Clutch Encounters: Week 10

Clutch Encounters: Week 10
Clutch Encounters: Week 10
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Scott Kacsmar

I felt really good about the schedule going into Week 10, and Sunday turned out to be the best day of the 2016 season so far. That is not confirmation bias either -- just check the facts. Sunday featured a season-high nine games in which the game-winning points were scored in the fourth quarter. All 10 games with a comeback opportunity this week, including Bengals-Giants on Monday night, had a successful game-winning score, so there isn't even a section for Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind this week.

The two premier matchups, Cowboys-Steelers and Seahawks-Patriots, really delivered to a national audience that responded well in the ratings. These two games marked the first day in NFL history that two games featured seven lead changes (credit to the NBC Sunday night broadcast for pointing that out). We also watched a top offense get stifled on the road, a mind-numbing fumble in Carolina, and a defensive two-point conversion that will live in infamy. Oh, and just wait until we play San Diego BINGO later.

Week 10 was a great one in the NFL, even if the vision of a truly great team is even murkier now.

Game of the Week

Dallas Cowboys 35 at Pittsburgh Steelers 30

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 1 (30-29)
Head Coach: Jason Garrett (22-30 at 4QC and 27-32 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Dak Prescott (3-1 at 4QC and 3-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)

While these two flagship franchises only meet once every four years, the four meetings since Ben Roethlisberger was drafted in 2004 have made for outstanding television in the late-afternoon slot. All four games featured a fourth-quarter comeback, with Dallas taking the last two meetings. With these talent-filled offenses having a clear advantage over the defenses, a shootout was expected, but I don't think anyone expected to see three 75-yard touchdown drives completed after the two-minute warning. The other stunning part of this offensive display was that the teams combined to go 0-for-6 on two-point conversions. Pittsburgh, 8-of-11 on its attempts last season (all passes), went for two twice in the first quarter, but those early failures left Mike Tomlin chasing those points for the rest of the game.

It was surprising to not see Le'Veon Bell get a shot on the ground on any of Pittsburgh's four two-point attempts. After Bell scored on a 1-yard touchdown run to give Pittsburgh a 24-23 lead with 7:51 left, Ben Roethlisberger tried his third pass play on a two-point conversion on the day. This should have been the one that worked, because Roethlisberger did a great job to improvise and flip a pass to tight end Jesse James in the end zone. However, backup running back Fitzgerald Toussaint thought the pass was intended for him, and his diving attempt prevented James from making a catch on his knees. Toussaint was playing since DeAngelo Williams was injured, and the Steelers like to split Bell out wide, but maybe this should have been an empty backfield since they knew they were passing again. Putting less familiar players in big spots on these attempts did not help. Ladarius Green, finally making his season debut, failed to catch a fade in the first quarter.

Dallas had nearly eight minutes to get a field goal, and after a big third-and-8 conversion from Dak Prescott to Jason Witten, it looked like the Cowboys might have been setting up a last-second winning kick when Ezekiel Elliott went untouched for a 14-yard touchdown run at the two-minute warning. Did Pittsburgh let Elliott score? If so, that was actually a wise decision given the way this game was going. Dallas failed on its two-point conversion, leaving Roethlisberger with 1:55 and two timeouts left, facing a 29-24 deficit. Again, that is a fair trade-off for Pittsburgh.

While these drives are not supposed to be easy, a subtle pick play to Bell and a fake screen to James quickly gained 47 yards down to the Dallas 15. Roethlisberger looked like he was going to spike the ball on first down, which may have led to me taking a leave of absence to storm the Pittsburgh office with a report of how screwed up this team's spike-to-timeout tendencies are, but thankfully he had other things in mind. Many of the great quarterbacks from this era grew up watching Dan Marino, and the fake spike he pulled off in 1994 to beat the Jets is one of the great plays in NFL history. Roethlisberger has tried this a few times throughout his career, but it was always ill-advised or poorly executed. This time, he nailed the fake spike with Antonio Brown as his intended target, but the 15-yard throw still had to be perfect since Leon McFadden was not easily fooled by the trick.

But hold the celebration. The two-point conversion was really important here to establish a three-point safety net, but Roethlisberger again failed to connect with his receiver, and was fortunate that Brandon Carr did not return the interception for two points for Dallas. So Pittsburgh only led 30-29, and Dallas still had 42 seconds and all three precious timeouts left, as well as Dan Bailey, one of the best kickers in history. Pittsburgh might have held on defensively had it not been for a struggle to tackle Witten, which led to an inadvertent grab of his facemask by rookie Sean Davis for a huge 15-yard penalty that moved the ball to the Pittsburgh 32 with 15 seconds left. Bailey can crush the ball from that range, even at Heinz Field, but the Cowboys kind of shocked everyone with another Elliott burst right up the middle for an untouched 32-yard, game-winning touchdown with nine seconds left. Dallas led 35-30, and the Steelers were on their way to a fourth straight loss despite getting the offensive boost at home they expected from their stars. Brown was given a lot of room on the last play of the game, a meaningless 44-yard gain, but he ran out of bounds instead of trying a lateral for some odd reason.

Since 1981, there have only been eight game-winning touchdown drives that started in the final minute that traveled at least 75 yards, including three Hail Mary touchdown passes. Dallas is the only one to score on the ground, so what the Cowboys were able to accomplish here was very rare, and instantly memorable.

Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind

Seattle Seahawks 31 at New England Patriots 24

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 2 (24-22)
Head Coach: Pete Carroll (24-44-1 at 4QC and 32-49-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Russell Wilson (16-19-1 at 4QC and 21-21-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Really, this one ended with a goal-line stand at the 1-yard line that has left us wondering why the Patriots did not try their running back more, or why they didn't throw a different type of pass? You cannot make this stuff up. After playing in one of the all-time classic Super Bowls two years ago, these teams put on another impressive display of heavyweight football on Sunday night.

In our preview for the game, I pointed out just how difficult it has been for teams to come back and win a game in New England. Since 2001, the Patriots were 49-1 when defending a one-score lead at home in the fourth quarter. Well, make that 49-2 after Russell Wilson led his 21st game-winning drive, a new Seahawks record. Things actually looked bleak when the Seahawks had to settle for another field goal after C.J. Prosise was denied a rushing touchdown, and the Seahawks only led 25-24 with 8:56 left. If you recall, settling for a field goal is usually going to lead to a loss in New England. Teams that attempted a fourth-quarter field goal in New England when the game was within three points either way were 1-13 since 2001. Well, make that one 2-13 now.

Even though Seattle allowed the Patriots to reach its 43 on the kick return, the defense stood tall when Kam Chancellor forced a Julian Edelman fumble. Wilson turned that into his third touchdown pass of the night to Doug Baldwin with 4:24 left, and then Pete Carroll did something that made me very happy. Now up 31-24, Carroll decided to go for a two-point conversion to take a commanding 9-point lead. No coach has ever voluntarily done this so late in a game in NFL history. I have been arguing for three years that it should be attempted more often, especially if you think your offense is reliable to convert. It was disappointing to see so many bash the decision, and for Bill Belichick to look totally confused by it as well.

Carroll was trying to put the game out of reach, and when you're on the road against Tom Brady and the Patriots, why wouldn't you want to do that? Now I am still not sure if 4:24 was the right time for this call, but it's certainly reasonable. In 2013, I looked at this for the final two minutes of the game, but this situation was a little different. However, a lot of the same arguments still apply.

First, a lead of seven, eight, or nine points is a great spot to be in at this point in the game. All three situations are already dire for the opponent. Second, no matter which lead you end up with, the defense's goal remains exactly the same: do not allow a touchdown. The problem that people run into is this false comfort in the two-point conversion. If your defense just allowed a 75-yard touchdown drive, what makes you think it's going to suddenly make a stand at the 2-yard line? Shouldn't it have already been trying its best to not give up the score? The two-point conversion is a faulty crutch at best.

Yes, two-point conversions are roughly 50-50 coin flips for even the best offenses, but it is unreasonable to think that New England's chances of converting one were way better than Seattle's chances. These were two well-coached, balanced teams on the field Sunday night. Even if you think your opponent has a slightly better chance of converting, that should still not deter you from going for it because the benefit of a two-score lead is so strong here. Not to mention, the extra point is far from a sure thing anymore. Seattle had one blocked earlier in the game, and kicker Steven Hauschka is only 56-of-63 (88.9 percent) over the last two seasons. This is just a new reason to go for two. Also, there is no real reason to fear a team going for two to beat you at the end, like Jack Del Rio did in New Orleans in Week 1. There have been nine such attempts since 1994, and it is usually done by a team with little to play for late in the season, or after a penalty put the ball at the 1-yard line. The Patriots were likely just going to play for overtime on Sunday night. You also can't fear overtime anymore.

The other problem I have is this thought that the Patriots would have "valuable information" if they were trailing by nine points with 4:24 left. I have literally spent years tracking comeback attempts in the NFL, and I can tell you that teams rarely ever put such information to use in their strategies. Eventually, the clock is too much of a problem that there is no real value to be gained by such information. But it's not like the Patriots would have come out, thrown a deep ball and immediately kicked a field goal on first down. No, they would have done the same thing every team would have done in this situation: played for the touchdown until settling for the fourth-down field goal became the only real option. Now this may look a little different in the final minute of the game, but by that time, you're locked into needing an onside kick recovery. Anything that involves your opponent needing to recover an onside kick is very desirable.

I've updated a table from 2013 that shows the nine teams that won after trailing by two scores in the final two minutes since 1999. This includes the 2013 Patriots, who beat the Browns after a fortunate onside kick recovery. In fact, six of these nine teams had to recover an onside kick to get their second score.

NFL: Winning After Being Down 9+ Points in Final 2:00 (Since 1999)
Team Date Opp Final Down Start Finish DL Result
CHI 10/3/1999 NO W 14-10 10-0 4:35 1:48 79 Curtis Conway TD catch; forced punt w/1:08 left
10-7 1:08 0:07 67 Curtis Conway GW TD catch
NYJ 9/24/2000 at TB W 21-17 17-6 5:01 1:54 64 TD + 2pt pass; Mike Alstott fumbles
17-14 1:39 0:52 24 Curtis Martin TD pass to Wayne Chrebet
CHI 11/4/2001 CLE W 27-21 OT 21-7 1:52 0:28 80 Recovered onside kick w/0:24 left
21-14 0:24 0:00 47 OT win (Mike Brown pick-six)
BAL 11/23/2003 SEA W 44-41 OT 41-31 4:16 1:12 71 Seattle turnover on downs (four-and-out)
41-38 0:39 0:00 46 Matt Stover game-tying FG; GW FG in OT
ARI 12/28/2003 MIN W 18-17 17-6 6:42 1:54 60 TD pass + 2pt pass fails; recover onside kick
17-12 1:54 0:00 61 Nate Poole 28-yard TD catch on fourth-and-25
DAL 12/6/2004 at SEA W 43-39 39-29 2:41 1:45 64 Keyshawn Johnson TD catch; recover onside kick
39-36 1:44 0:32 57 Julius Jones 17-yd TD run
STL 11/27/2005 at HOU W 33-27 OT 27-17 2:41 0:26 76 Isaac Bruce TD catch; recover onside kick
27-24 0:23 0:04 19 Game-tying FG; win on TD pass in OT
SD 12/14/2008 at KC W 22-21 21-10 4:55 1:13 89 TD pass + 2pt pass fails; recover onside kick
21-16 1:11 0:36 61 Vincent Jackson TD; KC misses 50-yd FG
NE 12/8/2013 CLE W 27-26 26-14 2:35 1:01 82 Julian Edelman TD; recover onside kick
26-21 1:00 0:31 40 Danny Amendola TD; CLE misses 58-yd FG

Five of these teams started their first drive with at least four minutes left in the game, so they too had this "valuable information" that the Patriots would have had. However, notice that none of those five teams were able to get their first score before the two-minute warning. They all needed some good fortune to generate a second possession. Had Seattle gotten the ball back, one first down could have ended the game too, and that seemed likely given the way the Seahawks attacked that defense all night long.

At some point in the near future, I would love to take a deep dive into our drive data to sort this decision out more neatly. The Pro Football Reference Drive Finder has a few bugs in its data, but it is showing that since 1998, teams gaining possession in the final 4:30 with a two-score deficit are 16-1,129 (.014). The record is 9-555 (.016) for deficits of 9 to 11 points, and that would get a little better if we removed really hopeless situations, like starting in the final two minutes with a multiple-score deficit. Only the 2001 Bears pulled that off (in Cleveland, no less). When you end up in miracle territory like this, you can see why Carroll was intrigued by the 9-point lead. I absolutely loved the call, and am glad to see it finally happen in an NFL game.

Of course, Wilson missed the throw, but that's a moot point. Go play defense and close this one out. New England's ensuing march reached the 2-yard line after a great catch by Rob Gronkowski, who had been pretty quiet prior to that play. Brady ran a bit of a give-up sneak on first down that was not seriously trying to score, which is a pretty interesting strategy itself. That caused the Seahawks to take their final timeout with 37 seconds left. LeGarrette Blount, who had three rushing touchdowns on the night, was stopped at the 1-yard line. On third down, Brady tried the fabled sneak again, but fumbled the ball on a poorly executed attempt. It was too rushed, and he did not even try to take advantage of leaping with extension at the goal line (like this) to break the plane. Entering the season, Brady was 105-of-113 (92.9 percent) on short-yardage runs, which are defined as runs on third or fourth down with 1 or 2 yards to go. He is actually 2-for-4 this season, bringing the new total to 107-of-117 (91.5 percent), but this stop will be one of the most memorable of those plays.

On the decisive fourth-and-1, Brady's final shot was a fade to Gronkowski, which is usually a wise call in single coverage, but Gronkowski was too preoccupied in contacting Chancellor, which led to the pass being overthrown.

That was a good no-call, as it should have been offensive pass interference if anything. We'll definitely touch on this more come playoff time, but for a Seattle defense that has blown far too many leads over the years, this season's unit has just been outstanding at closing games, especially at defending every inch in the red zone. The Seattle defense did exactly what it was supposed to do: don't allow a touchdown, making the two-point decision a moot point.

So was this a preview of Super Bowl LI? We can only hope. This was an outstanding team effort from the Seahawks on a short week.

Denver Broncos 25 at New Orleans Saints 23

Type: 4QC and non-offensive game-winning score
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 7 (17-10)
Head Coach: Gary Kubiak (22-38 at 4QC and 29-39 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Trevor Siemian (3-1 at 4QC and 3-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Well, Saints fans already knew not to take an extra point of any distance for granted. But does any team love the new extra point rules more than the Denver Broncos? Remember, Stephen Gostkowski missed a longer extra point (ironically, Bill Belichick supported that rule change) in last year's AFC Championship Game, leading to a failed two-point conversion attempt by the Patriots in a 20-18 loss. Prior to the 2015 rule changes, extra points were kicked from the 2-yard line, which had led to a 99 percent success rate in recent years. The defense was also not allowed to return a blocked kick or takeaway on a two-point conversion attempt, as the play would just be whistled dead. But now the extra point is a tougher 33-yard kick, which is more like a 94.4 percent success rate, and the defense can score two points of its own. In fact, the Saints were the first team in NFL history to score a defensive two-point conversion after blocking a Carolina extra point last season.

[ad placeholder 3]

Thanks to these rule changes, one of the most unique game-winning scores in NFL history happened in New Orleans on Sunday. Drew Brees watched the 17-10 lead he helped build turn into a 23-17 deficit after the Denver defense created short fields for the hapless Saints defense to unsuccessfully safeguard. Rookie wide receiver Michael Thomas even fumbled twice in the fourth quarter, but Brees had his chance with 2:50 left from his own 25.

Even with Aqib Talib out, Brandin Cooks had been shut down to this point with one catch for 37 yards. Brees remembered him though, and attacked Bradley Roby for a 29-yard gain and a stunning 32-yard touchdown into double coverage with 1:22 left. Brees finished with 303 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions. His 111.7 passer rating ended Denver's streak of 34 straight games (including playoffs) without allowing a passer to go over 100.0, which was the longest streak in the NFL since 1991, according to the NFL Research Twitter account. No matter what you think of passer rating, that is an impressive streak for Denver's defense in this era, and a strong stat line from Brees.

Before the extra point that would have given the Saints a 24-23 lead, I was already thinking of Denver's inevitable field goal and a 26-24 loss that would have been yet another lost comeback (the 17th) for Brees. If you have followed this column for years, then you would be familiar with these numbers for Brees and the Saints. We covered some of them in Week 1 when the Raiders snuck out a late victory in New Orleans. This could have been the 14th go-ahead touchdown thrown by Brees in the fourth quarter in a game his team lost -- the next closest quarterback in NFL history is actually Ben Roethlisberger, who had his eighth on Sunday. Brees has in fact extended his quarterback record of 34 losses after leading in the fourth quarter.

Of course, before one could even picture the drive to come, the unthinkable happened. A good leap by Denver blocked the extra point, and Will Parks recovered the ball and raced down the sideline for the game-winning defensive two-point conversion. At least, that's how the play was officiated on the field, and upheld in review. There have been other shots that certainly suggest that Parks stepped out of bounds at midfield.

Good day to be wearing white shoes, I guess. Replay did not find enough evidence to overturn the call, and the Broncos led 25-23. This meant that the Saints had to recover an onside kick to extend the game, and that naturally did not work out. Even some on the Broncos knew this was a terrible call. The lack of a camera angle right down the sideline in 2016 is a shock. The failure of replay here is unforgivable. While the NFL has found a way to eke out more excitement with the extra point, controversial endings such as this one are still a problem that the league must improve.

Atlanta Falcons 15 at Philadelphia Eagles 24

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 2 (15-13)
Head Coach: Doug Pederson (1-3 at 4QC and 1-4 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Carson Wentz (1-3 at 4QC and 1-4 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Atlanta games have produced a lot of points this season, with the Falcons scoring at least 23 points in each game, and allowing at least 26 points in all but one game (they gave up 16 in Denver). So a 10-9 affair through three quarters, with Atlanta's scoring limited to three field goals, was a surprise in Philadelphia. The Eagles have also been struggling to reach the end zone, and failed again after another terrible toss call to Ryan Mathews to start the fourth quarter. That led to a field goal and a 13-9 lead, but Matt Ryan only needed one throw to bring the Falcons back. Taylor Gabriel smoked Leodis McKelvin on a double-move for a 76-yard touchdown with 13:15 left. Matt Bryant, who has made so many clutch kicks in his career, shockingly missed an extra point to keep the score at 15-13.

Just last week, we had the stat that the Eagles had lost their last 18 games when trailing in the fourth quarter, including an 0-3 record this season. That style of "win big with great defense, lose close" has helped the Eagles maintain a top ranking in DVOA, but a comeback was necessary here to avoid another damaging loss in the NFC playoff race.

This time it looked like the Eagles were going to be victims of bad luck after a helmet-to-helmet hit by Keanu Neal was missed on a third-and-12 collision that jarred the ball loose from Jordan Matthews. Caleb Sturgis was short on a 55-yard field goal with 10:46 left. After three incompletions by Ryan, the Eagles were driving again, this time getting a late call for pass interference on Brian Poole that put the ball at the Atlanta 5. Mathews scored another touchdown, and added a two-point conversion run from the 1-yard line after the Falcons were penalized for holding on the first attempt. The Eagles piled up 208 rushing yards, which was the main problem for an Atlanta defense that was missing cornerback Desmond Trufant.

Down 21-15, Ryan could have solidified his MVP case with another comeback, but Julio Jones had a terrible drop on third-and-12 that would have gained at least 24 yards. The FOX announcer immediately said "Boy, you never see that from Jones!" even though, at least this season, we certainly have. Jones tipped a Ryan pass into an interception in Seattle that led to a game-winning field goal for the Seahawks. Jones also nearly tipped a Ryan pass into a game-ending interception against Green Bay. Here, the Falcons got another shot, but faced a fourth-and-5 from their own 40 with 2:24 left. I thought going for it, even with four clock stoppages, was the right call due to the needed yards and the unreliability of the Atlanta run defense. Jones was unable to adjust to an off-target throw from Ryan, so these two have definitely had their issues hooking up in crunch time this season, and most of the blame should fall on the star receiver here.

The Eagles could have iced the game with a fourth-and-2 conversion at the Atlanta 31 at the two-minute warning, but Doug Pederson went the conservative route with the 48-yard field goal attempt. Had the Eagles been leading 22-15 instead of 21-15, I would have hoped to see him (or any coach) go for it, but this was justifiable given the 6-point lead. Sturgis made the field goal, and up 24-15, the Eagles could breathe a sigh of relief after Ryan's desperation interception clinched their first close win of the season.

Miami Dolphins 31 at San Diego Chargers 24

Type: 4QC and non-offensive game-winning score
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 3 (24-21)
Head Coach: Adam Gase (2-3 at 4QC and 3-3 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Ryan Tannehill (11-24 at 4QC and 13-24 overall 4QC/GWD record)

These teams split two blowouts in the previous two seasons, but this was a close one between evenly matched teams. Philip Rivers has had his share of forgettable fourth quarters, but he would especially like to forget this one. Things began to unravel with the Chargers down 21-17 in the fourth. Miami had just muffed a punt to give San Diego the ball back at the 5-yard line, but Rivers threw a poor fade that was intercepted in the end zone by Tony Lippett. Rivers came right back with another wild throw from the Miami 30 that was intercepted by Byron Maxwell with 6:59 left. However, Miami again failed to get a first down, and Rivers took advantage of his fourth drive opportunity of the quarter with a 51-yard touchdown pass to Tyrell Williams with 4:04 left. San Diego led 24-21.

Ryan Tannehill made a few outstanding plays under pressure in this game, and he immediately came back with one here, finding DeVante Parker on a 56-yard bucket throw.

Nine more yards were tacked on for a roughing the passer call, which put the ball at the 10-yard line, but Miami was unable to get the go-ahead touchdown. San Diego had an embarrassing display of timeout usage, taking one after a Tannehill incompletion, and another while Miami was setting up its game-tying field goal. The clock was stopped in both instances. While San Diego was going to get the ball back in a 24-24 tie, those two timeouts were very costly and completely avoidable.

At the two-minute warning, Rivers used a screen to Melvin Gordon for a 20-yard gain to the Miami 42. With 1:13 left, Rivers looked like he never saw Kiko Alonso drop late into coverage, and the speedy linebacker jumped the route for a game-winning pick-six. Think the Chargers would have liked to have two more timeouts here? Down 31-24, Rivers threw another agonizing pick to Lippett, the fourth interception of the quarter.

After yet another blown lead in bizarre fashion for San Diego this season, we have reached BINGO on the card of crazy Chargers losses during the Rivers era. Yes, the things in yellow have all happened to San Diego since 2006, and everything in the "O" column has happened this season alone.

Meanwhile, Miami won another game with a non-offensive score, which has been oddly more frequent than usual in the Tannehill era. Tannehill actually has more fourth-quarter comeback wins (11) than he does game-winning drives (nine), which is a real rarity. This was Miami's fifth non-offensive game-winning score since 2013, including safeties against Cincinnati (2013) and Minnesota (2014); a punt return touchdown by Jarvis Landry against Washington (2015); and Kenyan Drake's 96-yard kickoff return touchdown last week against the Jets.

I guess you can say that Miami has found interesting ways to win games, while the Chargers may be the NFL's best team at conjuring up confounding losses. We could have filled out a second BINGO card, to be honest.

Kansas City Chiefs 20 at Carolina Panthers 17

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 14 (17-3)
Head Coach: Andy Reid (35-61-1 at 4QC and 47-69-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Alex Smith (17-25 at 4QC and 19-26 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Kansas City (7-2) may be the only candidate capable of beating out Pittsburgh for the league's most inconsistent (read: highest variance) team in 2016. A second comeback win this season from a deficit of at least 17 points should help with that. The Chiefs looked dead in the water once they were down 17-0, as the returns of Alex Smith and Spencer Ware did not spark the offense (now missing Jeremy Maclin) to more than a field goal through three quarters.

Of course, the Carolina Panthers (3-6) have been 2016's most disappointing team, fully capable of going scoreless in the second half at home. When the Chiefs want a spark, they often turn to their defense. While the Panthers were working on a 20-play drive that could have really put the Chiefs away with a quarter to go, the defense stepped up and sacked Cam Newton on back-to-back plays, forcing a punt. Yes, the Panthers actually used 20 plays to reach the Kansas City 20 and wound up punting from the 40. That drive also took 10:08 off of the clock, which wasn't so bad since the Panthers still led 17-3.

In fact, Carolina may have been fine if not for one huge, game-changing mistake. After a Kansas City field goal cut the score to 17-6, Newton inexplicably forced a pass while fading away against the blitz to Greg Olsen, and safety Eric Berry had a gifted interception that he turned into a spectacular 42-yard touchdown. Smith found Travis Kelce on a two-point conversion pass and the Chiefs only trailed 17-14 with 10:32 left, a whole new ballgame.

Some special teams struggles by Carolina led to another short field for the Chiefs, who tied the game on a 33-yard field goal with 4:25 left. With the defenses starting to dominate, the teams exchanged punts, and Carolina had just 29 seconds to go in regulation from its own 20. Ask the Chiefs just how aggressive one should be in that situation. It was just last season when Jamaal Charles fumbled for a game-losing touchdown with 27 seconds left against the Broncos. With Carolina out of timeouts, why not just play for overtime? Instead, Newton threw a pass to Kelvin Benjamin, and ball magnet Marcus Peters stripped the ball away for a huge fumble. He also made the silly mistake of punting the ball into the crowd for a 5-yard penalty, but the Chiefs still took over at the Carolina 29 with 20 seconds left.

You never expect to see a turnover in that situation, but there was really no good justification for Carolina forcing the issue there.

Ware's 11-yard run made the field goal easier, and after a Smith dive, Cairo Santos came on for the 37-yard field goal. The kick was dead center, and the Chiefs quite literally stole one from Carolina. Last season, Carolina was 10-1 in close games, seemingly getting every bounce up until Super Bowl 50 when Denver recovered the big fumbles. This season, Carolina is 0-5 at game-winning drive opportunities, a collective team failure in closing time.

Minnesota Vikings 20 at Washington Redskins 26

Type: GWD
Head Coach: Jay Gruden (5-12-1 at 4QC and 9-12-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Kirk Cousins (5-11-1 at 4QC and 7-11-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)

This game was neatly broken down into three scoring runs: 14-0 Redskins, 20-0 Vikings, and finally 12-0 Redskins. Washington's offense has quietly shaped into one of the league's most balanced units, and that helped the team continue its scoring after halftime.

Meanwhile, the Vikings continue to offer little more than terrible rushing and as many completions to Stefon Diggs as Sam Bradford can find. Diggs became the first player in NFL history with 13 catches in back-to-back games, but Matt Asiata was stuffed on two third-and-1 runs in the second half. Washington ripped off three first downs in a row, including two good completions off of play-action by Kirk Cousins, and broke the 20-20 tie with a 50-yard field goal from Dustin Hopkins with 9:33 left.

I am not sure what field goal range is for Blair Walsh anymore, but Bradford was getting close with the ball at the Washington 39. However, the porous Minnesota offensive line was starting to crack on the drive, and Bradford tried to compensate by getting rid of the ball quickly. On a second-and-10, Bradford's five-step drop pass was picked off by Preston Smith, who did a great job of drifting into coverage for a tipped interception with 5:44 left. Two first downs moved Washington into scoring range, but Cousins had a chance to practically put things away with a third-and-6 conversion. That was when the Minnesota defense stepped up with a sack by Danielle Hunter with 2:35 left. Washington had no choice but to kick a 28-yard field goal to go up 26-20, or The Dreaded 6-Point Lead.

Out of timeouts, Bradford still had plenty of time (2:31) to lead a 75-yard touchdown drive for the win, or at least the lead if you recall what happened to Minnesota against Detroit last week. Diggs ate up Washington's laughably soft zone coverage with five straight catches for 42 yards to start the drive. Diggs also caught a sixth pass on the drive to convert a third-and-3, but the Vikings never got any deeper than the Washington 21. Bradford badly overthrew Kyle Rudolph on first down, and then held onto the ball a bit too long on a second-down sack by Trent Murphy. On third-and-17, right tackle T.J. Clemmings was flagged for holding and left tackle Jake Long went down with an Achilles injury. It is hard to imagine more fitting imagery for this year's Minnesota offensive line than this play.

Minnesota was stuck in no man's land: fourth-and-17 at the Washington 28 with 11 seconds left. Save for an exploitable blown coverage, the throw almost had to go to the end zone, but this was the Minnesota offensive line -- there never was a throw. Washington blitzed six and Smith put the game away with a sack, beating Jeremiah Sirles, who replaced Long on the play.

The Vikings were once 5-0, but a four-game losing streak has them currently out of the playoffs, while the Redskins look like a better team right now.

San Francisco 49ers 20 at Arizona Cardinals 23

Type: GWD
Head Coach: Bruce Arians (13-10 at 4QC and 20-10-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Carson Palmer (20-46 at 4QC and 32-46-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)

The 49ers (1-8) have not won a game since Week 1, and only three of their eight losses have been close in the fourth quarter. However, two of those close calls have come against division rival Arizona, which was not able to pull away from the 49ers at home on Sunday, even after an early 14-0 lead.

[ad placeholder 4]

Running back David Johnson extended his streak of games with 100 yards from scrimmage to nine to start the season, but he actually needed 24 touches just to hit 101 yards against a defense that has been historically poor against running backs. In the second half, Johnson's first nine touches gained just 20 yards, as the Cardinals got pass-happy with a 20-10 lead, and Carson Palmer turned the ball over three times. Palmer's second interception set up Colin Kaepernick at his own 43 with 3:13 left, and Kaepernick's fast legs on two third downs led to a game-tying touchdown run with 1:55 left.

Not wanting to blow another game late this season, the Cardinals put together a game-winning field goal drive from their own 15 with all three timeouts left. Palmer made a nice play under pressure to find Michael Floyd on a high throw for a big 26-yard gain to get things moving. From there, it was mostly standard completions over the middle, until Johnson lined up out wide and caught a pass for 12 yards against outmatched linebacker Nick Bellore. Johnson carried the ball three more times to set up Chandler Catanzaro, who has already missed game-winning field goals this season against New England (Week 1) and Seattle (Week 7). Catanzaro was good enough on the 34-yard field goal with no time left to complete a season sweep of the 49ers.

Los Angeles Rams 9 at New York Jets 6

Type: GWD
Head Coach: Jeff Fisher (37-93-1 at 4QC and 54-102-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Case Keenum (2-8 at 4QC and 3-10 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Quarterback Bryce Petty's first career start for the Jets began well, with a 99-yard touchdown drive on the team's second possession. The Jets scored on a hook-and-ladder play that should probably be attempted more often, but usually offenses do not have to risk such tricks to score, especially in the second quarter. Unfortunately, Nick Folk missed the extra point, and the Jets never scored on any of their other 10 possessions. Oh, the Rams were not much better offensively, but Kenny Britt (107 receiving yards) did his share of damage against Darrelle Revis, who allowed over 100 receiving yards in coverage.

Case Keenum only completed one pass for a 6-yard gain on the Rams' game-winning drive, which was set up by a poor New York punt to the Los Angeles 48.After driving 36 yards, the Rams settled for Greg Zuerlein's 34-yard field goal to take a 9-6 lead with 6:52 left. Petty had two drives to answer, the last starting with 2:55 left from his own 23. After three short completions to get to the two-minute warning, Petty offered up a Ryan Fitzpatrick special. He forced a game-ending interception over the middle that linebacker Alec Ogletree broke on with 1:52 left. With the Jets already out of timeouts, that was the ballgame.

The 2016 Rams are the first team since the 1997 Bills to win multiple games in a season while scoring single-digit points. This should also put the Rams, after a four-game losing streak, back on track for that 7-9 finish.

Cincinnati Bengals 20 at New York Giants 21

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 6 (20-14)
Head Coach: Ben McAdoo (3-1 at 4QC and 5-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Eli Manning (30-47 at 4QC and 38-49 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Finally, the Monday night game in New York gave us the week's 10th close win and the season's 50th game-winning drive. The Giants have five of those game-winning drives now, and the latest came after an aggressive move by coach Ben McAdoo that we really should appreciate. Down 20-14 with a fourth-and-goal at the 3-yard line with 14:12 left, how many coaches would have just kicked the field goal there? Conventional wisdom says to take the points, but with the time remaining, the quality of the quarterback, the needed yards, and the favorable field position, why not go for the touchdown? According to the Play Finder at Pro Football Reference, there had only been four other legitimate fourth-down attempts by an offense since 1994 in this situation: fourth quarter, down by one score, at least three yards to go in the red zone, and more than half the quarter remaining. The Giants had the first success after Eli Manning found Sterling Shepard for a 3-yard touchdown with 14:05 left.

I really liked that call, but I did not like the ugly exchange of interceptions that Manning and Andy Dalton later had in the quarter. However, the Bengals were unable to do anything with Manning's pick, as Damon Harrison and Olivier Vernon stuffed Jeremy Hill on a third-and-1 run. This was another big night for the new additions to the New York defense, which now leads the league with six fourth-quarter holds a season after allowing six game-winning scores. Harrison and Vernon later notched back-to-back sacks of Dalton to force another punt while clinging onto that 21-20 lead. With 3:01 left, the Giants turned to the running game in the four-minute offense. While everyone expected a pass from Manning on a crucial third-and-6, the Giants fooled the Bengals with a draw to Rashad Jennings for a 9-yard gain and huge first down. Jennings made sure to definitively ice the game with a 25-yard burst after the two-minute warning.

Manning is now the ninth quarterback to have at least 30 fourth-quarter comeback wins, tying Fran Tarkenton and Brett Favre for the seventh most in NFL history. Let that crazy Hall of Fame debate continue, but it sure gets easier to argue for this Manning when the Giants (6-3) are having success.

Season Summary

Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 44
Game-winning drives: 50
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 90/147 (61.2 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 24 (and one tie)

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


30 comments, Last at 16 Nov 2016, 10:11pm

#1 by Bryan Knowles // Nov 15, 2016 - 4:23pm

It actually ended up NOT being surprising to see Le'Veon Bell not get a shot on any of Pittsburgh's conversion attempts.

Over the past three years, the Steelers have tried 20 (intentional) two-point conversions, by far the most in the league. They've attempted a pass on every single one.

Points: 0

#2 by ramirez // Nov 15, 2016 - 4:30pm

That's an amazing stat about the Steelers, thanks for that. As for the Carroll 2 pt attempt, my feelings about it depend on which opponent I am facing. If I'm up 7 against a bad team, I can see going for 2 to put the game out of reach. But against the Patriots in Foxboro, or against another elite team playing at home, I'd much rather defend an 8 point lead than a 7 point lead.

Points: 0

#3 by Aaron Brooks G… // Nov 15, 2016 - 4:44pm

How many 8-pt comebacks have there been in the last 4-min that took two possessions to accomplish?

An example:

Points: 0

#4 by Perfundle // Nov 15, 2016 - 5:08pm

Looking at that last possession on the play-by-play makes my head hurt. First of all, Dallas somehow recovered an onside kick 23 yards down the field. Second, how the hell did Buffalo allow not just one but two passes where the receiver managed to get out of bounds?? On the second one, you stop them in bounds and the game is over. Can't they just put all their defenders near the sidelines?

Points: 0

#6 by Aaron Brooks G… // Nov 15, 2016 - 5:22pm

There's a reason Buffalo was +5 in TO margin and still in a close game late.

Points: 0

#23 by Mike B. In Va // Nov 16, 2016 - 5:27pm

...that team sucked?

That was literally the first football game I ever watched in HD, and it was as soul-crushing as they come.

Points: 0

#12 by Scott Kacsmar // Nov 16, 2016 - 1:44am

2007 DAL-BUF was the last time that happened. Green Bay was in position to do it to Detroit last year, but Crosby missed the 52-yard field goal in a 18-16 loss.

Points: 0

#5 by Joe Pancake // Nov 15, 2016 - 5:17pm

So many great games on that comebacks list.

That '01 Bears-Browns game might be the greatest late-game comeback in NFL history. The Bears were losing by 14 points with under 30 seconds left, and they won!

The '03 Ravens-Seahawks was a crazy shootout in which Marcus Robinson caught four touchdowns in the second half(!), and the Ravens were effectively granted a crucial extra timeout, when the referees forgot to restart the clock after a picked-up penalty flag. (As a Seahawks fan, I was screaming at my TV set at the time. I'm pretty sure Mike Holmgren didn't even know what was going on.)

The '03 Cardinals-Vikings game knocked the Vikings out of the playoffs the final week of the season.

And two great comebacks that don't quite qualify: The MNF game in which the Colts came back from 21 down in under four minutes, and the 2014 NFC Championship Game.

Points: 0

#7 by JoeyHarringtonsPiano // Nov 15, 2016 - 5:46pm

Paul Allen's call on the Vikings radio network in that '03 Cards-Vikes game is an all-time classic. This is not out of any schadenfreude, but his play by play when he's anguished is rather amusing (Favre's INT in the 2009 NFC Championship game is another example).

Points: 0

#8 by Thomas_beardown // Nov 15, 2016 - 6:24pm

The Bears Browns game was insane.

In my memory at some point Shane Mathews threw a "hail mary" that seemed to hang in the air for like 10 seconds and only went 30 yards.

It was also part of back-to-back games where Mike Brown won the game with a pick 6 in OT.

Points: 0

#9 by Bucs_Rule // Nov 15, 2016 - 8:19pm

Could you explain why you think teams should go for two when up by 7?

Coaches treat being down by 8 as if it is always a one score game and they’ll make the conversion. They will pace the offense accordingly and often not leave enough time to get a field in case they fail the conversion.

If the team up 7 goes for two, the opponent will know whether they need a touchdown or a touchdown and a field goal. Then they will adjust pacing, faster if they need two scores or try to leave little time left needing just one.

Points: 0

#10 by gomer_rs // Nov 16, 2016 - 12:01am

It's just that much better being up by 2 scores. Flip it around, Team A is up by 7 with an extra point coming, they have two choices to reach a two score lead, (1) gain two yards in one play; (2) get defensive stop and then gain 40-70 yards for an additional score.

There basically isn't a scenario where leading by one score is better than leading by two scores.

I remember when they were the Sea-chickens.

Points: 0

#11 by Scott Kacsmar // Nov 16, 2016 - 1:37am

Yeah, I don't get why there's so much focus on the 2PC rates and not more on what teams do when they have to score twice.

What's easier for your offense to do?

1. Convert a 2PC after having just driven the length of the field for a TD.
2. Get one scoring drive, find a way to get the ball back, and score again with one of the scores having to be a TD.

When one sack or one holding penalty or one tipped ball can sink a drive, I want to take my chances to get that two-score lead.

And again, at the end of the day, don't give up a TD and you'll win the game every time. That's still the goal on defense.

Points: 0

#13 by nat // Nov 16, 2016 - 9:02am

Nor is there a scenario where needing a two point conversion to get to overtime is better than needing just an extra point.

Just saying that a two score lead is better than a one score lead doesn't advance the analysis a bit. The two score lead is far from automatic.

Points: 0

#17 by LyleNM // Nov 16, 2016 - 11:46am

No, a 9-555 record is not automatic but neither is it "far from automatic".

Points: 0

#18 by nat // Nov 16, 2016 - 11:53am

Oops. I was saying that getting to the two score lead (by converting) was far from automatic. It's about a 50-50 proposition, or a bit harder than that.

I can see why you'd think I said the other. But I'd hope from context my meaning was clear.

Points: 0

#22 by LyleNM // Nov 16, 2016 - 3:46pm

Then I don't understand why you phrased it that way. Everybody here understands that 2 pt conversions are roughly 50-50, don't they?

Points: 0

#25 by nat // Nov 16, 2016 - 5:39pm

I was responding to gomer-rs's There basically isn't a scenario where leading by one score is better than leading by two scores.

Imagine that I told you that the reason Scott (hypothetically) advised people to play Powerball was because there is no scenario where not playing is better than winning $100 million. Scott's "reason" would be a true statement, obviously. But it would not be helpful at all in deciding whether to buy that lottery ticket.

Neither the $100 million nor the two-score lead is "automatic". You only get to pay the price and take your chances.

And the odds matter.

Points: 0

#29 by Bucs_Rule // Nov 16, 2016 - 6:21pm

Being up two scores is a big advantage, but I think having your opponent down 8 and not convert the 2 point conversion is worse for them. For the first they can plan for being down two scores, for the second they don’t know if they need two scores or not.

There was a discussion a couple weeks ago about why it was correct for Hue Jackson to go for two when he was down 15, scored to make it 9. It was correct to go for two so he'd know whether he needed two or one more score. The same principle applies here.

Points: 0

#14 by ChrisS // Nov 16, 2016 - 10:13am

Is that play a Hook-and-Ladder or a Hook-and-Lateral. I have seen both on this sight referring to the same play and have heard both. Google says they are about equal, 445k hits for "hook and lateral" and 380k hits for "hook and ladder". And also include "-" in the name or use " "?

Points: 0

#16 by Raiderjoe // Nov 16, 2016 - 10:47am

both r fine. I use hook and lateral beucuase therte is a lateral on the play

Points: 0

#19 by gomer_rs // Nov 16, 2016 - 2:11pm

Ladder just sounds better on the tongue so it's used often.

I remember when they were the Sea-chickens.

Points: 0

#27 by Jerry // Nov 16, 2016 - 5:55pm

I'll guess that it was originally the more literal "hook and lateral," but it sounds enough like the fire truck that "hook and ladder" became commonplace.

Points: 0

#15 by ChrisS // Nov 16, 2016 - 10:16am

In the Carolina game " With Carolina out of timeouts, why not just play for overtime?" Why are you more likely to commit a turnover at the end of the game with no timeouts than in overtime? I can see if you are trying long bombs but this turnover was just a normal pass and a great defensive play.

Points: 0

#20 by Bucs_Rule // Nov 16, 2016 - 3:29pm

That would be interesting analysis. When teams get the ball within their 30 yard line with under 30 seconds to go and they don't take a knee, how often do they end up winning in regulation vs their opponent.

Points: 0

#21 by Scott Kacsmar // Nov 16, 2016 - 3:37pm

I mentioned one-minute drills in DAL-PIT. Have those tracked back to 1981. Let's say 30 seconds and you have to travel at least 40 yards. I only have 11 such successful drives since 1981. Only three of those came with the score tied, and you're talking about one drive that started at midfield and another Hail Mary TD (David Garrard deflected pass).

I didn't say anything about turnover rates. Just said that there wasn't enough time (and timeouts) left for Carolina to reasonably force anything there. Just go to OT. You're at home against an offense that can barely score without you giving them the ball on a silver platter.

Points: 0

#30 by Bucs_Rule // Nov 16, 2016 - 10:11pm

Yup, even if Benjamin had held onto the ball, Carolina would have had the ball around the 35 with about 23 seconds left with one fewer timeouts. That's not a good situation even with 2 timeouts.

Points: 0

#24 by Vincent Verhei // Nov 16, 2016 - 5:38pm

Since 2000, teams have kicked off in the fourth quarter, up by 8 points, 155 times. Those teams have gone 142-13 (.916 win rate).

In the same time, teams kicking off up 7 in the fourth have gone 290-49-2 (.853), while those kicking off up 9 have gone 58-5 (.921). If we assume going for two when you're already up seven is basically a 50-50 shot between .853 and .921, then we split the difference between those numbers, and we get .887. So historically, it has been very slightly better to be up 8 than to go for two and make it 9. On the other hand, this assumes the kick for 1 is automatic, which we all know is not the case any more.

In any event, the difference is slight enough that it's completely reasonable to go for 2 if you believe, to put it simply, that your offense has a better chance of converting a two-pointer, than your defense does in stopping one. I think Seattle's offense definitely had the edge over New England on Sunday (and vice versa), so I think Seattle's decision to go for it was totally justified, even if the numbers for average teams say they were wrong.

Points: 0

#26 by LyleNM // Nov 16, 2016 - 5:46pm

Useful numbers, thanks. But it also a different story to be kicking up 7 or 8 or 9 points with 14 minutes left in the game than it is with 4 minutes left in the game.

Points: 0

Save 10%
& Support Scott
Support Football Outsiders' independent media and Scott Kacsmar. Use promo code WRITERS to save 10% on any FO+ membership and give half the cost of your membership to tip Scott.