Clutch Encounters: Week 15
by Scott Kacsmar
We only had seven games with a comeback opportunity this week, but three of them had lofty expectations, with deficits of 28, 25, and 17 threatening to be erased. The problem with those big comebacks is that the opponent usually finds a way to stop the bleeding and regains some of that form that led to the big lead in the first place. So much for the momentum talk, as the Giants were the latest team to discover on Sunday. But first we will look at the biggest comeback win for the Steelers in the regular season since 1997. That was so long ago I can actually recall coming back from church to watch that game. You had to say your prayers before committing to watching Kordell Stewart for three hours.
Game of the Week
Denver Broncos 27 at Pittsburgh Steelers 34
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 7 (27-20)
Head Coach: Mike Tomlin (19-38 at 4QC and 30-43 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger (26-38 at 4QC and 37-43 overall 4QC/GWD record)
The history of NFL postseason results has conditioned us to trusting the stingy defense over the high-flying offense, but all bets are off in the regular season. The prolific Steelers passed on 80.6 percent of their plays, shredding Denver's No. 1 defense in a way no one else has or maybe even could this season.
Pittsburgh's three wide receivers caught 32 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns. While Denver was missing three safeties, Ben Roethlisberger did not go bombs away on this defense. He got rid of the ball quickly to avoid Denver's pass rush, averaging 7.7 air yards per attempt, his third-lowest average in a 2015 game. Roethlisberger was only 2-of-5 for 39 yards with an interception on passes thrown more than 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. His approach was similar to one the Steelers used to beat the Patriots in 2011, which is frankly still the biggest win this team has had in the last five years, as it has failed to win a playoff game since the 2010 season.
But this one will rank right up there. Despite the hype of the incredible matchup on one side of the ball, early on it was the Denver offense picking apart the Pittsburgh defense. Brock Osweiler played his best half yet, delivering accurate passes to his receivers, showing off some mobility and leading four consecutive touchdown drives to build a 27-10 lead late in the second quarter. While some regression was expected after Denver started 8-for-8 on third downs, few would have predicted the Broncos would go 1-of-9 in the second half, in addition to failing twice on fourth down.
For the third game in a row, the Broncos went scoreless in the second half. That reflects poorly on Gary Kubiak's ability to adjust with his young quarterback, but sometimes the solution is as simple as better execution. That is what Mike Tomlin would say, as Pittsburgh is not a defense likely to make huge schematic changes after a bad half. The Steelers just made more plays at defending passes and rushing the passer after halftime. The Broncos hurt themselves with more penalties and dropped passes.
Pittsburgh trailed 27-20 to start the fourth quarter, but Markus Wheaton beat Bradley Roby for the game-tying touchdown with 12:34 left. Denver flirted with trouble a few times from that point. Osweiler watched Robert Golden drop an interception that had pick-six potential, then started the next drive with an aborted snap that the Broncos were fortunate to recover. Luck will sometimes cut both ways. On third-and-16, Vernon Davis dropped a first down after he made a little business decision with Mike Mitchell closing in. Eventually, Pittsburgh's defense made the big play. Osweiler tried to do too much after avoiding a sack and forced an interception to Ryan Shazier at the Denver 37.
We just had a table last week that noted the last four game-winning drives against Denver in a comeback win traveled a combined 34 yards. This one went 37 yards, which is still shorter than usual, but it is just another case of Denver's other units putting the defense in a bad spot. Still, the defense did suffer a major letdown with Roethlisberger finding Antonio Brown open for a 23-yard touchdown strike with 3:24 left. Chris Harris had not allowed a touchdown since late in 2013, but Brown beat him twice on an outstanding day with 16 catches for 189 yards on 18 targets.
Denver needed a touchdown, and Emmanuel Sanders would have been a wise target with the day he had against his former team (181 yards and a touchdown). The Broncos had a fourth-and-5 at the Pittsburgh 36. The plan looked to be matching up Sanders and Demaryius Thomas on the same side and having them clear out the flat for C.J. Anderson on a quick throw. I am not a fan of negative-ALEX throws on fourth down, especially when Shazier had the speed to make the tackle quickly. Had Osweiler been looking for a longer, quick pass to Sanders, which is one of his specialties, he might have had a huge completion. As it was, Osweiler's pass was off the mark and the Broncos turned it over on downs with 2:14 left.
The Broncos had four clock stoppages to use, so the Steelers needed to throw the ball at some point on the following drive. You are not going to just run out the clock on a day where you hand off 14 times for 26 yards. Denver would likely have gotten nearly two whole minutes to drive again. So instead of limiting Roethlisberger to a third-down pass, why not give him an extra chance on second down? I loved the pass idea, but hated the play-action call with one wideout on the field. Do what you do best in this situation, and that is shotgun with the three wide receivers Denver has not shown it can cover well. Roethlisberger compounded the bad formation by forcing a short pass to DeAngelo Williams that was intercepted by Brandon Marshall. Denver took over at the Pittsburgh 41 after a ridiculous decision by a quarterback having a great day.
Denver's response to the gift was disappointing to say the least. Will Allen dropped a game-ending interception on second down. On fourth-and-10, Pittsburgh's four-man rush was picked up, but Osweiler's pass for Sanders was off the mark with William Gay in good coverage. A forgettable four-and-out, but it still was not over with Denver having two timeouts to use, forcing the Steelers into a third-and-5 with 1:30 left. One could easily argue to run the ball, punt, and leave Osweiler with about 40 seconds to drive a very long field. The odds would be in the defense's favor there, but when you have Roethlisberger and Brown, you are going to trust those guys to end this on their terms. And they did, with an 8-yard gain that Harris never had a chance of defending. Roethlisberger was able to take three knees, clinching Pittsburgh's third win of the season over a 10-win team.
Roethlisberger is the first quarterback in NFL history with multiple games of 40 pass completions. This follows last year's achievements of becoming the first ever with multiple 500-yard passing games, and the first to throw six touchdowns in consecutive games. While others will come along and match or surpass those feats, there is something special about being the first. How special is it really in this pass-happy era where numbers like that are more frequent? That certainly helps a lot. You could say Roethlisberger is the great quarterback of his era who just got his best supporting cast around him in 2014-15, so that helped him get to those numbers while the likes of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees all had their best supporting casts years ago. But to Roethlisberger's credit, the four games associated with those milestones were all victories against teams with double-digit wins and above-average defenses. That makes those performances more special than if he were beating up on 2-14 teams.
This was the first 17-point comeback win for the Steelers since the 2002 AFC wild card win over Cleveland, which means this was the biggest comeback led in Roethlisberger's career.
While you could still acknowledge that Denver's defense disappointed, this may have been its toughest matchup of the season. The Broncos offense still has plenty of issues to solve with these disappearing acts that have gone on all season.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh's offense has been on a great run. The Steelers control their destiny for the playoffs with two very favorable games remaining in Baltimore and Cleveland. If the defense can tighten things up a bit, then this should be an interesting playoff team.
Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind
Carolina Panthers 38 at New York Giants 35
Come back to tie an unbeaten team, only to allow a game-winning field goal in a 38-35 loss? The Giants have been there before, but this time was different, and I am not talking about any stupid bats. New York became just the 10th team in NFL history to erase a deficit of at least 28 points, but those teams are only 3-5-2 in those games. You still have to make the final stop, and that has been a problem all year for the Giants.
|NFL History's 28-Plus Point Comebacks|
|12/7/1980||SF||NO||35-7||28||W 38-35 OT|
|1/3/1993||BUF||HOIL||35-3||32||W 41-38 OT|
While a small glimmer of hope remains for the Giants' playoff chances, this is likely going to be remembered as the "almost miracle season" where the team could have made another improbable run at a Super Bowl. Instead, the Giants lost six games in the final minute. They nearly ended another undefeated New England season at 8-0, but Landon Collins dropped a game-ending interception. With the 13-0 Panthers in town, the Giants again dropped too many game-changing balls, their star lost his cool, and even after mounting an epic comeback to tie the game, the Giants watched another last-second field goal beat them.
Another escape by Carolina is the kind of thing necessary for a team pushing towards an undefeated season. This was probably the last big roadblock to 16-0. This one did not seem like it would get close when the Panthers led 35-7 with just over 20 minutes left, but good passing teams have exposed some cracks in Carolina's defense this season. Overall, the Panthers are 10-0 in close games this season.
This comeback may have never even gotten started if the officials handled things differently. It is Tuesday, so by now everyone has heard a million takes on the embarrassing display from Odell Beckham Jr. and Josh Norman. I am going to focus on the game, but it is impossible to just ignore the significance of that matchup and how it affected both teams. With the score at 35-7, I would have liked to have seen both players ejected to put an end to the nonsense. This had been going on from the beginning of the game, and after multiple personal foul calls on both players on this drive, the officials should have done more to put a stop to it. Maybe there would have been ejections if these had not been two marquee names. Beckham is justifiably getting a one-game suspension for his actions, but Norman is no innocent victim here. I do not mind some of the recent scuffling we have seen (see Steelers-Bengals in Week 14), but it gets old fast and takes away from the game.
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One score still left the Giants in a 21-point hole to start the fourth quarter, but things got interesting with nine minutes left at 35-21 when Graham Gano's 34-yard field goal was blocked. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie had dropped a probable pick-six in the second quarter when the game was tied at 7, but he redeemed himself on the field goal block.
Eli Manning followed the block by forcing an interception in the red zone after Hakeem Nicks fell down, but the Giants caught a break just two plays later when Cam Newton botched an exchange on the read-option, putting the Giants right back in business at the Carolina 14. Manning finished that drive with a touchdown pass to Shane Vereen with 5:27 left.
Carolina then went three-and-out, barely taking a minute off the clock. You kind of felt like this was the time where the guy who really should not be in the game was going to do something big. Beckham had dropped a 52-yard touchdown to start the game, and had very few positives to show on the day against Norman.
As I brought up in Audibles this week, it is very frustrating how a team can move its best wide receiver into the slot, but most defenses won't slide their best cornerback over to keep covering him. For as much as Norman talks and given that he is in line to get paid, I could never justify breaking the bank on a corner if he cannot shadow a receiver all over the field. Norman just doesn't do that, and the Giants probably should have put Beckham in the slot more to keep him away from Norman. New York's offense has changed under Ben McAdoo, but the Giants used to use the slot differently from a team like New England in that Victor Cruz would still run a lot of vertical routes. On a big third-and-3, Beckham motioned into the slot away from Norman and ran a simple drag route to beat Cortland Finnegan for a 40-yard gain.
Finnegan was new to the defense, filling in for injured nickelback Bene Benwikere. That seems like it would have been the optimal matchup for New York and a nightmare for Carolina. According to Nathan Jahnke, Beckham lined up in the slot 18 times on Sunday, and Norman was on him for 56 of his 58 snaps when lined up outside. Again, if a receiver sliding over to the slot is all it takes to get a far greater matchup, then how do we not see this more often? I'm pretty sure the Giants can thrive with a few big gains like the one shown above. Just because the route starts inside doesn't mean Beckham can't go outside either.
The Giants still needed a touchdown, and a fourth-and-5 loomed. Beckham beat Norman on a double-move for the 14-yard touchdown, because what else would have been more fitting than that? The only problem is that 1:46 remained, and there are not many tougher jobs for a defense than to stop an offense from getting into field goal range these days. Since 2011, offenses with 60 to 120 seconds left in a tie game have either kicked a field goal or scored a touchdown on 45 percent of their drives.
New York's lack of a pass rush hurt here. Newton had tons of time to find Greg Olsen on a big 16-yard gain to the 47. After 12 more yards, Tom Coughlin could have used his first timeout with 52 seconds left with the Panthers on the fringes of field goal range. That is not an obvious decision, but at that point, the clock was only the enemy of the Giants and not the Panthers. On second down, Newton escaped the pocket, juked a defender and ran for enough yards to put him at an even 100 on the day to go along with 340 passing yards and five touchdowns -- a stat line no quarterback has ever had in an NFL game before.
That scramble enabled Carolina to set up the field goal as the final play. Coughlin tried to ice the kicker, but Gano was good from 43 yards away, kicking the Panthers to 14-0. That is the second time this season the Giants' offense scored late, but never got the ball back in a loss. This has happened to each Manning brother seven times now in what I like to call NGBB drives, which I defined last season as a game-tying or go-ahead drive where the offense never got the ball back again and lost.
|Games Lost After Tying/Go-Ahead Scoring Drive and NGBB|
|Quarterback||NGBB Losses||4QC/GWD Losses||Pct.|
Oddly enough, the Giants have lost a home game to an undefeated team in December by a final score of 38-35 in 2007 (Patriots), 2011 (Packers), and now 2015. Unlike those last two instances, it does not feel likely there will be a playoff upset this year.
Houston Texans 16 at Indianapolis Colts 10
Since 1998, the Colts are an NFL best 93-2 (.979) when allowing fewer than 17 points. The first loss was a Week 17 "playoff rest game" for Peyton Manning and the starters against the Titans. Indianapolis lost 16-10, allowing Tennessee into the playoffs. On Sunday, the second such loss was also 16-10, and it may have helped win the AFC South for the Houston Texans.
The Colts rarely lose such a low-scoring game, but these Colts are hardly recognizable without the presence of their usual quarterback. Following Week 5's win in Houston, I wrote that "[Matt] Hasselbeck was emotional after the win, which could potentially be the last significant game in a respectable career. Even at 40 and spending the week on IVs and antibiotics, Hasselbeck showed the Colts have a backup quarterback who is better than Houston's two-headed monster of [Brian] Hoyer and Ryan Mallett."
Hasselbeck has had to start seven games for the Colts this year due to Andrew Luck's injuries, and he has been very banged up himself. He leaned on the defense to build a 10-0 lead, but the offense went scoreless on its final seven possessions. The Texans were on to their third quarterback in T.J. Yates, but he tore his ACL in the second quarter. Enter Brandon Weeden, an antique who has to make opposing defenses feel good. Weeden had been just 1-13 at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities in his career, but he actually played well in relief here.
Down 10-6 to start the fourth quarter, Weeden led the Texans on a 90-yard march with a go-ahead touchdown pass to Jaelen Strong with 10:36 left. That is an oddity all to itself. Strong has six catches in his rookie season, and four of them have come against the Colts, including all three of his touchdowns. He caught a Hail Mary score and was all alone on a blown coverage in Week 5. This time, it was a nice play where Strong motioned into the backfield and ran across the formation uncovered for an easy catch. D'Qwell Jackson was too slow to make the tackle and the Texans led 13-10.
Hasselbeck was clearly ailing with a litany of sore spots and had to give way to Charlie Whitehurst for four plays. However, he returned for the Colts' next drive, which started in great field position at the Houston 49 with 3:07 left. One first down and Adam Vinatieri would have basically been in field-goal range. But that was when Griff Whalen, the Grief Whale, struck again with a rare fumble forced by Johnathan Joseph. After going on injured reserve on Monday, that could be it for Whalen in Indianapolis. Earlier this season he teamed up with Colt Anderson for the worst fake punt anyone has ever seen.
Houston definitely could have passed on third-and-5 to ice the game, but maybe there was not enough trust in Weeden, who joined the team a month ago. Maybe there was also trust in the defense to stop an injured Hasselbeck from driving the whole field. If that had been a healthy Andrew Luck on the other side, Bill O'Brien should be getting roasted for running the ball and kicking a field goal at the two-minute warning to take a 16-10 lead. Hasselbeck had his chance to carve out some Indianapolis lore with an 83-yard drive, but the Colts ended the game with back-to-back turnovers on offense. Hasselbeck bypassed the checkdown in the flat to throw a bomb that Donte Moncrief never seemed to expect or locate. Those types of miscommunication problems were part of the difficult day for the Colts, who lost to Houston at home for the first time in 14 meetings.
New York Jets 19 at Dallas Cowboys 16
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 4 (13-9)
Head Coach: Todd Bowles (2-3 at 4QC and 2-3 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Ryan Fitzpatrick (9-34 at 4QC and 11-35-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Most Dallas games do not look good on paper this year, but the team puts up a solid fight anyway. The problem is the Cowboys are just 3-8 at game-winning drive opportunities this year. Tony Romo led at least four game-winning drives in each of the previous four seasons, an NFL record, so his absence has certainly been missed on a team that would probably still be the favorites in this NFC East race with him.
The standard of play in this one on Saturday night was given a very low bar the moment Matt Cassel lost his balance and turned an intentional grounding throw into an interception for Darrelle Revis. I have never seen that before. Thankfully, Cassel was pulled for Kellen Moore, who should have gotten the start in the first place with the season lost. Everyone talks about Moore's lack of arm strength, but you'll never know what he has without letting him play. Moore had crazy production at Boise State, but it only took him two NFL passes to throw his first interception. He eventually settled down and Dallas even led going into the fourth quarter at 13-9.
Ryan Fitzpatrick led his offense back with some big contributions from the Jets' wide receiver depth. The Jets are probably the most wide receiver-heavy passing offense in football this season. Thanks in large part to the injury to Jace Amaro, the Jets have only eight catches from the tight end position in 2015. Quincy Enunwa is quietly the third-most targeted wideout on the team, and the imitation tight end made a difficult catch on third-and-14 for 24 yards. That set up a 3-yard touchdown pass to Eric Decker, who looked like he had suffered a season-ending leg injury earlier in the game, but miraculously returned to action. The Jets led 16-13 with 8:58 left.
Moore looked sharp on the ensuing drive, but faced a big third-and-13. This game was actually the starting point to my weekend of frustration with the way the slot is treated in these big matchups like Dez Bryant vs. Revis. Bryant moved into the slot, so he drew Buster Skrine while Revis stayed on the outside with little Cole Beasley. Who do you think is going to get the ball on third-and-13 with those matchups? Sure enough, Bryant beat Skrine to the outside for an 11-yard gain. Revis may not be in vintage form anymore, but I find it hard to believe he couldn't have moved over to cover Bryant on that important play. On a manageable fourth-and-2, Beasley caught the first down with Antonio Cromartie draped over him. The drive stalled from there and Dan Bailey got a lucky bounce off the upright on his 50-yard field goal to tie the game with 1:55 left.
Fitzpatrick has a tendency for the hurry-up sneak and he pulled one off to convert a third-and-1, but was fortunate not to fumble. On the next play, Fitzpatrick found a very open Kenbrell Thompkins down the sideline for a big 43-yard gain. Byron Jones was caught peeking into the backfield for no good reason, and if he expected safety help, it came too late. Thompkins really should have gone down in bounds to make the field goal the last play of the game, but he stepped out. Dallas used all three timeouts after stopping the Jets on three runs. Randy Bullock is not reliable, but he was good on the 40-yard field goal with 36 seconds left.
Dallas needed a miracle, so it is hard to fault Moore for the Hail Mary that would have set up a field goal, but there were too many Jets there. The pass was tipped and intercepted. Moore will make his first start in Week 16 while the Jets continue their playoff push with a huge game against the Patriots.
Atlanta Falcons 23 at Jacksonville Jaguars 17
What a strange season for Atlanta. The Falcons built up a 5-0 record by repeatedly coming back in the fourth quarter to sweep the distraught NFC East. If not for a slip-up against the Colts in Week 11, the Falcons would have swept the downtrodden AFC South too, with three ugly wins and one dismantling of Houston way back in Week 4. With those eight games and two more against what has become a historically bad defense in New Orleans, this schedule was supposed to help the Falcons get into the playoffs. Instead, that schedule is driving Carolina towards a 16-0 season while the Falcons went nearly two months without a win.
A good start in Jacksonville soon went south when a 17-3 lead was blown in the third quarter. Matt Ryan threw an interception on a tipped ball. Justin Hardy was unable to bring in a pass on third-and-7 that led to a short punt. Jacksonville fumbled twice inside its own 10-yard line in the first minute of the fourth quarter, but Atlanta recovered neither ball. All the bounces just seemed to be going against the Falcons again.
Yet one big break changed things. Atlanta's longest play from scrimmage was only 23 yards, but it was the penalty to start the ensuing drive that ended up being the team's longest gain of the day. Ryan threw deep for Julio Jones and Telvin Smith bumped into the receiver for a 31-yard penalty for pass interference. The call was a bit ticky-tack since Smith did look back for the ball, but that pretty much put the Falcons in field goal range. Kicker Matt Bryant is on injured reserve, but even Shayne Graham should have had no problem with a 33-yard field goal (that's how long extra points are now). He was good and the Falcons regained the lead at 20-17.
Blake Bortles' mobility is definitely important in this offense, and he actually led the team in rushing with 44 yards. Denard Robinson struggled in place of T.J. Yeldon with just 28 yards on 14 carries, but he did have eight short catches for 46 yards. However, his fumble on a second-and-1 sunk this drive and should have been recovered by the Falcons, but they botched that recovery too.
Ryan was sharp on his next drive, converting three third-down passes before stalling in the red zone. Despite my hatred of the six-point lead, I had no complaints about kicking a field goal on fourth-and-18.
Atlanta led 23-17 and Bortles had 1:37 with one timeout to answer with what would have been his most memorable game-winning drive yet. He had 89 yards to go after a poor kick return. I mentioned bad bounces against Atlanta a few times, but Jacksonville really had a crazy one here that led to a 30-yard catch for Marqise Lee.
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) December 21, 2015
The Falcons had a putrid 15 sacks coming into this game, but Adrian Clayborn was able to get Bortles down in a big spot to bring up third-and-10. Bortles then overthrew Allen Hurns before going back to his best target, Allen Robinson, on fourth down. The pass was just a little too tough to haul in with Robert Alford in close coverage and that was the game.
Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind
Packers at Raiders: Green Bay Did Win, Right?
If you only watched this post-game conference, you may think Jake Gyllenhaal was awkwardly portraying Aaron Rodgers after a tough loss. After digging into the game, the displeasure with the 30-20 road win in the rain actually makes some sense. The Packers are not used to winning ugly, but that is the best way to describe their attempts at executing here. Most of the scoring drives were short, with the offense unable to sustain much of a running game or do well on third down (4-of-13). Once the Packers did put together a massive drive (19 plays and 92 yards), that too ended with the disappointment of a field goal after having first-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
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Still, the Packers led 27-20 with 10:01 left and the defense had played very well. Derek Carr is hard to sack, but he brought a bad one on himself on a third-and-8. With the pocket collapsing, Carr continued to drop deeper before a scramble attempt that ultimately went down as a 14-yard sack for Julius Peppers. Oakland then pulled off a trio of mistakes on the punt: it was short (37 yards), it was returned 10 yards, and the Packers started at the Oakland 36 after a 5-yard penalty to boot. That led to a 33-yard field goal with 4:25 left, though Green Bay would have been able to run even more time without two incompletions from Rodgers.
Carr took another bad sack on a four-and-out drive, but the Packers were not done with their mistakes. With a 10-point lead, they should really have just been running clock here, but Rodgers made the same Ben Roethlisberger did in the Denver game. Rodgers forced a play-action pass on second down into double-coverage for an easy interception by David Amerson. You rarely see Rodgers make a throw so careless like that. Fortunately, Carr decided to check down to Marcel Reece on fourth-and-4 for a 1-yard loss.
Even still, the Packers could not get out of their own way. Jeff Janis had a holding penalty on a third-down run, and even though the defense declined that flag, the clock still stopped. So instead of being able to run the clock down to near 30 seconds, the Packers attempted a field goal with 1:12 left. You could argue that with the 10-point lead, they should have just run the ball there on fourth-and-6, because why risk a blocked kick? Well, the Raiders blocked Mason Crosby's 49-yard field goal and still had a shot for a miracle.
Green Bay games are no strangers to onside kick recoveries and Hail Mary touchdowns. But there was no drama here with the Raiders using 59 of the final 62 seconds just to go four-and-out. Oakland's offense failed to score on its final five possessions.
The Packers are 10-4 and in the playoffs, but this is not going to be the hap, hap, happiest Christmas in Green Bay after that performance.
Lions at Saints: Oh Fudge
Only I didn't say fudge. When Matt Prater missed a 38-yard field goal with nine seconds left in a 35-27 game, I knew I had another comeback opportunity to write about. I have covered them all, no matter how tedious or inconsequential, for the last five seasons. It is hard to recall another that did not come to inception until the final nine seconds. Drew Brees gutted it out on an injured foot to hit several passing milestones, but here I was about to credit him with a failed comeback for the 50th time in his career. This is where applying win probability to every game or drive would really help, but that remains on the to-do list.
These teams made it interesting after Detroit led 28-3, shredding the worst defense in the league with an unhealthy Calvin Johnson largely serving as a decoy. When the Saints made it 28-20 with 10:06 left, I thought about whether or not games like this should be included in my tabulations of close-game records. If Detroit's offense failed to score, Brees was going to have his opportunity with plenty of time to tie the game. These drives are important, and the Lions had little trouble moving 76 yards for another touchdown to go up 35-20.
The Saints' ensuing drive took a lot of plays, and burning the two-minute warning was a tough blow with only two timeouts left. However, Brees was able to find Benjamin Watson for a 1-yard touchdown with 1:55 left, leaving the Saints down 35-27.
Johnson contributed by recovering the ensuing onside kick. Joique Bell immediately broke a 36-yard run to the 9-yard line, but the Saints were able to use their timeouts to bring up a fourth down. With Detroit out of timeouts, the Lions took a delay of game penalty, which should not have been a huge deal in that field position. But Prater proceeded to shank the 38-yard field goal, his first miss of the season.
The Saints were left with nine seconds to go 72 yards, but if any two teams know that this is possible, these are those teams. The Lions just royally blew this situation with the Packers in Week 13, and the Saints came up with the River City Relay in 2003. Jim Caldwell would have been right to play the lateral this time, but the Saints should have thrown quickly to the sideline. That could have put the ball around the 45 with time for a 55-yard Hail Mary. Instead, Watson dropped the pass for the lateral play, leaving six seconds. But hey, the Packers had six seconds left from the 21 and still beat the Lions this year. This is why I end up counting these opportunities, as hopeless as they may be.
Tim Hightower got the ball on a screen. He had been out of action since 2011, but he does know on a lateral play you are supposed to lateral the ball, right? Hightower just ran into some tacklers and never bothered to do anything with the ball on a meaningless 18-yard gain. No face mask penalty this time. You would like to see a little more creativity on these plays, or at least enough common sense to get rid of the ball.
Need to get more creative on these laterals. Fake giving up to be tackled and pitch it back at last sec. pic.twitter.com/KnAiO4N6Cq
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) December 22, 2015
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 63
Game-winning drives: 78 (plus six non-offensive game-winning scores)
Games with 4QC opportunity: 135/224 (60.3 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 32
Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro-Football-Reference. Screen caps come from NFL Game Pass.