Clutch Encounters
A look at Sunday's fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drive opportunities

Clutch Encounters: Thanksgiving

Clutch Encounters: Thanksgiving
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Scott Kacsmar

We have been looking for some more excitement out of island games this season, and Thanksgiving's three-game slate provided two games with a comeback opportunity. Neither of those games was in Dallas, where the Cowboys showed a flicker of hope when they scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter, but a failed two-point conversion kept the Chargers ahead 16-6 before more points were added. The Chargers had a rare "perfect" second half of offense, with three long touchdown drives and a fourth possession that consumed the final 6:42 off the clock in a 28-6 win.

With Detroit and the Giants suffering close losses again, we thought we would take a look at how 2016's four "clutch" teams, including Oakland and Miami, have fared this season. These were four playoff teams last year who all won at least six games with a decisive score in the fourth quarter or overtime. All four ended up losing in the wild-card round, and none seem likely to return to the playoffs this year. I wrote a lot about this expected regression in Football Outsiders Almanac 2017, especially in the Detroit and Oakland chapters.

The following table shows a comparison between 2016 and 2017 for these teams in fourth-quarter comeback and game-winning drive opportunity records, as well as the number of defensive holds with a one-score lead in the fourth quarter and losses with a fourth-quarter lead ("Blown 4QL").

Team 2016 2017
Overall 4QC
DET 8-4 8-4 7 1 9-7 1-4 3-4 5 0 6-5
NYG 3-2 6-2 11 1 11-5 0-6 1-6 0 3 2-9
OAK 7-2 7-2 9 0 12-4 1-2 1-2 1 1 4-6
MIA 4-3 6-3 8 1 10-6 3-2 4-2 4 0 4-6
TOT 22-11
35 3 42-22
10 4 16-26

These teams won two-thirds of their comeback opportunities last year, but are 5-14 (.263) with comeback opportunities in 2017. They were 35-3 when needing to hold onto a one-score lead in the fourth quarter, but only 10-4 this season. Oakland was the only team to not blow a fourth-quarter lead in 2016, but did so against the Chargers (of all teams) this year. The Giants are now a league-worst 0-6 at comeback opportunities and have blown all three of their small fourth-quarter leads after going 11-1 last year in such games. Only Miami has continued to win close games well with a 4-2 overall record, but the Dolphins have also lost four games in a row, including two close ones to Oakland and Tampa Bay. After Matthew Stafford led Detroit to a record eight fourth-quarter comeback wins last year, he started 2017 with one in Week 1 against Arizona, but the Lions are 0-4 in opportunities since.

Living on the edge all the time is a tough way to make a successful living in the NFL. Just take a look at Washington. Kirk Cousins now leads all quarterbacks with four game-winning drives this season, but it was just on Sunday when the Redskins had perhaps the toughest loss of 2017 after blowing a 31-16 lead in the final six minutes in New Orleans.

Game of the Week

New York Giants 10 at Washington Redskins 20

Type: GWD
Head Coach: Jay Gruden (7-17-1 at 4QC and 14-18-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Kirk Cousins (7-16-1 at 4QC and 12-17-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)

If you weren't in a turkey coma before the game started, then Thursday night's offensive display between the Giants and Redskins may have knocked you out. The game did not feature an offensive drive of more than 60 net yards, and New York managed just a field goal on 12 offensive possessions. New York's only touchdown, which set up the close finish, came in the third quarter when Janoris Jenkins intercepted a pass intended for Byron Marshall and returned it 53 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 10. Kirk Cousins was a little high on the throw, but it was still a catchable ball that Marshall tipped to Jenkins. That likely doesn't happen if receiving back extraordinaire Chris Thompson (fractured fibula) had been available to play, but these have been two of the more injured teams this season.

Washington's game-winning drive came close to being a three-and-out after pressure got to Cousins for a third-down sack, but Ross Cockrell was penalized for holding for a pretty innocuous grab of the jersey. Later on the drive, Cousins and his receivers delivered in some of the spots that plagued them in close losses earlier this season. On a third-and-6, Cousins didn't panic against the rush and throw a pick like he did against the Eagles in Week 1; instead, he hit Jamison Crowder on a slant for 17 yards. Crowder had a career-high 141 yards and a touchdown in what could easily be argued was his best game yet. Two plays later, Cousins used a play-action pass to find Josh Doctson in the end zone against Jenkins, and unlike in Kansas City when Doctson dropped the go-ahead score, he held on this time for a 14-yard touchdown with 3:31 left.

The Giants quickly faced a fourth-and-3 at their own 32 with 2:19 left. Despite three timeouts, I think NBC's Al Michaels summarized it best when saying "when you're 2-8, whatever, go for it." The Giants did, but Eli Manning was engulfed by a four-man rush and fumbled. The ball went over on downs to the Redskins, who added a 33-yard field goal to take a 20-10 lead. Manning threw an interception after a minimal amount of contact on the throw to end the game. Washington's final scores have been very misleading this year, with many late scores added after turnovers. Despite playing this game in a one-score window for 56.5 minutes, the Redskins won by 10 to cover the spread.

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It was Manning's 100th loss as a regular-season starter (110-100 record), putting him in interesting company with Hall of Famers such as Brett Favre (186-112), Fran Tarkenton (124-109-6), Warren Moon (102-101), and the still-active Drew Brees (139-103). It also puts him next to his father Archie Manning, who was 35-101-3 as a starter in his career, as well as the unremarkable Norm Snead (52-100-7) and nomadic Vinny Testaverde (90-123-1). It's not the worst group to be in, and longevity is on display, but Manning kind of fits in his own tier within this group. He was better than the latter guys, but never as consistent as the others.

One thing is for sure: this was one of Manning's worst offensive outings. Manning had 77 yards passing until the final drive. He led the offense to seven first downs, tied for the second fewest in his career, and the Giants were 2-of-14 on third downs. There were some bad drops, mostly from rookie tight end Evan Engram, but regardless, it was an ugly night of offense for the Giants.

Meanwhile, Cousins has continued to shine this year, with hardly any drop in his numbers despite the loss of his two starting wide receivers (Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson) in free agency, and Terrelle Pryor turning into a free-agent bust. Cousins has also had to overcome numerous injuries to starting offensive linemen, tight end Jordan Reed, and the aforementioned Thompson. If a quarterback with a better reputation was having this type of season, it would be a bigger deal in the mainstream.

Washington hasn't had a stretch of three consecutive winning seasons since 1989-1992. After 9-7 and 8-7-1 records in the last two seasons, and a 5-6 start with the toughest schedule this year, the Redskins have a very favorable finish with Dallas, the Chargers, Arizona, Denver, and the Giants again. If Cousins leads this team to a strong finish, then maybe he'll finally get some of the respect (and the long-term contract) that he deserves.

Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind

Vikings at Lions: King in the North

The Thanksgiving game between these two teamslast season is really the main reason why Detroit made the playoffs at 9-7 and the Vikings finished 8-8 and out of the tournament again. A late interception by Sam Bradford in a tied game set up Detroit for a game-winning field goal. The Lions also had another late comeback and win in overtime against the Vikings last year, and won 14-7 earlier this year in Minnesota.

The Vikings, now 9-2 this year, needed to get over this Detroit slump to take firm control of the NFC North. They entered the week with a quarterback in Case Keenum who ranks No. 2 in passing DVOA (31.2%). He lived up to that ranking on Thursday with a dominant first half that built a 20-10 lead, which was extended by the running game to 27-10 in the third quarter. Of course, Matthew Stafford had a rally attempt in him, but the Lions were just a bit too sloppy to overcome their mistakes against a team playing as well as the Vikings have been. For instance, tight end Darren Fells did not complete the process of catching a touchdown on third down, which cost the Lions four points in the third quarter.

If we are pointing out touchdowns Detroit should have made, then we do have to acknowledge one that it should feel fortunate to have earned. In the fourth quarter, Stafford took a sack to bring up third-and-14, but quickly called another play and took a shot to Marvin Jones in double coverage. Jones snatched the ball between the two defenders in a way that would make Calvin Johnson smile for a 43-yard touchdown to cut the deficit to 27-23 with 14:16 left.

Later on a third-and-3, Golden Tate caught a pass beyond the marker, but made a bad decision to circle back for YAC and was tackled a yard short of the first down. He needed to have better situational awareness there. Just falling back after the catch would have continued the drive.

After the punt, Minnesota added to its lead with a field goal, highlighted by a 37-yard reception by Stefon Diggs. The only problem was that Diggs willingly went out of bounds with 4:10 left when he easily could have taken a dive to keep the clock running another 40 seconds. Again, situational awareness is very important, but was not shown by two of the best receivers in the game.

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Stafford had 3:42 left in a 30-23 game, but missed Tate deep on a tough pass to quickly bring up fourth-and-7 at the Detroit 28. With 3:00 and one timeout left, this was a tough decision for Jim Caldwell. Offenses have converted on fourth-and-8 passes at a range of 25 to 35 percent over the years. A failure to convert would have all but ended the game, even though Minnesota's kicking situation is shaky. This was just on the edge of where Minnesota may have had to run a third-down play before the two-minute warning, which would have saved the Lions plenty of time to answer if they forced the three-and-out on defense. Detroit went for it, but I just didn't think a punt should have been dismissed so easily. Xavier Rhodes won his matchup with Jones and tipped a pass for an interception. He returned it to the Detroit 16 with 2:50 left, so not only was there a field position penalty for the Lions, but the loss of 10 seconds hurt too. By the margin of a second, the Vikings were able to run the ball on second down to take the clock to the two-minute warning.

Minnesota ran the ball on third down to set up a 25-yard field goal for Kai Forbath with 1:15 left, a very sound strategy. However, the kicking unit gave fans another scare when the Lions blocked the kick for an apparent game-tying touchdown. Fortunately, Darius Slay was correctly ruled offsides before he blocked the kick. Since it was fourth-and-1, the 5-yard penalty gave the Vikings a first down and Keenum was able to kneel twice to end the game, clinching a winning record for Minnesota.

Even though many of us have the same old traditions on Thanksgiving, the Lions were not able to repeat last year's late theft of the Vikings. Now Minnesota is a full three games ahead in the NFC North with five games to play.

Season Summary

Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 29
Game-winning drives: 49 (plus one non-offensive game-winning score)
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 88/163 (54.0 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 17

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.


1 comment, Last at 24 Nov 2017, 7:41pm

1 Re: Clutch Encounters: Thanksgiving

I would not have called that timeout at 2:45 if I were Detroit. It might have been better to wait until 4th down. This way, Minnesota runs their 2nd down play around 2:05, the clock stops for the two-minute warning before the 3rd down play, and Detroit can call their timeout to stop the clock on 4th down with about 1:55 left.