by Scott Kacsmar
They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but the same logic should apply to ugliness. What one person finds ugly may appeal to another, yet ugliness seems to be more objective, or at least more susceptible to groupthink than beauty. I think we can all agree that a player who commits a false start on fourth down on three straight plays with the game on the line is playing some ugly football, or that throwing an official's flag into the stands is a bad look.
Oh yes, Week 13 was loaded with ugly moments, starting with Washington's turnover-filled mess in Dallas on Thursday night. The Redskins (5-7) are all but out of playoff contention with 10 teams ahead of them in the NFC. Speaking of messes, the Giants temporarily ended the Eli Manning era -- and permanently ended his ironman streak -- by starting Geno Smith in another loss, this time to Oakland. Ben McAdoo was finally fired on Monday. For the second week in a row, the Raiders avoid this column by continuing to move the ball in the fourth quarter to close out one-score wins that weren't exactly that close like their games last year were.
But there were even uglier moments in Week 13, including ones from the two teams on a collision course in the AFC. New England's Rob Gronkowski's cheap shot on Buffalo's Tre'Davious White, which led to a one-game suspension, should certainly never be condoned as a normal football play. Then Monday night's heated rivalry game between the Bengals and Steelers was filled with frightening injuries and dirty hits to several players. I figured this game was going to be close, good news after a Sunday that only featured five comeback opportunities. That would have tied the low mark in the last seven years for a full slate of games.
While the week's final game was undoubtedly dramatic, with a rainy night and one of the wildest comebacks of the season, it was hard to watch without wanting it to end as soon as possible so that no one else was harmed. As long as football is football, there will always be a level of danger present, but the players have to respect each other enough to avoid any needless violence. Some people may find raw beauty in barbarism, but most of us want to see the players get up for the next snap, not to mention being there to play the rest of the season.
Game of the Week
Pittsburgh Steelers 23 at Cincinnati Bengals 20
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 10 (20-10)
Head Coach: Mike Tomlin (25-43 at 4QC and 37-48 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger (31-42 at 4QC and 43-47 overall 4QC/GWD record)
The narrative of the Steelers coming up small in a small road game started really strong on Monday night. Maybe Mike Tomlin really does have the team looking ahead to New England too soon, not to mention a chance to clinch the AFC North with a win over Baltimore this Sunday night. The big story going into this one was whether or not Antonio Brown would play with a badly swollen toe. Add in a scary injury to Ryan Shazier on the defense's third snap of the night, and all the ingredients were there for a letdown against the Bengals, who have played better football in recent weeks, especially Andy Dalton.
But there is one problem with that narrative: the Steelers always excel in Cincinnati. Ben Roethlisberger is statistically better in Cincinnati than he is at home, where he has suffered several of the worst, low-scoring losses of his career. Pittsburgh is now 15-2 in Cincinnati during the Marvin Lewis era (since 2003). It is hard to fathom another team that has beaten a division rival so thoroughly in their building for this long, and the Bengals have even made the playoffs seven times in that span. For comparison, New England has gone 14-2 in Buffalo since 2002, but the Bills have had seven head coaches in that time and haven't sniffed the playoffs since 1999.
Pittsburgh has an "older brother beating up the younger brother" dynamic with the Bengals, but the younger brother has landed some pretty good punches in recent years. Even on a night where some fears that Shazier might be paralyzed darkened the atmosphere, these two teams reminded us for three hours that they really can't stand one another. This was arguably the roughest NFL game since the same two teams met in the 2015 wild-card round.
Early reports on Shazier are encouraging, that his injury is not as serious as it could have been, but he was hardly the only player to leave the game injured. His backup Tyler Matakevich did not finish the game either. The Bengals lost Adam Jones, Joe Mixon, and Vontaze Burfict. There was certainly more of an emotional loss with Shazier compared to the others, but the fact that the Steelers were also without safety Mike Mitchell and cornerback Joe Haden really left their secondary vulnerable.
ESPN had a great graphic during the game that showed that offenses had gone 3-of-50 on third down with at least 10 yards to go against Pittsburgh's defense this season. Yet Dalton was able to convert three of these plays in a row, including a pair of third-and-16 conversions with tough throws to the sideline. He also found his share of success over the middle of the field, and A.J. Green caught two touchdowns to give the Bengals a shocking 17-0 lead with 31 seconds left in the second quarter. However, like the Steelers showed on their game-winning drive against Green Bay last week, they can get chunk plays in a hurry. Le'Veon Bell gained 33 yards on a screen and Brown drew a 38-yard pass interference penalty on Dre Kirkpatrick. That set up a 30-yard field goal to get to halftime with a 17-3 deficit. Keep in mind that the Steelers had a 14-point comeback in Cincinnati last December too.
The unique stylings of Bell and the absurd amount of penalties on the Bengals led to this one coming together. In the third quarter, Bell scored a 35-yard receiving touchdown after an inexcusable lack of tackling from cornerback William Jackson.
Officiating was less than stellar on the night. The Bengals racked up a franchise record 173 penalty yards. A pair of tacky calls wiped out long touchdowns for both teams (one would have been Green's third score, the other a 96-yard kick return by Martavis Bryant) in the third quarter. Still, Cincinnati took a 20-10 lead into the fourth quarter. Pittsburgh had to convert a big fourth-and-1 with a Bell run, and two plays later Kirkpatrick was hit with a questionable 30-yard pass interference penalty. A rare drop by Brown stalled the drive and led to a field goal, but the game tightened to 20-13 with 10:07 left.
Save for one of those pesky third-and-16 conversions, Pittsburgh's defense was vastly improved in the second half and was able to hold the Bengals to one field goal on five second-half drives. Roethlisberger caught fire in the fourth quarter, but the game also heated up immensely after rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster laid out Burfict on an illegal block and then stood over him to taunt him. Coincidentally, that type of block is now illegal largely due to the time Hines Ward laid out Keith Rivers with it years ago in this rivalry. Burfict has made a few hits that injured star players on the Steelers over the years, so there is a ton of history here, but the game was taking an unnecessary turn at this point. Roethlisberger finished the drive with a great throw to Brown for a 6-yard touchdown, and it is hard to believe that Brown held onto the ball after taking a shot to the face from George Iloka.
— Sports Degens (@TheSportsDegens) December 5, 2017
The Bengals had 3:44 left to break the tie, but Green had a bad drop on first down. On third-and-2, Pittsburgh's three-man rush produced a sack by Bud Dupree on a bad play by Dalton, who had played quite well for most of the night. Pittsburgh got to start at its own 41 with 2:42 left, and only need a couple of runs from Bell and completions from Roethlisberger to get into field goal range. Bell lost 4 yards on two runs that weren't well designed, but the Steelers gave Chris Boswell a pretty reasonable 43-yard attempt with four seconds left to win the game. The Bengals were offsides on the first try, so Boswell got to kick from 38. He delivered, as he always has against the Bengals, and the Steelers escaped with a 23-20 win that had to be emotionally draining before the team hits its biggest part of the schedule.
This is the fourth year in a row where Roethlisberger led a game-winning drive in Cincinnati. If there is a place on the road where you can trust the Steelers, it is in the state of Ohio.
Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind
Minnesota Vikings 14 at Atlanta Falcons 9
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 2 (9-7)
Game Winning Chance Before: 49.3 percent
Game Winning Chance After:73.7 percent
Win Probability Added: 24.4 percent
Head Coach: Mike Zimmer (6-9 at 4QC and 10-10 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Case Keenum (3-9 at 4QC and 6-11 overall 4QC/GWD record)
A great game on paper between two humming offenses produced a 14-9 final, but that doesn't mean the game didn't feature good offense. Case Keenum went 18-for-18 on throws inside the painted numbers, the best marks in a game since ESPN started tracking this in 2006. Both units were able to move the ball, but Atlanta attempted four field goals on its eight drives, while the Vikings put together their best effort (89 yards in 15 plays) on what became the game-winning drive. The drive actually started with 8:11 left in the third quarter, but marched into the fourth quarter where Keenum found Kyle Rudolph for a 6-yard touchdown with 14:56 left.
On their first offensive drive of the game, Atlanta overcame a third-and-11 with a defensive pass interference penalty before converting a third-and-6. But for the rest of the game, the Falcons were 0-for-9 on third down. Matt Ryan was held under 200 yards passing for the second time in three games after establishing an NFL record with a 67-game streak of 200-plus yards. Ryan's success rate was 2-for-7 in the fourth quarter as the Vikings held again on a third down while leading 14-9. That's when Atlanta decided to kick a 45-yard field goal on fourth-and-4 with 5:04 left. Matt Bryant is a great kicker, but he was wide left this time. It had to put a few smiles on the faces of Minnesota fans to see a Falcons kicker miss a big kick in a game between these two teams.
But was the kick even the right decision? If Bryant had made it, Atlanta still had two timeouts, but would have needed to get the ball back with enough time to drive for another field goal. According to EdjFootball, Atlanta's Game Winning Chance was 22.4 percent with the field goal and 30.3 percent with a fourth-down pass attempt, so it does not look to be a good decision by win probability.
Still, 4:58 is a decent amount of time to burn, but the Vikings were aggressive with a first-down pass for 16 yards to Rudolph. Atlanta used its two timeouts early, so a crucial third-and-4 came at the 3:59 mark. Adam Thielen had been relatively quiet to that point (three catches for 29 yards) despite the Falcons missing two of their best cornerbacks. But in the big moment, Thielen abused C.J. Goodwin for a 22-yard gain.
— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) December 3, 2017
From there Latavius Murray just needed to rush for one more first down to put away Minnesota's eighth win in a row. Atlanta is now 0-5 when failing to score more than 17 points this season. In 2016, the Falcons were only held under 23 points one time (a 24-15 loss in Philadelphia).
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 20 at Green Bay Packers 26
Type: 4QC/GWD (OT)
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 3 (20-17)
Game Winning Chance Before: 57.0 percent
Game Winning Chance After: 100.0 percent
Win Probability Added: 43.0 percent
Head Coach: Mike McCarthy (19-47-1 at 4QC and 28-49-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Brett Hundley (1-2 at 4QC and 1-2 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Here is a game to remember if the Packers (6-6) win out to make the playoffs with Aaron Rodgers due back soon. For Tampa Bay, Jameis Winston returned from a three-game absence with a shoulder injury, and he looked like someone who had a lot of rust in his game.
Winston had a real adventure with fumbles. In the first half, Winston lost the ball after trying to dump it off, and the Packers picked it up and returned it for a touchdown and 17-7 lead. Winston later recovered two fourth-quarter fumbles for his offense, and both happened inside the 3-yard line. The first was a premature snap to Winston, and the second was a botched handoff from the quarterback to a slipping Peyton Barber on a mess of a play (and field). On the next play, Winston threw a touchdown, but was well beyond the line of scrimmage when he threw the ball. Incredibly, the Buccaneers overcame that level of sloppiness for 10 fourth-quarter points and a 20-17 lead after Winston found Cameron Brate for an 11-yard touchdown with 6:02 left.
The Packers needed their third fourth-quarter comeback win of 2017 to save the season, which is something that has happened only one other time in Mike McCarthy's tenure (three comebacks in 2013). That was also the last time Rodgers was out with a broken collarbone, and Matt Flynn led two big comeback wins (and another game that finished in an important tie). Hundley needed his first, and he used his legs and a roughing the passer penalty to move into the red zone. A negative-ALEX pass on third-and-1 to Jordy Nelson brought up fourth down, and Mason Crosby's 22-yard field goal tied the game with 2:01 left. Neither offense threatened much on the next two drives, so the game went to overtime.
Green Bay had been outgained 395 to 204 in regulation, but really put things together for the overtime drive. Hundley saved it from being a three-and-out with another third-down scramble. The Packers had one play in regulation that gained more than 14 yards, but had two big plays in overtime. Hundley first gained 18 yards on a zone-read keeper. Three plays later, rookie back Aaron Jones checked into the game for his first carry of the day, and his fresh legs bounced out of a jammed line to find the edge for a 20-yard touchdown run to win the game.
Aaron Jones walkoff touchdown and the PACKERS WIN! pic.twitter.com/44PzEaspg9
— Eric Rosenthal (@ericsports) December 3, 2017
This was the 101st game in modified overtime history, or the 100th game since Tim Tebow first teased us about what it could be like in the 2011 playoffs. We haven't updated these numbers in over a year, so here are a few nuggets about where things stand.
- Home teams are 56-39-5 (.585) in modified overtime, including a 9-3 record in 2017. The total games add up to 100 instead of 101 due to a little game called Super Bowl LI that was played on a neutral field.
- The team who wins the coin toss and the team who receives first both have the same record of 50-46-5 (.520). Under the old overtime system from 1974 to 2011, teams in the regular season won 52.8 percent of overtime games when winning the coin toss, so not much has changed there.
- In modified overtime, only four teams have won the coin toss and elected to kick off, including twice by the Patriots. Those four teams went 2-2 in overtime.
- The percentage of games where both teams had at least one offensive possession is higher in modified overtime (78.2 percent) than it was under the old system (70.7 percent).
- Momentum check: the team who scores last in regulation is 53-43-5 (.550) in overtime.
- The 101 games have been decided by 65 field goals, 30 touchdowns, five ties, and one safety.
- On Sunday, Green Bay had the 20th offensive touchdown to end modified overtime on its first possession, so just fewer than 20 percent of games end this way. Green Bay's drive (72 yards) was the shortest of the 20.
- The most common ending to modified overtime is a game that ends on a field goal on the second possession of overtime by the team who kicked off (24 times).
- There have been 18 games where a team scored a field goal on the first possession, triggering a do-or-die drive for the opponent. Ten of those opponents failed to score to extend the game, while only two immediately scored a game-winning touchdown, including the Cardinals over the 49ers in Week 4 this year.
I am thankful that the change to a 10-minute quarter this season has yet to produce a tie. I still think the system can be tweaked to provide a fairer ending, but this has been better than what the old system would look like in an era where marching down the field to set up a long field goal is sometimes too easy.
Kansas City Chiefs 31 at New York Jets 38
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 1 (31-30)
Game Winning Chance Before: 44.2 percent
Game Winning Chance After: 92.1 percent
Win Probability Added: 47.9 percent
Head Coach: Todd Bowles (4-14 at 4QC and 6-14 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Josh McCown (6-34 at 4QC and 7-37 overall 4QC/GWD record)
You know your season is falling apart when you build a quick 14-0 lead, score more than 30 points, and still can't stop Josh McCown from leading a fourth-quarter comeback. Alex Smith's teams are 30-4 when scoring at least 30 points, but half of those losses have come since Week 7 this year. When the Chiefs play well on offense, the defense seems to fall apart. When the defense played great, the offense could not score. The result is six losses in seven games and a season that is spiraling out of control.
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Smith really had one of the best games of his career with 366 passing yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions, and a 70-yard scramble. There were big plays galore with Tyreek Hill blowing past the defense for two long scores, including a 40-yard touchdown with 9:13 left to play that gave the Chiefs a 31-30 lead. Kansas City is the only NFL team since 2001 to lose a game after having at least six explosive plays on offense of 30-plus yards, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Behind McCown, the Jets were more methodical in their approach and converted 13-of-20 third downs. One of the few failed conversions led to a 21-yard field goal with 3:55 left, but that kick was negated after Bennie Logan was penalized for jumping over the long snapper, a rare call. That was very damaging to the Chiefs, who went from having nearly four minutes and two timeouts in a 33-31 game to falling behind 38-31 with 2:15 and no timeouts left. In hindsight, it would have been better if the Chiefs had just let Bilal Powell score on first down instead of stopping him four times. Throw in a defensive holding penalty on third down to extend the drive, and the Chiefs finally broke when McCown ran a quarterback sneak for the score. More silly penalties on the Chiefs, including one for Marcus Peters throwing an official's flag into the stands, moved the two-point conversion to the 1-yard line, where Elijah McGuire scored on the ground to get that important 38-31 cushion.
Smith needed to drive 75 yards to force overtime, and found Hill in a mismatch down the field again for a big 40-yard gain. Despite the four-man rush not getting home, Kansas City's drive did not go any further than the New York 19. Kareem Hunt had a bad drop out of the backfield on second down. Smith was then nearly intercepted by rookie Jamal Adams, who doesn't have a pick yet. On fourth-and-6, Smith threw aimlessly on a target that was charged to Travis Kelce, but was really in between two Chiefs with no hope of a game-extending reception.
San Francisco 49ers 15 at Chicago Bears 14
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 2 (14-12)
Game Winning Chance Before: 26.2 percent
Game Winning Chance After: 99.2 percent
Win Probability Added: 73.0 percent
Head Coach: Kyle Shanahan (1-5 at 4QC and 1-6 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Jimmy Garoppolo (2-1 at 4QC and 2-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Much like his first start for the Patriots last season, Jimmy Garoppolo's first start for the 49ers ended with some good poise on the road and a game-winning drive for a field goal. It was almost too fitting that former Chicago kicker Robbie Gould's fifth field goal of the day, all from 35 yards or closer, sunk the Bears at the end. The 49ers only had eight drives, including an interception that wasn't Garoppolo's fault, so the red zone struggles and Tarik Cohen's 61-yard punt return score were the only things keeping the Bears ahead in this one.
Chicago's offense was anemic at best. The Bears ran just 36 offensive plays, or one fewer than the 37 they had against Carolina earlier this season. Chicago is the first team since at least 1952 to have multiple games in a season with no more than 37 offensive plays. The only other teams to have two games without more than 40 plays were the 1983 Eagles and 1992 Falcons, so this is rare stuff that only a team coached by John Fox could achieve.
The Bears had one offensive possession in the fourth quarter with a chance to add to their 14-12 lead, but it went south after a poorly set-up screen to Jordan Howard lost 5 yards to bring up a third-and-12. Mitchell Trubisky tried to scramble for a first down, but failed, and the Bears punted the ball back to the 49ers with 5:27 left.
Garoppolo started from his own 8, and if you squinted enough, you might have thought you were watching a New England game-winning drive. It was slow and methodical with dump passes to running backs, but when a big third-and-9 came up, Garoppolo delivered a strike to rookie Trent Taylor slanting over the middle for 33 yards in the same manner you'd see Tom Brady do that with Julian Edelman. Taylor caught all six of his targets on Sunday for 92 yards after never having more than 47 yards in his first 10 games.
That put the ball at the Chicago 18, but with the Bears having all three timeouts, the 49ers couldn't simply run three times and kick a field goal without leaving too much time for their opponents. Garoppolo even threw a second-down pass to Carlos Hyde, who tried to slide down in bounds to keep the clock running, but was ruled to have gone out of bounds anyway. That could have been costly, but a third-and-2 conversion on the ground enabled the 49ers to set up Gould for a 24-yard field goal with eight seconds left. He nailed it, and Chicago's attempt at a Music City Miracle finish was all for naught once Cohen made a forward pass on a lateral attempt.
After Kyle Shanahan started his tenure with a 0-6 record in game-winning drive opportunities, all it took was one Garoppolo start, combined with zero phantom offensive pass interference penalties, to get a close win and restore some hope in the future of the 49ers.
Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind
Texans at Titans: Another AFC South Rerun
The most predictable close finish of Week 13 came in Tennessee. Houston's 57-14 win in Week 4 over the Titans is the main reason that Tennessee still has a negative scoring differential (-16 points) despite a record that now stands at 8-4. But on Sunday, there was no Deshaun Watson or Matt Cassel subbing for an injured Marcus Mariota at quarterback.
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Instead, both teams treated us to a three-hour block of reruns from earlier this season. It started with another lackluster start from the Titans, who fell behind 10-0 in the first half. We were then reminded of DeAndre Hopkins' impressive catch radius, but also of Houston's annual kicking misfortunes. Ka'imi Fairbairn, who had only missed twice all season, missed two field goals, including a 28-yard attempt that would have given the Texans a 13-10 lead in the third quarter. That finally sparked the Tennessee offense, which drove 80 yards behind the connection of Mariota and tight end Delanie Walker, who caught a 24-yard touchdown with three seconds left in the third quarter. Let's think of that as the fifth game-winning drive in a game's final 16 minutes for the Titans over the last seven games.
In the fourth quarter, Mariota's only "successful play" was picking up 20 yards on a defensive pass interference penalty. Dick LeBeau's defense had to hold on for this win, and with the lead cut to 17-13, only 2:47 and 72 yards separated Tom Savage from the go-ahead touchdown. Of course, Houston has been in this position several times this season, including in Baltimore last week, and has a 1-5 record at comeback opportunities. This was the third time in the last month that Savage has had the ball in the final three minutes with Houston needing to score a touchdown to win or tie the game. He has finished all three drives with turnovers, but this one came after a brief moment of hope.
Houston actually was self-destructing with three consecutive false start penalties on left tackle Jeff Allen that turned a fourth-and-4 into a dire fourth-and-19. Savage, who finished with a career-high 365 passing yards, got a great catch from tight end Stephen Anderson for a 22-yard gain to keep the drive alive. However, on the next play Savage forced a deep ball to Hopkins in the end zone with two Titans in coverage, and LeShaun Sims was the one to make the interception with 1:08 left.
The Titans only needed to convert a third-and-5 to end the game, but Derrick Henry may have had ulterior motives for going 75 yards for a touchdown. Not only did that allow the Titans to cover the 7-point spread in a misleading 24-13 win, but Henry finished with 109 rushing yards. Believe it or not, but that was the second time this season (Week 6 vs. Indianapolis) Henry went over 100 yards and helped the Titans cover a 7-point spread with a 70-plus yard touchdown run in the final minute when his team didn't need it. Since 1994, there have only been five touchdown runs of more than 30 yards scored in the final 60 seconds of the game by a leading team. Four of them have come since 2016, and at least Jay Ajayi's 62-yard touchdown for Miami against Pittsburgh last year came when the Steelers had two timeouts left. Henry now has the two longest offensive scores of irrelevance in more than two decades.
Well, I guess relevancy is also in the eye of the beholder. We just know that the Titans could still be 8-4 with a -30 scoring differential without Henry's stat-padding scores. Even that feat would be a rerun in the AFC South.
|8-Plus-Win Teams Who Were Outscored Thru 12 Games (1940-2017)|
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 37
Game-winning drives: 57 (plus two non-offensive game-winning scores)
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 101/192 (52.6 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 21
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.