Clutch Encounters

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

Clutch Encounters: Week 10

by Scott Kacsmar

Week 10 was expected to be an odd one, with 10 of the games having a spread of at least six points going into Sunday's action. If it wasn't for the Giants-49ers on Monday night, we would have had consecutive weeks where the lone successful fourth-quarter comeback was a one-point deficit that a team erased in the first minute of the fourth quarter. We also were close to having just four games with a comeback opportunity for the first time since Week 9 of 2014. That would have tied the lowest week over the last eight seasons, but Monday night's contest provided a fifth qualifying game.

The on-paper mismatches actually weren't that responsible for the lack of drama this week. The Browns handled the favored Falcons 28-16 in Cleveland. With Matt Barkley at quarterback, the Bills actually showed a pulse on offense in a 41-10 stomping of the Jets for their third win as a big underdog this season. The Patriots lost 34-10 in Tennessee, their largest defeat in a game played after Week 4 since Tom Brady made his NFL debut off the bench on Thanksgiving in 2000.

Finally, we're still in awe over the Buccaneers producing just three points on 501 yards and 29 first downs against Washington, but that's what can happen when you combine Fitzmagic with a Tampa Bay kicker. Washington is the first team to play its first nine games without a lead change since the 1954 Redskins. Maybe we'll see some Washington comebacks or blown leads in the final seven weeks. That team is still leading the NFC East even after Sunday night's big showdown.

Game of the Week

Dallas Cowboys 27 at Philadelphia Eagles 20

Type: GWD
Game-Winning Chance Before: 49.9 percent
Game-Winning Chance After: 82.9 percent
Win Probability Added: 33.0 percent
Head Coach: Jason Garrett (25-39 at 4QC and 35-41 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Dak Prescott (6-9 at 4QC and 11-9 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Time is linear, but then there are the Doug Pederson-Carson Wentz Eagles. In an era that's oversaturated with prequels and reboots, the 2018 Eagles look like a promotional product that badly missed its release date. This season would make more sense if it bridged the gap between 2016's rookie jitters and 2017's Super Bowl triumph. While time isn't required to pass in logical steps, the Eagles (4-5) look closer to the 2016 team that stumbled to a 7-9 finish than they do the 2017 team that was 16-2 in the games they tried to win.

On the other hand, maybe time is cyclic -- just look at Jason Garrett's Dallas Cowboys. Other than a few blips where the quarterback play was either really stellar in late-game situations (2014 and 2016) or he had to start four signal-callers (2015), the Cowboys never get too high or get too low. They default to 8-8, with Garrett seemingly always able to nip any long losing streak in the bud before Jerry Jones sacks him. Dallas (4-5) was a 7.5-point underdog in this one, but surprised the NFL world again with a 27-20 win.

No matter how you view time, it's hard to believe these teams, the NFC's last two No. 1 seeds, were in a battle Sunday night for second place in a division led by Washington (6-3). The 2016 Cowboys and 2017 Eagles lit up scoreboards, but in the NFL's highest-scoring season ever, they have struggled to meet the league average of 24 points per game. Even the Giants (three) and Buffalo (twice) have surpassed 24 points more than the Eagles (once) this season.

These teams recently traded for wide receivers Amari Cooper (Cowboys) and Golden Tate (Eagles), but Sunday night started out with a lot of the same problems. We were going to have a 6-3 halftime score, but that's when the Eagles failed to stop a wide receiver screen on third-and-15, allowing a 25-yard gain to Michael Gallup. That led to a touchdown run by Prescott, and Dallas led 13-3. Brett Maher missed a 42-yard field goal in the third quarter that would have regained a 10-point lead for Dallas, but that's when the game took on a more offensive approach with four straight touchdown drives.

Some of the offensive explosion was thought to be linked to Philadelphia's lack of defensive backs due to injuries. However, cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Sidney Jones were inactive the whole night, and Ronald Darby only tore his ACL late in the game. That position wasn't the problem in allowing Ezekiel Elliott to rush for 151 yards on 19 carries for the second-highest yards per carry (7.95) average of his career. The lack of a late pass-rush also doomed the Eagles. Philadelphia opened the third quarter with a sack of Prescott, but never got him the rest of the night. According to ESPN, Prescott's pressure rate dropped from 38.2 percent through three quarters to 12.5 percent in the fourth quarter. Sacks have been a problem for Dallas. Prescott has nine games with at least four sacks in his career, and eight of them have come in the 17 games since the Atlanta disaster last year. This is only the second time in those nine games that Prescott was able to still lead Dallas to more than 17 points.

Dallas finally used play-action to great success with the game hanging in the balance. Prescott opened a drive with two play-action passes for 41 yards. However, the pivotal play on Dallas' game-winning drive came on a third-and-8 at the Philadelphia 32. Philadelphia blitzed, but Prescott threw a quick slant to Allen Hurns, who had Rasul Douglas beat for 23 yards. Three plays later, Elliott was in the end zone for another touchdown and Dallas led 27-20 with 3:19 left.

Thirty-six games into his career, Wentz was facing situations where success has eluded him so far: high-scoring games and the need to come through late. The aforementioned 24-point mark is the league average this year, but Wentz is 1-11 as a starter when the Eagles allow more than 24 points. The only win was the 43-35 game in Los Angeles last year when Wentz tore his ACL and Nick Foles had to finish the final quarter. Wentz is also just 3-11 (.214) at game-winning drive opportunities, the second-worst record among active starters.

This latest drive started well until the two-minute warning, when the Eagles faced a third-and-2 at the Dallas 30. The call was for a screen to Corey Clement that was thrown 8 yards behind the line of scrimmage. That already felt like a huge error, but the play probably would have converted if rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch didn't make a great tackle for a 5-yard loss. Before Sunday night, Vander Esch didn't have many splash plays at all, but he picked up his first interception and second tackle for loss in this game, a real breakout performance on a night where Sean Lee was inactive. Next Gen Stats had an interesting nugget about the tackle of Clement.

I don't think that play ever gains 22 yards with Xavier Woods closing in, but it probably gets a first down without Vander Esch's effort.

On fourth-and-7, you would think the Eagles would chill with the negative-ALEX throws, but Wentz didn't make it easy for Zach Ertz to convert on a pass that was just short of the sticks. Ertz had a little bobble of the ball before gaining control, but Jeff Heath was there with a sure tackle to make it a turnover on downs with 1:09 left. Wentz was 6-for-6 passing on the drive, but the last three throws were all failed completions.

The game wasn't over, because the Eagles had all three timeouts left. The Cowboys didn't do anything risky and punted the ball back after a three-and-out. Wentz had 40 seconds left from his own 32. Ertz continued to look like the team's only skill player on a night he finished with 14 catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns. However, his last catch proved to be meaningless. With 11 seconds left from the Dallas 32, I think Wentz should have tried two Hail Mary throws into the end zone. Instead, Wentz threw over the middle to Ertz, who was short of the 10-yard line. He lateraled to Tate, but it didn't look to have the design of the nifty lateral the Buccaneers recently tried in Atlanta. Tate was tackled at the Dallas 9 to end the game, a potentially huge loss for the Eagles with a trip to New Orleans up next.

We recently had an article on ESPN about misleading quarterback stats in 2018, and there was a section about Wentz's numbers and how hollow they have been this year. NBC's Cris Collinsworth continued to say early in the game that Wentz has been better this year than in 2017, but it's just not true. Wentz's efficiency has dropped on third down and in the red zone from No. 1 in 2017 to the middle of the pack this season. He also has lost a career-high five fumbles, which get ignored by conventional passer rating. He did not fumble on Sunday night, but some of the issues on third down and in the red zone showed up again.

While the stat lines for Wentz in his four losses this year look good, they have only led to 17 to 23 points in those games, which usually isn't enough to win in the NFL. In each 2018 loss, Wentz has passed for over 300 yards with multiple touchdowns, no more than one interception, and completed at least 65 percent of his passes. Let's call that stat line a 2018 Wentz. When you express it that way, it sounds really good and that he has been unlucky, but that's the problem with using the bare minimums he's usually close to. Quarterbacks who have posted a 2018 Wentz have averaged 32.8 points in the 403 games that qualify since 2010. Only 56 of the games (13.9 percent) saw that quarterback's team score fewer than 24 points, including all four of Wentz's games.

Beating the Saints in a shootout in their own building would go a long way in re-establishing the Eagles as a contender, capable of beating anyone this year. Based on their history, that seems very unlikely, but maybe this is the time to break out the underdog masks again.

Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind

Seattle Seahawks 31 at Los Angeles Rams 36

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 1 (21-20)
Game-Winning Chance Before: 58.6 percent
Game-Winning Chance After: 79.8 percent
Win Probability Added: 21.2 percent
Head Coach: Sean McVay (4-5 at 4QC and 4-5 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Jared Goff (4-7 at 4QC and 4-7 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Despite seven go-ahead drives by the Seahawks over two games, the Rams completed a season sweep with another shootout win over their division rivals. This column is no stranger to criticizing Pete Carroll's Seahawks for blown leads, but any defense would have a difficult time holding a 21-20 lead against Sean McVay's Rams. However, some better defense would have definitely helped. On a pivotal third-and-15 late in the third quarter, the Seahawks rushed three and Jared Goff had all day to find Robert Woods in the hole-in-zone coverage for a 35-yard gain. That was the only scrimmage play of the game where the Rams gained more than 25 yards, but it was a huge one.

On the first play of the fourth quarter, Goff threw a back-shoulder pass to Tyler Higbee for a 10-yard touchdown. Todd Gurley was stopped on a two-point conversion run, but the Rams led 26-21. Seattle's run-heavy approach kept the game close all day, but Russell Wilson needed to make plays in the fourth quarter. On a third-and-5 in the red zone, he was engulfed for a sack by Ndamukong Suh and Aaron Donald. That led to a 33-yard field goal to make it 26-24 with 9:52 left. Carroll elected for a surprise onside kick, which seemed like a really desperate move in a time it wasn't needed. The Rams recovered at the Seattle 46 and had a fourth-and-goal at the 2 after Brandin Cooks came up short on a third-down gain.

I liked that CBS' Tony Romo at least presented the idea of going for it on fourth down. In the past, every announcer would have just assumed a field goal, but it was a decision worth thinking about in trying to open up a two-score lead halfway through the quarter. As we would see later, even in a 36-24 game, there was still enough time for Seattle to manufacture two scoring drives and get the win, so I don't think it was a must-have conversion to attempt. Let's also keep in mind that the Rams were the better team at home. Those types of things are factored into EdjSports' Game-Winning Chance, which supported going for it (81.6 percent) over the field goal (75.9 percent). I would have kicked the field goal to go up 29-24 like McVay actually did, but going for it wouldn't have been a terrible call. It's not like Seattle would have used half a quarter to win 27-26.

Down 29-24, Dante Fowler made his impact felt in his second game with the team after coming over from Jacksonville in a trade. He knocked the ball away from Wilson and the Rams recovered, and on the next play Cooks took a jet sweep 9 yards to score another touchdown for a two-possession lead. Seattle's response drive needed some bigger chunks, because it ended up using the two-minute warning after Wilson threw a touchdown to Mike Davis to make it 36-31. Sebastian Janikowski has failed on his last 25 onside kicks, but they are even harder to get when they're expected. With the Rams expecting one, punter Michael Dickson was used instead of Janikowski for a pooch kick.

The Rams took over at their own 25. In Week 5, the Rams put Seattle away with McVay's decision to let Goff do a quarterback sneak on fourth down. There would be no such heroics this time. Woods lost 6 yards on a jet sweep that tanked the drive. Seattle was able to use its three timeouts to get the ball back with 1:24 left. That was only the second drive of the game where the Rams punted.

Now Wilson was only 75 yards away from pulling off another miraculous comeback. The first play of the drive ended up with offsetting penalties after Donald got into it with Justin Britt, but the referees also missed what should have been an obvious intentional grounding penalty on Wilson, who tried to get rid of the ball to avoid a sack. They said there was a receiver in the area even though it clearly was grounding. That would have had a 10-second runoff as well. After that break, Wilson quickly gained 40 yards with his arm and legs before spiking the ball at the Los Angeles 35 with 37 seconds left. The drive stalled from there after pressure kept getting to Wilson. On fourth-and-10, he passed up a risky decision to scramble to throw to Tyler Lockett near the sideline, but the pass was over the receiver's head to end the game.

The Seahawks are tied with San Francisco with a league-worst 0-5 record at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities this season. That comes on the heels of a 2-5 finish in 2017. Seattle's comeback opportunity record under Wilson was 16-20-1 (.446) through the 2016 season.

Goff improves to 5-0 as a career starter when the Rams allow 30 to 39 points (0-5 when the team allows 40-plus points). Seattle fans are probably too used to the high-scoring loss by now. Wilson drops to 2-16 in his career when the Seahawks allow at least 30 points, and they have allowed more than 39 points only once (42 to the Rams last year). Clearly, the Rams are a huge obstacle for Seattle, and it doesn't look like that's going to change any time soon. This sweep essentially locks up the NFC West for Los Angeles for the second year in a row.

New York Giants 27 at San Francisco 49ers 23

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 3 (23-20)
Game-Winning Chance Before: 17.2 percent
Game-Winning Chance After: 96.5 percent
Win Probability Added: 79.3 percent
Head Coach: Pat Shurmur (3-18 at 4QC and 5-19 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Eli Manning (31-60 at 4QC and 41-62 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Remember when the 10-1 49ers once hosted the 10-1 Giants on Monday Night Football in 1990? And now for something completely different …

This actually wasn't a poorly played game. It just lacked importance outside of perhaps deciding which team has the No. 1 pick in April's draft. The Giants won (or lost, depending on your perspective) after Eli Manning led the 31st fourth-quarter comeback win of his career. That total ties Joe Montana for ninth all time, and everyone in the top 10 is in or will be in the Hall of Fame except perhaps Eli. ESPN's Booger McFarland and Jason Witten sure gave us a taste of how that facepalm-inducing debate could rage on for a long time.

This was one of Manning's better games in the last three seasons. He threw three touchdowns, took one sack, and didn't have any turnovers. It was the second game of Nick Mullens' career, and unlike Nathan Peterman, he looked employable even though he had two tipped interceptions. It seems like most of his success came in a little box over the middle of the field, and his passing chart from Next Gen Stats seems to support that. The first defense that forces him to throw outside more could have a field day, as he was late and inaccurate on those throws. But on a big third-and-8 with the game tied at 20, Mullens delivered a conversion that put the 49ers in scoring range. They leaned heavily on the run on that drive, and it ended with a 30-yard field goal by Robbie Gould with 2:46 left.

The Giants' game-winning march (75 yards) was a mess to watch. It did include a 31-yard pass to Evan Engram for New York's longest gain of the night, but the Giants tried their hardest to short-circuit the drive with two penalties and another classic pass to Saquon Barkley that was 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage. The biggest plays were weak calls on San Francisco's defense that erased a third-and-12 and a second-and-20. The pass interference on the latter on Ahkello Witherspoon was especially bad. That may have been some star treatment for Odell Beckham as both players were hand-fighting and both looked late for the ball, which wasn't even close. That should not have been a flag.

Barkley finally got loose for a 23-yard catch to finish with 100 yards from scrimmage. Two plays later, Sterling Shepard came down with a nice 3-yard touchdown in the end zone to give the Giants a 27-23 lead with 53 seconds left. The 49ers still had time to answer, but Marquise Goodwin wasted a few seconds on a big catch by trying to get out of bounds when he needed to get down immediately. Mullens was able to get the spike in with 1 second remaining, setting up a final play from the New York 21. Under pressure, his pass sailed out of the end zone, and any catch would have been negated anyway by an offensive holding penalty.

The 49ers now lead the NFL with four blown fourth-quarter leads this season. Kyle Shanahan's 2-12 record at game-winning drive opportunities looks bad, but the 49ers really have not received the benefit of the doubt from the referees on these late drives. Last year it was two bad calls for offensive pass interference on Shanahan's offense (against the Rams and Redskins), and this year it has been weak calls on the defense against Green Bay and now the Giants. This late re-spotting of the ball that led to a false start also happened to the offense on the final drive. These calls tend to get overlooked when a team is out of contention like the 49ers have been early in the last two seasons, but it's still worth noting when assessing Shanahan's job.

Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind

Jaguars at Colts: Saved by the Fumble

The last time Andrew Luck faced the Jaguars, he led a 17-point comeback to close the 2016 season. We're used to seeing Luck do some of his best work from behind, but the Colts never trailed on Sunday. At halftime, Luck had 217 passing yards and three more touchdown passes in building a 29-16 lead. Little did anyone expect that Luck would pass for 68 yards in the second half as the Colts nearly blew another big second-half lead.

The Colts went scoreless on their four second-half possessions, including another interception for Luck that was a drop by a teammate (Mo Alie-Cox). Meanwhile, it wasn't a bad game for Blake Bortles, who passed for 320 yards without a turnover. The running game was not very effective as Leonard Fournette's return produced 24 carries for 53 yards and a 1-yard touchdown run. Fournette actually did some of his best work as a receiver in this game, including a 31-yard reception and a 1-yard touchdown catch that made it 29-23 with 6:25 left in the third quarter. Incredibly, there was only one more score after that. Kicker Josh Lambo made a 55-yard field goal with 4:03 left after earlier missing a 52-yard kick. It's like Lambo channeled his inner Josh Scobee, who seemingly made every 50-plus-yard field goal in the fourth quarter against the Colts in the previous decade.

Indianapolis really needed to produce something on offense, and Luck responded with a 35-yard bomb right away to T.Y. Hilton. That drive still stalled, and Adam Vinatieri was unable to connect on a 52-yard field goal of his own with 2:53 left. While Vinatieri is a superb clutch kicker, should the Colts have even been trying that kick to take a 32-26 lead when they could have practically iced the game with a fourth-and-4 conversion from Luck? According to EdjSports, the Game-Winning Chance when going for it was 89.7 percent, compared to 84.7 percent in trying the field goal. The highest Game-Winning Chance was actually to punt (90.7 percent), but I think I would have taken my chances with Luck on a fourth-and-4. It's not like Frank Reich hasn't made that decision already this season in a more tenuous spot.

After the miss, Bortles had his chance with 2:53 and a timeout left at his own 42. There was no need to rush the drive, so Bortles stuck with short plays to receiving back T.J. Yeldon. (That's another issue with drafting a back like Fournette at No. 4. His value isn't as high in these late-game situations where the team has leaned on Yeldon.) Even on a third-and-1 at the Indianapolis 35, the Jaguars were still throwing, which isn't something to criticize since there was time (1:35) to run the ball on fourth down had the pass been incomplete. The pass was caught by Rashad Greene for 11 yards, but he appeared to possibly fumble at the end of the play and the Colts had a clear recovery. The replay system just kicked in before the Jaguars ran their next play, and after review, the Colts were awarded the ball with 1:30 left, effectively ending the game as Luck was able to run the clock out.

It was a really close call, and the call on the field was a completion with the receiver down by contact. Plays like this have gone both ways in the past. Personally, I think a player should be fully separated from the ball to have it ruled a fumble. If slight movement of the ball is not enough to negate control for a completion, then the same standard should apply for a fumble. You can find a shot where Greene's knee is down and he still has some control of the ball even though he is in the process of losing it. I think the Colts should feel very fortunate about getting this one.

After a fifth-straight loss, the relevant portion of Jacksonville's season may be over. The Jaguars (3-6) are in last place in the AFC South. If anyone had "Rashad Greene lost fumble" as the final nail in the coffin on the Jaguars' 2018 season, then that person should be singled out as a time traveler.

Cardinals at Chiefs: Going Under Cover

Hard to say the Chiefs were overlooking the Cardinals this week, but given the opponent and outcome, it's also hard to say this wasn't the least impressive performance the team has had this season. Kansas City tied 2018's highest spread as a 17-point favorite, but never led by more than 13 and ultimately won 26-14. Kansas City's two longest offensive plays came in the first minute of the game, and the offense had a season-low 330 yards.

In the end, it's still a 12-point win where they were never seriously threatened, but Arizona's defense did well to force the Chiefs to punt on five of their last six drives to give the offense a chance. Five sacks made things more difficult than usual for Patrick Mahomes, who passed for a career-low 249 yards. The fifth sack led to a punt in the fourth quarter, giving Josh Rosen possession with a 20-14 deficit. Two plays later, he was intercepted by Justin Houston after trying to force a screen to a running back. That set Mahomes up at the Arizona 31, and four plays later, the Chiefs were in the end zone again for an insurance score. Mahomes' two-point conversion pass failed, which is the only reason he didn't lead the team to at least 27 points for the 11th start in a row.

Fortunately, 26 points were more than enough to finish off Arizona. Rosen started to feel the heat late and took three sacks on one drive, including a fourth-and-28 play. Rosen threw a second interception out of desperation in the closing seconds. Running back David Johnson accounted for 183 of the offense's 260 yards, but the overall offensive effort wasn't good enough to pull off a major road upset.

We'll finally get to see the Chiefs take on the Rams next Monday night. It's a game you can only hope is covered here next week, because that probably means it lived up to the hype.

Season Summary

Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 36
Game-winning drives: 44 (plus two non-offensive game-winning scores)
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 81/148 (54.7 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 18

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.

Comments

5 comments, Last at 16 Nov 2018, 3:57pm

1 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 10

by Jose21crisis // Nov 13, 2018 - 7:50pm

"Hard to say the Chiefs were overlooking the Cardinals this week, but given the opponent and outcome, it's also hard to say this wasn't the least impressive performance the team has had this season. "
No mention of the Falcons actually overlooking the Browns, then a player admits they did (Everyone overlooks them *Stares at the Steelers*, but no one really says it)

"We'll finally get to see the Chiefs take on the Rams next Monday night. It's a game you can only hope is covered here next week, because that probably means it lived up to the hype."
A 6-3 field goal kicking matchup would prevent that game from being here. And that won't happen with 2 of the most overpowered offenses with non-impressive defenses in the league.

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5 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 10

by Eddo // Nov 16, 2018 - 3:57pm

The Falcons weren't mentioned because their game wasn't within one score in the fourth quarter, which I believe is the criterion for being written about in "Clutch Encounters" articles.

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2 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 10

by ramirez // Nov 13, 2018 - 7:50pm

I think there's a good argument that Wentz has been better in 2018 than last year. His figures for YPA, completion percentage, INT percentage, and passer rating have all improved. And even with regression to the mean in TD percentage, he still rates at 10% above league average in that metric. His individual stats are a much more reliable indicator of his future performance than the success rate of his team in the red zone, or on 3rd down. And even with decline in those areas from last year, Philadelphia is 12th in 3rd down conversions and 17th in red zone efficiency.

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3 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 10

by Raiderfan // Nov 13, 2018 - 8:30pm

The numbers you have posted for EM are missing digits: they should be 31 and 41.

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4 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 10

by Scott Kacsmar // Nov 13, 2018 - 8:33pm

Thanks. That's a case of typing over last week's entry and forgetting to update a line.

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