Clutch Encounters: Week 4
by Scott Kacsmar
Three of the four teams that had a first-round bye in last season's playoffs lost on Sunday, but only one played its least competitive game in years. The Patriots, who again started rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett, were shut out at home against Buffalo. New England trailed 16-0 for the entire fourth quarter in its worst performance since the infamous 41-14 thrashing in Kansas City in 2014.
Just last week, I noted that Carolina's 27-game streak of being at least within one score with possession of the ball in the fourth quarter had ended against Minnesota. I was asked about the longest active streak, and the answer was New England at 36 games. With that streak over, the Oakland Raiders are surprisingly on top at 19 games and counting.
This week featured nine games with a comeback opportunity. No, there was not a Hail Mary finish to rival the college games on Saturday, but there were a lot of fumble recoveries. (Most even had visual proof.)
Game of the Week
Los Angeles Rams 17 at Arizona Cardinals 13
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 3 (13-10)
Head Coach: Jeff Fisher (37-90-1 at 4QC and 53-99-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Case Keenum (2-5 at 4QC and 2-7 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Talk about two surprising starts: the "always 8-8" Rams are 3-1, and the Cardinals, a Super Bowl favorite, are 1-3. Let's focus on Arizona, a team I wrote about in Football Outsiders Almanac 2016 (still available here). Here is an excerpt from Arizona's essay:
Naturally, you would expect Arians' record in close games to regress to the mean. There will come a time when John Brown doesn't haul in that long touchdown pass, or Patrick Peterson doesn't make that game-clinching interception. But for the last four seasons, Arians has had the magic beans in crunch time. His "no risk it, no biscuit" motto is not just coach speak. He backs it up with pressure in situations where most defenses are comfortable at going to the prevent, and he'll throw the ball down the field when most offenses just want to run clock. The results speak for themselves, but every hot streak comes to an end.
Optimism over Arizona had to be met with caution, because this team's style does walk a fine line between glory and doom. We were worried about this being the year where the other shoe started to drop on Bruce Arians in close games. In the previous four seasons, Arians was 31-1 (.969) when holding a one-score lead in the fourth quarter. This year, Arizona is 0-2, with both losses at home.
On Sunday, Arizona was unable to hold onto or extend its 13-10 lead over the Rams. Running back David Johnson lost a fumble in Los Angeles territory with 11:11 left. While Todd Gurley's rushing woes continued, the Rams' star runner made a crucial cut on a third-and-8 reception to extend his team's drive in the red zone. Two plays later, Arizona brought its usual blitz, but it was picked up, and Case Keenum lobbed a pass to Brian Quick in the end zone for his second touchdown of the day. Quick beat Marcus Cooper on the play. Cooper was once a rookie standout in Kansas City in 2013, only to get benched and eventually traded to Arizona a month ago. While he had a big game against Tampa Bay, Cooper is a major downgrade for this secondary from last year's starter, Jerraud Powers. Keenum, who had started his career 1-7 at game-winning drive opportunities, now has the biggest highlight of his brief NFL tenure.
Arizona's offense would be expected to answer a 17-13 deficit, but this year's unit has not been nearly as good as last year's, which was led by the MVP-worthy Carson Palmer. What made Palmer's season so great was how effective he was at attacking down the field, a staple of any Arians offense. This season, Palmer is still averaging the second-deepest passes (10.54) in the NFL, but his success at throwing down the field has plummeted. In fact, through Week 4, no quarterback has less DYAR (minus-324) on passes thrown more than 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage than Palmer. The next closest is Jameis Winston (minus-230 DYAR). Not only is Palmer throwing more interceptions, but he is also taking more sacks as the offense struggles to find its big-play success again.
The other concern with the 36-year-old Palmer has been his health. Sure enough, a third-down sack of Palmer just before the Rams' go-ahead touchdown gave him a concussion that knocked him out of the game, and could jeopardize his playing status for Thursday night's Week 5 game. The Cardinals had to come back in the final 2:32 with backup Drew Stanton, who did throw a game-winning touchdown to John Brown against the Rams in 2014.
There would be no repeat this time. Stanton stepped up in the pocket and drilled a pass, but unfortunately it was Rams safety Mark Barron making the interception. The Rams ran Gurley three times before punting the ball back to Arizona, which now had zero timeouts and 1:01 left. Stanton's last drive reached the Los Angeles 37, but after barely getting away with another interception, he ended the game with a pick on a Hail Mary in the end zone.
Arizona is in some serious trouble at 1-3. For as much as we would like to say that we could have seen this coming, there is still a sense of shock. It is about as shocking as the Rams winning three in a row after losing 28-0 in San Francisco to start the season.
Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind
Oakland Raiders 28 at Baltimore Ravens 27
The Ravens and Raiders have kept their fans on the edges of their seats each week this season. Every game for both teams was still in doubt at the two-minute warning, or even at the final snap. This matchup was no different, even if it took a while to get interesting. Joe Flacco and Derek Carr exchanged 11 failed completions each, but the big plays came late from veteran wide receivers.
Oakland's defense came into the week ranked 31st against No. 1 wide receivers. According to Sports Info Solutions' coverage charting, new cornerback Sean Smith only ranked 57th in yards per pass among qualified players through Week 3. However, David Amerson, who had ranked second in the NFL, was in coverage when Steve Smith beat him on a short pass, broke a tackle, and took off for a 52-yard touchdown with 6:27 left to cut Oakland's lead to 21-19. For a 37-year-old receiver coming off a torn Achilles, Smith still has some speed left, and he had his first 100-yard receiving game of the season.
Just a few plays later, fifth-round rookie running back DeAndre Washington fumbled at his own 17-yard line. Baltimore turned that into a go-ahead touchdown run by Terrance West, who has officially taken over as the team's lead back. Mike Wallace made a nice catch on the two-point conversion, but made a foolish mistake to spike the ball near the opponent. With the way taunting penalties are being called this year, that was a predictable 15-yard flag.
Oakland had decent field position from its own 34, now down 27-21 with 3:31 left. Michael Crabtree went back to work in one of the best games of his career. After a few completions from Carr moved the ball to the Baltimore 23 with 2:25 left, Oakland was very aggressive in attacking the end zone. Tight end Clive Walford was injured on a dangerous pass that Eric Weddle nearly intercepted in front of the goal line. One play later, Crabtree dragged his feet in the back of the end zone on a great touchdown connection with Carr, their third of the day.
Alas, the Ravens were only down 28-27 with 2:07 and two timeouts left, an eternity of time to set up Justin Tucker for the game-winning field goal. But after Baltimore reached the 50, Oakland's defense clamped down. Blitz pressure on second down nearly led to a Flacco interception, and he badly underthrew Dennis Pitta on third down. On fourth-and-10, Flacco threw into traffic around Kamar Aiken, who appeared to have his left arm hooked by D.J. Hayden, and then took a pop from Reggie Nelson.
That would have been an incredible catch if Aiken had held on, but Oakland's defense made a great stand to preserve its second 1-point road win of the season.
New Orleans Saints 35 at San Diego Chargers 34
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 13 (34-21)
Head Coach: Sean Payton (21-38 at 4QC and 29-41 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Drew Brees (27-52 at 4QC and 40-59 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Each season has a few teams that cannot get out of their own way in close games. Unfortunately, San Diego was one of those teams last year, tying for the league lead with five fourth-quarter comebacks allowed. And they're struggling again this year too. For the third time in four games, San Diego failed to hang on, and that phrase is quite literal in this case. The Chargers fumbled four times in the fourth quarter, losing two of them.
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Everything was going well when Drew Brees threw an interception, giving San Diego the ball at the New Orleans 26, already leading 31-21. Instead of a knockout touchdown, the implosion began. Philip Rivers fumbled on a third-down sack by Cameron Jordan, and the Chargers had to settle for a long field goal. After the Chargers defense held, Melvin Gordon immediately fumbled on the first play of the next drive, giving the Saints the ball at the San Diego 13. Gordon scored a pair of touchdowns on the day, but he had a putrid game with 19 carries for 36 yards against a 31st-ranked run defense that had been destroyed by Atlanta in Week 3. Brees cashed that turnover in with a beautiful touch-pass touchdown to Michael Thomas against Pierre Desir on fourth down.
For the second drive in a row, the Chargers fumbled on the very first play, as Travis Benjamin lost the ball following a 5-yard reception. If a team is going to cough up two fumbles with the lead in the fourth quarter, they could at least do it in better field position after running some clock with other plays. This was embarrassing. The Saints only needed 31 yards to drive, and they finished things off with John Kuhn's third touchdown of the day. New Orleans led 35-34, and the Chargers had blown a fourth-quarter lead in five of their last six games dating back to last season.
To call San Diego's latest comeback attempt "poor" would be an understatement. New Orleans' blitz worked for a first-down sack, which led to an aborted snap on second down that Rivers had to just fall on. Now facing third-and-22, Rivers' deep pass was barely tipped by Sterling Moore, throwing off Dontrelle Inman enough so that the ball clanked off his hands and hit him in the face. Rivers' fourth-down pass never stood much of a chance, and his first interception of the season sealed another blown lead.
There have been three comebacks of 13-plus points in the fourth quarter this season. The Chargers (two) and Saints (one) have allowed all of them. Of course, Rivers and his offense have had ample opportunities to close some of these recent losses out. His performance over the years has slipped in these moments, as even just getting a field goal is no longer expected. When you compare Brees to Rivers in terms of average points per drive in 4QC/GWD situations, you can see where the two separated.
While Brees (203 drives) has consistently been around 2.45 points per drive for quite some time, Rivers (158 drives) has fallen off to now just under 2.00 points per drive. The decline started around the 2010 season, and San Diego has made the playoffs one time since that period.
Both teams are now 1-3, and this looks like another lost year for two of the best quarterbacks of their era.
Cleveland Browns 20 at Washington Redskins 31
While Cleveland (0-4) is the NFL's only remaining winless team, this has been a competitive start for Hue Jackson's tenure. The Browns are running the ball successfully, and rookie quarterback Cody Kessler is easing into the position with Terrelle Pryor as his main target for the time being. While a quick 14-0 deficit on the road may have sunk a team expected to earn the draft's No. 1 pick, the truth is that Washington is not a significantly better team right now. Cleveland even came back to take a 20-17 lead into the fourth quarter, as kicker Cody Parkey was much better this week with two boots from 45-plus yards away.
Unfortunately, the defense is still a huge work in progress for Jackson. The closest the Browns come to having a star defender is cornerback Joe Haden, who has been anything but a stud recently. However, a fourth-quarter phantom penalty on second-and-16 on Haden for his coverage against DeSean Jackson should not be held against him. Jackson threw up his arms in displeasure, but proof of an infraction was hard to come by. Instead of facing third-and-16, the Redskins had a new set of downs, and the running backs finished off the drive. Washington broke its huddle and quickly snapped the ball so that Kirk Cousins could find Chris Thompson wide open in the flat for a 5-yard touchdown with 10:39 left. Washington led 24-20.
The next drive has been controversial, due to a fumble by Duke Johnson that was rewarded to the Redskins despite Johnson emerging from the pile with the ball. The NFL has supported the ruling on the field. I think the decision of possession was too quick by the officials, and have not seen any evidence that a Washington player ever had the ball. Not to downplay the importance of this play since the Browns were past midfield, but I do not view it as a game-deciding decision. I think the Haden penalty had a bigger impact. Cleveland still got the ball back with 7:14 left, albeit at its own 2-yard line. On the drive's second play, Kessler tried to find Pryor down the field, but Josh Norman ran the route for the receiver, coming away with the big interception. The short field led to another Washington touchdown, which basically put the game out of reach at 31-20 with 4:25 left.
While the Browns have to play New England with Tom Brady next, there should be better days ahead. What we have seen so far has not been historically bad by any means. It's just more of Cleveland 2.0: disappointing fans since 1999.
Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind
Colts at Jaguars: Heaven Knows Luck's Miserable Now
Jacksonville is 2-8 in its last 10 games, against a soft schedule nonetheless, but both wins were against Indianapolis. The Colts used to be a sure thing in divisional games with Andrew Luck, but even the low-hanging fruit is getting too hard to grab. As bad as the start was in London, this still played out like your typical Colts game, but with an atypical ending.
We marveled at how poor the lineup looked just four games into the season, and how dropped passes and shoddy protection left the Colts trailing 23-6 to start the fourth quarter. That was when the inevitable rally began, because God forbid Chuck Pagano ever lets the offense go into the no-huddle earlier. This simple wrinkle led to three consecutive touchdown drives, but the defense was unable to force a back-breaking Blake Bortles turnover. In past years, someone like Robert Mathis would force a strip-sack to really turn the game around, but there is no such weapon on this year's defense. Allen Hurns broke through some poor tackling on his way to a 42-yard touchdown to give Jacksonville a 30-20 lead with 5:03 left.
Even then, there was still a sense of hope that the Colts could pull this off. Phillip Dorsett quickly cashed in a 64-yard touchdown bomb after a blown coverage, and the defense rose to the occasion for a three-and-out, helped in part by Bortles throwing a 1-yard pass on first down that led the receiver out of bounds. Yes, we really did not send our best to London again, but the crowd was going to see an exciting finish with Luck getting the ball back, down 30-27, with 2:31 left. However, on a crucial fourth-and-1 at the Jacksonville 49, the Colts did some unexpected things. First, Frank Gore was not even on the field. Then, given an open running lane, Luck still decided to throw the ball to Dwayne Allen. The pass was not off the mark, but Allen did not cleanly catch it with his hands, and Josh Johnson helped break the play up.
The Colts only had 26 seconds left when they got the ball back, and a sixth sack of Luck led to a failed lateral attempt to end the game. That sack also ended a record-setting streak. Including the playoffs, the Colts had not allowed more than five sacks in a game since Week 13 of the 1997 season, a streak of 320 games.
|Offense: Longest Streaks Without Allowing 6+ Sacks (Includes Playoffs)|
|1||Colts||Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck||1997-2016||11/30/1997||9/25/2016||320|
|2||Dolphins||Dan Marino, David Woodley||1981-1999||11/22/1981||10/10/1999||294|
|3||Packers||Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers||1998-2009||12/13/1998||9/13/2009||173|
|4||Texans||Matt Schaub, David Carr||2005-2015||12/18/2005||12/6/2015||163|
|5||Bears||Erik Kramer, Jim Miller||1993-2002||11/7/1993||10/20/2002||146|
|Note: Patriots have active streak of 140 games since 2008|
Now the more apt comparison of Luck to Peyton Manning or Dan Marino seems to be the dangers of drafting a quarterback and not putting enough pieces around him to win. The harsh reality is that through the first quarter of the season, the Colts (1-3) are in last place in the worst division in the NFL.
Panthers at Falcons: So This Is the New Year
The Panthers have gone just 4-5 ever since Atlanta ended their 14-0 start in Week 16 last season. None of these outcomes may have been more shocking than Matt Ryan racking up a 503-yard passing day with 300 yards to Julio Jones alone. Atlanta actually led 34-10 with 13:19 left in the fourth quarter before a strong Carolina rally. Even though Cam Newton left with a concussion at 34-18, the Panthers still scored with Derek Anderson in the game. After Anderson's 16-yard touchdown pass to Corey Brown on a fourth-and-2, Atlanta's lead was cut to 41-33. Carolina kicked deep with all three timeouts left. After Ryan took a sack to set up a third-and-16, it would have been fitting to see him air one out to give Jones a chance to break Flipper Anderson's record of 336 receiving yards in a game.
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But the Falcons ran the ball and punted, leaving Anderson 85 seconds left from his own 24. The drama was immediately ended after Anderson's pass went right to cornerback Robert Alford, who returned the ball for a touchdown instead of just taking a knee with 1:14 left. Alford even snatched a second interception for good measure with 37 seconds left.
While that pick-six to make the score 48-33 seemed meaningless at the time, it did actually help the Falcons set an obscure record. There have been 276 combined points scored in Atlanta's first four games -- the most in NFL history, breaking the previous record of 275 points by the 2002 Chiefs. With the 2000 Rams (274 points) and 2013 Broncos (270 points) nipping at their heels, this suggests a year-long historic offense combined with a poor defense may be on the horizon for Atlanta.
There have not been a lot of great candidates to start this season, but you have to think Ryan is in the lead for MVP through the first-quarter mark. While this defense might make Atlanta fade even faster than they did after last year's good start, it is not like the trio of 1-3 teams in the NFC South are ready to make a move.
Cowboys at 49ers: Do We Need a "BLAINE" Stat?
Given the Cowboys were playing without their best receiver (Dez Bryant), best offensive lineman (Tyron Smith) and best cornerback (Orlando Scandrick), among others, it was not too surprising to see San Francisco take a 14-0 lead at home. It was even less surprising to see the 49ers struggle in the fourth quarter after Dallas took a 21-17 lead. Blaine Gabbert rarely attacks down the field, but with 10:52 left, he came out firing behind great protection, only to badly miss Torrey Smith. Morris Claiborne made the interception and the offense put another scoring drive together. Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott thought he had thrown a third-down dagger with 4:15 left, but Brice Butler, filling in for Bryant, was unable to hang on in the end zone for his second touchdown of the day. The ensuing field goal extended Dallas' lead to 24-17.
Gabbert started to put a drive together, but the 49ers, slow to line up, ended up burning a timeout with the clock stopped before a crucial fourth-and-6. Now we know that ALEX was named for former San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith, but it's actually Gabbert who ranks dead last in that statistic since 2006. In 2015, Gabbert threw 65.0 percent of his third-down passes short of the sticks, the highest rate in the last decade. Sure enough, on a crucial play, Gabbert scrambled to his right and threw short to Smith, who was coming back to the ball instead of moving towards the marker. The play was a meaningless 3-yard gain. I guess "BLAINE" would work as a quarterback philosophy that stands for "Beyond Line Attempt Is Not Expected."
Dallas threw a bubble screen on second-and-13 with 1:45 left, but that was in a situation where safety was more than acceptable with the 49ers down to one timeout. The 49ers looked unprepared for the play, and Cole Beasley picked up 47 yards to clinch the win.
Seahawks at Jets: I Love a (Pick) Parade
If Ryan Fitzpatrick was a boxer, he would probably keep getting up even after his trainers begged him to stay down. For a Harvard man, he is courageous, but almost to the point of stupidity. In the last two weeks, Fitzpatrick's nine interceptions (seven of which have come in the fourth quarter) against Kansas City and Seattle have seen him continue to challenge some of the best corners in the game. To his credit, Fitzpatrick fired six of those picks with his team down by 10 points or more, so the situations were very desperate. It was not like he really hurt his team's chances to win either game, because the probability of doing so was already quite low.
However, the start of the fourth quarter on Sunday was classic Fitzpatrick. Down 17-10, he completed a 17-yard pass to Brandon Marshall, who basically pushed Richard Sherman aside after the two had a lot of contact, and the officials still flagged Sherman for pass interference. Fine, but on the very next play at the New York 47, Fitzpatrick went right back to that matchup. This time, Sherman had the clear advantage and intercepted the ball. Seattle's big-play offense only needed four snaps to add another touchdown to the margin, taking a 24-10 lead with 12:20 left.
New York's only score in the quarter was a total fluke. A strip-sack of Fitzpatrick left the field scattered with casual onlookers -- except for Charone Peake, who picked up the fumble for a 42-yard touchdown return with 2:15 left. Earl Thomas' appeal that Fitzpatrick's arm was going forward was not true.
— SB Nation NFL (@SBNationNFL) October 3, 2016
An offense recovers its own fumble for a touchdown about once every couple of seasons, and it is even rarer to see it not happen near the goal line. As for Fitzpatrick interceptions in crunch time, those are too common.
Titans at Texans: Further Down the AFC South Spiral
The AFC South is really wide open, especially now that J.J. Watt (back) is out for the season. Houston's Will Fuller had to return a punt 67 yards for a touchdown to break a 20-20 tie with 56 seconds left in the third quarter after some spotty play from Brock Osweiler. The fact that this was a battle for first place shows just how downtrodden the division remains.
Houston's first test without Watt was not much in the form of the Titans. The bad news: Tennessee cracked 20 points for the first time this season, and Marcus Mariota was only sacked once and hit four times. The good news: Houston's pressures were timely, including a couple of third-down stops in the fourth quarter. One of the hits on Mariota nearly led to an Andre Hal interception with 10:12 left.
For as much as we criticize coaches for being conservative, it is noteworthy when they do something good. Let's give credit to Bill O'Brien for going for it on fourth-and-1 at the Tennessee 42 with 4:38 left. A lot of coaches would have just punted to play the field-position game, but moving the ball to add another score would have likely wrapped this one up. Now the fullback dive to Jay Prosch was not something we like to see in that situation, but at least the Texans tried. The play just happened to not work out.
As good as Mariota looked last week in a near-comeback drive, he was much less impressive here. He led Tennessee to the Houston 28, where Hal nearly had another interception two plays before a critical fourth-and-6. The Titans tried to run a subtle pick play, but Mariota's pass was too high for Andre Johnson.
I originally thought the pass was extremely poor, but on further review, you can see that Johnson tripped a little on the route, which may have thrown off the timing. Even if the pass had been on the money, A.J. Bouye seemed to have a good read on the play, and was in position for the tackle short of the sticks.
This was the third week in a row that the Titans had to drive for a touchdown in the final minutes. It is not a good sign that the only success was a fourth-down miracle catch by Johnson in Detroit in Week 2.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 20
Game-winning drives: 23
Games with 4QC opportunity: 40/63 (63.5 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 11
Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro Football Reference. Screen caps come from NFL Game Pass.