Clutch Encounters: Week 13
by Scott Kacsmar
The week started well with a tight finish between the Cowboys and Vikings on Thursday night, but the rest of Week 13 took a trip to Blowout City. The AFC North had a good Sunday, thanks in some part to the winless Browns being on a bye week. The first three meetings between 2004 draftees Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning resulted in fourth-quarter comebacks, but the Giants could not keep it closer than 10 points after a garbage-time touchdown finish in Pittsburgh. The Eagles used to only lose close this season, but lost by double digits for the third week in a row, this time in Cincinnati. Even the low-scoring Ravens blew out the Dolphins 38-6 instead of another close game between those two teams.
But nothing was more surprising than Detroit getting a comfortable 28-13 win in New Orleans. Drew Brees was held without a touchdown pass at home for the first time in 60 games, and by the 32nd-ranked pass defense. It was the first time all season that Detroit did not trail in the fourth quarter.
The week had a fitting conclusion with huge blowouts by the Seahawks and Colts in prime time. A week after Seattle's historic 98-game streak of leading or being within one score in the fourth quarter ended, the Seahawks ended Carolina's 36-game streak that was the longest active streak in the NFL for seven days. The longest streaks now belong to the Broncos (22 games) and Lions (20 games), both of which last lost big in 2015 to the team who occupies the winning position in our Game of the Week for the second week in a row. This one may have been even more improbable than the overtime win in Denver.
Game of the Week
Kansas City Chiefs 29 at Atlanta Falcons 28
Type: 4QC via non-offensive game-winning score
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 1 (28-27)
Head Coach: Andy Reid (36-62-1 at 4QC and 48-70-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Alex Smith (18-26 at 4QC and 20-27 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Despite a well-defined reputation for protecting the football, favoring the run-and-short-passing game, and playing strong defense, the Chiefs have been a high-variance team all season. How would Kansas City score enough points in Atlanta to overcome the Falcons' prolific offense? Well, the Chiefs got their usual dose of unconventional scoring with a 37-yard pick-six by Eric Berry before halftime, and then a 55-yard touchdown run on a fake punt in the third quarter to take a 27-16 lead. Coming into this season, quarterback Alex Smith was just 3-29 when his team allowed at least 27 points in a game. This year, the Chiefs are 3-1 with Smith when allowing at least 27 points. But it took an even more unconventional score to pull this one off against a game Falcons team.
Matt Ryan has been having a spectacular season, but he was more up and down in this one. We can point to the Falcons passing up a field goal for a failed fourth-and-1 attempt with nine minutes left in the third quarter when it was 27-16, but it's not like Kansas City's offense ever scored again. Into the fourth quarter, Atlanta got into the end zone again with a Devonta Freeman run, but Ryan was wide of the mark to his back on the two-point conversion to keep the score at 27-22 with 11:57 left.
Smith missed Spencer Ware on a deep ball that could have easily gone for a 61-yard touchdown pass. With the ball back, Atlanta stuck to the ground game, and used a costly timeout before a third-and-1 with 6:57 left. The play call was perfect though, since Ryan was able to float a pass to a wide-open Levine Toilolo for a 42-yard gain. That play was double Atlanta's second-longest gain on the day. Ryan showed off more of his improved scrambling ability this season with a 12-yard sprint to convert a third-and-9. Two plays later, Aldrick Robinson was open in the end zone for a 5-yard touchdown after the Chiefs looked confused on a little pick/rub action in front of the goal line. Up 28-27, of course the Falcons would go for two with 4:32 left to take a crucial 3-point lead, but no one imagined what would happen next.
The Falcons had already failed on one two-point conversion pass, but teams still strongly favor the pass in these opportunities. So it was not a surprise to see Ryan with the ball in his hands again, but he made another big mistake when Berry flashed in front of the intended receiver to pick off the pass. In the past, the play would have been dead right there, but the NFL made a wise decision to allow the defense to return these plays for its own two points. I actually just had a table last week for Cowboys-Vikings that noted this possibility, but dismissed the low probability of it ever happening. I mean, in a season where a record-low 2.1 percent of passes are getting intercepted, what are the odds of someone picking off a two-point conversion pass and returning it 100-ish yards for a touchdown?
Well, Berry did exactly that for the first "pick-two" in NFL history. Enjoy the historic moment again:
One of the worst ways to lose a game you'll ever see. Also one of the best ways to take the lead back. pic.twitter.com/3gEXmkyvTg
— Jonathan Kinsley (@Brickwallblitz) December 6, 2016
Prior to this, we had only seen three blocked extra points get returned for two points, including the game-winning score in Broncos-Saints earlier this season. This was the first time a defense returned a takeaway for a score, and it just so happened to be the game-winning score, giving the Chiefs a fourth-quarter comeback in one play with only the defense taking the field. The real kicker to this is that the Falcons were down to one timeout and had to kick off to the Chiefs. You could argue the onside kick was an option here, but we know how hopeless those tend to be. A good defensive stop should have been enough to get the ball back with plenty of time for Ryan to drive into range for kicker Matt Bryant to win the game.
However, the Atlanta defense has been a liability all season long. Smith came out throwing on a second-down play, and Travis Kelce picked up one first down. On a third-and-6 to decide the ballgame, Smith went back to Albert Wilson on a slant for the conversion. The Chiefs were able to burn the final four minutes and change off the clock to secure the historic 29-28 win.
While one AFC West team (San Diego) continues to find new ways to lose games, the Chiefs, Raiders, and Broncos have had a lot of wild comebacks and unique game-winning scores this season to bolster one of the strongest divisions we have seen since realignment in 2002.
Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind
Buffalo Bills 24 at Oakland Raiders 38
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 1 (24-23)
Head Coach: Jack Del Rio (29-51 at 4QC and 39-51 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Derek Carr (11-14 at 4QC and 11-14 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Buffalo's schedule still permits for a potential 10-6 finish, but blowing a 15-point lead in Oakland could really come back to haunt this team. The Bills have been one of those classic "almost teams" this season, with notable close losses in Baltimore, Miami, and Seattle that could have gone the other way if the team wasn't a dreadful 1-5 at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities. Meanwhile, Oakland picked up its sixth fourth-quarter comeback of the season, but so much of the damage was done in the third quarter after the Bills took a 24-9 lead behind a dominant rushing attack. The Bills failed to score on their final six drives, running six times for 12 yards as Oakland's defense stiffened, and the Raiders scored the game's final 29 points. This is the first season in NFL history where two teams have seen their quarterback lead at least six fourth-quarter comeback wins, as Oakland has been like the Detroit of the AFC.
|Most Fourth-Quarter Comeback Wins, Single Regular Season|
|Peyton Manning||IND||2009||7||Lost Super Bowl (14-2)|
|Matthew Stafford||DET||2016||7||TBD (8-4)|
|Dan Pastorini||HOIL||1978||6||Lost AFC-CG (10-6)|
|John Elway||DEN||1985||6||Missed Playoffs (11-5)|
|Dan Marino||MIA||1992||6||Lost AFC-CG (11-5)|
|Peyton Manning||IND||1999||6||Lost AFC-DIV (13-3)|
|Derek Carr||OAK||2016||6||TBD (10-2)|
Buffalo's back-to-back three-and-out drives followed by shoddy punts set Oakland up to take advantage of short fields. While Jack Del Rio has gotten credit for some aggressive fourth-down calls this season, he hasn't dipped into that many two-point conversion tricks a la Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh. Here, Del Rio surprised some when the Raiders kicked an extra point to still trail 24-23 with 57 seconds left in the third quarter. Most coaches would probably have gone for two and the tie there, but since Oakland was going to have to score again anyway, the decision was defensible. The more questionable call came on Oakland's next drive. Derek Carr pump-faked, and Amari Cooper beat rookie cornerback Kevon Seymour for a 37-yard touchdown with 14:08 left. Normally, a team would go for two to take a 31-24 lead, but maybe Del Rio heard about the pick-two in Atlanta earlier in the day, or just trusted his defense to hold up, or for his offense to keep scoring. The extra point gave Oakland a 30-24 lead.
Tyrod Taylor had a strong start to the game, but got into a 3-of-14 funk at one point. The 14th pass in that string was a killer. After getting pinned at his own 4-yard line with 10:53 left, Taylor was contacted by Khalil Mack as he was throwing, and the ball sailed in the air right to Nate Allen at the 16-yard line. Four runs later, Oakland was in the end zone again with Latavius Murray, and then Del Rio chose to go for two to take a 38-24 lead. Carr found Seth Roberts on a well-designed flip and Oakland never looked back. Mack ended the last Buffalo threat with the triple combo: the sack, the forced fumble, and the fumble recovery with 3:20 left.
Oakland's defense has rarely been great this season, but it has been opportunistic and timely. The Raiders are tied with the Giants for a league-high eight holds of a one-score lead in the fourth quarter this season. The Raiders, Chiefs, and 49ers are the only three teams to not blow a fourth-quarter lead this season. That's not impressive at all for San Francisco, which hasn't had a fourth-quarter lead since Week 1, but Oakland is 10-2 with an 8-1 record in close games.
Washington Redskins 23 at Arizona Cardinals 31
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 3 (20-17)
Head Coach: Bruce Arians (14-11 at 4QC and 21-11 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Carson Palmer (21-47 at 4QC and 33-47-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Now that was more like the Arizona Cardinals we were expecting to see this season. This battle of 2015 playoff teams on life support in 2016 turned out to be eventful in the second half. Arizona took a 24-20 lead on a 25-yard touchdown pass on a bubble screen to David Johnson, who has somewhat quietly put together one of the better receiving seasons by a workhorse back. Johnson's 2016 is the 20th time in NFL history that a back has surpassed 700 receiving yards and 200 carries in the same season. With four games to go, Johnson can still challenge the receiving numbers posted by Marshall Faulk (1,048 yards in 1999) and Roger Craig (1,016 yards in 1985). Johnson has 297 receiving yards in his last four games, so another stretch like that can put him over 1,000.
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Washington settled for a 53-yard field goal by Dustin Hopkins to cut the deficit to 24-23 with 6:01 left. Arizona head coach Bruce Arians has been the recent master of protecting one-score leads in the fourth quarter, and his fearless, aggressive nature has benefitted him greatly. Here, he may have called his gutsiest decision yet. Facing a fourth-and-1 at his own 34, Arians kept the offense on the field as the clock dipped under four minutes. Arizona was fifth in power runs this season, compared to 29th for Washington's defense, so the odds were stacked in his favor of a conversion. However, any failure here would set up Washington in good field position for a go-ahead score. Would this have been the call if Arizona was better than 4-6-1? We'll give Arians the benefit of the doubt, and his decision paid off after Johnson had no problem darting through a hole for 14 yards.
Arizona continued an aggressive drive with three straight passes inside of three minutes, getting another first down after a third-down defensive holding penalty on Josh Norman. With 2:03 left, Arians had a play-action pass dialed up for second-and-10 that Carson Palmer delivered perfectly to split two defenders in the end zone for a 42-yard touchdown to J.J. Nelson. Palmer was just 1-of-3 on passes thrown 15-plus yards in the game, but picked a perfect time to hit a deep one. With Arians bucking conventional wisdom on this drive and 1:56 remaining, I screamed at the television for Arizona to go for two to make it a 32-23 game. Alas, the extra point was kicked to keep this a one-score game, and to keep hope alive for the Redskins.
In the past, this situation usually has meant a lot of blitzing from the Cardinals, and they were not afraid to send pressure here at Kirk Cousins. However, a little too much aggression led to a roughing the passer penalty. With Jordan Reed out, Cousins started finding Vernon Davis to get the ball to the Arizona 28 in the final minute. Cousins became the first quarterback this season to pass for more than 270 yards against the Cardinals, but he only put up 271 yards. He needed 28 more. One all-out blitz forced a Cousins throwaway, and another seven-man rush forced a poor throw wide of the mark, intercepted by Patrick Peterson to clinch the Arizona win.
A very familiar looking Arizona win indeed, but perhaps too little too late to salvage this season at 5-6-1.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 28 at San Diego Chargers 21
This was another tight game played in a 14-point window, with neither team ever leading by more than a touchdown. Both franchises have had their share of blown leads over the years, but San Diego now leads the league with five blown fourth-quarter leads in 2016. This comes a year after San Diego tied with the Giants and Seahawks for the league lead with five blown fourth-quarter leads.
Tampa Bay used two scoring drives to turn a 21-17 deficit into a 28-21 lead. In between, the Buccaneers caught a break when Philip Rivers' pass was just an inch too far, going through Travis Benjamin's hands deep down the field on a third-and-14. It has just been that kind of season (again) for San Diego in the fourth quarter. Jameis Winston only needed four plays to lead the offense on a game-winning touchdown drive. Tight end Cameron Brate came down with a 12-yard score in traffic, and Mike Evans added the important two-point conversion with 9:01 left.
Rivers showed off some rare scrambling ability on back-to-back plays to get the ball to the Tampa Bay 31. Unfortunately, Rivers' impatience in the pocket led to a forced throw and the fifth interception of Keith Tandy's career with 2:56 left. Tampa Bay caught yet another little break when replay changed the call on the field from Tandy being down at the 2-yard line to having his momentum carry him into the end zone for a touchback. San Diego was down to just one timeout, which it had to use after a big 7-yard run by the Buccaneers on first down. Jacquizz Rodgers then put the game away with a 2-yard run on third-and-1.
Houston Texans 13 at Green Bay Packers 21
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Perhaps one of these teams still sneaks into the playoffs, but both have been pretty disappointing to this point. This game carried little interest through three quarters, unless you dug the snowy scenery provided by Lambeau Field. The conditions made any long field goals unlikely, which is why it was surprising to see Houston punt on a fourth-and-5 at the Green Bay 36 late in the third quarter with a 7-7 tie. While the punt backed Green Bay up to its own 2, Aaron Rodgers made some of his best throws of the day to march the offense 98 yards down the field. His legs picked up 11 yards, but at the cost of an awkward slide that saw him come up limping. However, two plays later Rodgers found a wide-open Jordy Nelson in the end zone after Charles James fell down for a 32-yard touchdown with 12:42 left. Out of Rodgers' 29 touchdown passes this season, this was the longest one yet. His previous long was a 31-yard screen on a blown coverage to James Starks in Washington.
Brock Osweiler picked a bad spot to check down, resulting in a 9-yard loss that derailed Houston's drive. With the ball back, Nelson came down with two much tougher catches for 49 yards, leading to a 3-yard touchdown run by Aaron Ripkowski with 4:11 left. The Packers had only eight plays gain more than 10 yards in the game, but seven of them happened in the fourth quarter.
While Osweiler found DeAndre Hopkins, fresh off a milk carton, for a 44-yard touchdown at the two-minute warning, Nick Novak missed the extra point and was unable to get an onside kick recovered for the second week in a row. By the time Houston got the ball back with four seconds left, there was only a chance for a crazy lateral play. I really liked the first two laterals the Texans used, but once the ball got back to Osweiler, things went haywire. His illegal forward pass was flagged, and the play eventually just died off.
Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind
Broncos at Jaguars: The Pick-Six Could Be Known as a 'Bortles'
Paxton Lynch's second-career start in place of an injured Trevor Siemian went arguably worse than his first, but it hardly mattered when you have the Denver defense against Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville offense. Bortles lived up to his reputation with another pick-six in the third quarter, this one returned 51 yards by Bradley Roby to give Denver a 17-3 lead going into the fourth quarter. This stat is hilarious and hard to believe, but Bortles now has more pick-sixes (11) than wins as a starter (10) in his career. According to research at Pro Football Reference, Bortles is the 54th quarterback with at least 11 pick-sixes in his regular-season career, but he has only played in 42 games. If you look at the stats for the seven retired quarterbacks with exactly 11 pick-sixes, Bortles really stands out with the fewest games per pick-six average (3.8) and the highest rate of his picks returned for a touchdown (22.0 percent).
|Quarterbacks with 11 Pick-Sixes|
|Blake Bortles||11||42||3.8||50||22.0%||10-31 (.244)|
|Stan Humphries||11||88||8.0||84||13.1%||50-31 (.617)|
|Richard Todd||11||119||10.8||161||6.8%||48-59-1 (.449)|
|Jeff Garcia||11||125||11.4||83||13.3%||58-58 (.500)|
|Steve Grogan||11||149||13.5||208||5.3%||75-60 (.556)|
|Archie Manning||11||151||13.7||173||6.4%||35-101-3 (.263)|
|Troy Aikman||11||165||15.0||141||7.8%||94-71 (.570)|
|Boomer Esiason||11||187||17.0||184||6.0%||80-93 (.462)|
Maybe Bortles has been a little unlucky in this regard, but the Denver defense has made a lot of quarterbacks look foolish in the last couple of seasons. Only when Bortles used his legs on a fourth-and-4 scramble for 22 yards did the Jaguars score a touchdown with 14:03 remaining. With Lynch struggling to move the Denver offense, Bortles got four more opportunities with the ball in a 17-10 game, but failed to produce any more points. The Denver defense was good for one more big takeaway. Von Miller pushed right tackle Jeremy Parnell into Bortles, who tried to move Parnell out of his way, only to lose the ball as he tried to bring it up to throw.
Miller actually does not get credit for a sack here, but he made the play happen again. Shane Ray recovered the fumble with 1:27 left, the Broncos tacked on a 41-yard field goal, and the 20-10 final tried to cover up what was not a strong performance from the defending champions, but a win nonetheless.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 57
Game-winning drives: 63
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 117/192 (60.9 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 28 (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.