Clutch Encounters: Week 15

Clutch Encounters: Week 15
Clutch Encounters: Week 15
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Scott Kacsmar

Week 15 was a heck of a week for favorites, who went 14-2 straight up. Only a pair of 1-point underdogs (Chiefs and Rams) pulled off "upsets" that weren't really upsets at all in divisional rematches.

That doesn't mean we didn't have any close finishes. There were in fact 10 games with a comeback opportunity, but only three game-winning drives. This was a week for failed comebacks, including a pair of games that only got that close after an onside kick was recovered.

More than anything, this was a week where two of the NFL's worst rules were applied in the week's two most high-profile games: the Patriots-Steelers showdown and Cowboys-Raiders contest on Sunday night. While the rules for a catch going to the ground and a fumble through the end zone were both applied correctly, that doesn't mean we should continue to accept bad rules. The league could use a better rulebook.

For the fourth week in a row, we start with the Steelers in the Game of the Week. It was supposed to be the Game of the Year, at least for the regular season, and shockingly, it delivered to that level. This rivalry has not done well for close games. Only once in the 15 previous matchups was there even a game-winning drive (New England in 2005).

Game of the Week

New England Patriots 27 at Pittsburgh Steelers 24

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 8 (24-16)
Game Winning Chance Before: 19.6 percent
Game Winning Chance After: 89.3 percent
Win Probability Added: 69.7 percent
Head Coach: Bill Belichick (52-79 at 4QC and 67-80 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Tom Brady (41-37 at 4QC and 53-39 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Big games in the NFL are often said to come down to situational football: third downs, red zone performance, turnovers, and the fourth quarter. In a game that was likely to determine everything from the AFC's Super Bowl favorite and home-field advantage to the MVP race, the ending was a stunning failure in situational football to the highest degree. On a red zone third down the final seconds of a 27-24 game, Ben Roethlisberger was intercepted. No game-winning touchdown pass (or at least none that counted). Not even overtime with a game-tying field goal in the team's back pocket.

It was a devastating final sequence for a team that did so many things well in the game's first 59 minutes. Even with Ryan Shazier (spine) in the press box and Antonio Brown (calf) at a local hospital after leaving early in the second quarter, the Steelers played one of their best games in recent history against the Patriots. Like in the 2011 win over New England, the Steelers played ball-control offense and didn't just sit in a soft zone on defense. The results may not have been spectacular, but it was enough to give the Steelers a 17-10 halftime lead and a 24-16 lead going into the fourth quarter. The defense even intercepted Tom Brady for the first time since 2005.

For 59 minutes, Pittsburgh's situational football was outstanding. The offense scored three touchdowns in the red zone and started a ridiculous 10-of-13 on third downs, but failed to convert their last three opportunities in the fourth quarter. The first was a third-and-20 situation that came after a couple of big penalties on left tackle Alejandro Villanueva. Before a first-down holding call on Villanueva, New England's Game Winning Chance dipped to its lowest point in the quarter at 9.0 percent, according to EdjFootball.

Rob Gronkowski (168 yards) was one problem the Steelers never had an answer for, but few teams ever have. However, when Bud Dupree sacked Brady on a third-and-10 to force a field goal, the Steelers had a shot to put the game away on offense with 3:56 left. Instead of being aggressive with his best unit, Mike Tomlin allowed for a very conservative drive. Brown's absence really shined on a third-and-4 where Roethlisberger threw short of the sticks to JuJu Smith-Schuster for only a 3-yard gain. With a fourth-and-1 at the Pittsburgh 28, it would have been incredibly brave for Tomlin to go for it, but I think the punt was the right call given the 24-19 lead. It would have been different had the Steelers led 26-19 or 27-19, since the Patriots likely would have only gone for the tie.

With 2:06 left from his own 23, Brady's first pass was tipped and nearly intercepted by Sean Davis. As CBS' Tony Romo noted, when defenses give Brady a second chance on these drives, you know what the result usually is. We looked at this in Week 3 when the Texans dropped a game-ending interception thrown by Brady, who threw the game-winning touchdown to Brandin Cooks a few plays later.

Brady never gave the Steelers another chance. Three straight passes to Gronkowski, who just ran down the seam in single coverage, gained a fitting 69 yards. The last catch was a diving effort that just showcased how talented Gronkowski is, but the Steelers had to play smarter defense than this against him. Gronkowski had 56 percent of Brady's passing yards on the day. On first-and-goal from the 8, Dion Lewis took a simple run up the middle for a touchdown. Pittsburgh may have actually just been trying to let him score, though that would not have been the best strategy from the 8-yard line. However, once Lewis got close it was really the best result possible to save the most time.

The Patriots have been involved in some of the biggest two-point conversions in NFL history in the last few years, from the game-tying attempt that failed in the 2015 AFC Championship Game to two conversions in Super Bowl LI. This one would have to make a top 10 list too. Gronkowski was again left in single coverage out wide with Davis, and beat him easily for the conversion to make it 27-24. Things may have turned out quite differently if the Steelers had only been down 25-24 with a stop there, so that was a huge conversion.

Roethlisberger has pulled these late drives off before, and still had 52 seconds and a timeout left at his own 21. The Patriots may have played things defensively just as they would in a 25-24 game, but the call on first down was an interesting one. The Steelers used Martavis Bryant on a rub route to free up Smith-Schuster on a crossing route. The execution was good enough to where this should have gained about 19 yards at best, but the Patriots botched the sideline tackle to allow a huge gain of 69 yards after Smith-Schuster cut over to the middle of the field. The Steelers were wise to use their final timeout right away with 34 seconds left at the 10-yard line.

On first down, the Steelers had a perfect play designed. Tight end Jesse James came out of a bunch formation and found the hole in the zone where he settled in for the throw from Roethlisberger. He caught the ball, his knee landed short of the end zone, and he wasn't touched. James then broke the plane and appeared to score a go-ahead touchdown with 28 seconds left. CBS' Jim Nantz even said "they are verifying it upstairs and there is no doubt it is going to hold up." In fact, it wasn't until the ninth replay that one of Nantz or Romo wondered if they were looking at whether or not James lost control going to the ground.

Yes, the dreaded Calvin Johnson Rule struck again, and this was the most crucial application of it yet given the magnitude of this play and game. We all know the call was reversed, but we'll get back to that later.

There were still chances to win the game, and what the Steelers did next really set things on a path to destruction. Roethlisberger was pressured and got rid of the ball to Darrius Heyward-Bey, who was tackled in bounds after a 3-yard gain. With the clock running, Roethlisberger is really known for two things here: a spike when he should have time to call a real play, or the fake spike that he loves so dearly. I thought last year's go-ahead touchdown on the fake spike against Dallas, in another game Pittsburgh lost late, would have quenched his thirst, but he went to the same well again. This time, he only had one receiver (Eli Rogers) to throw to while everyone else stood around to watch the world burn. Instead of just throwing the ball through the end zone once he saw the crowd over the middle, Roethlisberger forced the pass anyway. It was tipped and intercepted by Duron Harmon to end another edition of "The NFL Makes the Patriots Look So Smart by Being So Dumb."

These things just don't (and can't) happen in that situation. We had the table a week ago for Saints-Falcons when Drew Brees threw an interception to end the game. This is now the 11th time since 1994 that a quarterback threw an interception in the red zone in the final two minutes of a game that was tied or down by one to three points. A quarterback simply cannot make that throw when overtime is right there with the field goal.

The Calvin Johnson Rule Rant

I don't see how the NFL can seriously go into 2018 without some type of significant overhaul to what counts as a catch. The Patriots already won a game against Houston this year where Brandin Cooks had the ball touch the ground on his game-winning catch, but that was deemed OK because he still maintained enough control. The rules are allowing for a judgment call of control when the ball touches the ground or moves a little, and that's going to lead to inconsistent calls. When the majority of fans view these plays as catches, but the NFL continues to seek to overturn them, something is off here. This also isn't a New England Patriots thing, as they have been involved in controversial plays this year such as the Austin Seferian-Jenkins fumble, which was a combination of the NFL's two worst rules.

We complained about this in 2010 when it happened to Calvin Johnson. We complained in the 2014 playoffs when Dez Bryant caught a pass in front of our own eyes. We complained about Tyler Eifert against the Ravens and Devonta Freeman against the Redskins in 2015. Former VP of officiating Mike Pereira was concerned about the NFL's lack of common sense in overturning plays like Zach Miller's touchdown against the Saints this year. Any die-hard fan should be fed up with this by now.

This is a league-wide problem that can affect any game of any team. The NFL is killing itself in semantics with language ("survive the ground" is this month's trendy phrase) that is needlessly complex. In trying to explain the James play, Senior VP of Officiating Al Riveron even starts out by saying "Roethlisberger completes a pass to James." Whoops.

Anyone can complain about something, but what's a good solution to this? Well, allow me to retort.

Fix the semantics first. It's not about a catch. Receivers catch passes, but the actual word used in the gamebook for a successful passing play is a completion. To figure out when we have a completion, use a three-step process: catch, possession, move. Satisfy those three requirements and you have a completion made (CPM). Let's look at how this works for the James play.

Catch is the obvious part. When the ball is grasped and held onto by the receiver, he has a catch. If he's tipped the ball or is bobbling it, then he hasn't made the catch yet. Simply put, you know a catch when you see it. It's the other parts that are trickier.

Possession is when he gets two feet (or the equivalent of two feet) down in bounds. When James' left knee touches down while he has the ball, he has established possession.

Last part is the move. Why do announcers still like the phrase "football move" that was removed from the rules in 2015? It's a good rule to have as long as you define it properly. Here, James makes a move by extending the ball over the goal line. Once he does that, the play should be considered a touchdown. Other moves would include things like taking another step so as to avoid a bang-bang knockout play, or pulling the ball to your chest. If James can stretch the ball out like that, then it stands to reason that he had control and possession of it. If this play had been at the 50-yard line and James was untouched, then you can say that he fumbled the ball before recovering it.

Would the game have a few more fumbles a season with this rule? Sure, but so what? We're already watching a safe game with historically low turnover rates. A few more 50/50 balls wouldn't be the worst thing to add to the game, and most of these are likely to be recovered by the receiver anyway.

I think we can all agree that no one wants to see players use the ground to help trap a ball or anything like that. But that's not even what is happening with these "complete the process going to the ground" plays. The catch has already been made, possession is already established, and we're watching the player make a move in an effort to maximize yards and help his team. Why are we penalizing that effort? The only penalty should be that if he slams the ball to the ground and loses control; then the defense has a shot to recover the fumble. That's just the risk some players will have to take, but everyone from Johnson to Bryant to Eifert to James deserves a completion for their team on these plays. What they did sure looks more like the heart of what a catch should be than when Golden Tate was given this touchdown on replay against the Bears in 2015 after what looked like a bang-bang interception.

When that is considered a Detroit touchdown because Tate made himself "a runner" and this isn't a Detroit touchdown because Johnson put the ball down at the end, then we have ruined the purpose of what should be one of the easiest things to figure out in the game.

By the way, this may have been the best game these two teams have ever played against each other, and at one point I even thought it was great how the officials weren't having a big impact on it. But now the ending is going to be remembered for the James play. It's not even the fault of the officiating here. It is the rule itself that needs to survive common sense before it continues to be used next season.

Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind

Dallas Cowboys 20 at Oakland Raiders 17

Type: GWD
Game Winning Chance Before: 52.9 percent
Game Winning Chance After: 83.3 percent
Win Probability Added: 30.4 percent
Head Coach: Jason Garrett (24-35 at 4QC and 32-37 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Dak Prescott (5-5 at 4QC and 8-5 overall 4QC/GWD record)

You can see the appeal this game had to schedule-makers in the spring after both teams won at least a dozen games in 2016 with young quarterbacks on the rise, as well as arguably the two best offensive lines in the NFL. Jump forward to Week 15 and these have been two of the more disappointing teams this year, and their prime-time meeting had lower stakes than anyone probably imagined.

Dallas needed a fake punt to score its only touchdown of the second half, but the Raiders were able to tie the game at 17. With just over five minutes left, Jason Garrett had the offense go for it on fourth-and-1 at the team's own 39. I liked that move, mostly because they used the quarterback sneak. It just wasn't a very good one, and referee Gene Steratore even made the unorthodox move of folding an index card and sticking it against the chains to measure if Dak Prescott had gained enough yardage for the first down.

Reminder: this is 2017 and that still happened. Three plays later, Dez Bryant came down with a 40-yard bomb. The Cowboys had two cracks from the 1-yard line, and probably should have tried another sneak, but Alfred Morris was stopped twice. Dallas settled for a 19-yard field goal by Dan Bailey to take a 20-17 lead with 1:44 left.

Derek Carr was having another quiet night, but he has actually been solid in his career in game-winning drive opportunities, because the situation actually forces him to be an aggressive passer. Case in point: Carr heaved a bomb to Michael Crabtree on fourth-and-10 and was able to draw a 55-yard penalty for pass interference (a good call). Crabtree had one hell of a statistically odd night. He caught 7-of-17 targets for a paltry 39 yards, but still had two short touchdowns to go along with that 55-yard penalty. He also was pulled from the game for a concussion check at the worst possible moment, with the Raiders facing a third-and-3. Carr scrambled and dove for the end zone, but clearly lost control of the ball, which was fumbled through the end zone for a touchback. Game over.

For the second time in a matter of hours, one of the NFL's worst rules killed the hopes of a team who was going for the win. If the ball is fumbled at midfield and goes out of bounds, there is no penalty to the offense, and no reward of possession to the defense. Yet when the end zone is involved, the defense takes over with a touchback, and it frankly doesn't make any sense. Like with the Jesse James play against New England, the effort of a player trying to score is penalized here. I do think this type of fumble should carry some form of penalty to the offense, whether by a 5- or 10-yard penalty, loss of down, and a 10-second runoff in end-of-half situations. But why should the defense get rewarded a ball that it did not physically recover? That should only happen when a fourth-down stop is made.

This is another rule the NFL needs to take a serious look at in the offseason. I'm not sure how many more high-profile examples of it we need for that to happen. Maybe it would help if these two teams were as good as they were last year, because good games deserve better endings than something cheap like this.

Tennessee Titans 23 at San Francisco 49ers 25

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 4 (20-16)
Game Winning Chance Before: 19.8 percent
Game Winning Chance After: 100.0 percent
Win Probability Added: 80.2 percent
Head Coach: Kyle Shanahan (2-5 at 4QC and 2-6 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Jimmy Garoppolo (3-1 at 4QC and 3-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)

The Titans have seemingly played the same close, low-scoring battle every week for the last two months. This one was actually more offensive than the score may suggest. The 49ers scored on seven of nine possessions, and one of those "stops" was just a 1-play drive that was a handoff to Carlos Hyde for 1 yard before halftime with 29 seconds left. Jimmy Garoppolo impressed again with a career-high 381 passing yards, but the consistent settling for field goals allowed the Titans to turn a 16-3 deficit into a 20-16 lead early in the fourth quarter.

The final quarter alone saw five scoring drives, including three field goals of 45-plus yards by Robbie Gould. The second kick gave the 49ers a 22-20 lead with 3:08 left. Tennessee's DeMarco Murray was eventually stuffed on a big third-and-2 that brought out Ryan Succop for a perfect 50-yard field goal with 1:07 left. The kickers were very good in this one.

Though not officially a one-minute drill, we got to see Handsome Jimmy G in the no-huddle with only a timeout left. He made things look pretty easy against Dick LeBeau's defense with three quick completions for 45 yards to get into range for Gould. His 45-yard kick split the uprights with no time left, and Garoppolo picked up his third game-winning drive in five career starts.

Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind

Packers at Panthers: Out of Juice

Aaron Rodgers' long-awaited return from a broken collarbone was much more Phantom Menace than it was The Force Awakens. After Atlanta's win on Monday night in Tampa Bay, the Packers have been eliminated from the playoffs, ending their attempt at tying the NFL record for consecutive playoff appearances at nine.

Rodgers was clearly rusty and not 100 percent, underthrowing some passes he would normally hit. He also threw three interceptions in a game for the first time since 2009, which says plenty about his day. Carolina also is just a really solid team, and its studs came to play on Sunday. This was a tough matchup for Rodgers to play the role of savior, as the Packers virtually needed to win out to make the playoffs. Cam Newton tossed four touchdowns and paced the Panthers all game long.

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It did not even look like this game would make the column after the Packers trailed 31-17 in the fourth quarter. A long drive by Green Bay went to waste after Rodgers suffered swarming sacks on third and fourth down. Former teammate Julius Peppers was in on the fourth-and-14 sack with 5:41 left. But Rodgers got another chance and found Richard Rodgers on some big plays, including a 24-yard touchdown with 2:43 left. The Packers had to try the onside kick with no timeouts left, and luck behold, they came away with a recovery at their own 48. Teams have now recovered 8-of-49 (16.3 percent) onside kicks this season, including one on Sunday by the Dolphins in Buffalo.

We just had the stat last week where the Packers are 0-28 when trailing by double digits in the fourth quarter with Rodgers at quarterback. He was suddenly in a good position to break that streak, or at least get this game to overtime. However, with a first down at the Carolina 38, Rodgers' pass to Geronimo Allison was completed, but James Bradberry punched the ball out and the Panthers recovered. Game over. Season over.

That's a tough way for things to end for Green Bay, but a realist had to feel things were already bleak ever since Rodgers went down in Minnesota in Week 6.

Chargers at Chiefs: Ekeler, Think About the Future!

Saturday night's battle for the AFC West ended in predictable fashion. The Chargers had been looking good, but let a third-quarter lead slip away before a mistake-filled final frame on the way to a 30-13 loss. After falling behind 17-13, Philip Rivers was intercepted by Marcus Peters on a deep ball. Despite the return to the 6-yard line, the defense held the Chiefs to a field goal.

Down 20-13 in the fourth quarter, Austin Ekeler seemed to have a third-down conversion, but Peters forced a fumble. That led to another field goal for the Chiefs. On a fourth-and-1 at midfield, Rivers tried to hurry the offense, but was hit as he threw his second interception. Big runs by Kareem Hunt put the Chargers away with another touchdown to make it 30-13.

At the two-minute warning, Rivers had to force a pass and his third pick of the night also went to Peters, the league's top ball magnet. Rivers threw six interceptions in the two games against Kansas City this year compared to four picks in his other 12 games. The Chargers (7-7) still have a shot at the playoffs after climbing out of that 0-4 hole, but this team just makes too many mistakes against good opponents to expect anything to come out of that run. Meanwhile, the Chiefs have just defended home field very well against the Raiders and Chargers, and should have a firm grasp on the division again. With only games against Miami and Denver left, the Chiefs should be able to get into the playoffs with a 10-6 record and some restored confidence after dropping six of seven games at one point.

Eagles at Giants: Foles Covered Some Holes

Even though the Eagles were missing Carson Wentz (ACL), this was still an 11-2 team against a 2-11 team, and Philadelphia needed the win to keep hold of the No. 1 seed. So when the Giants opened the game with three touchdown drives to take a 20-7 lead, this was looking like an upset in the making. However, an interception by Eli Manning and a blocked punt had the Eagles back ahead before halftime, and the Eagles still led 31-29 to start the fourth quarter.

This rivalry is loaded with big plays on special teams, often going against the Giants, and this one was no exception. Aldrick Rosas saw his 48-yard field goal blocked with 11:26 left. He had an extra point blocked to start the game. Nick Foles was fairly impressive in his first start of the season with four touchdown passes, and a trio of third-down conversions helped the Eagles to another field goal and a 34-29 lead. That drive consumed half of the quarter.

Manning had 3:51 left to drive 80 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. He passed for 434 yards on the day with plenty of open slants against a suddenly vulnerable Philadelphia defense. Just when it looked like Manning would pull off another game-winning touchdown drive, things bogged down after a first-and-goal at the 9. A horizontal pass lost 2 yards. Manning narrowly avoided an interception in the end zone. A surprise draw with Shane Vereen on third down only produced a 6-yard gain. A false start brought it back to fourth-and-11, and then Manning's pass was too high for Evan Engram in the back of the end zone. The play design was terrible, with the back staying in to help against a four-man rush, and two of Manning's four receivers, including Sterling Shepard, ran their routes well short of the goal line. They basically gave Manning one target and he didn't hit it.

Dolphins at Bills: Take That, Adam Gase's Close-Game Record

Miami was looking to keep its slim playoff chances alive after an impressive two-game winning streak over the Broncos and Patriots. Unfortunately, you cannot ride "momentum" from Florida to Buffalo, and the Bills led 24-6 with 9:32 left to play. It was only then that Miami mounted another wild comeback attempt thanks to some solid special teams play and a fourth-and-14 conversion from Jay Cutler to Jarvis Landry. Yes, the pass was actually thrown 17 yards that time, but that only led to a 26-yard field goal by Cody Parkey with 39 seconds left.

The Dolphins still trailed 24-16 and needed a couple of miracles. They got the first one when Preston Brown botched the recovery of the onside kick for Buffalo. Miami has three of the league's eight onside kick recoveries this season. Cutler had 37 seconds left from his own 37, but immediately threw a bad interception after some miscommunication with his receivers. Of course Tre'Davious White was on the receiving end of the pick, Cutler's third of the day. That's a cheap little loss to add to Adam Gase's ridiculous record of 10-6 in game-winning drive opportunities, but we have been expecting the Dolphins to start losing these one-score games.

Even the ones where Miami trailed by double digits for half of the game.

Jets at Saints: The Pesky Petty Picture Show

The Jets (5-9) have been pretty competitive this season, but no one expected much from a 16-point underdog who had to start Bryce Petty at quarterback for the injured Josh McCown (broken hand). The Saints were coming off a bad loss in Atlanta, and only needed three snaps before one of their stud running backs (Mark Ingram) broke off a 54-yard run. However, the way the Jets held New Orleans to only a field goal there was a sign of the struggle to come for the Saints in putting this game away.

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The Jets were able to intercept Drew Brees deep in his own end, and Brandon Coleman lost two fumbles in the red zone in the second half. The second came with the Saints leading 17-13 in the fourth quarter, but Petty was unable to move the offense in response. Michael Thomas had two touchdowns taken away on replay reversals, but came through with four catches for 50 yards and a touchdown on a key drive to give the Saints a 24-13 lead with 7:39 left.

New York eventually managed to find the end zone to make it 24-19 after a two-point conversion pass failed, but the onside kick attempt went out of bounds. Two plays later, Ingram finished off the Jets with a 50-yard touchdown run that the team really didn't need, but it makes the 31-19 final look a little more reasonable given the expectations of a blowout.

Cardinals at Redskins: Sunday Dark Match

Just like how the NFL RedZone channel shows every touchdown, we'll cover every comeback opportunity, including a game no one cares about like this one. Down 20-15, Blaine Gabbert had a couple of opportunities in the final 4:30 to lead Arizona on a game-winning touchdown drive. He took an awful sack and narrowly avoided a lost fumble on the first one. After starting at the Arizona 48 with 1:59 left, Gabbert's overthrow was bailed out with a very soft pass interference penalty drawn by the wily veteran Larry Fitzgerald. On the next play, tight end Troy Niklas failed to pull down a pass right near the goal line, which was Arizona's best shot at winning this game. On fourth-and-10, Fitzgerald tried to snag another off-target throw by Gabbert, but D.J. Swearinger made sure his contact was enough to disrupt Fitzgerald from another highlight-worthy catch.

Falcons at Buccaneers: Tampa Bay Kickers Don't Eat Ws

On Monday night, the Falcons reminded us that no lead is safe with them. Despite leads of 17-7 at halftime and 24-14 halfway through the fourth quarter, this game still came down to the final minute, much like most of Atlanta's 2017 season.

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Devonta Freeman's 32-yard rushing touchdown was a highlight on a big night for him (126 rushing yards), but Jameis Winston came right back with a 75-yard touchdown drive to make it 24-21. Atlanta had two cracks at getting a first down to ice the win, but rushed Terron Ward (instead of Freeman) for no gain, and then Matt Ryan took a third-down sack after the two-minute warning. That wasn't well done, nor was the punt coverage that set Winston up at his own 29 with 1:00 left.

Winston was able to complete three passes for 35 yards to give his team a shot at overtime, but none of the receivers were able to get out of bounds, so he had to use two spikes. Winston still finished 27-of-35 for 299 yards, three touchdowns, and zero interceptions. His 130.5 passer rating was the second-highest of his career and would have been the highest without the two spikes. The main reason this performance didn't lead to more points was a big lost fumble by Peyton Barber at the Atlanta 5 in the second quarter. That killed an 87-yard drive.

The other problem was a typical one for Tampa Bay: the kicker. The offense tried to get closer for Patrick Murray, but it did not help when the official who tried to spot the ball after Winston's last completion fell down. That wasted a few seconds where the Buccaneers could have tried one quick sideline route to get closer. From 54 yards away, Murray was wide right and the game was over. Matt Bryant made a 57-yard field goal for Atlanta in the second quarter. Switch the kickers and this game likely switches its outcome, but the Buccaneers have struggled more than any other team to find a quality kicker (especially at cost).

Season Summary

Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 44
Game-winning drives: 69 (plus two non-offensive game-winning scores)
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 122/224 (54.5 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 25

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.


35 comments, Last at 21 Dec 2017, 1:54pm

#1 by RickD // Dec 19, 2017 - 4:13pm

I don't even understand the reason for the NFL's decision to "survive the ground". Once control is established and a player has established himself inbounds, why not say that right then and there? The only thing I can think is that they want to protect receivers from situations where "the ground caused the fumble". But why? It's one thing if the ball hits the ground before the player establishes himself inbounds, but it's quite another thing when, as in this case, the receiver clearly has control and is in bounds.

Well, now that the Pats have benefited from the rule as it is currently written, we might finally see some change. :)

Points: 0

#2 by LyleNM // Dec 19, 2017 - 4:16pm

The Chargers might have something to say to the Buccaneers about kickers.

Points: 0

#3 by Bright Blue Shorts // Dec 19, 2017 - 4:38pm

The NFL started trying to define what a catch is as a reaction to the Bert Emanuel catch in the 1999 NFC Championship game.

In trying to avoid that ever happening they've probably ruined more games since with the current abomination of a rule.

People can understand the rule but almost no-one likes it. And that should be enough to change it back to what it was. Which is really what I think you're proposing with catch-possession-move.

(I'll add that my guess is that "football move" was a way of trying to avoid someone saying "but he blinked his eyes so he moved")

Points: 0

#4 by Jimmy Oz // Dec 19, 2017 - 6:03pm

"it frankly doesn't make any sense" - There's a difference between not making sense and personal likes. I am perfectly okay with a touchback for fumbles out of the end zone. The aim is to have possession in the end zone, not fumble the ball out of the end zone. If you fumble the ball out of the end zone, you lose the ball. It makes sense.

"the effort of a player trying to score is penalized" - No, the player fumbling the ball out of the end zone is penalised for fumbling the ball out of the end zone, and the defence is rewarded for forcing a fumble and the ball going out of the end zone. I disagree with rewarding "effort" over results. I think a touchback is sufficient reward to the defence & penalty to the offense for the result of a fumble out of the end zone.

"[These fumbles] should carry some form of penalty to the offense, whether by a 5- or 10-yard penalty, loss of down, and a 10-second runoff in end-of-half situations." - None of this makes more sense than losing possession. I disagree that the rule should reward the offense with a chance of a field goal for fumbling out of the end zone.

Points: 0

#5 by sbond101 // Dec 19, 2017 - 6:48pm

I'd like to second this (and add to it). An offensive runner reaching out for a TD, having the ball knocked out, and getting the TD because of forward progress is a cheese-play that is necessary because if that wasn't the rule guys would hit RB's late constantly and guys would get hurt. Adding to this cheese unnecessarily with recently caught balls makes football worse to watch (my opinion).

Instead of whining about the rule, WR's need to behave like they know the rules, hold on to the ball through the whole of the play, and realize that when they do something dumb like stretch out and fumble its their fault. When they fumble a catch (at the goal line or through the end zone) without need, their butt should be stapled to the bench for a week to remind them to take care of the ball.

Points: 0

#21 by renangms // Dec 20, 2017 - 10:28am

It makes no sense if the ball comes out in 1 yard line, the offense keeps the ball at that position, but if the ball moves 1 yard into the endzone, they lose possession and it's a touchback. It's pure luck, randomness and it shouldn't be like that.

Points: 0

#25 by Eddo // Dec 20, 2017 - 10:44am

"It makes no sense if the ball comes out and is recovered by the defense one foot out of bounds, but if the ball were one foot in the other direction, it would be a turnover. It's pure luck, randomness, and it shouldn't be like that."

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#26 by renangms // Dec 20, 2017 - 10:51am

False equivalence. The defense recovering the ball before going out of bounds would be the same for every position of the field. If the ball goes out of bounds, the offense keeps the ball in very position of the field, except in in the endzone.

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#27 by Eddo // Dec 20, 2017 - 11:11am

My example might not be the best, but your "randomness" is way off. It is in no way random; it is happening at one of the two most important yard lines on the field (the goal lines). That was what I was getting at with my reference to the sideline; it is not random, it is a boundary of the field and thus has different situational rules.

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#30 by ChrisS // Dec 20, 2017 - 12:55pm

A 5-10 yard penalty for a fumble through the end zone is just as arbitrary (though not as penal) as the current rule. The end zone has different rules for possession (a TD as soon as possession is established, punts and kickoffs downed go to 20/25, safeties), it is a high leverage area and mistakes should be penalized at a high rate as well.

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#6 by ClavisRa // Dec 19, 2017 - 8:53pm

Possession is not part of making a catch. Possession is the final result of a completed pass; at that point the player is just like any other 'runner', and you can start to look at things like out of bounds, in the end zone, down by contact, etc.

The rule book is a bit sloppy, like two drafts before the final draft, and they just stop editing it. But, the catch rule is actually pretty easy to understand, and quite fair and clear; much more so than most rules (like all the judgement calls on pass interference and holding).

A catch begins with >control<. If at some point a player has control of a pass, the process of completing the catch begin. One part is, of course, >maintaining control<; if you lose control before completing the catch, you have to start the process over again when you get control.

While you maintain control you must establish yourself in the field of play with two feet, or the equivalent. This you were incorrectly calling possession. You're the only person I've ever seen make this mistake; very odd.

The other thing you must do while you maintain control is land on the ground. If you land on your feet, and either protect yourself, or take a couple steps running, congrats, the pass is complete and you possess the ball. We see this every week where a player catches the ball cleanly, lands on two feet, turns their body, takes a step up field, and gets the ball swatted away. To the surprise of no one, that's called an incomplete pass. He controlled, the ball, landed under control, even started to run, and it's still incomplete. No one gets upset with these calls, either. We all understand he just didn't control the ball long enough, and the defender made a good play.

Hitting the ground while making a catch and having the ball jarred loose is no different. If you lose control of the ball it doesn't matter if the ground did it, another player did it, or you did it to yourself. When James stretches out to the goal line, if a defender had swiped the ball out of his grasp then, it's an incomplete pass, too. The plane of the goal has nothing to do with anything until the ball is possessed.

The James catch is as staightforward as incompletions get. He literally slams the nose of the ball into the turf and loses control of the football. At that moment it's immediately a dead ball. Why would anyone want an NFL where that's a completed pass?

The catch rule was not the problem. The problem was the player didn't secure the ball. The problem was the coaches didn't coach him on ball security. (And another part of the problem is the telecast's primary camera angle kept all that obscured, which is why it was a such a big surprise when the ruling came down.)

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#7 by RickD // Dec 19, 2017 - 10:28pm

" He controlled, the ball, landed under control, even started to run, and it's still incomplete. No one gets upset with these calls, either. We all understand he just didn't control the ball long enough, and the defender made a good play."

This feels like a circular argument. Why not just say that's a reception and a fumble?
IF a receiver has control long enough to turn and start to run, that's a reception. Right?

(BTW, I think you're giving the defense a bit too much time here based on the current rules. The defender is only allowed to swat the ball away if the receiver has done absolutely nothing. [Ignoring the 'survive the ground' aspect of the rule for the moment.])

"Why would anyone want an NFL where that's a completed pass?"

Because he had control of the ball and was clearly in bounds. Why would anyone want an NFL where that's not a completed pass? Clearly he had control of the ball long enough to extend it toward the end zone. Why not treat him as a runner right then instead of waiting for him to "survive the ground"?

You'll see more fumbles, certainly, but at least we'll be returned to a world where "a catch" is what most people think it should be.

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#8 by PatsFan // Dec 19, 2017 - 11:46pm

You'll see more fumbles, certainly, but at least we'll be returned to a world where "a catch" is what most people think it should be.
And then the same people complaining about this rule will be complaining that there are too many damned fumbles.

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#11 by RobotBoy // Dec 20, 2017 - 4:42am

'The defender is only allowed to swat the ball away if the receiver has done absolutely nothing.'
I don't believe this is exactly true. I remember a Patriots-Ravens playoff game a few years back where a Ravens WR caught what would have been a game-winning touchdown pass in the end zone, took a step and a half, maybe two, and had the ball swatted away by a Pats DB. Incomplete pass. I think that led to the Ravens having to try a chip shot field goal (also for a win?) and the kicker missing it by a country mile. Maybe that was another playoff disaster, though.

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#12 by JoeyHarringtonsPiano // Dec 20, 2017 - 5:57am

2011 AFC Championship Game. Flacco hit Lee Evans in the breadbasket, and the Patriots DB (can’t remember his name), swatted it out a split second afterwards. Evans took like half a step before he lost control, not one or two...hence no controversy about that being incomplete. Billy Cundiff shanked the game-tying FG.

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#16 by Digit // Dec 20, 2017 - 9:53am

Bill Belichick mentioned in his press conference that his take was that the NFL wanted to err on the side of incompletion rather than fumbles.

Also, I think the unintended consequences of considering James's attempt at a catch would end up something like this:

Defenders would be swarming to hit said player on the ground as hard as possible in order to recover the fumble, because then the whole 'defenseless' player thing becomes moot if he lands and tries to do the stretching out thing, if control starts at -that- point instead of to the ground.

I mean, basically, you can't hit a defenseless player, right? But if he looks like he has the ball and is about to twist to dive, the whole 'cannot hit a defenseless player as he is falling to the ground' thing becomes moot as he's now a 'receiver' who can't actually defend himself because he's trying to stretch as he catches.

You're probably going to see more injuries and more hits at players who are falling and trying to stretch out at the same time, because -how- the hell do you know exactly when he's got control? And obviously, resulting in more fumbles.

Imagine how it would look if the Patriots went after the player who's falling as he's trying to catch -and- stretch out, and they recovered in the end zone. People would be screaming incompletion and/or hitting a defenseless receiver if this happened against New England, and demand a rule change.

(And yeah, I tend to think that realistically, a falling player that was doing what James was doing really doesn't have a chance to defend himself against a big monster hit. Imagine Burfict going right for a player trying to complete a pass to the ground near the end zone.)

Points: 0

#19 by Digit // Dec 20, 2017 - 10:16am

I don't -like- the current rule, but I get why they want to do it, because I have absolutely zero doubt that if they changed it to anywhere close to what Scott's proposal, the hits Burfict delivers to 'defenseless receivers' would suddenly be legal if he actually has the ball in his hands and -might- be making a football move. Because that's not a defenseless receiver if he 'has control'.

That and I will bet a zillion dollars that Belichick's coaching strategy will change into 'hit them if the ball is anywhere in their hands regardless of whether they're going to the ground or not' instead of 'don't hit players going to the ground' and while -that- particular play might be ruled a touchdown, any diving catches is going to be met with thunderous hits.

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#20 by dmstorm22 // Dec 20, 2017 - 10:22am

Actually an interesting point you've brought up here.

Though I can't imagine that was a driving force behind this 'going to the ground' stuff that was added to the catch rule in the 2009/2010 timeframe (Deadspin just put up a great article on the changing wording of the catch rule over time starting with Bert Emmanuel).

Honestly, I love Barnwell's 'the committee' idea from his Monday column. Have 25 ex-DBs and 25 ex-WRs vote on all controversial catches on if its a catch or not. Sure, that is betraying all ideas of objectivity, but hey, if college football can survive with a 'committee' deciding who makes the playoffs?...

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#22 by Digit // Dec 20, 2017 - 10:29am

It's not, honestly - I just think it's going to be one of those 'unexpected' consequences of making a shift like that because you're gonna run afoul of a conflict with what a defenseless receiver would be if he's 'in control enough' to 'make a football move' while still falling.

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#23 by dmstorm22 // Dec 20, 2017 - 10:31am

No, I think you're right. That there definitely would be unintended consequences.

Though I wonder how easy it is to launch yourself into a falling player. Seems a lot easier to do it with a stationary or at least upright player as a target.

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#32 by Bright Blue Shorts // Dec 21, 2017 - 4:57am

As societies don't we start off with committees of 50 and then realise it's all a bit onerous and so then reduce the committee to 25 and then to 15 and so on until we get to the point where we just have one very experienced person be the judge (or perhaps a crew of 7) ...

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#13 by Anon Ymous // Dec 20, 2017 - 7:34am

Scott's outline of the James play looks like it could be viable, though for clarity purposes I'd change the first "C" to "control".

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#14 by Scott Kacsmar // Dec 20, 2017 - 8:00am

I can see that, but I like the idea of "catch" still being part of the process. We just need to move away from the "is it a catch?" language and start focusing on completions. If a guy is standing on the white boundary line and catches the ball, of course it's a catch. But he's out of bounds so it's not a completion.

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#15 by Anon Ymous // Dec 20, 2017 - 8:31am

I like "control" because it doesn't require any language movement. People are still free to equate "catch" with "completion" with no impact on the precision or clarity of the rule.

Points: 0

#18 by nlitwinetz // Dec 20, 2017 - 10:01am

The trouble with your proposed catch rule is that the definition of "move" is so vague. Technically, he made a move in frame #2 since he had moved the ball from up near his helmet down to near his chest but it clearly wasn't a catch at that point. Why not get away from all these crazy definitions and make a catch purely based on time.

"A player must control the ball for 1 full second for it to be a catch."

This would make replays much easier since they could just look at the time stamps on the video to see when control was established and when it was lost. Hell a computer could probably do this to ensure that calls are correctly made near instantaneously.

Sure you would still have debates when a player had control for 0.99 seconds or 1.01 seconds, but there are always going to be close calls.

Points: 0

#24 by Eddo // Dec 20, 2017 - 10:43am

"there are always going to be close calls."

This is the truth, and why I don't believe there is much room to improve the perception of the catch rule.

Let's say we change the rule somehow so that James's play was a catch(*). That means we'll see some other completions, that, when viewed on replay, cause people to say, "How is that a catch?" and the old standby, "I don't know what a catch is any more."

(*) NOTE: I firmly believe the NFL is better where plays like James's are not catches. That ball clearly hits the ground and moves. And I say this as someone who was screwed in fantasy, a confidence pool, AND in general rooting interest by the Steelers not getting that TD.

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#28 by Raiderjoe // Dec 20, 2017 - 12:40pm

supopsoe can get behind these plays nto being acath if ball does touch ground even if sometimes it really seems ridiculous such as s. shepard play in phikadelphia. catches ball. takes som,e steps. goes out of bounds. stumble s on a camera wire or soekth/ing or moves to avoid sound guy or something like that (niot tiotally sure anymore; may have been drinking when watched play and it happened couple months ago) and ball leaves his hands. No touchdown. problem is if he immediately spiked ball upon leaving end zone, it would have been a touchdown.

my point is when is a catch a catch? I mean in that play,m a spike would have occurred before what actually did occur- when Shepard lost the ball outaside of end zone.

what have bigger problem with is possession of ball and guy is down in end zone, ball then moves slightly while guy is out of bounds. ball NEVER touches ground. original TD call is reversed upon review,. this happened in jets-Panthers game with a. seferian-jenkins. THAT one may be worst catch/no catch clal of season. less profile game so barely mentioned compared to this Pates-Pitt play

Points: 0

#29 by ChrisS // Dec 20, 2017 - 12:50pm

I am unclear on the "move" part of the completion. If a receiver "catches" the ball while air born and is contacted by the defender in the air and falls to the ground (establishing "possession") why would he then have to move? It would also seem to change the timing of when a TD is scored

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#31 by bloxorz // Dec 21, 2017 - 4:14am

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#33 by jschroe36 // Dec 21, 2017 - 9:20am

Scott, Ingram's first big play was via pass, not run. Good write up

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#34 by jschroe36 // Dec 21, 2017 - 9:30am

I have no idea why people suddenly have this big aversion to the touchback fumble rule. IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN THIS WAY THROUGHOUT THE HISTORY OF THE GAME.

Who gives a flying f*ck if it "makes sense" or not? PLEASE do not punish/handicap/cripple defenses any more than they already have been crippled. The NFL is already virtually unwatchable when every QB in the league completes 60%+ of their passes, and ANY/A is up a yard/play from the football I grew up watching in the late '80s-90s. The game has changed so much that there's no real reason for any team to run the football any more.

NFL under Goodell is glorified flag football.

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#35 by Eddo // Dec 21, 2017 - 1:54pm

And yet, offenses aren't scoring many more touchdowns than they have, historically.

Offensive TDs per game (source), by decade:

2010s: 2.31
2000s: 2.15
1990s: 2.04
1980s: 2.27
1970s: 2.08
1960s: 2.44
1950s: 2.51

If anything, the league had gotten to skewed towards defenses in the 1990s and 2000s, so the league tweaked the rules so that offensive scoring wouldn't continue to drop.

Points: 0

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