by Scott Kacsmar
Those 256 regular-season games sure do go quickly, even if it feels like ages ago when Carolina kicker Graham Gano missed a potential game-winning field goal in Denver to start 2016. Since then, we have watched 150 more close encounters in the fourth quarter, including seven on Sunday. That is a smaller number than usual, and you can certainly question the effort level of some of the eliminated teams. But there were still playoff seeds to clinch and draft positioning on the line in some of the better games.
Since this was Week 17 and we are getting into playoff mode, we will take more of a season-review approach with the less important games from the week. Included at the bottom is a table to recap the close-game results for all 32 teams this season.
Game of the Week
New York Giants 19 at Washington Redskins 10
One of these teams was already locked into the No. 5 seed in the NFC playoffs and considered resting stars, while the other needed to win or else face immediate elimination. You could not tell which team was which after the home team Redskins trailed 10-0 late into the third quarter. Kirk Cousins finally got the offense back on track to tie the game, but Eli Manning delivered the last big completion with a 44-yard bomb placed perfectly to Tavarres King, who had one catch all season. That led to a 40-yard field goal by Robbie Gould and a 13-10 lead for the Giants with 2:12 left.
Cousins had been good this year with four game-winning drives and the effort in the Cincinnati tie in Week 8, but the Giants have been great at holding the lead. New York has 11 fourth-quarter holds of a one-score lead compared to just one blown lead in 2016, a huge change from 2015 when the Giants blew five late leads. Cousins appeared to have his offense in great shape with a first down at the New York 43 with 1:27 left, but he is usually such a rhythm, on-time passer. After choosing to hold onto the ball and step up for a late throw, Cousins was picked off by Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who has appeared several times in this column with big takeaways this season for the Giants. Cousins got the ball back with only six seconds left, which was enough time for Jordan Reed to lateral a ball to no one in particular for a cheap New York defensive touchdown to push the final to 19-10.
That season-ending interception is going to be a tough image to shake from Cousins' 2016 season, but he is still likely to get paid in the offseason just because of the short supply of quality quarterbacks in the league. While he did not deliver in Week 17, the game-winning drive Washington's defense surrendered to Matthew Stafford and the Lions in Week 7 proved to be most costly. By virtue of Washington's loss (8-7-1), the Lions (9-7) backed into the playoffs. Washington likely would have been a more dangerous playoff team than Detroit, but this limp effort with everything on the line may suggest otherwise.
Meanwhile, the Giants eliminated the No. 5 offense in DVOA with this win, and could very realistically see a playoff path through the top four offenses: Green Bay, Dallas, Atlanta, and New England. If this Giants defense, which finished second in DVOA, came through in five consecutive elimination games against the top five offenses, it would be one of the greatest runs ever.
Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind
Jacksonville Jaguars 20 at Indianapolis Colts 24
The Colts were threatening to be swept by the Texans and Jaguars, embarrassing in what was another down year for the AFC South. However, for the fourth time in his career, Andrew Luck led his team to a comeback win after trailing by 17 points or more. Peyton Manning only had six such comebacks in his entire Colts tenure. Of course, the Colts have had plenty of practice at trailing big in Luck's five seasons, but rarely ever against the lowly Jaguars.
The whole fourth quarter was tight, as Robert Mathis delivered one last strip-sack fumble in the final game of his stellar career. Mathis completed the hat trick with the fumble recovery, and he will go down as one of the best ever at such plays. He is credited with 52 forced fumbles in his career, the most in the NFL since at least 2001.
Unfortunately, a fumbled snap exchange with Luck turned the ball back over to Jacksonville, which saw Jason Myers miss a 54-yard field goal with 3:25 left. Malik Jackson sacked Luck twice, and the Jaguars used a block punt to set up Myers for a 41-yard field goal with 1:33 left. Interim coach Doug Marrone was very conservative with three straight runs before the kick, essentially thinking it was better to make the Colts use all of their timeouts instead of, you know, trying to get a first down and win this game at the buzzer. Then again, we are talking about Blake Bortles at quarterback, and a Jacksonville team that is a putrid 1-9 at game-winning drive opportunities this season.
In the end, the Jaguars tied the Chargers with their sixth blown lead in the fourth quarter this season. Luck had 1:33 left and was perfect on the 75-yard drive, hitting all six of his aimed passes and using two spikes to get the job done. His bullet pass to Jack Doyle was the game-winning touchdown with nine seconds left. Luck took his celebration to a new level, but that was more of a reflection of frustration over Indianapolis' disappointing 8-8 season.
— Zak Keefer (@zkeefer) January 2, 2017
Had Luck been this efficient on game-winning drive attempts against the Texans (two opportunities) or did this to the Jaguars in London, then the Colts would have been looking at a home playoff game against Oakland, which now lacks a quarterback. Sure, maybe that only would have led to another slaughter in New England in the second round, but that opportunity sure would have beaten a second straight season without making the playoffs.
Cleveland Browns 24 at Pittsburgh Steelers 27
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Imagine if the Browns were 0-15 and had a chance to avoid futility by beating Pittsburgh's backup squad, as the Steelers rested their offensive stars for the playoffs. That win would have felt cheap and worthy of an asterisk. Now imagine if the Browns were 0-15 and lost this game in the fashion they actually did on Sunday. That would have been quite embarrassing, since the Browns once led 14-0 and had a first-and-goal at the Pittsburgh 5 in a tied game with 1:04 left. You rarely see a fumble in such a crucial situation, but Jarvis Jones made a rare impact play by hitting the ball out of Isaiah Crowell's hands.
The game went to overtime, where the Browns again squandered a first-and-goal at the 2-yard line on the opening drive. Arguably the worst bubble screen you will ever see lost 14 yards after Andrew Hawkins lost his battle with forward progress. The Browns settled for a field goal, which meant Landry Jones was going to experience that rare situation of trailing in overtime with one final possession. For as bad as he looked at times, including a terrible throw that should have been a pick-six had it not been fumbled through the end zone for a touchback, Jones delivered in the end. He had enough help from the starting offensive line and some quality players such as DeAngelo Williams and Eli Rogers, but it was Cobi Hamilton who came through for the 26-yard game-winning touchdown catch with 2:57 left.
Cleveland (1-15) is the third team to ever lose after leading in overtime under the modified system, and the second this season after the Broncos against Kansas City. Pittsburgh (11-5) followed a four-game losing streak with a seven-game winning streak, and will be on a short list of Super Bowl favorites this postseason.
Carolina Panthers 16 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers 17
The similarities between the Buccaneers and Panthers were well on display in a fourth quarter deadlocked at 10-10. Both teams have had shaky kicking performances this year. After a false start, Roberto Aguayo's 48-yard field goal was blocked with 11:55 left. Graham Gano had a chance to put the Panthers on top, but his 36-yard kick was wide right with 6:05 to play.
Jameis Winston and Cam Newton have been two of the most inaccurate passers in 2016, and both are prone to overthrows. Winston was on the mark more for his next drive, but risked a terrible decision in the end zone to Mike Evans in a situation that did not call for a pseudo-Hail Mary throw. The game was simply tied with the ball at the 10-yard line. Hell, it was even first down, but Winston likes to "have fun out there," if you will. Carolina regretted not making the pick, because on the next play, Evans caught a go-ahead touchdown with 3:13 left.
Kelvin Benjamin, another standout from 2014's wide receiver draft class, went sky high for a Newton pass and gained 47 yards to jumpstart the Carolina comeback. Benjamin's size also helped him box out rookie cornerback Vernon Hargreaves for a 5-yard touchdown with 17 seconds left. With the season wrapping up, there was no reason to play for overtime, so Ron Rivera called for the fifth do-or-die two-point conversion attempt this season. There were only eight such attempts from 1994 to 2015.
|"Do-or-Die" 2-Point Conversions Since 1994|
|JAC||11/19/1995||at TB||12||0:37||Fail, L 17-16|
|CHI||10/12/1997||GB||7||1:54||Fail, L 24-23|
|MIN||12/15/2002||at NO||15||0:05||Success, W 32-31|
|TB||11/13/2005||WAS||10||0:58||Success, W 36-35|
|DEN||9/14/2008||SD||2||0:24||Success, W 39-38|
|KC||11/9/2008||at SD||10||0:23||Fail, L 20-19|
|HOU||1/1/2012||TEN||17||0:14||Fail, L 23-22|
|WAS||12/15/2013||at ATL||15||0:18||Fail, L 27-26|
|OAK||9/11/2016||at NO||1||0:47||Success, W 35-34|
|TEN||12/18/2016||at KC||15||3:12||Fail, W 19-17|
|PHI||12/18/2016||at BAL||15||0:04||Fail, L 27-26|
|SF||12/24/2016||at LARM||16||0:31||Success, W 22-21|
|CAR||1/1/2017||at TB||17||0:17||Fail, L 17-16|
Carolina's attempt failed after Greg Olsen slipped on a quick pass. The Buccaneers even left Benjamin in single coverage after he had three catches for 65 yards on the drive, but it was a moot point. The Buccaneers (9-7) needed a miracle to make the playoffs on Sunday, but at least they finished the season with a win, their first winning season since 2010. Meanwhile, Carolina (6-10) fell further than any 15-1 team in NFL history. It is a long offseason, but these teams will likely be viewed on even ground heading into 2017.
Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind
Packers at Lions: Tamed Again
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The Detroit Lions have not won a division title since the 1993 season, and that title was only clinched after a win over the Packers at home in the season finale. In looking for history to repeat itself, the Lions were gifted a playoff berth before kickoff after Washington's loss in the mid-afternoon slate. That really put a damper on the sense of urgency in this game, though it was still a tight affair through 45 minutes. This is why I strongly disagree with the narrative that the Lions "wait" until the fourth quarter to turn things on this year, just because of the team's record eight fourth-quarter comebacks.
Believe it or not, but Detroit's offense ranks 23rd in fourth-quarter/overtime DVOA this season, its lowest rank in any quarter. Yes, Detroit trailed in the fourth quarter for the 15th time this season on Sunday night, but it was only a 17-14 deficit. Seven of those eight comebacks have been from a deficit of four points or less, so this was right in Detroit's wheelhouse. However, this was a quarter that quickly got away from the Lions. Matthew Stafford's third-and-13 pass was air-mailed to Andre Roberts, and the Packers marched 81 yards with Aaron Rodgers delivering a dagger after extending the play to find Geronimo Allison for a touchdown with 10:02 left. While the Lions had to settle for a field goal to cut the score to 23-17, Rodgers again went for the throat in the red zone with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Davante Adams. The two-point conversion to Adams was also good, and Detroit trailed 31-17 with 2:50 left. An ugly Stafford interception in the end zone all but sealed it, though a 35-yard Hail Mary touchdown to Anquan Boldin with 13 seconds left at least kept some excitement for an onside kick. Naturally, it failed, and the Packers won the NFC North again.
Detroit (9-7) went 0-6 against teams with at least nine wins this season. Its only win against a team above .500 was the last-minute squeaker over an 8-7-1 Washington team. This does not bode well for a trip to Seattle, but you never know. Meanwhile, Green Bay (10-6) did run the table after Rodgers said they would at 4-6, but continuing that through the playoffs would be a truly remarkable feat. Unlike in 2010 when the Packers were a dominant team with six close losses that went on to win the Super Bowl, this team still has some flaws. But if Rodgers continues playing like he has, then it may not even matter in getting to Houston for the Super Bowl.
Cowboys at Eagles: Just a Rest Stop
There is nothing like a preseason game in Week 17, right? The Cowboys, with virtually nothing to play for, had three options to play at quarterback. The player who has had by far the best career, Tony Romo, only got one drive to shake off any rust. Meanwhile, the worst option, Mark Sanchez, played the most after Romo threw a touchdown following two drives for rookie starter Dak Prescott.
With Sanchez commanding the huddle with Alfred Morris as his running back, the Cowboys were still in striking position for a 14th win on the season, which would have completed a 10-win turnaround from 2015. But after the Eagles took a 20-13 lead with 2:18 left, Sanchez's attempt at a comeback failed miserably. After Sanchez missed an easy throw on second down (which Dez Bryant may have had something interesting to say about from the sideline if you can read lips), it was third-and-10. Sanchez managed to get away with a false start, avoided the sack three times, used up the two-minute warning, never thought to throw the ball away, and ultimately lost 19 yards back to his own 2-yard line. In other words, a perfect play to remember Sanchez's Dallas tenure by.
— Jonathan Kinsley (@Brickwallblitz) January 2, 2017
The play was so bad that Dallas really had to just punt on fourth-and-29 with 1:50 and two timeouts left. Of course, the punt was blocked and the Eagles soon added an insurance touchdown for a 27-13 win. This game has strengthened the season statistics for the Eagles (fourth in DVOA), but unlike some of their close losses that might suggest a brighter future in 2017, this win was simply a lot of noise.
Texans at Titans: The Cursed AFC South
We always talk about the quarterback sneak as such an unstoppable play, but it is also a safe play. Usually, that is. The only notable injuries suffered on the play in recent years were suffered by Alex Smith (concussion) on the 2012 49ers, where he was replaced for good by Colin Kaepernick, and a year earlier with Matt Schaub on the 2011 Texans. Schaub actually suffered a Lisfranc injury, and a promising season took a bad turn for a playoff-bound Houston team that started then-rookie T.J. Yates in the postseason.
Well, this year, the Texans were again headed to the playoffs in unimpressive fashion, but Tom Savage's status is up in the air after he had to leave Sunday's loss in Tennessee with a concussion on the quarterback sneak. This brought Brock Osweiler back into the lineup, and while he has led a few 14-point comebacks since last season, this one fell short in the final minute. The only reason Osweiler even had 53 seconds in a 24-17 game was because Tennessee rookie back Derrick Henry allowed himself to get knocked out of bounds on a third-down run.
Each season I get to make the complaint that the clock should not stop on penalties committed by the trailing team in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter, and it took until Week 17 for me to make that argument again. A third-down sack of Osweiler by Jurrell Casey should have left the Texans scrambling to get off a fourth-and-16 play in the final seconds, but there was a holding penalty on the play by Houston. Even though the hold was obviously declined, that stopped the clock at 23 seconds, allowing the Texans plenty of time to regroup and run a crucial play. While there is no way of not delaying the game to issue the penalty flag, the clock should have been ready to run on the set for play in this situation. Why give the trailing team a break for committing a foul?
On fourth-and-ballgame, Osweiler did well to step up against pressure and threw beyond the sticks, but the wobbly pass never had a chance. Both teams finished at 9-7, but Houston already won the division last week on the strength of a tie-breaker. Of course, even if the Titans were making their return to the playoffs this week, we would be subjected to watching Matt Cassel instead of Marcus Mariota (broken leg) anyway.
Thanks a lot, 2016 AFC South.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 72
Game-winning drives: 84
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 151/256 (59.0 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 37 (and one tie)
The following table shows a summary of each team's success in close games this season. First, the offense's record in games with a 4QC opportunity is shown. As a reminder, that is games having possession in the fourth quarter (or overtime) with a one-score deficit. Next is the overall 4QC/GWD record, which also includes the games where the score was tied in the fourth quarter or overtime. For the defense, the holds are the games where the defense was successful in defending a one-score lead in the fourth quarter or overtime.
The number of games lost in which the team had a fourth-quarter lead is also shown. The last section shows the team's overall record in close games, which are defined as games involving a 4QC/GWD opportunity on either side of the ball.
|NFL 2016 Regular Season Close Game Summary (4Q/OT)|
|OVERALL||OFFENSE||DEFENSE||ALL CLOSE GAMES|
The Giants were one of three teams (Chargers, Titans) to play 13 close games, but that defense has been fantastic with 11 holds to help an 11-2 record, the best in the league in close games. Meanwhile, the Falcons blew four fourth-quarter leads compared to just one each for 10 of the other playoff teams, and Oakland was the only team in the whole league to not blow one. Of course, we don't expect to really see the Raiders have another fourth-quarter lead until the 2017 season, but that's the ill timing of the Derek Carr injury.
As we have detailed a lot this year, the Lions broke the NFL record with eight fourth-quarter comeback wins, giving Jim Caldwell (seven with 2009 Colts) another nice record. However, this team looks far less likely to go to the Super Bowl. The Raiders (seven), Giants (six), and Dolphins (six) also won at least six games with the game-winning points scored in the fourth quarter or overtime. There were only four such teams from 2012 to 2015. As mentioned before, San Diego and Jacksonville led the league with six blown fourth-quarter leads, and each will employ a new head coach in 2017.
Cleveland went 0-8 at game-winning drive opportunities on its way to a 1-15 finish. They needed a team like San Diego to gift them a win. The 2008 Lions were 0-9 in their march to 0-16. The 2016 team that I was the furthest off on in the preseason was Cincinnati, and a 1-7-1 record at game-winning drive opportunities no doubt had a lot to do with that fall. Maybe some better health to star players and performance in close games will get the Bengals back on track in 2017.
Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro Football Reference. Screen caps come from NFL Game Pass.