Clutch Encounters: Week 16
by Scott Kacsmar
Week 16 was another great week for favorites, with 13 out of 16 winning. Maybe the most shocking result was the way the 49ers scored 44 points against Jacksonville's top-ranked defense. That game didn't even qualify as a comeback opportunity since San Francisco answered with a touchdown both times the Jaguars pulled to within one score in the fourth quarter.
We still had seven games feature a comeback opportunity this week. We had been stuck with Pittsburgh for the Game of the Week in this space for the last month, but not this time. Instead of one of their usually close road games, the Steelers instead easily dispatched of a road scrub in a 34-6 win in Houston on Christmas Day. However, the Week 16 finale in Philadelphia brought the drama, home-field advantage for the Eagles, and a ton of terrible football along the way.
Game of the Week
Oakland Raiders 10 at Philadelphia Eagles 19
Game Winning Chance Before: 76.8 percent
Game Winning Chance After:96.2 percent
Win Probability Added: 19.4 percent
Head Coach: Doug Pederson (3-6 at 4QC and 4-7 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Nick Foles (6-11 at 4QC and 8-11 overall 4QC/GWD record)
I'm not sure a team has ever clinched the No. 1 seed in the playoffs in more worrisome fashion than the Eagles did on Monday night. This was a good candidate for the Worst Game of the Year, showcasing Philadelphia's shortcomings more than anything. Nick Foles should have had a pick-six in the first half, but Reggie Nelson dropped the ball. The Raiders entered the game with just four picks all season. Derek Carr was also terrible on the night in one of the season's worst quarterback duels. Neither quarterback passed for 170 yards. Michael Crabtree and Alshon Jeffery failed to catch a pass in this game. Both kickers missed go-ahead field goals.
There were three turnovers in a four-play span In the third quarter. No wonder it was a 10-10 game for so long. The fourth quarter started with both quarterbacks surviving a sack and fumble on a third-down play. Giorgio Tavecchio, who won't make anyone forget about Sebastian Janikowski any time soon, was wide right on a 48-yard field goal with 7:58 left. Nelson immediately got the ball back for his defense as he did not drop his second chance at an interception. However, Jalen Richard fumbled just after breaking into the red zone with 6:35 left. The teams continued to exchange punts until one of the more bizarre endings this season.
Shockingly, the Raiders had four drives start at their own 41 or better in the fourth quarter and failed to score on any of them. Credit to Josh Dubow for going next-level on how bad the Raiders were at turning good field position into no points on the night:
The QB for Vikings that day was Spergon Wynn so he and Carr are only QBs to have six drives starting at own 40 or better in a game and fail to score since at least 2000 https://t.co/oyWm62pfPj
— Josh Dubow (@JoshDubowAP) December 26, 2017
With 1:07 left, Carr seemed to be in good position at his own 46 for a game-winning drive. On the drive's second play, Carr faded away from pressure and forced a pass to Amari Cooper that was intercepted by Ronald Darby and returned to the Philadelphia 48. Foles actually picked up a one-minute drill for this with 54 seconds left when he started the drive, but he only had to complete four short passes for 21 yards. Jake Elliott redeemed himself by nailing a 48-yard field goal with 22 seconds left to take a 13-10 lead.
The game still wasn't over, with the Raiders getting a good kick return to their own 36 with 17 seconds and three timeouts left. But pressure on Carr forced three quick incompletions. On fourth-and-10, the doomed chain of laterals was fumbled and returned for a cheap touchdown to give the Eagles a two-score win (19-10).
But for those of us who watched the game, we're left wondering how the Eagles stand to compete with teams like the Vikings, Rams, Saints, and Panthers in the playoffs after such a lousy performance like this. You won't see a team like the Giants or Raiders in the playoffs, and those are the teams the Eagles have just scraped by the last two weeks with Foles at quarterback.
Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 19 at Carolina Panthers 22
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 4 (19-15)
Game Winning Chance Before: 34.8 percent
Game Winning Chance After: 97.0 percent
Win Probability Added: 62.2 percent
Head Coach: Ron Rivera (12-28-1 at 4QC and 15-31-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Cam Newton (12-27-1 at 4QC and 15-29-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Carolina came awfully close to making its Week 17 finale in Atlanta a tougher way of clinching a playoff spot. Not much was expected from Tampa Bay in this one, but the Buccaneers frustrated Cam Newton, who had as many rushing attempts (14) and sacks (two) combined as he did pass completions (16). Tampa Bay opened the fourth quarter by extending to a 19-15 lead, and then sacked Newton out of field goal range with just over nine minutes left.
Jameis Winston kept a long, penalty-heavy drive alive by converting a third-and-12 with a 30-yard gain to Mike Evans. But when the offense had a chance to deliver the knockout score, Carolina's defense stepped up with a sack of Winston and a failed completion on third down that set up Patrick Murray for a 51-yard field goal attempt. We always talk about the struggles of Tampa Bay kickers, and while 51 yards isn't easy, it was still a makeable kick. Murray was wide right with 3:00 left, leaving Newton time to drive for the game-winning touchdown instead of only the game-tying score.
Newton only passed for 160 yards in the game, but had 52 of those yards on the final drive. The Buccaneers only needed to stop a fourth-and-3 to win the game, but committed a poor penalty by jumping into the neutral zone. That still kept it a fourth-and-1, but made the run a much more attractive option for the Panthers. Jonathan Stewart pounded ahead for the yard to keep the drive alive. The Buccaneers had to use their second timeout to conserve some time for a response drive.
Newton turned a near disaster into a positive. After dropping the ball, he was able to gather and dive forward for the game-winning touchdown with 35 seconds left.
Cam Newton gets the go-ahead rushing touchdown despite the muffed snap pic.twitter.com/8tz05BI5Sg
— Ian Wharton (@NFLFilmStudy) December 24, 2017
Maybe next Christmas they can ask for something a little simpler than the Fumblerooski.
Winston still had a slight shot to get a game-tying field goal, despite his team's shaky kicker situation. However, that hope faded quickly after he was engulfed in the backfield by Kawann Short and lost the ball. Carolina recovered to clinch the game and a playoff berth with its 11-4 record.
Los Angeles Rams 27 at Tennessee Titans 23
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 3 (23-20)
Game Winning Chance Before: 41.3 percent
Game Winning Chance After: 72.0 percent
Win Probability Added: 30.7 percent
Head Coach: Sean McVay (1-4 at 4QC and 1-4 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Jared Goff (1-6 at 4QC and 1-6 overall 4QC/GWD record)
On Sunday in Nashville, another support group meeting between survivors of Jeff Fisher took place. You have to go back to the 2003 season to find the last time the Rams and Titans both made the playoffs, but we could be seeing that again this year if Tennessee gets in next week. They have to wait because the Rams were busy clinching the NFC West with the first fourth-quarter comeback and game-winning drive of the Jared Goff era.
Previously, Goff had walked away with a loss in his first six game-winning drive opportunities, including four times this season. When the Titans took an early 23-20 lead in the fourth quarter, something had to change if the Rams didn't want to be branded as young front-runners. Todd Gurley had a monster day with 276 yards from scrimmage, but almost half of the 68-yard winning march came courtesy of a 31-yard pass interference penalty on Brice McCain. It was a bit of a soft call, but I can see why the officials flagged McCain. Five plays later, Cooper Kupp again beat McCain for a 14-yard touchdown on a nice catch in the end zone. Kupp has had some bad drops in crunch time for the Rams this year, but he delivered here to give the team a 27-23 lead with 11:51 left.
The Titans had three opportunities at scoring the go-ahead touchdown, but no one was able to make a play for the offense. Marcus Mariota delivered a fairly accurate pass down the seam to Taywan Taylor on a third-and-16, but it was into traffic and the receiver did not come away with the ball. On a third-and-10, Corey Davis couldn't pull in a scrambled throw from Mariota.
On the final drive, Mariota seemed to have a conversion for a first down at the Los Angeles 49 to get to the two-minute warning, but the game mysteriously came back to the 2:05 mark with the Titans having used their first timeout. It wasn't an injury situation either, so that was just odd. Mariota sailed two passes out of bounds and threw a checkdown, and the game was quickly in a desperate fourth-and-4 situation. Even though DeMarco Murray had left the game injured on the drive, it was quite odd to see the Titans use backup running back David Fluellen split out wide right to run a slant on such a crucial play. Mariota had Delanie Walker open on a quick out, but his hesitation there cost him dearly. He tried to scramble under hot pursuit and ended up throwing a wild pass while he was falling down. Fluellen officially got the "target" on the play, his first of 2017, but the drive was a real failure.
Gurley ran the ball three more times with the clock just able to run out before the Rams had to do anything on fourth down. An extra timeout may have been nice for the Titans there.
Tennessee will hope for some 1999-style magic when they beat the Jaguars three times in one season, including in the playoffs. In the last three weeks, the Titans have blown a fourth-quarter lead and Mariota attempted game-deciding passes to Adoree' Jackson and David Fluellen. This is the definition of backing into the playoffs.
Detroit Lions 17 at Cincinnati Bengals 26
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 1 (17-16)
Game Winning Chance Before: 35.6 percent
Game Winning Chance After: 58.9 percent
Win Probability Added: 23.3 percent
Head Coach: Marvin Lewis (32-71-2 at 4QC and 43-73-3 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Andy Dalton (14-27-2 at 4QC and 19-29-2 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Three blown fourth-quarter leads have the Bengals (6-9) thinking what could have been in 2017, but they weren't about to drop another winnable game at home. Not even when Matthew Stafford appeared to have another game-winning drive lined up. The Lions took a 17-16 lead with 9:49 left after a running into the kicker penalty on a punt extended the Detroit drive. Running back Tion Green and tight end Eric Ebron were the big playmakers on the day for the Lions, and Green's 5-yard rushing touchdown capped off the 75-yard drive.
Andy Dalton engineered a long drive that was saved by a defensive holding penalty on Quandre Diggs on a third-and-12. Diggs made a brutal mistake to tackle Brandon LaFell down the seam for fear of getting beat deep. Had Diggs played normal coverage, Dalton likely would have just thrown the ball away like he did anyway. The drive eventually stalled, but Randy Bullock overcame his suspect reputation by converting a 51-yard field goal with 4:42 left.
Obviously there is a lot of confidence in Stafford in these situations, but keep in mind that the Lions have now lost their last five comeback opportunities this season. We expected this, but that doesn't mean it was ordained to happen. Someone had to make a play, but no Detroit player did. On a screen with awful timing, Stafford completed a 3-yard loss to Golden Tate. Two penalties on backup guard Don Barclay brought up a third-and-28. Stafford gave Tate a shot to make a spectacular catch on a deep ball, but the receiver was unable to hang onto the ball in a pack of Bengals.
Last year, when the Lions had a record eight fourth-quarter comebacks, Tate may have made that type of play. This time, it just didn't happen. Worse, the Bengals had great field position at the Detroit 40 after a short punt. Detroit's last good shot was to hold the Bengals to a field goal attempt after a third-and-6 at the two-minute warning. Unfortunately for them, Giovani Bernard found the corner for a 12-yard touchdown run to ice the game at 26-17. Stafford was then sacked on consecutive plays to end the game.
This was the first blown fourth-quarter lead for Detroit this season, and a loss that eliminated the Lions (8-7) from the playoffs.
Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind
Bills at Patriots: No Really, It Was Once Close
This was the biggest game for the Buffalo Bills in the 21st century. OK, maybe the second biggest, but it was big. For three quarters, Buffalo gave the Patriots all they could handle at home. The Bills went for it on fourth-and-2 from the New England 6, but it didn't work. They intercepted Tom Brady for a touchdown. They were hosed on a touchdown reversal involving Kelvin Benjamin before halftime. They still took a 16-13 lead in the third quarter and only trailed 23-16 with possession of the ball in New England territory in the fourth quarter.
[ad placeholder 3]
Then everything went terribly wrong. It started with coach Sean McDermott's decision to kick a 50-yard field goal on fourth-and-1 from the New England 32. Even if Steven Hauschka's kick had not gone wide right, that was an inexcusable mistake. Defensive-minded coaches tend to make these mistakes, and to change their strategy after getting scared off by an earlier failure. If McDermott understood the value in going for the earlier fourth-and-2, then he should have realized how important it was to pick up this fourth-and-1 instead of relying on a 50-yard kick that still would have left his offense behind a touchdown.
Seven plays later, the Patriots were in the end zone and the game was essentially over at 30-16. Dion Lewis had an outstanding quarter with eight successful plays on nine touches, including two touchdowns -- one on a third-and-11 screen that you like to think Buffalo could have stopped short. The insurance touchdown pushed things to a 37-16 final.
The Bills need help to make the playoffs next week. The offense failed to score a touchdown in eight quarters against the Patriots this year. That's why even if a miracle playoff run begins, there's no sense in expecting the Bills to do anything once the tournament starts.
But it sure would be nice to make the postseason again seeing as how every other team has in the 32-team era.
Chargers at Jets: Christmas Eve Dark Match
You know a game struggled for excitement when the most notable play of the first half was wide receiver Keenan Allen intercepting a Hail Mary thrown by Bryce Petty. The Jets were naturally flummoxed behind Petty on offense, but the Chargers often failed to score too after a bad third-down day (5-of-15). The Chargers avoided third down entirely on their eight-play march in the third quarter to take a 14-7 lead, a lead that held up for the final 20 minutes.
The Jets penetrated into the red zone with just over three minutes left, but faced a fourth-and-7 at the Los Angeles 17. Given the offensive struggles on the day, I liked Todd Bowles' decision to go for it. Petty had Robby Anderson open too, but overshot the throw.
Then, on a big third-and-8, Philip Rivers lofted a pass to Allen for 20 yards. That really helped run the clock down, and by the time the Jets got the ball back, they were 95 yards away from the end zone with three seconds left. New York's lateral was fumbled and recovered by the Chargers, but no cheap touchdown return to cover the spread happened this time.
Colts at Ravens: Getting Grabby Out There … On Both Sides
On a rainy Saturday in Baltimore, the Colts hung tough with another opponent before a familiar result. Some questionable officiating helped swing this one in the fourth quarter. The Ravens got past a third-and-8 jam after Nate Hairston was penalized for defensive pass interference. The call was reasonable.
That led to a touchdown and 23-13 lead for the Ravens with 8:40 left. Jacoby Brissett avoided a few dropped interceptions to put the offense in position for a field goal and 23-16 deficit. After Baltimore's usually strong special teams had a punt blocked with 2:36 left, Brissett was just 27 yards away from the tie. However, Brissett took a bad sack to bring up a fourth-and-10. I was not a fan of Baltimore immediately using a third timeout there. Sure, it saved some time for a potential game-winning drive for the offense, but it also allowed the Colts to regroup for fourth down. I would have let them play things out in an effort to keep the game alive.
Brissett went to his best receiver in T.Y. Hilton, but the pass was knocked away by Maurice Canady. Game over, but should it have been? You can see Canady get there early and obstruct Hilton's right arm from making the catch.
The Ravens got the call earlier, but the Colts did not get it late, and that's just not very nice gift-sharing by the officials. It also probably doesn't help when you are the 3-11 (now 3-12) team on the road.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 47
Game-winning drives: 73 (plus two non-offensive game-winning scores)
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 129/240 (53.8 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.