Clutch Encounters: Divisional Round
by Scott Kacsmar
The four road teams that made history by winning on wild-card weekend all met their demise in the divisional round. There had not been a home sweep in this round since the top-heavy 2004 season. You might think with all four games decided by a touchdown that we had four great comeback opportunities, but alas we are only covering two games here. However, there was still just a thin line between winning and losing in the other two games. The only turnover in Chiefs-Patriots was a fumble that bounced New England's way, just as an early red zone fumble was recovered by Carolina.
The main reason we do not have a Chiefs' rally attempt to cover is because of a classic Andy Reid clock mismanagement situation. Down 27-13, the Chiefs spent 5:16 to go 80 yards in 16 plays for a touchdown, burning the two-minute warning in the process and leaving an onside kick as a necessity. Even when there was a good chance to get the ball back, a Tom Brady pass bounced off of two players before going right to Julian Edelman for the game-clinching first down. Name something and it probably went right for the Patriots on Saturday.
Seattle looked like it could do nothing right in Carolina, falling behind 31-0 at halftime before scoring 24 points on five second-half possessions. Yes, the NFL-record 88-game streak of not being blown out lives on after the biggest challenge yet. However, for only the third time in those 88 games, the Seahawks were unable to gain possession of the ball with a one-score deficit in the fourth quarter, just like the ugly Week 16 loss to the Rams. Unlike last season, the Seahawks could not recover an onside kick in the playoffs -- Carolina took care of that with 1:11 to play.
If you believe in the playoff seeding this year, then we have the right four teams meeting next week, but we came awfully close to seeing short-handed Green Bay and Pittsburgh teams playing on Championship Sunday.
Game of the Week
Green Bay Packers 20 at Arizona Cardinals 26
Type: 4QC/GWD (OT)
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 3 (13-10)
Win Probability (GWD with 15:00 left in OT): 0.53
Head Coach: Bruce Arians (13-8 at 4QC and 19-8 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Carson Palmer (20-45 at 4QC and 31-45 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Both teams had to overcome a lot of adversity to produce this overtime classic on Saturday night. After an MVP-caliber season, Carson Palmer looked very shaky in search of his first playoff win at age 36. He handled pressure so well in the regular season, but three sacks in the first half seemed to throw him off his game. The Packers had to overcome the loss of Randall Cobb to injury after already coming in without Davante Adams. That was in addition to having Jordy Nelson and Ty Montgomery on injured reserve. After being sacked nine times in Week 16, Aaron Rodgers was afforded much better protection this time against a blitz-happy defense, but his supporting cast looked like the first batch from the Jordy Nelson cloning factory, or some guys eligible for nominations in the 2016 Oscars.
Yet if you had to pick which team was better equipped to handle this pressure, you would pick the one coached by Bruce Arians. His teams are now 19-8 (.704) in game-winning drive opportunities, and it is not by accident. No other active coach is above .500, because hardly any coaches take the kind of chances Arians does with the game on the line. He almost cost himself here, but fortunately he was going against Mike McCarthy, who is 22-45-1 (.331) at game-winning drive opportunities, the third-worst record in the league despite spending a decade with two Hall of Fame quarterbacks. McCarthy has always built a team to get an early lead and stay ahead, but he has never been good at managing close contests.
After Green Bay took a surprising 13-7 lead in the third quarter, Larry Fitzgerald took control of this game in a way we may not have seen from a wide receiver since Fitzgerald's postseason run in the 2008 season. He really was the difference maker, but Palmer was still missing badly in the red zone and Arizona settled for a field goal. The Cardinals appeared to have another field goal in their back pocket to tie the game, but two plays into the fourth quarter Palmer lofted a terrible pass that was intercepted in the end zone by Damarious Randall. The only other quarterback since 1994 to throw an interception inside the 30-yard line, down by 1 to 3 points, in the fourth quarter of a playoff game was Rex Grossman against the 2006 Seahawks.
Even on his next drive Palmer did little to adjust his degree of difficulty or awareness to the situation. Sam Shields almost had his hands on another Palmer pass in the red zone with just 4:40 left. Instead, the Cardinals had another one of their "third-down conversions by a centimeter" on the night and finished the drive with a deflected touchdown pass to Michael Floyd with 3:44 left. The tips were favorable to the home teams on Saturday.
Down 17-13, Green Bay had a much uninspired four-and-out drive, including a negative-ALEX incompletion from Rodgers on third-and-5 that would have run the clock and brought up fourth down even if it had been caught. The decision for McCarthy to go for it on fourth down was obvious with Green Bay down to one timeout with 2:42 left. Either way you were going to need a stop, so might as well go for it now, only sacrificing the chance to take the lead with a touchdown. Rodgers short-hopped the pass to James Jones and Arizona took over at the Green Bay 24.
The strategy here should not have been too difficult. One run would have taken care of Green Bay's final timeout with 2:34 left, leaving Arians with a decision. He could give Palmer two shots to make one throw to ice the game, keeping in mind his quarterback was shaky on the night. Most coaches would probably have run the ball twice, kicked the field goal and given Rodgers about 70 seconds in a 20-13 game. Those types of touchdown drives are still rare, so that is certainly defensible. I like the thought of giving Palmer a third-and-manageable to convert at the two-minute mark to end the game.
Arians going with a pass on second down should not have been a big surprise. Teams only threw 21 second-down passes this year when protecting a one-score lead in the final three minutes, but the Cardinals and Patriots lead the way with four attempts each after this weekend. The surprise was a deep throw to the sideline that likely would have carried Fitzgerald out of bounds to stop the clock. Some wanted pass interference on Shields for bumping Fitzgerald out of bounds, but that pass was not catchable. This is why the story would not have been "Arians is the man with his aggression!" if the play had worked, because that type of pass likely would have stopped the clock. It was a mistake and it bought Green Bay at least another 40 seconds. Arizona ran on third-and-8 before kicking the field goal.
Great kick coverage put the Packers 86 yards away from the end zone with 1:50 left. A sack by Dwight Freeney burned a ton of time off the clock before Rodgers threw what was essentially a Hail Mary to Jeff Janis on third down. Again, some thought Justin Bethel got away with pass interference, but this was another case of referees not having the testicular fortitude to make that call in the final minute. Even in a two-on-one like this instead of your usual sea-of-bodies Hail Mary, you might have to throw the receiver down to get that call. A little turn and letting him go as both players jump for the ball is not enough to warrant a flag.
The game felt like a wrap at this point given it was fourth-and-20 and the Packers were 96 yards away from the end zone with 55 seconds left. Rodgers had thrown for just 160 yards on 41 attempts, including going 0-for-10 on deep passes thrown 16-plus yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Then the miracles started happening. Rodgers evaded Arizona's four-man rush and delivered one of the best passes you will ever see to Janis for 60 yards.
This thing still had life even after an ill-fated decision to pass (negated by an illegal shift penalty) instead of spiking the ball with about 29 seconds left. That mistake cost the Packers 5 yards and 17 precious seconds, but we knew the Hail Mary was still coming to end regulation. This is every Green Bay game in prime time now. Rodgers hit the one in Detroit and missed against Minnesota, but he somehow pulled off another one here for 41 yards to Janis. This may be the first time ever a receiver had 101 receiving yards on one drive, which is not bad for a guy with four career catches coming into the game.
— SB Nation NFL (@SBNationNFL) January 17, 2016
Even Tim Couch had to wait three seasons between successful Hail Mary touchdowns. Rodgers has two since December, and in between them we saw Kamar Aiken and Austin Seferian-Jenkins catch Hail Mary touchdowns in this crazy season. Jaelen Strong had one against the Colts in Week 5. I thought I could build a reliable list of successful Hail Mary passes in recent NFL seasons, but to no avail on this time budget (maybe in the future). We sure have seen more than usual this year.
Like he did on the second-down pass, Arians may have dialed up the aggression a bit too much here with a seven-man rush. You can rush five or even six since most teams usually just go with three in this situation, but seven is pressing it. A guy like Fitzgerald should also have been on the field for that jump ball. It is also stunning how Janis could have been running so freely to the end zone, much like Richard Rodgers did in Detroit. Patrick Peterson definitely could have played that better than he did.
Of course, McCarthy did not go for the game-winning two-point conversion, but I am not sure any NFL head coach would in that situation. That would have led to a ton of criticism if it failed after you put the game on that one play. While the Packers were 5-of-6 on conversions this season, they were only 2-of-10 from 2011-14. McCarthy is probably the most predictable playcaller in the league on those plays. He has passed every single time, and this would have been without his usual receivers in the game, so it was unlikely practiced by the group on the field together.
But then again, when has overtime ever been kind to this team? McCarthy has lost four playoff games in overtime. The Packers are 0-7 in overtime games with Rodgers as the quarterback. This latest story about the coin-flip "controversy" after the coin did not flip sounds like sour grapes to me. (Arizona won both tosses anyway and chose to receive.)
Sure enough, the Packers blew it in overtime again. Palmer escaped pressure to find Fitzgerald wide open on the other side of the field, and the future Hall of Famer made an incredible run after the catch, breaking several tackles along the way, for a 75-yard gain. It was only fitting for Fitzgerald to have his number called on the shovel pass for the game-winning touchdown. While Fitzgerald did much of the work, Palmer at least shook off a bad night to find him for the pivotal play in overtime. Palmer is the tenth active quarterback to hit 20 fourth-quarter comeback wins.
Carson Palmer: 27th QB to reach 20 4QC wins (10th active) pic.twitter.com/09uXgjF0Vq
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) January 18, 2016
For the fourth year in a row, the Packers were swept out of the playoffs by an NFC West team (2012-13 49ers, 2014 Seahawks and 2015 Cardinals). For the third year in a row, the Packers lost in the playoffs after having a fourth-quarter lead.
But maybe the worst part is that for the second postseason in a row, Green Bay lost in overtime with Rodgers and the offense never taking the field. You just wonder how much longer the NFL can let this happen when fans want to see more action in the playoffs and a fairer system. The regular season is what it is, but we can do better in the playoffs. The game is not about who can score first, but who can score the most. Maybe that means a 10-minute period played in its entirety, or ensuring that the other offense always gets one do-or-die possession to match the touchdown. Alternatively, both teams could start a drive at the 50, with the team that scores the most points on that possession winning. That would put some strategy into fourth downs and two-point conversions since it would not always be obvious to go for it if you didn't think you could convert fourth-and-18.
Green Bay's proposal might be a Hail Mary competition, but we need something better than what we have. You cannot have an offense do what Green Bay did to tie this game and not allow fans to see another drive of that matchup. These finishes are rare, but certainly avoidable in the playoffs. I chart what Green Bay did as a "never got ball back" (NGBB) drive in which the offense tied the game or took the lead without ever getting the ball back in a loss. Rodgers has five such losses now, the highest rate of 4QC/GWD failures out of a select group of his peers.
|Games Lost After Tying/Go-Ahead Scoring Drive and NGBB|
|Quarterback||NGBB Losses||4QC/GWD Losses||Pct.|
The last four quarterbacks to lose a playoff game in overtime without their offense getting on the field -- all on the road as well -- were Rodgers (twice), Ben Roethlisberger (2011), Brett Favre (2009), and Peyton Manning (2008). You would think that these high-profile examples would be enough to promote further change. The only thing that could have made this game's ending even more classic was seeing if Rodgers had anything left for an encore.
Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind
Pittsburgh Steelers 16 Denver Broncos 23
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 1 (13-12)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD with 9:52 left): 0.51
Head Coach: Gary Kubiak (19-38 at 4QC and 26-39 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Peyton Manning (45-51 at 4QC and 58-56 overall 4QC/GWD record)
In previewing this game, we knew it would be way different from the 34-27 comeback won by Pittsburgh in Week 15, but this rematch really took on its own identity. Pittsburgh led for 43 minutes and 22 seconds consecutively at one point, but this was about as tight of a 60-minute playoff game as you could imagine. "Tight" would be a good word to describe how the Broncos looked for much of the day, as the switch to Gary Kubiak from John Fox did not seem to cure any past playoff woes. But in the end, the game's lone turnover proved to be very costly as the Denver defense rose to the occasion again, as did its quarterback in his 25th playoff start.
No Brown, No Problem?
Despite the loss of All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown (who was out with a concussion), Ben Roethlisberger still threw for 339 yards against Denver, and arguably did it in more efficient fashion than in their earlier meeting. While he was still sacked three times, he averaged 9.2 yards per pass attempt compared to 6.9 in Week 15, while cutting down his turnovers from two to zero. In fact, this is the third playoff game since 1940 without a touchdown pass or interception from either team. Peyton Manning and Steve McNair played the last such game in the 1999 AFC divisional round, Manning's first playoff game.
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Denver vowed to change its man-coverage scheme to handle these receivers better, but the switch to zone saw Pittsburgh produce big plays with wide-open receivers finding the hole. While Pittsburgh did not have a gain of more than 23 yards in Week 15, the Steelers had five such plays here, including two big catches from Sammie Coates, a rookie with one catch for 11 yards in the regular season. Roethlisberger only averaged 7.7 air yards per attempt in Week 15, but was back up to a more normal 9.0 in this game. He also hit four deep balls (and also drew two pass interference flags) compared to just two the last time, while his receivers contributed with three of the weekend's five longest YAC plays. Martavis Bryant, who looked like a stud with 194 yards from scrimmage, chipped in with a 40-yard run as I predicted the Steelers would need to do. Unfortunately they went back to the end around on a big third-and-2, and Bryant was stopped for no gain. In general, the running game was not very productive again.
However, for not having Brown, the passing game still looked pretty typical for Pittsburgh thanks to Roethlisberger's arm strength being more than adequate. The long con did indeed seem to be on when he opened the game with a 55-yard bomb that was just overthrown.
So why did Pittsburgh only score 16 points on 13 drives this time?
For starters, Denver won the field position battle by avoiding turnovers and benefiting from a pretty bad punting day by the Steelers. Markus Wheaton was a nightmare on punt returns and nearly had multiple turnovers in that area as he tried to fill in for Brown. Then the Steelers just ran into some usual bad decision-making and bad breaks, like not getting a flag on Aqib Talib for possible pass interference in the end zone on Bryant on a big third down. Roethlisberger, this year's ALEX king, threw a bubble screen on third-and-8 to start the game, then went deep to the end zone on fourth-and-1 when Heath Miller was open underneath for the first down. Everyone loves the shots when they connect, but that was a missed opportunity for points. Miller later dropped a great pass on third-and-13 on a drive where Pittsburgh settled for a field goal. Both kickers were excellent on a very windy day.
Reminder: The Denver Offense Is Not Good
Manning was making his first start since Week 10, and this passing game looked like it was adjusting to his return after a bye week with some rust and timing issues. The good news is that Manning looked healthy and his passes had good placement. In the past, you could tell Manning was playing well when even his incompletions were usually catchable throws. Despite the 21-of-37 stat line, Manning was on target most of the time with anywhere from six to nine dropped passes. ESPN reported six, tied for the most in any playoff game in the last 10 years. A few of these only had one limited angle, but it was definitely a problem in this game. Some sources will not count defensed-dropped plays in drops, like the one Emmanuel Sanders lost after contact on fourth-and-3, but that was obviously as big as any of them.
Manning was previously 1-3 in playoff games with at least six dropped passes. The fact that seven of those nine plays were in the first half suggests this was about the offense shaking off some rust. The fact that Denver had six different wide receivers catch a pass was also very unusual, as it is usually half that number in this offense.
Manning has had eight possessions in his postseason career that started inside the opponent's 33-yard line. Three were in this game, which speaks to some of Pittsburgh's punting problems. However, the Broncos settled for three field goals. In the second half, Manning started settling for more short completions that were not going anywhere, and suddenly this was feeling just like the dreaded playoff loss with 15 failed completions to the Colts a year ago that we have covered in extreme depth here. Going back to that game, Denver had gone 22 consecutive playoff drives without a touchdown, which is a staggering streak.
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Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson basically had a 50/50 split of carries, which made little sense since Hillman rushed 16 times for 38 yards. In a way, Anderson only had 14 carries for 38 yards himself, but that is excluding his key 34-yard run before halftime. That type of explosive run is why Anderson should get more playing time, but generally the running game was struggling, often setting the offense back into third-and-long situations. While the Broncos finished just 3-of-15 on third down, Pittsburgh was quietly worse at 2-of-12.
That was how we ended up with a 13-12 slog through three quarters, but Pittsburgh was driving into Denver territory as this started to feel like the final quarter of Manning's career again.
The Dramatic Fourth Quarter
Pittsburgh had reached the Denver 24, but a facemask penalty on Marcus Gilbert led to an interesting decision: take the sack for second-and-17 or accept the penalty for first-and-25? Kubiak chose to take the penalty, but I think I would have given Roethlisberger one fewer play. Kubiak was rewarded when Jordan Todman ran backwards for a 5-yard loss, setting up second-and-30. The Steelers ended up completing a short pass to get into field goal range, but that's when Mike Tomlin made a questionable decision.
Should he have tried a 52-yard field goal to take a 16-12 lead, or taken a delay of game and punted? I know the winds were tough, but Chris Boswell was kicking well, and a 4-point lead would have felt like a two-score lead at this point with Denver not showing the ability to score a touchdown. Even with the field position lost from a miss, I think it would have been worth the risk. Pittsburgh's decision looked worse after a pretty straightforward touchback put Denver at the 20, a net of just 19 yards.
Manning then did his best Russell Wilson impersonation by falling in the backfield, getting up and finding Sanders for 34 yards. He got up slowly because he is 39-year-old Peyton Manning, but Pittsburgh may have had a beef that he gave himself up. However, that is a judgment call and cannot be challenged. You really never see plays like that, and good for Manning to get up instead of staying in the fetal position. He would have lost a lot of respect in that situation to take a sack. However, another drop (perhaps the ninth of the day) and a wasted timeout to run a brutal draw play for a loss of 4 yards led to a punt. Wheaton muffed it and the Steelers were very fortunate to recover at the goal line, which is somehow a touchback. Again, unusual plays and questionable rules at play here. Why should you get a touchback for muffing the ball and having to go back to recover it? To top it off, a 5-yard penalty gave Pittsburgh the ball at the 25.
Roethlisberger hit three passes in a row and seemed to be driving the Steelers towards a dagger score at the Denver 34, but that's when the Broncos defense made its mark on this game with a huge forced fumble on a Fitzgerald Toussaint run. Bradley Roby forced it and DeMarcus Ware got on top of it for the game's only turnover with 9:52 left.
Anderson ripped off a big run to the Pittsburgh 35, but it came back on a holding penalty by Michael Schofield, the lineman everyone was nervous about for Denver. However, the fact that it was a spot foul to set up second-and-12 instead of second-and-18 might have been the difference between Denver winning and losing this game. The next play also falls into that category as William Gay had a shot at a Manning interception, the only dangerous pass he threw on the day, but Sanders got a hand in there to break it up first. Sanders lost the ball on a fourth down earlier, but he redeemed himself here with a great pass defense.
On third-and-12, Manning redeemed himself with the pass of the day in a tight window to Bennie Fowler, who picked up 31 yards. The window may have been closed if Brandon Boykin had not been looking back at his teammates at the time of the snap.
Manning completed a smoke pass to Sanders, but the rest of the drive was all runs with the blocking getting it done in crunch time. With the touchdown so crucial here, Anderson plowed in on third-and-goal from the 1 with 3:00 left. Manning had Demaryius Thomas on a way-too-easy screen for the big two-point conversion to extend to a 20-13 lead. Plenty of time still remained.
Roethlisberger had a quiet half, but he was not the problem at all. However, now was the time he had to step up for Pittsburgh, and the drive was a total letdown. Short passes, some by design and some by pressure, brought up a fourth-and-5. Von Miller beat Marcus Gilbert, which caused Roethlisberger to move into a sack for Ware. For a fourth-and-5, Roethlisberger really did not have anywhere to go with the ball short for a conversion given the quick pressure. Roethlisberger was the least-pressured quarterback in 2015, but the best pressure defense got him good with the game on the line.
Really no chance on 4th-and-5 for the Steelers. Miller beat Gilbert too quickly. pic.twitter.com/9hx0CXvd3q
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) January 18, 2016
Both teams added field goals, because Vegas is amazing with the 23-16 prediction here coming true. Pittsburgh's onside kick failed, because this would not be a repeat of Manning's law where everything that could go wrong in the postseason will go wrong. The drops stopped and one of his unknown receivers made a huge play for him. The running game came together at the right time. Manning had watched his defense lose five of his last six one-score leads in the playoffs, but this year's Denver defense has been the real deal and the main reason the Broncos are hosting the AFC Championship Game.
Pittsburgh may have had a little kryptonite for this Denver defense, but the losses of Brown and Williams were tough to overcome. Just the ball security issues from Wheaton and Toussaint alone -- you never know what kind of game it could have been with those guys available, but the Steelers can only dream about that now. After plateauing with 34 points against Denver, Pittsburgh's red-hot offense scored 17, 28, 18, and 16 points in the final four games of the season (all on the road). Even the 28 in Cleveland is misleading since it includes an 8-yard touchdown drive and a 25-yard field goal drive. Expectations will be super high for a healthier offense in 2016, but things could have been even better in 2015 in this wounded state.
I never sugarcoat anything with the Steelers, but I really think NFL fans are getting the best matchup in next week's AFC Championship Game. Pittsburgh never plays well in New England, so we will get to see the league's best defense take on a healthy Patriots offense that very well may be the best in the league again. This time of the year, you only want to see the best.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 72
Game-winning drives: 91 (plus six non-offensive game-winning scores)
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 160/264 (60.6 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 34
Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro-Football-Reference. Screen caps come from NFL Game Pass.