Clutch Encounters: Wild-Card Round
by Scott Kacsmar
The NFL playoffs are often memorable, but some of this weekend's wild-card action could make you wish for the short-term memory loss the guy in Memento had. We were served a lousy appetizer on both days, with the Cardinals-Panthers kicking things off in the way only Ryan Lindley and a 7-8-1 division winner could. Yet it was still shocking to see the Cardinals muster 78 yards of total offense, the fewest in postseason history. It was only fitting the record was earned on the final snap: a series of hopeless laterals that eventually added up to a 19-yard loss, supplanting the 1958 Browns (86 yards) in the record books of shame.
Hopefully that's the last of Lindley in the postseason, but what about the Andy Dalton-era Bengals becoming the first team to lose a wild-card game in four consecutive seasons? After a 26-10 defeat in Indianapolis, the Bengals are also the first team to score no more than 17 points in seven consecutive playoff games, including all six games under Marvin Lewis (0-6). Andrew Luck was spectacular while Dalton logged his fourth playoff game with a QBR under 30. At best, you could paint this as the playoff game where Dalton was the least responsible for the loss. However, he may have saved his Sunday's worst for after the game with this gem in response to the playoff record. "I think until we win one, everyone is going to be able to say we haven't won it," said Dalton. Brilliant.
The weekend was not a total loss. Sunday's finale produced the third straight wild-card round where a team came back to win after trailing by at least 14 points. For the fifth (and final) time this season, Detroit was involved in the best game of the week.
Game of the Week
Detroit Lions 20 at Dallas Cowboys 24
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 6 (20-14)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD starting with 8:10 left): 0.42
Head Coach: Jason Garrett (17-19 at 4QC and 21-21 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Tony Romo (24-31 at 4QC and 28-33 overall 4QC/GWD record)
This was not looking like a glory-hole day for Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys.
For more than 50 minutes the Detroit Lions looked like a team that was finally fulfilling its potential. The offense raced out to a 14-0 lead, including a 99-yard touchdown drive where Matthew Stafford surprisingly avoided a sack and broke a tackle on his way to a first down on third-and-8. Golden Tate had a 51-yard touchdown catch to put an exclamation point on his great season as a free-agent signing. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin's unit kept the Cowboys' red-hot offense ice cold for nearly the whole first half. Dez Bryant was shut down. DeMarco Murray had no running room. Ndamukong Suh led the charge up front against Dallas' vaunted offensive line, which struggled mightily to protect Tony Romo with six sacks allowed. Even Matt Prater was making his field goals. This was what the Lions had been building towards with a top-heavy roster.
On the other side, Dallas looked like it reverted back to the mediocre team we wrote about all summer long. The young offensive line was overwhelmed by Detroit's rush. Romo's return to the postseason threatened to ignite his critics with a slew of underthrown passes and too many attempts at "hero plays." The Dallas defense was exposed for the subpar unit it is, and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli looked as uncertain about how to fix the problems as he once did on Detroit's sideline. Even the reliable Dan Bailey missed a 41-yard field goal. There were also baffling penalties, like running into the punter to extend that 99-yard scoring drive, and suspect play-calling, such as passing in short-yardage situations to players not named Bryant.
Was this all too good to be true for the Lions? Unfortunately, yes. The Cowboys weathered the early storm well and chipped away at the lead, making just enough big plays to stay within striking distance. The Lions rushed nine times for 56 yards in the first quarter on their way to the 14-0 lead, but they only produced six points on their final nine drives with 12 carries for 25 yards. Dallas adjusted well to the run.
Murray started finding some room to run and had an easy path into the end zone on a big fourth-and-1 to set up a one-score game in the fourth quarter with the Cowboys down 20-14. Detroit answered well early with Suh notching back-to-back sacks of Romo, but Bailey redeemed himself with a 51-yard field goal to make it 20-17. Stafford still seemed to have the answers with a great throw to Calvin Johnson on third-and-8 that moved the ball to midfield.
Then there was the controversy with 8:25 left. Everyone knows the play by now, but what really happened there? Linebacker Anthony Hitchens pulled on Brandon Pettigrew's jersey, which should have been defensive holding. Pettigrew pushed off of Hitchens' facemask, which should have been a penalty too. Hitchens failed to play the ball and did put his left hand on Pettigrew, obstructing his ability to catch the ball, so that can be the defensive pass interference penalty that was flagged and announced by referee Pete Morelli. Twenty seconds later, he said there was no foul for pass interference, bringing up fourth down. Ensue outrage, and that's without mentioning that Bryant was on the field without a helmet to argue with an official (another penalty that was missed).
Now the protocol for how this was handled flat-out stunk, which is perhaps the flaw in trying to build an all-star cast of officials for the playoffs instead of keeping crews together. I think there should have been offsetting penalties, which still would have favored Detroit and given them another chance at third-and-1. I do not think this call decided the game. ESPN Stats & Info suggests a 12-percent change in win probability after the flag was picked up.
The Lions kept the offense out there on fourth-and-1 at the Dallas 46, but Ben Roethlisberger seems to have started this awful trend of playing possum at the line, which basically never works. The defense doesn't jump because they know you are not actually going to snap the ball. Andrew Luck tried the same thing earlier on Sunday to no avail. I think Jim Caldwell should have just trusted his team and gone for it instead of punting. He definitely would have if he had known that punter Sam Martin was going to shank an ugly 10-yard punt, setting up Dallas at its own 41.
There was the situation for Romo, who has all the team records for comebacks and game-winning drives, but had yet to do it in the postseason. Murray caught a tipped pass to set up fourth-and-6, which Dallas had to go for after burning a timeout to talk things over. Detroit stuck with a standard four-man rush and Jason Witten shook away from James Ihedigbo for an easy 21-yard gain. The Lions were on their heels now and picked up two defensive holding penalties, including one on third-and-long. After a big false start set up third-and-goal from the Detroit 8, Romo danced in the pocket again, but this time finally made a positive play with a strike to Terrance Williams in the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown. Romo has been very good all season on third-and-long (36.2 percent conversion rate on third-and-8 or longer), so that was fitting.
Romo did his part and now Stafford had his turn with a clear objective: drive 80 yards for the winning touchdown with 2:32 and two timeouts left. That should be a piece of cake compared to last season when Stafford drove the Lions 80 yards with 62 seconds and zero timeouts left to beat Dallas. This one nearly fell apart after two plays when Anthony Spencer forced Stafford to fumble and Demarcus Lawrence recovered. The rookie tried to return the ball and fumbled it right back to Detroit in the most painful takeaway-giveaway since the 2006 Chargers gave the Patriots another life.
That also gave Detroit a fresh set of downs at the two-minute warning with 77 yards to go. Stafford has plenty of experience at this, which millions of fans watching hopefully noticed on a most interesting graphic from FOX:
A little over five years ago I wrote about looking forward to the day when people would have these percentages and use them, so I was very touched when I saw this. To my knowledge, this is the first time a graphic was ever used to show a quarterback's record at game-winning drive opportunities, and the 17-26 record for Stafford was spot-on. I also like the "Comeback History" label even if they did actually base it on game-winning drives too. Not quite perfect, FOX, but definitely a step in the right direction. Maybe we can collaborate for next season.
So with my high expectations for Stafford, this ending was a little disappointing. It was a dink-and-dunk drive and Dallas was able to get good pressure. On fourth-and-3 at the Dallas 42, Lawrence redeemed himself in a big way by beating Riley Reiff for a sack and another Stafford fumble. This time the rookie recovered and stayed on the ground to clinch the win. Looking down the field, I really did not see any receiver for Stafford to throw to.
Jason Garrett's first playoff win improves him to 21-21 in game-winning drive opportunities. The only other active head coach at .500 or better is Bruce Arians (14-6). You could really stun someone with that graphic.
Romo's fifth game-winning drive of 2014 ties him with Stafford for the most in the league this season. Detroit had a great start, but Dallas closed the game on a 24-6 run. This "no-name defense" we ripped apart all summer has yet to blow a fourth-quarter lead. In protecting a one-score lead in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys have allowed 14 points on 13 drives with seven takeaways. Combine that with an offense that keeps delivering and this is legitimately the best Dallas team since the '90s dynasty ended.
Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind
Ravens at Steelers: One-Dimensional Is Fine If You Still Play Defense Too
On Saturday night, the Ravens and Steelers each handed the ball off 17 times, finding more success at attacking each other's weak secondary. Even without Le'Veon Bell (hyperextended knee), the Steelers outgained Baltimore in rushing yards (52 to 41).
So prior to a late safety that produced the 30-17 final, how did Baltimore double up the Steelers on the scoreboard if both were so one-dimensional on offense? The Ravens were even missing two starting offensive tackles.
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Baltimore was able to expose nearly all of Pittsburgh's weaknesses: the inability to protect Ben Roethlisberger (five sacks allowed), the red-zone struggles of Todd Haley's offense, a lack of running back depth and a defense that has plummeted to the bottom of the league. Only James Harrison really flashed on Pittsburgh's defense with several pressures, but he was just a hair too late to make any game-changing plays. Pittsburgh also had eight penalties, some of a very careless variety, for 114 yards, which has often been a problem this season.
Out of this year's 12 playoff teams, the Steelers had an easy case for the worst defense: 30th in DVOA and 25th in points per drive allowed. In the last three games the Steelers were only averaging eight offensive drives per game, so scoring touchdowns was paramount. Settling for field goals and committing turnovers are killers to teams that play limited-possession games.
Regardless of Bell's absence, Baltimore's secondary was supposed to be a perfect matchup for Roethlisberger and his receivers. He was the one running the pass-heavy offense in this matchup. Rushing accounted for 26.3 percent of Pittsburgh's offensive yardage this season, compared to 33.4 percent for Baltimore. If we use yards from scrimmage for all running backs, then that position accounted for 40.1 percent of Pittsburgh's offense and 43.4 percent of Baltimore's offense.
Yet the Ravens managed to score 30 points on their first eight possessions without much help from a legitimate running game. Pittsburgh's only real stops of the night involved Flacco tripping himself for a 5-yard loss and a Justin Forsett fumble where he ran into his teammate. Excluding all quarterback rushes and intentional safeties, Baltimore's 41 rushing yards are the third fewest by a winning team in the playoffs since 2000. Here are the 18 teams to win with no more than 60 yards of rushing support (overtime games denoted by asterisk):
|NFL Playoffs: Winning Teams with Minimal Rushing Support (2000-2014)|
|Rk||Team||Date||Opp||Rnd||OFF Pts||Final||Runs||Yards||YPC||Lead Rusher||Carries||Yds||YPC||Quarterback|
|1||NO||12/30/2000||STL||WC||31||W 31-28||22||24||1.09||Aaron Brooks||10||26||2.60||Aaron Brooks|
|2||SF||1/5/2003||NYG||WC||39||W 39-38||13||30||2.31||Jeff Garcia||7||60||8.57||Jeff Garcia|
|3||BAL||1/3/2015||@PIT||WC||30||W 30-17||17||41||2.41||Justin Forsett||16||36||2.25||Joe Flacco|
|4||PHI||1/11/2009||@NYG||DIV||23||W 23-11||23||43||1.87||Brian Westbrook||18||36||2.00||Donovan McNabb|
|5||IND||1/16/2010||BAL||DIV||20||W 20-3||23||44||1.91||Joseph Addai||11||23||2.09||Peyton Manning|
|6||BAL||1/10/2009||@TEN||DIV||13||W 13-10||25||45||1.80||Willis McGahee||12||32||2.67||Joe Flacco|
|7||OAK||1/19/2003||TEN||CC||41||W 41-24||9||48||5.33||Rich Gannon||8||41||5.13||Rich Gannon|
|8||BAL||1/7/2001||@TEN||DIV||10||W 24-10||19||48||2.53||Jamal Lewis||17||47||2.76||Trent Dilfer|
|9||NE||1/14/2007||@SD||DIV||24||W 24-21||19||48||2.53||Kevin Faulk||6||25||4.17||Tom Brady|
|10||TB||1/19/2003||@PHI||CC||20||W 27-10||26||51||1.96||Mike Alsott||17||25||1.47||Brad Johnson|
|11||GB||2/6/2011||PIT||SB||24||W 31-25||11||52||4.73||James Starks||11||52||4.73||Aaron Rodgers|
|12||NO||2/7/2010||IND||SB||24||W 31-17||17||52||3.06||Pierre Thomas||9||30||3.33||Drew Brees|
|13||NE||1/19/2002||OAK||DIV||16||W 16-13*||25||52||2.08||Antowain Smith||20||65||3.25||Tom Brady|
|14||PIT||1/18/2009||BAL||CC||16||W 23-14||26||54||2.08||Willie Parker||24||47||1.96||B.Roethlisberger|
|15||IND||1/4/2014||KC||WC||45||W 45-44||12||55||4.58||Donald Brown||11||55||5.00||Andrew Luck|
|16||PIT||2/1/2009||ARI||SB||20||W 27-23||22||56||2.55||Willie Parker||19||53||2.79||B.Roethlisberger|
|17||PHI||1/11/2004||GB||DIV||20||W 20-17*||14||57||4.07||Donovan McNabb||11||107||9.73||Donovan McNabb|
Only six of those offenses scored at least 30 points. The incredible part is that Baltimore had 37 rushing yards on its first touchdown drive. But in scoring the final 23 points, the Ravens rushed for a net of exactly 1 yard, excluding a 5-yard scramble by Flacco, who played a great game. He also hit four huge conversions on third-and-long situations.
Notice that Roethlisberger's name appears on that list of winners more than any quarterback. He has done this before, but a one-dimensional offense does not work that well without a very good defense. The main reason people think a team cannot go one-dimensional with the pass is because it's almost exclusively practiced by teams that are losing the game. That is when the defense ignores the run and just rushes the passer while playing a lot of coverage. However, think of all the games when one-dimensional offenses have worked, but since the team was winning they padded the rushing totals to disguise how one-dimensional they were.
We do not have to look any farther than the Colts against Cincinnati on Sunday. Indianapolis finished with 23 carries for 96 yards, so Andrew Luck had some decent rush support, right? Not so fast. Through three quarters, Indianapolis had called 44 pass plays for Luck and just nine runs for 54 yards (half of those yards were gained on one play). Regardless of this imbalance, the Colts already scored 23 points, and several dropped passes were the only reason Luck did not throw for more than 400 yards with more points scored. Once the Colts led 26-10 down the stretch, the rush stats went up, but none of those plays had any impact on the earlier success.
I thought about mentioning this game for last week's preview, and probably should have given the similarities. In 2007 (Mike Tomlin's rookie season) the Steelers lost leading rusher Willie Parker to an injury in Week 16 and went into the playoffs with Najeh Davenport and Gary Russell. Keep in mind this was a Pittsburgh offense that was far more run-oriented than this year's version.
Against Jacksonville in the playoffs, the Steelers embarrassingly rushed 22 times for 30 yards against a stout defensive line, but a vulnerable secondary. Roethlisberger struggled early with interceptions and fell behind 28-10 in the fourth quarter, but once he got into the no-huddle and abandoned the run, he finished the half 17-of-23 for 263 yards and two touchdowns. He put the Steelers ahead 29-28 late, but the defense allowed a game-winning drive. The one-dimensional attack worked, but no one remembers because the Steelers lost after a David Garrard scramble on fourth down
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Going one-dimensional without Bell was not the reason Pittsburgh only scored 15 points. Poor execution once again was the culprit. When your offense completes 33-of-48 passes for 356 yards, there are obviously opportunities available in the secondary to attack. The top four receivers each had at least 61 receiving yards. The Steelers just did not capitalize on enough of those plays, hence the 15-point output.
On the game's opening drive, Heath Miller dropped a third-down pass at the Baltimore 31 and Pittsburgh punted. That's a potential three points if he makes the catch. On a third-and-1 in the second quarter, Roethlisberger put too much air on a deep ball and Antonio Brown jumped for it in the end zone, unable to get both feet in bounds for the touchdown. There's an extra four points missed.
Tiny margins of error, but there goes seven points that could have made a huge difference heading into a fourth quarter that Baltimore led 20-9. Roethlisberger was not able to have much success with the deep ball, but finally hit one to Brown for 44 yards to set up his only touchdown pass of the night. We have seen this situation several times this year, when a team scores a touchdown down by 11 points in the fourth quarter. The Steelers went for two with 11:01 left and Roethlisberger threw an interception, so there are two more points on which he missed out.
However, should the Steelers have gone for it that early? Baltimore added a 52-yard field goal by Justin Tucker and led 23-15. Had the Steelers kicked the extra point, it would have been 23-16. My gut says to kick the extra point as long as you think you will have enough time for another touchdown. If there are only three minutes left in the game, then sure, go for two every time. Maybe use the 7:30 mark as the cutoff point for when you automatically go for two. Either way the defense's primary goal is to not allow a touchdown. The Steelers did that thanks to Torrey Smith's inability to drag his foot for a touchdown on a third-and-short bomb that was very popular this wild-card weekend.
Roethlisberger had his opportunity in a 23-15 game, but that's when disaster struck on third-and-4. Ben Tate, just signed on Tuesday, botched a blocking assignment and Roethlisberger had to spin out of a sack. He flipped the ball to Tate and it bounced off his hands and into the waiting body of Terrell Suggs, who secured the catch with his legs. Yes, his legs. That's just terrible luck and the Ravens immediately capitalized with a 21-yard touchdown to Crockett Gillmore. Baltimore led 30-15.
That play to Tate would have been the area where Bell would have helped most. He is a very good receiver, but that's also why he rarely is a blocker. The Steelers want to get him out in pass routes, but the quarterback really needed better protection on Saturday night.
The last sign of hope for Pittsburgh was a 19-yard touchdown pass to Dri Archer with 4:40 left, but Kelvin Beachum was flagged for holding on a miserable night for the tackles. Roethlisberger was sacked and injured on the following play. To his credit, backup Bruce Gradkowski did everything you could ask of him off the bench, overcoming a third-and-21 situation with a first down. Roethlisberger returned after three plays, which might have been was too soon. He threw his worst pass of the night for a red-zone interception that never had a shot with 2:57 left. The Steelers blocked a punt for a safety, but any chance of setting up an onside-kick finish ended when Miller, who also probably returned concussed, fumbled the ball with 55 seconds left.
The Steelers' record streak of 16 consecutive playoff games with at least 20 points is over. Baltimore still has a great front seven and coaches smart enough to compensate for the holes in the secondary. Unless the Steelers had a plan to use Bell at cornerback, his presence was not going to make up for the significant gap that exists between these teams on defense.
Ignore all that noise about running the ball in January. Winning championships is about getting big performances from the quarterback and defense. Since 2011, Baltimore has prepared that recipe as well as any team in the league, even surpassing its bitter rivals from Pittsburgh.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 64
Game-winning drives: 72
Games with 4QC opportunity: 139/260 (53.5 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 44
Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro-Football-Reference. Win Probability comes from Advanced Football Analytics. Screen caps come from NFL Game Rewind.