Clutch Encounters: Wild Card

Clutch Encounters: Wild Card
Clutch Encounters: Wild Card
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Scott Kacsmar

The NFL's wild-card playoff round has often lived up to its name in the past, including several of the biggest comeback wins in league history. This year, the drama could not have been any weaker, as only Detroit was able to stay within one score in the fourth quarter, and the Lions still lost by 20 points in Seattle. In other words, this was the least work I had to do for Clutch Encounters since Super Bowl XLVIII, when no article was even necessary for Seattle's 43-8 domination over Denver.

This is the first time since the 1995 season that all four wild-card games were decided by at least 13 points. That weekend also happened to include road losses by the Dolphins (37-22 in Buffalo) and Lions (58-37 in Philadelphia). Miami is 3-11 all time in road playoff games, and the Lions extended their NFL record with a ninth-straight playoff defeat.

We probably should have expected some bad results in this week with the quality of playoff teams that were playing. Miami was a 10-6 team despite a negative scoring differential. Houston ranked 29th in DVOA, but Oakland came in with the 23rd-ranked defense and a third-string rookie quarterback (Connor Cook) who was just abysmal. Detroit was the 27th-ranked team and bottom-ranked defense, allowing the Seattle offensive line and running game to look great again. Even the best game on paper, Giants at Packers, lived up to the hype early, but Green Bay led 24-13 to start the fourth quarter and never looked back for the weekend's biggest blowout on the scoreboard at 38-13.

Next week's divisional round looks fantastic with four rematches, but before we can get there, we have to write an obituary for the 2016 Lions, a record-setting comeback team that just never could rally from a really big deficit, or take down a good team. Actually, that sounds like every Detroit season since the merger, but this is a time to mourn.

Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind

Lions at Seahawks: Fourth-Quarter Bomb

The 2016 Lions will go down as a strange team, if not a misleading one. They trailed in the fourth quarter of 16 games, including Saturday night, but still came back to win half of those games for a record eight fourth-quarter comeback wins. However, all but one of those comebacks, a 7-point triumph over the Rams, came from a deficit of four points or less. The only winning team Detroit came back to beat was a Washington squad that finished 8-7-1.

So while Detroit really did set a league record behind some Matthew Stafford heroics and late-game takeaways on defense, it was accomplished in an unimpressive manner: against soft competition, and from small margins. The Lions were once 9-4 with a chance to finish as the NFC's No. 2 seed, but they then went 0-4 against the stiffer competition provided by the Giants, Cowboys, Packers, and Seahawks. When the Lions were presented with three more comeback opportunities in those games, they folded on offense, and watched the opponent continue to add to the score. In fact, Saturday night in Seattle was Detroit's worst fourth quarter of the season, outscored 16-0 by the Seahawks.

The season-long statistics support the notion that Detroit was not a great fourth-quarter team, or even a good one. They actually were below average on both sides of the ball by DVOA, ranking 23rd on offense and 22nd on defense in the fourth quarter and overtime.

2016 Lions: DVOA By Quarter Thru Week 17
Quarter Offensive DVOA Rk Defensive DVOA Rk
1 4.9% 13 19.8% 29
2 8.3% 11 11.1% 24
3 -11.3% 21 43.8% 32
4/OT -9.0% 23 9.7% 22
Late & Close -11.6% 23 27.0% 32

While Seattle has not been consistent this season, Detroit needed a great performance to pull off the road upset, which would have been the franchise's biggest wins in literally decades. A few timely sacks of Russell Wilson and two field goals from 51-plus yards from Matt Prater kept the score at 10-6 Seattle heading into the fourth quarter. Seattle added a field goal early, setting the stage for Stafford and the offense in a 13-6 game with 14:12 to play.

Stafford has faced the Wilson-era Seahawks twice before, but they were two of his more memorable games against good opponents. He led a late game-winning drive against Seattle at home in 2012, and almost did so again a year ago on the road on Monday night had it not been for a late Calvin Johnson fumble at the 1-yard line (the illegal bat controversy).

This time, you could say officials were again in Stafford's way at a successful comeback. Anquan Boldin basically submarined his offense's drive with an unnecessary roughness penalty that set up second-and-17. Stafford's deep shot for T.J. Jones fell incomplete, but it looked like a play where pass interference could have been called on DeShawn Shead for grabbing Jones. The fact that the official determined this to be an "uncatchable pass" was stunning given how rarely that standard is ever applied in this game.

Detroit went three-and-out, and Seattle proceeded to put the clamps down with an 82-yard touchdown drive, highlighted by a perfect 42-yard bomb from Wilson to Doug Baldwin. Prior to that pass, Wilson's first 15 completions had gained just 105 yards, so the deep shot was much needed. Thomas Rawls capped off his big 161-yard rushing night with a 4-yard touchdown run, and Seattle led 19-6 with 8:49 left after Steven Hauschka missed his seventh extra point this season. Seattle's 177 rushing yards was its second-highest game of the season, trailing only the 240 yards it gained against Carolina.

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It was getting late early for Detroit, and Stafford threw three bad passes in a row from the Detroit 44 to force another punt. Baldwin and Rawls continued to shine for Seattle, but Paul Richardson was another hero on the night. He made a one-handed catch for 27 yards on a third-and-5, beating pass interference on the play to boot. In the second quarter, Richardson also beat interference to make an incredible catch in the end zone on a fourth-and-2 for a touchdown. He has had an injury-plagued career, but this was Richardson's night, and he could be a key player moving forward as Seattle contends without Tyler Lockett. Seattle went for the dagger on a second-down pass, and the ball found Baldwin for a 13-yard touchdown with 3:36 left. Detroit turned the ball over one last time on downs, and the season was over for these Lions.

Fair or not, but until things change in Detroit, the Stafford era is going to be defined by a lack of success against winning teams. Forget the now 0-3 playoff record, but Stafford is 5-46 (.098) as a starter against teams that finish the season with a winning record, including 2-14 since 2015. By comparison, Dallas rookie quarterback Dak Prescott is already 6-2 against winning teams, and second-year quarterback Marcus Mariota went 5-2 in 2016 alone.

Stafford started on a 1-26 stretch with his only win over the 2012 Seahawks, and three of the five wins have been against Green Bay in some of its lower moments over the years. These last four games exemplify Detroit's typical struggles against good competition. When Detroit faces a great offensive team like the Cowboys or Packers, Stafford has to score too many points to get a win. When Detroit faces a defensive team like the Giants or Seahawks, Stafford is unable to lead his typically one-dimensional offense to enough points to get a win. The Lions have not delivered in building a defense or a running game around Stafford after eight seasons now. He'll still only be 29 next season, but until Detroit finds a way to build more of the team around him, the Lions' best hope is for another season of wild comebacks just to get a wild-card spot in the NFC.

Season Summary

Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 72
Game-winning drives: 84
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 152/260 (58.5 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 37 (and one tie)

Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro Football Reference. Screen caps come from NFL Game Pass.


6 comments, Last at 09 Mar 2017, 7:36am

1 Re: Clutch Encounters: Wild Card

"When Detroit faces a defensive team like the Giants or Seahawks, Stafford is unable to lead his typically one-dimensional offense to enough points to get a win."

Perhaps it would be more expedient to follow Dallas and Seattle's examples, and simply purchase officiating.

3 Re: Clutch Encounters: Wild Card

To be honest, I think the fourth-and-two should have been OPI and not DPI. You shouldn't be allowed to grab a face mask and twist a guy's head away from the ball so he can't make a play.

5 Re: Clutch Encounters: Wild Card

The DPI was clear, the face mask was clear. Likely the refs didn't notice the facemask because their brain registered (Contact, DPI, is it a catch?) and stopped looking at the contact after the first penalty. Until penalties are review-able this type of error is inevitable.

I remember when they were the Sea-chickens.

6 Re: Clutch Encounters: Wild Card

It's pretty interesting to see such competition between those 2 teams. is a great place for game reviews.