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

Clutch Encounters: Week 4

Clutch Encounters: Week 4
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Scott Kacsmar

It's a quarter of the way through the season, and only the Titans, Ravens, and Saints have yet to play a close game in the fourth quarter. They all sit at 2-2 after some head-scratching performances. Are the Saints actually improved on defense after allowing more than 1,000 yards in the first two weeks of the season, or is Miami really that bad after flirting with back-to-back 20-0 shutouts? Can we ever take anything legitimate away from games played in England? Then again, the Ravens were down 19-0 at home to Pittsburgh a week after getting blown out in London by the Jaguars. Also, the Titans allowed 57 points in Houston, so your guess on the AFC South is as good as mine, though one thing is clear: the Colts without Andrew Luck are pretty irrelevant.

The 0-4 Chargers had yet another close loss, 26-24 to Philadelphia, but we're not covering that game because Los Angeles never had possession of the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead in the fourth quarter. LeGarrette Blount had some big runs in the fourth quarter put the Chargers away. In fact, the Eagles impressively ran out the final 6:44 on the clock to not give the Chargers another chance with the ball after an amazing touchdown by Hunter Henry pulled the team to within two points. However, if the Chargers lose a close game and no fans are there to agonize their way through a final Philip Rivers-led drive, did it really happen?

This week did have nine real contests with comeback opportunities, and four more with winning scores on the final play of the game. We start in Kansas City, where another two-score win obscures the fact that this game was very close.

Game of the Week

Washington Redskins 20 at Kansas City Chiefs 29

Type: GWD
Game Winning Chance Before: 55.5 percent
Game Winning Chance After: 99.2 percent
Win Probability Added: 43.7 percent
Head Coach: Andy Reid (37-63-1 at 4QC and 51-71-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Alex Smith (19-27 at 4QC and 23-28 overall 4QC/GWD record)

The Chiefs remain the NFL's last unbeaten team (4-0) this season after another fourth-quarter escape. Every Kansas City game this season has been within seven points in the final six minutes, yet the Chiefs have posted wins of 15, 14, and nine points along the way. Monday night was the third time this season that Alex Smith led a game-winning drive, and it was the team's closest finish yet. It was also the second time this season that the Chiefs came back to win by multiple scores after trailing by 10 points. Yeah, it's been that kind of odd season.

Perhaps the oddest thing would have been to see Washington actually win a Monday Night Football game. The Redskins are now 2-12 on the ESPN broadcast since 2008, and have the league's worst Monday night record in the salary cap era (6-19 since 1994). Kirk Cousins was seeking a signature win in prime time, and really did his part with three big scrambles on a late drive. I'm not sure why Jay Gruden called his first timeout with 57 seconds left, because a failure to convert on third down would have led to a game-tying field goal attempt that, even if successful, would have given the Chiefs time to answer. That's exactly what happened too after Josh Doctson was unable to maintain control of a fine pass from Cousins in the end zone. If Doctson holds onto the ball, this is likely a game-winning play with 50 seconds left.

With the game tied at 20, we saw an Andy Reid team manage the clock fairly well with 47 seconds and two timeouts left. Smith has not been nearly as aggressive as some people think this year, but he's doing it in big moments, which can help build the perception that things are really different. He's also hitting these plays, such as he did after moving out of the pocket to find Albert Wilson down the field for a huge 37-yard gain. Reid even let him throw another slant for 10 more yards to get their inexperienced kicker closer. The only mishap was spiking the ball with eight seconds left instead of three or four, but this was still an improvement for Reid. Gruden tried to ice the kicker, but it was to no avail. Harrison Butker's NFL debut was successful as he kicked a game-winning 43-yard field goal.

Four seconds remained, which meant enough time for a lateral-filled play from scrimmage for Washington. The ball eventually wound up going down as a forced fumble by Marcus Peters (who else?), and was returned for an "F YOU!" touchdown by Justin Houston with no time left. The Chiefs kneeled on the two-point try to get out with a 29-20 win, upsetting a large portion of the gambling crowd everywhere on a night where the Redskins were 7-point underdogs. Washington actually ended 2016 against the Giants in the same fashion, losing 19-10 after a lateral was fumbled for a touchdown on the game's final play.

The Houston fumble return is Kansas City's first non-offensive score of 2017, so you can't say the Chiefs are winning games in the same unsustainable ways as last year. However, Washington has dropped a couple of very winnable games, which does look like what happened last year for this team.

Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind

Carolina Panthers 33 at New England Patriots 30

Type: GWD
Game Winning Chance Before: 47.8 percent
Game Winning Chance After: 100.0 percent
Win Probability Added: 52.2 percent
Head Coach: Ron Rivera (11-27-1 at 4QC and 13-30-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Cam Newton (11-26-1 at 4QC and 13-28-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Going back to opening night, this has been a season unlike any other for the Patriots since 2001, the beginning of the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era. For years, the thought was that an offense might be able to move the ball in New England, but Belichick's defense will find a way to get turnovers or play well in the red zone to limit points. This season, the Patriots have allowed at least 33 points in all three home games. They had allowed 33-plus points at home just nine times from 2001 to 2016, and that sometimes took an awful day of giveaways to happen, such as in the losses to the 2008 Steelers and 2009 Ravens.

Most Points Scored Against Patriots Defense In New England, 2001-2017
Rk Team Year Week Result OFF PTS Note
1 KC 2017 1 W 42-27 42 NE: led 28-27 to start 4Q
2 SF 2012 15 W 41-34 41 SF: C.Kaepernick led GWD
3 IND 2005 9 W 40-21 40 IND: scored on 7-of-9 drives
4 KC 2002 3 L 41-38 OT 38 NE: GW FG on only OT drive
MIA 2008 3 W 38-13 38 MIA: The Wildcat Game
6 SD 2005 4 W 41-17 34 NE: M.Cassel threw pick-6 in relief
7 PIT 2008 13 W 33-10 33 PIT: TD drives of 1 and 8-yards
BAL 2009 AFC-WC W 33-14 33 BAL: Four scoring drives of 0-25 yards
CAR 2017 4 W 33-30 33 CAR: scored on 6-of-9 drives
Patriots Allowed 33+ Points, But Not All on Defense
Rk Team Year Week Result OFF PTS Note
- NYJ 2008 11 W 34-31 OT 27 NYJ: L.Washington kick return TD
HOU 2017 3 L 36-33 26 HOU: Strip-six by J.Clowney
PHI 2015 13 W 35-28 14 PHI: Three return TDs

Speaking of turnovers, the Patriots did not have any again on Sunday. From 2001 to 2016, the Patriots were 52-3 at home when having zero giveaways, including a Week 17 "playoff rest" loss to the Bills in 2014. They are 0-2 this season at home when not turning the ball over. The only other team to ever start a season like that through Week 4 was the 1980 Saints, a 1-15 team with one of the worst defenses in NFL history.

New England's defense, for as bad as it was against Carolina, still got an interception and a fumble in the red zone on Sunday, so the Patriots were actually plus-two in turnover margin. Regardless of venue, the Patriots were 92-1 since 2001 when they were at least plus-two in turnovers, the only loss coming back in 2002 to the Broncos. Make that 92-2 now.

We mentioned last week that Brady was 106-2 when his passer rating was at least 103.0. Make that 106-3 after his 104.6 passer rating wasn't good enough to overcome Cam Newton's big day, which was a huge surprise given how lethargic the offense had been the first three weeks of the season. Beating Brady at home when he's leading the Patriots to 30 points has been nearly impossible, but Carolina did it. Brady was 60-1 at home when New England scored at least 30 points, the only loss coming in that 41-34 epic against the 2012 49ers.

Even after taking a 30-16 lead in the fourth quarter, Carolina had to sweat out the final 12:58. Brady led consecutive touchdown drives that each needed a fourth-down conversion, including a 1-yard touchdown pass to Danny Amendola to tie the game with 3:09 left. In between the scores, the Panthers went three-and-out after Dont'a Hightower sacked Newton on third down, and the ensuing punt put New England at the Carolina 49.

With the score now tied 30-30, the Panthers were going to have to make another play to finish the Patriots off if they didn't want to look like their rival Falcons in Super Bowl LI. Instead, it was looking like another three-and-out and third-down sack of Newton, but a huge call for illegal use of hands was issued against cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who was already having a rough day in coverage. The FOX broadcast really did not show a good view of what Gilmore did to Devin Funchess' face, but you could see Funchess' head snap back quickly, and Gilmore had already been penalized earlier in the game for this penalty. Still, that was a surprising call in that situation, and a costly one since it had zero impact on the play for New England.

Newton finally got the offense back on track, though the Panthers stopped putting the ball in the air after reaching the New England 34. Belichick could have used his three timeouts to save some time for Brady after a Carolina field goal, but held onto them. Maybe he thought the Panthers would have wised up and thrown another pass against his defense to get closer if he used a timeout to let them think it over. I probably would have used my timeouts, but Belichick only used one to try to ice Graham Gano on the 48-yard field goal to win the game.

We just recently ran a study on clutch field goals since 2002. Go figure, the Patriots led the NFL with 72.2 percent of clutch field goals going their way, while the Panthers brought up the rear at 36.7 percent. Gano has had some big misses in his career and had already missed an extra point on the day, but add a huge make after he delivered for Carolina's 33-30 win.

Newton joins a small group of quarterbacks with multiple game-winning drives against the Patriots since 2001: Peyton Manning (three), Eli Manning (three), Ryan Fitzpatrick (two), Ryan Tannehill (two), and Russell Wilson (two). This was just the second time in Brady's career he led a game-tying or go-ahead drive, only to never get the ball back ("NGBB"). I updated a 2015 table on that for the prominent quarterbacks of this era. Eli Manning also had his eighth NGBB loss on Sunday, the most of any active quarterback.

Games Lost After Tying/Go-Ahead Scoring Drive and NGBB
Quarterback NGBB Losses 4QC/GWD Losses Pct.
Eli Manning 8 53 15.1%
Aaron Rodgers 5 36 13.9%
Peyton Manning 7 56 12.5%
Jay Cutler 3 33 9.1%
Carson Palmer 4 50 8.0%
Drew Brees 5 63 7.9%
Philip Rivers 5 65 7.7%
Matt Ryan 3 39 7.7%
Tom Brady 2 39 5.1%
Ben Roethlisberger 2 47 4.3%
Alex Smith 1 28 3.6%
Cam Newton 1 28 3.6%
Tony Romo 1 34 2.9%
Joe Flacco 1 43 2.3%
Matthew Stafford 0 36 0.0%

We are so used to seeing the Patriots get the ball back for their quarterback, but you know what's not included in all of those incredible records from 2001 to 2016? Stephon Gilmore wasn't wearing a Patriots uniform in any of them. While he's not the scapegoat for this awful defensive start, the fact is a unit can't continue to lose talent such as Jamie Collins, Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard, Logan Ryan, etc., and not expect a decline to happen.

However, if things do not improve dramatically soon, then this is going to be more of a nosedive off a cliff. Anyone who could have predicted the Patriots would have the same 2-2 record as the Jets this year is surely a time traveler.

Buffalo Bills 23 at Atlanta Falcons 17

Type: GWD
Game Winning Chance Before: 48.6 percent
Game Winning Chance After: 67.0 percent
Win Probability Added: 18.4 percent
Head Coach: Sean McDermott (0-1 at 4QC and 1-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Tyrod Taylor (2-12 at 4QC and 4-12 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Buffalo's 23-17 upset win in Atlanta ended a few impressive streaks for the Falcons. It was the first time since Week 1 last year that the Falcons did not have a fourth-quarter lead, a streak of 21 games including the playoffs. Stop me if you heard this one before, but everything turned sour after a big Matt Ryan fumble, or at least something that was ruled a fumble. In the third quarter, Ryan was hit as he attempted to pass by Jerry Hughes, who certainly made contact with Ryan's ball hand. However, Ryan maintained control of the ball and flung it forward with a clear throwing motion.

With many players stopping on the play thinking it was an incomplete pass, TreDavious White picked up the ball and returned it 52 yards for a go-ahead touchdown. I frankly don't see why that call should have stood, but I don't think officials have consistently called quarterback fumbles for years now. When two former NFL rules experts disagree on the play, who knows what the right call really is?

Buffalo never trailed again, but could have extended to a bigger lead to start the fourth quarter. The Bills had fourth-and-goal at the Atlanta 1, but instead of going for it, they put on one of football's worst acts: the desperate attempt to draw someone offsides and taking a delay of game penalty. Even if the Falcons had jumped, it still would have been fourth-and-goal, now with half a yard to go. Would that really have made a difference? Regardless, Atlanta didn't jump, Buffalo took the penalty, and the field goal gave Buffalo a 17-10 lead.

The Falcons were missing leading receivers Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu after in-game injuries, but Ryan still led his offense 75 yards for the tying touchdown. Tyrod Taylor immediately answered with a 34-yard bomb to Charles Clay, who had 112 of Taylor's 182 passing yards on the day. Buffalo wide receivers only had 38 receiving yards on Sunday. Still, that was good enough for a 56-yard field goal by Steven Hauschka to take a 20-17 lead with 4:44 left.

Ryan had two tipped interceptions in 2016, but had his third in the last two weeks after a ball deflected off of Nick Williams to a diving Micah Hyde. Buffalo then faced a fourth-and-12 from the Atlanta 37 with 3:10 left. Hauschka made a 55-yard field goal to give Buffalo a 23-17 lead, but was that the right call? A miss there gives Atlanta excellent field position. A make puts Ryan into four-down mode the rest of the game, and the need to drive for the game-winning touchdown. If Buffalo had punted, Atlanta would have had a long field to drive in a 20-17 game, and would have likely gone conservative once in field goal range. In consulting EdjFootball on the decision, Buffalo's Game Winning Chance for attempting the field goal, which accounts for the probability of a miss, was 75.5 percent. Had the Bills punted, their Game Winning Chance goes up to 82.6 percent, a difference of 7.1 percentage points. So the punt would have been a defensible call, but Hauschka made Sean McDermott feel good with a made kick.

Ryan still had plenty of time to answer, but the offense was really limited to finding ways to get the ball to receiving back Tevin Coleman, and to sparingly used receivers Justin Hardy and Williams. After driving to the Buffalo 14, three of Ryan's last four passes all went to Taylor Gabriel, but none connected. Two were even thrown away out of bounds. Even though Atlanta was out of timeouts, I find it hard to justify a pass on both third and fourth down with 1 yard needed for a first down. Ryan used play-action on fourth-and-1, but after Buffalo covered the two outside receivers closely, Ryan was really just forced to lob a pass in Gabriel's direction. The pass fell incomplete, and the Bills had the upset locked up.

Ryan finished with 242 passing yards on 42 attempts, or 5.76 yards per attempt. That ended one of the most incredible streaks any quarterback has ever had in any statistic. Starting with the last three games of 2015, continuing for all of 2016 including the playoffs, and through the first three games of 2017, Ryan had at least 7.0 yards per attempt (YPA) in every game. That 25-game streak is the longest in NFL history. I compiled a list of every single-season streak of at least 10 games in the 16-game era (since 1978). The "Total Streak" includes playoff games, and a quarterback needed at least 10 attempts (that's a very light restriction; Ryan had at least 23 attempts in every game) in a game to qualify. Perhaps the craziest part is the lowest game in Ryan's streak was the first game: 7.03 at Jacksonville in 2015. He averaged at least 7.91 YPA in each of the next 24 games.

Single-Season Streaks of 10+ Games with 7.0 Yards Per Attempt (Since 1978)
Streak Player Year Team Min. Game Total Streak
First/Last 16 Games Matt Ryan 2016 ATL 7.03 25 (2015-2017)
First 13 Games Aaron Rodgers 2011 GB 7.82 16 (2010 PO)
First 15 Games Peyton Manning 2004 IND 7.54 15
Last 14 Games Russell Wilson 2015 SEA 7.00 14
First 12 Games Dan Marino 1984 MIA 7.24 13 (1983 PO)
First 11 Games Ben Roethlisberger 2007 PIT 7.00 12 (2006)
Last 11 Games Kurt Warner 2001 STL 7.00 12 (2001 PO)
Games 2-12 Dak Prescott 2016 DAL 7.36 11
First 10 Games Peyton Manning 2013 DEN 7.02 10
Carson Palmer 2015 ARI 7.65 10
Games 2-11 Philip Rivers 2013 SD 7.18 10
Last 10 Games Steve Young 1994 SF 7.23 10
"Total Streak" includes playoff games

The next closest streak to Ryan's 25 games was Aaron Rodgers at 16 games in the 2010 playoffs and first 13 games of the 2011 season. Peyton Manning had a 15-game streak in 2004 before resting after one series in the Week 17 finale. I also looked at the period of 1950 to 1977, and only found two seasons where a quarterback had even 12 total games of 7.0 YPA: Johnny Unitas (1964) and Bert Jones (1976). The longest streak of either's career was nine games long. So unless Sammy Baugh had some incredible streak I'm missing from the 1940s, or I forgot someone who missed games to injury, I think it is safe to say that Ryan's streak is the longest ever, and the only to surpass 20 games.

Both of these teams can feel comfortable with a 3-1 start, though it is interesting to think how close Buffalo is to 4-0 (remember Taylor's off-target pass to Zay Jones in Carolina), and how the Falcons are awfully close to being 1-3 right now.

New York Giants 23 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers 25

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 1 (23-22)
Game Winning Chance Before: 43.1 percent
Game Winning Chance After:100.0 percent
Win Probability Added: 56.9 percent
Head Coach: Dirk Koetter (2-3 at 4QC and 4-3 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Jameis Winston (4-9 at 4QC and 7-9 overall 4QC/GWD record)

The 2016 Giants had the lowest DVOA variance (2.5%) of any team since 1986. Every week was basically a low-scoring game, helped by some Odell Beckham Jr. heroics, where the defense held up a one-score lead in the fourth quarter. That was the Giants' formula to get to 11-5 and the playoffs, but this year, a similar formula can't even get a win through four weeks. The Giants were 11-1 at holding up those one-score leads a year ago, but are now 0-2 this season in the same situation.

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This was not a banner day for kickers (both missed everything over 40 yards) or two-point conversions (both teams failed in the fourth quarter). The Buccaneers took a 22-17 lead on a touchdown pass from Jameis Winston to Cameron Brate, as tight ends really dominated New York's defense with two scores and 143 receiving yards on the day. Eli Manning found Beckham for 42 yards on a deep ball, and finished off the drive with a play-action touchdown of 2 yards to Rhett Ellison with 3:16 left.

It was very important for the Giants to get the two-point conversion to take a 25-22 lead and protect against losing on a last-second field goal. Manning found Beckham in the back of the end zone, but New York was penalized for an illegal touch pass to negate the score. Beckham was shoved out of bounds and came back in and was the first to touch the ball -- a no-no in the NFL. Since Beckham was pushed out, this really should have been illegal contact since Manning still had the ball in the pocket. If the referees had seen that one, then it would have been legal for Beckham to touch the ball, since he attempted to return inbounds immediately. The referees missed that one, but in the end, the conversion still wouldn't have held up since the Giants were also penalized for offensive holding (hey, D.J. Fluker) on the play. Regardless, the Giants led 23-22.

Winston had 3:16 left, and never let the ball hit the ground. He hit all five of his passes, including a 26-yard gain to Brate against Landon Collins on a third-and-1 that really set up the winning kick. Nick Folk had already missed two field goals earlier, but this was only a 34-yard try. He still almost missed it, but he's not Roberto Aguayo, so the kick was good.

San Francisco 49ers 15 at Arizona Cardinals 18

Type: 4QC/GWD (OT)
Largest Deficit: 3 (15-12)
Game Winning Chance Before: 34.2 percent
Game Winning Chance After: 100.0 percent
Win Probability Added: 65.8 percent
Head Coach: Bruce Arians (16-15 at 4QC and 24-15-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Carson Palmer (23-50 at 4QC and 36-50-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Kyle Shanahan has quickly gone from "offensive genius" to a guy whose offense can't find the end zone. But that might happen when your quarterback is Brian Hoyer and Pierre Garcon is your only reliable receiver. Still, five Robbie Gould field goals were almost enough to nip the struggling Cardinals in Arizona. Carson Palmer was sacked six times and hit 16 times, but still hung in there for enough throws to get a game-tying field goal that forced overtime.

In the extra session, the 49ers continued the field goal fest with a drive that consumed a whopping 7:36 of the 10-minute game clock. Hoyer threw the ball away on third down, bringing out Gould for a 23-yard field goal to take a 15-12 lead.

So I think we can reasonably say this was the least time left on the clock (2:24) any team has ever had for their first overtime possession thanks to the rule change. Arizona had one timeout and knew it needed at least a field goal to earn a tie. Palmer kept going with his hot targets on the day in running back Andre Ellington and wide receiver Jaron Brown. The latter almost ended the game with a 25-yard touchdown off a deflection, but Brown's second foot was not conclusively found to be in bounds. It sure was close, but no harm was done in the end.

The 49ers got another sack of Palmer, but Arizona was also called for holding on the play, which brought up an interesting decision for Shanahan. He accepted the holding penalty to bring up second-and-20 at the San Francisco 35, but should he have declined the foul and taken the sack to put the Cardinals in a third-and-15 at the San Francisco 30? I can see the argument for making the field goal tougher, but by giving Arizona an extra play, that made getting the game-winning touchdown a little easier. According to EdjFootball, Arizona's Game Winning Chance after the holding penalty was 41.2 percent, compared to 40.8 percent if the sack was taken to bring up third down. So a very marginal difference either way for the 49ers. Ultimately, the Cardinals moved the chains after Jimmie Ward was penalized for pass interference. Two plays later, Palmer delivered the game's only touchdown, with Larry Fitzgerald adding to his legend with this 19-yard grab with 32 seconds left to win the game.

The 49ers join the Giants as the two teams to blow multiple fourth-quarter leads this season, while the Cardinals are 2017's lone team with two fourth-quarter comeback wins. But these two teams are closer in quality right now than anyone probably expected.

Jacksonville Jaguars 20 at New York Jets 23

Type: GWD (OT)
Game Winning Chance Before: 92.5 percent
Game Winning Chance After: 100.0 percent
Win Probability Added: 7.5 percent
Head Coach: Todd Bowles (3-9 at 4QC and 5-9 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Josh McCown (5-29 at 4QC and 6-32 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Neither the Jets nor Jaguars have appeared in Clutch Encounters this season until now. This was actually shaping up to be another one-sided contest with the Jets leading 20-10 in the fourth quarter and driving in the red zone, but the game turned when a backwards pass by Josh McCown was scooped up for an 81-yard touchdown by Myles Jack. McCown was later intercepted by A.J. Bouye with 3:19 left after Bilal Powell slipped on a route. That set up the Jaguars at the New York 35, though kicker Jason Myers had already missed from 52 yards away earlier in the quarter. Jacksonville needed to get closer, though the Jaguars almost pulled off the win in regulation with a touchdown pass from Blake Bortles to Leonard Fournette. However, Arrelious Benn, as he lives and breathes, was flagged for offensive holding, which he really did not need to commit.

With three cracks from inside the 6-yard line, Bortles was unable to get the go-ahead touchdown, and Myers settled on a 22-yard field goal to tie the game. McCown almost committed a third fatal mistake of the quarter on a strip-sack by Dante Fowler, but the Jets were fortunate to recover the ball and let the clock run to get to overtime.

With a 10-minute overtime, these offenses may have settled for a tie if there wasn't any serious help with field position. After four punts, the Jaguars had 2:06 left, but had to start from their own 3-yard line. Following two failed runs, Bortles threw a deep one incomplete, and the Jaguars had to punt from their own end zone. Jeremy Kerley already had a solid runback to the Jacksonville 40, but linebacker Paul Posluszny was penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct to put the ball at the 25. What did he do? From what the replays show, he took a blindside hit out of bounds, but still ended up being the one penalized. If anyone actually cared about this game, then that ludicrous call would be getting a lot more attention.

That made it as simple as two runs for the Jets, followed by a spike by McCown to set up Chandler Catanzaro for a 41-yard game-winning field goal, or the type of kick that lost him a job in Arizona. He was good this time, and the Jets won. At 2-2, they have matched the Patriots in record, and are two games up on the 0-4 Giants. Go figure, just the sixth "game-winning drive" of McCown's career was a total gimme, and after he nearly gave the game away late.

Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind

Rams at Cowboys: The Times They Are a-Changin'

The NFL is always looking for new contenders, and perhaps this game could serve as the start of the league's next great rivalry. Jared Goff was the No. 1 quarterback in the 2016 draft, but Dak Prescott was the Offensive Rookie of the Year, an award won by Todd Gurley in 2015. Ezekiel Elliott was last year's rushing champion, and all four of these players put on a show in Dallas on Sunday.

Dallas led by 11 points twice in the first half, but some mistakes on special teams and offense put the defense in bad field position. Through Week 3, the Dallas defense had the best average starting field position (21.62), which helped to keep the scoring down. On Sunday, the Rams had three drives that produced 13 points, but only traveled a combined 31 yards. That includes a 4-yard drive for a field goal in the fourth quarter that came after Prescott, hit as he threw, was intercepted by a diving Mark Barron. The Rams led 32-24 after the field goal.

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Prescott quickly led the Cowboys back by completing four straight passes, including a 28-yard touchdown to a forgotten James Hanna. The two-point conversion was a trip. Prescott originally had it on a quarterback draw, but center Travis Frederick was called for a suspect holding penalty to negate the score. Prescott's pass from the 12-yard line was intercepted, but that was negated by defensive holding in the end zone. On a third try from the Los Angeles 7, a late rush by Alec Ogletree put good pressure on Prescott, who was unable to connect with Terrance Williams in the end zone.

While rookie head coach Sean McVay has done wonders for this Los Angeles offense, I have to quibble with one of the first big decisions in his coaching career. The Rams faced a third-and-4 at the Dallas 14 with 2:12 left. If the Rams had picked up the conversion and stayed in bounds, the game would have been over, as Dallas was out of timeouts. This is where you trust your quarterback to make a play to win the game. Instead, Gurley got the handoff in the shotgun and lost a yard. Greg Zuerlein kicked a 33-yard field goal, but the Rams only led 35-30, leaving Prescott almost a full two minutes to drive 75 yards for the game-winning touchdown. The run was a poor call there.

The Dallas drive was far from perfect, but a big 12-yard scramble by Prescott on a third-and-10 got the ball to the Los Angeles 48 with under a minute to go. At that point, you would like to see Prescott have a play ready to run, but he spiked the ball with 46 seconds left. Wade Phillips mostly stuck to calling four-man rushes, but threw in a few blitzes on the drive as well. The pressure was working against Prescott, who found himself in a fourth-and-10 situation. The decision to check down to Elliott a few yards beyond the line of scrimmage was ill-advised, and despite the back's best effort to make tacklers miss, he came up a yard short and the game was over. The Cowboys ran four receivers beyond the sticks, so Prescott should have bought more time to try to make a bigger throw there. That was a disappointing finish for Dallas (2-2).

The Rams are 3-1 for the second year in a row, but this isn't Jeff Fisher sneaking out tight wins with Case Keenum at quarterback. The Rams lead the NFL in scoring and are getting consistent, efficient quarterback play from Goff. A 35-30 win in Dallas should serve notice to the rest of the NFC that the Rams are different this year. From 2007 to 2016, the Rams were 3-51 (.056) when allowing 30-plus points. They are 2-0 in such games this season. Their 142 points through four games ties what the 1999 Super Bowl-winning Rams had after four games, and ranks 19th since 1966.

Highest Scoring Teams Thru Games 1-4 (Since 1966)
Rk Tm Year Record PF PA PD Final Pts Rk Record Result
1 DAL 1966 4-0 183 45 138 445 1 10-3-1 Lost NFL-CG
2 DEN 2013 4-0 179 91 88 606 1 13-3 Lost SB
3 OAK 2002 4-0 162 90 72 450 2 11-5 Lost SB
4 OAK 1968 4-0 160 52 108 453 1 12-2 Lost AFL-CG
4 STL 2000 4-0 160 114 46 540 1 10-6 Lost NFC-WC
6 DAL 1968 4-0 159 43 116 431 1 12-2 Lost NFL-DIV
7 NYG 1968 4-0 154 87 67 294 7 7-7 No Playoffs
8 BUF 1992 4-0 153 45 108 381 3 11-5 Lost SB
9 ATL 2016 3-1 152 124 28 540 1 11-5 Lost SB
10 DAL 2007 4-0 151 72 79 455 2 13-3 Lost NFC-DIV
11 WAS 1999 3-1 150 118 32 443 2 10-6 Lost NFC-DIV
12 NE 2015 4-0 149 76 73 465 3 12-4 Lost AFC-CG
Rk Tm Year Record PF PA PD Final Pts Rk Record Result
13 BUF 1975 4-0 148 80 68 420 1 8-6 No Playoffs
13 ARI 2015 3-1 148 73 75 489 2 13-3 Lost NFC-CG
13 GB 2011 4-0 148 97 51 560 1 15-1 Lost NFC-DIV
13 NE 2007 4-0 148 48 100 589 1 16-0 Lost SB
17 WAS 1991 4-0 146 58 88 485 1 14-2 Won SB
18 NO 2009 4-0 144 66 78 510 1 13-3 Won SB
19 KC 2002 2-2 142 133 9 467 1 8-8 No Playoffs
19 STL 1999 4-0 142 47 95 526 1 13-3 Won SB
19 LARM 2017 3-1 142 105 37 TBD
22 CLT 1967 4-0 141 47 94 394 2 11-1-2 No Playoffs
22 DEN 1998 4-0 141 77 64 501 2 14-2 Won SB
24 PHI 2002 3-1 140 64 76 415 4 12-4 Lost NFC-CG

Of those 23 previous teams, all finished .500 or better. Nine played in the Super Bowl, four won it, and all but the 1968 Giants finished in the top four in points scored at season's end. Thirteen finished the season as the highest-scoring team. With home games looming with the Seahawks (Week 5) and Cardinals (Week 7), the Rams can take control of the NFC West in a way we haven't seen for more than a decade.

Raiders at Broncos: That Wasn't in the Manuel

In what could go down as one of the most pivotal drives in 2017, the Raiders had backup EJ Manuel at quarterback. Derek Carr had to leave with a back injury, and Oakland fans had to feel a cruel sense of déjà vu from last season. In Week 17 last year, the Raiders lost in Denver a week after Carr broke his leg. They could have clinched the No. 2 seed with a win that day, but fell 24-6 in a game that saw backup Matt McGloin also get injured.

Manuel was acquired this offseason to give the Raiders more of a veteran presence at the position, but pulling off a 16-7 comeback in the fourth quarter in Denver seemed above his (and most quarterback's) abilities. However, there were the Raiders, down just 16-10, and 36 yards away from the lead at the two-minute warning. Manuel had already led one scoring drive after Oakland completely abandoned the running game (24 yards on the day), and had the ball back with plenty of time after the Broncos had a poor three-and-out drive.

After a false start on Seth Roberts pushed the ball back to the Denver 41, you could say that Manuel got too reckless on the drive. Perhaps he had a limited playbook to work with, but Manuel had plenty of time and downs to work short passes in an attempt to score the game-winning touchdown with as little time left as possible. Roberts slipped on a first-down pass, almost leading to a pick. On second down, Manuel went deep for Amari Cooper, who had only caught 2-of-7 targets for 9 yards heading into the final drive. Justin Simmons beat Cooper to the ball on an impressive game-clinching interception at the 8-yard line with 1:46 left.

Denver has not blown a multiple-score lead in the fourth quarter since losing a 34-20 lead to the Rex Grossman-led Bears in 2007. Let that serve as a reminder to the randomness of the NFL. Manuel leading the Raiders to a comeback here would have been mighty unexpected, but alas, Oakland (2-2) is just a third-place team in the AFC West now.

Lions at Vikings: Frustrated, Incorporated

You really could not script a more disappointing loss than the Vikings had in this one. Last year's two dramatic losses to the Lions were the main factor in keeping this team out of the playoffs, and Sunday's second half may go a long way in ending another promising season for Minnesota. The Vikings had a 7-3 lead to start the third quarter and were already out to midfield, but decided to get cute with the Wildcat. Jerick McKinnon fumbled, which led to a field goal for the Lions. On the very next play from scrimmage, rookie back Dalvin Cook had a nice run, but tore his ACL, then fumbled at the end of the play after he reached for his knee. That led to a 29-yard touchdown drive for the Lions, who went up 14-7.

Neither team scored in the game's final 23 minutes. Opportunities were there. Kai Forbath missed a 39-yard field goal off the right upright to end the third quarter. McKinnon dropped a third-down conversion with 10:46 left in the game. The closest Minnesota got was a first down at the Detroit 8 with 3:59 left. It was surprising to see the offense still lean on McKinnon and Latavius Murray after Cook went down. While Case Keenum was not having a great game, the strength of this offense is still the wide receivers and Kyle Rudolph, especially in the red zone. Two curious runs by Murray drained the clock and left Keenum with a third-and-3. An unblocked rusher, Anthony Zettel, had an easy sack lined up after a blown protection in an empty set.

A fourth-and-14 is not an easy conversion, and the Vikings called their first timeout with 2:19 left to talk it over. We consulted EdjFootball for the decision here. By going for it, Minnesota's Game Winning Chance was 17.0 percent. A field goal attempt to cut the deficit to 14-10, while still having three clock stoppages to use, would have given Minnesota a Game Winning Chance of 10.4 percent. So the go-for-it decision was very defensible, but Keenum's pass was totally uncatchable. He couldn't even keep it in bounds in the back of the end zone, and the offensive line was flagged for holding anyway.

Still, three unproductive runs by the Lions deep in their own end led to Minnesota getting the ball back with 1:51 left at its own 44, so not a bad outcome. But the final comeback was short-lived. Adam Thielen immediately made a first-down catch, but Glover Quin forced a game-ending fumble. One Wildcat goof, one player compromised by injury, and one good knockout to end the game. The Vikings really fumbled this one away.

Season Summary

Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 10
Game-winning drives: 19
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 33/63 (52.4 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 6

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.


4 comments, Last at 04 Oct 2017, 1:20pm

2 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 4

Cook didn't fumble because he was reaching for his knee, he fumbled because Tavon Wilson's helmet knocked the ball out. Yes, Cook's injury probably compromised his ball security, but it's not like he simply dropped the ball:

3 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 4

"Paul Posluszny was penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct to put the ball at the 25. What did he do? From what the replays show, he took a blindside hit out of bounds, but still ended up being the one penalized." I can't believe the refs missed that blindside hit (or the announcers did not mention it), it was blatant. Posluszny was shown in the replay standing over the guy that cheap-shotted him and giving him a piece of his mind, which was probably ruled as "taunting".

4 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 4

Yes, that's exactly what happened. Hopefully Dylan Donahue got shown up this week in the film room, but given how mediocre Bowles is, I doubt it.

I'm also wondering if Sam Darnold paid off the refs in that game. Or perhaps the refs just wanted that comedy to end. Watch the highlight on for the game winning field goal; that ref explaining that he picked up the flag sounds like he really wants the game to end.