third quarter with Brees finding Lance Moore for a 24-yard touchdown pass. Trying to answer, the Eagles burned their first timeout before a third down, but had the perfect play to get Riley Cooper wide open. He dropped the ball in excruciating fashion. The gain would have been huge, but instead it's a drive-killer similar to the one Pierre Garcon had for the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV. That one also benefitted New Orleans. We don't talk about "drop luck" nearly as much as fumble luck.

New Orleans continued to march and took advantage of an injury to cornerback Cary Williams, which was another theme of Wild Card Saturday with the Saints losing their corner, Keenan Lewis. Brees converted on third-and-12 with a 14-yard pass to Kenny Stills, who beat Roc Carmichael, Williams' replacement. New Orleans finished the drive for a touchdown and kicked the extra point to take a 20-7 lead. Sean Payton could have gone for two, but with 3:54 left in the third quarter, that's not a necessity. The Saints could not play as if they would not score again on the night, and whether they were down 21-20 or tied 21-21, another score was going to be essential.

Foles finally hit a big play with a 40-yard bomb from outside of the pocket to DeSean Jackson, who had great positioning on safety Corey White. The drive stalled to a fourth-and-1 at the 1-yard line, but Chip Kelly made the most logical decision: he gave the ball to McCoy, who ran in the touchdown with 32 seconds left in the quarter. We had a 20-14 game and the Saints picked up a big holding penalty. Facing third-and-11 to start the fourth quarter, New Orleans went with a very conservative call of a draw to Sproles. It only gained three yards and the Eagles had the ball back at the New Orleans 40 after Jackson returned the punt 29 yards.

That drive also stalled to a fourth-and-1 at the 7, but Kelly shockingly went for the 31-yard field goal with 11:14 left. I think this needed to be another McCoy run. At worst, the Saints would have been backed up. But it only took three plays for Brees to make the Eagles pay with a 40-yard bomb to an open Robert Meachem (the Patrick Chung specialty). Brees threw incomplete on a third-and-4 and the Saints settled for the 35-yard field goal.

Down 23-17 with 7:59 left, Foles had his shot to lead a go-ahead drive. After some small gains, Foles went deep to Jackson and the Eagles were able to draw a 40-yard pass interference penalty on White. Two plays later Foles threw a 3-yard touchdown to Zach Ertz and the Eagles led 24-23 with 4:54 left. Foles finished his year with 29 touchdowns and two interceptions.

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Protecting a one-point lead in the NFL is very hard, even with 30 seconds left. At nearly five minutes, it's next to impossible when the team returns the ensuing kickoff 39 yards like Darren Sproles did. Throw in 15 yards for a horse-collar tackle on Williams and it was practically a given the Saints would regain the lead after starting at the Philadelphia 48.

Ingram lost a yard on the ground, but the Saints ran it again on second-and-11. That's a bold call with a quarterback like Brees, but it was just that kind of night for this offense. Khiry Robinson ripped through the defense for a 13-yard gain and Brees only had to complete a little 6-yard pass to Marques Colston on the drive, which otherwise was all about the ground game.

On third-and-1, Brees used the quarterback sneak to convert. That took the game to the two-minute warning and the Saints went right back to the quarterback sneak to convert another third-and-1. Of course, I loved those calls. Brees is now 43-of-49 (87.8 percent) on such short-yardage runs in his career. That's just smart football and Brees had three successful sneaks on the night.

The only remaining drama was whether or not veteran kicker Shayne Graham, signed a few weeks ago by New Orleans, would choke on a 32-yard field goal. He's done it before, but not this time. The walk-off field goal gave the Saints a 26-24 win that should silence some of the "they can't win outdoors" stuff.

Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind

It goes a-one, two, three and it's just another bomb.

Chargers at Bengals: The Freeze-Up Bowl

This game technically did not include a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity in the manner of how I cover them in the regular season, because the Bengals offense always trailed by multiple scores in the fourth quarter. However, it was certainly a close game, played within a seven-point window for the first 45 minutes and 44 seconds (76.2 percent of the game). Ronnie Brown's meaningless 58-yard touchdown run -- San Diego would have been best served had he slid after gaining the first down instead of having to risk injuries by defending 11 more plays -- makes things look rotten at 27-10, but that play happened with the game already decided.

The Bengals did a great job of shooting themselves in the foot all day. There was really nothing special about what the Chargers did on offense. Philip Rivers only threw 16 passes, completing 12 of them for 128 yards and a touchdown. Before the last run inflated the stats, the ground game produced 37 handoffs for 134 yards (3.62 yards per carry). The Chargers did have two of their usual time-consuming touchdown drives, but time of possession was no big deal with Cincinnati coming out on top at 30:32.

What the Bengals did with that half hour was often not a pretty sight. The Bengals were 8-0 at home this season and averaged 34.4 points per game (second only to Denver). They finished with 10 points on 12 drives, committing four turnovers and two fourth-down failures.

Andy Dalton will understandably absorb most of the criticism, but it was really a fumble by rookie back Giovani Bernard in the second quarter that turned the game around. Dalton had just hit a beautiful 49-yard deep ball to Marvin Jones before the two-minute warning. Bernard caught a dump pass over the middle, but fumbled at the San Diego 4. Maybe the Bengals end up settling for a field goal and still lead 10-7 at the half like they did anyway, but maybe it's 14-7 and the Chargers actually have to try something aggressive.

Mike McCoy is an offensive-minded coach, but he was very conservative on Sunday. His defense bailed him out with an excellent job of pressuring Dalton in the second half. Dalton tried to scramble for a first down on third-and-14, but he fumbled after diving headfirst. The ball went right to San Diego, just as Bernard's blunder did earlier. Somewhere in Kansas City, Andy Reid was wondering why he did not have this type of fumble luck on Saturday.

Still only down 17-10, the pressure really did its job on Dalton when he forced a bad pass and Shareece Wright returned the interception to the Cincinnati 3. San Diego wasted the opportunity with a delay of game penalty and Rey Maualuga blew up a run on third down for a 4-yard loss. San Diego led 20-10 after a 23-yard field goal.

Dalton had nearly a whole quarter to make the comeback, but a promising drive ended in misery with arguably his worst pass of the game. Melvin Ingram dropped back and Dalton never saw him, throwing his second pick of the day. San Diego ran it three times and punted, awaiting another Dalton error. He actually threw a great deep ball to A.J. Green, who was very quiet (three catches for 34 yards), but Darrell Stuckey did enough to knock the ball away. One of the best receivers in the NFL needs to have a better effort there. That was the last great shot for the Bengals.

Facing a fourth-and-3 at the San Diego 41, Dalton threw hopelessly deep to Jones with two Chargers in coverage with 4:44 left. The play never had a chance. Cincinnati used up their timeouts to stop three more San Diego runs before getting another possession with 4:22 left. That too ended in a failed fourth-down attempt in San Diego territory. Then Brown made his big touchdown run and the Bengals unceremoniously picked up 50 yards to end a 23rd consecutive season without a playoff win.

The Cincinnati offense has produced 26 points on 32 drives (0.81 points per drive) in three postseason games under Dalton. When the head coach is 0-5 in the playoffs after 11 years, questions about having the right people in place at coach and quarterback are very legitimate.

Losing in Houston the last two years was one thing, but this was a step back for the franchise. Coming into the game, people expected Rivers needed to play well and Dalton just needed to not screw things up. San Diego's bold strategy of hiding the quarterback and controlling the trenches worked beautifully once the Cincinnati talent failed to step up for Dalton, leaving a mediocre quarterback exposed.

If one of these games actually were to be blacked out in a local market, it would have only been fair to Cincinnati fans to make it this one. Spare them the inevitable.

Season Summary
Fourth-quarter comebacks: 73 (71 wins)
Game-winning drives: 90
Games with 4QC opportunity: 160/260 (61.5 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 42

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.


17 comments, Last at 08 Jan 2014, 6:41am

#1 by Geo1 (not verified) // Jan 06, 2014 - 3:03pm

Perhaps the refs weren't calling penalties in Green Bay because they just wanted the game over with as soon as possible. If you added up all the "no calls" how many extra minutes would that have meant? Penalties take time to call, stop the clock, and increase the number of plays run. All those extra minutes in the cold. I didn't pay attention, but were there cases where a player obviously went out of bounds, but the refs ruled him in? Also, perhaps Harbaugh will at last realize that on the goal line, Crabtree is going to be held in the playoffs and it won't get called.

Points: 0

#2 by Bobman // Jan 06, 2014 - 3:04pm

Scott, to be fair, I think Indy benefitted from an illegal trio of blockers downfield while the ball was in the air on the short TD pass to Brown.

Points: 0

#3 by Scott Kacsmar // Jan 06, 2014 - 3:20pm

That's true. There were three early blocks by receivers on that Donald Brown TD, but this Kansas City play is something that has been used multiple times throughout the season. I also believe refs are less likely to call OPI (even when it should be called) on a pass thrown at or behind the LOS. That's the other difference with this KC screen. The receiver is beyond the line when he gets the ball. The whole play is very shady.

Points: 0

#5 by bernie (not verified) // Jan 06, 2014 - 3:50pm

Please take this next comment with a moon sized grain of salt, since I heard this from Steve Tasker during a broadcast, so who knows if it is correct or not.

The same kind of pick play was run during a game, and according to him, that kind of pick was legal, because it happened immediately within 3 yds of the line of scrimmage, and so that makes it ok under the rules. If the pick happens deeper downfield though, it is not legal.

Like I said, I have no idea if he actually knows what he is talking about or not, but it would make sense given how we've seen plays called all year long.

Points: 0

#10 by panthersnbraves // Jan 06, 2014 - 4:39pm

I think I heard something like that earlier in the season.

It may have been one of the Broncos games, where the receivers made these SUPER-shallow crossing routes, and were just blatantly knocking the defenders out of their cleats, but no flag.

I found this on one of the SBN sites... Article 4 "Other Prohibited Acts by the Offense. Blocking more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage by an offensive player prior to a pass being thrown is offensive pass interference."

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#4 by RickD // Jan 06, 2014 - 3:47pm

" forcing the Chiefs to punt from the Indianapolis 41."

Some of your FO colleagues will take issue with this usage of "forcing".

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#6 by bernie (not verified) // Jan 06, 2014 - 3:55pm

I think teams should game plan toward the fact that all sort of DPI and illegal contact is shrugged off or overlooked during the playoffs, under the guise of "letting them play" It happens every year, and someone always gets their nose out of joint over it when it has a huge impact on the play (a la the holding, or non-holding (depending on your point of view) of Michael Crabtree in last years superbowl.
I think that's a huge reason why defenses are so much more dominant during the playoffs - not just because the better teams get in, but also because they're given more free play in the secondary.

Points: 0

#7 by Scott Kacsmar // Jan 06, 2014 - 4:16pm

Someone just pointed out an interesting piece from Burke on whether or not Chiefs should have literally ran out the clock rest of way:

Definitely worth a discussion. There comes a point in the game where the leading team is so far ahead that it makes no sense to call another pass. I don't think the Chiefs hit that point because the Colts are an offense capable of scoring quickly.

I mentioned the Colts quick scoring drives as key to the win, but just as important was how little time they wasted when they screwed up. Richardson's fumble took 11 seconds. Luck's last two picks took a combined 12 seconds. The four turnovers only took 1:53 off the clock. This is similar to what I wrote about Tom Brady's comeback against the Saints. If you're going to screw up, do it as quickly as possible. Imagine if the Colts took an extra minute or two before committing those turnovers. The game would have had a hard time ever getting this close.

Watching it Saturday, I kept remarking how there was so much time left on the clock despite a lot of things happening. The Colts just worked it out to where everything they did offensively was quick, for better or worse.

Points: 0

#8 by panthersnbraves // Jan 06, 2014 - 4:29pm

On Brown's late TD - does it matter WHERE he downs it? I was saying he should down it at like the 3 during the play. (If he were a Rookie, I could see making some personal history, and that would be why he would want to score, but he's scored enough TD's to take that away as motivation).

By running the extra 40 yards and downing it close to the endzone, he takes a few more seconds off the clock, and makes the likelihood of a Bengal's comeback that half-percent harder, no?

Points: 0

#9 by Scott Kacsmar // Jan 06, 2014 - 4:31pm

It doesn't matter where. As soon as he had the first down (it was 2nd-and-7) he should have ended the play. The clock would have moved to 2:00 and the Bengals were out of timeouts. So Rivers would have came out to do three kneel downs to end the game.

While Ronnie Brown's been to the end zone many times in his life, he's been such a forgotten back in recent years I'm sure he felt great to add that long score to his resume, but that play couldn't have been any more meaningless to the outcome.

Points: 0

#11 by panthersnbraves // Jan 06, 2014 - 4:44pm

oh - I realized I emphasized time more than distance. Realizing it is Bizarro world, but suppose the Chargers bobble the snap on the first kneel-down and give it to the Bengals - would having to score from their own 5 versus mid-field (and then on-side, etc, etc) and the extra 10-second loss of time resulting, add a few decimal places to the winning percentage?

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#12 by Scott Kacsmar // Jan 06, 2014 - 4:54pm

Oh I see what you mean. Yeah, he could take the ball into the red zone, but to be honest, I can't even entertain the thought of a team botching a kneel-down situation. The Giants-Joe Pisarcik-Herm Edwards is really the only time I've ever found a NFL team failing to close out a game they should have won in that situation.

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#13 by dmstorm22 // Jan 06, 2014 - 5:21pm

It wasn't the exact same situation, but didn't Rivers and Hardwick (or maybe a backup center) bobble and lose an exchange on a kneel-down when setting up a potential game-winning field goal in 2011?

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#14 by Scott Kacsmar // Jan 06, 2014 - 6:16pm

Halloween 2011 vs. Chiefs? Yeah, Rivers royally botched that one. I think they were going to run the ball or have him center it though. A little different from a kneel down, which really carries no pressure and is really the safest play in the game.

Points: 0

#16 by Bobman // Jan 08, 2014 - 3:54am

@panthersnbraves, I thought that when I saw Brown running wild--it happens pretty fast and is super exciting, but I'd have wanted to generate points for my team while killing the clock, so I like to think I'd have kneeled about the 5 yard line. The coaches could then decide to score or not.

Speaking of this, I was wondering about a running clock on 2-pt conversions in college during the championship game. To make things a little more secure and burn 10-15 more seconds (there were about 30 total at that point), FSU could have gone for a conversion and instead had the QB run zig-zags all over the field to eat clock. That is, IF those downs are timed. Be pretty embarrassing if they did that on an untimed down. Oops.

Points: 0

#15 by Jonathan Dale (not verified) // Jan 07, 2014 - 2:59pm

Great article, Scott, but I think it's worth mentioning that Donald Butler stripped Bernard on his fumble. Butler was a maniac Sunday. I'm glad you rightly pointed out that San Diego's defense is what helped prod Dalton into making his interceptions, though his fumble was all Dalton.

Points: 0

#17 by Granted (not verified) // Jan 08, 2014 - 6:41am

Pretty apparent that the writer has little respect for the Chargers, and not much knowledge to boot. He basically says the Chargers won because the Bengals imploded, but gives the Chargers no credit for that implosion. He doesn't mention that the Chargers got two key defenders back (Ingram and Johnson) that didn't play the first game, a game in which they got ripped by the run game. Their focus was to stop the run and they did a FANTASTIC job of that. He also fails to point out that the reason that Rivers didn't pass much was because the plays weren't there - receivers were limited in getting open so they ran a lot more to compensate - I guess the writer would've preferred it if McCoy would've ORDERED Rivers to force the ball. Makes sense. The CHargers were the ONLY team to beat the Bengals at home this season, which also deserves some credit. Haters are going to hate.

Points: 0

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