by Scott Kacsmar
Move over Packers-Cowboys, 2017 has a new game of the year. This isn't the first (or second) time we got an interesting game from the Chiefs and Raiders on a Thursday night in recent years. I covered both teams in Football Outsiders Almanac 2017, and this Week 7 matchup was really the crucial game to circle for both clubs, especially for Oakland, which had home-field advantage on a short week. The Raiders had to slay this demon after losing five in a row to the Chiefs. We could not have known that Oakland would be trying to avoid a five-game losing streak while the Chiefs entered No. 1 in DVOA with the league's top offense, but this was always going to be a pivotal game for the AFC this year.
Back in the John Madden era of the 1970s, the Raiders played in a lot of games with nicknames. Think of "The Immaculate Reception," "Sea of Hands," "Ghost to the Post," and "The Holy Roller." That doesn't happen too often anymore, but this one could be remembered as "The Untimed Downs" game, with an emphasis on "Downs," plural. Once in a blue moon, we see one untimed down to end a game, but the Raiders ended up with two of them on Thursday night. And that only happened after three other passes that each seemingly decided the outcome of this game, only for the contest to continue.
Let's unpack this madness, starting with a heavy dose of crow.
Amari Cooper: Still Better than Michael Clayton
So a day before the game I got the idea to write about Amari Cooper's incredible slump this year. After becoming the ninth player in NFL history to start with back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons, Cooper had just 146 yards in six games this season. Big-time receivers in their third year just do not do that in the Super Bowl era. I suggested that Cooper might be turning into this decade's Michael Clayton, a star rookie for the 2004 Buccaneers who never could recapture his fast start. I always know when you write about a good player during a slump, there's the danger that he instantly breaks out of it.
Waiting for Cooper to go off for 6/120/1 tonight after today's article. He's on pace for 388 yards this season.
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) October 20, 2017
Naturally, in a 2017 season where logic to explain outcomes is limited, Cooper had the best game of his career. He caught 11-of-19 targets for 210 yards and two touchdowns. He still had some big drops like he often does, but Cooper was consistently open as the Raiders often kept him away from cornerback Marcus Peters. He even drew a 47-yard penalty for pass interference on Peters in the third quarter.
Cooper was immediately the focus in Oakland's offense. Cooper caught a 12-yard pass on Oakland's first offensive play, which were more yards than he had in Weeks 3 to 5 when he never hit 10 yards in any game. Cooper even finished the first drive with a 38-yard touchdown off a flea-flicker pass, but in typical Cooper fashion, he flirted with an offensive pass interference penalty and nearly failed to get two feet in bounds. However, I think the call to pick up the flag was a good one. There was incidental contact with Terrance Mitchell's feet, and Mitchell was falling down on the play. Cooper didn't push him forcibly enough to really justify a flag. Let's just say this was close enough to where it likely gets called at least half of the time.
While Cooper had a fantastic game, this was just the first example of a very disappointing performance from the officials.
The Many Sides of Bad Officiating
We knew this could be a pretty offensive game. The Raiders ranked 28th in yards per drive allowed (35.44,) while the Chiefs were actually 29th (35.89) through Week 6. There were a lot of early points, but the officials often had a major impact on scoring drives for both teams all night long. Sometimes it was an egregious penalty call, such as the illegal contact on the Chiefs in the second quarter that negated a Derek Carr fumble deep in his own end.
Here is the illegal contact penalty (within 5 yards of the LoS) that negated a KC takeaway pic.twitter.com/YVfjPRxB5I
— Ben Baldwin (@guga31bb) October 20, 2017
Other times it was the lack of a call on what should have been an obvious pass interference or illegal contact penalty by a defender. There were also some issues with spotting the ball, which often went against the Chiefs, but more on that later.
The game almost spiraled out of control midway through the second quarter after a ruckus took place following a semi-late hit on Carr by Peters. First of all, the fact that Oakland tried a quarterback draw on third-and-10 with a passer who had suffered a recent back injury is the definition of madness. I can see why Peters would go for the hit since Carr was a runner who had not appeared to be giving himself up yet, and the whistle blew just before Peters was going in to make contact. It's pretty hard to stop there.
What shouldn't be hard is keeping your emotions in check from the sideline while watching this go on. But Marshawn Lynch ran from the sideline into the fray -- his longest run of 2017 -- to protect his friend Peters. In this odd attempt to diffuse the situation, Lynch ended up making contact with an official and was rightfully ejected. With the way things haven't been working out for Lynch in Oakland this season, for all we know that could be the last time we see him in uniform for an NFL game.
The Chiefs took a 30-21 lead into the fourth quarter on the strength of two big passing plays for touchdowns from Alex Smith. The first was an absolute beauty of a throw for a 64-yard touchdown that showed off Tyreek Hill's speed. The second big play, which came in the third quarter, was a total fluke, as a bizarre play finally went in the Chiefs' favor this year. Kansas City has allowed some really long completions off of deflected passes, such as the 53-yard gain by Philadelphia's Zach Ertz in Week 2, and last week's soul-crushing 51-yard touchdown off a deflection to Antonio Brown in the loss to Pittsburgh. This time, the Chiefs got the fortunate tip when a near-interception went right to Albert Wilson for a 63-yard touchdown.
— Pro Sports Extra (@ProSportsExtra) October 20, 2017
Smith still has thrown zero interceptions this season, and plays like this are a big reason why that's still the case. But in the fourth quarter, with the Chiefs' lead cut to 30-24, Smith's success rate was only 2-of-6. On a key third-and-4 at the Oakland 45, the Raiders rushed newly acquired linebacker NaVorro Bowman right at Smith, who hurried the pass away for an incompletion.
With 5:48 left, the Raiders had a shot at taking the lead, but had a poor three-and-out drive. On third-and-5, Oakland had two receivers run a similar pattern, but Carr targeted the shallower receiver (Cooper) for just a 2-yard gain. That was a poorly designed play in a crucial spot. The Chiefs could have then run out the clock or scored again to ice the game, but the Oakland defense was able to stand tall and get Carr the ball back. Smith was sacked on a third-and-4 and the Raiders called their second timeout at 2:38 to set the stage for the memorable finish.
The Game-Winning Drive
Naturally, Cooper got Oakland's 85-yard game-winning drive started with a 15-yard grab, then bailed the Raiders out of trouble with a 39-yard grab on second-and-20. From there, things really seemed to collapse from a play-calling standpoint with a questionable screen that lost a yard, and an incomplete pass on third-and-11 into a tight window that would have been short of the sticks anyway, and also would have run precious clock in the final minute.
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Kansas City's first great chance to end the game was on fourth-and-11, but tight end Jared Cook beat outmatched cornerback Eric Murray for 13 yards on a slant. The ball was at the Kansas City 29 with 33 seconds left and no more timeouts for Oakland. Again, the play calling was very odd by the Raiders. On first down, Carr threw into double-coverage in the end zone and was fortunate to not get intercepted. On the next two plays, intentionally or not, the Raiders again had two receivers running the same route virtually right next to each other. This is a strategy I've always thought could be useful in desperate times where you group two or three of your receivers together and just kind of throw up a Hail Mary that's short of the end zone, and hope one of your guys can come down with the ball. That's basically what Oakland did on back-to-back plays to the left -- first on second down, then on third.
On the third-down pass, Carr appeared to hit Cook for a 29-yard touchdown. The official was standing right there and should have had a great look at the play. If you look at the video below, you can see the official cautiously raise his arms for a touchdown before starting to signal that the ball was short of the end zone. But he then raised his arms again for touchdown after apparently getting help from another official who wasn't in as good of a spot.
Notice how the ref cautiously goes for TD, then wants to signal it short before going to a TD signal again. pic.twitter.com/XALV3xsn2S
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) October 20, 2017
If Cook had been correctly ruled down at the 1-yard line in live action, there would have been at most 16 seconds left on the clock. The Raiders would have had to scramble wildly to likely spike the ball to set up one more throw from the 1-yard line. I think they would have gotten the spike done in time, but you never know. Thankfully, the incredible "Pylon Cam" that was featured throughout the night proved that Cook was down before the ball broke the plane. Every game should have this camera angle.
That was the first time we thought Oakland had the game won, or at least gotten into position to win on the extra point. But the call was correctly changed and the ball was spotted at the 1, which requires a 10-second runoff. The Raiders had 8 seconds left, and appeared to win the game again with a touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree, but Crabtree's arm extension to push Peters away was too obvious, and he drew an offensive pass interference penalty. Oakland had already got away with the Cooper play early, so that would have been tough for the referees to allow a second play like that. Offensive pass interference is apparently a type of penalty that does not require a 10-second runoff in this situation, or else the game would have been decided again.
Three seconds remained and Oakland had the ball at the 10. The Chiefs only rushed three with a quarterback spy in case Carr took off, but that passive approach didn't really work out. The pass was a little high and clanked off of Cook's hands in the end zone. However, Ron Parker was penalized for defensive holding to extend the game to an untimed down.
To me, that looks like a common play of two guys competing, and I would not have thrown a flag there. Parker is still holding after the 5-yard zone, but Cook is also using his bigger frame and right arm to drive Parker back and get open. This call has really been lost in the madness of the overall finish, but to me, that should have been game over right there.
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But with a defensive penalty and no time left on the clock, there was an untimed down, and it just so happened to draw another Kansas City penalty. This one was much more legit. Murray was called for holding covering Cordarrelle Patterson in the end zone.
That led to the ball moving to the 2-yard line and a second untimed down. On a sprint-left option, Carr was licking his chops as he threw to Crabtree in the end zone for a score that was finally legit and penalty-free. Kicker Giorgio Tavecchio has had a rough go of it as of late, including two missed field goals in this game, but he barely snuck in the game-winning extra point to give Oakland the 31-30 win.
The second untimed down could be the first of its kind in NFL history, especially for a game-winning play in the fourth quarter. I could only find three other touchdowns on untimed downs since 1998, and each scoring team had only one untimed down:
- 2015 Packers at Lions: Detroit was penalized for a controversial facemask grab of Aaron Rodgers, who proceeded to hit a 61-yard Hail Mary to Richard Rodgers in a 27-23 win.
- 2009 Browns at Lions: Cleveland was actually penalized in the end zone for defensive pass interference on a Hail Mary, the rarest of calls. Daunte Culpepper came into the game for an injured Matthew Stafford, but after the Browns used a timeout, Stafford returned and threw the game-winning 1-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Pettigrew in a 38-37 win.
- 1998 Bills at Patriots: Drew Bledsoe's pass in the end zone drew a controversial 25-yard pass interference penalty to bring up an untimed down at the 1-yard line. Bledsoe threw the game-winning touchdown to Ben Coates, and kicker Adam Vinatieri ran in a two-point conversion uncontested in a 25-21 win.
For some odd reason, the NFL game book has Tim Couch's Hail Mary against Jacksonville in 2002 coming as an untimed down. There was no penalty however, and the video here shows that the ball was snapped with 11 seconds left. The same thing applies to the Ricky Williams' 1-yard touchdown run for New Orleans to beat the Panthers in 2001. There was one second remaining for that play to happen.
In the end, this was a 2016-style win for the Raiders, who are still alive at 3-4. The defense wasn't good, but made the key stops in the fourth quarter. The offense was very productive, but still had to take advantage of game-extending penalties to win the game behind Carr's arm. Carr finally had a big game (417 yards and no sacks) against Kansas City's defense, which is suddenly looking quite vulnerable without star safety Eric Berry.
We'll have to see how much this one lingers for a Kansas City team that had aspirations of a No. 1 seed, but now finds itself on the losing end of a game for the second time in five days.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 17
Game-winning drives: 31
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 53/92 (57.6 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. Game Winning Chance (win probability) data is from EdjFootball.