Clutch Encounters: Super Bowl XLIX
by Scott Kacsmar
An instant classic with an unforgivable finish, Super Bowl XLIX was the greatest ride with a mind-melting conclusion since Stanley Kubrick released 2001: A Space Odyssey. The game absolutely delivered on the competitive front and the referees were largely just spectators. A week after Seattle made the largest fourth-quarter comeback (12 points) in championship game history against Green Bay, the Patriots won with the largest second-half comeback (10 points) in Super Bowl history.
However, like most of the great Super Bowl rallies, this goes for naught without a final stop by the New England defense. It's a stop that will never be forgotten. It's a stop that followed one of the flukiest catches in Super Bowl history, which seemed destined to sink the Patriots again. In a four-point game with 26 seconds left and the ball at the 1-yard line, the run-based Seahawks threw the ball. According to Pro-Football-Reference's Play Index, there were 108 passes this season from the 1-yard line, resulting in 66 touchdown passes and zero interceptions.
Given the stakes, Seattle committed the costliest interception in NFL history.
That is not hyperbole and I will back it up later, but let's not boil down this fantastic game to one play. There were plenty of moments worth highlighting that led to New England's comeback and that stunning finish. This was the Super Bowl that was too tight to call, and it played out that way with one of the closest finishes any NFL game can have.
New England Patriots 28 vs. Seattle Seahawks 24
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 10 (24-14)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD starting with 6:52 left): 0.37
Head Coach: Bill Belichick (45-71 at 4QC and 60-72 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Tom Brady (35-29 at 4QC and 47-31 overall 4QC/GWD record)
A Costly Interception
Believe it or not, the Patriots have failed to score a single point in the first quarter of their six Super Bowls with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Here they looked poised to strike first with a dink-and-dunk attack that ate up more than half of the first quarter. But on third-and-6 from the Seattle 10, the Seahawks confused the offensive line with a three-man rush and Michael Bennett pressured Brady into a terrible throw. Jeremy Lane caught the first interception of his career, but since he landed at the goal line he had to make a return instead of a touchback. After breaking some tackles, Lane injured his arm at the end of the play and never returned.
Lane made a bit of an ass of himself earlier in the week when he was asked about Rob Gronkowski and he replied "I actually don't think he's that good," but this was a big injury that forced cornerback Tharold Simon into a much bigger role. I expected the Packers to target Simon two weeks ago with their three talented wide receivers, but that never really materialized. The Patriots were a bit wiser.
Brady immediately picked on Simon on the next drive. Simon could not keep up with Julian Edelman over the middle on third-and-9 and that 23-yard gain ended up being the longest play from scrimmage for the Patriots all night. It was basically just a 4-yard throw, but that's how the Patriots consistently attacked the Seahawks. Two plays later, Brandon LaFell beat Simon on an inside move for an 11-yard touchdown.
The unexpected contributions from cornerbacks in this game proved to be extremely decisive.
Down 7-0 in the second quarter, the Seahawks were in some trouble with Russell Wilson yet to complete a pass. Against Green Bay, he did not complete a pass until there was less than four minutes left in the second quarter. While the Patriots brought Wilson down early with their first sacks of the postseason, the problem for Seattle was more about great coverage than great pass rush. Wilson finally got a completion with 5:30 left in the quarter, but his next throw really woke up the stagnant Seattle offense.
Wide receiver Chris Matthews entered the Super Bowl with zero career targets and one highlight: he recovered the onside kick against Green Bay. So color the world surprised when the 6-foot-5 receiver chipped in four catches for 109 yards and a touchdown in the biggest game of his life. His first catch was an impressive 44-yard bomb against Kyle Arrington. Marshawn Lynch finished the drive in the end zone and we quickly had a tie and new outlook for this game.
Flashback to Super Bowl XXXVIII
With 2:16 left in the half I thought about the second quarter of Super Bowl XXXVIII between New England and Carolina. That was a scoring frenzy with the teams matching late touchdowns followed by a field goal for Carolina for a 14-10 score. These teams delivered in similar fashion.
Brady really started taking advantage of Shane Vereen coming out of the backfield to catch the ball, which is a good way to attack Seattle's defense. Vereen actually finished with 11 catches for 64 yards, substituting for the lack of a running game (LeGarrette Blount had 14 carries for 40 yards). Linebacker Bobby Wagner had some issues with keeping up with Vereen.
The Patriots continued to target linebackers in coverage with K.J. Wright trying to cover Gronkowski out wide. That's a mismatch, and Brady lofted a 22-yard touchdown to his tight end with 31 seconds left in the half. According to ESPN, Brady was 3-of-3 for 39 yards and a touchdown on passes to Gronkowski with Wright lined up in coverage. On all other plays, Brady was 3-of-6 for 29 yards and an interception when targeting Gronkowski.
Al Michaels had a stat earlier in that game that in his first five Super Bowls, Brady was just 1-of-22 on passes traveling more than 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. He was 1-of-4 on this night, but the Gronkowski touchdown throw was a big one.
With 36 seconds left in the first half, Seattle had three timeouts at its own 20. The Seahawks saw a good opportunity materialize after Robert Turbin gained 19 yards on a first-down run. A facemask penalty on Arrington after a completion set up a very interesting decision for the Seahawks at the 11-yard line with six seconds left. Do you risk not scoring any points like the Seahawks did in Atlanta in the playoffs two years ago, or do you settle for the field goal?
Speaking of Atlanta, we know from Matt Ryan's rookie year that you can complete a 26-yard pass in five seconds, but there can't be any wasted motion. I thought they should have kicked the field goal, but the Seahawks dared to be great and threw a pass. Logan Ryan played some ridiculous coverage and Matthews had his first touchdown with a grab that showed off his height. If you are Ryan, you might as well interfere with the receiver and dare Seattle to run another play. That was a huge drive to go 80 yards in 29 seconds to tie the game at the half.
One Huge Mistake in the Third Quarter
This season the Seahawks ranked first in second-half DVOA on both offense and defense, which is a remarkable feat when you think about it. That advantage showed in the third quarter, but this could have been the spot for Seattle to put the game away if not for a few third-down mistakes.
Matthews made another big 45-yard catch, but the Seahawks settled for a field goal after Lynch was stopped on a third-and-1 run. Wagner undercut Gronkowski for an interception, but Cliff Avril was knocked out with a concussion on that play, so once again a Brady interception proved to be a costly play for Seattle. At least that pick was turned into a touchdown when Doug Baldwin's only target of the night went for a 3-yard score. Baldwin was wide-open thanks in part to a referee who got in Darrelle Revis' way.
Down 24-14, the Patriots were penalized for holding and Brady started pressing a little. You could see things starting to turn Seattle's way, but the offense missed a massive opportunity. On third-and-2 at the New England 47, Wilson threw a perfect pass to Jermaine Kearse, but the receiver failed to hang on inside the 20. Keep in mind no team had ever won after trailing by 10 points in the second half of a Super Bowl, but extending the lead to 13 or 17 would have been practically a deathblow with a quarter left.
Cornerback Malcolm Butler did manage to get a hand in on Kearse to help disrupt the catch, but that's still a play the receiver has to make.
The Turning Point
With 10:58 left in the fourth quarter, the Patriots were facing a big third-and-14 after Brady suffered his only sack of the game. This was the situation in which the 2013 Seahawks thrived, allowing quarterbacks to convert just 1-of-41 plays on third down with more than 10 yards to go for a first down. This year's defense was not as dominant, allowing 7-of-37 conversions in that situation coming into the Super Bowl.
[ad placeholder 3]
On third-and-14, Brady climbed the pocket and found Edelman, who took a brutal shot from Kam Chancellor, but held on for a 21-yard gain. Let the comeback commence. Edelman was able to stay in the game and owned the drive with an easier 21-yard grab on third-and-8. He then beat Simon for what should have been an easy touchdown, but Brady missed the throw. The defense failed to pick up Danny Amendola on the next play and Brady had another touchdown pass with 7:55 left.
Seattle's offense had that awesome four-drive stretch in which it scored 24 points, but it looked lackuster the rest of the night. Wilson took a third-down sack in the fourth quarter to end one drive, and the Seahawks went three-and-out again after he failed to connect with Lynch on third down. It should be noted that Butler reached out to trip Ricardo Lockette on first down, but no flag was thrown. It was an eventful night for Butler.
The Patriots were 64 yards away from the lead and stayed true to the dink-and-dunk style that had worked for most of the night. Seattle did not have any answers for Vereen and Gronkowski with Brady picking the open man on each side, much as he did on the drive that beat Baltimore earlier in the playoffs. In the red zone, Brady went right back to Edelman, who schooled Simon again for the go-ahead touchdown with 2:02 left. If Brady had hit Edelman on that same throw on the previous drive, there's a decent chance Edelman would have been named Super Bowl MVP. He finished with nine catches for 109 yards.
New England finished with 196 yards after the catch, a season-high for New England's offense and a season-worst for Seattle's defense. Here is the weekly breakdown for these units in 2014. "Avg PYD" is the average distance each pass traveled beyond the line of scrimmage. New England's passes only include Tom Brady passes.
|Seattle Defense||New England Offense|
|Week||Opp.||Avg PYD||YAC%||Week||Opp.||Avg PYD||YAC%|
It's interesting that Brady's 5.9 yards per throw and YAC percentage is nearly identical to what Philip Rivers had in Week 2's win over Seattle. The Chiefs also had similar averages.
The Final Drive and the Worst Call Ever
The stage was set for a very dramatic finish. In his time with Seattle, Wilson was 0-6 in games when the Seahawks allowed more than 24 points, but he has already led 10 comebacks and 15 game-winning drives in three years. The kickoff going through the end zone saved the two-minute warning for Seattle, leaving them with 2:02 to play and all three timeouts. In my opinion, the 2007 Giants engineered the greatest drive in NFL history in Super Bowl XLII. Three years later the Steelers were in a similar position against Green Bay, but failed miserably. Here was Wilson's chance to lead Seattle on a championship-winning drive capable of rivaling the best.
Things sure started well with Lynch beating Jamie Collins out wide for 31 yards. Seattle just needed to take its time, knowing the drive was touchdown-or-bust, but also wanting to leave Brady little time to answer. Wilson aggressively went against that with two bombs, but the second produced one of the strangest 33-yard gains we have ever seen. Butler (him again?) seemed to have good defense on Kearse, but the ball never touched the ground and eventually bounced into Kearse's hands as he lied on his back. He got up and got out of bounds with 1:06 left at the New England 5.
When that became a catch in the Super Bowl, it looked like the football gods just did not want New England to get that fourth win. The Seahawks did have to burn two timeouts on the drive that really should have been saved, but they were still in great shape here. Lynch had another physical 4-yard run to put the ball inside the 1-yard line, but that's when everything went haywire.
First of all, the mindset here has to be to run the ball. The first section of my Super Bowl preview was even called "Key to the Game: Run to Win" and I thought Seattle would never stray away from that in crucial moments. This is not a short-passing team like the Patriots, and especially not on a night when Wilson's average pass traveled 19.7 yards downfield.
Yeah, Seattle's not built for the short-passing game like NE. pic.twitter.com/koEH2wBvSG
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) February 2, 2015
After Lynch's first-down run, I have no idea why Belichick did not use one of his two timeouts. I don't think letting Lynch score should have ever been the strategy, but New England had to save time for an answer drive. I think Belichick just lucked out here. Seattle should have been in hurry-up mode so the Patriots could not substitute in a goal-line defense. Any snap under 40 seconds should have been fine to run the ball and hope to score the go-ahead touchdown. If Brady can set up a field goal that quickly, then hats off to that offense. But I think Seattle made a huge mistake of letting the clock go down to 26 seconds before running the second-down play. If you run the ball on second down at 40 seconds, you should be able to set up another run at 15 or 20 seconds, then use the last timeout if necessary to figure out your best fourth-down play.
So the clock management had already been very shaky to that point, but Pete Carroll's fall-on-the-sword explanation after the game does not hold up for me. "So on second down, we throw the ball really to kind of waste that play. If we score, we do. If we don't, then we'll run it in on third and fourth down, really, with no second thoughts or hesitation in that at all," explained Carroll.
"Waste" a play? That is a poor choice of words for a coach, but if you are going to waste a pass play, then throw a fade instead of a slant into a tight window. That has less risk, at least.
Carroll thought he had to throw the ball eventually and wanted to do it while he still had a timeout. Carroll's biggest problem is he, or maybe offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, chose a strategy that would maximize the number of plays he could run when he should have been trying to maximize the success rate of the next play. Third down is nonexistent if you score on second down, and the best chance to score on second down is undoubtedly a Lynch run. This is not like taking the ball out of the hands of Peyton Manning and giving it to Ronnie Hillman. This is Beast Mode. This is the best runner in the league on a night where the Patriots practically never brought him down right away.
Lynch had five runs from the 1-yard line this year and scored once. The Patriots faced six runs from the 1-yard line and allowed five touchdowns. Cool, but I really don't care about sample sizes of five or six plays. I don't even care that the Patriots, the worst run defense in short-yardage situations this season, stopped Lynch on two such plays in this game. This was the 1-yard line, and you will never convince me throwing the ball to Ricardo Lockette on a pick play was the right call.
Wilson has three 1-yard touchdown passes in his career. He has two touchdown passes to a wide receiver from inside the 3-yard line in his career, and that includes the Baldwin play from the third quarter. Speaking of which, how did the Seahawks never target a tight end all night -- hello, Luke Willson, are you still alive? -- when the Patriots ranked 30th in DVOA against that position? That is another insane part of this offensive approach, which still would have probably won the game if Lynch got the ball once or twice more.
I have watched every play of Wilson's career, and this kind of throw deep in the red zone is not what this offense does. Give the mobile Wilson a run-pass option if you are going to put the ball in his hands there.
Any picture showing what Wilson saw when he threw is pretty misleading because Butler was lined up at a reasonably equal distance away from Lockette. I'm assuming these are players of equivalent speed. As long as Butler took the right first step he was going to meet Lockette at the ball, making this a very tough catch in traffic.
Even if Lockette caught the ball, I don't even think he would have scored. He would have been short because of how quick Butler closed. Yes, Butler deserves plenty of credit for coming away with this interception, but common sense tells us the play never should have been called in the first place.
One of the best rushing offenses of this era got cute and threw a pass from the 1-yard line. I'll never understand how Carroll and company let this happen.
The Costliest Interception Ever?
With the ball at the 1-yard line and 26 seconds left in the Super Bowl, down by four points, this has to be the costliest interception in NFL history. What else can even compare? That's about as close as a team can get to winning the Super Bowl and throwing the game away in epic fashion.
Since 1998, only five players have thrown an interception in the fourth quarter from the 1-yard line, trailing by eight points or less: Brett Favre, Donovan McNabb, Corey Dillon (for real), Jay Fiedler, and now Wilson, the only player to do so in the postseason. The Bengals still came back to win that game with Dillon, and the Dolphins also rallied for a win when Fiedler did it, so no big deal.
For a legit comparison, you have to look at championship games. Sure, Red Right 88 was horrible, but that was a divisional round game for Cleveland. Matt Hasselbeck scored for the wrong team, but ask any Seattle fan if that compares to this one. Favre would certainly love to have some NFC Championship Game throws back, but I still couldn't compare any of those situations to a turnover at the 1-yard line at the end of the Super Bowl. Seattle made a pretty big pick of Colin Kaepernick last year, but still not worse than this. Nothing else from the Conference Championship round really jumps out to me, except for the Earnest Byner fumble, but even that likely would have forced overtime in Denver.
I have done some research on pre-Super Bowl championship games. Otto Graham threw a pick down 17-16 against the Lions in 1953, though I don't think the Browns were anywhere close to field-goal range. George Blanda threw an interception in overtime in the 1962 AFL Championship Game, but it's not like he was a yard away from the win. His pick was returned to midfield. Those are about the only ones worth mentioning.
[ad placeholder 4]
So that leaves the Super Bowl interceptions. Sure, Kurt Warner has thrown two of the costliest pick-sixes in Super Bowl history, but both were in the first half, and he still rallied his team to a tie or lead in the fourth quarter. Peyton Manning's pick-six to Tracy Porter came with the Colts down 24-17 and with little hope of stopping Drew Brees on defense. Rex Grossman's pick-six to help Manning three years earlier was more costly in a 22-17 game, but was practically expected. Neil O'Donnell's blind throw against Dallas in Super Bowl XXX crushed the Steelers' hopes, though he was at his own 32-yard line with just over four minutes left in a 20-17 game. Not exactly the 1-yard line.
We have to go back to Super Bowls from the 1970s to find three plays that compare best to Seattle's.
Pittsburgh's second Super Bowl win was against Dallas in Super Bowl X. Down 21-17, Roger Staubach threw a pick in the end zone from the Pittsburgh 38 on the final play of the game. That's close, but he was basically looking for his second Hail Mary that postseason.
In Super Bowl XIV, Vince Ferragamo was intercepted with 5:24 left in a 24-19 game with the ball at the Pittsburgh 32. The Steelers then drove 70 yards for the clinching touchdown in a 31-19 win.
This might be the best we can do. In Super Bowl V, Dallas led Baltimore 13-6 in the fourth quarter. Craig Morton's pass was tipped, picked and returned to the Dallas 3 with 8:10 left. The Colts scored the tying touchdown two plays later. In trying to drive for the win, Morton had another tipped interception with 59 seconds left. The Colts again ran two plays for three yards and scored on a game-winning field goal with five seconds left. That should definitely go down as the worst pair of picks, though I am not sure win probability would put either one ahead of Seattle's disaster.
So I think we have a pretty clear-cut case that this is the costliest interception in NFL history. The reaction would certainly be different depending on which quarterback threw it, but I think the general disbelief that Seattle even tried a pass will be this play's legacy, not the throw by Wilson or the route by Lockette.
Oh Yeah, The Last Snaps
We may have had a little more drama if the Patriots were forced to run a play from just outside of their end zone, but that ended when Bennett jumped offsides and gave the Patriots 5 yards of breathing room. Then a big scrum broke out after the kneeldown, which was a shame after such a great game.
I imagine Brady would have just knifed his way forward to avoid any safety, but that would have been interesting to watch. We should have seen it twice with Seattle having a timeout left, but oh well.
The Super Bowl Legacy
Brady and Belichick finally collected that fourth Super Bowl ring. For Brady, he has 35 fourth-quarter comebacks, which moves him into third place all time. By winning four Super Bowls over 14 years, Brady and Belichick extend their Super Bowl window to a range that has never been done by any other starting quarterback or head coach.
Brady and Belichick extend the range of their Super Bowl window to record length. pic.twitter.com/6KJQS4R1ul
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) February 2, 2015
Sure, the 1981-1994 49ers won five Super Bowls in 14 years, but that team switched from Bill Walsh and Joe Montana to George Seifert and Steve Young. New England's run is the dominant one in the salary-cap era.
Seattle's loss means that it has now been 10 years since the NFL has had a repeat champion, the longest stretch in NFL history. I would not be shocked to see these teams meet again next year, but as their runs have shown, it is no easy task to finish on top.
It's even harder when you do stuff like throwing the ball from the 1-yard line with the best running game in the league.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 68
Game-winning drives: 76
Games with 4QC opportunity: 145/267 (54.3 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 47
Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro-Football-Reference. Win Probability comes from Advanced Football Analytics. Screen caps come from NFL Game Rewind.