Clutch Encounters: Week 4
by Scott Kacsmar
"When I grow up, I want to be an NFL kicker, or maybe a referee." Son, you must have missed Week 4 of the 2015 season. You should also strive to get a career in a full-time position. We started the week with a crazy kicking finish in Pittsburgh, and we ended with some more officiating controversy in Seattle on a Monday night. In between there were six game-winning drives on Sunday.
Game of the Week
Minnesota Vikings 20 at Denver Broncos 23
This was Week 4's only game between teams with winning records, and it lived up to expectations as a defensive slugfest. Leading 20-10 and facing a fourth-and-1 at its own 49, Denver punted on the first play of the fourth quarter. That may be unusual for a Peyton Manning team, but the Broncos are led by defense right now. The punt pinned Minnesota at its own 3, but Teddy Bridgewater made some plays to move the ball to midfield. Facing fourth-and-1 at the Denver 48, Minnesota had to go for it. Adrian Peterson got the carry and the red sea parted for him, leading to a pretty easy touchdown run on an otherwise tough day for the back.
Manning then missed a throw badly and threw an interception for the second time in the game. However, the Denver defense held and only allowed the game-tying field goal with 5:11 left. This won't be a game-winning drive Manning will remember fondly due to his picks, but he atoned with two completions for 28 yards to move into Minnesota territory. Denver's running game was better this week as Ronnie Hillman gained more yards on his 72-yard touchdown run in the second quarter than Denver had gained as a team in any of its last three games. C.J. Anderson chipped a 13-yarder, his best run of the year, and the Broncos were in field goal range. Facing a third-and-6 at the two-minute warning, Manning had to throw with Minnesota still having two timeouts. He could have put more on the ball to Demaryius Thomas, but Xavier Rhodes had good defense to break up the pass near the goal line. Brandon McManus was good on the 39-yard field goal and Denver led 23-20.
In these situations, Denver's defense is a real treat to watch. Asking right tackle T.J. Clemmings to block Von Miller is asking too much. He surrendered a sack two plays into the drive, but Bridgewater made a great scramble for a first down on third-and-10. Mike Wallace caught a 17-yard pass after Aqib Talib slipped, and you started to think Minnesota was going to at least force overtime.
Then the pressure came. Bridgewater initially had time, but no open receivers, leading to the most epic throwaway out of bounds since Ben Roethlisberger against the 2010 Ravens (hooray for obscure video). As good as that was, Bridgewater's awareness was lacking on the next play. Safety T.J. Ward blitzed on second down and Bridgewater should have gotten rid of the ball to one of his two safety valves. Instead he was hit and fumbled and the Broncos recovered for yet another game-clinching takeaway. Bridgewater impressed throughout the game, but the ending put a damper on his day as he suffered his seventh sack.
The Rams (2-2), Ravens (1-3), and Saints (1-3) are the only teams besides Denver that have played four close games in the fourth quarter this season. The offense still is not up to par, but the Broncos are 4-0 thanks to the league's best defense. This defense also continues to play great in key moments. Since 2012, the Broncos are 20-3 (.870) when the defense has to protect a 1- to 8-point lead in the fourth quarter. Only the Colts (22-2) and Cardinals (21-3) have better records in that time. What makes Denver so impressive are all the big takeaways and splash plays they continue to generate in these situations.
|Denver Broncos Defense: Fourth-Quarter Comeback Attempts (Broncos Leading By 1 to 8 Points), 2012-2015|
|9/9/2012||PIT||B.Roethlisberger||25-19||W 31-19||3:00||T.Porter pick-six w/1:58 left|
|10/15/2012||at SD||P.Rivers||28-24||W 35-24||3:52||C.Harris pick-six w/2:05 left|
|11/4/2012||at CIN||A.Dalton||24-20||W 31-20||11:42||C.Bailey INT w/8:38 left; offense added TD|
|11/18/2012||SD||P.Rivers||30-23||W 30-23||0:23||E.Dumervil sacks Rivers to end game|
|11/25/2012||at KC||B.Quinn||17-9||W 17-9||0:11||D.Bruton INT w/0:00 left|
|1/12/2013||BAL||J.Flacco||35-28||L 38-35 OT||1:09||70-yd TD pass to J.Jones w/0:31 left; lose in OT|
|9/15/2013||at NYG||E.Manning||24-16||W 41-23||15:25||C.Harris INT w/14:53 left|
|10/6/2013||at DAL||T.Romo||48-48*||W 51-48||2:39||D.Trevathan INT w/1:57 left|
|10/27/2013||WAS||R.Griffin||28-21||W 45-21||14:18||V.Miller strip-sack w/13:15 left|
|11/10/2013||at SD||P.Rivers||28-20||W 28-20||6:43||Incomplete on 3rd-and-16 w/3:37 left|
|11/24/2013||at NE||T.Brady||24-21||L 34-31 OT||14:32||J.Edelman go-ahead TD rec. w/13:13 left; lose in OT|
|12/1/2013||at KC||A.Smith||35-28||W 35-28||3:32||Incomplete on 4th-and-4 at DEN 13 w/1:46 left|
|12/22/2013||at HOU||M.Schaub||16-13||W 37-13||15:21||M.Adams INT w/14:11 left; offense added TD|
|9/7/2014||IND||A.Luck||31-24||W 31-24||2:58||Incomplete on 4th-and-6 at DEN 39 w/1:51 left|
|9/14/2014||KC||A.Smith||24-17||W 24-17||3:20||Incomplete on 4th-and-2 at DEN 2 w/0:15 left|
|10/5/2014||ARI||L.Thomas||27-20||W 41-20||13:48||Three-and-out w/12:20 left|
|10/12/2014||at NYJ||G.Smith||24-17||W 31-17||0:56||A.Talib pick-six w/0:15 left|
|11/23/2014||MIA||R.Tannehill||32-28||W 39-36||5:01||T.Ward INT w/3:30 left; offense added TD|
|12/22/2014||at CIN||A.Dalton||29-28||L 37-28||9:43||M.Nugent 23-yd GW FG w/7:49 left (drive start: DEN 12)|
|9/13/2015||BAL||J.Flacco||19-13||W 19-13||2:55||D.Stewart INT in end zone w/0:28 left|
|9/17/2015||at KC||A.Smith||31-24||W 31-24||0:27||Game-winning fumble return TD; sacked Smith to end game|
|9/27/2015||at DET||M.Stafford||17-12||W 24-12||7:50||D.Bruton INT w/3:37 left; offense added TD|
|10/4/2015||MIN||T.Bridgewater||23-20||W 23-20||1:51||T.Ward strip-sack w/0:29 left|
|*Trailed earlier in 4th quarter; allowed 15 points to Dallas in quarter|
|Note: not every drive is listed for each game|
Eighteen of the 23 games saw the Broncos end a drive with a takeaway, a sack, or a fourth-down stop. Even when the Cowboys scored 15 fourth-quarter points in 2013, the defense made its mark with Danny Trevathan's interception of Tony Romo to set up the game-winning field goal. Even the comebacks allowed to the 2013 Patriots and 2014 Bengals can't be blamed much on the defense since the go-ahead points were scored on really short fields after special teams mistakes. The only blemish on this defense remains that one time Rahim Moore misplayed a deep ball to Jacoby Jones in the playoffs. But outside of Miller and Chris Harris, most of these Denver defenders were not on that 2012 team. Denver has a chance to rewrite its legacy under Wade Phillips -- oh, and Gary Kubiak -- and so far the 2015 Broncos are delivering in every close situation.
Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind
Dallas Cowboys 20 at New Orleans Saints 26 (OT)
Drew Brees returned to action after missing a game due to injury for the first time in his career. By his final stat line (33-of-41 passing for 359 yards and two touchdowns), this looked like another dominant night in the Superdome in prime time, but the eye test was not as favorable. Brees looked a little limited due to a shoulder injury, as he was barely testing the deep ball. His average pass traveled 4.3 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, just 3.3 yards in the first half. At halftime, Brees was 17-of-20, but for only 115 yards. He finished the night with 12 failed completions, a very high total. However, by the end of the game Brees was much more Brees-like, essentially putting the Saints in position for three go-ahead drives in the fourth quarter and overtime.
On the other side, it must be disheartening for Dallas to get a good game out of Brandon Weeden and still lose. Weeden's 80.9 QBR was the highest in any of his 23 starts. He too entered this game on a dink-and-dunk spree -- his average pass was thrown a league-low 4.8 yards through Week 3 -- before playing a more balanced game, with his average pass coming 9.9 yards down the field against the Saints. His problems were mostly connecting with Terrance Williams, about the only outside receiver worth a damn on this offense given Dez Bryant's injury. Williams only caught 3-of-10 targets from Weeden on the night, but the last one was a doozy.
This game got really good with about 10 minutes remaining. How refreshing was it to see the Saints go for it on fourth-and-1 at the Dallas 45 in a 13-13 game? This usually is a punt from a coach wanting to play the field position battle. According to the play finder at Pro-Football-Reference, this was only the sixth time since 1994 that an offense went for it on fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter (excluding the final minute of regulation) of a tied game with the ball between the 50 and the opponent's 40. Coincidentally, the last three attempts have all been against Dallas. Teams punted the ball nine times in this situation.
Brees converted with a short pass to Khiry Robinson, who finished the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run to take a 20-13 lead. If you blinked, you may have missed Christine Michael's Dallas debut: getting stuffed on a third-and-1 run. The Saints only gained one first down before punting the ball back.
Here was Weeden's moment: 91 yards to go in 4:05. He hit three big passes for 71 yards, but started to force passes to Williams. On fourth-and-7, Weeden went to Williams one more time, and he was rewarded with a great diving catch for a 17-yard touchdown with Delvin Breaux in coverage. That was an unlikely game-tying drive, but Weeden did his job. The Saints called their final timeout to possibly get a booth review of the play, but no dice. The timeout surprisingly ended up being inconsequential.
Brees was masterful in the no-huddle offense. Once Brees hit a 30-yard pass to get into field goal range, Jason Garrett did something smart and immediately used his first timeout. With the Saints out of timeouts, Garrett was able to use his three timeouts to compel them to kick the field goal on third down so it would not be the game's final play. Given just 16 seconds remaining, the Saints were wise to try the field goal instead of risking another play. If you're short, you can't spike the ball on fourth down. If you have to spike it, that's cutting it too close for comfort. Zach Hocker only had to kick a 30-yard field goal, but he hit the left upright with 12 seconds left. That was the cherry on top for Week 4's anti-clutch kicking effort. Brees already has seven career losses with a missed clutch field goal, or as many as Peyton Manning (six) and Tom Brady (one) combined. Thirty yards is shorter than an extra point now.
Thanks to the London game, one of the longest NFL Sundays was about to get longer with overtime. Fortunately, this made history as the shortest regular-season overtime game in NFL history at 13 seconds. The Saints can thank the kickoff rule change (more touchbacks) and Khiry Robinson for dropping a first-down pass to help achieve this record. On second down, Brees had C.J. Spiller open down the right sideline, and he broke a Barry Church tackle on his way to an 80-yard game-winning touchdown catch.
It's the 37th game-winning drive for Brees, who is 37-54 (.407) in these opportunities. That is the same record as Warren Moon, who played 218 games in his career. Sunday was Brees' 216th game (including playoffs). It will also go down as one of his more memorable given that touchdown pass was the 400th of Brees' career.
Oakland Raiders 20 at Chicago Bears 22
For all the flak Jay Cutler gets, he will always be a much better quarterback than Jimmy Clausen. Oakland probably dreamt all week of starting 3-1, but the surprise news on Sunday morning that Cutler would start despite a hamstring injury definitely changed the way this game played out.
Cutler's defense also finally helped out this season, only allowing two plays longer than 20 yards to Oakland's new-look offense. Latavius Murray was held in check (49 rushing yards) and he lost a fumble in the fourth quarter after dropping a pitch from Derek Carr. Robbie Gould helped with a 54-yard field goal to take a 19-17 lead with 13:01 to play.
However, it would not be a true Cutler game without a flat-footed interception in scoring territory in the fourth quarter. Charles Woodson was guilty of the theft, his 62nd-career interception, which puts him in a tie for ninth all time with Dick LeBeau and Dave Brown. The next closest active player is DeAngelo Hall with 43 interceptions. It could be a very long time before we see another player reach 62 interceptions.
Carr started from his own 9, but used Michael Crabtree to quickly move the drive to midfield. Being a 19-17 game, it felt like Oakland got conservative once the clock dipped under four minutes and the ball was inside the Chicago 30. Roy Helu got the ball on four straight plays, but he was stopped on a third-and-2 after just converting one on the previous set of downs. If Oakland thought another Helu run was its best chance to convert, then so be it, but I would rather put the ball in the hands of my best players. Chicago had two timeouts and plenty of time to answer with a game-winning field goal, so it was very important for Oakland to try scoring the go-ahead touchdown. Instead the Raiders settled for Sebastian Janikowski's 41-yard field goal with 2:05 left to take a 20-19 lead.
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Chicago's drive nearly ended on four plays with Khalil Mack getting a second-down sack. On fourth-and-5, Cutler threaded a needle to Martellus Bennett for 7 yards, because Oakland has not covered the tight end position all year. Bennett finished with 11 catches for 83 yards and a wide-open touchdown on the day. Cutler stuck to the short stuff outside of one bomb that fell incomplete. He showed off that impressive arm strength by gunning a pass over the middle to Eddie Royal for 12 yards. After another completion, Matt Forte carried for a 2-yard gain to give Chicago a fresh set of downs with one timeout left.
Both teams were sort of in no man's land. Chicago would have liked to have gotten closer for a shorter field goal, but time was a factor. Jack Del Rio could not use his three timeouts the way Jason Garrett did against New Orleans, because the Bears still had one timeout that allowed them to make the field goal the last play regardless of Oakland's timeouts. Chicago called timeout with seven seconds left and brought out Gould. He squeezed the 49-yard kick in and Chicago led 22-20 with two seconds left. There was only enough time for Oakland to have fun trying a bunch of laterals on the kick return, but the very first lateral was a forward pass by Helu, so the whole thing was moot.
Jacksonville Jaguars 13 at Indianapolis Colts 16 (OT)
An injury to his throwing shoulder kept Andrew Luck out of action, snapping a streak of 51 consecutive starts to begin his NFL career.
Matt Hasselbeck is one of the more capable backups in the league, and the Colts have a big game in Houston on Thursday night to think about. Of the 12 games in the Luck era where the Colts have held a 20-point lead, five of them have been against the Jaguars. This was a good decision to rest Luck, but the Colts really lucked out in getting the win. Forget 20-point leads, the Jaguars were very much game and only six points were scored in the entire second half by both teams.
We also learned the Colts still have plenty of offensive issues that go well beyond Luck. Hasselbeck was sacked three times and hit seven more behind a revamped offensive line. Andre Johnson failed to catch a pass. Frank Gore struggled early and couldn't get into the end zone. Jacksonville made things tough too. After the Colts tied the game at 13 and were driving again in the fourth quarter, the Jaguars forced a Gore fumble just yards shy of the end zone with 8:19 left. That's the second time this season Gore lost a fumble at home inside the 5-yard line.
Both defenses were playing well, but Blake Bortles started a drive at his own 27 with 45 seconds left and two timeouts. The second-year quarterback made some nice plays to get the Jaguars into field goal range. Kicker Jason Myers came on for the 53-yard field goal, prompting flashbacks of past Jacksonville upsets over the Colts on long field goals from Josh Scobee. Chuck Pagano called timeout just as Myers was wide right on the kick, so it did not count. Wait, an Indianapolis coach making a mistake with a timeout in the last minute? That too brings back a third memory of a 59-yard Scobee field goal to beat the Colts. Oh, if only the Jaguars had Scobee this week (or maybe not). Myers was again wide right and the Colts dodged a bullet to head to overtime. You don't "freeze" a green kicker on a long attempt like that.
The teams exchanged punts with Jacksonville first getting a second overtime possession. The Jaguars could have done more on third-and-11 to get closer, but T.J. Yeldon rushed for 3 yards. Myers had a more makeable 48-yard field goal attempt, Pagano kept the ice to cool down his hot seat, and the kicker missed again (wide left) with 8:13 left.
This one started to make you think of a tie, but Hasselbeck immediately hit Coby Fleener for a 28-yard gain. Three plays later Gore broke a run for 22 more yards and the Colts centered the ball for Adam Vinatieri. He is hardly automatic in these situations, but a 27-yard field goal was no problem for the oldest kicker in the league, clinching the 25th career game-winning drive for the oldest quarterback in the league. It was ugly again, but that goes down as the Colts' 15th-straight win against the AFC South. They just needed the opposing kicker to turn into Mike Vanderjagt instead of Josh Scobee.
Philadelphia Eagles 20 at Washington Redskins 23
This game broke some trends, to say the least. All three Philadelphia running backs, including DeMarco Murray, averaged at least 4.0 yards per carry. Sam Bradford finally threw and connected on some deep balls, including a 39-yard touchdown to take a 20-16 lead two plays into the fourth quarter. Miles Austin was on the receiving end, confirming Miles Austin is still alive in 2015. But maybe the biggest surprise was Kirk Cousins throwing 46 passes without a single interception.
After both offenses stalled with some dropped passes, Cousins also put together the first true game-winning drive of his career. He had failed on his previous seven attempts in games he started, never leading Washington to a tie or lead on any of his drives. The lone 4QC/GWD of his career came in 2012 against Baltimore. Robert Griffin III left that game with an injury with the ball already at the Baltimore 26. Cousins finished off the drive for a touchdown and ran in the two-point conversion, but didn't even have to drop back in overtime on the game-winning drive thanks to a long punt return. We have seen Cousins throw too many interceptions in these moments, but with 6:05 left and 90 yards to go, he had all the time he needed to be patient.
Cousins also had a running game help pitch in 41 yards to get the ball to the Philadelphia 42 with just over two minutes left. From there, Cousins dropped back on nine straight plays. There were a few more drops, but Cousins also stuck in some nice throws into tight windows. The Redskins were effective with time management too, setting up a first-and-goal at the 4-yard line with 35 seconds left. After a throwaway, Cousins showed good anticipation on another stick throw with the Eagles in tight, man coverage on each receiver. Pierre Garcon beat Walter Thurmond to the ball for the touchdown and Washington led 23-20.
With three timeouts in hand, the Eagles weren't finished with 26 seconds left, but with Caleb Sturgis, their kicking situation was a mess. Bradford needed chunk plays, but Washington's four-man rush brought him down for two sacks by Trent Murphy and Ryan Kerrigan. On fourth-and-16, the Eagles fumbled their lateral attempt to end the game.
It should be noted the Eagles were 1-3 in 2013 before making the playoffs at 10-6, but most of the core of that team is gone. A turnaround built on a quarterback change and easy schedule is unlikely to repeat itself in 2015.
Cleveland Browns 27 at San Diego Chargers 30
The most combined yards in a game this season were the 941 yards from the Ravens and Raiders in an unexpected Week 2 shootout. The Chiefs and Bengals combined for 906 yards on Sunday. Third place? Well, that's another AFC North vs. AFC West clash, but who expected 870 yards from the Browns and Chargers? Sure, cornerbacks Jason Verrett and Joe Haden were both out, but the Chargers were missing three offensive line starters and the Browns, well, they are the Browns. Brian Hartline and Dwayne Bowe were the "big-name signings" this offseason, but those guys combined for one catch on Sunday. Travis Benjamin and Gary Barnidge are carrying this passing game for Josh McCown right now -- what a time to be alive.
Philip Rivers rebounded with a big game, but San Diego has relied on some unusual names as well. Only leading by one point in the fourth quarter, an under-pressure Rivers found Dontrelle Inman, who had a good finish to 2014, for a 68-yard catch-and-run play down to the 1-yard line. Antonio Gates was still suspended and rookie Melvin Gordon has yet to score a touchdown, but Rivers used play-action for an easy 1-yard touchdown pass to John Phillips.
McCown has by far the worst success rate (4-25 record) among active quarterbacks in comeback situations, but it is hard to fault him here. An unblocked rusher led to a big sack that ruined the previous drive where Cleveland had to settle for a field goal. Now down 27-19 with 7:26 left, McCown could only think touchdown. When you think touchdown, rarely has the name "Gary Barnidge" ever come to mind. He scored just three of them in his first 94 games, but the 30-year-old in his eighth season has two scores in his last two games. He also has back-to-back 75-yard games after breaking 60 yards just once in his first 94 games. This is a case of a player producing out of necessity, but Barnidge showed some real skill on a 20-yard gain he tipped to himself with one hand at the 1-yard line. Mike Pettine had to challenge to get the call right, but the Browns were in business and Barnidge later finished with the touchdown as well.
With 2:09 left, the two-point conversion was big, but not do-or-die since the Browns had four clock stoppages left. The Browns ran a natural pick play and Jimmy Wilson went to cover air, leaving Taylor Gabriel wide open for the game-tying conversion. That's great, but the only drawback was that they left San Diego plenty of time to drive for the game-winning field goal.
Speaking of pick plays, San Diego used what should have been an illegal one to free up Ladarius Green for a 17-yard gain. In 2015, we are seeing about twice as many offensive pass interference penalties per week (8.5) compared to the same part of the year in 2008-2013, but this one was let go. Danny Woodhead broke a 19-yard run to the Cleveland 24, putting the Chargers in field goal range. Cleveland called its first timeout with 48 seconds left, but there was really no way of stopping the Chargers from setting up the field goal as the final play. Josh Lambo came on for the 39-yard field goal and nearly added to the week's kicker misery by going wide right on the kick, but the Browns were offsides. Despair, thy home is Cleveland. Of course, Lambo was good from 34 yards away to clinch the 30-27 victory.
Just hours after Matt Hasselbeck became the 30th quarterback with 25 game-winning drives, Rivers became the 31st. Few were as necessary as this one, with San Diego ending its two-game losing streak.
Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind
Rams at Cardinals: Gurley Ate Arians' Magic Beans
Since 2012, Bruce Arians' teams are 14-7 (.667) at game-winning drive opportunities, which is an incredible record. Arizona once had an improbable era of close wins with Vince Tobin and Jake Plummer, but even Tobin was just 18-22 (.450) in these situations. These Cardinals are more capable of beating teams comfortably. But after a dominant start to the season, Arizona trailed the Rams for the final 58:24 on Sunday. The game was never out of reach, but St. Louis capitalized on mistakes and had several good counters to every Arizona push, especially when the Cardinals moved into the red zone. Jermaine Gresham dropped a pass on third-and-2, nearly causing a deflected interception inside the 10-yard line. Arizona settled for a 29-yard field goal and trailed 17-15.
St. Louis had struggled to sustain offense, handing off nine times to its running backs for minus-3 yards in the game's first two and a half quarters. But there was no better time than to see some return on investment from its two recent top-10 draft picks: Tavon Austin and rookie Todd Gurley. In his first career start, Gurley broke four 20-yard runs in the second half. None were bigger than his 52-yard scamper to set up Austin's second touchdown of the game, where he beat Jerraud Powers on a great throw from Nick Foles. This was really the most complete receiving game of Austin's career as he finished with six catches for 96 yards. It's only the second time in his 32-game career that Austin surpassed 47 receiving yards. His 138-yard receiving day against the 2013 Colts was just two big plays. On Sunday, Austin looked more like the shifty, play-making receiver the Rams envisioned when they drafted him eighth overall in 2013.
The Rams nearly forced a Carson Palmer turnover, but the Cardinals recovered the fumble after a sack. On the next play Palmer went down the middle to running back David Johnson, who beat safety T.J. McDonald for an easy 23-yard touchdown with 4:38 left. The Rams went three-and-out and appeared to be in real trouble in a 24-22 game with Arizona at the St. Louis 43 at the two-minute warning. We praise Arians in these situations for his aggressiveness, but that is a double-edged sword and it may have cost the Cardinals here. On three straight plays needing 2 yards, Palmer threw three incompletions from the shotgun. His screen to Johnson was deflected by Robert Quinn. He was high on a third-and-2 pass on a play the Rams only rushed three and would have been vulnerable to a run. On fourth-and-2, the Cardinals had a good look on a pick play, but Palmer threw way too high for an open Johnson.
St. Louis took over with 1:44 left and the Cardinals still having all three timeouts. Again, it is more accurate to say Gurley had four big plays than to say he had an efficient performance, but they were timely plays. He started the drive with a 20-yard run to put Arizona in a bind. On a third-and-12 with Arizona out of timeouts, Gurley broke a run down the left sideline and showed his football I.Q. by just taking a dive at the 8-yard line instead of trying to score. St. Louis took a knee to end the game and complete another upset few expected. Now if only Jeff Fisher could get his team to play like this more often instead of select NFC West contests.
Lions at Seahawks: At Least Golden Tate Didn't Bat the Ball Out of Bounds
Did we really need to have a controversial ending on Monday Night Football in Seattle again? Guess we needed something to make up for a bland three quarters where only a few sandlot plays by Russell Wilson created any real excitement. However, Detroit's defense rose to the occasion in the fourth quarter. Trailing 13-3, Ezekiel Ansah ignored Wilson's zone-read keeper and just annihilated the quarterback to cause a fumble. Detroit's offense wasted the opportunity with penalties, so the defense took matters into its own hands on the next drive.
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It's one thing to have an unblocked defensive back blitz from the edge, as Seattle allowed here. But have you ever seen a defensive back beat a guard in a one-on-one situation? The Lions had a wonderful blitz prepared for third down. James Ihedigbo quickly got by J.R. Sweezy, who has a 94-pound advantage, to get to Wilson and force another fumble. Caraun Reid scooped up the ball for a 27-yard fumble return with 8:32 left to make it 13-10. Wilson had 11 fumbles with zero lost in 2014. He lost two fumbles in this quarter. In response, Seattle went three-and-out after Thomas Rawls, filling in for the injured Marshawn Lynch, was stopped a yard short of the first down on third-and-2.
The Lions had plenty of time (6:23) to drive 91 yards for the game-winning touchdown, and Matthew Stafford has done this before. He's even done it to the Seahawks in 2012), which really remains the signature win of his career in Detroit. You probably heard Stafford is 0-18 on the road against teams who finish the season with a winning record. I take credit for unearthing this stat three years ago, and further analyzed Stafford's snake-bitten ways in 2013. He is currently 3-32 against teams with a winning record in his career, but the defense gave him a chance in this one.
Stafford was flawless on the drive, completing all six of his passes. Detroit faced a third-and-1 at the Seattle 11. This is really another situation where you'd rather be down by four instead of three points, just so you can treat the situation as four-down territory and take more time with a run. The Lions put the game on Stafford's arm, and he delivered a pass to Calvin Johnson, who looked like he was going to score. For all those frustrating times Johnson has been tackled at the 1-yard line over the years, Detroit fans are wishing this play had ended that way. Instead, Earl Thomas slowed Johnson down and Kam Chancellor came in from behind to make an incredible forced fumble by punching the ball out. The ball went into the end zone and K.J. Wright tapped it out of bounds. That goes down as a touchback, but it's also something else that was totally missed: a penalty.
First, the play by Chancellor was simply outstanding, and since Seattle won, will likely be remembered fondly by fans.
Kam Chancellor still made one of the best plays of the season. pic.twitter.com/WPjnP1hyiX
— NFL Retweet (@NFLRT) October 6, 2015
Now for the icky part: the refs blew the play and Seattle caught a huge break. The football world was introduced on Monday night to a rule that is both obscure and a judgment call. In either end zone, any batting or punching of a loose ball in any direction is illegal. Like most penalties, it is not reviewable in replay because it is a judgment call. It is pretty obvious Wright tapped the ball out of bounds with no intent of making a recovery. The back judge was literally right there to see this. NFL VP of officiating Dean Blandino confirmed that Wright's action should have drawn a penalty, and Detroit should have gotten the ball back inside the 1-yard line with a first down. That would have made for a way different ending, and likely a positive one for the Lions.
For starters, isn't it strange how the NFL is OK with rewarding possession to the defense when the offense fumbles a ball through the end zone? That has to be one of the few rules that actually favors the defense to a ridiculous degree. You get the ball even if you don't possess it. I think most football fans are aware of that rule, but that was not the disputed part here.
It was clear that a lot of people did not know what the illegal bat rule was. I sure didn't. ESPN's Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden made no immediate mention of it while calling the game. Pete Carroll sounded very unsure of the specifics in his post-game presser. Wilson flat out said he didn't know the rule, and many on-air analysts for ESPN and NFL Network admitted their confusion. This is a very rare penalty that hardly ever needs to be applied, so it's totally understandable why most of us did not know what the right call was.
However, there are these people called referees who are paid to know every single one of these rules and to apply them correctly as often as they can. It's inexcusable that the refs blew this call, but its obscurity also seems to lead to some inconsistency. Haven't we all watched countless onside kick attempts batted out of bounds by the receiving team with no flag? That's considered a smart play. For a different example, Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu batted a ball towards the end zone in a 2011 game against the Patriots, which went down as a safety and no penalty was called. Whoops.
How often is an illegal bat called? According to the data at nflpenalties.com, there have been eight accepted and four declined illegal bats since 2010:
|Accepted Illegal Bat Penalties Since 2010 (Source: NFL Penalties)|
|Date||Team||Opp||Player||QT||Time||Details of Play|
|10/24/2010||WAS||CHI||C.Cooley||4||9:18||TE batted his own fumble OOB|
|11/28/2010||STL||DEN||C.Chamberlain||4||2:35||Battled his opponent's onside kick OOB|
|12/9/2010||IND||TEN||B.White||1||8:11||As punt returner, batted ball forwards OOB|
|12/5/2011||JAC||SD||B.Gabbert||4||6:13||QB batted his own fumble forward OOB|
|10/28/2012||OAK||KC||T.Branch||4||2:27||Battled his opponent's onside kick OOB|
|12/30/2012||OAK||SD||T.Pryor||4||3:45||QB pushed his own fumble forward OOB|
|10/27/2013||MIA||NE||O.Vernon||4||9:09||DL batted a T.Brady fumble towards midfield (recovered by NE)|
|12/22/2013||PIT||GB||E.Hood||3||5:32||After blocked FG, DL batted ball OOB|
|Declined Illegal Bat Penalties Since 2010 (Source: NFL Penalties)|
|Date||Team||Opp||Player||QT||Time||Details of Play|
|9/20/2010||SF||NO||A.Smith||1||13:32||Bad snap; QB batted ball out of end zone (safety)|
|12/30/2012||TEN||JAC||D.Reynaud||1||5:40||As kick returner, muffed KR and batted it forward OOB|
|9/8/2013||TB||NYJ||J.Freeman||1||8:38||Bad snap; QB kicked ball out of end zone (safety)|
|12/8/2013||SEA||SF||C.Maragos||1||2:03||SEA punt blocked; pushed forward near SF players|
None of the eight accepted plays were even close to what happened on Monday night. For starters, none of them happened in the end zone. The 2013 Miami-New England bat was the only one that didn't go out of bounds at the sideline, and shockingly CBS' Phil Simms was all over that call (even before the officials). Four of these plays were on special teams. The case of a declined penalty for an illegal bat is usually when an offensive player bats the ball out of his end zone to take a safety instead of risking a defensive recovery for a touchdown.
If Detroit had recovered the ball in the end zone, it would not have been a touchdown due to the Holy Roller rule. Only the fumbling player (Johnson) is allowed to advance a fumble in the final two minutes for his offense. The ball would have returned to the spot of the fumble, which is what should have happened anyway if the penalty was called. The one positive about this is players will know what to do the next time this very rare situation occurs.
Detroit's meager chances of getting the ball back were dashed when Wilson turned into a magician for one more play and found Jermaine Kearse for a 50-yard gain to seal the win. The Lions remain 2015's only winless team (0-4), but this one will leave them battered more than most.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 16
Game-winning drives: 18 (plus two non-offensive game-winning scores)
Games with 4QC opportunity: 36/63 (57.1 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 9
Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro-Football-Reference. Screen caps come from NFL Game Pass.