by Scott Kacsmar
For a week with a full slate of games, this was one of the least competitive weeks of the last several years. Only seven games had a comeback opportunity, and no team overcame a larger fourth-quarter deficit than two points. Detroit's bid for a 28-point comeback in Green Bay ended at 34-27 after the Packers put the game away with one of the season's best four-minute offense drives.
What a difference a year can make. Last season, Baltimore was derailed by injuries and close losses, finishing 3-9 at comeback opportunities, which made the Ravens a great regression candidate. This season, the health has been better, and the Ravens join the Broncos as the only teams to go 3-0 in close games with two comebacks each. The Eagles and 49ers are the only teams that have yet to play a close game in the fourth quarter. This is perfectly fine for Philadelphia (3-0), the leaders in scoring differential (plus-65), but San Francisco (1-2) has been shredded over the last two weeks.
Meanwhile, three Super Bowl contenders have all started 1-2. The Bengals are 0-4 in comeback opportunities against Denver and Pittsburgh going back to Week 16 of last season. Arizona usually puts up a fight, but was blown out for the third time since surrendering the DVOA crown in Week 17 of last season. Carolina had a streak of 27 games of being at least within one score with possession of the ball in the fourth quarter, but that streak is now over, bookended by losses to the Vikings, including a 31-13 defeat in 2014. The Panthers have already blown two double-digit leads this season after not having done so since 2012.
Game of the Week
San Diego Chargers 22 at Indianapolis Colts 26
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 2 (22-20)
Head Coach: Chuck Pagano (8-11 at 4QC and 11-12 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Andrew Luck (11-11 at 4QC and 15-12 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Two teams that once had one of the AFC's best rivalries, the Colts and Chargers met on Sunday for just the second time in the last six seasons. These days, they compete more for the title of league's most injured team. The walking wounded is a long list for both teams, and we are only through Week 3. While Philip Rivers has tried to adjust to a revised cast of skill players around him, the Colts earned some relief with the return of Vontae Davis, Trent Cole, and T.J. Green on defense. The Colts needed to win at home to avoid an 0-3 start.
For at least one half, Andrew Luck was afforded a running game and defense. This almost seemed to confuse him, and he committed two bad turnovers in the second quarter, including a late fumble returned for a touchdown. Frank Gore's 70 rushing yards at halftime exposed San Diego's 32nd-ranked run defense, but if you thought the Colts would have their first 100-yard rusher since Week 15 of the 2012 season, you were wrong. Gore finished with 82 yards as the second half took on more of a typical Indianapolis script, meaning Luck had to play great. With Donte Moncrief out for the next month, that also meant T.Y. Hilton needed to step up against cornerback Jason Verrett. Hilton came through with 174 receiving yards, having delivered on his promise of big plays this week.
For the second time this year, Indianapolis benefited when its opponents failed to convert an extra point. Melvin Gordon scored a 1-yard touchdown for San Diego in the third quarter, but Antonio Cromartie blocked Josh Lambo's ensuing kick. That left San Diego with a 19-13 lead, which turned into a 20-19 Colts lead when Robert Turbin scored his own 1-yard touchdown later in the third.
The fourth quarter was not very smooth, with the teams combining for eight penalties. The Colts even found themselves in an embarrassing second-and-40 situation, but the biggest penalty came from an unlikely source. Rivers hit a 43-yard bomb to Travis Benjamin at the Indianapolis 7, but was penalized 15 yards for taunting after the play. If taunting had been enforced as strictly in the past as it has been this season, Rivers would have the all-time record for taunting flags. He did not do anything here that he hasn't done his whole career. That was a lame call, but it helped the Colts keep the drive to a field goal after Erik Walden sacked Rivers on third down.
After Luck's offensive line allowed three straight pressures, the Chargers had the ball back with 6:38 left. San Diego picked up two first downs, but was unable to convert a big third-and-3 with 2:36 left. Luck only needed to drive into Adam Vinatieri's deep field goal range, but the Colts quickly faced a fourth-and-7 at the two-minute warning following a dropped pass by Josh Ferguson. The Colts were wise to motion Hilton into the right slot to get him away from Verrett, but veteran cornerback Brandon Flowers should have understood the situation better. He left a huge cushion for Hilton to run to the sticks to catch a pass long enough for the first down.
Two plays later, Luck threaded a pass to Hilton with Verrett in coverage. Dexter McCoil botched the tackle, and Adrian Phillips was caught flat-footed in the open field as Hilton raced 63 yards for the game-winning touchdown with 1:17 left. The two-point conversion failed, but that was not a big deal with a 26-22 lead. Had the Chargers not had two timeouts left, the right strategy may have been for Hilton to go down inside the 5-yard line to set up a last-second field goal. But they did have two timeouts, so he made the right decision here: make San Diego score a touchdown.
Antonio Gates, a future Hall of Fame tight end, was one of the latest injuries for the Chargers to deal with, and it cost them on the next drive. While rookie Hunter Henry is the future replacement for Gates, he had a bad sequence with a false start and fumble. Clayton Geathers just popped the ball loose, and Indianapolis recovered with 1:02 left. It appeared as if the Colts ran out the clock with a punt on the final snap, but an obscure rule for a first touch violation extended the game with an untimed down. Needing 82 yards, the only hope was for a lateral, but Walden's hit on Benjamin just led to another fumble to end the game for good.
This may not come as a surprise to anyone, but the Chargers are 2016's first team to blow two fourth-quarter leads.
Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind
Denver Broncos 29 at Cincinnati Bengals 17
This was the seventh consecutive meeting between these two teams in which the game came down to the fourth quarter. The Bengals are 1-6 in those games, as something always seems to bite them in the end, whether it was a missed extra point (2006), a crazy tipped pass to Brandon Stokley (2009), or A.J. McCarron's fumble in overtime last season. The type of game we would not have expected here was for Trevor Siemian to channel his inner 2012 Peyton Manning, and shred the Bengals on the road in the fourth quarter.
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We also would not have expected Jeremy Hill to lead a rushing charge for the Bengals. Hill had 53 rushing yards through two games, but he popped off a 50-yard run to pace Cincinnati's opening touchdown drive. Hill's 97 yards were big on a day when Andy Dalton had just 114 passing yards midway through the fourth quarter against that stingy Denver pass defense.
A pair of Dalton scrambles helped the Bengals retake the lead, as he had runs for 10 and 15 yards near the end of the third quarter. Later on that same drive, Cincinnati faced a third-and-11 at the Denver 16 to start the fourth. Dalton's tipped pass hung dangerously in the air before it hit the ground. Mike Nugent's 34-yard field goal put the Bengals ahead 17-16.
The Broncos were behind, but Siemian had plenty of time to answer. He engineered a long drive built on a rhythmic passing game, capping it off with a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end John Phillips. On the all-important two-point conversion attempt, Siemian tried to run, but fumbled before he was down. Safety George Iloka scooped up the ball, but fortunately for Denver, he was unable to return it for Cincinnati's own two-point score.
Down 22-17, the Bengals went three-and-out after A.J. Green dropped a pass that was behind him, but hit him in the hands. One thing coach Gary Kubiak has done this year is to allow Siemian to throw late in the game with the lead, which is refreshing to see. Siemian threw on three of the next four plays, and put a lasting mark on his performance with a 55-yard touchdown bomb to Demaryius Thomas. It is easy to question why Chris Lewis-Harris was in single coverage with Thomas on such a crucial play, but Adam Jones had just left the field with a cramp, putting the Bengals in a bind.
Siemian had not completed a pass thrown deeper than 16 yards beyond the line of scrimmage in the first two weeks of the season. Against Cincinnati, he was 4-for-4 on deep throws, including two of his four touchdown passes, and two completions on this drive to put Cincinnati away at 29-17. Actually, a Dalton interception off a tipped ball with 4:17 left formally put the game away, but that type of takeaway is expected with Denver these days.
As head coach of the Houston Texans, Kubiak was 19-36 (.345) with a game-winning drive opportunity. In Denver, Kubiak is now 9-3 (.750) with three different quarterbacks, but one defense, and the team continues to roll in its unique fashion.
Washington Redskins 29 at New York Giants 27
A team absolutely can face a must-win game in Week 3 in the NFL. Since 1990, only three teams have made the playoffs after a 0-3 start. A Redskins loss would have left them at 0-3, with the Giants and Eagles (who would beat Pittsburgh later in the day) both at 3-0. After New York scored three touchdowns on five drives to take a 21-9 lead, things looked bleak for a defense that came into the week allowing a league-worst 3.42 points per drive, and for an offense that had yet to get things going this year.
But Washington came back with two big touchdown passes, and if you wanted proof that this game brought a sense of urgency to Jay Gruden's team, there was even a fake punt late in the third quarter. That extended a drive into the fourth quarter, where Washington kicked a field goal to take a 26-24 lead.
Much of the build-up for this game was centered on the matchup between Odell Beckham Jr. and new Washington cornerback Josh Norman. Of course, the two infamously got into many scuffles in last year's meeting when Norman was with Carolina. That game even sparked a new rule where two personal fouls of a particular nature can get a player ejected. Fittingly, that rule was applied for the first time in the fourth quarter, but not on a player you would have guessed. Oh, Norman was heavily involved. He was flagged for a rough hit on Sterling Shepard, and Beckham stiff-armed Norman on a 24-yard gain two plays later. But it was actually Giants center Weston Richburg's late hit on Norman at the end of that gain that drew his second flag of the day, and an ejection.
From the 15-yard line, Eli Manning was off target, and Quinton Dunbar made an impressive one-handed interception. Washington's next drive quickly stalled, and it was fortunate not to give the ball back to the Giants in the red zone after a blocked punt was negated by offsetting penalties. Manning still drove the Giants for a score on a drive that was all passing, and Josh Brown's 30-yard field goal gave the Giants a 27-26 lead with 7:53 left.
Success has escaped the Redskins in these moments, but here they only trailed by one point. Matt Jones grinded out some tough yards on the ground, which also wore down the clock, but a big decision loomed at the two-minute warning. Washington had a third-and-3 at the New York 17-yard line. Converting there would force the Giants to use all of their timeouts to get the ball back. Failure to convert would still give Washington a shot at a go-ahead field goal, but it would also leave Manning and the Giants nearly two full minutes and three timeouts, needing only a field goal to win. That is why it was surprising to see a Jones run instead of putting the ball in the hands of Kirk Cousins, who had another "box of chocolates" game. Jones was stuffed, and Washington settled for a 37-yard field goal.
The Giants have lived on the edge all season. Manning had 1:51 left from his own 25. He was attempting to lead a game-winning drive for the third week in a row. Since 1960, there have been 77 quarterbacks credited with multiple game-winning drives in their team's first three games. However, only five pulled it off in all three games, including Matt Ryan (2015 Falcons) and Nick Foles (2014 Eagles) in the past two seasons. After Manning converted a third-and-14 with an 18-yard gain to Victor Cruz, victory looked probable, but all hope was lost one play later after another interception.
Su'a Cravens, a second-round rookie linebacker/safety hybrid, bumped Shane Vereen within the legal 5-yard zone, and Manning was too late on the throw. Cravens was able to undercut the back for the game-ending interception. Time will tell just how much of an impact this has in the NFC East, but Washington had to have this one.
Baltimore Ravens 19 at Jacksonville Jaguars 17
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 1 (17-16)
Head Coach: John Harbaugh (19-37 at 4QC and 26-40 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Joe Flacco (19-34 at 4QC and 26-37 overall 4QC/GWD record)
These two teams played one of the sloppiest finishes of 2015. In that game, Baltimore dropped a game-ending interception, and then Blake Bortles fell after a fourth-down snap that never should have been allowed due to a false start and took a sack. The ensuing facemask penalty extended the game by an untimed down, and the Jaguars won with a 53-yard field goal.
On Sunday, the sequel was even grander in its sloppiness, much in the way that Sharknado upped the awfulness with Sharknado 2. There was even another untimed down field goal, but this time it was Baltimore's in the first half.
The game's final 10 minutes could serve as a short film of Football Follies. Jacksonville took a 17-16 lead only after Devin Hester muffed a punt. The Jaguars offense still went three-and-out on the drive. Joe Flacco and Bortles exchanged three straight interceptions on deflected passes. The second Flacco interception looked to be most costly with 3:17 left, as it gave the Jaguars possession at the Baltimore 29. However, the defense held, and sacked Bortles on third down to force a 52-yard field goal attempt. Brent Urban, who blocked Cleveland's field goal for a game-winning "kick-six" last season, came through with another big block with 2:59 left.
Steve Smith helped extend the ensuing drive with a 5-yard grab on fourth-and-2 as the two-minute warning approached. Jacksonville chose to let the clock run after a first-down run by the Ravens, then used two timeouts after the next two stops. Baltimore certainly could have been more aggressive on third-and-3 instead of throwing a short pass to Kyle Juszczyk for a 2-yard gain. However, the Ravens have the utmost confidence in kicker Justin Tucker, and perhaps no fear of Bortles actually driving for the win again. Tucker drilled the 54-yard field goal down the middle with 1:02 left to take a 19-17 lead.
How would Bortles screw this one up? Well, he took one of the worst sacks you'll ever see.
— Jonathan Kinsley (@Brickwallblitz) September 26, 2016
Out of the pocket, Bortles had every opportunity to throw the ball away, but gifted Terrell Suggs a sack that cost the Jaguars their final timeout. After a holding penalty, Bortles was left with no choice but to force a pass on third-and-21 from his own 14. This time, the game-ending interception was tipped, but not dropped, and Baltimore is 3-0 after three very close wins.
Cleveland Browns 24 at Miami Dolphins 30
Cody Kessler's first career start was passable, but he was completely overshadowed by Cleveland's fourth quarterback of the season: Terrelle Pryor. At this point, it may be an injustice to label Pryor by any one position. He is an incredible athlete, and he did just about everything he could to help put Cleveland in position to get its first win in Miami. While things were looking dire at 24-13 in the fourth quarter, the Browns kept alternating Pryor and Kessler at quarterback, with Pryor also starring as the No. 1 wide receiver (he finished with 144 receiving yards) and occasional zone-read runner. Pryor finished the drive with a touchdown run before Kessler returned to complete a two-point conversion pass to make it 24-21. Somehow, the Browns were making this system work.
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Success was not limited to one drive either. On Cleveland's next drive, Pryor turned a short throw into a 40-yard reception, leading to a game-tying field goal with 3:14 left.
From there, these teams reminded us of why expectations for both are so low this season. Instead of playing for overtime, Miami took a little risk with no timeouts, and the ball at its own 35 with 26 seconds left. Corey Lemonier, a disappointment in San Francisco, notched the second sack of his career and forced Ryan Tannehill to fumble.
With 20 seconds and one timeout left, Cleveland should have tried to get closer, given new kicker Cody Parkey had already missed two 40-plus-yard field goals in the game. While not wanting to put the ball in the hands of a rookie quarterback in his first start could be understandable, the Browns could have at least run the ball with Isaiah Crowell or done something safe to gain yards. Instead, the Browns took a knee, called timeout, and brought out Parkey for a 46-yard field goal. The result was predictably Cleveland: wide left, and overtime.
Cleveland's decision to kick after winning the overtime coin toss was most unusual. We have only seen this four times in 77 modified overtime games, and the reason has usually been wind-related. That was not the case here, as coach Hue Jackson noted that his "defense was playing hot" in the sense that they were playing well. I still like the decision given both offenses looked more likely to turn the ball over than drive for a long touchdown. The Browns did get the ball back too, giving up one first down before forcing a punt. But bad field position, a sack by Ndamukong Suh, and a holding penalty killed the drive's progress. Miami got the ball back in great field position at the Cleveland 44, and three plays later, Jay Ajayi was in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.
We have seen a touchdown end eight of the last 12 overtime games after just 14 touchdowns in the first 65 games (21.5 percent). The team that has kicked off after winning the toss is now 2-2. Overall, the team receiving first is 42-32-3 (.565) and home teams are 45-29-3 (.604). The team with "momentum" after scoring last in the fourth quarter is 38-36-3 (.513). This was just the second time in 77 games that a team scored a touchdown on the third possession of overtime. While Miami could have easily just sent out its field-goal unit at the 11-yard line, the offense chose to run another play. Maybe if the Browns had done the same at the end of regulation, they would have won this game instead of seeing another disappointment from their new kicker.
Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind
Raiders at Titans: "Exotic Smashmouth" Closed for Indecency
In the last five seasons, only two teams failed to score at least 17 points in any of their first three games: the 2014 Raiders and 2016 Titans. While Oakland has come a long way to fix its woes from Derek Carr's rookie season, the Titans look to be moving backwards in the Marcus Mariota era. Sure, tight end Delanie Walker being inactive was a blow for this game, but the Raiders had allowed more than 500 yards in back-to-back games. Tennessee came back to take advantage of a poor Detroit defense just a week ago. Oakland had been 4-16 in early road starts since 2012, allowing at least 16 points in each game. Surely the Titans would muster more than 10 points at home, right?
Three Mariota turnovers plagued the offense on a day when the Oakland defense rose to the occasion. Two plays into the fourth quarter, Sean Smith snatched his first interception of the season after Mariota threw behind Rishard Matthews, who has not built any chemistry so far with just 98 yards on 18 targets. Oakland failed to capitalize on the mistake, as Carr soon threw an interception of his own. Tennessee's defense was fine in this game, holding Oakland scoreless on six second-half possessions.
While the Titans had great rushing success (26 carries for 159 yards), the passing game continuously stalled the offense. Sometimes, the problem was just a poor play design. On a first-and-15, DeMarco Murray motioned out wide, but it was all a ruse to throw a screen to Harry Douglas. However, the play was so slow to develop that the blocking was never there, and the catch was a 5-yard loss, short-circuiting the drive.
It would be easier to tolerate Mike Mularkey's "Exotic Smashmouth" if he just did the usual coachspeak thing and believed the success of his rushing game would mean the play-action game should work for intermediate vertical shots. But no, the Titans have to get cute and horizontal with Harry Douglas. If they really wanted this play to be something exotic with a chance for success, Douglas should have pitched the ball back to Murray on a lateral while the wide receiver at the bottom blocked the cornerback.
The last hope for Tennessee was an 80-yard touchdown drive in the final 1:51 with one timeout left. In operating out of the no-huddle shotgun, Mariota's vertical passes were accurate and on time. The offense's success looked effortless while Oakland's four-man rush generated zero pressure. Mariota's four completions for 77 yards should have had the Titans knocking at the door, but a 15-yard penalty on Taylor Lewan for taking a senseless cheap shot was very costly. Andre Johnson, a hero on fourth down in Detroit, appeared to have another big touchdown, but his wide-open route was clearly the result of pushing off of T.J Carrie. The flag rightfully came out for pass interference, and the Titans were soon looking at another big fourth down.
On fourth-and-4, Oakland stayed with a four-man rush, but Tennessee's offensive designed failed again. The Raiders had seven defenders to deploy against just three receivers that ran routes on the play. Douglas was the only Tennessee receiver to run a route in the end zone. With Mariota's options so severely limited, he forced a pass for Douglas that was too high, and Oakland's final defensive stand clinched the road victory.
Rams at Buccaneers: Lightning, But Not Thunder
The Florida close-game trifecta was clinched when the Rams and Buccaneers played an entertaining one to finish the afternoon. Tampa Bay's self-inflicted wounds -- including a missed field goal, a missed extra point, and a tipped interception -- allowed a 20-10 lead to slip away. However, the most damaging mistake was in the fourth quarter when Robert Quinn stripped Jameis Winston of the ball, and Ethan Westbrooks recovered the fumble for a 77-yard touchdown to take a 31-20 lead. Tampa Bay had been only 13 yards away from the go-ahead touchdown.
These offenses, stagnant in Week 2, actually combined for three more touchdown drives, but the Buccaneers botched a crucial two-point conversion with 2:15 left when Winston threw behind Vincent Jackson. Los Angeles still led 37-32. With all of their timeouts left, the Buccaneers were wise to kick deep, and Tavon Austin nonchalantly fielded the return at the 1-yard line for only a 5-yard return. As is often the case in Tampa Bay in September, lightning struck, and a delay sparked at a most critical juncture, with the Rams facing third-and-11 at the two-minute warning. The Rams had more than 70 minutes to cook up the perfect play, but only came up with a deep ball for Kenny Britt that Case Keenum threw too poorly to keep in bounds.
Winston was in good shape, only needing to drive 56 yards in 1:42 with the luxury of two timeouts. The drive started well, with Winston crossing 400 passing yards for the first time in his career, but things went haywire after Charles Sims decided to stay in bounds for an extra 2 yards to the 15-yard line instead of stepping out to stop the clock. This would have been a fine spot for a timeout, but Tampa Bay compounded its error by burning time to run another play as the clock ticked to less than 25 seconds. Winston's two prayers intended for Jackson in the end zone were not answered, and a false start had Tampa Bay moving backwards with 14 seconds remaining. Winston's accuracy remained off on a dump pass, but the Rams were penalized for illegal contact.
With only nine seconds left, Winston was basically limited to two throws in the end zone. The Rams were only rushing three, which worked out in this case. One would have expected Winston to have given Mike Evans another chance at high-pointing a ball. From the coaches film, it did not appear that the Rams assigned any special type of coverage to Evans on these final plays. Instead of throwing a pass of any kind, Winston just casually jogged past the line of scrimmage, never made an effort to lateral the ball, and was brought down from behind by Quinn to end the game. In a pantheon of worthless 10-yard runs, this would be prominently featured.
Perhaps it is fitting that Tennessee and Tampa Bay comprise our two failures this week. Early in their young careers, Mariota and Winston are both 3-7 at game-winning drive opportunities for teams that decided to ax last year's coach and promote an offensive assistant. So far, the results are strikingly similar to 2015.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 16
Game-winning drives: 19
Games with 4QC opportunity: 31/48 (64.6 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 9
Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro Football Reference. Screen caps come from NFL Game Pass.