Clutch Encounters: Week 12

Clutch Encounters: Week 12
Clutch Encounters: Week 12
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Scott Kacsmar

With all 32 teams in action, this sure felt like one of those "swing weeks" where the season took some major turns as we head into December. The Giants were supposed to come out of their bye week to take control of the NFC East against Washington. Whoops. The Packers looked to be on track after a win in Minnesota and were going to retire Brett Favre's number in style against Chicago. Not quite. Instead, the Panthers killed the Cowboys for good, the Cardinals showed some vulnerability, and the Seahawks showed that they can never be counted out.

In the AFC, the Broncos ended New England's perfect season bid and have the talent to win out regardless of quarterback, needing the wounded Patriots to slip up just once for home-field advantage. The AFC South currently has two playoff teams, the Chiefs continued their winning ways, and the Steelers fell from the fifth seed to the eighth spot as they head into the hardest part of their schedule.

There will still be a ton of significant events to shape the playoff picture this month, but Week 12 definitely changed the expectations for several teams. We had nine games with a comeback opportunity, including a lot of pivotal red zone action and some weird moments involving field goals.

Game of the Week

New England Patriots 24 at Denver Broncos 30

Type: 4QC/GWD (OT)

Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 14 (21-7)

Head Coach: Gary Kubiak (16-36 at 4QC and 23-37 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Quarterback: Brock Osweiler (1-0 at 4QC and 1-0 overall 4QC/GWD record)

The annual regular-season game of the year in the AFC did not feature Peyton Manning this time, but again it was his Broncos against Tom Brady and the Patriots as NBC had another instant classic in the snow. The 30-24 final is misleading for the top two scoring defenses coming into Week 12, as each team had 15 possessions and there were multiple short-field touchdown drives. This was a defensive game with an offensive ending.

When Brady threw a 63-yard touchdown to Brandon Bolden to start the fourth quarter, the Patriots had a commanding 21-7 lead. At home, they never lose in this situation, but on the road has been a different story. We had the stat earlier this year on how the Steelers are 170-3-1 since 1992 when leading by at least 11 points at any time in the game. I didn't have time to add up the number of wins (it's somewhere between one and 243), but this is actually the 17th time Bill Belichick has lost a game after leading by at least 11 points. It is the sixth time he has lost a 14-point lead with the Patriots. I never paid much attention to New England fans that fear playing at Mile High, but the Broncos are indeed 16-3 against the Patriots in Denver since the 1970 merger.

The spark for this comeback was painfully obvious. After a Denver three-and-out, Chris Harper fumbled a punt return, which is another problem with the injuries to Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. Normally one of them would have handled the ball there. Harper was cut on Monday by a team with very little receiver depth right now. That fumble was huge, as Denver only needed to drive 36 yards for a touchdown to get right back in this one. Denver has not had much fumble luck over the years, especially against the Patriots, but the Broncos recovered all three fumbles in this game.

In fact, Omar Bolden muffed Denver's next punt return, but was able to recover. The Broncos drove to the 3-yard line before settling for a field goal with 6:08 left. I did not see the problem with the decision as the goal is to win the game and not just get the tie. Denver needed two scores anyway, and we need to stop thinking that the 3-yard line is the "best chance you'll get for a touchdown." You can be at the 35-yard line, but if a receiver is wide open on a deep route to the end zone, then that becomes your best chance rather than a contested goal-line play that never materializes. It was too early to go for it.

The Patriots went three-and-out, but that was thanks to a third-down conversion wiped out by offensive pass interference on Rob Gronkowski. It is a point of emphasis this season, but I did not agree with the call. The contact was initiated legally by the defender within the 5-yard zone, then Gronkowski just fought off of that to get away for the catch. That looks like football to me, and there should not be a flag on plays like that. This is what offensive pass interference should look like, yet that was ruled a touchdown in 2011. Gronkowski is unique, but he needs to be officiated better than this.

New England got the ball right back with 4:12 left for some four-minute offense. Gronkowski converted one first down, but the Patriots made a strategic error that almost derailed the season. No one throws the ball on first down in the last four minutes, protecting a one-score lead, more than Brady. He has done it six times this season; the rest of the NFL has eight such attempts combined. His five attempts on second down are also a high in 2015. You would want to throw high-percentage passes to keep the clock moving in this scenario, which is what the Patriots usually live on anyway, but Brady's career completion percentage is below average in these situations.

Here he failed to connect with Gronkowski on first down, and Gronkowski was writhing in pain after the play. The injury initially looked really bad, but fortunately Gronk should be back soon. However, his night was done and Brady threw another incompletion on second down before gaining 7 yards on a third-down screen. Keep in mind, Denver only had one timeout left. New England absolutely should have run the ball on first down, still allowing Brady two chances to throw. Smarter management of the clock could have helped the Patriots walk out with a perfect record and a healthy Gronkowski.

Brock Osweiler had 2:31 left to drive 83 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, a situation new to him in the NFL. We have a lot to learn on what kind of quarterback this kid is, but one thing he has not been so far is much of a deep passer. Coming into this drive, Osweiler was 1-of-11 with two pass interference penalties on passes that traveled more than 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. He picked a good time for his second completion. Demaryius Thomas picked a good time to make his lone catch of the night after a horrific 0-for-11 start, pulling in a 36-yard gain over Logan Ryan, who gave him fits most of the night. At this point Osweiler should have just taken his time, cautiously leaving Brady little time to answer. However, young quarterbacks just cannot seem to help themselves in these moments, and he went deep again with a 39-yard strike to Emmanuel Sanders.

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From the 8-yard line, Osweiler ran out of bounds on a quarterback sweep that was just an odd play all around. On second down, he was buried on a sack that would have brought up a very interesting third-and-15 situation. Again, the Patriots were basically hosed on a penalty that did not need to be called as two guys were competing. Patrick Chung was penalized for holding against Thomas, but both players had a hold of each other. You have to let those plays go. From the 4-yard line, Osweiler threw one of his best passes of the night to Andre Caldwell against Ryan for the go-ahead touchdown with 1:09 left.

(Ed. Note: I hope Scott doesn't mind if I butt in here with a thought on the officiating Sunday night. Fans are constantly looking for conspiracy theories when it comes to the Patriots. Pats fans think the league is out to get them. Pats haters think the Pats constantly get the benefit of calls. But there's a pretty simple explanation for the questionable, one-sided officiating in the fourth quarter. Officials tend to subconsciously favor the home team. It's not about any franchise in particular. -- Aaron Schatz)

Brady got the ball back with 69 seconds to get a field goal. With all New England's injuries, this is basically the Scott Chandler and Brandon LaFell offense now. They made all three catches on the drive and we learned that an "excess timeout" for injury is not really a timeout, as the clock kept running. Instead it is just a temporary pause, as the clock will wind on the ready-for-play signal. Learning something new every week. Stephen Gostkowski is an excellent kicker, and he proved his worth again with a 47-yard field goal to send this to overtime.

Two years ago, Belichick took the wind in overtime against Denver's record-setting offense with Peyton Manning and it worked out. The game was ultimately decided on a muffed punt. Belichick should have put his defense out there first again in this one. Yes, Denver had just finished a 17-point quarter, but you have to trust your defense to not give up an 80-yard touchdown drive to an offense playing conventional three-down football with an inconsistent quarterback. At full strength, you give the ball to Brady, but this offense is not the same with all the injuries. New England had just one drive longer than 60 yards all night.

Naturally, the Patriots had a quick three-and-out, with the pressure amped up on Brady. The drive even lost 7 yards thanks to a Von Miller sack, so the Denver offense got to start at its own 43, only needing a field goal. On third-and-1, C.J. Anderson got the ball on a toss, and with Patriots diving at his feet, he ran 48 yards for the game-winning touchdown to end another perfect season bid. This is only the second time in modified overtime that a team won on a second-possession touchdown.

Denver can still realistically think about the No. 1 seed now. For the Patriots, this is only the 15th fourth-quarter comeback allowed in the last 15 years. That is remarkable given that we talk about a proud team like Seattle allowing 15 since 2012 alone. Given the injuries both teams have had, the Patriots have to feel good about a rematch with Denver -- but not so much if that rematch takes place in Mile High, their house of horrors.

Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind

Pittsburgh Steelers 30 at Seattle Seahawks 39

Type: 4QC/GWD

Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 1 (27-26)

Head Coach: Pete Carroll (20-42 at 4QC and 28-47 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Quarterback: Russell Wilson (12-17 at 4QC and 17-19 overall 4QC/GWD record)

In Week 2 of the 2011 season, the Steelers picked apart a young Seattle team in a wire-to-wire 24-0 win. Pittsburgh led 17-0 at halftime and never faced much of a challenge. Following that game, Pete Carroll's Seahawks have gone on one of the greatest streaks in NFL history: 81 consecutive games where they have been at least within one score in the fourth quarter. But none of those games were quite like this one, with seven lead changes as the high-scoring shootout win has evaded Seattle over the last four years. Russell Wilson was 0-12 in his career when the Seahawks allowed more than 24 points, but to get above .500 this year, he had a huge day with 345 passing yards and five touchdowns.

Ben Roethlisberger had his own big day with 456 passing yards, but it's the missed opportunities that stand out most. This could have easily been a third 500-yard game in his career, but Richard Sherman bottled up Antonio Brown very well and Martavis Bryant had some struggles at the catch point. Sherman got a bit touchy with Brown on one fourth-quarter play and had an easy interception after Brown fell down. Seattle took advantage of the short field for a go-ahead touchdown to lead 26-21, but Roethlisberger only needed three plays to get the lead back with a 69-yard touchdown bomb to Markus Wheaton. For all the struggles Wheaton has had in his career, this 201-yard breakout game came as a huge surprise. He entered with just 273 yards in 10 games this season. The Steelers should set a record this season for successful two-point conversions, but they had a big miss after Wheaton's bomb when Roethlisberger was intercepted by Sherman in the end zone. Pittsburgh only led 27-26.

Wilson then found Doug Baldwin wide-open for a 30-yard touchdown, but Seattle was also stopped on a two-point conversion again. Seattle led 32-27, but that was the last lead change of the day.

Pittsburgh never really bothered to get the run game going. Roethlisberger dropped back on 27 consecutive snaps to end his day. He took some hits in the quarter, but finished the drive with a 7-yard scramble, setting up a fourth-and-goal at the Seattle 3 with the clock going down towards three minutes. When you are Mike Tomlin and you do crazy things like a fake field goal with Landry Jones throwing to a lineman, or going for two while up by two points, then how do you suddenly get all conservative and kick a field goal here? The inconsistency in logic drives me nuts. Don't get scared just because the game is almost over. We know now that Roethlisberger reported concussion-like symptoms and did not return, but it's not clear if he reported that immediately after the scramble or if he decided it was not worth going back out there after Seattle scored again. The health of the quarterback is a factor in the decision, but it seems pretty unlikely Tomlin knew the deal there when he sent in the kicker for a 22-yard field goal.

It is hardly a terrible call, because the Steelers had two timeouts and would only need a field goal to win, but Tomlin has to understand that his offense is much better than the defense this year. Thanks to a nearly disastrous fumble, the defense almost pulled off the stop with Seattle facing a third-and-10. But Wilson found Baldwin open on a crosser, and Baldwin broke two tackles on his way to an 80-yard touchdown with 2:01 left. That about did it at 39-30, and Roethlisberger left the game for the third time this season due to injury. Jones threw another interception and Seattle ran out the clock. This is easily Seattle's best win of the season given the caliber of opponent.

On his 27th birthday and perhaps the best passing day of his career, Wilson set NFL records for the most fourth-quarter comeback wins (12) and game-winning drives (17) through a quarterback's first four seasons. This one should be more memorable than most.

Arizona Cardinals 19 at San Francisco 49ers 13

Type: GWD

Head Coach: Bruce Arians (12-8 at 4QC and 17-8 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Quarterback: Carson Palmer (19-45 at 4QC and 29-45 overall 4QC/GWD record)

This game was hard to watch. The 2014 Cardinals made a guest appearance, which means Arizona played down to the competition and had to thwart a late-game comeback in a low-scoring contest. We covered this about 11 times last year. For some reason the 49ers are a horrific defense on the road and one of the better ones in the league this season in their newish stadium. They held the Cardinals' No. 1 offense in check and Blaine Gabbert actually led a 10-point rally to tie the game at 13 going into the fourth quarter.

Arizona's eventual game-winning drive sounds nice at 14 plays and 85 yards, but it was like pulling teeth for eight minutes. Carson Palmer had a hard time hitting the big plays and did not throw a touchdown for the first time in 2015. Pressure was getting to him, and things were not looking good with Arizona facing a first-and-17, 92 yards away from a touchdown. Jermaine Gresham prevented a three-and-out with an excellent run after the catch on third-and-8 to keep the drive alive. Arizona got out of a third-and-19 thanks to a running official who grazed some 49ers on the sideline, which is a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. Palmer avoided a third-and-18 because he dipped his head and was sacked too hard by Quinton Dial. Seriously, that was a horrific roughing the passer call. The defender did his job.

Finally, a sack on Palmer counted, but he followed that up with a perfect deep throw under pressure to J.J. Nelson for 34 yards to the 1-yard line. The separation was not much, but Palmer's ball placement was on the money. After moving backwards with some negative plays, Palmer huffed and puffed his way on a 8-yard scramble for the go-ahead touchdown with 2:28 left. Chandler Catanzaro's extra point hit the right upright, precariously keeping this at 19-13. The 49ers could think about the win now, but Arizona is so tough in these situations. A blitz brought Gabbert down for a big sack by Tony Jefferson, setting up fourth-and-20 at the Arizona 40. In the sad ALEX play of the week, Gabbert's pass only went 18 yards to Anquan Boldin, stopped short of the sticks to end the comeback. An offense just has to get that play at the sticks or beyond in that situation, but we see this too often. Palmer surprised everyone with a first-down slant as the 49ers gave up a cushion to John Brown, and the 11-yard gain sealed the win.

They still count the ugly wins just the same.

Oakland Raiders 24 at Tennessee Titans 21

Type: 4QC/GWD

Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 4 (21-17)

Head Coach: Jack Del Rio (21-47 at 4QC and 31-47 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Quarterback: Derek Carr (3-10 at 4QC and 3-10 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Maybe these teams are the future of the AFC's best, but both are really buried in the playoff race right now. This was a competitive battle where Oakland's offense needed to get back on track, but Derek Carr fumbled a snap in the rain with 8:54 left in a 17-14 game. Tennessee turned that short field into a go-ahead touchdown, but only after Neiko Thorpe was penalized on third down for pass interference against Harry Douglas in the end zone. That was a pretty tough call on a ball that landed considerably out of bounds (might it have been uncatchable?), and it helped Tennessee's case that Douglas flailed his arms and went down to sell the penalty. Marcus Mariota used play-action to fire a 1-yard touchdown pass to Jalston Fowler with 4:41 left.

Oakland needs to start finishing more of these games in Carr's second season. He had a good drive going from his own 10, but soon forced a deep ball into double coverage on fourth-and-8 to Andre Holmes. That too was bailed out with a tacky 5-yard defensive holding penalty away from the throw. The excitement in referee Jeff Triplette's voice as he announced the "automatic first down" sounded like that petty thing some refs (subconsciously?) do to earn the affection of the home crowd -- except this game was in Tennessee and these rain-soaked fans were watching a two-win team inch closer to an 11th consecutive home loss. Tennessee's coverage looked nonexistent and Seth Roberts made a great adjustment for a 12-yard touchdown, beating Coty Sensabaugh with ease.

We have not seen enough of Mariota yet in these situations to get a real pulse for how he handles the two-minute drill, but early results have not been favorable. Only needing a field goal, he got the ball out to midfield, but threw a terrible looking game-ending interception to Nate Allen. He was throwing to a spot to which Dorial Green-Beckham clearly wasn't going, as the receiver stopped on a 13-yard comeback route at the sideline. That actually seemed like the smarter play in that situation, but the rookies were not on the same page. The target goes to Green-Beckham, but Kendall Wright took the blame for the pick after the game. He fell down on his route, but even if he kept his feet this pass looked like it got away from Mariota.

You accept the growing pains from a rookie quarterback, but this is also the fourth blown fourth-quarter lead for the Titans this season. For defensive coordinator Ray Horton and assistant coach Dick LeBeau, those are old problems.

Baltimore Ravens 33 at Cleveland Browns 27

Type: Non-offensive game-winning score

Matt Schaub threw a pick-six and threw another killer interception in the game's final minute, but he still walked away with the win after a very rare "kick-six" ending. A bad Monday night game on paper actually produced plenty of thrills and added more heartbreak to Cleveland lore. Even with three quarterbacks active and starter Josh McCown injured in the fourth quarter, the disgruntled home crowd watched Austin Davis get the call over Johnny Manziel to lead a comeback from a 27-20 deficit. Those boos turned to cheers when Davis delivered a perfect pass for a 42-yard touchdown to Travis Benjamin.

Browns coach Mike Pettine actually threw up the hand signal to go for two, because when you are 2-8, why not? Putting the lost season angle aside, strategically it is not a terrible decision since Cleveland still had all three timeouts left. However, is taking a 1-point lead with 1:47 left really worth the risk that you may fail and never get the ball back? That is why we see do-or-die two-point conversions attempted with few seconds remaining. There was too much time on the clock here, and the extra point was the right call. The teams actually exchanged punts before Schaub's interception at midfield, which set up Davis at the Baltimore 46 with 50 seconds left.

Cleveland's game management showed no real understanding of what "field-goal range" really means. After a 6-yard completion, the Browns did not run another play until just 18 seconds remained. Davis scrambled before doing probably the dumbest quarterback slide I have seen in my life. Cleveland had two timeouts left, but this is really not a situation where you want to run the clock. You should be trying to maximize yardage, which a slide does not do since the ball is dead at the spot the quarterback starts to slide (the Baltimore 33, in this case). Davis easily could have run out of bounds at the 28, gaining five more yards than he did.

A handoff gained nothing, and the Browns brought out Travis Coons for a 51-yard field goal. He was 18-of-18 this season, but his longest kick was only 44 yards in St. Louis' dome. He has missed two extra points as well, so not exactly the resume of Justin Tucker here. Coons' kick was blocked by Brent Urban, who was making his NFL debut after being plagued by injuries. Will Hill picked up the ball and returned it down the sideline 64 yards for an incredible touchdown with no time remaining. The Ravens took a knee on the two-point conversion and walked out with a very improbable 33-27 victory.

The only other game in NFL history won on a walk-off blocked field goal return was Denver against San Diego in 1985, a game the Broncos won 30-24 in overtime. Does that score sound familiar? What a crazy ending to another wild week of football.

Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind

Bears at Packers: "Oh F***!" Indeed

When you start doing things you almost never do, like losing at home to Detroit or losing to Jay Cutler anywhere, maybe it's just not your year. Green Bay felt like the surest bet to win on Thanksgiving, but faltered at home against its bitter rival. While the Bears have been very competitive, everything pointed to a big Packers night. Eddie Lacy got the running game back on track, and the last three games have been strong from the defense. On a night when Bart Starr was in attendance for the retirement of Brett Favre's number, it was the most reliable part of the team since 1992 that let Green Bay down the most: the passing offense.

Aaron Rodgers still has a sterling touchdown-to-interception ratio this year, but his stat line through 11 games is frighteningly similar to that of Matt Cassel on the 2010 Chiefs. This goes beyond the loss of Jordy Nelson and the struggles of Davante Adams. The whole passing offense just looks a bit broken, and Chicago's no-name defense did a stellar job of holding this group to 13 points on 12 drives. A little luck always helps, as Green Bay's only drive in the third quarter was ruined by a bad snap. A hit on the funny bone left Rodgers without feeling in some of the fingers on his non-throwing hand, but he stayed in the game, needing to rally the Packers from a 17-13 deficit.

The offense had three chances, but could not cash in on any of them. Rodgers threw an interception to Tracy Porter with 3:19 left after a suspect route by Adams. Favre is no stranger to doing things like that. Chicago kept it conservative with a three-and-out, refusing to go for it on fourth-and-1 at the Green Bay 46 with 2:53 left. That would have been mighty tempting at 2:43 since the Bears could have just run the clock out with a yard gained, but punting was probably the right call given the way the Packers were playing on offense.

Time was not an issue, with Rodgers having 2:45 to drive the Packers 80 yards. A 32-yard gain to Randall Cobb to the Chicago 19 sure made it seem like the Bears were in trouble. Rodgers ended up throwing on seven straight plays in the red zone, but Chicago did not surrender the game-winning touchdown. The last two plays were the close ones, both coming from the 8-yard line. On third-and-goal, Porter barely got his hand in there to disrupt James Jones at the catch point. On fourth-and-ballgame, Chicago rushed four, and Rodgers scrambled and tried to find Cobb in the back of the end zone. Fittingly, Adams was in front of the play and took a stab at the ball. He did not bring down the contested catch and the Bears had their biggest win under John Fox. Rodgers was 2-of-17 for 14 yards while targeting Adams and Jones on the night. Even in the win over Minnesota, Green Bay's only victory in its last five games, Rodgers was 2-of-9 to Cobb. The consistency in the passing game has just not been there.

The struggle to win the game late is a familiar problem. In the comments last week, a reader named "techvet" said "I wonder who else has such a dichotomy between their overall winning percentage and their comeback record." Rodgers' record at 4QC opportunities is now 9-30 (.231). Adding in game-winning drive opportunities and the record is 13-32 (.289). This is not the best way to figure this out since quarterbacks sometimes have these opportunities in games they did not start and they sometimes leave games early, but I took the overall 4QC/GWD record and compared it to their overall record as starters in all other games (including playoffs). Rodgers is 70-10 (.875) in games he did not have a 4QC/GWD opportunity, so "win big, lose close" applies well. That difference of 0.586 in win percentage points is the largest in a sample of 74 quarterbacks from over the last 35 years. Here are the 11 who are more than one standard deviation above the average.

Biggest W-L Gap Between Comeback Opportunities and Games with Larger Scoring Margins
Quarterback Not Close Pct. 4QC/GWD Pct. Diff
Aaron Rodgers 70-10 0.875 13-32 0.289 0.586
Russell Wilson 31-0 1.000 17-19 0.472 0.528
Philip Rivers 70-19 0.787 25-50 0.333 0.453
Chad Pennington 35-13 0.729 11-28 0.282 0.447
Seneca Wallace 4-3 0.571 2-13 0.133 0.438
Rex Grossman 17-5 0.773 10-19 0.345 0.428
Bill Kenney 27-16 0.628 7-27 0.206 0.422
Kurt Warner 62-23 0.729 14-30 0.318 0.411
Joe Flacco 61-15 0.803 24-37 0.393 0.409
Kyle Orton 33-16 0.673 9-24 0.273 0.401
Cam Newton 32-12 0.727 10-21-1 0.328 0.399

Bills at Chiefs: This Time with More... Vigor

Last season these teams met in Buffalo with 5-3 records, and the Chiefs won after trailing by 10 points in the fourth quarter. This year the venue switched to Arrowhead, both teams were 5-5 in the playoff race, and the Bills still led 10-0 early, but both clubs have a bit more offensive firepower than they did in 2014. It was still surprising to see so much of it on show, with Sammy Watkins producing 158 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. However, he only had one target and zero catches in the second half after a superb turnaround from the Chiefs.

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Alex Smith played one of his best games for Kansas City by going against the script. His average pass traveled a season-high 9.5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage and his ALEX (all downs) was a season-high 0.7, the first time all season it was a positive number. Jeremy Maclin was excellent with a 160-yard day. Smith's rare display of aggression was perfect on a day when the Bills were without Mario Williams and Kyle Williams while rarely applying any blitzing pressure against a suspect offensive line. The Bills had no takeaways, zero quarterback hits, and a lone 0-yard sack that was actually Smith scrambling out of bounds and clearly getting beyond the line of scrimmage.

In the fourth quarter, Kansas City fell back into old habits with Smith throwing three screen passes on third down to protect a small lead. One of those plays worked, but the third was a bit of a dangerous throw to set up another field goal for a 30-22 lead with 3:30 left. Tyrod Taylor had his work cut out for him with 90 yards to go, but things get even harder when you are let down by the referees, your coach, and your tight end. On second-and-10, Taylor found Chris Hogan for a catch. Hogan took four steps, should have had 10 yards and a first down, and then went down. The ball came loose, but Hogan was already down, yet the officials still ruled it an incompletion. They botched the call, and Rex Ryan botched this by not challenging with 2:31 left. The Bills threw another pass on third-and-10, but Charles Clay turned a 4-yard gain into a 1-yard gain with a horrific negative-YAC play. He would have been better off dropping the damn ball instead, as that way the Bills could have actually punted.

Instead, Buffalo had to call its second timeout with 2:16 left, which basically forced the offense to go for it on fouth-and-9 at its own 21. A failure to convert would have almost guaranteed Buffalo would be down 11 points with little time remaining. Between Ryan's illogical decision to not challenge a bad call and Clay's laughable effort, the Bills put themselves in no man's land. On fourth-and-9, Taylor fumbled on a scramble attempt, but recovered the ball and nearly made a miraculous run for the first down before fumbling again out of bounds. Of course, Ryan challenged this call, losing his final timeout with 2:07 left.

Andy Reid was probably happy the math was simple for his team: one first down would end the game. Spencer Ware delivered that with a 4-yard run on third-and-3 to drop the Bills to 5-6 as the Chiefs surge ahead to the No. 5 seed in the AFC.

Giants at Redskins: A Home Playoff Game for These Guys?

Someone has to win the NFC East, and that just may be Washington after an unexpected wire-to-wire win. Washington led 20-0 with 11:36 left, but one of Eli Manning's strengths is that he's never afraid to make any throw. He went deep for a 40-yard touchdown on fourth-and-16 to Rueben Randle, then benefitted from another brilliant catch by Odell Beckham Jr. for a 21-yard touchdown with 4:57 left. However, the defense did a poor job of getting the ball back, letting Kirk Cousins find Jordan Reed for 20 easy yards on a slant. By the time Manning got the ball back, he needed a miracle: 84 yards in 19 seconds without a timeout. These drives only get done with a Hail Mary or a lateral-filled play. The Giants tried the latter, but that eventually ended with Manning's own lateral going out of bounds. New York really needed this one with a tough upcoming schedule compared to Washington, which still gets two games against the Tony Romo-less Cowboys. Have to like that.

Buccaneers at Colts: Someone Old and Something Old

Good luck to anyone who can figure out the 2015 Buccaneers. They play high-scoring games no one expected (38-31 vs. Jacksonville), and they play low-scoring games no one expected (10-6 vs. Dallas). They have blown a 24-point lead against Washington, and blew a 17-point lead in Atlanta before winning in overtime. They lost by 14 at home to the Giants and beat the Eagles by 28 points in Philadelphia. Those are just the last six games for this team. Here they were a 3-point underdog to an Indianapolis team that keeps winning with the oldest quarterback in the league.

It is not like the Colts have found a running game to support Matt Hasselbeck. With left tackle Anthony Castonzo out, the Colts handed off 23 times for 30 yards. Hasselbeck still had a 300-yard game without a turnover by putting his wide receivers to great use against Tampa Bay's overmatched secondary.

Once again the Colts adjusted well in the second half. Tampa Bay scored on all three first-half possessions to take a 12-6 lead, but was shut out on seven drives in the second half. Trailing 19-12 to start the fourth quarter, Jameis Winston was sacked on consecutive plays with the blitz getting to him on third-and-11 before he could find a receiver. Five Winston sacks were key to the defense's success. Indianapolis put together its fourth consecutive scoring drive with Donte Moncrief making four key catches. However, the drive stalled and Adam Vinatieri's 30-yard field goal just missed the outstretched hands of Chris Conte, who dove over the line in an attempt to block the kick. He was penalized for leaping, which is the famous call the Buccaneers were hit with in overtime in a classic 2003 loss to the Colts on Monday Night Football. In that game, Simeon Rice was flagged for leaping after Mike Vanderjagt missed a 40-yard field goal, but Vanderjagt was then able to bank the 29-yard game-winning field goal off the upright after the penalty.

This one on Sunday was not leaping as Conte's jump was clean. However, he did take out the holder Pat McAfee, so it was really roughing the holder. A rare call either way, but one that is part of this series' history. The penalty hurt as Hasselbeck finished the drive with a 3-yard touchdown pass to T.Y. Hilton. Vinatieri missed the extra point, but the Colts were still in great shape at 25-12 with 5:53 left.

The Buccaneers oddly chose to ignore the run on third and fourth down with 1 yard to go at the Indianapolis 27. Winston threw incomplete on both plays, and that really sunk the comeback attempt. A wild overthrow for an interception with 2:20 left definitely put this one out of reach for the Buccaneers. The 2015 Colts are now 6-1 in games that feature a 4QC/GWD opportunity on either side of the ball, so some things have not changed in Indianapolis.

Season Summary

Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 51

Game-winning drives: 59 (plus six non-offensive game-winning scores)

Games with 4QC opportunity: 108/176 (61.4 percent)

10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 24

Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro-Football-Reference. Screen caps come from NFL Game Pass.


48 comments, Last at 05 Dec 2015, 3:32pm

#1 by BroncFan07 // Dec 01, 2015 - 4:45pm

"but the Broncos are indeed 16-3 against the Patriots in Denver since the 1970 merger."

Interestingly those 3 have been since 2000, and all under Belichick.

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#9 by RickD // Dec 01, 2015 - 5:57pm

Yes, for a very long time the Broncos completely owned the Pats. Also for a very long time the Patriots could never win in prime time. A night game against the Broncos was as close to a gambling lock as ever existed.

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#2 by Bright Blue Shorts // Dec 01, 2015 - 5:24pm

Bears-Packers ... I'd forgotten the "Oh f**k" moment ... great bit of mic work and the embarassment of Michaels/Collinsworth was priceless.

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#4 by Will Allen // Dec 01, 2015 - 5:31pm

I was watching with the entire extended family, and we all thought it was hilarious, grandmothers included. The kids below 10 weren't in the room, unfortunately, thus missing out on an interesting vocabulary lesson.

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#3 by Thomas_beardown // Dec 01, 2015 - 5:29pm

I think at this point we have to assume Luck and Rodgers are have been playing with undisclosed injuries. I see no other reasonable explanation for their suddenly poor play (even if that's relative for Rodgers).

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#11 by Steve in WI // Dec 01, 2015 - 6:23pm

I haven't watched enough Packers games, and am too biased to give a fair assessment of Rodgers, but from what I have seen I think the simplest explanation is the one that makes the most sense: he's dealing with a severe lack of talent around him compared to the last few years. He still looks like the same QB physically to me.

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#12 by Thomas_beardown // Dec 01, 2015 - 6:33pm

I've seen Rodgers flat out miss receivers this year in a way I haven't the past 3 or so. I suppose this could be expecting a receiver to be a certain spot when said receiver is not capable of getting there, or being forced to move off his spot being a poor offensive line, but I've seen him just shred defenses off broken plays.

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#26 by Mike B. In Va // Dec 02, 2015 - 10:31am

From what I've seen it looks like the receivers aren't where he expects them to be. Adams, especially, has been a disaster.

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#5 by Eleutheria // Dec 01, 2015 - 5:45pm

I think if it was anyone other then New England that was on the receiving end of that loss people would have been a lot more critical of the coaching in that game.

Not only did the botch the two-minute offense to end the first half, but they then botched the four minute offense to end the second.

This was a game the Patriots had a commanding lead in, but lost due to fumble luck, bad officiating and poor clock management.

Better coaching and the Patriots would be 12-0 right now.

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#8 by RickD // Dec 01, 2015 - 5:55pm

Better coaching and new math.

Winning 12 times in only 11 games would be some feat. Poor, feeble Belichick isn't capable of that, I grant you.

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#10 by Eleutheria // Dec 01, 2015 - 6:03pm


But the point still stands, this was one of the worst coached games I have seen by Belichick.

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#16 by anotherpatsfan // Dec 01, 2015 - 6:55pm

I also thought they should have run the ball on the play when Gronk went down. However, I think that's more McDaniel, who seems to coach with an "we will impose our will on you whenever we want" attitude. IMO his apparent arrogance in that regard has backfired at times over the years.

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#44 by Eleutheria // Dec 02, 2015 - 8:07pm

Yeah that's true, this does seem too have McDaniel's fingers on it more then Belichicks, I just tend to assume that when a coach makes a mistake, it's the responsibility and fault of the head coach.

Maybe that's me being overly critical of head coaches in general, but I can guarantee you that if say Rex Ryan was the head coach of a team that lost like this, everyone would have been lynching Ryan, criticizing his offensive play calling and his inability to do basic clock management.

Belichick is still a first ballot hall of fame coach, and quite possibly the greatest coach of all time, but I do think that too often when he makes a mistake (and he does make mistakes)

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#45 by duh // Dec 02, 2015 - 10:41pm

I agree they should have run the ball on the play Gronk got hurt. I was yelling at the TV at the time and I thought it was a terrible decision.

I was less upset about the end of the 1st half. It seemed like they wanted to get to halftime with the lead and go figure out what they were going to do without Hightower who was hurt a couple plays before the Denver TD. Given that they didn't have great field position I think that is a reasonable choice.

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#28 by PatsFan // Dec 02, 2015 - 11:13am

Totally agree. Still shaking my head on many coaching decisions. All those you mentioned plus the 372 not-even-close fly bombs to Chandler.

Also don't understand why Harper was out there in the first place. Belichick had already put Chung out for a punt return earlier. NE did not need a return there -- they only needed to not turn the ball over deep. Ooops. To be fair, perhaps the coaches told him "fair catch it or run the hell away from the ball" and he decided to be a hero. But that still points to the coaches needing to have put a veteran out there.

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#6 by RickD // Dec 01, 2015 - 5:54pm

Aaron: favoring the home team is one thing. And FO isn't really the place to discuss the particulars of the officiating on Sunday. But my understanding is that the Titans got jobbed in spite of being the home team.

Whether officials are making bad calls to favor any generic home team or whether there was a secret deal to specifically target the Patriots on Sunday doesn't matter all that much. In either case it's bad officiating - it's just a question of whether it's corruption or incompetence. (Historically the two go hand in hand.)

I think it's pretty easy to establish that there is plenty of both in the NFL these days. The existence of either, much less both, reflects poorly on the league's leadership.

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#20 by Aaron Schatz // Dec 01, 2015 - 8:05pm

I always favor incompetence over corruption as an explanation for anything, especially NFL officiating. There's nothing to complain about for fans of any team, specifically. Every team gets eight home games and eight road games. The specifics are determined years in advance by a formula. Home teams tend to get more calls. Maybe next time, your favorite team will be at home and not on the road. It's more important to deal with the league's general officiating problems than to complain about your team getting jobbed.

And yes, "home teams get more calls" does not mean home teams get 100 percent of all controversial calls. Sorry, Titans.

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#29 by mehllageman56 // Dec 02, 2015 - 12:20pm

Don't teams with losing records get jobbed more often than contenders? I remember Keyshawn Johnson griping in his book, about a ball placement on a fourth down against New England in 1995, and claiming the same thing. There are biases out there that have little to do with specific teams, and more to do with home field, perception of said teams coming into the game, etc.

On another note, isn't it silly for fans of a rebuilding team like the Titans or the Browns to gripe about a close, miraculous loss? They'll be happy about those losses next year when Cleveland gets its quarterback and Baltimore is picking seventh or tenth.

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#7 by cardbomb // Dec 01, 2015 - 5:55pm

Almost every media outlet published the horrific call on Dial yet failed to mention the horrible Sendelin personal foul call two plays earlier, which really put the Cardinals in a 3rd and long scenario in the first place. Also, no mention of the refs screwing the Cardinals out of a complete down when they were given 2nd and 5 in the red zone instead of 1st and 5. If you're gonna make a point about bad calls, at least be objective about the reporting.

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#25 by bravehoptoad // Dec 02, 2015 - 10:28am

I can't find anywhere that the Sendlein call was controversial. Google gives nothing.

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#31 by ChrisS // Dec 02, 2015 - 12:31pm

Did not watch the game I so can't comment on your specifics, but the NFL does not seem pleased with the officials work. "The N.F.L. has moved the referee Pete Morelli’s crew off the coming Sunday night game between Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. Instead, the crew will work an afternoon game between the Eagles and the Patriots. Morelli’s group was heavily criticized by both sides after the 49ers-Cardinals game Sunday."

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#34 by BJR // Dec 02, 2015 - 2:07pm

Are NFL referee crews (or individuals within them) ever demoted/removed for poor performance? I've never heard of it.

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#36 by Thomas_beardown // Dec 02, 2015 - 2:22pm

I've never heard of this, but the ref crews that grade the best get prime time games and individual refs get to ref playoff games (which are all star ref collections iirc).

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#37 by Insancipitory // Dec 02, 2015 - 2:27pm

The crew from the 9ers Cardinals game got demoted from SNF this week. Presumably that means no playoffs for them either.

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#43 by Jerry // Dec 02, 2015 - 7:42pm

The NFL doesn't go out of its way to publicize personnel moves among officials, but it's safe to assume that not everybody who doesn't come back in a given year left voluntarily. There have been a couple of cases of referees being demoted to back judge (or whatever), but it almost all happens between seasons. There isn't a roster of spare officials that would allow the league to make a lot of changes during the season.

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#35 by PatsFan // Dec 02, 2015 - 2:20pm

Which is ridiculous and counter to the Integrity* that Roger claims to vigorously defend.

Why does one game deserve better (or worse) refs than another? That's not fair to any team. If the refs aren't good enough to ref one game, they aren't good enough to ref any games.

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#38 by Eddo // Dec 02, 2015 - 3:00pm

I think it's more a perk for the referees than saying the prime time games are more important or deserving of better referees.

It's analogous to giving extra time off to your best employee. It's actually WORSE for your business that your best person isn't there, but because they've done such good work, you give them perks.

EDIT: Actually, an even better analogy would be letting your best employees pick the projects they want to work on, which is a fairly common system. The most exciting or desirable projects from an employee's perspective don't necessarily correlate with the value to the company.

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#39 by PatsFan // Dec 02, 2015 - 3:33pm

I don't think that's an applicable analogy.

In the NFL, each project is a game amongst teams that are competing with other teams for the season championship. Outside of the literal playing field, the playing field should be as level as possible. If some officiating team is so bad that you would be embarrassed to put them in a game that a lot of people are going to watch, it's not fair to any team to have them ref any game.

Projects your best employees work on in a general business don't have the issue of fairness that come into play in games.

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#40 by Eddo // Dec 02, 2015 - 3:39pm

No, what I'm saying is that the NFL *does* consider all games to be equal, but that a prime time game - with the whole nation watching and seeing your face on TV - is more appealing for the officials themselves. So it's a punishment to drop them from prime time to a mere Sunday afternoon game.

It seems like what you'd prefer - and I'm not saying you're wrong - is a few extra teams of officials to replace ones that are bad mid-seasons. But the league doesn't have that option.

EDIT: It's not the NFL saying, "These officials are so bad, we don't want the whole nation seeing them," it's them saying, "You officials messed up, so you don't get the most desirable assignment this week."

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#13 by Steve in WI // Dec 01, 2015 - 6:37pm

"That would have been mighty tempting at 2:43 since the Bears could have just run the clock out with a yard gained, but punting was probably the right call given the way the Packers were playing on offense."

I disagree with this for two reasons. The one that I cannot stop talking about ever since Thursday is that given the Packers offense and specifically, Rodgers, coupled with a 4 point lead (so it's touchdown or bust for Green Bay), a relatively small amount of field position matters very little compared to the chance to keep the ball out of Rodgers' hands. Unless you think you have almost no chance of converting, I say you go for it.

As it happened, the punt went for a touchback so the Bears netted only 26 yards of position compared to going for it and getting stuffed at the line of scrimmage. But even if O'Donnell gave them a great punt that started the Packers at their own 5, they still had almost 3 minutes to drive down the field.

As we saw, they were able to do that pretty easily. It took 4 consecutive goal-to-go stops by the Bears to end the game. Given Rodgers' talents, the questionable Bears defense, and the prevalence of PI calls, I am still astounded that the Bears managed that. I figured once the Packers got the ball back, they were going to score a TD unless the Bears could force another turnover.

My second point of argument: I don't think 2:53 or 2:43 on the clock makes a dramatic difference, and I think if you're going to argue that you punt with 2:53 left, then you should also argue for the punt with 2:43 left. Let's say they converted on 4th down. They'd have to run the 1st down play before the two minute warning, then run the 2nd down play with 2:00 left. They should be able to punt the ball to Green Bay with less than 40 seconds left in the game if they do not get another 1st down (I'm assuming a long field goal is out of the question given field conditions and score - a 7 point lead still gives GB the chance to force overtime, while a miss gives them significantly better field position).

I would argue that, needing a touchdown, 40 seconds and no timeouts is functionally a lot closer to no time than it is to 2:53.

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#14 by Scott Kacsmar // Dec 01, 2015 - 6:39pm

The reason I chose 2:43 is because the fourth-down run would have taken at least 3 seconds. If they converted, they can run the clock down to the two-minute warning. With a first down, Cutler takes three knees and the game is over. They would not have needed to run the first-down play before the two-minute warning and that's the key difference between 2:53 and 2:43.

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#41 by Steve in WI // Dec 02, 2015 - 4:52pm

I agree with your analysis in this reply, and that not having to run any more plays is a big advantage. What I am saying is that as it was, with 2:53 on the clock, converting that first down would have meant punting with less than 40 seconds on the clock even if the Bears just opted to take a knee on every play. And in my opinion, that's still very close to a hopeless scenario for the Packers.

I don't know what the numbers would say, but my argument is that either way it was a good idea to go for it on 4th and 1. I disagree with the idea that being able to literally run out the clock or not makes a significant difference here. (If there were 4 minutes left in the game or Green Bay still had timeouts, then I could be persuaded that it's too early to go for it because the odds of continuing to keep the ball away from GB were unlikely even if the 4th down conversion was successful).

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#42 by Scott Kacsmar // Dec 02, 2015 - 4:55pm

If Chicago was leading by 7-8 points, I would be pissed if the Bears didn't go for it on 4th-and-1 there. But with the 17-13 lead, I tend to favor the punt at 2:53. Just needed a better punt than a touchback.

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#15 by Thomas_beardown // Dec 01, 2015 - 6:40pm

I agree with you, but let's be real for a moment. Complaining about John Fox making far too conservative calls is like wishing Chicago wasn't so darn cold in the winter. Any time spent getting mad about it just wasted energy.

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#32 by morganja // Dec 02, 2015 - 12:50pm

It's not wasted energy. Getting mad about it makes you a little bit warmer.

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#17 by Pen // Dec 01, 2015 - 7:07pm

Well so much for the naysayers that said Wilson is a game manager that benefits from Lynch and a great defense. That great defense hasn't been itself and gave up 30 pts and around 450 yds passing and Lynch is out. So Wilson throws for 300+ yds and 5 TDs to his pedestrian receivers that don't demand double teams.

With the worst pass blocking oline in the NFL.

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#23 by gomer_rs // Dec 01, 2015 - 10:37pm

From the very beginning Wilson was held back by game plans that didn't put the game in his hands.

I remember when they were the Sea-chickens.

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#18 by Travis // Dec 01, 2015 - 7:07pm

The only other game in NFL history won on a walk-off blocked field goal return was Denver against San Diego in 1985, a game the Broncos won 30-24 in overtime.

There were two others, but both by the offense:

Bears-Packers, 9/7/1980: The Packers' Chester Marcol returns his own blocked field goal 24 yards. Video here.

Eagles-Giants, 10/30/1988: The Eagles' Clyde Simmons returns Luis Zendajas's field goal 15 yards. Highlight here.

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#19 by Scott Kacsmar // Dec 01, 2015 - 7:30pm

Right, I mentioned the Simmons one on Twitter last night. I'm not sure which would be more devastating. To think you're going to kick a GW FG and see it blocked for a TD like the Browns, or to be on the blocking team that thinks it just made a huge play only to see the opponent still return the ball for a GW TD. Probably the Cleveland ending.

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#22 by jacobk // Dec 01, 2015 - 9:34pm

The Seahawks had a blocked fg return for the winning points with about 7 seconds left on the clock back on 11/3/1996 against the Oilers.

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#21 by Ben // Dec 01, 2015 - 8:23pm

While you mentioned the Bucs not running on 3rd and 4th and 1 at the end of the game, the even bigger error was Winston not taking advantage of the huge hole up the middle on 4th down to run for the first. There was still enough time left in the game that 4 more downs was monumently more important then the extra 10 yards he was trying to get by throwing.

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#24 by Scott Kacsmar // Dec 02, 2015 - 1:57am

Watched it again and I don't feel the hole was really there for him on 4th down. I think the defender to his left would have closed in and got him down short.

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#27 by Mike B. In Va // Dec 02, 2015 - 10:35am

My favorite part of the Ryan Challenge Fiasco was him admitting they don't have anyone reviewing the plays, he just goes off the Jumbotron.

*smacks forehead*

How do I end up with a captcha on an edit?

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#30 by mehllageman56 // Dec 02, 2015 - 12:24pm

Rex doesn't have anyone reviewing the play upstairs? I thought he did in New York, why the hell wouldn't they do this?

Colossus the Captcha Project

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#48 by mbmxyz // Dec 05, 2015 - 3:32pm

Ryan has flaws as a coach but he got the AFC championship game (twice) with Mark Sanchez as QB. I am pretty sure the Sanchize is the worst QB to play in that game in either conference since 2000. Rex Grossman would be the closest challenger I think.

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#33 by morganja // Dec 02, 2015 - 1:14pm

The defender initiated contact on the Gronk OPI?

What am I not seeing in the video?
Gronk lines up behind the line of scrimmage.
The defender places himself at the 28, directly in front of Gronkowski, and three yards off the line of scrimmage.
At the snap, Gronkowski runs in a straight line towards the defender.
When he reaches the 28 yard line, the defender is still in the same exact spot.
Gronkwoski continues running in a straight line, through the defender, and makes his cut three yards beyond where the defender was standing, still in a straight line.
How does Gronkowski start behind the line of scrimmage, run in a straight line through where the defender is standing, and three yards beyond, without initiating contact?
When he makes his cut, he pushes off with his arm. Not elbow locked full arm, but extended nonetheless.
How is this not OPI?

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#47 by mbmxyz // Dec 05, 2015 - 2:55pm

As far as I can tell penalty luck is mostly luck and not much different than fumble luck, save for being a slightly skewed towards the home team, so Aaron says. Brady hits a long pass to Keyshawn Martin in the 4th quarter, nullified by a hands-to-the-face blocking penalty. Osweiler throws a TD pass in the final minute and the official misses a hands-to-the-face (of Caldwell Jones) penalty on the play. The problem is the randomness of the calls not made and calls actually made. (Research could probably establish penalty luck as FO did with fumble luck.) I believe Goodell's office made a statement about this call, saying mostly what you say. The description of the play is reasonably accurate. But the penalty call is luck, and this was a game where the Pats had bad fumble luck and bad penalty luck. (The game is probably too fast and the field too crowded for penalty enforcement to be other than fortune. But it matters. The referees missed DPI on Patriot DB Butler on the Seahawks short possession between two Patriot 4th quarter TDs in the 2014 Super Bowl. Butler, falling, reached out and tripped a receiver. It was the correct play, even if he was flagged. The Seattle QB was throwing to that guy and he might have run for 20 or more yards. But the ref missed it; Seattle punted; and NE scored. So good fortune one day and bad another.)

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