Clutch Encounters: Week 5

Clutch Encounters: Week 5
Clutch Encounters: Week 5
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Scott Kacsmar

Week 5 was easily the best yet this season for late-game drama, with 23 ties or lead changes in the fourth quarter or overtime. Ten of the week's 14 games featured a comeback opportunity.

Did you notice the pattern in Sunday's three overtime games? The team who received first lost each game. Through 58 modified overtime games, the team receiving first now has a losing record: 27-28-3 (.491).

Modified overtime's most common outcome is a game-winning field goal on the second drive, which has happened 17 times. That happens as much as the next two highest outcomes combined: a first-drive touchdown (nine times) and a fourth-drive score from what is usually the kickoff team (eight times). We'll see if anyone starts trying a different strategy like an onside kick or simply kicking off.

Game of the Week

Seattle Seahawks 24 at Cincinnati Bengals 27 (OT)

Type: 4QC/GWD (OT)

Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 17 (24-7)

Head Coach: Marvin Lewis (27-58-1 at 4QC and 38-58-2 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Quarterback: Andy Dalton (10-16-1 at 4QC and 15-16-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Have you heard this one before? The Bengals were off to a great start to the season, and a good start in this game against Seattle. Then Andy Dalton threw an interception in scoring territory and everything began to snowball. The Seahawks led 24-7 to start the fourth quarter. Same old Bungles. You could switch over to another game, as there has not been a 17-point fourth-quarter comeback in the NFL since DeSean Jackson finished off the 2010 Giants. Nope, this was not happening against the Legion of Boom with Kam Chancellor on the field.

But as I pondered in the build-up to this game, what if this year was different?

Certainly one change is the tight end position for both teams, but the Bengals had the better one on the field on Sunday. Tyler Eifert is not a rookie and he is healthy this year. The results are five touchdowns in five games, including a big one to get this comeback started after he ran past Chancellor. You would think Seattle would hope to lock up A.J. Green with Richard Sherman and always have one of their star safeties on Eifert, because the rest of this Cincinnati offense is not that intimidating. But Eifert had easy pickings on both of his scores.

To say the Seattle offense is struggling would be putting it kindly. This offense has not cracked 20 points in any game this season when you remove all the return touchdowns. Still, Seattle really did not need more points in this game after going up 24-7. The offense needed to sustain drives and consume clock. Instead the Seahawks punted on each of their final six possessions, producing just three first downs. You couldn't even blame the loss on Marshawn Lynch's absence as his backup, Thomas Rawls, rushed for 169 yards. Even if we remove his 69-yard touchdown, Rawls had 22 carries for 100 yards. Russell Wilson failed to convert third downs while Dalton got hot in the fourth quarter.

Dalton called his own number for a smart 5-yard touchdown run given the defensive formation with 3:38 left to cut it to 24-21. On a crucial third-and-4, Wilson was taken down by Geno Atkins for a sack. The Bengals picked on Cary Williams for a 27-yard pass interference penalty, then Dalton hit Eifert for 25 more yards on a beautiful catch with Chancellor in coverage this time. Cincinnati got a little safe inside the 20 and ended up with a 31-yard field goal to force overtime.

Seattle's best shot in the extra period was a deep ball to Tyler Lockett, but the ball hung and Dre Kirkpatrick timed the hit just right to not draw a flag even though he did arrive a few nanoseconds early. That's just not detectable in real time by an official. Cincinnati's game-winning drive started with Eifert powering his way for another first down before Giovani Bernard did his job on the ground. The Bengals only played Jeremy Hill for 19 snaps, as this looks to be the Bernard show now. Mike Nugent banked the 42-yard field goal off the left upright, which was great for all us database people as a third tie in Marvin Lewis' career would have been awful.

Was this a turning point win for the Bengals? It's the first time in the Dalton era they have won after trailing by double digits in the fourth quarter. It reminds me a bit of when Carson Palmer led a 17-point comeback against the 2004 Ravens, which seemed to set him up for a huge 2005 season. Maybe Dalton is getting to that point, but it just took a lot longer to get there. With a win over Seattle, the Bengals with Dalton have been able to beat just about every contender in the NFL: Ravens, Steelers, Patriots, Packers, Broncos, Colts and Chargers. Whether the game was at home or in prime time doesn't really matter; the Bengals found a way to outscore all those teams with the big-name quarterbacks with Fire Engine Red himself. The caveat is that none of those games have happened in the playoffs, but maybe this will be the year. We should still respect the effort to potentially make the playoffs five years in a row, as hardly anyone in the NFL does that.

For Seattle, these blown leads are nothing new. This was just the biggest one yet under Pete Carroll, but only Tampa Bay (14) has blown more fourth-quarter leads than Seattle (13) since 2012. In that time, Seattle is 20-13 when having to protect a one-score lead in the fourth quarter/overtime. That ranks 23rd in the league, which is far below the standard this defense has otherwise set for itself.

Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind

Pittsburgh Steelers 24 at San Diego Chargers 20

Type: 4QC/GWD

Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 7 (17-10)

Head Coach: Mike Tomlin (18-35 at 4QC and 28-40 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Quarterback: Michael Vick (13-27-1 at 4QC and 17-31-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)

It took 52 minutes of game time for the Steelers and Michael Vick to remember exactly what they had at quarterback. The night was supposed to belong to Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who hooked up for two touchdowns in Gates' return from a four-game suspension. The first gave Gates his 100th touchdown, and the second gave San Diego a seemingly commanding 17-10 lead with 8:02 left.

To that point, Pittsburgh's offense had nothing but different ways to hand Le'veon Bell the ball. Vick wasn't scrambling or throwing deep. Antonio Brown was a non-factor, held in check by Jason Verrett. The Steelers scored three points on their first 10 drives, only briefly taking a lead thanks to a pick-six thrown by Rivers. Vick had taken three sacks and had three dropped interceptions. How was he going to lead this comeback?

Apparently, it happened with the help of Ben Roethlisberger. After the game, Vick noted that Roethlisberger, forced to play coach on the sideline as he recovers from a sprained MCL, designed the next play for Vick and the offense. Anyone who has ever played Madden can make this call: play-action, roll Vick out to his left and let him rip one. Markus Wheaton beat Brandon Flowers on a double move and hauled in the 72-yard touchdown pass. Talk about a stunning one-play drive.

Rivers completed 26 passes to his tight ends and running backs alone, often just dumping the ball over the middle to the empty space in Pittsburgh's defense. That continued to be successful, but Lawrence Timmons knocked down a third-down pass intended for Keenan Allen that could have been a huge gain. Josh Lambo came on for the kick of his young career, nailing a 54-yard field goal with 2:56 left to take a 20-17 lead.

Enter a little Monday night controversy. On the ensuing kickoff, ESPN's Mike Tirico noted that an official was trying to reset the play clock just as the kick was happening. Well, that looked pretty harmless. The kickoff went out of bounds for a touchback, but for some odd reason the game clock started counting down as the Pittsburgh offense trotted out onto the field. The clock finally stopped at 2:38, but no one ever said anything and this game mysteriously lost 18 seconds.

The main takeaway here is that this simply cannot happen again, but human error is inevitable. It's inexcusable from the game clock operator to lose time like that, especially on such a simple play like a touchback. As for what impact this had on the game, that's really hard to say. It would not be fair to argue "the Chargers wish they had more time!" based on the way the game ended. The last few plays likely would have been run at different times, and Vick may have not needed to spike a pass to lose a down. Most likely, Pittsburgh still runs Bell twice to start the drive, taking things to the two-minute warning anyway.

We had enough MNF controversy last week, so let's get back to the drive. On third-and-1, Vick scrambled to his left and fired a high pass for Darrius Heyward-Bey, who actually came down with the ball. Later on a third-and-6, Vick finally remembered who he was and scrambled down the middle of the field for 24 yards, his only rush of the game. Vick spiked the ball with 17 seconds left to save Pittsburgh's final timeout.

Before this drive, Vick had been 1-for-9 at converting third downs. He hit all three here, finding Heath Miller at the 1-yard line on third-and-10. Jahleel Addae was penalized for a hit to the head, which stopped the clock at five seconds and saved Pittsburgh its last timeout. That's big, but the Steelers were in a tough situation and ended up calling a play that was basically all-or-nothing. I think you have to run a high-percentage play like the quarterback sneak, telling Vick to leap and extend the ball out before pulling it back. That should leave the tiniest margin for being able to call a timeout with one second left to kick a field goal had the run not scored.

Pittsburgh went a different direction. Almost like a 2005 Chiefs, Larry Johnson direction. Instead of a super-fast run, the Steelers did the antithesis of the safe, smart play. Maybe this was spurred by not giving the ball to Bell last week in the Baltimore loss, but he seemed destined to get it here. The Wildcat was not a real success on the night, but the Steelers brought it back out anyway on this crucial play. Even after San Diego called timeout, the Steelers were in the Wildcat with Bell taking the direct snap 6.5 yards away from the end zone. He danced, set up his blocks, then danced some more to get out of trouble and extend for the end zone just before his knee was down.

That is about as close as it gets. I actually think the whistle to end the play came with a second left, but the game clock ran out anyway. I timed the play on my phone four times with varying reaction times, and got a range of 3.9 to 4.4 seconds. Then again, were there 5.0 seconds to start the play, or 4.5? This makes me think the NFL should adopt an NBA-style clock that can use tenths of a second in the final 10 seconds of a game. The Chargers may have had an argument for a second left, or 18, but I digress.

In conclusion, I am fine with giving the ball to Bell, but I hate the slow-developing Wildcat gimmick, and just because this barely worked does not mean it was a good call. But that was quite a good fourth quarter, and possibly a pivotal one for two teams expected to be in the AFC wild card race all year.

Washington Redskins 19 at Atlanta Falcons 25 (OT)

Type: 4QC and non-offensive game-winning score (OT)

Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 4 (16-12)

Head Coach: Dan Quinn (4-0 at 4QC and 4-0 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Quarterback: Matt Ryan (24-27 at 4QC and 31-27 overall 4QC/GWD record)

The Falcons (5-0) had to overcome some Matt Ryan turnovers and Matt Bryant missed field goals to complete their fourth-quarter comeback sweep against the NFC East. Atlanta is the first team ever with four fourth-quarter comeback wins through the first five games.

Washington certainly did not make things easy. Devonta Freeman fumbled at the 1-yard line, but Julio Jones was able to recover in the end zone for a go-ahead touchdown. That would not be legal in the final two minutes of the game, but there was 9:14 left here. Washington answered thanks to a 42-yard pass interference penalty on Robert Alford. I hated the call, because all Alford did was touch the receiver's shoulder pad, which did not restrict his ability to make a play. Matt Jones scored on a 2-yard touchdown run, but like the Falcons, the Redskins failed on their two-point conversion attempt. Washington still led 13-12.

Roddy White has been complaining about a lack of targets, but he's not likely to be happy with the poor pass Ryan then delivered from a clean pocket. Bashaud Breeland came away with the interception, which led to a field goal and 16-12 lead. Washington should have called a better play than a bubble screen on third-and-6. That lost four yards in a situation where the Redskins could have taken a larger lead with just 2:42 left.

In tracking Ryan's historic pace with 4QC/GWD success, one of the common complaints I receive is that Ryan always relies on Bryant for field goals. He doesn't score enough touchdowns in these situations. Sometimes a field goal is all that's needed, of course. In Ryan's 31 4QC/GWD wins, he has led 24 touchdown drives, including 17 game-winning touchdown drives. It's not like he never does it, but sometimes (like in this game) you could lead a go-ahead touchdown drive (or two), and still ultimately need to win the game on another type of score.

We looked at do-or-die touchdown drives (down 4 to 8 points in final 3:00) in Week 2. Ryan was 0-for-7 in his career, but he rarely ever had the time to actually drive the field. Here he had 2:38 left, which is plenty of time. Ryan hit his first five passes before facing a third-and-2 at the Washington 13. Atlanta split Freeman out wide in coverage with linebacker Will Compton. Ryan exploited the matchup with a good throw to Freeman, who caught the ball, got two feet down, lunged towards the end zone, broke the plane, rolled over, and then lost the ball. The review took a long time, which means "uh-oh."

I hated the Dez Bryant ruling in January. This one is just as bad, if not worse. That type of effort should absolutely result in a touchdown. The semantics debate should be about a completion, not a catch. He catches the ball immediately, like most receivers do, gets two feet down, then breaks the plane. That right there should be enough to end the play as a touchdown, but the NFL has this nonsense about completing the process, and he is considered going to the ground just because a defender touches him. The rules should not be this nonsensical, especially for plays near the end zone. Keep it simple: catch, two feet down and a football move, like reaching for the end zone, equals completion. The NFL has replaced the football move with "becoming a runner" language, but things have only gotten worse. Bryant, Tyler Eifert in Week 3, and Freeman on Sunday all deserved catches, but this silly interpretation of a rule keeps taking them away.

Unlike the Cowboys in Green Bay, at least the Falcons still had fourth down to answer. They did, with Ryan finding White for 7 yards. Freeman then got his touchdown on the ground, indisputably this time.

Washington still had three timeouts and only needed a field goal. Despite 24 seconds remaining, this was a very efficient drive from Kirk Cousins. He found his tight end open for 20 quick yards, then delivered a strike to Pierre Garcon for 19 yards. A 7-yard gain just made the field goal shorter, and Dustin Hopkins was good from 52 yards away to end regulation tied. You have to appreciate moving the ball 46 yards in 19 seconds and only using one timeout. That is why I always say teams have a chance as long as you have that timeout to use the whole field in these moments.

Cousins led the first true comeback of his career last week, and he didn't throw an interception. This week's ending was a little more familiar. Washington won the coin toss and received, with Cousins leading the offense to midfield. Then everything fell apart in the blink of an eye. Cousins faded away on his forced throw while being pressured, his receiver (Ryan Grant) fell down on the play, and Alford got his revenge with a game-winning pick-six.

This marks the fourth time the Falcons have returned an interception for a touchdown in overtime, the most of any team in NFL history. It's the 20th time overall, including the playoffs.

Cleveland Browns 33 at Baltimore Ravens 30 (OT)

Type: 4QC/GWD (OT)

Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 5 (27-22)

Head Coach: Mike Pettine (5-7 at 4QC and 5-7 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Quarterback: Josh McCown (5-22 at 4QC and 5-25 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Eventually Josh McCown was going to finish one of these game-winning drive opportunities. His last was in 2013, also in overtime against Baltimore while playing for Marc Trestman's Bears. This game had some similarities to that one, but the big difference was on Sunday, McCown had one of the best games of his career with 457 passing yards and zero turnovers.

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In fact, this game did not feature a turnover by either team, and that was a big part of the problem with neither defense able to make a real impact. McCown actually led three late go-ahead drives. The first saw Gary Barnidge add "between the legs" to his catch radius for another crazy catch at the goal line. Barnidge and Travis Benjamin were stars again, combining for 222 receiving yards, or a dozen more yards than the 210 for which Joe Flacco threw. The Ravens had a hard time sustaining a passing game with Steve Smith, Breshad Perriman, and Crockett Gillmore all inactive. The running game was productive again, accounting for all 43 yards on a go-ahead touchdown drive with 5:56 left.

This technically goes down as the 10th lost comeback of Flacco's career (second-most among active quarterbacks), though he was not at his best down the stretch. Flacco's success rate in the fourth quarter and overtime was 1-of-12. That includes a failed two-point conversion pass on a poorly-executed play where it looked like the Ravens were trying to get Justin Forsett open, but his lineman got in the way. That's a huge miss since it allowed Cleveland to take a 30-27 lead after scoring a touchdown and two-point conversion of its own. The game could have been tied instead.

Mike Pettine got away with terrible clock management. After Forsett was injured on a 32-yard catch, the Ravens had first-and-goal from the 10 with 1:22 left. Pettine should have used his timeouts (had all three) to save time in case the Ravens got a go-ahead touchdown. Baltimore ran for 6 yards and burned off 36 seconds before running its second-down play. Only then did Pettine use a timeout, but just 35 seconds remained. Like in Chicago two years ago, Flacco could have avoided overtime with a go-ahead touchdown, but his pass for Kamar Aiken went out of bounds and the Ravens had to settle for Justin Tucker's 23-yard game-tying field goal.

McCown actually completed a pass to Benjamin at the Baltimore 34 at the end of the fourth, but time had already expired. In overtime, Baltimore received first and quickly went three-and-out. Flacco threw both of his passes away under pressure. Just like that, Cleveland was in sudden death with a chance to win. Barnidge had the drive's longest gain at 19 yards. Later, Isaiah Crowell converted a third-and-5 with a 5-yard run to the 15, or what we call extra-point distance these days. The Browns fooled around with two runs before Travis Coons came in for the 32-yard game-winning field goal to drop the Ravens to 1-4.

The last time Baltimore lost at home to Cleveland was also a 33-30 overtime loss in 2007. Odd, because these Browns are starting to look like the 2007 Browns with a return of offense, and the Ravens are starting to look like the 2007 Ravens, a lost cause who finished 5-11. Baltimore has lost four fourth-quarter leads in its last six games.

San Francisco 49ers 27 at New York Giants 30

Type: 4QC/GWD

Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 4 (27-23)

Head Coach: Tom Coughlin (43-86 at 4QC and 52-89 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Quarterback: Eli Manning (27-40 at 4QC and 32-42 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Sometimes a forgettable first half can lead way to a memorable second half, and this was one of those times on Sunday Night Football. We won't go over many details here since it was a prime-time game most of you probably watched, and all the good stuff happened after The Walking Dead season premiere was over, so you could have tuned in at 10:30 p.m. just in time to see all the fun.

Tied 13-13 late in the third quarter, these offenses exchanged scores on five consecutive drives, so it really was one of those games where you want to have the ball last. It was odd to see the Giants settle for a run on third-and-7 in the red zone when the touchdown has so much more value, but they did, and that allowed the 49ers to take the lead with a touchdown on the following drive. Carlos Hyde scored from 2 yards away with 1:45 left. Colin Kaepernick did his job in one of his best games in a while.

That set the stage for Eli Manning, who needed to drive the Giants 82 yards with three timeouts left. He was missing Odell Beckham Jr. and Rueben Randle on this drive due to injuries, so that led to unconventional offense like Eli starting the drive with an 11-yard scramble. Shane Vereen turned into Roger Craig with some big catches over the middle, but then Manning nearly gave the game away with a bad throw. Tramaine Brock's game-sealing interception was overturned after replay showed the ball clearly hit the ground before he trapped it. Vereen took another dump pass into the red zone.

An ailing Beckham returned to the lineup, and he was more than just a decoy. He drew a pass interference penalty for 8 more yards, putting the ball at the 12. On the next snap, Manning threw high between two defenders for Larry Donnell, one of the few healthy receivers left. Donnell leaped between defenders and even pinned the ball to his helmet for a split second to make the catch look more miraculous in the end zone with 21 seconds left.

Manning's 41 completions were a career-high, and he needed just about every one of them to finish another improbable New York victory.

Chicago Bears 18 at Kansas City Chiefs 17

Type: 4QC/GWD

Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 11 (17-6)

Head Coach: John Fox (34-48 at 4QC and 43-53 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Quarterback: Jay Cutler (19-24 at 4QC and 23-25 overall 4QC/GWD record)

The Chiefs (now 1-4) seemed to mail this one in after Jamaal Charles tore his ACL early in the third quarter. A 27-yard field goal by Cairo Santos would have given them a 20-3 lead, but the kick was instead blocked. Kansas City punted four times after that, but still led 17-6 in the fourth quarter. We may have to readjust our thoughts on this Chicago team being a pushover. The defense entered the week 31st in DVOA, but held a quarterback under 200 yards passing for the fourth time in five games. Even though the defensive efficiency hasn't been there, allowing only that amount of volume feels like a miracle in 2015.

Offensively, a healthy Jay Cutler changes everything, even when the Bears are missing their top three wide receivers. Cutler has always struggled to keeping his teams competitive, but when the game is close and late, his track record is much better than he is given credit for. With 7:51 left, he went to work on an 88-yard touchdown drive, capped off with one of the prettiest touchdown passes you'll see in 2015 (22 yards to Marquess Wilson). The Bears used the sprint-right option on the two-point conversion, but they did not copy other teams and use a hard pick, so Marc Mariani was tackled short of the end zone. Or was he?

John Fox challenged, but the call stood. It was not confirmed though, which is another way of saying replay probably got this one wrong and just stuck with the call on the field. It may have actually worked out better for Chicago in the long run, because Fox may have settled for another 50-yard game-tying field goal instead of being forced to drive for the game-winning touchdown.

The Chiefs went three-and-out after Alex Smith threw a third-down slant (to the sticks, for a change) behind Jeremy Maclin, defended by Tracy Porter. Cutler had 2:04, a timeout and 67 yards to drive. Cameron Meredith (who?) made two nice catches to get the Bears into Kansas City territory, which is where Marcus Peters was flagged on a somewhat ticky-tack pass interference call. After a 6-yard gain on first down with 51 seconds left, Andy Reid should have started using timeouts to save time for an answer drive. In a 5-point game, it's foolish for any coach to act like his defense is guaranteed to win the game. You have to save time for your offense. Let the clock run when you are up 7 or 8 points in this situation, but definitely save time with something under seven points. Instead the Bears ran their next play at 23 seconds. Cutler even dropped the ball, but was able to pick it up and fire a great touchdown pass to Matt Forte. Just like they drew it up, I'm sure. The two-point conversion pass failed, but the Chiefs needed a miracle now in an 18-17 game.

With 11 seconds left at your own 29, Smith is about the last quarterback you want to put on the field here. He found Maclin for 23 yards and used a timeout, then nearly had a 9-yard completion at the sideline, but Maclin clearly bobbled the ball with two seconds left. That could have set up a 57-yard field goal. Instead the Chiefs tried Santos on a would-be record 66-yard field goal, and it was of course way short and wide.

Do you think those 28 seconds the Chiefs allowed to run off the clock instead of calling timeout (a timeout the Chiefs never used) would have helped get closer here? But some things just never seem to change in this league.

Buffalo Bills 14 at Tennessee Titans 13

Type: 4QC/GWD

Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 6 (13-7)

Head Coach: Rex Ryan (15-28 at 4QC and 21-29 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Quarterback: Tyrod Taylor (1-2 at 4QC and 1-2 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Just hearing "Bills-Titans" brings back memories of the Music City Miracle, a playoff game without passing and with a memorable ending. Not a lot has changed for these franchises since then. They hope Tyrod Taylor and Marcus Mariota are the answers at quarterback, and so far there are encouraging signs. This just was not a strong day for the offenses, with each quarterback actually leading his team in rushing by a margin of at least 27 yards. That has to be ultra-rare, if not a first.

Taylor is not experienced enough to adequately lead an offense when Sammy Watkins and the top two running backs are all out with injuries. That is why the game eventually turned on Taylor's legs after the Bills started with six punts and faced a 10-0 deficit late in the third quarter. Taylor had a 26-yard third-down scramble and a 22-yard touchdown run on a quarterback draw. Tennessee was able to add a field goal in the fourth quarter to extend to a 13-7 lead.

Then Taylor made the play of the game. Facing a third-and-23 deep in his own end, Taylor scrambled past Tennessee's five-man rush and had open field ahead of him for a 24-yard gain. The last time we saw something like this was when Tim Tebow ran for a 40-yard touchdown on third-and-24 against Oakland in 2010. Taylor even took a horse-collar tackle at the end of the play, forcing him to leave the game for a snap as EJ Manuel came in and just handed off.

Taylor must have gotten his dose of training, prayers, and vitamins on the sideline as he locked onto Chris Hogan upon returning. Taylor hit Hogan with a perfect 46-yard deep ball, then was actually on the receiving end of a 4-yard pass from Hogan on an interesting play idea that came up just short of the goal line. Taylor finished off the drive with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Hogan with 5:25 left. That was a sprint-right option with a little pick thrown in to free up Hogan.

Tennessee was not in bad shape down 14-13, but then we had some horse-collar controversy. Taylor got the call earlier when his knees buckled even though the defender did not grab inside the collar. He got the back of the jersey, just as the Bills did here on a Mariota run.

Naturally, the NFL's rule book has some debatable language written for the horse-collar tackle:

ARTICLE 15. HORSE-COLLAR TACKLE.No player shall grab the inside collar of the back or the side of the shoulder pads or jersey, and pull the runner toward the ground. This does not apply to a runner who is in the tackle box or to a quarterback who is in the pocket.

Note: It is not necessary for a player to pull the runner completely to the ground in order for the act to be illegal. If his knees are buckled by the action, it is a foul, even if the runner is not pulled completely to the ground.

So is the jersey just one part of it, or is it the inside collar of the jersey? We seem to waste so much of our lives debating semantics, and I have learned the hard way that we cannot even trust AP reports linked on or apparently 2006 John Clayton reports when it comes to rule changes. The inside collar was not grabbed in either of these cases, but the one major difference between the plays was that Mariota kicked his legs out and went down on his ass/back. Taylor's knees buckled for more of a "crunch" visual and he was hurt. That seemed to be a resonating factor for the refs, who picked up the flag on Mariota's play. Advantage: Buffalo.

If you believe in make-up calls, add this one to your collection. Corey Graham was penalized for unnecessary roughness on third down for cleanly hitting a receiver on time as a pass fell incomplete. With the officials stinking it up, the Titans still punted after Mariota threw a 2-yard pass on third-and-13, or minus-11 ALEX. Taylor was sacked on third down and the Titans used their final timeout.

One of these quarterbacks was going to get his first game-winning drive. Mariota had 1:41 left and only needed a field goal. This is where an experienced quarterback would use the short-passing game. Mariota immediately went for a deep ball while under pressure, and Stephon Gilmore came down with the game-clinching interception and banged into Kendall Wright in the process. After the game, Wright was asked if he was the intended target on the pick, and he said he couldn't "remember the last time I was the primary option on anything."

That sounds like a fun locker room.

Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind

Broncos at Raiders: Chris Harris Stole the Carr

Much like the Colts in their division, the Broncos continue to own the AFC West with 14 straight division road wins, an NFL record. Even in a vulnerable state, the Broncos are still 5-0. Eventually Denver's failure to run the ball, Peyton Manning's interceptions, and an abundance of unnecessary defensive penalties will cost this team a game, but no opponent has been competent enough to take advantage yet.

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Oakland had its chances on Sunday. Down 9-7, Sebastian Janikowski missed a 40-yard field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter, much to my delight for book-keeping purposes. Why credit an offense with a 4QC/GWD when it technically never was on the field in the fourth quarter with a deficit? That situation was avoided, but the Raiders were right back in position after a roughing the passer penalty on Von Miller, who went low into Derek Carr, but the quarterback was still able to get a sliding catch by Michael Crabtree for 21 yards.

On third-and-2 in a two-point game, Carr could not afford to take a sack or turn the ball over. As we looked at in a table last week, Denver's defense usually comes through in these situations. Incredibly, Carr threw a pass right between two crossing Oakland receivers and Chris Harris looked like he was shot out of a cannon on a line right to the end zone on a 74-yard return with 6:53 left. Last season we marked Carr with a league-high 14 "miscommunication" incompletions, and you could say this was another with neither receiver looking for the ball.

Down 16-7, Oakland nearly went three-and-out, and a punt there would have been really suspect on Jack Del Rio's part. Denver gave the Raiders a break with a neutral zone infraction on the punt, bringing the offense back for a fourth-and-1 conversion. Denver's defense stiffened again, and on fourth-and-19, the Raiders seriously threw a running back screen 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage. It only came up 15 yards short.

Oakland got the ball back with 1:52 left at its own 20. Carr threw a bomb and Bradley Roby committed pass interference for a 48-yard penalty. Oakland then did something very interesting by immediately bringing out Janikowski, who had missed twice on the day, for a 50-yard field goal. Down two scores, offenses do tend to take too much time in trying to get the touchdown first, but a 50-yard field goal with 1:45 left may be operating on the other extreme end.

Janikowski made the kick to cut it to 16-10, but the problem every team has is recovering the obvious onside kick. Oakland knows this best as the Raiders are 0-for-22 at onside kicks since 2009. In that time the rest of the NFL is 57-for-335 (17.0 percent). Demaryius Thomas had some third-down drops on the day, but caught the onside kick with no problem. Denver ran the ball three times and punted with eight seconds left. Oakland's lateral attempt turned into Denver's 14th takeaway of the season.

These Broncos are starting to feel like the 2014 Cardinals sometime before the Ryan Lindley era. Manning has had 10 games in his career where his offense did not register a touchdown. Two of them have come this season, which could be viewed as a sign that he is at the end of his career. The current construction of this offense demands the Manning from 2008-09, who could cover up any flaw and still keep things prolific and consistent. That is just not physically possible anymore, so the Broncos will have to continue playing great defense as the competition gets tougher.

Jaguars at Buccaneers: Didn't Expect to Watch 69

Each season we get a few games between suspect offenses that surprisingly light up the scoreboard. You never know what you'll get from NFL Florida. The Jaguars (22nd in offensive DVOA) and Buccaneers (32nd) had an over/under of 42, but ended up combining for 69 points. It helps when middling defenses are involved.

Without any help from his running game or defense, Blake Bortles' first four-touchdown game was spoiled by the defeat. Fumble luck was also on the Buccaneers' side. Jameis Winston almost went full Aaron Brooks and tried to throw a ball backwards just to get rid of it, but he was fortunately ruled down by contact for a sack. The Buccaneers tacked on a field goal after that as kicker Connor Barth's return proved to be valuable. Late in the third quarter, Corey Grant fumbled and the Buccaneers returned the ball for a touchdown and added a two-point conversion. In a span of 19 seconds, the Jaguars went from leading 24-20 to trailing 31-24 as the game moved to the fourth quarter.

Bortles was sacked by Lavonte David and the Jaguars went three-and-out. A good punt return put Tampa Bay at the Jacksonville 40, and Doug Martin finished off the drive for his third touchdown of the day. Bortles overthrew Allen Robinson with 7:33 left. The Buccaneers burned off nearly five minutes, and Bortles finished his last drive with a touchdown to Robinson with 1:05 left. However, the Buccaneers recovered the onside kick to effectively end the game.

Teams are now 0-for-18 on onside kicks this season.

Colts at Texans: Night of the Living Dead

We end the week where it began, with the Colts setting an NFL record with their 16th straight division win. Forty-year-old backup Matt Hasselbeck battled through a bacterial infection to start and play well in place of Andrew Luck. Maybe coming back to Houston reanimated the walking corpse that was Andre Johnson, because he scored two touchdowns against his former team. The second gave the Colts a 27-17 lead in the fourth quarter, but Houston made it a one-score game again at 27-20 behind Brian Hoyer, who rallied the offense off the bench.

However, at the two-minute warning Hoyer showed why he is bench material. On third-and-2, he let the pressure get to him and threw up an ugly interception that Mike Adams caught like a punt return. On third-and-6, Hasselbeck dropped a game-clinching dime to T.Y. Hilton for 43 yards, or his usual big-gain play against the Texans.

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 Hoyer and Ryan Mallett.

Season Summary

Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 23

Game-winning drives: 24 (plus three non-offensive game-winning scores)

Games with 4QC opportunity: 46/77 (59.7 percent)

10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 13

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


13 comments, Last at 14 Oct 2015, 1:06pm

1 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 5

The Mariani non-TD would drive Bill Belichick absolutely batty. It's impossible to tell whether that ball is in the endzone or not (it probably is) because the camera is in the wrong place. He's been lobbying for cameras pointing down the goal line for at least a decade.

As to the Freeman thing - no TD. We're at least a decade into this set of rules - if a defender hits you while you're in the air and you go down in his grasp, you have to maintain control of the ball to the ground. It's a textbook example. Receivers need to start thinking more about holding onto the ball. First rule of football - hold onto the damn ball.

Offense already has too many advantages - they don't need more.

2 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 5

I agree on Freeman. A "catch" is not a clearly definable, binary act, and "control" is even less so. In this sort of situation, I think the fairest way to officiate what is essentially a spectrum is to establish arbitrary criteria, make sure everybody is aware of the criteria, and enforce them consistently. In this case, the criteria is "hold onto the damn ball," everybody has been aware of this since it happened to Johnson in 2010, and, as far as I can tell, enforcement has been reasonably consistent.

You can change the rule, but you'll still have an arbitrary criteria that you're trying to map onto a physical act that won't give you an obvious "yes" or "no" output. That's not to say the rule shouldn't be changed; you may find some criteria that result in a rule that passes the eye test for more people. There are always going to be controversial, borderline cases. "Two feet down and a football move" would certainly change the type of controversy (we'd be looking at more touchdowns, but maybe a lot more fumbles, too), and it might even limit the number of controversial calls, but it won't eliminate the fundamental issue that rules are arbitrary, the world is limitlessly varied, and that those facts can't be truly reconciled to everyone's satisfaction.

6 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 5

I agree with RickD below that the obvious terminators should be applied. I.e., as soon as a receiver with possession and two feet down crosses the plane, is downed, or goes out of bounds, the play stops, and to hell with what occurs afterwards - for the purpose of judging whether a catch occurred. It did, and the fact that some other event occurred after what should have been the end of play should not change that.

11 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 5

Exactly. If people want this rule changed, they need to provide an alternate set of clearly observable, visually conclusive criteria, or else we go back to the days of arguing over the number of angels doing a "football move" on the head of a pin during every replay time-out. Under the current "hold onto the damn ball" rules, what is and isn't a catch under replay doesn't vary from ref to ref. Any rule change under which that isn't true is simply not an improvement.

In the meantime, with the rules being what they are, the fact that so many receivers are still having big gains negated because they just had to try to extend the ball over the goal line is just another example of the poor level of coaching regarding situational football in the league.

3 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 5

The "completing the process" rule is utterly stupid.

A "catch" has two aspects: a) control, b) location. If both are present, who cares about "completing the process" when, according to the rest of the rulebook's logic, a touchdown has already been scored. The same logic applies to receivers out of bounds: once a player is out of bounds, the play is over. If a player bobbles the ball after he hits the ground out of bounds, that shouldn't matter in the slightest.

"Catch" has to be considered a "binary" object. We cannot get all post-modern about whether a receiver has control or not. At some point we have to have officials making judgment calls. The desire to purge the rulebook of the possibility of an official making a bad judgment has only led to more convoluted rules, and has brought us nowhere closer to a world without judgment calls.

4 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 5

Hoyer may be destined to be at best a backup, but he's clearly better than Mallet thus far, and the Texans simply don't have a legit starter who deserves to start more than Hoyer.

5 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 5

"Do you think those 28 seconds the Chiefs allowed to run off the clock instead of calling timeout (a timeout the Chiefs never used) would have helped get closer here?"

If a Vegas casino put out a prop bet on "Andy Reid was mismanage the clock at the end of a game", said casino would probably go out of business.

7 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 5

Let's not forget that about a year after modifying overtime, the NFL moved the kickoff line back to the its original 35-yd line thereby resulting in more touchbacks. The fewer number of touchbacks (along with improved kicker accuracy) were cited as the two key reasons that overtime had become unfair.

Has the result of any overtime game directly been changed by the modified rules? i.e. team scores a FG on the first possession but then goes on to lose the game.

9 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 5

Right, the kickoff change is another argument for kicking off. The average starting field position in overtime (opening drive) is the 22.0 now. It's still not easy to go ~80 yards for a touchdown, especially when you're playing so much three-down football.

Nine teams have kicked a first-possession FG.
Six won the game after a defensive stop.
2012 Texans won on an Andre Johnson TD after Jacksonville tied w/FG
2013 Packers tied vs. Minnesota after four failed drives following Minnesota's tying FG
2014 Bengals tied vs. Carolina after M.Nuget missed a 36-yd FG w/0:00 left on the third drive

So no one has lost yet after the first-drive FG, but two ties.

12 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 5

Thanks Scott for doing the research and taking the time to reply.

From my perspective, that all it's resulted in is a couple of ties in 4 years and 58 games says the rule change has turned out to be a waste of time, but then I was never pro changing it. All they did was complicate matters from a nice simple situation.

But I realise other people see it differently and that it's fairer that both teams get a chance to possess the ball and it's not down to who wins the coin toss etc, etc.

8 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 5

Through 58 modified overtime games, the team receiving first now has a losing record: 27-28-3 (.491)...We'll see if anyone starts trying a different strategy like an onside kick or simply kicking off.
That's a grand total of one game changed every hundred overtimes. It's literally as close to even as you could get with 55 definitive results.

And it includes the day Belichick took the wind and beat Peyton and the Broncos on a muffed punt.

So no, nothing is going to change. Receiving gives a small advantage unless there's a strong wind.

10 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 5

After 60 minutes, a team should have a good idea of gauging where it stands in the offense vs. defense matchup on both sides. That should be the determining factor in what to do if winning the coin toss. Receiving should not be an automatic call like it was under a different system.

13 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 5

As long as we're cataloging weird officiating, why was Michael Bennett's personal foul during Earl Thomas' interception return marked as a spot foul? It was neither announced nor listed in the play-by-play as anything other than a personal foul/unnecessary roughness which should argue for 15 yards from the end of the run.