by Scott Kacsmar
We haven't had a close game on Thursday night since Week 4, but leave it up to the Packers and Seahawks to provide plenty of drama -- suspicious catches included -- in prime time. Actually, that's probably not fair since their last three meetings, all Green Bay wins, were not memorable games by any means. However, Seattle's 27-24 comeback win last night sure brought back some memories of the 2014 NFC Championship Game, or the day Mike McCarthy's coaching credibility took a massive hit.
On Thursday night, the Packers again failed to capitalize enough on early poor play by Seattle, and McCarthy made extremely conservative decisions down the stretch. This didn't feel like a typical Week 11 game between teams with 4-5 and 4-4-1 records -- this was an important one to remain in the NFC wild-card field.
In a special Friday edition of Clutch Encounters, we'll look at how Seattle got back to .500 and dealt the Packers a possible deathblow in the playoff race.
The Weird First-Half Shootout
The only turnover of the game was a Chris Carson fumble on the first play from scrimmage, which the Packers turned into a 29-yard touchdown drive. Aaron Rodgers hit a big play to Davante Adams for 41 yards, but Mason Crosby missed a 47-yard field goal, a costly miss on the night. Rodgers made another effortless deep throw to backup tight end Robert Tonyan for a 54-yard touchdown, Tonyan's first NFL catch.
A 14-3 hole looked rough for a Seattle team that repeatedly shot itself in the foot at home with pre-snap penalties. It's kind of a miracle that Russell Wilson finished with such a respectable stat line (21-of-31 for 225 yards and two touchdowns). His success rate was 0-for-8 in the first quarter as his accuracy looked terrible. He couldn't get in the same zip code as Doug Baldwin, who was wide open on occasion. The offense finally put together a drive with Wilson able to find Baldwin for a 6-yard touchdown. Wilson picked up 48 more yards on a pass interference penalty and the Seahawks quickly took a 17-14 lead in the second quarter.
Rodgers executed a flawless drive before halftime with running back Aaron Jones settling into an Alvin Kamara-type role with three catches for 61 yards, including a 24-yard touchdown on a deep throw. Green Bay has been painfully slow in featuring Jones more, but this was his breakout game as a receiver. Last week against Miami was the first time he broke 20 receiving yards in a game (27 total), and he finished this game with 63 yards.
The Packers led 21-17 at halftime, but the second half saw a drastic change in scoring.
More (or Moore) Catch Controversy?
There was no scoring in the third quarter. Perhaps no play better epitomized that than the third down where Wilson caught his own deflected pass for an 11-yard loss when he should have just knocked the ball down. Later in the quarter, the Seahawks faced a third-and-7 at their own 6. Wilson seemed to catch a tough break when David Moore apparently dropped a pass. However, a challenge by Pete Carroll was won, and the play was changed to a 27-yard completion. Was this the latest chapter of officiating controversy in the series that produced the Fail Mary, or did Moore simply catch this ball and fumble it forward out of bounds?
— NFL Officiating (@NFLOfficiating) November 16, 2018
I think the reversal was the right call. Moore controlled the ball with his left hand and took three steps before he lost control. It was a catch and fumble, retained by Seattle. This only led to a field goal to cut the lead to 21-20 in the fourth quarter, because Kyler Fackrell had a huge sack on first down to blow the drive up once it reached the red zone. That was part of a 3.0-sack night for Fackrell, who is having a breakout season in his third year.
Rodgers responded by making his best throw of the night: a 57-yard bomb to Adams while under pressure. Unfortunately, the offense was slow to reset after the gain and had to burn a second timeout with 10:31 left. From there, the play calling left much to be desired, and on third-and-5, Rodgers took his fifth sack of the night (fourth of the half).
62 air yards with pressure in his face into a bucket and WR doesn't have to break stride. Glorious. pic.twitter.com/VQip5oBgHR
— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) November 16, 2018
That's really disappointing to get catches of 57 and 41 yards from Adams and to only score three points on those two drives. The Packers led 24-20, but the Seahawks had plenty of time with 8:23 left.
Russell Wilson's 25th Game-Winning Drive
As we looked at in Week 10, close wins have been a struggle for the Seahawks, who had been 0-5 at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities this season (2-10 since 2017). There weren't going to be many better opportunities than this one, and it did come with a little luck (and a lot of Tyler Lockett). After an 18-yard gain on third down, Lockett was open again for a 34-yard gain to the 16. With an injury on the play, Green Bay had plenty of time to throw a challenge flag as it looked like the ball scraped the ground to help Lockett make the catch. However, McCarthy never challenged and the drive continued.
It should be stressed that this was only a first-down play, but that's 34 yards. Had to challenge it, but McCarthy didn't. pic.twitter.com/iSqaeFMiHj
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) November 16, 2018
Maybe McCarthy didn't want to challenge because he was down to one timeout, but a lone timeout is not that valuable at that time. A team usually needs two or three timeouts late in the game to help get the ball back. Getting a reversal would have been big, even if it meant it was still second-and-10 at the 50. So the lack of a challenge looked like a bad move, and three plays later, Wilson found Ed Dickson for a 15-yard touchdown to take a 27-24 lead with 5:08 left. Dickson just ran right up the seam and it was far too easy for Seattle.
This was the 25th game-winning drive of Wilson's career (including playoffs). He joins Matt Ryan (27) and Ben Roethlisberger (25) as the only players to have at least 25 game-winning drives in their first seven seasons.
McCarthy: The Numbers Made Me Do It
There was plenty of time (5:08) for Green Bay to still win, but the Packers embarked on a pretty terrible three-and-out. On first down, four Green Bay receivers squatted down on short routes, but Rodgers still chose the only deep route (Equanimeous St. Brown), and basically threw the ball away (or just missed horribly). Rodgers really seemed to favor the deep shot in the second half, which might explain why the offense had just three first downs and four sacks after halftime. His ultra-streaky season continued on Thursday night. Rodgers' success rate in the first half was 12-of-18 (66.7 percent), but dipped to 5-for-18 (27.8 percent) after halftime and 2-for-8 (25.0 percent) in the fourth quarter.
On a third-and-2, there was really no reason why the Packers shouldn't have just ran the ball, either making fourth down easier or converting with a percentage play. Jones did not have a stellar rushing night (11 carries for 40 yards), but he leads the NFL with a first down on 35.7 percent of his rushes this season. Instead, Rodgers passed the ball and it was woefully underthrown for an incompletion. It's hard to tell if a defensive lineman grazed the ball to make it look worse, but for now the official play-by-play does not list a pass defensed. Green Bay finished 3-of-11 on third down last night.
The Packers did not attempt a fourth down, because … numbers? Apparently McCarthy said "we played the numbers" to explain why Green Bay punted on fourth-and-2 at the 33 with 4:20 and one timeout left. We'll get to some real numbers in a second, but let's finish recapping the inevitable outcome. The Seahawks got the ball back with 4:11 left. The league's run-heaviest offense opened with a 5-yard run with Mike Davis, proving that as long as you have a pulse, the Seahawks will give you carries this season. Wilson then kept for an 8-yard run and was smart to slide in bounds to make the Packers burn their final timeout at 3:18. Davis got two more carries, and the Packers didn't even bother to run blitz the middle as he tore them up for 11 more yards to ice the game at the two-minute warning.
It is hard to figure out what McCarthy was citing when he said his punt was playing the numbers. Does he mean the sample size of two plays where the Packers are 0-for-2 on fourth-and-2 this season? The league is 22-of-38 (57.9 percent) on fourth-and-2 this season, so that's above 50 percent. Going back to 2011, the league-wide conversion rate is 54.8 percent. Going back to 2006, McCarthy's rookie year, the conversion rate is 50.0 percent for the Packers (13-for-26) and 53.0 percent for the league.
Overall, this is a play that converts for offenses more often than it doesn't. Beyond that, the Packers should be better than average at gaining 2 yards when really needed with Rodgers as their quarterback. If we beef up the sample to look at plays on third and fourth down that needed 2 yards for a first down, then Rodgers is among the best in the league at converting. The following table looks at those conversion rates since 2001 (playoffs included) for quarterbacks with at least 80 such plays. This includes sacks and rushes. Among these 26 quarterbacks, Rodgers averages the second-highest yards per dropback (7.23) and the fourth-highest conversion rate (59.6 percent).
|Third and Fourth Down, 2 Yards to Go (Since 2001)|
We can go over some other numbers. Since 2001, trailing teams who punt in the final five minutes have won 7.3 percent of games. That doubles to 14.6 percent for punting teams who were trailing by one possession like Green Bay. Meanwhile, teams down three to six points with possession in the final five minutes win 28.1 percent of the time since 2001. The importance of possession can never be overstated.
This is going to get really specific, but hear us out. The Packers punted from inside their 40, down by no more than five points, with no more than 5 yards to go for a first down, and with 4:00 to 5:00 left in the fourth quarter. The five-point margin is important, because even if you fail on fourth down and then allow a field goal, it is still a one-possession game. This is only the 10th punt that hits all of those qualifiers in the last 18 seasons, but the third one that involves these teams. The first two also led to a win for Carroll's Seahawks and a loss for McCarthy's Packers:
- In 2017, the 49ers (one timeout left) punted on fourth-and-3 at their own 27 while trailing Seattle 12-9 with 4:47 left. The Seahawks ran out the clock with five Carson runs.
- In 2013, McCarthy's Packers (three timeouts left) punted on fourth-and-3 at their own 16 while trailing the 49ers 31-28 with 5:00 left. The 49ers added a field goal (34-28) and Rodgers did not get the ball back until 26 seconds remained.
While we found 10 punts in that situation, we only found two offenses that attempted a fourth down in the same situation since 2001. One of those was actually McCarthy's Packers in a division title game against the 2013 Bears in Week 17. Facing a fourth-and-1 at his own 22 with a 28-27 deficit and 4:41 left, McCarthy had the offense go for it despite having one timeout left. John Kuhn picked up the first and Rodgers then threw a 48-yard touchdown to Randall Cobb to win the NFC North. That might be the last courageous thing McCarthy has attempted in this league, and that was still a game where he kicked an extra point when down by two in the fourth quarter. D'oh.
This type of fourth-down decision is something I think most coaches would still struggle with. They fear risking that slightly-better-than-a-coin-flip chance on offense, because it potentially could double the deficit from three to six. However, the defense's goal remains the same no matter where it takes the field: do not allow a touchdown and get the ball back as soon as possible. A 30-24 game would still be a one-score game, and then Rodgers can drive for a game-winning touchdown without any reliance on a shaky Mason Crosby making a long field goal for overtime.
McCarthy's punt argument would be stronger if the Packers had three timeouts. But with one, that basically made it a necessity for the defense to get the ball back after three or four plays or there would have been serious time issues. If McCarthy trusted his shaky defense to get the ball back over Rodgers getting 2 more yards, then how can he ever trust Rodgers to get 50-plus yards later for a scoring drive? The punt was a ludicrous decision given this matchup.
Some numbers that aren't up for debate: Seattle (5-5) gets back to .500 while the Packers (4-5-1) can be the NFC's No. 9 or No. 10 seed come Sunday evening. Both of these teams had their playoff streaks snapped in 2017, but Green Bay looks to be in position to go a second year out of the tournament. The Packers justifiably didn't end McCarthy's tenure as a knee-jerk reaction after the 2014 championship game loss in Seattle, but this loss four seasons later may be the penultimate nail in the coffin.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 37
Game-winning drives: 45 (plus two non-offensive game-winning scores)
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 82/149 (55.0 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 19
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 EdjSports.