by Scott Kacsmar
Not so fast, Cleveland. Just 72 hours after the Browns' "kick-six" loss on Monday night, the Lions had to take losing to the next level. Forget the 20-0 lead that was squandered. Green Bay was 79 yards away from the end zone with six seconds left, and still managed to win the game. That only happens on a Hail Mary or a lateral-filled play. The Packers were able to try both after a controversial face mask penalty was called to extend the game with an untimed down. Detroit had already been on the wrong end of the missed illegal bat penalty in Seattle, but this one is going to hurt for much longer.
Aaron Rodgers unleashed a Hail Mary for a 61-yard touchdown, the longest Hail Mary to win a game since the phrase became famous after Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson in the 1975 playoffs. The Elias Sports Bureau has it as the longest game-winning touchdown pass to end regulation since Bobby Layne (65 yards) in 1960. That was back when the Lions (and Browns) were one of the league's best teams. Nowadays you just kind of expect these teams to find improbable ways to lose games.
We will make our way to the ending here in a Friday edition of Clutch Encounters. The rest of Week 13's close games will be covered on Tuesday. This was close to being a meager recap of another failed Green Bay comeback, but one penalty allowed for an ending that will live on through highlights of NFL history.
Game of the Week
Green Bay Packers 27 at Detroit Lions 23
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 9 (23-14)
Head Coach: Mike McCarthy (16-41-1 at 4QC and 22-43-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers (10-30 at 4QC and 14-32 overall 4QC/GWD record)
It just did not seem fathomable that this Detroit team, once 1-7, could pull off a season sweep of the Packers for the first time since 1991. Yet coming into the game, there were reasons to like the Lions in this one. Detroit had won three in a row out of its bye week, displaying some much improved defense along with a steadier Matthew Stafford. The Packers, 6-0 before the bye, had lost four out of five and came in with the passing offense struggling in ways we are not used to seeing. The receivers were not getting open, Aaron Rodgers was no longer throwing anyone open and two starters on the offensive line were out with injuries. Center Corey Linsley even got hurt in the second quarter.
After one quarter, everything we have recently watched looked to be happening again. Green Bay trailed 17-0 with Stafford on point for two touchdown passes while Rodgers threw a rare interception in between the scores. Then there was the strange second quarter -- the first scoreless second quarter of the 2015 season. These offenses managed an impotent 44 yards of offense between them in the quarter. That would be on pace for a 176-yard game, compared to the average 2015 game featuring 711 yards of total offense. After two strong games in a row, Eddie Lacy had six touches for 1 yard in the first half. He never touched the ball in the second half as John Crockett made his NFL debut and chipped in 22 yards on a night Rodgers led Green Bay in rushing with 27 yards. Lacy may have been in the doghouse for reasons unknown to the public this week.
The running game wasn't going, especially in short-yardage situations, and Rodgers was not able to do much even after getting good time. The receivers just were not breaking open for big plays.
If there was hope for this comeback, it was that Green Bay's defense played very well in the second quarter on four possessions. Detroit opened up the third quarter with a field goal drive that consumed 6:06, but down 20-0, the Packers were still in position where one break gets them back in the game.
Finally establishing a good drive, the break came when a James Starks fumble squirted into the end zone and Randall Cobb was there for the recovery instead of a Detroit defender. On the very next play from scrimmage, Julius Peppers got around Riley Reiff for a strip-sack and the Packers only had to go 12 yards for a touchdown. Davante Adams hung onto this one and the Packers trailed 20-14. The threat of the big lead was gone.
Peppers has 132.5 sacks now, but hopefully his 45 forced fumbles will also factor into his Hall of Fame case. Only Robert Mathis (48) and John Abraham (46) have more since 2001 according to the data at NFL.com. The sack is one thing, but stripping the ball out to potentially get a turnover is huge. Peppers really turned this game around to set up the exciting fourth quarter.
Detroit Regains Control
Ezekiel Ansah (12.5 sacks) has provided the pass rush for Detroit this season. He sacked Rodgers on third-and-14 to start the fourth quarter. Detroit's offense had a very interesting drive, moving 34 yards on 13 plays to take 6:29 off the clock. Peppers did have a big offsides penalty on a third-and-13, costing his defense a stop. The Lions eventually converted a fourth-and-2 after that, which Jim Nantz called a gamble, but it was really a no-brainer decision at the Green Bay 38. You need points here. If there was a time to go conservative, it was under the 7:30 mark with the ball at the 24. Two runs could have burned off over 80 more seconds, putting Green Bay in a 23-14 hole with less than six minutes to play. Stafford threw two incompletions to stop the clock and Matt Prater made a 42-yard field goal with 7:06 left.
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Just like in Week 10, the Packers trailed the Lions by nine points in the fourth quarter. We had the table earlier this season, but Rodgers was infamously 0-26 in his career when trailing by multiple scores in the second half. That table is going into retirement, but I am sure we will look at similar things down the road in comparisons to others. I thought the streak would end last time against the Lions, who now account for five of Rodgers' 14 game-winning drives.
Rodgers started and finished his next drive with a scramble, but the Packers also burned their first timeout with the clock stopped early in the drive. Those are crucial. On third-and-11, Rodgers had a path to the end zone and took it with a nice scramble for the touchdown with 3:04 left. Detroit's defensive backs were so committed to coverage in the end zone, they had no clue Rodgers was running untouched. Green Bay was now only down 23-21, which is either great because it means a field goal, or nerve-racking since that means the game comes down to Mason Crosby.
The Four-Minute Offense
The four-minute offense is indisputably the best way to end a game. Why even give your defense an opportunity to lose the lead? Detroit sure seemed poised to do so with a false start and negative run. After that false start, I think you almost have to throw on first-and-15, even if it is something short and safe. Stafford did so on second down with a screen, setting up third-and-12 with the Packers out of timeouts. The Packers rushed four, the protection held up and Stafford threw a dagger over the middle to T.J. Jones for 29 yards. It was just Jones' third catch of the season and he even got up to run some more after not being touched down right away.
But just like last week with Chicago in Green Bay, the offense could not run out the clock with this first down. If there was 2:47 left instead of 2:54, Detroit would have won the game, but those seven extra seconds meant the Lions needed to run a first-down play before the two-minute warning. Not surprisingly, Detroit stayed conservative with three Joique Bell runs that lost 3 yards. After a mediocre punt for 35 yards, the stage was set for our final drive.
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The Not Pass Interference
With 23 seconds and no timeouts left, Rodgers took over at his own 21. This is a tough situation. Your best hope is to complete a pass over the middle like Detroit just did for about 25 yards, do a quick spike, then try to hit a quick sideline pass for about 15 more yards (like Tom Brady to Brandon LaFell on Sunday night in Denver) to try a 58-yard field goal.
Rodgers' deep shot on first down was defensed well. On second down, Rodgers scrambled before firing a bomb to Jared Abbrederis near the Detroit 25. If he catches the ball, the clock runs out, so Rodgers may have thrown this just to try drawing a pass interference flag. Otherwise, it made no sense. Some people thought the Lions got away with interference. I think it was a good no call. Isa Abdul-Quddus was looking back for the ball and was in better position for the catch. He contacts Abbrederis, but not in a way that reroutes or restricts him. Abbrederis actually puts both arms around Abdul-Quddus, so if anything it could have been offensive pass interference. But plays like this should just be left alone when two guys are competing like that.
No call when two guys compete for ball. If anything, Abbrederis did more to restrict the DB's ability to catch. pic.twitter.com/EL3s1FlZzr
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) December 4, 2015
The Lateral and the Controversy
With six seconds left, your only real option is the lateral. James Jones caught his lone pass of the night for 19 yards before flipping it back to Richard Rodgers. If Rodgers could have lateraled it immediately to Randall Cobb, then I think this might have had something down the field.
Quick lateral to Rodgers, then quick one to Cobb, don't you think? Not sure how much this gets practiced. pic.twitter.com/CMjpZlpnfF
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) December 4, 2015
But the tight end Rodgers decided to throw the ball back 16 yards to the quarterback Rodgers, who was the only Green Bay player behind the play. Rodgers had no one to lateral to, so he tried to juke Devin Taylor, who pulled him down rather easily for the game-ending tackle with no time left. Well, at least that was the scene until the yellow flag came in.
It's even worse in slow motion. Helmet was fine after phantom face mask. Rest of hit causes AR's strap to move pic.twitter.com/pBApscuHBc
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) December 4, 2015
At full speed, it is reasonable to see why the official would go with a face mask penalty. It had "that look" to it with Rodgers' head turning a little and him coming out of the hit with his chin strap covering his mouth. However, replay shows this was just a great illusion of a penalty. The length of contact to the face mask area lasts six tenths of a second, and that is measured from a slow motion replay. If they start calling face mask penalties for stuff like this, it really shows the need to add this penalty to the replay system.
This was basically the old 5-yard face mask penalty, which the NFL eliminated a few years ago in favor of a 15-yard penalty for serious infractions only. We have incidental contact with Taylor's thumb grazing the face mask. That is not grasping the face mask and then twisting, turning or pulling it. Taylor grasps the shoulder pad, and since Rodgers is trying to make a move on a strong player taking him down by the shoulder pad -- Rodgers was already turning his head left before the contact that moved him to his right -- that creates the illusion of the head turning due to face mask contact. The forcible pull was from the grasped shoulder pad. Grabbing the shoulder pad like that is legal. This head contact is legal since Rodgers is a runner in the field of play in a non-defenseless position and not under the usual protections of a quarterback in the pocket.
Even if you think Taylor grasps the face mask, he immediately releases it, so it should not be a penalty by rule. The referees blew this call and the game should have been over at this point with Detroit winning.
Having a system in place where replay can review such a crucial play seems like an absolute necessity with the stakes involved and the technology available to the league. Like I hinted at with the ending of Jaguars-Ravens this year, the final play of the game should be open to a special review by replay. With no time left on the clock, this would have qualified in spite of the untimed down to come. Why only the last play? Hey, maybe we can extend that to the final two minutes, but game pace becomes an issue at some point. The last play of the game leaves no margin for error. You cannot overcome a bad call like you can in the first quarter. If the NFL can get one more play right than they currently are, then that's still a good thing. They'll never get them all right because of human error, but at least get the most important play right.
The face mask is certainly not a call that has little controversy. How often do we see offensive players grab it on a stiff arm and get away with it? They hold it much longer than Taylor ever did. Any Green Bay fan saying NFL officials would always throw this flag must have blocked out the ending of the Packers' overtime loss in Arizona in the 2009 playoffs. Rodgers had his face mask pulled on a fumble-six that lost the game. No call. Dean Blandino's wording of officials "make that call almost every time" is interesting to say the least.
What happened next should go down as one of the all-time great winning plays in NFL history, but I cannot help but feel it is tainted by the face mask call.
The Hail Mary Finish
Now with the ball at the Green Bay 39, the Hail Mary should have been expected. Rodgers, who turned 32 on Wednesday, is well known to have the arm strength to get the ball that far. He evaded Detroit's three-man rush, got a good running start into the throw and unleashed a rainbow. Richard Rodgers was all alone at the 5-yard line and just tracked the ball with a perfectly-timed jump to make the tall catch for the 61-yard touchdown. Incredible.
— SB Nation NFL (@SBNationNFL) December 4, 2015
Now that is an above-the-head catch. This looked too easy for such a low-percentage Hail Mary, the longest successful one we have seen in the NFL. Well, it was easier because the Lions inexplicably were not defending a Hail Mary. Jim Caldwell admitted after the game that Detroit played to prevent another lateral play. Are you kidding me? Everyone knows about Rodgers' arm strength. Anything after the 35-yard line should be considered a Hail Mary attempt here regardless of the quarterback. The three-man rush is fine in that situation. The problem is wasting two defenders at the 40-yard line, who provided absolutely no value to the play.
Good the Lions made sure to protect the fringes of FG range w/those two guys. With 0:00 left when the play started pic.twitter.com/sDKlosxKnb
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) December 4, 2015
Think having eight defenders to cover five receivers might have worked better, or rushing five may have given Rodgers less of a chance to throw a nice pass? Think having someone like Calvin Johnson out there would have been smart? We recently watched Coby Fleener intercept a Hail Mary. You are the winners of losing this season, Detroit. Your grasp on this win was stronger than any grasp on Rodgers' face mask, yet somehow the Packers still walked out with a victory.
This is just the seventh drive since 1981 where an offense started with fewer than 30 seconds left in the fourth quarter, tied or down 1 to 8 points, and scored a touchdown.
In his post-game interview, Rodgers said this was the greatest game he has been a part of since his Super Bowl, which ended the 2010 season. Really? I know he hates the "win big, lose close" reputation. He sure sounded like a guy relieved to finally come out on the winning end of a game like this, but the greatest game? If his greatest game in five years requires two fumble recoveries, a phantom face mask penalty and a long Hail Mary to beat the Lions, then you really have to wonder where the Packers are headed this season.
Wherever it is, it is still better than Detroit.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 52
Game-winning drives: 60 (plus six non-offensive game-winning scores)
Games with 4QC opportunity: 109/177 (61.6 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 25
Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro-Football-Reference. Screen caps come from NFL Game Pass.