Clutch Encounters: Week 13
by Scott Kacsmar
It gets redundant to talk about a "crazy week" in the NFL when some level of craziness has become the weekly norm. This season especially has been unique, with a higher percentage of close finishes and the number of teams still in playoff contention at the three-quarters mark. Having said that, yeah, it was another crazy week where long touchdown runs by quarterbacks, egregious fumbles, and a bunch of missed extra points stood out.
Week 13 also had a season-high nine game-winning drives, including the ridiculous Hail Mary finish in Detroit we recapped on Friday. Overall there were 11 games with a comeback opportunity, so we have a lot to go through. At least the week had four decisive blowouts where no explanation is required, and Broncos-Chargers became just the third game in the last seven seasons to feature no scoring in the second half.
Game of the Week
Carolina Panthers 41 at New Orleans Saints 38
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 4 (38-34)
Head Coach: Ron Rivera (11-20-1 at 4QC and 11-21-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Cam Newton (11-20-1 at 4QC and 11-21-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
When the No. 2 defense meets the No. 32 defense, you usually would not expect a 41-38 final, but Drew Brees at home is a safe bet. Unfortunately, he carries the burden of his defense. You can take Rob Ryan out of New Orleans, but this defense is a special kind of awful. No matter which position was targeted, which side of the field was attacked, or how far the pass was thrown, the Saints are at the bottom of the league. The NFL record for touchdown passes allowed in a season is 40, set by the 1963 Broncos in a 14-game AFL season. The Saints are at 35 and counting. Their 116.6 defensive passer rating should also set a record for futility. We are witnessing one of the best passing seasons ever and it has been compiled by the opponents of the 2015 Saints.
Cam Newton took his second helping of the Saints this season and filled up the stat sheet with another monster game -- a rarity for him in the passing department. Newton passed for at least 374 yards in three of his first four games as a rookie in 2011. Some of that certainly was due to the 2011 lockout as passing yardage was out of control early that season. Newton has started 73 games since that point in his career, and the 331 yards he passed for on Sunday in New Orleans are the most he's had since his four-game debut -- surpassing the 315 yards he had against the Saints in Week 3 this season.
The story of this game was not Carolina's offensive production, but it was the necessity of the offense having to deliver after the defense showed more cracks than usual. The Saints, led by Luke McCown in Week 3, actually gave the Panthers their worst game of the season by defensive DVOA and pass defense DVOA. With a healthy Brees at home, it was not surprising to see the Panthers have their toughest fight yet on the way to 12-0.
Newton found his rhythm against this defense, hitting 15 passes in a row at one point. That streak was only snapped after Ted Ginn dropped what would have been a 72-yard touchdown in the final minute of the third quarter. Carolina still led 27-24, but Brees put the Saints ahead in the fourth quarter with a 24-yard touchdown to Brandon Coleman. Ginn made sure to catch his next opportunity, hauling in a 42-yard touchdown pass with 11:54 left. Brees found Coleman again, but this time it was Kurt Coleman on an interception. You live with that as a punt on third-and-19, but not so much on second-and-19. However, Carolina went three-and-out. Brees was back on point to lead another go-ahead touchdown drive (88 yards), ending with Mark Ingram's 9-yard touchdown run with 5:21 left. The Saints led 38-34, but you almost would prefer a surprise onside kick than to put that defense back on the field.
Carolina's methodical drive hit a roadblock with a big fourth-and-4, but Newton scrambled and flipped a pass to Greg Olsen, who just got his hands under the ball before it hit the ground for a huge 16-yard gain at the two-minute warning. Sean Payton lost his second timeout by challenging the call.
Game of inches pic.twitter.com/acMTi55jxb
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) December 8, 2015
The Saints used their final timeout with the Panthers at the 15, but Jerricho Cotchery smoked Chris Owens on the go-ahead touchdown with 1:05 left. An extra timeout sure would have helped Brees, but 65 seconds is still more than enough time to get into field goal range. Brees hit two throws to get the offense to the 50 with a spike, but only 24 seconds remained. Brees had Coleman open on third down, but threw behind him. The throw on fourth-and-10 was the most puzzling of them all. Carolina rushed five, but Brees threw deep for Brandin Cooks with the excellent Josh Norman in coverage. Even a completion there likely gets tackled in bounds without enough time to run another play.
This may have been the last great regular-season challenge for the Panthers in their quest to go undefeated. A better defense might have gotten it done, but there are not many offenses better equipped to handle the Panthers than the Saints.
For Brees, he now has 16 lost comebacks in his career, the most in NFL history. That is basically a full season of games where he brought his team back in the fourth quarter to a lead, only to lose. I was going to show those games in a table, but I would prefer to have a win probability measurement to gauge just how close they were to winning each of them. Hopefully we will have that in the future.
For Newton and Ron Rivera, a record that once stood at 2-18 in 4QC/GWD opportunities has been improved by a superb 9-3-1 mark since the middle of 2013. That is literally going from the worst record in NFL history to the best.
Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind
New York Jets 23 at New York Giants 20
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 10 (20-10)
Head Coach: Todd Bowles (1-3 at 4QC and 1-3 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Ryan Fitzpatrick (8-34 at 4QC and 10-35-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
It's up to you to close, New York. Five times this season the Giants were leading in the final 90 seconds and lost. Four times this season the Giants had a 10-point lead in the second half (three times in the fourth quarter) and lost the game. Maybe the defense needs a bigger lead than 10 points. That has to be what Tom Coughlin had in mind when he went for it on fourth-and-2 at the 4-yard line in the fourth quarter.
I loved the idea at first blush, and upon further examination, I still believe it was the right decision. A 17-point lead with 8:42 left is a fantastic situation. There have only been 41 comebacks of 17-plus points in the fourth quarter in NFL history. By kicking a field goal for a 13-point lead, you are still keeping it a two-score game. The only advantage is that the Jets are forced to score two touchdowns, but you also put them in a position to beat you by one point. By not converting, you are still up 10 points and the Jets have a very long field to drive. Play good defense and win this thing. If your defense stinks and you trust your offense more -- which describes the 2015 Giants quite well -- then how can you not go for it there? The three-score lead is a worthwhile gamble, especially when your defense has been blowing the most leads in the league.
The play the Giants ran was lousy, with Eli Manning forcing a throw to Rueben Randle, and Rontez Miles came away with the interception. That decision still did not allow the Jets to drive 80 yards for a field goal to make it 20-13. That decision did not ask the Giants to have an uninspired three-and-out in the four-minute offense with Manning once again throwing a pass away when he should have taken a dive to move the clock. The defense had plenty of chances to stop the Jets on a 71-yard drive. Ryan Fitzpatrick scrambled for 15 yards on fourth-and-6. Two plays later he found Brandon Marshall for a 9-yard touchdown with 27 seconds left to tie the game.
The Giants ran Shane Vereen for 11 yards before calling their final timeout so they could run him again for no gain. That was an odd drive to end regulation. Overtime is not the worst thing anymore. The Jets felt hot on offense and I do not blame them for wanting the ball first in the extra frame. Fitzpatrick was leading a good drive until the Jets got to the 8-yard line. He got away with a tipped ball and then the Jets were hit with a delay of game to bring up third-and-13. When you have Marshall and Eric Decker here, throw to them in this situation. The screen to Bilal Powell was such a safe call, and Fitzpatrick missed the throw high. The Jets had to settle for a 31-yard field goal to take a 23-20 lead.
Now the Giants could get aggressive in pursuing the game-winning touchdown, and Dwayne Harris helped matters with a 43-yard kick return. Odell Beckham backed his offense up into a fourth-and-6 after kicking a dead ball. This rule was put in a few years ago and you rarely see it enforced strictly, but this one was too obvious. Beckham redeemed himself with a tough 20-yard reception to keep the drive alive, but the Giants only gained 4 more yards. As soon as CBS' Ian Eagle noted that Josh Brown had not missed a field goal this season (25-of-25), you knew what was probably coming next. So much of the "announcer/graphic jinx" is just regression to the mean, but man do they pick some bad times to queue these up.
Brown is now the first kicker in NFL history to miss a game-tying field goal in overtime. He likely would have never been in that position if the Giants did something different on the big fourth-down decision, but hopefully that failure to convert and the ensuing loss will not deter coaches from future decisions. Expectations are that it will, dealing another blow to the fourth-down revolution.
Atlanta Falcons 19 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers 23
In Week 7, the Buccaneers blew a 24-point lead to Washington while Atlanta squeezed out a 10-7 win over Tennessee. Since that day, the Buccaneers have gone 4-2 and Atlanta has yet to win another game. These teams are both 6-6, but moving in opposite directions after the Buccaneers were able to finish off the Falcons for a season sweep with another game-winning drive.
The game was always within one score, but Tampa Bay missed an opportunity to extend its 16-12 lead when Doug Martin fumbled in the fourth quarter. Atlanta took advantage of that with a good drive that actually did not stall in the red zone for a change. Matt Ryan used play-action passes to free up his receivers, and Nick Williams scored his second touchdown of the season. On the next possession, Williams was unable to make a sliding catch on third down that would have put the ball at the Tampa Bay 30. The Falcons punted and Tampa Bay began its march, down 19-16, with 6:55 left.
Jameis Winston overcame an interception after Desmond Trufant was penalized for pass interference for getting his hands around Mike Evans. A holding penalty and sack provided more adversity to overcome as Winston faced a third-and-19 at the Atlanta 43. The Falcons played this down poorly, to say the least. First, Winston had to know a decent gain here would have brought on the game-tying field goal. Atlanta's defense played it like the Falcons were ahead by at least four points instead of three. The field goal range was there for the taking with any short pass or scramble.
Falcons played this 3rd-and-19 like they were up 4+ pts instead of 3. FG range was there for the taking. pic.twitter.com/jhTMZmP7aB
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) December 8, 2015
Winston chose to scramble and kind of had his Vince Young rookie moment on one of the stranger runs you'll see. Winston was not down by contact after 10 yards, and a final push by a defender just made him get back up as no whistle blew for forward progress. Winston spun and dipped ahead for a 20-yard gain and first down.
Jameis Winston must have been told what Mariota just did. Pretty outrageous individual effort on this run: https://t.co/eJQ0AUQegd
— Dion Caputi (@nfldraftupdate) December 6, 2015
Martin carried three times as Atlanta wisely started using its timeouts. On third-and-4, Atlanta's four-man rush failed as Winston escaped the pocket and fired a 6-yard touchdown to Evans with 1:39 left. In an obvious passing situation with an obvious red-zone threat on the field in Evans, how in the world does Atlanta allow him a free release and only put a linebacker on him?
Can't explain how biggest TD threat on the field is given free release & matched up w/LB on 3rd-and-ballgame pic.twitter.com/MLX9WOSvTc
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) December 8, 2015
Ryan had 1:39 to drive 80 yards for his own game-winning touchdown drive, but that ended on one play. Tampa Bay dropped eight and Ryan forced a bad throw to Julio Jones that was easily intercepted by Lavonte David to clinch the win. It was Atlanta's only turnover, but it came at the worst time.
While the Falcons are in a freefall, the Buccaneers seem to be moving in the right direction with their young players leading the way. The rookie quarterback hooked up with the No. 1 wide receiver for the game-winning touchdown, and the star of the defense made the game-clinching interception. That's how you draw it up. Two cracks at ending Carolina's perfect season might be the only way the Falcons can salvage this mess. Good luck with that.
Jacksonville Jaguars 39 at Tennessee Titans 42
Sure, the first meeting between these teams was a Thursday night game in Week 11, but where was all this offense then? If Blake Bortles and Marcus Mariota are going to have more shootouts like this, then the future of the AFC South may be in better shape than it looks. Defense aside, the front offices of these teams had to be pleased with the way their first-round quarterbacks and their second-round wideouts played. Allen Robinson and Dorial Green-Beckham both had career days as the teams continued exchanging touchdowns.
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Bortles was actually getting the better of the matchup early, but did not receive any help from kicker Jason Myers, who missed two extra points to bring his total to a league-worst six misses. That also led to an unorthodox two-point try that failed. Instead of Bortles' second touchdown pass to Robinson tying the game at 28 in the fourth quarter, Jacksonville still trailed 28-25 because of point-after struggles.
Mariota showed poor pocket presence on a strip-sack deep in his own end, and Bortles immediately cashed that in with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Julius Thomas. Jacksonville led 32-28. On third-and-7, Mariota showed much better awareness in the pocket and escaped on a big run. He had just enough speed and got the last block he needed to go the distance for an incredible 87-yard touchdown run, the third-longest run in NFL history by a quarterback. They sure make them differently these days as the other two just happened in 2013 (Terrelle Pryor for 93 yards) and 2014 (Colin Kaepernick for 90 yards).
Bortles avoided the turnovers that have plagued him before, but he had no control over a wild snap by Stefen Wisniewski that flew over his head. Bortles could have done a better job of sliding on the ball to recover it, but Wesley Woodyard recovered for a touchdown with 7:46 left.
The Jaguars did not go away quietly. Bortles checked down to T.J. Yeldon, who made several tacklers miss on his way to a 67-yard gain. Bortles found Robinson for their third touchdown of the day and Jacksonville trailed 42-39 with 6:28 left.
Tennessee punted and a hot Bortles (who finished with five touchdowns) had his shot with 2:50 left from his own 11. Jacksonville was great with a 10-of-13 day on third down, but that 14th attempt was a forced throw by Bortles that was nearly intercepted. On fourth down, Tennessee blitzed seven and Bortles never really had a chance on the sack with 2:02 left. Two more seconds and the game would have already been over, but it's amazing how many teams this week just beat the clock by a few seconds to prevent a three-kneel situation. The Titans actually let Mariota throw a play-action pass on fourth-and-1 at the 1-yard line with 23 seconds left. That was a bit risky in asking the quarterback to turn his back to the defense there, but it worked out thanks to a pass interference flag that effectively ended the game. Mariota took a knee and can say his long run was the game-winning score on a drive he'll always remember.
Kansas City Chiefs 34 at Oakland Raiders 20
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 6 (20-14)
Head Coach: Andy Reid (33-61-1 at 4QC and 45-69-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Alex Smith (15-25 at 4QC and 17-26 overall 4QC/GWD record)
This was arguably the "biggest" Chiefs-Raiders game since 2002, when Super Bowl-bound Oakland clinched the AFC's top seed and eliminated the Chiefs from playoff contention in Week 17. Sunday was not as favorable to the Raiders, who really missed a shot to stay in the thick of the playoff race. Both offenses moved the ball well for three quarters, with Oakland holding onto a 20-14 lead after Sebastian Janikowski missed an extra point.
Derek Carr has had a strong sophomore season, but this fourth quarter was a major low point. Kansas City's defense has already terrorized Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers during this six-game winning streak, so the AFC West trifecta was completed. Justin Houston was the biggest injury coming into the game, so the Chiefs needed to generate a pass rush without him against a quarterback who has been really hard to sack in his career. The Raiders were in field goal range at the very least when Carr made his first major mistake. Carr usually gets rid of the ball quickly, but decided to hold the ball forever in the pocket before throwing an interception after getting hit on the release. Josh Mauga returned the pass 66 yards.
Alex Smith essentially got to start his 4QC attempt from the 1-yard line, which has not happened for an offense since the Calvin Johnson Rule game in 2010. Chicago was actually stopped by Detroit on four straight plays that day. Smith only needed one wide receiver screen to Jeremy Maclin for the touchdown. Incredibly, the Chiefs failed to take the lead after a botched hold on the extra point. Dustin Colquitt, the holder, tried to throw a pass, but that failed and the game was tied at 20.
Carr had the Raiders at midfield, but suffered another interception after Michael Crabtree fell down on the play, leading to an easy pick for Marcus Peters, who returned the ball to the Oakland 13. All Smith again had to do was throw a bubble screen to Maclin, and this one too worked for the touchdown with 7:57 left. Two picks leading to two screens for touchdowns on 14 yards of offense killed Oakland, but the game was still within reach after Cairo Santos missed the extra point.
Without their best pass rusher, the Chiefs blitzed to get pressure on Carr, bringing him down for a big sack that led to a missed 49-yard field goal by Janikowski. On his next possession, Carr tried to hit Amari Cooper on third-and-9, but Cooper's diving attempt tipped the ball to former Oakland safety Tyvon Branch, who returned the pass 38 yards for a touchdown with 3:14 left. Kansas City converted for two more points and Carr needed a miracle finish, down 34-20. Frank Zombo put the stamp on this one with back-to-back sacks of Carr, taking him down on fourth-and-18.
This was the toughest remaining game on Kansas City's schedule, so 11-5 after a 1-5 start is a real possibility now. It is always nice to win on the road without your best player on both sides of the ball.
San Francisco 49ers 26 at Chicago Bears 20
Type: 4QC/GWD (OT)
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 7 (20-13)
Head Coach: Jim Tomsula (1-2 at 4QC and 1-2 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Blaine Gabbert (2-8 at 4QC and 2-8 overall 4QC/GWD record)
For the eighth time in their last nine games, the Bears played a one-score game, but this was supposed to be their day against an overmatched San Francisco defense. Well, that defense produced a pick-six and held up a 13-13 stalemate for a long time. We just had the first scoreless second quarter of 2015 on Thursday night between Green Bay and Detroit. There was no score in the third quarter here, yet that's nowhere near as uncommon. Twenty-three games this season have been scoreless in the third quarter, including four games in Week 13. The way teams use their timeouts in the second and fourth quarters helps with scoring. The third quarter, following that halftime break to regroup and adjust, can often look like a brand new game.
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On Sunday, Jay Cutler never really looked right in any quarter despite a recent stretch of quality play. He broke out of it for a couple of plays, using his feet to get out of the pocket and throw, leading to a go-ahead touchdown run by Ka'Deem Carey. Chicago led 20-13 with 3:32 left. The Bears were going to move to .500 if they could just stop Blaine Gabbert, who was 1-8 at 4QC opportunities, only cashing in back in 2012 with an 80-yard play Colts fans know by two words: Cecil Shorts.
A big third-and-6 loomed with 2:22 left. To this point, Gabbert was in vintage Jacksonville form, leading the 49ers to six points on 10 drives, and his success rate was 29.4 percent (10-for-34). But what about those legs? Before this season Gabbert never had a run longer than 12 yards, but his scrambling took over the drive. He ran for a 9-yard gain on third-and-6, picked up seven more yards later, then capped off the drive with a 44-yard scramble for a touchdown, galloping untouched through a stunned Chicago defense.
That was about the most unexpected drive of the year, but the Bears should have negated it with a 74-yard kick return by Deonte Thompson. The 49ers had all three timeouts, but the defense let Carey rip off an 11-yard run through a massive hole on third-and-10. That allowed Chicago to set up the game-winning field goal as the final play.
Robbie Gould is usually reliable, but he had missed from 40 yards in the third quarter. This was only 36 yards away, but he still shanked it wide left. We had overtime, and I have no idea why the 49ers would want to put their offense on the field first, but they did. Gabbert threw three incompletions to Anquan Boldin for a three-and-out. However, the drive started with a 40-yard kick return and ended with a good 45-yard punt to turn field position around, putting the Bears at their own 15. That quickly became their own 8 after a holding penalty. On third-and-8, Cutler's pass was tipped, and that may have been the only reason Corey Lemonier dropped the interception at the Chicago 30.
Gabbert only needed one play-action pass to end the game, finding Torrey Smith deep for a 71-yard touchdown. This was yet another example of a cornerback passing off a talented wide receiver -- easily the best deep threat on the field -- in the hopes that a safety will get there in time. Adrian Amos left some equipment on the field on Gabbert's tying touchdown run, and he was left watching Smith blow by him for the game-winning touchdown. "He expected help" are three of the worst words you can hear on defense these days. What would really help is if defenses actually did double-team the best receivers. Either stay with Smith (with the safety still helping) or get in there tighter on Boldin to force the ball elsewhere. Amos stood in no man's land, and the Bears blew another game with blown coverage.
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) December 8, 2015
Houston Texans 21 at Buffalo Bills 30
Defensively, these teams have played below expectations this season, though the Texans only allowed 35 combined points in a 4-0 November turnaround. Buffalo was able to score 30 points by wisely leaning on the running game (29 carries for 159 yards) and limiting Tyrod Taylor's exposure to J.J. Watt with 21 throws. Taylor is basically "East Coast Russell Wilson" with the way Buffalo usually keeps him under 30 passes, but maximizes his mobility and big arm with a lot of deep shots.
Houston loves to throw to DeAndre Hopkins no matter where he is on the field and regardless of the defender, but he was having the quietest seven-quarter stretch of his season. Hopkins had just 6 receiving yards through three quarters, but came alive with 82 yards in the fourth with Houston behind 21-13. You just have to get the ball close to him and he'll do the rest with one-handed stabs or victories on jump balls. Hopkins beat Ronald Darby on three plays for 71 yards, including a 19-yard touchdown. Jonathan Grimes scored on a two-point conversion run to tie the game.
Both defenses started to take over with the game tied, but Houston helped with a draw play on third-and-14 with 5:39 left. Why not take a shot? Taylor threw a risky short pass on third down that Andre Hal nearly intercepted with open field ahead of him. On his next possession, Brian Hoyer threw a good pass to Cecil Shorts on third-and-6, but Bacarri Rambo put a huge hit on the receiver to force an incompletion and punt.
LeSean McCoy really got Buffalo's game-winning drive going with a 20-yard cutback run past Jadeveon Clowney with 2:06 left. Two plays later, Charles Clay was all alone down the middle of the field for a 40-yard touchdown on a blown coverage. The safety covered Matthew Mulligan while rookie cornerback Kevin Johnson could have done that to allow the safety to go with Clay.
Nice blown coverage on the GW TD, Houston. pic.twitter.com/wYrwwMvWhY
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) December 7, 2015
The only problem was that Dan Carpenter's extra point hit the upright, opening the door for a Houston win in regulation. However, Hoyer was off the mark on all four passes for a quick four-and-out at his own 20. That set up Buffalo for three runs and a 36-yard field goal, and this time Carpenter was good for the 30-21 lead. Houston was down two scores so the Bills could relax a little, but it is noteworthy that the Texans drove 52 yards in the last 33 seconds to get a shot from the Buffalo 28. Hoyer threw an interception in the end zone, but let this serve as another reminder of what offenses are capable of without a timeout and such little time left.
Dallas Cowboys 19 at Washington Redskins 16
The short version: We had a 4QC opportunity for the seventh Monday night in a row and Dallas won without this guy below, unimpressed by what he saw.
"This game was shit." pic.twitter.com/Ndbz719BmL
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) December 8, 2015
The long version: You just kind of knew, even with Tony Romo out, the Redskins were not going to make this easy on themselves. Once the Giants lost and the Eagles shocked the Patriots, a three-way tie at 5-7 with Dallas somehow still alive at 4-8 sounded too fitting for this terrible division. Since these two teams failed to show up until halfway through the fourth quarter, I will pick things up from there.
Dustin Hopkins missed a 43-yard field goal that would have given Washington a 12-6 lead with 7:26 left. That may have changed the logic behind some of the baffling decisions to come from both teams. Dez Bryant caught his first pass of the night for 42 yards -- or did that ball come out again?
— NFL (@NFL) December 8, 2015
Either way, Dallas settled for the tying field goal. Bryant later had a 12-yard catch reversed with 1:50 left, and there it was clear that he was out of bounds before completing the catch. Dallas punted, and I kid you not when I say that DeSean Jackson may have had the worst punt return ever from what I know about NFL history. He has one of the best already, but his first major highlight was also some Monday night tomfoolery as a rookie in 2008.
— BleedingGreenNation (@BleedingGreen) December 8, 2015
This just goes down as a minus-7 yard return and lost fumble, but it is really far worse than that when you consider the situation. Jackson could have returned this to the 25-yard line without question. He decided to run 22 yards in the wrong direction to the 1-yard line of his own end of the field before narrowly escaping a tackle -- so he could fumble the ball to Washington at the 15-yard line. Unbelievable.
Washington had two timeouts left, but Dallas has to trust Dan Bailey here in chip-shot range. With 1:26 left, though it might have looked too passive to some, I would have taken three knees and kicked a field goal with less than 40 seconds left. My faith in running backs to stay in bounds and secure the ball is waning this season. Sure enough, Darren McFadden took the first-down carry and went out of bounds after a 9-yard gain. Nothing like saving your opponents a timeout. On second-and-1, Washington's best strategy was to let Dallas score so Kirk Cousins actually had a chance to drive the offense for the tie. Dallas should have been looking to get a first down and go down short of the end zone. That way Dallas could have set up the winning field goal as the final play. Come on, Jason Garrett. You were there when Brian Westbrook did this in 2007. Respect the clock. No one seemed to inform anyone on either side of what to do, because McFadden broke through a tackle at the 1-yard line for a touchdown.
It's not that this is a horrific outcome, but it's just not smart football. Instead of a walk-off field goal, you just left Washington 1:14 and two timeouts to get a game-tying touchdown. That is not too bad, and it got even more likely once the kickoff was returned 41 yards, then Washington gained 15 more yards for a face mask penalty. Suddenly, Cousins only had to drive 43 yards in 66 seconds. Washington actually moved too quickly. In hindsight, the timeout with 49 seconds left after a third-and-1 run to convert was probably a bad idea, when Washington came out and threw a 28-yard touchdown to Jackson on the next play. That was an aggressive call looking to get the score right away. Again, both touchdowns were nice outcomes, and both teams expected their defenses to do their job afterwards. But neither touchdown took the clock into consideration, and now the Cowboys were left with enough time to win.
Their drive also got a boost from a 46-yard kick return by Lucky Whitehead. Bryant made two catches for 20 yards, but Matt Cassel threw two incompletions to bring up fourth down. Initially I thought Dallas was closer to the 40-yard line and should have gone for it on fourth-and-2, but Bailey came out for a more reasonable 54-yard field goal. He made it, improving to an impressive 20-of-27 (74.1 percent) in his career on 50-yard field goals. Washington used up the final nine seconds on the kick return, filled with laterals to nowhere of significance.
One of these teams may be getting a home playoff game. Chew on that.
Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind
Eagles at Patriots: Save Your Job vs. Do Your Job (Not Well)
This may end up as the only game between Bill Belichick and Chip Kelly, but neither fanbase will soon forget this upset. It is one thing to lose a 14-point lead in Denver, but the Patriots have been unbeatable at home once they get ahead like that. In fact, the Patriots were 94-0 at home since 2001 when leading by at least eight points at any time in the game.
Every other NFL team had at least three losses in that situation. The Patriots usually keep pouring on the points as 45 of these games featured at least a 21-point lead. I certainly thought the game was a wrap at 14-0 with Tom Brady making tough throws under pressure, but the Eagles shocked everyone with three return touchdowns to highlight a 35-0 scoring run. Philadelphia led 35-14 with 7:45 left, but you knew things wouldn't end without drama. After one touchdown, Zach Ertz must have fallen victim to Belichick's Jedi mind tricks and botched the onside kick recovery in front of the New England sideline with 5:25 left.
Speaking of tricks, I noticed another clock operator error in a game involving the Eagles, but not in Philadelphia this time. Brady threw an incomplete pass with 4:49 left. There was a commercial timeout after a player injury. When the game resumed, the clock was running and the Patriots got the snap off at 4:42. Those seven seconds probably had no impact on the ending, but these things should not be happening. Brady finished another drive with a touchdown, but the onside kick did not work this time. A little surprised to see one there with three clock stoppages available, but the Eagles still had to do something on offense to clinch this one in the last three minutes.
Things sure started poorly with Sam Bradford taking a dive for no gain (a 0-yard sack) and Darren Sproles losing a yard, setting up third-and-11. But that's the spot you pay the quarterback lots of money to convert. The pocket was collapsing around Bradford, but he stepped up with a great throw to Riley Cooper for 14 yards.
All things considered, best Bradford throw I've ever seen. Don't know how he 1. Didn't get sacked 2. Found Cooper pic.twitter.com/oSzGElOnM9
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) December 7, 2015
Those lost seven seconds almost would have become a huge controversy as there was just a one-second difference between the play clock and the two-minute warning. One fewer second and the Eagles would have already won the game, but alas, they had to run a first-down play before the stoppage. I would almost have considered taking two knees and punting after what we have seen teams do in Foxboro over the years. The Eagles ran the ball twice, but on third down Kenjon Barner fought for extra yardage in a situation where only ball security matters. He was stripped by Jamie Collins and the Patriots had life with 1:02 left at their own 25 instead of maybe 20 seconds left to produce a miracle.
The last two teams to fumble in the final 80 seconds while protecting a one-score lead have now done it in New England. Arizona's Ryan Williams fumbled in a very similar situation (third-and-13 with 1:10 left) in 2012, but the Cardinals still won after Stephen Gostkowski had the only blown clutch field goal of his career in a loss. This is "couple of times a decade" stuff with the Jerome Bettis playoff fumble in Indianapolis being the most famous example. Incredibly, each of the five teams to do this since 1994 still won the game.
This was touchdown or bust, and the Patriots were working without Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman. The latter can be said for the entire game, but that stuff gets magnified when you need a quick score in crunch time. Brady picked up one first down before a spike. Brandon LaFell either heard footsteps or flat-out dropped a slant on second down. Danny Amendola could not bring in a high throw on third down (shades of Wes Welker in Super Bowl XLVI). On fourth-and-10, Keshawn Martin was the right option, but he lost the ball after Eric Rowe defensed it free. Even if Martin had held on, the play would have been negated by a holding penalty, setting up fourth-and-20 with 20 seconds left. New England's furious rally attempt was over and Chip Kelly can legitimately point to this as the biggest win of his NFL career. Sure, the Patriots were shorthanded, but the downtrodden Eagles of recent weeks just ended 94-0.
Ravens at Dolphins: Different Ending for the Home Team
Remember when these two teams were hot playoff picks before September? Miami won the 4-7 battle. As one of the NFL's scheduling quirks, the Ravens were in Miami for the third consecutive season. The game was close again late, but this is all Baltimore does now. The last 15 games for the Ravens have featured a comeback opportunity. Miami's offense failed to close the last two years, and that was more or less the same story here. Ryan Tannehill only completed 9-of-19 passes for 86 yards. The difference was Matt Schaub's habit of finding unique ways to throw a pick-six. It provides the same mixture of sadness and comedy as watching Bill Murray try different ways to kill himself in Groundhog Day. This time it was a tipped pass in the second quarter, which was big because Miami never scored again after taking a 15-0 lead.
The chances were there for the Ravens in the fourth quarter, trailing 15-10, but the offense faltered on third downs. Schaub fell in love with screens and checkdowns to Javorius Allen, who caught 12 balls and a touchdown, but had six failed receptions. Justin Tucker kicked a 31-yard field goal to make it 15-13. A big holding penalty put the Ravens at the 50 on third-and-11 where Schaub was sacked by Olivier Vernon. Despite Lamar Miller's big fumble with 4:17 left, Baltimore failed to earn one first down. Schaub threw incomplete on third-and-6 before grimacing in pain after a hit. Tucker tried a 55-yard field goal, but it was wide right with 2:42 left. That won't help his clutch kicking stats, but the kick was very difficult, not that far off the mark, and the field was a rain-soaked mess.
Tannehill's success rate was 1-for-8 in the second half, but he at least delivered a 14-yard strike on third-and-7 to DeVante Parker, who caught a touchdown earlier. That allowed Miami to run most of the clock. Tannehill took a sack on third down, which was smart to run off time. The Ravens got the ball at their own 20 with 20 seconds left. On the third play, a nifty lateral moved the ball to the Baltimore 39 with two seconds left, but even a healthy Schaub does not have the arm strength to get the ball deep on a Hail Mary a la Aaron Rodgers. Off his back foot, Schaub lobbed a pass around the Miami 35 to Kamar Aiken that never had a chance to do anything.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 59
Game-winning drives: 68 (plus six non-offensive game-winning scores)
Games with 4QC opportunity: 119/192 (62.0 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 28
Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro-Football-Reference. Screen caps come from NFL Game Pass.