by Scott Kacsmar
There were four prime-time games in Week 15, but only one featured a comeback opportunity. The week still featured nine comeback opportunities, but there were also some unexpected blowouts, such as the Colts hammering the Vikings 34-6 in Minnesota.
We also saw the Denver Broncos, courtesy of the Patriots, fail to stay within one score in the fourth quarter for the first time since last season's ugly loss in Kansas City. That means the Detroit Lions have the longest active streak (22 games) of having led or being within one score in the fourth quarter. Washington (21 games) is the only other team above 20 games right now, and that barely extended last night after the Redskins trailed 23-15 with 3:44 left. Hats off to Carolina for the well-executed four-minute offense to save me from doing another recap, but we should not make light of the importance of four-minute offense situations. Right, Kansas City?
Some games are won with just 1 more yard gained, so let's start the week with a game where the No. 2 offense decided to rely on its defense instead of going for that 1 final yard.
Game of the Week
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 20 at Dallas Cowboys 26
Tampa Bay's journey back into prime-time relevance after a five-game winning streak to get to 8-5 started with a flop. Dallas led 17-3, but once Jameis Winston got back to making every play look like it could be his last, we had another entertaining game on Sunday Night Football. Tampa Bay even led 20-17 to start the fourth quarter, but Dallas was quick to tie with a 40-yard field goal by Dan Bailey with 13:31 left.
Some have questioned whether Dallas could find a pass rush that can generate enough pressure in the playoffs against better competition. On this night, David Irving answered the bell with 2.0 sacks, or more than the 1.5 sacks he previously had in his career. This game was a sorry reminder that Gosder Cherilus was once made the highest-paid right tackle in the NFL by Indianapolis general manager Ryan Grigson. Irving's pressure against Cherilus on a third-and-14 forced an interception from Winston, which led to a 38-yard go-ahead field goal by Bailey with 9:35 left.
There were still ample opportunities for Tampa Bay to win, but Winston's scattershot accuracy did the team no favors again. After an overthrow by Winston brought up a fourth-and-5 at the Dallas 40, you have to question why coach Dirk Koetter would punt with 6:55 left. Koetter has basically put himself in the Raheem Morris camp of "stats are for losers," so maybe this was not that surprising to see a coach with no real clout do the safe thing, but he has to understand just how efficient an offense he was playing against. Sure enough, the Dallas stars showed up on the drive, which started from their own 4, keyed by a 42-yard run by Ezekiel Elliott.
Tampa Bay stopped Elliott to force a fourth-and-1 at the 15 with 3:03 left, but it was then disappointing to see Jason Garrett do the conservative thing too. When you have this great offensive line and Elliott, the No. 2 power running offense in the NFL, then how can you not be enticed enough to go for the yard there? The field goal and 6-point lead just left Dallas open to trailing by one point in the final minute, since Tampa Bay could then drive aggressively for the game-winning touchdown.
Winston had 2:58 left, but Irving still had Cherilus as his matchup. A first-down sack eventually led to third-and-18. Mike Evans was open deep, but Winston missed the throw. Punting was the only choice at this point.
Dak Prescott had a 32-of-36 passing night on a lot of short throws, but it was still surprising to see him get his number called on a third-and-3 that would have iced the game. Prescott did the wise thing by taking a sack instead of something stupid like throwing the ball away to stop the clock.
Dallas punted and Winston was down to 1:36 with 89 yards ahead of him for the win. He finished 80 yards short of the goal after a fourth-down interception went right to Orlando Scandrick.
Prescott became the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to lead five fourth-quarter comeback wins in a regular season. (Ben Roethlisberger also had five in 2004 including one in the playoffs.) Also, props to NBC for the late graphic on Dallas' defense for fourth-quarter holds this season. We'll get this stuff mainstream soon enough.
Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind
Pittsburgh Steelers 24 at Cincinnati Bengals 20
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 5 (20-15)
Head Coach: Mike Tomlin (21-42 at 4QC and 32-47 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger (28-41 at 4QC and 39-46 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Ohio native Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers may have some odd home-road splits in the past few seasons, but Cincinnati has always been a favorite destination for this team. The Bengals are an astonishing 2-14 at home against the Steelers in the Marvin Lewis era (including playoffs). For the third season in a row, Roethlisberger led a fourth-quarter comeback and game-winning drive in Cincinnati, but it was not easy after some early penalties put the Steelers in a 20-6 hole.
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The Bengals actually stopped the Steelers from scoring when scoring was still a goal just one time in the game, but repeated failures on third down left Chris Boswell on the hook for six field goals, including three from 49 yards away on a 24-degree day. At one point it looked like the Steelers were going to try winning the game 21-20 with seven field goals, but in the fourth quarter, the offense finally broke through after a drive that featured Cincinnati penalties on four consecutive plays.
On a second-and-16, Roethlisberger delivered a strike down the seam to Eli Rogers, who beat Josh Shaw for a 24-yard touchdown with 7:29 left. Naturally, up four points, the Steelers went for a two-point conversion, and it was surprising not to see another Cincinnati penalty for pass interference in the end zone when Adam Jones made no effort to play the ball and just grabbed Antonio Brown. Holding on the Bengals would have meant a retry, but instead the Steelers led 24-20 with the defense pitching a strong second-half performance after a poor start.
Pressure really threw Andy Dalton off his game. He had to throw one pass away, and then faded away on a third-and-14 pass that Artie Burns defensed away from Brandon LaFell. The Bengals punted with 5:53 and all three timeouts left. Under most circumstances, a team would get the ball back in that scenario, but the Steelers did a great job of icing the game on offense. Le'Veon Bell was obviously a factor with eight touches or targets on the drive, but the big play was Roethlisberger's 28-yard strike to Ladarius Green to convert a third-and-8. Big gains on first downs continuously put the Bengals in bad spots, and the Steelers went for the kill after Cincinnati called its final timeout with 1:51 left. On second-and-11, Roethlisberger threw deep for Brown, but Dre Kirkpatrick was called for pass interference at the 4-yard line. That automatic first down ended the game with three kneeldowns.
Cincinnati was eliminated from the playoffs on Sunday, ending a five-year run that few would have predicted after the team shifted to Dalton and A.J. Green in the 2011 draft. That duo was supposed to carry the offense this season after Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones left for new teams. Between the Green injury and the time it took for Tyler Eifert to return, Dalton has had a difficult time scoring points, and the defense has just not been much of a match for the better offenses like the Steelers. Both problems were on display on Sunday.
Tennessee Titans 19 at Kansas City Chiefs 17
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 10 (17-7)
Head Coach: Mike Mularkey (6-24 at 4QC and 6-25 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Marcus Mariota (4-11 at 4QC and 4-11 overall 4QC/GWD record)
The Chiefs and Steelers look to be battling until the bitter end for the title of 2016's Variance Villains. It is that type of inconsistent play that can be maddening to watch for fans, as the Chiefs blew a 17-7 lead in the fourth quarter and failed to score a single point after halftime.
Comeback wins have been so rare for Mike Mularkey-coached teams, but this one is very notable. You have to give Marcus Mariota credit for nailing a difficult back-shoulder pass to DeMarco Murray out of the backfield on fourth-and-5 for a 16-yard gain. With the Titans out of timeouts, going for it with 3:56 left was a no-brainer decision there, but that was not the safest pass to try. Derrick Henry finished the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run, but that's when things got a little crazy with the offense staying on the field for a two-point conversion attempt, down 17-16.
Mularkey tried to "go for the win now" as CBS' Trent Green described it, but why would any team risk that much just to take an 18-17 lead with 3:12 left? In that situation, the Chiefs would have been aggressive -- well, by Alex Smith's standards -- to use four downs and drive for the winning score. If the game was tied on an extra point, you have to like the Titans' chances of getting the ball back and possibly an overtime attempt as well. There's also the fact that since the Titans were out of timeouts -- the offense may have never seen the ball again if the Chiefs had gotten a first down or two. There was just no logical reason to put so much on a two-point conversion at that point of the game. When teams try these do-or-die conversions, they almost always occur in the final minute, like when the Eagles tried one minutes later in real time in Baltimore on Sunday.
|"Do-or-Die" 2-Point Conversions Since 1994|
|JAC||11/19/1995||at TB||12||0:37||Fail, L 17-16|
|CHI||10/12/1997||GB||7||1:54||Fail, L 24-23|
|MIN||12/15/2002||at NO||15||0:05||Success, W 32-31|
|TB||11/13/2005||WAS||10||0:58||Success, W 36-35|
|DEN||9/14/2008||SD||2||0:24||Success, W 39-38|
|KC||11/9/2008||at SD||10||0:23||Fail, L 20-19|
|HOU||1/1/2012||TEN||17||0:14||Fail, L 23-22|
|WAS||12/15/2013||at ATL||15||0:18||Fail, L 27-26|
|OAK||9/11/2016||at NO||1||0:47||Success, W 35-34|
|TEN||12/18/2016||at KC||15||3:12||Fail, W 19-17|
|PHI||12/18/2016||at BAL||15||0:04||Fail, L 27-26|
You really couldn't even call Mularkey's decision do-or-die, especially since the Titans failed and still won the game. This was the earliest such two-point attempt since the Rams tried one against the Eagles in 1995: a swinging gate attempt out of the extra point formation while trailing 10-9 with 11:46 left. That did not work, and the Eagles won that game. "No, I wasn't shocked they ran the play," said Philadelphia head coach Ray Rhodes. "That's a time when I would expect a team to go for two points." Well, 21 years later and no other NFL team has really agreed with that call, coach.
The Titans gave this one a shot, but once Mariota started moving to his right the play was a lost cause, and the Chiefs still led 17-16.
Shortly thereafter, with a third-and-2 to ice the game, I am not sure what you would call this play idea from Kansas City.
WAAAAAAAAAT IS THIS pic.twitter.com/Jr6vxDHuIE
— Jonathan Kinsley (@Brickwallblitz) December 19, 2016
The option was not fooling anyone, and Smith looked determined to keep the ball regardless of the defense.
As a result, Mariota got the ball back with 1:07 left at his own 25. These situations have been a struggle in his early career, with three turnovers returned for touchdowns this year alone. This time, Mariota was on point, completing three of his four throws for 40 yards before a late spike with five seconds left. The key play was Delanie Walker being able to pick up 5 more yards after the catch instead of getting tackled immediately at the Kansas City 40. This set up Ryan Succop for a 53-yard game-winning field goal.
Succop was short on the kick, but in the grand book of NFL clock management, Andy Reid made his mark with an attempt to ice the kicker by calling timeout. Data on icing the kicker has not shown to be very compelling in either way, but coaches still believe in it enough to keep trying. What I would really love to see is what effect it has when a warm-up kick is attempted, such as Succop's miss. This gives the kicker an idea of how hard he needs to hit the ball and if the wind is carrying it to the left or right. Of course, this can also backfire if the kicker makes too big of an adjustment. Unfortunately, the NFL's play-by-play does not include these no-play kicks, so you would really need to watch every game to find them for charting purposes. Just as a hardcore observer of the game, it sure seems like the "real" kick result is often different from the "iced" result, which is probably a good argument for just letting the kicker get one shot at glory. The tougher the kick, the less information you want to give the kicker on a retry.
Succop made Reid pay by nailing the real attempt for the 19-17 win. Reid's timeout usage may end up costing the Chiefs a first-round bye, which frankly would have read as a very believable preseason prediction. Some things just never change in this league.
Green Bay Packers 30 at Chicago Bears 27
Any time I post the table of active quarterback records in fourth-quarter comeback and game-winning drive opportunities, someone's jaw drops when Aaron Rodgers is spotted near the bottom. This is old hat for Green Bay fans familiar with my work, but one thing you can never say has been a problem for this team has been finishing against the Bears and Lions in the division. Rodgers has 16 game-winning drives now, and 10 of them are against Detroit and Chicago (five each). Rodgers is 10-4 (.714) at game-winning drive opportunities against the Bears and Lions, but 6-32 (.158) against the rest of the NFL in his career.
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Against Chicago, many times it has been one big throw (like that touchdown to Randall Cobb in 2013) that has done the trick for Rodgers. On Sunday, it did not look like Rodgers would even need to complete a pass in the fourth quarter for Green Bay to win after the Packers built a 27-10 lead. However, the Bears have been a competitive bunch this season, and Matt Barkley developed tunnel vision for Alshon Jeffery in his return from suspension. Jeffery was thrown at eight times in the quarter, and caught a touchdown.
Surprisingly, there were no targets for Jeffery in the red zone once the Bears had a chance to win the game. Down 27-24, the Bears had a first-and-goal from the 3-yard line with 1:50 left. Much like last week in Detroit, a big holding penalty sunk what would have been a game-winning drive. Tight end Logan Paulsen was the culprit this time, setting up first-and-13. However, the Bears got right back into a second-and-4 situation, but tried to run the ball again as Green Bay used its final timeout with 1:27 left. On third down, Micah Hyde made a great play to prevent a touchdown catch from Cameron Meredith.
With Chicago sitting on a 3-10 record, it was confusing to see why John Fox would opt for a 22-yard field goal and hopes of overtime when the Bears could have gone for the win on fourth down. I know coaches are fearful of the final record, but if an owner is more satisfied with 4-12 than 3-13 instead of seeing it as a huge disappointment either way, then something is fundamentally flawed in that franchise. Why not try to actually beat your biggest rival in memorable fashion at home?
Then again, we are talking about John Fox here, and the Bears are now 0-7 at game-winning drive opportunities this season. Fox bypassed a 10-second runoff against the Packers for an injury in the final minute, but I think that ended up being a moot point in the end. On third-and-11, Rodgers looked fine on his injured calf in effortlessly launching a bomb for 60 yards to Jordy Nelson. Even with 10 fewer seconds, the Packers should have had enough time to spike the ball, which Rodgers did with three seconds left to make the field goal the last play. Fox tried to ice Mason Crosby, but the kicker made the 32-yard warm-up kick and the real deal to send the Packers to a fourth straight win.
Oakland Raiders 19 at San Diego Chargers 16
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 3 (16-13)
Head Coach: Jack Del Rio (30-52 at 4QC and 40-52 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Derek Carr (12-15 at 4QC and 12-15 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Oakland is the only team in 2016 to not blow a fourth-quarter lead. The Raiders also have excelled at coming from behind. Prior to this season, only the 2009 Colts had seven fourth-quarter comeback wins in a single regular season. The Lions have since broken that record with eight, and the Raiders also now have seven with two games to go. If Oakland could play San Diego every week, who knows how high that number would be right now? San Diego blew its league-high sixth fourth-quarter lead of 2016, and has done so 11 times in the last two seasons. You might say the Chargers have not learned a thing throughout the tenure of coach Mike McCoy.
In Week 5, the Chargers hurt themselves with a Melvin Gordon fumble while leading and a botched game-tying field goal in a 34-31 loss. This time, Gordon was out with a hip injury and the game was much lower scoring, but similar mistakes haunted the Chargers. Josh Lambo missed an extra point that kept the San Diego lead at 16-13. New back Kenneth Farrow fumbled and the Raiders recovered at the San Diego 13 with 11:35 left. While the defense impressively held Oakland to a 21-yard field goal, the game was tied.
A scramble by Derek Carr on third-and-8 was ruled to have come up short of a first down, but Jack Del Rio challenged to get the spot corrected for a conversion. While the drive still ended in a 44-yard field goal by Sebastian Janikowski, that successful challenge helped the Raiders burn 90 more seconds to take a 19-16 lead. There was still plenty of time (2:35) for Philip Rivers to lead a game-winning drive, but four woeful plays in a row by the offense shut that idea down quickly. On fourth-and-15, Rivers' desperation pass was picked off by Reggie Nelson.
However, the game was still not over, with San Diego having one timeout and 1:37 left. After Carr's kneeldown brought up fourth down with 17 seconds left, McCoy should have immediately called that final timeout. Yes, Oakland probably would have kicked a field goal to take a 22-16 lead, but San Diego still could have had a play or two on offense to try a series of laterals to win the game. You know, "play to win the game" mentality. Crazier things have happened before. What if the Chargers blocked the field goal for a game-winning touchdown, or returned the ensuing kickoff for a score? The fact that all of these possibilities, no matter how low in probability, existed is why it's completely inexcusable for a coach to quit on a game and let the clock run out. Losing 19-16 this way doesn't make a coach look better than he would in a 22-16 loss.
Now McCoy just looks like a quitter, and look for the Chargers to quit on him at the end of this season.
Jacksonville Jaguars 20 at Houston Texans 21
This game really epitomized the sad state of the 2016 AFC South. The Texans moved back into first place in the division after winning a game in which they only led for the final 2:51. The Jaguars fired their head coach after the game, completing a historically bad 14-48 (.226) tenure under Gus Bradley. Apparently, blowing a 13-point lead to Tom Savage was the final straw. Savage took over in the second quarter for a benched Brock Osweiler, who threw two interceptions in 11 passes. Blake Bortles was not benched, but he only completed 12-of-28 passes for 92 yards and another game-ending interception with the Jaguars down 21-20 with 1:01 left.
Savage actually looked competent for a backup of little pro experience. One of the best things he did was get DeAndre Hopkins heavily involved, which is what every quarterback not named Osweiler has done well in Houston over the years. Hopkins had 87 receiving yards on a season-high 17 targets -- only the second time in 2016 he had more than 71 receiving yards in a game. Perhaps the biggest play for Hopkins on Sunday was drawing a pass interference penalty on rookie Jalen Ramsey on a third-and-7 with 3:46 left. Five plays later, Lamar Miller ran into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown run to give the Texans a 21-20 lead with 2:51 left.
Bortles threw four incompletions in a row to stop the next Jacksonville drive. The Texans ran the ball three times before punting, but were unable to run the clock down to a minute due to an injury timeout for Miller. Bortles had 1:10 left from his own 7, only needing a field goal, but immediately threw an interception while not pressured to Quintin Demps to end the game.
This game marked the end of Bradley, but will it be the end of Osweiler in Houston too? Savage is going to start in Week 16, but don't be surprised if the $72 Million Man is back under center in Week 17 in Tennessee.
New Orleans Saints 48 at Arizona Cardinals 41
Rarely do we see an NFL game where both teams score at least 40 points, but the last instance also involved a New Orleans victory last season. After two really rough outings in a row, Drew Brees was dialed in with a 37-of-48 passing performance for 389 yards and four touchdowns against an Arizona defense that had yet to allow a 300-yard passer this season. Brees' passing paced the Saints to multiple leads, but Carson Palmer and David Johnson kept the Cardinals in it, tying the game at 34 with 8:57 to play in the fourth quarter.
Brandin Cooks had another monster game this season with 186 receiving yards and two scores, and his 36-yard gain led to a 4-yard touchdown pass from Brees to rookie Michael Thomas. We should probably point out that the winning score was a fade pass, since those are usually the target of ridicule (and incompletions), but this one worked against rookie cornerback Brandon Williams.
Palmer's comeback attempt was thwarted when Brittan Golden fumbled after an awkward bubble screen on third-and-10. It was just Golden's sixth catch of the season and he was injured on the play. Three plays later, a very weak roughing the passer penalty was levied against the Cardinals after a sack of Brees likely would have brought out the punting unit and kept this a 41-34 game.
— Jason McIntyre (@jasonrmcintyre) December 19, 2016
Think this one might be talked about more if these teams were in playoff contention? Instead, the Saints were back in the end zone to make it 48-34 with 3:27 left, and while Palmer led one touchdown drive, the defense was unable to get the ball back for the second. Brees fittingly put things away with a third-and-3 conversion to Coby Fleener.
Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind
Lions at Giants: The Variance Bowl
Could anything in Week 15 have been more predictable than the Lions needing a fourth-quarter comeback against the Giants in a low-scoring game? After all, the 2016 Giants are in line for the lowest single-season DVOA variance (1.4 percent) of any team since 1989, and the 2016 Lions have trailed in the fourth quarter in all but one game.
So it was no surprise to see Matthew Stafford, the first quarterback to lead eight fourth-quarter comeback wins in a season, with the ball in his hands in a 10-6 game late. That type of deficit has been in Detroit's wheelhouse all season, but this one would have been impressive since the Giants now lead the league with 10 fourth-quarter holds of a one-score lead.
Stafford's latest rally attempt fell flat thanks to a good pass break-up by Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, followed by an odd call for a screen to Golden Tate on third-and-8 that lost a yard. Eli Manning cooled down after a good start, but he came through big to put the game away. Technically, Odell Beckham Jr. came through for him. First, Manning found Beckham for 25 yards on a great third-and-10 conversion, and then four plays later finished the drive with a 4-yard touchdown pass on this one-handed grab on an off-target throw with 5:47 to play.
Any chance of an improbable Stafford MVP this season was predicated on a strong finish. That dream died with the 17-6 finish as Detroit failed to score on its final three drives. After reaching the New York 17, Stafford's high pass on third-and-10 was picked off by Rodgers-Cromartie in the end zone to end the last serious Detroit threat with 1:58 left.
The NFC North will almost certainly come down to the Week 17 game between the Lions and Packers in Detroit.
Eagles at Ravens: No Daring Victories Over Average
The Eagles now have more single-score losses (six) than multiple-score wins (five) this season, but that "win big, lose close" combination is why the team continues to do well in DVOA despite a 5-9 record. However, at some point it gets annoying to keep losing the high-scoring close games in such similar fashions. Philadelphia, ranked 25th in touchdowns per red zone appearance this year, struggled in that area again, especially in the fourth quarter. After the Eagles settled for a 27-yard field goal and 20-17 deficit, the Ravens improved to a 27-17 lead with a 16-yard touchdown run by Kenneth Dixon, the rookie back's first score on the ground. Only a bad red zone interception thrown by Joe Flacco to Jordan Hicks with 6:12 left kept this game within reach.
After reaching the Baltimore 7, the Eagles again had to settle for a field goal, but got the ball back with 1:39 left at their own 41, down 27-20, after a very vanilla three-runs-and-punt drive by the Ravens. Carson Wentz engineered a drive that would not win any beauty awards, but the ball still got down the field, reaching the 4-yard line after a pass interference penalty on rookie cornerback Tavon Young for grabbing Nelson Agholor. Two plays later, Wentz scrambled on a nice move for the touchdown with four seconds left.
Overtime? No need to bother when your team is 5-8, so I liked the call by Doug Pederson to go for the win with the two-point conversion. Yes, this was a much more reasonable gamble than what the Titans tried in Kansas City a little earlier on Sunday. On the attempt, the Eagles went with a designed quick throw to Jordan Matthews, but enough of the ball was deflected at the line to send it on an errant path.
That is the path to another tough loss for the Eagles, who are just 2-9 since their bye week. Meanwhile, the Ravens will play the Steelers on Christmas in a game to determine the AFC North.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 66
Game-winning drives: 75
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 137/224 (61.2 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 32 (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.