by Scott Kacsmar
It still feels odd to see the Seahawks get obliterated 38-10 in Green Bay, but Week 14 was actually one of the season's most competitive weekends. It started on Thursday night with the pivotal game in Kansas City, and a total of 11 games featured a comeback opportunity. The Vikings and Jets each had their first fourth-quarter comeback and game-winning drive of 2016.
We even saw some more history courtesy of the Lions, but not in a way that the team actually would have wanted it to go down. A self-imposed comeback opportunity (or SICO) could be our next catchy stat acronym to describe those games where the offense creates its own deficit by allowing a go-ahead defensive score, then comes back and wins the game anyway.
Game of the Week
Chicago Bears 17 at Detroit Lions 20
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 4 (17-13)
Head Coach: Jim Caldwell (23-25 at 4QC and 26-25 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Matthew Stafford (25-33 at 4QC and 28-33 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Every once in a while, a sports record will fall in cheap fashion. Think of Michael Strahan's record-setting sack in 2001 to give him 22.5 for the season. Brett Favre really laid out for him in the final three minutes of the game in Week 17 for that one. So when the Detroit Lions became the first team in NFL history to have eight fourth-quarter comeback wins, you can say that throwing a pick-six to the lowly Bears to set up that opportunity was breaking the record in a cheap fashion.
We are mostly looking at you, Matthew Stafford, since you will be most closely related to this record. Sure, Jim Caldwell will as well, seeing as how he was also the first coach to have a team (2009 Colts) with seven fourth-quarter comeback wins. But this is more about Stafford's season, and while the eighth comeback win may bolster his MVP resume, the fact is that two bad interceptions in the fourth quarter put Detroit in the hole this time. The first pick happened in the red zone on a tipped ball, and the second was just a late throw that Cre'von LeBlanc returned to the house for his first career interception to put Chicago ahead 17-13 with 7:07 left.
So here we were again with Detroit having a more than reasonable deficit to overcome. Even as the drive was progressing down the field, Stafford's throws still looked off and dangerous, but he did injure his middle finger earlier in the game. His running actually highlighted the drive after a great scramble and finish for a 7-yard touchdown put the Lions back on top 20-17 with 3:17 left.
— NFL (@NFL) December 11, 2016
All things considered, Matt Barkley had a decent game again for the Bears, but needed a scoring drive in the final 3:17. Easy enough, right? The first few completions usually are, and Barkley took what was given to him to move into Detroit territory. Everything took a sour turn once the Bears reached the Detroit 43 with 58 seconds left. Back-to-back holding penalties on the Bears wiped out big completions from Barkley to set up a first-and-30 situation. I thought the first hold on Charles Leno was obvious, but the second one on Ted Larsen was very picky. If the officials were consistent in calling things that tightly, then Nevin Lawson should have been flagged for pass interference two plays later on a second-and-25 for his coverage against Deonte Thompson. The Bears soon faced fourth-and-11, and Josh Bellamy was unable to come down with a catch to end the game.
The condition of Stafford's finger and Detroit's remaining tough schedule demand careful attention, but the Lions (9-4) are currently the No. 2 seed in the NFC going into Week 15. You can see how easy a Stafford MVP narrative would be to write if the Lions can finish with nine or 10 comeback wins with him prevailing through injury down the stretch here. I would not bet on that happening, but the opportunity is there, and this is a type of opportunity that Detroit should relish.
Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind
Washington Redskins 27 at Philadelphia Eagles 22
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 1 (22-21)
Head Coach: Jay Gruden (6-13-1 at 4QC and 10-13-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Kirk Cousins (6-12-1 at 4QC and 8-12-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Matthew Stafford was not alone on Sunday in throwing a pick-six to facilitate a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity against a division rival. Up 21-13, Washington's Kirk Cousins watched his pass get jumped by Leodis McKelvin for a 29-yard interception return with 13:11 left. The Eagles were justified to go for two and the tie at that point, but Josh Norman was too good against Jordan Matthews and knocked away Carson Wentz's pass. The score remained 21-19, but Philadelphia quickly got the ball back after Jamison Crowder's 40-yard catch on third down was reversed correctly by a Doug Pederson challenge.
The Eagles faced an interesting fourth-and-1 decision at the Washington 34 halfway through the quarter. I loved the call for a quarterback sneak, and after a quick pushback, Wentz was able to power ahead for the first down. However, the drive stalled from there, and instead of going for another fourth-and-1 at the Washington 23, Pederson opted for the 41-yard go-ahead field goal from Caleb Sturgis with 4:59 left.
Not to be denied, Crowder made another big play, and this time the challenge went in Washington's favor for a 33-yard gain. Similarly, the Redskins chose against a 53-yard field goal to take the lead, and Cousins threw for a first down on fourth-and-1 to Pierre Garcon.
But there was a big strategic blunder in this quarter. At the two-minute warning, the Redskins faced a second-and-6 at the Philadelphia 25 with the Eagles down to one timeout. Chris Thompson got outside on a pitch and scored a touchdown to put Washington up 27-22 with 1:53 left. This was really the best outcome for the Eagles, not the Redskins, because at least the Philadelphia offense was going to have plenty of time to answer. Thompson should have been coached to take a dive inside the 5-yard line, which would have allowed the Redskins to set up an easy game-winning field goal as the game's final play. No, the field goal is not as much of a sure thing as the walk-in touchdown, but it's close to 100 percent. You probably deserve to lose if you cannot convert a field goal that close. Yes, the dive is harder to push for when a team is trailing compared to a tied game, but it is still the percentage play.
Worse, the Redskins had to go for a two-point conversion to try making it 29-22, and we know that a return the other way on those is possible a la Eric Berry in Atlanta a week ago. Cousins' pass fell incomplete, so the Eagles were in position to win with a touchdown, and 1:53 with a timeout was plenty of time to do it in from 75 yards away.
Wentz engineered a good drive to the Washington 14, but Ryan Kerrigan delivered for his defense with a clinching strip-sack with 12 seconds left. Wentz was rarely pressured on the day, but Kerrigan blew past backup Matt Tobin at the most opportune moment. The Eagles came into the week more than twice as high in DVOA compared to the Redskins, but Philadelphia is now 1-5 in games with a game-winning drive opportunity, compared to Washington's record of 6-3-1. That really is the difference between a 5-8 team in last place and a 7-5-1 team that is still contending in the NFC.
Arizona Cardinals 23 at Miami Dolphins 26
A mistake-filled start had the Cardinals behind the eight ball again, down 21-9, but a 99-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter after Ryan Tannehill left with an injury changed the complexion of this one. Not changing: the Arizona special teams screwing up games for the Cardinals in 2016. After a high snap, Chandler Catanzaro's extra point was blocked and returned for a defensive two-point conversion to give Miami a 23-15 lead.
After a Miami three-and-out with backup Matt Moore at quarterback, the Cardinals only had to move 50 yards for another touchdown. J.J. Nelson was merely a speed demon a season ago for Arizona, but has developed into more of an all-around threat this year. His second touchdown of the day on an 8-yard catch led to a two-point conversion pass from Carson Palmer to David Johnson to tie the game at 23 with 3:01 left.
Moore had only thrown 30 passes in Miami since Tannehill was drafted in 2012, but was needed to deliver in a big spot here. He failed to do so initially, but Palmer submarined his team's own shot at a game-winning drive after a self-sack when he dropped the ball on first down in the rain. A 20-yard punt return by Jarvis Landry helped Moore by placing the ball at the Arizona 47 with 1:29 left. After a 12-yard completion to Kenny Stills, Moore went back to him for 29 yards down to the 1-yard line. Justin Bethel was even flagged for pass interference on the play, but that poor all-around job did enough to stop Stills short of the end zone. In reality, Arizona's best shot, which still would have been a terribly hopeless situation, was letting Stills score.
With a backup quarterback and backup center in the game, and the rainy, wet conditions, Adam Gase must have lost his damn mind to legitimately run the ball two more times instead of taking two kneeldowns. On the second run, Moore slipped on his handoff to Damien Williams, who danced with the ball for so long that clock almost struck zero. I wanted to show this play to also highlight Arizona's Kevin Minter (51) leap at the pile without a helmet on. Keep competing.
Fortunately, the Dolphins got the last timeout there with a second left, and Andrew Franks kicked the 21-yard game-winning field goal.
Minnesota Vikings 25 at Jacksonville Jaguars 16
You almost have to give Blake Bortles an atta-boy for not throwing a pick-six against the Vikings' opportunistic defense this week. Hey, even progress in baby steps is still progress. Bortles actually led this game's first touchdown drive to take a 16-12 lead late in the third quarter after the teams kept exchanging field goals. However, the defense was unable to hold. A pooch kick to keep the ball away from dangerous returner Cordarrelle Patterson backfired when the Vikings started at their own 38. Jerick McKinnon had three first downs on the ensuing drive for Minnesota, but gave way to Matt Asiata for the 1-yard touchdown vulture run with 14:13 to play. Kicker Kai Forbath evoked bad Blair Walsh memories by shanking the extra point wide left, and the Vikings only led 18-16. The shank came after a false start on Rhett Ellison negated a successful kick. Always have to watch out for shenanigans on those second kicks.
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After an uninspiring three-and-out by Jacksonville, the Vikings were in a position to put the game away, thanks in large part to a roughing the punter penalty that extended the drive. However, Jacksonville's defense stiffened on three straight tackles at the 1-yard line, and Asiata's third-down fumble with 6:19 left gave the Jaguars new life.
Bortles looked like someone trying to aim his passes, and was off target for another three-and-out. Patterson made his mark as a receiver with a big first down on a third-and-10 catch for 11 yards. After the Jaguars used their final timeout, Minnesota got a little risky with some passes, including a play where Kyle Rudolph stepped out of bounds to stop the clock. A pass on second down was more surprising with 2:17 left, but Rudolph was so wide open after the play-action fake that it was hardly a risk.
Down 25-16 with 2:13 left, Jacksonville again demonstrated why I do not see much value in the "knowing you need two scores" argument for these late-game situations. Offenses, especially bad ones, still struggle to move the ball in these situations, especially when the clock is such an enemy. The best the Jaguars could do was a 61-yard field goal attempt on third-and-20 with 21 seconds left. Apparently, throwing a short sideline pass to make the kick a little shorter was deemed to not be worth it. Linval Joseph blocked the low-trajectory kick to end the game.
The Jaguars are tied with the Browns and Chargers for a league-high seven failed game-winning drive attempts in 2016.
New York Jets 23 at San Francisco 49ers 17
Nothing like having one of the season's major Toilet Bowl games go to overtime. This was all San Francisco early, but two missed field goals by Phil Dawson were costly. The 49ers had their first fourth-quarter lead (17-6) since Week 1, but the defense didn't know what to do with it. Quarterback Bryce Petty found his rhythm, and Bilal Powell began chewing up the worst run defense in the league after starter Matt Forte left with a knee injury. Petty showed some good athleticism and strength on a quarterback draw to convert a third-and-4, and then on a zone-read keeper for a two-point conversion.
Down 17-14 with 2:35 left, Petty led the Jets into range for a 50-yard field goal by Nick Folk to send the game into overtime. The 49ers went on offense first, but Carlos Hyde was stopped on a fourth-and-2 run at the New York 37. Hyde's first 16 carries had gone for 193 yards, so that was disappointing, but the Jets were ranked No. 2 in run stuff rate.
Petty improvised and got a nice catch from Robby Anderson for 26 yards. Three plays later, Powell raced through the defense for a 19-yard touchdown to cap off his 145-yard rushing performance. Tank you very much, Bilal.
Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind
Texans at Colts: I'm Not Here, This Isn't Happening
There was a time when the Texans were 0-13 in Indianapolis. Last year's breakthrough win that basically decided the AFC South in Week 15 was chalked up to the absence of Andrew Luck. With Luck back this season, the Colts still squandered away a late 14-point lead in unbelievable fashion in Houston in Week 6, when Luck was unable to pull off the game-winning drive in the overtime loss on the road. Surely with Luck on top of his game again, the Colts were going to win at home and take control of the division, right?
Wrong, and don't call me Shirley. Behind Jadeveon Clowney, Houston completed the season sweep with a dominant defensive performance, forcing Luck into one of the most disappointing games of his young career with three turnovers and 13 hits. The only actual sack of Luck was a huge strip-sack by Clowney late in the third quarter with the ball at the 3-yard line. After Brock Osweiler narrowly avoided his own strip-sack from Trent Cole, the Texans turned that into a field goal for a 19-10 lead with 11:53 to play.
Luck finally started to make plays with longtime Houston killer T.Y. Hilton, including a 35-yard touchdown with 9:06 left. Houston's offense was again productive in building the lead back to 22-17 with a field goal, but Luck had 2:47 left to drive 75 yards for the likely game-winning touchdown. The stage was set, the drive was off to a good start, but a fourth-and-1 loomed large after Hilton was tackled a yard short at the Houston 42. Coming into the week, the Colts were an unimpressive 22nd in power run situations, but also had the second-lowest stuffed run rate in the NFL this season. Given that the Colts only handed the ball off 13 times for 51 yards all day, it was probably a safe bet that Luck would have the ball in his hands, even if the run with Frank Gore would have been a logical decision too.
The actual play call was a joke. You really do have to wonder sometimes what NFL teams are thinking on these short-yardage passes when the game is on the line. If you need only a yard, then how are you not taking advantage of that with shorter, quicker routes? Give the quarterback five options and at least one is bound to be open. Defenders instinctively play to prevent the big play, but a big play was not needed here with over a minute left.
On this play, the Colts tried to get a natural pick on the left with Jack Doyle, but that was covered decently and quickly enough that Luck was already flushed to his right. That left three receivers to the right.
Hilton was in the slot and made no real effort to run a route or lose his defender. The other wideout just ran a deep route that would have been extremely aggressive to throw to on fourth-and-1. That left running back Robert Turbin as the last outlet, and Luck forced an ugly throw a full 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage to him. The result was a lot of sad ALEX and the disappointment that we might be watching Brock Osweiler in a home playoff start. It's not like the Colts are worthy of a playoff spot either this season, but for the sake of not wanting to hate-watch another Texans playoff game, it sure would have been nice for Luck to pull off one of these game-winning drives. Instead these have to go down as two of the most disappointing losses in the Luck and Chuck Pagano era.
Cowboys at Giants: The Right Stuff
Fair or not, Dak Prescott is one more down game against the Giants away from having an early career stigma attached to him. We know how hard those can be to shake. Ask a guy named Tony Romo after his two playoff losses in 2006-07. One thing the Giants have done well that other teams haven't with Prescott is forcing him to hold the ball longer and try to throw downfield. His air yards per attempt were 8.8 in both matchups with the Giants, a half-yard above his usual average (8.3) this season. The Cowboys have also produced their two worst YAC games against the Giants. The pass pressure was much more significant on Sunday night than it was down in Dallas in Week 1, and that played a big part in keeping this a 10-7 finish. So did some really bad throws and decisions from Eli Manning and company on the other side, but this was a defensive contest for sure.
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One speedy 61-yard touchdown catch-and-run by Odell Beckham Jr. put the Giants on top 10-7 late in the third quarter, and the game's final nine possessions went scoreless. Manning had a good chance to add to his lead, but threw an interception at the Dallas 22. Some conservatism set in with both teams running the ball on third-and-11 -- the leading Giants even did it twice -- to punt away three possessions.
With 2:25 left, Dez Bryant finally made his first catch of the night, but maybe he was "cold" for that reason, because he fumbled the ball. Yes, we had a Dez catch, and a Dez fumble on this one. The Giants failed to salt the game away on offense, but could have gone for a fourth-and-3 at the Dallas 31 with 1:15 left. Instead, Ben McAdoo opted for a delay of game and punt. Let's give him credit. At least the punt was a better decision than a long field goal to get a dreaded 6-point lead.
Prescott's final chance to be a hero came with 1:06 left from his own 3. Three quick incompletions brought up fourth-and-ballgame. Once again, a Bryant catch had to be looked at, but this one clearly hit the ground to end the game and the Dallas winning streak, which no one ever imagined would last as long as it did.
There is nothing like an 11-game winning streak bookended by losses to the same team, a hated rival. At this point, you almost want to root for a Round 3 between these teams on divisional weekend just to see if the Giants end up being the only team that beats the Cowboys this year, a la the Titans handing Jacksonville all three of its losses in 1999. Maybe the Giants just have "The Right Stuff" for Dallas this season, and that's very important to navigate this year's NFC on the path to the Super Bowl.
Broncos at Titans: The Champs Are Staggering
This game had an odd flow to it. The Titans led 13-0 for more than 20 minutes, but Marcus Mariota put on a Tim Tebow-esque performance with 6-of-20 passing for 88 yards with 38 yards on the ground as the Titans leaned heavily on the run. We know the 26th-ranked run defense is the weakness with Denver, but Mariota had been hot and was easily held in check by that No. 1 pass defense. Meanwhile, Trevor Siemian returned to action and put the ball up 51 times with 35 completions, only to score 10 points. The once-vaunted Gary Kubiak running game produced nine carries for 18 yards, and the longest run in that bunch, a 9-yard jolt from newcomer Justin Forsett, ended with a lost fumble.
Frankly, Siemian deserved better from his teammates. Down 13-7, Siemian threw what should have been a go-ahead touchdown pass (assuming the longer extra point was good) with just under five minutes left. Except Bennie Fowler, known for catching Peyton Manning's final throw in the NFL in Super Bowl 50, dropped the ball.
Now Fowler has a second play to be remembered for, especially if the Broncos (8-5) fail to make the playoffs. Denver settled for a 34-yard field goal to still trail 13-10.
The Titans struggled again in the four-minute offense. Two incompletions by Mariota left Siemian a ton of time to win the game, albeit from his own 2-yard line. He had 2:26 and two timeouts left. Siemian's nickel-and-dime drive reached the Denver 41, but that was where backup tight end A.J. Derby fumbled a catch after a dual effort from Avery Williamson and Rashad Johnson. The turnover was the final nail in the coffin for the Broncos on Sunday, but with the Patriots coming to town in Week 15, we'll see if this is the last stand for Denver's title defense as well.
Saints at Buccaneers: The Drew Brees That I Used To Know
Tampa Bay's fifth-straight win, the second 16-11 final in NFL history, was keyed by a strong defensive performance over a suddenly slumping Saints offense. Drew Brees became the first quarterback since Tyler Palko in 2011 to have back-to-back games with zero touchdown passes and at least three interceptions. Oh, the physical effort from Brees to throw a touchdown was there, but Brandin Cooks dropped a go-ahead score late in the third quarter on third down, so the Saints settled for a field goal. The Buccaneers matched that score early in the fourth quarter to take a 16-11 lead, but this was the first time in his 29 NFL games that Jameis Winston failed to account for a passing or rushing touchdown.
Brees had three drive opportunities to answer in the quarter, but the Buccaneers were very active in getting to his passes. Keith Tandy, a hero last week in San Diego, tipped a pass that Brent Grimes eventually came down with for an interception at midfield with 10:07 left. On the ensuing drive, Brees was backed up to his own 1-yard line and threw a dangerous pass that almost appeared to be bouncing repeatedly on Bradley McDougald's back, but replay showed that the ball hit the ground first. Still, it was an odd visual, as were some of the other inaccurate passes from a quarterback who has been the best in the league since 2006 at limiting off-target throws.
New Orleans' beleaguered defense did another really solid job on Mike Evans, who has just 12 catches on 21 targets for 135 yards and one touchdown in four career meetings now. Evans was unable to come down with a catch on third-and-7 after strong coverage from B.W. Webb with 2:08 left. The Buccaneers pinned the Saints at their own 3-yard line with a punt. Brees was down to one timeout with nearly the entire field to drive for the win. The drive started well, but stalled out to a fourth-and-1 at the New Orleans 45 with 57 seconds left. Tampa Bay only rushed four, but Tandy broke on the ball with great speed in front of Willie Snead for another game-sealing interception.
Brees is 74-5 (.937) as a starter when his team allows fewer than 20 points, but this was the second loss this season in which the Saints only allowed 16 points. At 5-8, the Saints are all but eliminated from the postseason for the third year in a row.
Ravens at Patriots: Hogan with the Leg Drop
There is no denying that the Ravens have found some "secret sauce" to consistently play the Patriots as well as any team in the NFL over the years. John Harbaugh is one of the few coaches you can trust to match wits with Bill Belichick, Joe Flacco has had his moments of success against the Patriots defense, and the vaunted Baltimore defense has consistently forced Tom Brady into statistical clunkers. Maybe this is another season where the Ravens could be the team that goes into New England in January to force an upset.
Then Monday night came and the Patriots led 23-3 in the third quarter in a game that never really felt that out of control, contrary to the scoreboard. I was not even expecting to have to cover this game, but let's thank the usually strong New England special teams for that. A pair of fumbles on back-to-back returns set up Baltimore for touchdown drives of 3 and 22 yards to draw within 23-17 going into the fourth quarter.
We had the stats in Week 10 after Seattle's win in New England. Since 2001, the Patriots were 49-1 when defending a one-score lead in the fourth quarter at home. Russell Wilson made that 49-2, and Flacco tried to follow those steps to make it fall to 49-3, but a third-down sack by Rob Ninkovich brought out Justin Tucker for a 38-yard field goal. Baltimore still trailed 23-20 with 6:35 left, but that was plenty of time to get the ball back. The defense's No. 1 goal at that point is to not allow a touchdown.
Well, at least the touchdown was allowed in the quickest amount of time possible. Chris Hogan had a clear path down the seam for an easy 79-yard touchdown, the 450th scoring toss of Brady's career.
With the Patriots up 30-20, we had yet another case of "team taking forever to score once even though it needs to score twice." Even worse, the Ravens bypassed a fourth-and-1 for a 37-yard field goal. Sure, a field goal was part of the equation, but is the safe approach ever really the right one in this stadium? Worse, the failed completion that preceded the kick drained the clock down to 2:03 by the time the kick went through the uprights.
With two timeouts left, the onside kick was a sound option for Baltimore, but Tucker's fancy effort was easily recovered by the Patriots with 2:01 left. So that one second was a help to Baltimore, but New England made it moot with a quick pass for 8 yards and a strong LeGarrette Blount run for a first down. Blount put the final stamp on this one with a fourth-and-1 conversion run. The final may have been 30-23, but this one had a real unsteadiness to it with ugly turnovers, a safety, and a blocked field goal.
The Patriots remain on top of the AFC at 11-2. This loss drops the Ravens to 7-6, and their playoff hopes will likely come down to Christmas in Pittsburgh. This also makes getting a No. 6 seed very difficult. Should the Ravens get in that spot and go on another run to potentially come back to New England in the divisional round, they will have to root for these Patriots to take care of Denver (Week 15) and Miami (Week 17), among other things. The AFC playoffs are better when these teams meet, but Monday night's outcome makes it much less likely we will see a rematch this season.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 61
Game-winning drives: 68
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 128/208 (61.5 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 29 (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.