Clutch Encounters: Wild Card
by Scott Kacsmar
For the first time in NFL history, all four road teams won on wild-card weekend. If there was ever a slate for it to happen, this was the one. We ridiculed the quality of the NFC East and AFC South all year, so it's no surprise that Houston and Washington lost. The Bengals have the longest playoff win drought in the league (25 seasons and counting). And Minnesota has its own checkered playoff history -- though for many FO readers, this contest was about Seattle's DVOA dynasty, which was expected to roll through another big game.
Kansas City finally ended its own playoff drought with a 30-0 shutout in Houston. Brian Hoyer's only multi-turnover games this season came in his two matchups with Kansas City. Travis Kelce's only two 100-yard receiving games came against the Texans. Go figure. Meanwhile, Washington finished 0-4 against teams with a winning record, losing each game by at least 14 points after Green Bay's unexpected rushing attack powered the Packers to a 35-18 win.
The sixth seeds provided the weekend's exciting finishes, though both games were defined better by their mind-melting mistakes rather than crunch-time triumphs. As Denny Green would say, this was the weekend where they let them off the hook.
Game of the Week
Pittsburgh Steelers 18 at Cincinnati Bengals 16
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 1 (16-15)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD with 1:23 left): 0.14
Head Coach: Mike Tomlin (20-39 at 4QC and 31-44 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger (27-39 at 4QC and 38-44 overall 4QC/GWD record)
The Bengals cannot blame Andy Dalton for this one -- the Steelers accidentally ended his season in Week 14, a full four weeks before eliminating the best Cincinnati team since 1988's Super Bowl squad. Comparisons will understandably be drawn to 2005 when a sixth-seeded Pittsburgh team went into Cincinnati, took down Carson Palmer with a legal (at the time) hit, and handed Marvin Lewis his first playoff loss. A decade later, Lewis is 0-7 in the playoffs (0-4 at home), never getting past the wild-card round and never coaching the Bengals to score more than 17 points in any game. Simply put, it's the worst postseason resume of any head coach in NFL history.
This has to be the worst loss for the Bengals since Super Bowl XXIII, because for a change, they were actually in position to win. This was the first time Lewis had a lead in the final 20 minutes of a playoff game. Cincinnati toughed it out in the rain behind backup AJ McCarron and erased a 15-0 deficit in the fourth quarter. Since 1992, Pittsburgh is 174-3-1 when leading by at least 11 points at any time in the game. Cincinnati has two of those comeback wins (in 2001 and 2009) and threatened another here. Pittsburgh lost Ben Roethlisberger on a big hit to end the third quarter, and backup Landry Jones appeared to throw the game away via an interception with 1:36 left. According to ESPN, Pittsburgh's win probability was 9.4 percent at that moment. It was only 22.0 percent with 22 seconds remaining, but somehow, the Steelers pulled this out after the Bengals lost their composure in one of the worst ways you will ever see a team lose a game. You would have been stunned if this had been a regular-season outcome, but the magnitude of the playoffs will keep this one in the memory banks for decades to come.
The turning point to set the teams on the path to this wild finish was clearly at the 1:43 mark of the third quarter. McCarron's short pass for Giovani Bernard was diagnosed well by Ryan Shazier, who flew in for the tackle. Bernard took a crushing hit to the head and fumbled, but the play was blown dead. There was a big scrum after this play, with Jim Nantz doing his best Jim Ross impersonation with a classic call of "Look at midfield here, Jeremy Hill's about to take on four Steelers!" (It is hard to believe John Parry was given the referee assignment on this game after he failed to sustain control when these teams met in Week 14.) The reality is that this play should probably have been a fumble return for a touchdown by Shazier, because referees have been told to let these plays go more often without blowing a whistle. After Shazier gained possession of the ball, he was not touched, and there was no one ahead of him to the end zone. Pittsburgh could have opened up a 22-0 lead at that point. Instead, the play was immediately whistled dead, and it was ruled Pittsburgh's ball at the point of the fumble recovery.
The NFL also reminded us that its rulebook makes little sense and lacks a lot of logical consistency. Shazier popped Bernard in the helmet with the crown of his helmet, but that contact is legal since Bernard was a runner at that point instead of a defenseless player. As for the almost-never-called crowning rule itself, implemented in 2013, that does not apply since part of the rule has always been lining up the opponent. Going back to the Trent Richardson hit that really started this, the NFL added this rule to try to avoid that straight-on impact when a player uses his helmet as a weapon. Bernard had just turned as Shazier was coming, so by the letter of the law, he made a legal hit, but it sure set this game off.
Following the fumble recovery, Roethlisberger was sacked on third-and-18 by Vontaze Burfict, injuring his shoulder on the play. (It probably didn't help that Burfict got an extra lick in on that shoulder.) McCarron finally threw some deep passes to A.J. Green in the fourth quarter, with enough success to question why the Bengals had not been more aggressive earlier. Lewis also decided to kick a field goal in between touchdowns, but that was excusable with Jones in the game for Pittsburgh, making it more likely Cincinnati would get the ball back for one more drive. McCarron's 25-yard touchdown pass to Green with 1:50 left came against a terrible call for zone defense by the Steelers. Green got right between cornerback William Gay and safety Mike Mitchell, breaking Mitchell's tackle to score. It was third-and-7, and Green was the best player on the field, so why not cover him with Gay and Mitchell together to force the ball elsewhere? But no, every week someone scores a touchdown because a corner thought he had "safety help." It is one thing if you do that against Rex Burkhead, but not Green.
Truly lost in the madness to come, the Bengals ran one of the worst two-point conversion plays in one of the most crucial situations. With a one-point lead, it is paramount to convert and protect yourself from being beaten by a field goal at the end. This is what offensive coordinator Hue Jackson made the most recent item on his resume, and it never had a chance. Green was not even on the field for this play, and the few blockers were overwhelmed.
The world's worst two-point conversion attempt: pic.twitter.com/8aaq2Yb42c
— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) January 10, 2016
Things had to be bad for Roethlisberger not to check back in with the Steelers trailing for the first time all night. Jones' success rate was 1-of-6 in the quarter, and his late throw over the middle was instantly picked off by Burfict. Almost like a sign of things to come, Burfict decided to run all the way off the field with Adam Jones, the second-in-command of this idiot brigade, right by his side. How was that not a delay of game or excessive celebration penalty? It would have been an all-time gaffe if Burfict had not been down and this counted as a go-ahead safety for Pittsburgh.
How fitting was it that Pacman was Burfict's No. 1 man in this idiot brigade running to the tunnel after INT? pic.twitter.com/xR9kEMf8xj
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) January 11, 2016
The good thing about Pittsburgh throwing a pick on the first play of their drive is that it saved them the most time. Had Jones led the Steelers to midfield before ultimately failing with about 40 seconds left, the game would have been lost. Pittsburgh, not known for good clock management, was fortunate to have all three timeouts remaining. At the Pittsburgh 26, Cincinnati was compelled to do something with the ball, though I am increasingly pushing the strategy of just taking three knees in that situation. Handoff abstinence means no fumbling concern. Sure, you'll have to kick a field goal and give the ball back with about 80 seconds left, but the Steelers would have (apparently) been counting on Jones to lead a touchdown drive. Good luck with that.
On first down, Jeremy Hill got the carry and fought for extra yards when all that mattered at that point was ball security. This is why I cannot stomach watching players touch the ball in these situations anymore. We see too many skill players going out of bounds or fumbling the ball, misunderstanding the situation. Shazier stripped Hill, who basically pulled a Jerome Bettis, and the Steelers were recreating another of their 2005 playoff endings. But this Madden Moment was asking them to win it in Indianapolis' shoes this time.
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Roethlisberger had to suck it up and come back in. He could not have been any worse than Jones. The Steelers were stuck at their own 9-yard line, but still had those three timeouts to use, only needing a field goal. Roethlisberger threw eight passes on the drive: two bubble screens, one throwaway, and only one pass beyond 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. Pittsburgh was 2-of-13 on third downs, but a conversion here to Fitzgerald Toussaint was huge as he adjusted to the ball really well. Toussaint and Jordan Todman both played much better than anticipated with DeAngelo Williams out. Still, the drive came down to a fourth-and-3, and that was when Roethlisberger made more of a bullet pass to Antonio Brown for the first down.
Even with that completion, Pittsburgh only had 22 seconds left with no timeouts at the Cincinnati 47. They still needed a good 15 yards just to get a 50-yard field goal attempt. Roethlisberger had to try a deeper pass, and his overthrown attempt led Brown into the path of Burfict for a cheap shot to the head, leading to a concussion. Do I think it was the dirtiest hit ever? Not even close, but in this era, they are going to penalize that every time with a defenseless receiver involved. Burfict can expect a fine and possibly a suspension given his history.
After that 15-yard penalty, the win probability was still 55 percent according to ESPN Stats & Info. It went up to 73 percent after Jones' 15-yard penalty, which never should have happened. Originally I felt bad for Lewis after two of his knuckleheads lost it at the worst time, but after letting this one cool off for 24 hours and watching it over, I find the coach to be accountable.
Lewis should have had those guys with him on the sideline while Brown was being attended to. Instead, Burfict went over to talk to Joey Porter, an assistant coach with the Steelers. Technically, Porter should not have been on the field, but officials clearly make exceptions such as in the event of a serious injury. I have no idea if Porter called out Burfict or if the two were even being aggressive, but I am stunned at the lack of attention put on Wallace Gilberry bumping into Porter from behind. If that had not happened, I doubt things would have escalated so quickly, which led to Jones coming in and contacting a referee on his way to Porter, an obvious foul. Do not put this all on Burfict and Jones, as Gilberry deserves a fine too, as does Porter. Maybe the NFL can put in a hard-line rule on assistant coaches not being allowed on the field next year.
— Steelers Wire (@TheSteelersWire) January 10, 2016
Mike Tomlin still kind of botched the ending as he should have had Roethlisberger take a knee and spike the ball with three seconds left; instead, the field goal unit came out with 18 seconds left. Chris Boswell, Pittsburgh's fourth kicker of 2015, was an excellent find and he drilled the 35-yard field goal to regain the lead. McCarron's ensuing Hail Mary never had a shot and the game was over. Lewis falls to 2-13 at home against Pittsburgh in his career.
With a healthy Dalton returning, the Bengals will be one of the favorites to return to the playoffs next year. However, the growing disappointments over 13 seasons have to start adding up against Lewis. Without a breakthrough in 2016, it has to be time to move in a different direction.
Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind
Seattle Seahawks 10 at Minnesota Vikings 9
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 9 (9-0)
Win Probability (4QC with 15:00 left): 0.18
Head Coach: Pete Carroll (21-42 at 4QC and 29-47 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Russell Wilson (13-17 at 4QC and 18-19 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Minnesota just had to have a breakout season one year before the new roofed stadium opened. Then again, the brutal cold probably helped even the playing field given Week 13's 38-7 trampling by Seattle in this building. While the third-coldest game in NFL history (minus-6 degrees at kickoff) lacks a nickname such as "Ice Bowl" or "Freezer Bowl," the signature play is not in question. Unfortunately, it will always be a missed 27-yard field goal by Blair Walsh with 22 seconds left in this 10-9 loss. Good grief, wasn't Gary Anderson in the 1998 NFC championship game enough? A fan base can only take so many all-time epic kicking fails.
Walsh is the 10th kicker in the Super Bowl era to miss a do-or-die field goal in the playoffs, which all happened in the final minute of the fourth quarter with a team trailing by 1 to 3 points. Walsh has the distinction of the shortest miss at 27 yards, beating out Billy Cundiff as the most recent example.
|NFL Playoffs: Do-or-Die Field Goals Missed in Super Bowl Era|
|Mike Michel||12/24/1978||PHI||at ATL||NFC-WC||Down 14-13||0:13||34||Wide right|
|Eddie Murray||12/31/1983||DET||at SF||NFC-DIV||Down 24-23||0:11||43||Wide right|
|Nick Lowery||1/5/1991||KC||at MIA||AFC-WC||Down 17-16||0:56||52||Short|
|Scott Norwood||1/27/1991||BUF||NYG||SB||Down 20-19||0:08||47||Wide right|
|Pete Stoyanovich||1/8/1995||MIA||at SD||AFC-DIV||Down 22-21||0:06||48||Wide right|
|Lin Elliott||1/7/1996||KC||IND||AFC-DIV||Down 10-7||0:42||42||Wide left|
|Mike Vanderjagt||1/15/2006||IND||PIT||AFC-DIV||Down 21-18||0:21||46||Wide right|
|Nate Kaeding||1/14/2007||SD||NE||AFC-DIV||Down 24-21||0:08||54||Short|
|Billy Cundiff||1/22/2012||BAL||at NE||AFC-C||Down 23-20||0:15||32||Wide left|
|Blair Walsh||1/10/2016||MIN||SEA||NFC-WC||Down 10-9||0:26||27||Wide left|
The Seahawks are a hard team to kill, though for three quarters this looked nothing like a team vying for a third-straight Super Bowl run. A botched Seattle punt led to the only points of a first half in which Russell Wilson threw a really short pass on fourth-and-13 and hung a deep ball that should have been a touchdown to Doug Baldwin but was incomplete instead. Seattle carelessly burned through timeouts and then called another silly fourth-down play that resulted in a Wilson interception in the third quarter.
When the Vikings took a 9-0 lead into the fourth quarter, you wondered if Seattle was ever going to score. A shutout would have ended the Seahawks' incredible 86-game streak of being at least within one score in the fourth quarter. Naturally, it took a fumbled snap followed by some Wilson magic to turn the game around. Many quarterbacks would have been fortunate just to recover the ball for a 16-yard loss, blowing up the drive in the process. Wilson, though, had the athleticism to corral the ball and scramble to find a wide-open Tyler Lockett for a 35-yard gain. That was a total ad-lib, and it changed everything that followed in the final 13 minutes.
Seattle finally cashed in with a touchdown, and then the dreaded Adrian Peterson fumbling problem returned two plays into the next drive. Kam Chancellor did a great job to pop the ball out for the recovery at the Minnesota 40. Wilson only completed one pass on the ensuing drive, but it was a key third-down conversion to Jermaine Kearse, the David Givens of this decade in the postseason. Seattle had bypassed a 48-yard field goal in the second quarter, but time was running out here. Steven Hauschka delivered with an excellent 46-yard field goal in tough conditions with 8:04 left.
The good news was that Seattle had its first lead, but the bad news was it being of the 1-point variety. Those are so hard to protect in the NFL, especially if you go conservative on offense should you get the ball back. A good rush from Bobby Wagner sacked Teddy Bridgewater to thwart one drive with a three-and-out. According to ESPN, the Seahawks pressure the quarterback on 32.7 percent of dropbacks this season, ranking second in the league.
On a big third-and-1 for Seattle, I thought Cris Collinsworth's "Uh-oh" remark was in regards to what may have been Minnesota jumping offsides. Wilson's pass was shockingly bad and should have been intercepted, but I thought he may have thrown it since he knew he had a free play. As it turns out, there was no penalty, because it was just great timing by Sharrif Floyd.
On 3rd-and-1, Vikings were not offsides, just great timing. pic.twitter.com/SJOMwengGx
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) January 11, 2016
Seattle's great pressure rate over the years is impressive when you consider how infrequently this defense has to blitz. This season only six teams blitzed less frequently than Seattle (21.9 percent), but a six-man pressure was then dialed up here to bring Bridgewater down for another huge drive-killing sack.
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Seattle got the ball back with 2:13 left. You would have liked to see the ball in Wilson's hands to end the game on offense, even if it meant a designed run for him. With a 10-9 lead, it was very risky to give the ball back to Minnesota. The Seahawks were disappointingly conservative with two runs to set up a third-and-5 for Wilson. He then threw incomplete on third down, but evan a good throw would have been wiped out and the clock would have stopped for a holding penalty. Seattle's back-to-back three-and-out drives put a ton of pressure on the defense to close this one out.
It was funny to hear Collinsworth talk about Seattle's defense uncharacteristically blowing fourth-quarter leads. Well, the Seahawks only tied for the league lead with the Giants and Chargers in that department this year with five. They blew a 10-point lead in the Super Bowl that Collinsworth called in February, and since 2012 they have blown 15 fourth-quarter leads, trailing only Tampa Bay's 16. The early start time, the cold weather, and Marshawn Lynch getting downgraded late in the week all were contributing factors, but the offense certainly disappointed in this game. Now the defense was about to disappoint with a familiar bugaboo: Chancellor getting beat by a tight end (Kyle Rudolph this time) for a 19-yard pass interference flag and then a 24-yard reception.
Just like that the Vikings were in field-goal range with seemingly all of Seattle's flaws coming back to end its season in the first round. I had no problem with Mike Zimmer playing for the short field goal here. If anything, you were worried about Peterson fumbling again.
So with 26 seconds left, all Walsh had to do was kick a 27-yard field goal for a likely 12-10 victory. That should have been easy enough. He was 32-of-33 from under 30 yards in his career coming into the game. He had already connected from 22, 43, and 47 in this game. From this short distance, temperature was not a factor if you consider this Brian Burke study from 2014.
Of course, this happened and the game was over.
Blair Walsh misses the 27 yard field goal WOW. pic.twitter.com/aIvvSNT8XO
— MarcusD (@_MarcusD_) January 10, 2016
You can say "laces out, Dan" and all that jazz, but it was a chip-shot kick. It just so happened to be the most-pressured kick of Walsh's career, and kicker is a position where we have seen some obvious examples of choking. Some of the most accurate kickers in NFL history (Mike Vanderjagt and Nate Kaeding) completely gagged on the biggest kicks of their careers in the playoffs.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where extreme reactions are the norm. The morons who are sending Walsh and his family death threats do not even deserve to watch or talk about sports. The fans pinning this loss all on Walsh are ignoring that he would have been one of the main reasons they won the game if he had made the kick. They are ignoring the lack of scoring from the offense and the Peterson fumble that set up Seattle's winning score. Hell, Peterson might have been Minnesota's worst player on Sunday.
That said, the people who want to hand Walsh a key to the city are out of line as well. Kickers have an easily defined job. Over the course of a season they will kick about 35 field goals, 40 extra points and 80 kickoffs. In today's era, most of those kicks will be successful. When it comes to a 27-yard field goal, that is one of the easiest plays the kicker will see all year. Even if we factored in the laces, the temperature, the angle, and the magnitude of knowing this is to win a playoff game, I still expect any decent NFL kicker to make that kick at least 90 percent of the time. Walsh failed at his job, and while he may not have cost his team a championship like Billy Cundiff or Scott Norwood, this will go down as one of the worst missed kicks in NFL history. Now we have to see how he rebounds from this since kicking is such a mental position. Things have been trending downwards since his rookie year in 2012, when Walsh was an All-Pro and 10-of-10 on kicks from 50-plus yards, including a 55-yard field goal to force overtime in his pro debut.
After heart-breaking losses in Denver and Arizona, this was probably a fitting end for the 2015 Vikings. They were good enough to hang with the best in the league, but just didn't have enough firepower to beat them in the end. It was a very good year for Minnesota, and what this team does in the offseason will be worth monitoring.
Pittsburgh and Seattle pulled out some major escapes this weekend, but before you go penciling in a Super Bowl XL rematch in Super Bowl 50, just think of how dire the odds got for both teams in the first round. Things are only going to get tougher from here.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 70
Game-winning drives: 89 (plus six non-offensive game-winning scores)
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 158/260 (60.8 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 34
Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro-Football-Reference. Screen caps come from NFL Game Pass.