Clutch Encounters: Week 1
by Scott Kacsmar
Week 1 really delivered on close finishes, with 13 of the first 14 games featuring a game-winning drive opportunity. Who knew Denver's 21-20 escape on Thursday night would lead into such a similar Sunday? The nine fourth-quarter comebacks are the most ever in an opening week, and one off the all-time single-week record of 10 achieved in Week 3 of the 2011 season. Unless your team was Cleveland or one of Monday night's losers, they had a chance to win.
After one of the most competitive weeks in NFL history, the greatest thing I saw still happened in the college game with Central Michigan's "Hail Mary Lateral" to beat Oklahoma State on Saturday. This is something we should see teams experiment with in desperate situations. The closest play in recent NFL seasons (which really was not close at all) was David Garrard's Hail Mary getting deflected to Mike Thomas in a 2010 win over the Texans. But CMU's miracle (and I understand it should not have counted due to a misapplied rule) serves as a reminder of what is possible in this game as long as there is time on the clock.
Of course it helps to save timeouts for late in the game, and it is hard to recall another week in the NFL with such poor timeout usage. The Saints, Jets, Chargers, Jaguars, and Bills all had one or zero timeouts left heading into the final five minutes of their games. All of these teams lost, and there were also questionable strategies from usual contenders in Carolina, Green Bay, Indianapolis, New England, and Arizona. We'll always hold coaches accountable here for mismanaging the clock, but things were especially bad to start the season.
Game of the Week
Oakland Raiders 35 at New Orleans Saints 34
Rarely does a game go as expected, but this was an offensive shootout that went down to the final snap. The final nine drives featured five touchdowns, two field goals, and two big missed field goals by rookie Saints kicker Will Lutz. For as brilliant as Drew Brees (423 yards and four touchdown passes) was again, the Saints let him down with another poor defensive showing. Oakland trailed by as many as 11 points in the fourth quarter, but an unexpected 75-yard touchdown explosion from Jalen Richard helped tie the game. The Saints went back up 34-27 following a fortunate fumble recovery by Michael Thomas after Willie Snead (who was fantastic with 172 yards) lost the ball.
Oakland had 6:03 to answer and decided to take its time, or one could argue that New Orleans finally showed some resistance. On fourth-and-5 at the Saints' 18, Derek Carr's late floater to Richard sailed out of bounds, but Craig Robertson was penalized for pass interference. Let's look at the play.
I think the Saints were hosed here. An exact definition of an "uncatchable" pass is conspicuously missing from the NFL's rule book, but that judgment call should have been applied here, negating any contact by the defender that would have normally been illegal if the pass had been catchable. It would have taken an act of God for Richard to catch that pass. Oakland was rewarded for a bad throw, and while this was not a definite game-ender given the Raiders' three timeouts, it is troublesome that the official's judgment was so poor on such an important play.
Two plays later, Carr threw a 10-yard touchdown to Seth Roberts, and coach Jack Del Rio, known for some gambles in Jacksonville, was adamant on going for the 2-point conversion with 47 seconds left. Michael Crabtree came down with the ball for the 35-34 lead, but was it the right call? By now, you are probably aware of ESPN's analysis (written by Brian Burke) that the Raiders had a higher win probability (51 percent) by kicking the extra point than they did going for two (44 percent). Del Rio is obviously proud of his decision because it worked, but would he be tweeting if the play had failed? This was the ninth do-or-die conversion attempt since 1994, and the fourth success.
|Do-or-Die 2-Point Conversions Since 1994|
|JAC||11/19/1995||at TB||12||0:37||Fail, L 17-16|
|CHI||10/12/1997||GB||7||1:54||Fail, L 24-23|
|MIN||12/15/2002||at NO||15||0:05||Success, W 32-31|
|TB||11/13/2005||WAS||10||0:58||Success, W 36-35|
|DEN||9/14/2008||SD||2||0:24||Success, W 39-38|
|KC||11/9/2008||at SD||10||0:23||Fail, L 20-19|
|HOU||1/1/2012||TEN||17||0:14||Fail, L 23-22|
|WAS||12/15/2013||at ATL||15||0:18||Fail, L 27-26|
|OAK||9/11/2016||at NO||1||0:47||Success, W 35-34|
If Oakland had played for the tie, the Saints would have likely been conservative with zero timeouts left. The game would likely have gone to overtime, where the home team has gone 44-29-3 (.599) under the current system. But by going for the lead, Del Rio would give Brees 47 seconds to aggressively drive for the win. Given that the conversion was still a 50-50 shot at best, Del Rio took a risk to lose the game earlier than he needed to. Lord knows the Raiders would not be recovering the onside kick had the two-pointer failed -- Sebastian Janikowski is 0-for-23 on his onside kicks since 2009.
I think what makes Del Rio's decision attractive is threefold: the Saints have a poor defense, they were out of timeouts, and their kicker was in his NFL debut. The timeouts are really important, because with even just one, I think Brees had enough time to lead his team into better field-goal range. Del Rio's gamble would have been too big to get a marginal gain of a 1-point lead given Brees was likely to erase it in the next 40-some seconds. But without a timeout, you can buy this ballsy call.
After the kickoff, Brees had 40 seconds to work with, and while he made two nice throws to give the team a shot, he needed one more sideline completion to get closer. See, those timeouts are precious. The Saints gave Lutz a shot at the 61-yard field goal, and while he had the leg, it just leaked left to give Oakland the win.
Maybe Del Rio's decision is the confidence booster the Raiders need to get out of 7-9 territory. For Brees, his Saints have never finished worse than 7-9 in his decade with the team, but they continue to waste some of his finest efforts. Brees has now thrown 13 go-ahead fourth-quarter touchdown passes in games his teams have gone on to lose. The next closest quarterbacks in NFL history had seven (John Hadl and Ben Roethlisberger), so Brees has nearly doubled that.
This is the 33rd time Brees has lost a game after his team led in the fourth quarter, the most in NFL history. Here is how the top six quarterbacks in all-time pass attempts stack up.
|QBs: Career Losses with a Fourth-Quarter Lead|
Notes: Losses include playoffs and are starts only. Games left early for injury or rest are not currently excluded. While older research is less reliable, the only other quarterback in NFL history believed to have 30 comebacks against him is Fran Tarkenton, but the number is confirmed to be less than 33.
Brees is likely a few years away from breaking the all-time records for passing yards and touchdowns, but he may never be viewed as highly as the other names on that list, which is a real shame. When he's on, Brees is clearly one of the best to ever play the game.
Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind
Detroit Lions 39 at Indianapolis Colts 35
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 1 (35-34)
Head Coach: Jim Caldwell (16-23 at 4QC and 19-23 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Matthew Stafford (18-31 at 4QC and 21-31 overall 4QC/GWD record)
These 39-35 games turn out to be pretty fun, don't they? It is a damn shame that Andrew Luck and Matthew Stafford only meet up every four years. The two No. 1 overall picks put on a show in 2012 when Luck got a last-second touchdown in Detroit for a thrilling 35-33 win. On Sunday, Luck was in top form in leading another big comeback, but he left too much time on the clock for Stafford, who has his own affinity for these last-second drives.
Even though Calvin Johnson retired, Stafford just had one of the most efficient games of his career. However, it is not every week that he will see a defense with two of its top corners out (Vontae Davis and Darius Butler) and three more defensive backs going down with injury during the game. The Colts struggled to rush the quarterback and contain the running backs, so there were many ways for Stafford to attack this defense beyond getting the ball to his new wideouts. The lead grew as high as 21-3 as the Colts trailed by multiple touchdowns for the 26th time since 2012, the fifth-most games in the NFL in that span. Luck needed to be great in his return game, and after another trademark slow start, he was, leading the Colts to six scores on his last seven drives. Luck was accurate, decisive, and got his tight ends involved in running Rob Chudzinski's offense.
Unfortunately, the Colts' window to take the lead required Matt Prater to miss an extra point with 4:04 left and Detroit leading 34-28. The last thing either team wanted to do was put its defense on the field in this one. This is why the Colts needed to take more time than they did to score the go-ahead touchdown. The main culprit was Chuck Pagano's timeout with 1:15 left at the 12-yard line. There was plenty of time to get situated for the next play, and he could have tempted Jim Caldwell to use one of his three timeouts. Pagano's explanation after the game of wanting to change personnel still does not pass the sniff test for calling the timeout so quickly. He should have let the game clock go down before calling timeout, then changed personnel. Either way, the Colts got the touchdown and Adam Vinatieri made the extra point with 37 seconds left, but Detroit had all three timeouts remaining.
Those timeouts leave the playbook wide open in this situation. Almost effortlessly, Stafford needed just 25 seconds to hit three quick passes for 50 yards, taking a timeout after each. Stafford was livid with Eric Ebron for not going down right away and trying to fight for extra yardage. At the time, this looked like an overreaction given Detroit's two timeouts. But when Marvin Jones allowed himself to be tackled instead of easily stepping out of bounds, Stafford was understandably fit to be tied. Detroit used its final timeout and really could not try much with 12 seconds left. Stafford threw a pass away, then Prater came out to redeem himself with a 43-yard field goal. It was stunning that on a weekend where people thought icing the kicker was a thing again, that Pagano kept his last timeout to himself. Prater was good on the kick and Detroit even added a cheap safety on a laughably sad kick return filled with laterals by the Colts.
The Lions appear to be on the right path. Luck looks healthy again, but the Colts have to figure out how to start faster or else there will be more comeback attempts than usual from this team this season.
San Diego Chargers 27 at Kansas City Chiefs 33
Type: 4QC/GWD (OT)
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 17 (27-10)
Head Coach: Andy Reid (34-61-1 at 4QC and 46-69-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Alex Smith (16-25 at 4QC and 18-26 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Philip Rivers picked apart the defense, Melvin Gordon finally scored some touchdowns, and Danny Woodhead was emitting grit as only he can. San Diego had the shocker of the afternoon going with a 24-3 lead in Kansas City, but haven't we seen this movie end terribly before? The largest comeback in Chiefs history added insult to injury as San Diego fans are left wondering how the team will recover from this one. The Keenan Allen torn ACL suffered late in the second quarter had to be deflating, but the Chargers were still in control of this game into the fourth quarter. While the Chiefs are not built for three-score comebacks, San Diego sure seems to have a thing for blowing them.
This is the third time since 2012 that San Diego has blown a lead of at least 21 points. There was that 24-0 blown lead against Peyton Manning's Broncos in 2012, and Mike McCoy's first game as coach in 2013 was another 21-point blown lead to Houston on a Monday night. In fact, this is the third time in McCoy's four seasons that he has lost a fourth-quarter lead in Week 1. He may not get a fifth season at this rate.
Was conservative coaching really to blame for this latest collapse? San Diego did fall into a run-run-pass sequence three times in the fourth quarter, but the runs mostly worked and Rivers should be expected to convert at least one of those third-and-short situations. (He went 0-for-3). The game sure looked to be in hand once Alex Smith threw an interception, down 27-10, with 12:53 left, but Josh Lambo missed a 54-yard field goal after the offense stalled. That was big for field position, and Smith got hot in the no-huddle attack to set this comeback in motion.
Up 27-20, McCoy needed to let Rivers win the game in the four-minute offense, but consecutive screen passes to Travis Benjamin for a net loss of 2 yards was not going to work. That is where the criticism needs to go. To make matters worse, an unlucky bounce resulted in a 17-yard punt for Drew Kaser's. Smith only needed four plays to drive the 42 necessary yards for the game-tying touchdown with 1:03 left.
A sack by Dee Ford on San Diego's next drive knocked the Chargers back to a second-and-20, but the offense still could have been a little more aggressive with 48 seconds left. This could have been the last time Rivers touched the ball, but two Woodhead runs and a punt took the game to overtime.
The incentive to kick off first in overtime may have all but disappeared thanks to the change in the touchback rule, though we are still waiting to see if coaches kick deep or short more often. But starting at the 25 versus the 20 raises the touchdown percentage a couple of points. In a league where coaches are absolutely terrified of their quarterbacks throwing interceptions even though turnovers happen on roughly 2.5 percent of passes, this is a big boost to the offense. In this particular game, of course, the Chiefs should have gone first on offense after scores on four of their last five drives. Spencer Ware, filling in wonderfully for Jamaal Charles, made the big plays in overtime, gaining 35 of the drive's 70 yards. Smith finished the Chargers off with a designed quarterback run from the 2-yard line for the game-winning touchdown.
In modified overtime, the team winning the coin toss is now 42-31-3 (.572), which is actually a little higher than the old system from 1974-2011 when 54.6 percent of coin-toss winners won the game.
New England Patriots 23 at Arizona Cardinals 21
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 1 (21-20)
Head Coach: Bill Belichick (48-76 at 4QC and 63-77 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Jimmy Garoppolo (1-1 at 4QC and 1-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Since the 1970 merger, road teams that finish a game with exactly a minus-2 turnover margin win only 14.0 percent of the time. When the opponent is a playoff team, then that gets cut in half to 7.0 percent. What would the percentage be when the quarterback is making his first career start and his best weapon (Rob Gronkowski) and left tackle (Nate Solder) are inactive? For Bill Belichick and the Patriots, this is just another example of getting everyone to do their job, putting the team in a position to win, and reaping the benefits of an opponent's fatal mistake.
Arizona, a strong Super Bowl favorite, twice trailed by 10 points on the night, but inched closer in the fourth quarter. One position where the Patriots clearly had a big advantage was at kicker, and Stephen Gostkowski's 53-yard field goal increased the lead to 20-14. While it was a turnover-free night, the Carson Palmer-led offense had some struggles, but put a drive together to take a 21-20 lead with 9:46 left on a 1-yard touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald.
The jig was up, right? Since 2012, Bruce Arians had gone 31-1 (.969) when holding a one-score lead in the fourth quarter. No one closes the game better, and sure enough, Chandler Jones started things off with a sack against his former team. But as if the Patriots needed any more hope for a bright future, a young Jimmy Garoppolo made his best play of the night by finding Danny Amendola for 32 yards on a crucial third-and-15. That led to Gostkowski's 32-yard field goal with 3:44 left, putting the Patriots back on top 23-21.
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But the Cardinals thrive in these games. Arians had gone 19-8 (.704) when his offense needed a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime. No other active head coach is above .500. New England's short kickoff was only returned to the 17, and after a penalty, Palmer had to start at his own 8 without a timeout due to some bizarre management by Arians where he used his timeouts before the 4:30 mark. But when Fitzgerald is playing at his peak level, he looks almost impossible to cover. The veteran made three big catches, including a third-down conversion at the two-minute warning.
Unfortunately, even the aggressive Arians fell victim to the common NFL trap of what constitutes "field-goal range." A 52-yard field goal from the opponent's 34 is not ideal. While teams usually get into this position by passing, they tend to start running the ball inside the 40 out of fear of throwing an interception and the desire to run clock. But with the Patriots having three timeouts and Arizona having a shaky kicker, it was necessary to keep moving the chains and get closer. After a first-down run, the Cardinals did pass, but it was a low-percentage sideline throw that was either going to be intercepted or carry the receiver out of bounds to stop the clock. That poor call combined with a holding penalty brought up second-and-19, which was a screen pass to Andre Ellington for a 4-yard loss. When Fitzgerald is dominating the middle of the field, how do you not keep going there instead?
Meanwhile, Belichick used his second timeout with eight seconds left on the play clock instead of taking it immediately. He did not have to take one here, but if you are going to call timeout to give your offense a chance to counter an Arizona field goal, why wait so long to do it? Now back at the 47, Palmer had to make a big throw on third-and-23 just to get back into field-goal range, and he found an 18-yard gain. Again, Belichick should have called his timeout immediately at 1:05 to conserve as much time as possible for an answer drive. By the one-minute mark, it was clear Palmer and the offense was running off to get the field-goal unit on the field. Yet the final New England timeout did not come until there were 41 seconds left. That was a total waste of at least 20 seconds. Ask the Panthers, Saints, and Cowboys how important an extra 20 seconds (or 10) would have been to their final drives this week. Since the outcomes tend to work in Belichick's favor, some try to find ways to give him credit for the strategy leading up to them, but this was just a case of poor clock management.
Chandler Catanzaro does not have many long kicks on his resume, and this would have been the most important make of his career from 47 yards away. The snap was not very good and that may have thrown off the timing as he shanked the kick wide left, clinching another win for Belichick and the Patriots. Rarely do the Cardinals walk away in defeat in such contests, but some mishandling of the clock and suboptimal play-calling hurt them here.
Miami Dolphins 10 at Seattle Seahawks 12
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 4 (10-6)
Head Coach: Pete Carroll (22-42 at 4QC and 30-47 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Russell Wilson (14-17 at 4QC and 19-19 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Some players and coaches naturally change over time, but this is the kind of game you expect Seattle to win and Miami to lose. The path to getting to that predictable ending was a little different in Adam Gase's head coaching debut, and it would have been difficult to assess blame had Seattle lost. The offense was clearly struggling before Russell Wilson injured his ankle early in the third quarter. The defense was totally dominant for three quarters, allowing three points and 128 net yards on nine drives. But as soon as Wilson lost a fumble after tripping* to begin the fourth quarter, the defense started allowing third-down conversions, leaving receivers wide open and putting the outcome in jeopardy. This has been all too common for Seattle in the Wilson era, as we have explained several times in the past.
(* EDITOR'S NOTE: It's not really accurate to say Wilson tripped. Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips launched left guard Mark Glowinski backwards into Wilson, knocking them both down, and then wiped out Thomas Rawls for good measure.)
While Seattle blocked a 27-yard field goal attempt, Miami came right back with a stunning 86-yard touchdown drive to take a 10-6 lead with 4:08 left. With Wilson's mobility compromised, a game-winning touchdown drive felt unlikely, and there was only going to be one shot at it with the way Seattle managed the clock. But after two fourth-down conversions, the Seahawks were in Miami territory and Wilson was on target. This time the call from the 2-yard line was a fade to Doug Baldwin, and the receiver made the catch with 31 seconds left to put Seattle back on top. The extra point was blocked, but Miami was in a tough spot either way with zero timeouts. The decision to return the kickoff out of the end zone cost the Dolphins five seconds and 7 yards. Ryan Tannehill was sacked and fumbled the ball out of bounds, which actually keeps the play clock running upon the ready for snap. Miami's final play was just another sack back to the 1-yard line by Cliff Avril.
Seattle's defense bailed the offense out for three quarters, but the offense still had to save the day after another blown lead. These are the Seahawks we have come to know, but now all the attention will be on Wilson's health, which was never a problem in the past four years.
Cincinnati Bengals 23 at New York Jets 22
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 2 (22-20)
Head Coach: Marvin Lewis (29-62-1 at 4QC and 40-62-2 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Andy Dalton (12-18-1 at 4QC and 17-18-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Among the many players returning from a 2015 injury, Andy Dalton was one of the most interesting to watch. Was his second-place finish in DVOA a mirage, or did he really turn the corner last year? We'll find out how good the Jets are, but given the circumstances, Sunday was one of Dalton's best games yet. The Bengals were without tight end Tyler Eifert, had to work in new wide receivers after losing two to free agency, and Dalton saw very little help from his running game (50 yards) or offensive line (seven sacks after being the least-pressured quarterback of 2015).
But Dalton did have Adriel Jeremiah Green, A.J. for short, who roasted Darrelle Revis and this defense to the tune of 12 catches for 180 yards and a touchdown. Only two of those catches were thrown deeper than 8 yards, but Dalton and Green were in sync all day. Their only incompletion was thrown too low by Dalton, which was a problem since it set up a 52-yard field goal attempt for Mike Nugent, who missed. Only trailing 20-19, Ryan Fitzpatrick took advantage of the good field position and led the Jets to their own go-ahead field goal to take a 22-20 lead with 3:23 to play.
Dalton continued to go right back to Green on quick passes, but the Bengals ran into a familiar problem after the two-minute warning, much like Arizona would later do on Sunday night. The opponent's 37-yard line may technically be field goal range for most kickers, but you can't bet the entire game on a low-percentage kick from that distance. To make matters worse, the Bengals called two shotgun runs to Jeremy Hill instead of the better-suited Gio Bernard. Just like that it was third-and-13, and Marvin Lewis even wasted a quick timeout with 1:11 left when he should have let the clock run. Fortunately, Green beat Revis one last time for 11 yards to make the field goal more reasonable from 47 yards away, and Nugent was good on the kick.
Nugent's ensuing kickoff needed to be a few yards shorter as the Jets took the touchback at the 25 under the new rule. With 54 seconds left, New York's best play almost came immediately, but Brandon Marshall had a bad drop at midfield. Two plays later, Fitzpatrick threw his 26th interception in a GWD opportunity, the most in the NFL since 2005.
While Fitzpatrick has the worst active record (12-36-1) among quarterbacks at GWD opportunities, Dalton is quietly ranked fifth at 17-18-1 (.486). Pulling out a few close wins each year has helped the Bengals to five straight postseasons, while the abundance of losses help to explain why Fitzpatrick has never taken a team to the playoffs.
New York Giants 20 at Dallas Cowboys 19
As was expected, Eli Manning had few problems against Dallas' outmatched defense, finding his talented receiving corps at a high rate and facing very little pressure. The wild card was how rookie quarterback Dak Prescott would perform in place of Tony Romo (out with a back injury) after a blistering preseason.
The results were mixed, but also definitively showed that in a typical back-and-forth game between these teams, Romo was sorely missed. While Prescott completed 25 passes, he did not get the ball down the field much, and 17 of his completions went to Jason Witten and Cole Beasley. Shockingly, Dez Bryant caught an 8-yard pass on the second play of the game and never made another grab (that he held onto) the rest of the day. Some red zone issues limited Dallas to one touchdown, but Prescott led Dallas to 16 points on his first four drives. The problem was that he produced just one field goal on the last five drives as the Giants came back to take a 20-19 lead with a touchdown from Manning to Victor Cruz, who finally made his return to action.
Dallas got the ball twice down 20-19, but was unable to take advantage of either drive opportunity. A year after losing five leads in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter, the Giants desperately needed to close this one out in coach Ben McAdoo's debut. New York's seven straight runs by Rashad Jennings brought up an interesting decision on fourth-and-1 at the Dallas 37 with 1:12 left. But with only a 1-point lead and the range of kicker Dan Bailey for Dallas, it was best to just punt this away as McAdoo did.
Prescott had 1:05 from his own 20 to make this a really memorable debut. The drive was far from perfect, but he moved the ball and was not at a loss for situational awareness with appropriate spikes. With 12 seconds left at the Dallas 46, the players need to understand the importance of getting out of bounds. Terrance Williams, a fourth-year veteran now, may have temporarily lost his mind. His catch gave him a great opportunity to get out of bounds near the New York 45 with roughly seven seconds left. If he had ducked out, he may have set Bailey up for a record-distance field goal (65 yards), which Bailey has the leg to hit after nailing field goals from 56 and 54 yards in this game. Alas, Williams decided to cut back into the field of play and Dallas never had a shot to run another play in time.
For all the unjust criticism Romo receives for his play in crunch time, he gives Dallas a real edge in games like this one. Since 2010, Jason Garrett is 20-17 (.541) in games with a game-winning drive opportunity with Romo as the quarterback, compared to 4-15 (.211) with all other quarterbacks.
Chicago Bears 14 at Houston Texans 23
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 1 (14-13)
Head Coach: Bill O'Brien (5-7 at 4QC and 5-7 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Brock Osweiler (3-2 at 4QC and 3-2 overall 4QC/GWD record)
One of the biggest mistakes Houston made during Andre Johnson's prime was to never find a better No. 2 receiver than Kevin Walter. By the time DeAndre Hopkins came along in 2013, Johnson was not the same player. The Bill O'Brien-era Texans do not look to be making that same mistake with Hopkins. They drafted the speedy Will Fuller in the first round this season, and his debut was an interesting one. While Fuller dropped a potential 83-yard touchdown in the first half, he came through in the fourth quarter, digging out a low-placed screen by Brock Osweiler and showing off that speed for an 18-yard touchdown to put Houston ahead for good with 12:44 left.
Fuller finished with a game-high 107 receiving yards. The Bears thought they found a great complement to wide receiver Alshon Jeffery by drafting Kevin White last year, but he only made his NFL debut on Sunday after an injury cost him his 2015 rookie season. White was not much of a factor with three catches for 34 yards, including 29 yards on the last drive when Chicago trailed by two scores. Another player of surprisingly little consequence in this one was J.J. Watt, though he has been nursing his own health problems. Fortunately, other Texans stepped up to register third-down sacks of Jay Cutler in the fourth quarter, including Whitney Mercilus and John Simon. Fuller's 35-yard catch on a deep ball set up a field goal to get the 23-14 final, making Chicago's last-ditch drive not very dramatic.
Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind
Packers at Jaguars: Almost Stole the Show
Even with the long-awaited return of Jordy Nelson, the Packers did not look like the offensive machine of old. For the fifth time in his last six games, Aaron Rodgers failed to crack 6.0 yards per pass attempt, which is something he only did 11 times in 114 games from 2008 to 2014. Maybe we should credit the Jaguars for this one, because it is not supposed to be like old times for Jacksonville any longer. The talent acquired on both sides of the ball makes this a crucial year for coach Gus Bradley, but he only was able to get an almost signature win in this one after some familiar mistakes.
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The running game was a mess behind the offensive line, and Blake Bortles took two of his three sacks in the fourth quarter. With Green Bay leading 27-20, Jacksonville scrapped together a long drive (6:49) that needed two fourth-down conversions just to kick a field goal. The Jaguars even had to spend their last two timeouts and take a bad delay of game penalty on third down. Then again, several teams had really poor clock/timeout management in Week 1. Even the Packers took a delay of game on third down after a timeout during their four-minute offense attempt. Rodgers threw incomplete to Nelson, and the Jaguars were going to get one more shot, down 27-23.
Bortles led four game-winning drives in 2015, but they were not exactly the smoothest of finishes. (How about Baltimore, anyone?) This looked to fit right in, with Bortles surviving a game-ending interception on fourth down after a holding penalty on Morgan Burnett that Julius Thomas made sure to sell to the referee. Allen Robinson nearly gave the game away with a fumble, but somehow recovered on his own. But things fell apart after a third-and-1 at the 14-yard line. Between the rushing struggles and clock situation, the Jaguars were really limited in play-calling options.
After a failed slant in traffic, it was fourth-and-1 with 23 seconds left. Last season, Bortles was eighth in ALEX, but near the bottom of the league in short situations (1 to 3 yards to go). Still, with the lack of time, one expects something more than a bubble screen to Allen Hurns, who caught four screens in all of 2015. With the Jaguars having only one blocker for two defenders, it was almost a necessity for Hurns to break a tackle to make the play work. Even if he did, this would have burned considerable time and demanded a spike, leaving the Jaguars with just one or two chances at the end zone at best. The poor call resulted in a 1-yard loss, a turnover on downs, and the end of the game. With the talent and size of Robinson, Thomas, and Hurns, this had to be a more vertical throw and not minus-3 ALEX.
From 2006 to 2015, there were 404 passes on fourth-and-1, and only 14 of them (3.5 percent) were thrown to receivers behind the line of scrimmage. While nine of those plays converted, none of them were in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter, and only one of the 14 throws went to a wide receiver. That was a bubble screen to Andre Johnson in 2010, but at least he had multiple blockers in front of him. While there are times to go against the grain in the NFL, this was not one of them.
(Ed. Note: For those who don't remember what ALEX means, it is Air Less EXpected, the amount of yards short of the sticks that a quarterback throws. Scott Kacsmar's ALEX articles with full tables will run quarterly instead of weekly this season, but we're working on adding average third-down ALEX to the QB stats page starting next week. -- Aaron Schatz)
Vikings at Titans: "Exotic Smashmouth" Is Another Bad FOX Pilot
Tennessee seemed to be handed a dream Week 1 matchup with the Vikings starting Shaun Hill at quarterback in lieu of the Teddy Bridgewater injury. So if I told you that Adrian Peterson (19 carries for 31 yards) was stonewalled by Dick LeBeau's defense and the Titans led 10-0 at halftime, you would expect a Tennessee win, right?
Not quite. Hill was more effective than expected, especially on some third downs, but it was really Marcus Mariota who cost the Titans dearly. Or was it head coach Mike Mularkey with this "Exotic Smashmouth" brand of offense he has promoted this year? As much as the Titans look to have two downfield runners (DeMarco Murray and rookie Derrick Henry) and a quarterback capable of being a precision, pocket passer, the Titans opted for some "exotic" looks with results that often just left them looking stupid on Sunday. There were designed runs, a botched option in the red zone, and many zone-read looks, but Mariota's panic on several of these plays killed the offense. Mariota threw a pick-six late in the third quarter to fall behind 12-10, then with 11:11 left in the game, he had a mix-up on the zone-read with Murray for a fumble that was returned for a touchdown.
Mularkey also received some criticism for a two-point conversion try with the Titans trailing 25-16 with 28 seconds left. Yes, I think that was the wrong call since he should try to extend the game for as long as possible, and a failure to convert there ends the game immediately. At the same time, Tennessee's chances of recovering an onside kick and scoring a touchdown in 28 seconds were so poor that it really did not matter if the game was lost seconds earlier than it had to be.
But it is something to add to the list of questionable decisions made by Mularkey, who has the worst record (4-20) among active coaches at GWD opportunities.
Bills at Ravens: Rex, Tyrod Flat Against Former Team
Buffalo's worst yardage output (160 yards) in nearly 10 years paced a surprise 13-7 finish. Only seven games in the NFL last season produced fewer than 21 combined points. While the Bills have several key defenders either suspended or injured, the offensive pieces were all there, but Buffalo only netted more than 17 yards on two of its nine drives. Nearly half of Tyrod Taylor's 15 completions were failed plays, which was a problem last year as well, but was usually balanced out by deep balls. This time, Taylor only had one completion of more than 20 yards, and his average pass traveled 5.7 yards past the line of scrimmage -- 5 yards shorter than he averaged in 2015 (10.7).
Rex Ryan's defense kept the game close enough to be winnable at 13-7 with 5:35 left, but the offense continued to disappoint. There were two timeouts wasted earlier in the half with the Bills not getting to the line quickly enough to run a play. This was a problem offensive coordinator Greg Roman had in San Francisco, when the 49ers led or tied for the league in delay of game penalties each year from 2011 to 2014. On Buffalo's final drive, there was a delay of game penalty to bring up second-and-15. Baltimore's defensive playmakers stepped up as well. Sammy Watkins had a good throw ripped away from him by Jimmy Smith, and Terrell Suggs highlighted his return from last year's torn Achilles with a third-down sack. Buffalo had to punt with 4:29 left.
Since the Bills were down to one timeout, the Ravens could run out the clock with just a pair of first downs. While this was Joe Flacco's big return game as well, Baltimore kept things on the ground, including a key 11-yard end-around run by Mike Wallace. Wallace had scored on a 66-yard touchdown bomb earlier in his most impactful game in quite some time. When it came time to run the ball on third-and-1 to clinch the win, Baltimore gave the ball to Terrance West, who converted with his team-high 12th carry.
Buccaneers at Falcons: To the Cellar
Tampa Bay's third-straight win over Atlanta could be a sign of a team moving in the right direction, while the Falcons, playoff-less since 2012, continue to struggle. Jameis Winston was excellent with four touchdown passes to build a 31-13 lead, but Matt Ryan still had a rally attempt in him after good contributions from Mohamed Sanu (Atlanta debut) and Tevin Coleman.
Tampa Bay's lead was cut to 31-24, but Winston had a chance to ice the victory with a third-and-5 conversion with 2:23 left. The call was very safe with a designed run as Winston faked a pitch from the shotgun and only gained 3 yards. That was disappointing to not see Winston get the chance to pass for the win. Ryan had 1:52 left to drive 91 yards for the game-tying touchdown, but after one 19-yard completion, Ryan threw four straight incompletions. Tampa Bay's four-man rush got pressure on first and fourth down, but Ryan was just inaccurate on the two plays in between, throwing behind his open receivers. On fourth-and-10, Gerald McCoy made a money play to tip the pass at the line to clinch the win.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 9
Game-winning drives: 9
Games with 4QC opportunity: 13/16 (81.3 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 4
Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro Football Reference. Screen caps come from NFL Game Pass.