Clutch Encounters: Week 2
by Scott Kacsmar
After a historic slate of season openers, Week 2 was also very competitive, as 11 of the games featured a comeback opportunity. This time, however, the defenses were more up to the task, as fourth-quarter lead changes dropped from 13 in Week 1 to just three this week. Strong defense was a central theme and the main explanation for how teams with Trevor Siemian, Case Keenum, and Sam Bradford at quarterback respectively beat and outdueled teams led by Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, and Aaron Rodgers.
This emphasis on defense made it all the more surprising that Buffalo fired offensive coordinator Greg Roman on Friday, a day after a 37-31 loss to the Jets. Sure, under Roman, the Bills had gone 2-7 at game-winning drive opportunities, only having scored twice on 19 drives. That failure to close would upset any franchise, but enough to make a power move 18 games into the current regime? This is especially troubling when the problems are clearly more on defense after the No. 2 ranked unit of 2014 finished 24th last year under Rex Ryan. Notice how the Jets improved after replacing Ryan with Todd Bowles, and the Saints even looked better on defense this week now that ex-coordinator Rob Ryan has gone to Buffalo with his brother.
If this early one-eighth of the 2016 season has reminded us of anything, it is that coaching matters (Bill Belichick without his superstars), health matters (Russell Wilson's ankle), and a great defense can still control a game (the defending champion Denver Broncos). It is an embarrassing situation for Buffalo, heading towards a 17th-consecutive season without the playoffs, to scapegoat its offensive coordinator after two games, while ignoring the other problems going on with the team.
Game of the Week
Tennessee Titans 16 at Detroit Lions 15
Depending on the perspective, the Detroit Lions have almost been either the league's most impressive 2-0 team, or its most disappointing 0-2 team. On the one side, Detroit has done a fine job in overcoming Calvin Johnson's retirement, and has mostly controlled play through its first two games. On the other hand, the Lions blew an 18-point lead in Indianapolis and now a 12-point lead to the Titans as the defense has been shredded for 43.8 yards per drive. The actual path taken has led Detroit to a 1-1 question mark, but this could be a loss that comes back to haunt the Lions, who committed 17 accepted penalties at home.
Meanwhile, how about the uncharacteristic 12-point fourth-quarter comeback for the Titans? We have not seen that from Tennessee since Vince Young led a 21-point comeback over the Giants in 2006. This is only the fifth comeback win for coach Mike Mularkey, who still has the worst record in the league in those opportunities at 5-20. Of course, it helps when the first play of the fourth quarter was a 30-yard touchdown pass from Marcus Mariota to Delanie Walker. The Lions have surrendered a lot of big plays to tight ends to start this season.
During the offseason, we highlighted an obscure record for Matthew Stafford. In 2015, he became the first quarterback to ever complete 60 percent of his passes in each game of a 16-game season. Stafford's streak reached 18 games in Week 1, but ended four games short of the record streak (Tony Romo, 22 games) with a 22-of-40 day (55.0 percent) against the Titans. In particular, Golden Tate had arguably the roughest game of his career, catching 2-of-9 targets for 13 yards. Stafford just missed a wide-open Tate deep down the field on a big third-and-4 with 7:15 left.
Tennessee took over and started its long march from its own 17. DeMarco Murray's sixth touch on the drive set up a third-and-7 at the Detroit 12 at the two-minute warning. The Titans tried to free Tajae Sharpe up on a pick play, but it was not well done and almost guaranteed a fourth-down situation. Time ticked away as neither team had chosen to use any timeouts. This was odd, especially for the Titans, who would have been in dire straits had the next play failed. On fourth-and-4, Mariota threw a pass up for Andre Johnson that the veteran somehow hauled in for the go-ahead touchdown with 1:13 left.
— NFL (@NFL) September 18, 2016
This play was more of a parting gift from Johnson rather than signaling the arrival of Mariota. What a great catch. Unfortunately, the Titans failed on the crucial two-point conversion after Mariota's designed rollout led him right into a sack.
Detroit only trailed by a point and still had all three timeouts remaining. Sound familiar? This was the same situation the Lions faced in Indianapolis a week ago, except now the Lions had 36 extra seconds and the support of the crowd. Stafford usually does well in these moments, but Anquan Boldin did him no favor with Detroit's seventh dropped pass of the game. Stafford overcame a Brian Orakpo sack by finding Eric Ebron for 29 yards on third-and-19, but the Lions never gained another yard. On third down, Stafford did not recognize Perrish Cox leaving Boldin to jump the pass for Ebron, and the corner's interception clinched the Tennessee win.
Under Jim Caldwell, the Lions have lost an NFL-high five games with a lead of at least 12 points since 2014 (including playoffs).
Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind
Dallas Cowboys 27 at Washington Redskins 23
With so many big personalities in Dallas, the coach is not always in the spotlight. Since officially taking over as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys in 2011, Jason Garrett is 42-42 (including 1-1 in the playoffs). Garrett (2011-13) and Jeff Fisher (1996-98) are the only coaches in NFL history to finish .500 in three consecutive seasons with the same team. Whether it is with Tony Romo or one of the backups, Garrett consistently has Dallas in close games. Sixty-two percent of his games have featured Dallas with a 4QC/GWD opportunity, the highest rate among active coaches with at least six seasons of tenure.
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Sure enough, both games this season have been close against two NFC East rivals, and the Cowboys have started 1-1. Washington has fallen to 0-2 and the blame has largely been placed on quarterback Kirk Cousins. Is that fair? In this game, he certainly botched a critical red zone sequence when Washington led 23-20 in the fourth quarter. After two unsuccessful fade passes, Cousins never saw safety Barry Church in the end zone and threw a bad interception with 10:35 left. While that cost his team potential points, Cousins was not on the field when rookie Dak Prescott calmly guided his offense 80 yards for the game-winning touchdown. Two penalties on Washington defenders saved Dallas from difficult third-down situations, and Cole Beasley made a key conversion on third-and-11 in the red zone. Alfred Morris capped off the drive with what had to be a satisfying 4-yard, walk-in touchdown against his former team with 4:45 left. Dallas led 27-23.
Cousins has had some issues in the past with interceptions in these moments, but here he dinked and dunked his way towards midfield. The decision to run the ball on third-and-1 was sound, but the failure to convert cost the Redskins more than 30 seconds as they chose not to hurry the fourth-and-1 play before the two-minute warning. In need of a touchdown, that was too much wasted time. On fourth-and-1, Cousins picked the right receiver (Pierre Garcon), but linebacker Justin Durant read the play well and knocked the pass down. Washington still had all three timeouts, but it was encouraging to see Garrett let Prescott attempt to throw on third down to seal the win. Prescott did not take a chance against the rush and slid down for an official sack.
Washington's task was difficult: drive 90 yards in 90 seconds without a timeout. Two big mistakes by the offensive line crushed Washington's effort. The first was a sack allowed to Tyrone Crawford, but the worst was center Kory Lichtensteiger flinching on the snap when Cousins wanted to spike the ball at the Dallas 36. Not only was that a 5-yard penalty for a false start, but a 10-second runoff left the Redskins with one Hail Mary shot at the end zone. Cousins failed to even keep the pass in bounds for any realistic shot of a game-winning catch.
New Orleans Saints 13 at New York Giants 16
Forget last year's 52-49 shootout; we know the Saints are rarely that explosive away from the Superdome. But in the last four meetings between the Saints and Giants, the home team scored at least 48 points each time. So how does this end up as a 16-13 game with a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown helping out the Giants? New York's 9-point offensive outing was not for a lack of trying. The offense amassed 417 yards, but lost three fumbles, missed a field goal, and failed on a fourth down at the 3-yard line. With the Saints getting impact plays on defense, it was time for the offense to answer.
As we highlighted last week, win or lose, Drew Brees often has an answer. This time Willie Snead split the safeties and Brees found him for a 17-yard touchdown to tie the game at 10. In response, New York failed on three plays at the 1-yard line before kicking a 19-yard field goal with 8:46 left. Was that decision to kick a response to the low score, or the fact that the Saints had just stopped the offense three times? In most cases, the Giants should have tried a fourth-down attempt to try getting a touchdown lead on Brees with half a quarter to go, but Ben McAdoo played it safe. The Saints eventually tied the game on rookie kicker Wil Lutz's 45-yard field goal with 2:54 left.
Eli Manning is getting comfortable with his latest trio of wide receivers as rookie Sterling Shepard had his first 100-yard receiving game. But much like on the game-winning drive in Dallas last week, old reliable Victor Cruz returned to the forefront. After Odell Beckham Jr. dropped a potential touchdown, Cruz made a tougher catch down the sideline for 34 yards that probably helped the Giants more than a Beckham touchdown would have. With the Saints out of timeouts, the Giants made the very rare, but smart decision to take three kneeldowns to set up a 23-yard field goal as the final play of regulation. Josh Brown made the kick, and the Giants are 2-0 after better clock management than they had last season.
Manning's 35th game-winning drive moves him into 10th place all time.
Atlanta Falcons 35 at Oakland Raiders 28
Oakland has joined the 1967 Falcons as the only defenses in NFL history to have started a season by allowing back-to-back 500-yard games. The Saints and Falcons are no slouches, but the Raiders were hoping for more on defense after bringing in Bruce Irvin, Sean Smith, and Reggie Nelson. A week after allowing 6 receiving yards to the tight ends in New Orleans, the Raiders allowed 180 yards to Atlanta's ungodly trio of Jacob Tamme, Austin Hooper, and Levine Toilolo. The defense also caught a bad break when a negative ALEX pass by Matt Ryan on third-and-6 was tipped into the air by Tevin Coleman and caught by Justin Hardy for the game-winning touchdown.
This defense has already forced Jack Del Rio to roll the dice more on offense, like going for the game-tying touchdown on fourth-and-2 in a situation where many coaches would have kicked a field goal. While Michael Crabtree came through with another score, not all of these plays are going to work out for the offense. Del Rio may have gambled too much when facing a fourth-and-2, down 28-21, at his own 49 with 7:16 left. Amari Cooper had just seen a touchdown wiped out after an illegal touching of the ball after he was out of bounds. To go for it here was not nonsensical, but trying to line up in a heavy formation and running Jalen Richard up the gut was. Richard finished the game with seven carries for 17 yards.
Atlanta only had to work half the field and added another touchdown to take a 35-21 lead with 4:35 left. The Falcons could have done a much better job of covering the middle of the field and tackling, but Oakland picked up a quick touchdown to keep hope alive. However, Ryan's third-and-3 conversion to Mohamed Sanu all but put the game away. Oakland had just two seconds left when it got the ball back, which was only enough time for a failed series of laterals.
The Raiders may not see another strong offense until Carolina in Week 12, but without improvements on defense, more shootouts are likely for this team.
Baltimore Ravens 25 at Cleveland Browns 20
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 1 (20-19)
Head Coach: John Harbaugh (18-37 at 4QC and 25-40 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Joe Flacco (18-34 at 4QC and 25-37 overall 4QC/GWD record)
This goes down as one of the stranger 20-point comebacks in NFL history. Cleveland is just the eighth team to score at least 20 points in the first quarter before getting shut out in the final three quarters. The last instance was when the 2011 Bills opened up a 21-0 lead on the Patriots before losing 49-21. Baltimore calmed down after the poor start and Josh McCown, filling in for the injured Robert Griffin III, cooled down immensely after a hot start that saw him find rookie receiver Corey Coleman for two touchdowns.
But the young Coleman also lost his cool in the fourth quarter, getting caught in a post-play skirmish with Jimmy Smith that led to a 15-yard penalty. Those were big yards as kicker Patrick Murray missed a 52-yard field goal two plays later. Justin Tucker, one of the best kickers in the game, came through with a 49-yard field goal that put the Ravens ahead for the first and last time at 22-20.
For McCown, this game unfortunately had the familiar ending of pain and misery. He injured his shoulder during the game, but continued to play on even though the injury is serious enough that he could miss several weeks moving forward. The refusal to come out may have been a mistake as Cleveland did not score on any of its final eight possessions. Trailing 25-20 with 2:53 left, McCown had one last shot at a 75-yard touchdown drive to win the game. Too much time was consumed on short gains, but an impressive 20-yard catch by Terrelle Pryor should have put the ball at the Baltimore 10 with 20 seconds left. However, a defensive holding penalty on Lardarius Webb was offset by a bogus taunting penalty on Pryor, negating the play. All Pryor did was toss the ball without ill intent, but the referee made little effort to catch it before it tapped Webb.
— Down With Damon (@DownWithDamon) September 18, 2016
Little things like that should not contribute to deciding games.
On the next play with the ball back at the Baltimore 30, McCown threw a terrible, flat-footed pass on first down into triple-coverage and C.J. Mosley came away with the game-clinching interception. The 37-year-old McCown is an unfathomable 5-29 (.147) at game-winning drive opportunities in his career. Now Cleveland is set to start rookie Cody Kessler in Week 3. If this was the end for McCown, at least we will always remember his first success: the 28-yard touchdown to Nate Poole to knock the 2003 Vikings out of the playoffs.
Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind
Bengals at Steelers: Have You Ever Seen the Rain…or a Fumble?
Most football purists will always believe the game should be played outdoors in the elements. I would prefer to see a league with 32 retractable-roofed stadiums that can stay closed on days like Sunday in Pittsburgh, where the rain turned the field into a familiar mess and caused havoc with ball security. Both teams were plagued by some bad drops on both sides of the ball, and it was only fitting that a "fumble" led to the young season's most controversial ending in the latest chapter of this heated rivalry.
While Pittsburgh's offense was sloppy for much of the day, a long, fourth-quarter touchdown drive seemed to put the Bengals away at 24-9 with 6:48 left. To Cincinnati's credit, the Bengals came right back with a quick touchdown drive, leaving them trailing 24-15 with a very difficult decision to make.
Now a common argument for teams down by nine points after scoring a touchdown is that they should always go for two right away since they need a conversion eventually, and by doing it earlier, they'll know how to plan the rest of the game. I tend to disagree with this strategy (strongly in some cases), and believe more in extending the game to get to that point where you can tie things up with a two-point conversion. In this particular case, Cincinnati's red zone offense had not looked good, and there was no rushing threat. I would not have felt confident in my offense to convert at a high rate. Then there is the issue of timeouts. If the Bengals had none or one and failed on the attempt, they would have been down nine points with 3:25 left, needing to somehow create two more possessions. That could have meant two onside kick recoveries,when it's already very difficult to recover one when the receiving team knows it's coming. If Pittsburgh had the ball with 3:25 left, it could have run three times and punted, and the Bengals would have been pinned deep with maybe 70 or 75 seconds left, still down 24-15. That is a terrible situation, and a perfect example of why you should not always go for two first.
But the Bengals had all three timeouts, making it more reasonable to go for two first. I still agree with Marvin Lewis' decision to kick the extra point. After forcing a Pittsburgh punt, the Bengals were 75 yards away with 3:00 left, which is plenty of time to score a touchdown and go for two, and then try for an onside kick and game-winning field goal should that two-pointer fail.
But none of those dramatic moments came to fruition after Tyler Boyd, a rookie from Pitt, apparently fumbled at the Pittsburgh 33 with 1:50 left. Pittsburgh's recovery all but ended the game, but the review looked probable to get overturned. The original call on the field was defensible as it looked like a fumble in live action, and we know conclusive evidence must be shown to overturn the call on the field.
I thought the evidence was pretty conclusive that Boyd's knee was down before the ball was loose. James Harrison's right knee contact is what knocked the ball out, but that happened several frames after Boyd's knee was down.
Dean Blandino, the NFL's senior vice president of officiating, disagreed.
— Dean Blandino (@DeanBlandino) September 19, 2016
Even if Boyd had been ruled down, the Bengals still had some decent work ahead of them just to force overtime, so this was hardly an all-time "the refs stole the game!" moment. But it will be remembered in the rivalry for sure. I personally think the Bengals got a raw deal here.
Colts at Broncos: Whoops, They Did It Again
For as good as Andrew Luck looked in Week 1, the Broncos are the NFL's current litmus test for facing a great defense. It was a test Luck aced better than anyone in 2015, but playing Wade Phillips' unit at Mile High is a different story. After one of the most ineffective halves of his career (43 net passing yards and a 5-of-17 success rate), Luck led a long touchdown drive and had the Colts right back in another tight one, trailing 16-13 to start the fourth quarter.
While Colts coach Chuck Pagano talked about ending his team's "last-minute culture" this week, the Broncos have fully embraced this style of play. We know Denver's not going to score many points, especially now with a young Trevor Siemian at quarterback. Fifteen of Denver's 17 wins under Gary Kubiak have required the defense to shut the door in the fourth quarter with a one-score lead. We have highlighted that table many times in the past, including all of the memorable takeaways and sacks that have put games away for the Broncos.
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Even though this is a new season, Denver is continuing to win in the same fashion as it did last year. On a third-and-15, Aqib Talib beat Phillip Dorsett to the ball and returned it 46 yards for a pick-six and 23-13 lead. As crushing as that was, the Colts regrouped for an 80-yard touchdown drive, but the pass defense struggled to keep the Broncos from getting into scoring range. Kubiak was faced with a fourth-and-1 at the Indianapolis 17 with 1:55 left and the Colts out of timeouts. One yard and the game is over, which sounds like a favorable situation for the offense. In 2015, non-quarterback runs converted 67 percent of fourth-and-1 plays, and passes are always around 54 percent successful. By kicking the field goal to take a 26-20 lead, Denver was inviting Luck to drive for the game-winning touchdown, utilizing four downs all the way. If they had gone for it on fourth down and failed, the Colts would have taken over down 23-20, and it would have been almost inevitable that the Colts would get conservative at some point and settled for a field goal and overtime. With nearly a full two minutes left and the likelihood of a touchback in this altitude starting the Colts at their 25, I hated the 35-yard field-goal decision.
Of course, the Denver defense immediately rendered all that moot when Von Miller blew past Joe Reitz to get to Luck and cause another fumble return touchdown for his unit. Shane Ray really should have gone down right away to end the game with kneeldowns instead of further risking any injuries, and the most improbable of Luck-led comebacks, but good luck telling a defender not to score when the opportunity is right there. These opportunities just keep coming to Denver at an incredible rate. Miller even capped off the 34-20 win with another sack.
Packers at Vikings: The Other Passing Game Steals the Show
Recent games between the Vikings and Packers have usually been billed as Adrian Peterson trying to keep the ball away from Green Bay's passing attack led by Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson. But in opening Minnesota's new stadium on Sunday night, the Vikings were led by the passing connection of Sam Bradford and Stefon Diggs -- not exactly how things would have been envisioned a year ago. But the two hooked up nine times for 182 yards and a touchdown in what was legitimately the high point of Bradford's aimless career. With Peterson struggling (19 yards on 12 carries) and suffering a major injury, and the timing issues Green Bay's duo is still having, this was an impressive showing and role change for the Vikings.
Still, Mike Zimmer's defense was also on display, forcing Rodgers into one of the more ineffective games of his career, which is starting to become all too common. It could have been even worse as Terence Newman dropped an interception in the red zone two plays before a Rodgers scramble touchdown cut Minnesota's lead to 17-14. Rodgers set a career-high with three fumbles, but only the third one was recovered by the Vikings with 6:53 to play. The defense still needed one more stop at midfield after the two-minute warning, and after getting picked on all night for his terrible ball awareness, second-year cornerback Trae Waynes made his first interception a memorable one by picking off Rodgers with 1:50 left. Minnesota let Bradford throw to Diggs one more time on a crucial third-and-6, and a "favorable home-team call" of pass interference on Damarious Randall all but salted this one away.
Green Bay failing to win a close game is old hat. Mike McCarthy is now 22-46-1 (.326) at game-winning drive opportunities, including a 14-35 (.286) record with Rodgers at quarterback. Both records rank as the third worst among active coaches or starting quarterbacks. The more recent development is the broken passing game that used to be historically efficient. For a change, Minnesota had the better passing game.
Seahawks at Rams: Jeff Fisher Eyes Extension After Quasi-Super Bowl Win
Despite how dreadful the Rams looked on Monday night in a 28-0 shutout loss to the 49ers, this outcome was still fairly predictable if you have been following the NFL closely. In the past four seasons, Jeff Fisher's 7-9 B.S. had split the eight contests with Seattle's DVOA dynasty, and only the 2013 finale was not a close game in the fourth quarter. The Rams treat Seattle like their bi-annual Super Bowl, and with the first game back in Los Angeles and Russell Wilson's high-ankle sprain, a 9-3 victory was not far-fetched at all.
For just the second time in his 76 career starts, Wilson's Seahawks failed to score 10 points. While he limited his sacks to two and stayed turnover-free, his play was ineffective, obviously hampered by the injury and lack of running game to support him against a strong defensive line. But the defense kept the game close and Seattle had three cracks in the fourth quarter at erasing the 9-3 deficit. The final drive, which needed to cover 88 yards, started to look like shades of last week against Miami when Wilson helped pull one out for the Seahawks at what seemed like their lowest point. Down to 1:53 and one timeout, Wilson got things started with a 53-yard bomb to Tyler Lockett, who beat Troy Hill in coverage.
Even with all of the injured skill players and disadvantages in the trenches, Seattle was in good position to deliver a last-minute win. But on third-and-10 at the Los Angeles 35, Wilson's dump pass for Christine Michael was fumbled after an 8-yard gain and hit by Alec Ogletree, who made the recovery with 45 seconds left. Like that, the Rams had their first win in Los Angeles despite not registering a single touchdown in eight quarters. Unfortunately, Seattle can only boast one touchdown (born out of desperation a week ago) in eight quarters itself. While slow starts have happened in three of the last four seasons for Seattle, there was never this much concern with Wilson's health, presenting a new challenge for this team in its attempt to remain a top contender.
Dolphins at Patriots: Different Tenants, Same House
Injury ended a fantastic game from Jimmy Garoppolo in his first home start, but the Patriots still extended the lead to 31-3 in the third quarter with third-string quarterback Jacoby Brissett filling in the rest of the way. New England is about the last team expected to blow a 28-point lead at home. Since 2001, opponents are 1-49 at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities in New England. Only Eli Manning led the Giants to a win back in 2011.
But if there was a formula for a huge comeback to happen, Miami had most of the ingredients. New England's offensive line started to struggle with sacks and a holding penalty with a rookie quarterback in the game. Ryan Tannehill got hot in the no-huddle offense, leading three consecutive touchdown drives with the receivers making plenty of plays against the secondary to cut the lead to 31-24.
Yet even with several rookies in the lineup and no Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots still looked like the Patriots. Brissett even converted twice on the quarterback sneak. But when Stephen Gostkowski had a chance to put this one away with a 39-yard field goal, the great kicker shockingly pushed the kick to the right. Miami had one last chance, needing to drive 71 yards in 64 seconds. After getting as far as the New England 29, Tannehill was nearly intercepted on one sideline throw before getting picked in the end zone by Duron Harmon with two seconds left to secure another New England victory.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 12
Game-winning drives: 14
Games with 4QC opportunity: 24/32 (75.0 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 6
Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro Football Reference. Screen caps come from NFL Game Pass.