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

Clutch Encounters: Week 17 & Season Review

by Scott Kacsmar

The final week of the 2018 regular season was low on drama, with only six games having a comeback opportunity. The NFL still got what it wanted with a quasi-close fourth quarter on Sunday night, but the main drama happened concurrently in Baltimore and Pittsburgh to decide the AFC North.

After the six recaps, we also have a season summary of how every team fared in close games this year.

Game of the Week

Cincinnati Bengals 13 at Pittsburgh Steelers 16

Type: GWD
Game-Winning Chance Before: 68.6 percent
Game-Winning Chance After: 93.5 percent
Win Probability Added: 24.9 percent
Head Coach: Mike Tomlin (28-50 at 4QC and 41-55-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger (34-49 at 4QC and 47-54-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Pittsburgh's path to the playoffs was an obvious one: beat the Bengals as a 14-point home favorite and hope the Browns could knock out Baltimore. After we gave the eulogy for the Steelers last week, they looked like a team that was buried alive, trailing 10-0 in a lifeless performance for nearly 30 minutes. While Antonio Brown was out injured, this was another case of playing down to the competition in a must-win game. The Bengals came into Week 17 allowing the most yards and points in the league, but the Steelers only managed a 10-10 tie going into the fourth quarter.

Fortunately, new kicker Matthew McCrane had a bit more luck than the injured Chris Boswell. McCrane banked in a 47-yard field goal off the post to give the Steelers a 13-10 lead. Cincinnati's junior varsity offense did very little on the day, but Joe Mixon immediately ripped off a 51-yard run to set up a game-tying field goal. Ben Roethlisberger drove the Steelers into field goal range again, and McCrane was more accurate on a 35-yard field goal for a 16-13 lead, but 1:56 remained for Jeff Driskel. A false start was a bad way to start the drive, and the Steelers weren't afraid to come after Driskel. On fourth-and-5 from the Cincinnati 40, Driskel was unable to deliver against the blitz and the game was over.

The Steelers remained on the field to watch the Browns give them some hope, but the Ravens put the game away with an interception, all but ending the season for Pittsburgh. A tie between the Colts and Titans on Sunday night was the last hope, but that was always a long shot. Pittsburgh (9-6-1) misses the playoffs after a 7-2-1 start. Pittsburgh's +68 scoring differential is the highest in team history for a non-playoff season.

As for the Bengals, they finally did the deed of firing Marvin Lewis on Monday after 16 seasons without a playoff win (0-7). Maybe it's fitting that his final game was against chief rival Pittsburgh as Lewis leaves behind one of the weirdest splits in NFL history. Lewis was 6-10 against the Steelers in Pittsburgh, but 2-16 at home. The Steelers ended his two most promising seasons (2005 and 2015) in the playoffs in Cincinnati.

Back to Pittsburgh. In the end, the Week 1 tie in Cleveland was costly, or maybe the writing was on the wall when the Steelers lost in Oakland. Pittsburgh has missed the playoffs five times in the Roethlisberger era (2006, 2009, 2012, 2013, and 2018). In all five seasons they were a game out of the playoffs, and they lost to a bad Oakland team each time as well. In fact, in those five seasons the Raiders were 14-61 (.187) when not playing Pittsburgh. This is like that infamous (but no longer true) stat where no team that lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl in the same season. If you've lost to a team like that, you must have some serious problems.

The mismanagement of close games was the serious problem this year, and aside from possibly moving on from Boswell, big changes are unlikely to come for the Steelers in 2019. They can cite a missed field goal here or a single defensive snap there that kept this team from a top seed in the AFC. Roethlisberger, who led the league with 5,129 passing yards, will be 37 next year. The window is closing, and the AFC is changing. Indianapolis and Houston are back in the playoffs with their franchise quarterbacks. Patrick Mahomes just had a historic season for the Chiefs. The Browns and Ravens were already right there with Pittsburgh for the AFC North this season and could be even further along in 2019.

In a season where the Steelers were good enough to beat the Patriots and hang with the two No. 1 seeds (Chiefs and Saints), they won't even make the playoffs. Given how the team was generally healthy and matches up well with this playoff field, 2018's numerous missed opportunities makes this the front-runner for the most disappointing season in franchise history.

Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind

Dallas Cowboys 36 at New York Giants 35

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 7 (35-28)
Game-Winning Chance Before: 4.7 percent
Game-Winning Chance After: 68.3 percent
Win Probability Added: 63.6 percent
Head Coach: Jason Garrett (27-39 at 4QC and 38-41 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Dak Prescott (8-9 at 4QC and 14-9 overall 4QC/GWD record)

For the third year in a row, the NFC East champion rested starters in a meaningless Week 17 game. Check that -- the Cowboys rested some key starters (Ezekiel Elliott, Tyron Smith, and Zack Martin), but went all out for the win with Dak Prescott and company in what actually turned out to be one of the most entertaining division games of 2018. We'd spend a lot more time on this one if it had happened a month ago, but with the Cowboys locked into the No. 4 seed, it really was a risky attempt to gain intangible "momentum" for next week's playoff matchup with Seattle. On the bright side, Cole Beasley made a 32-yard touchdown catch on fourth-and-15 that was one of the best efforts of the season. It gave Prescott a career-high four touchdown passes in a game.

At least Jason Garrett was wise enough to go for a two-point conversion instead of playing for overtime. Normally, 1:12 would be a little too early to go for a two-or-die, but these were special circumstances. Prescott made the pass work to Michael Gallup, and the Cowboys led 36-35. However, a taunting penalty threatened to end Dallas' celebration quickly. That led to a short kickoff that the Giants returned to their own 48, leaving Eli Manning in great positon to lead a game-winning field goal drive. But like last week in Indianapolis when the Giants trailed by a single point, Manning was unable to move the offense. He threw four incompletions in a row, with Cody Latimer unable to come down with the ball on fourth-and-10. The Giants finished 2-7 at game-winning drive opportunities this season. Prescott has as many game-winning drives (14) in his three-year career as Manning has led in the last six seasons combined.

Atlanta Falcons 34 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers 32

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 1 (32-31)
Game-Winning Chance Before: 47.1 percent
Game-Winning Chance After: 100.0 percent
Win Probability Added: 52.9 percent
Head Coach: Dan Quinn (8-18 at 4QC and 11-21 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Matt Ryan (28-45 at 4QC and 38-48 overall 4QC/GWD record)

The Atlanta Falcons, my preseason Super Bowl pick, limped to a 7-9 finish in one of the most disappointing seasons of the Matt Ryan era. Sunday's finale served as a good summary of who these teams were in 2018. They could both be very explosive on offense, but the defenses (for varying reasons) could never be trusted. The Falcons went from a 17-0 deficit to a 31-20 lead in the fourth quarter before trailing 32-31 in the final minutes. Jameis Winston is expected to return in 2019, and if he doesn't, this wasn't a game to blame him for. He led two fourth-quarter touchdown drives, but did fail on a two-point conversion that would have given the team a 34-31 cushion.

Atlanta had been 0-5 on game-winning drive opportunities this season, and was in danger of blowing a league-high fifth fourth-quarter lead. Fortunately, the offense came through this time and didn't let the defense back on the field. Julio Jones made up for a big penalty on a rough block by converting a third-and-11 for 16 yards. That allowed the Falcons to set up a field goal as the final play, and Matt Bryant delivered from 37 yards away for the win.

The Buccaneers fired head coach Dirk Koetter just hours after the game, a move that had seemed inevitable for months now. The Tampa Bay offense was a passing yardage juggernaut this season (5,358 yards between Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick), but could not overcome 26 interceptions and a defense that often hemorrhaged points. As for the Falcons, the defensive injury numbers are going to look really bad when finalized. However, the defensive collapses late in games in September and the five-game losing streak where the offense fell off significantly show that Dan Quinn may be on the hot seat next in 2019.

Arizona Cardinals 24 at Seattle Seahawks 27

Type: GWD
Game-Winning Chance Before: 72.5 percent
Game-Winning Chance After: 100.0 percent
Win Probability Added: 27.5 percent
Head Coach: Pete Carroll (29-55-1 at 4QC and 38-60-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Russell Wilson (20-31-1 at 4QC and 27-33-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)

While it hasn't been sustained as long as the Steelers-Bengals rivalry, the Cardinals and Seahawks have a recent history where Arizona plays much better in Seattle than it does at home. Arizona gave the Seahawks all they could handle in what proved to be the final game for head coach Steve Wilks after one year, and what could be the final game in Larry Fitzgerald's 15-year career. At least Fitzgerald added a one-handed touchdown catch to help the Cardinals score 24 points for just the second time this season, but much of the scoring was set up by defensive takeaways and special teams.

When Josh Rosen had a chance for a game-winning drive in a 21-21 tie, he let the ball slip out under pressure and the Seahawks used that to take a 24-21 lead on a 7-yard drive. Rosen looked competent on the ensuing drive, but Trent Sherfield had a brutal drop on third-and-12 that would have put the ball inside the 10. Zane Gonzalez was good on a 55-yard field goal to tie the game with 1:49 left, but the final pass of Rosen's difficult rookie season could have led to a game-winning touchdown. We'll see if history can repeat itself next year if a new head coach can do for Rosen what Sean McVay and Matt Nagy have done with Jared Goff and Mitchell Trubisky the last two years.

As for Russell Wilson, he had a quiet day in taking six sacks like Rosen, but he finished his hyper-efficient season in targeting DVOA leader Tyler Lockett with a 37-yard bomb. That set up Sebastian Janikowski for a 33-yard game-winning field goal at the buzzer. Wilson's 27th game-winning drive ties Matt Ryan for the most through a quarterback's first seven seasons in NFL history. That includes the playoffs, where Wilson will hope to continue his success in Dallas next week.

Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind

Browns at Ravens: Not Déjà vu on Fourth Down

Baltimore was not about to let it happen again. In 2016, a Week 16 loss to the Steelers on Christmas eliminated the Ravens from the playoffs after a late touchdown by Antonio Brown. Last season, in Week 17, the Ravens just needed to stop a fourth-and-12 to make the playoffs, but Andy Dalton threw a 49-yard touchdown to Tyler Boyd to shock Baltimore out of another tournament. Now it was Cleveland's turn, with the Browns looking for their first winning season since 2007. Surely a 26-17 Baltimore lead halfway through the fourth quarter would hold up at home this time, right?

Well, Baker Mayfield may just be the one for the Browns, and his first duel with fellow rookie Lamar Jackson could be the start of something special in the AFC North for years to come. With Pittsburgh pulling ahead of the Bengals, the Ravens needed to have this win, but Mayfield broke the rookie record for touchdown passes with his 27th of the season. The Browns only trailed 26-24 with 3:24 left. Baltimore could have iced the clock, but Jackson's option pitch to Ty Montgomery was nearly lost on third down. The Ravens had to punt, setting the stage for Mayfield to end his season in style with 1:49 remaining.

A couple of close calls had to be reviewed for Mayfield completions, and the officials seemed to get both calls correct, gaining a quick 35 yards for the Browns to the Baltimore 39. Feeling another season slipping away, the Ravens got aggressive and blitzed Mayfield on four straight passes. The rookie probably could have taken a little more time than he did, and he badly missed an open receiver on second down that would have moved the ball inside the 30. A 57-yard field goal may have been viable if Justin Tucker was the kicker, but he's on Baltimore's side. Going for it on fourth-and-10 was the right decision, but Mayfield's quick pass was tipped and intercepted at the line by C.J. Mosley to end the threat. The play wanted to get Duke Johnson on a slant as the trailing fourth receiver on the left side so he could run for the first down, but Mosley never let the ball get there.

Cleveland will be a trendy playoff pick in 2019, but the Ravens can do some damage this year with that combination of defense and ball possession.

Colts at Titans: Tennessee's Kryptonite

Game No. 256 for the NFL in 2018 was a battle for the sixth seed on Sunday night in Tennessee. The Titans have not beaten the Colts with Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck at quarterback since October 27, 2008. They'll have to wait until next year to try again after Luck improved to 11-0 against the Titans and punched Indianapolis' card for the playoffs. It's only the third time in NFL history that a 1-5 team reached the postseason after the Colts won nine of their last 10 games. The Titans did not have their starting quarterback, Marcus Mariota, but they were also shorthanded in missing Jurrell Casey (injured reserve) and Brian Orakpo as well. That's a lot of pass-rush help missing, and the Colts basically had their way with the defense aside from a horrific decision by Luck on a pick-six that kept the game from getting out of hand quickly.

Tennessee was able to keep things reasonably close into the fourth quarter with Blaine Gabbert at quarterback, but even with Mariota this offense was always going to be at a disadvantage in this matchup. The recent surge by Derrick Henry on the ground helped the Titans make this a win-and-you're-in scenario, but he averaged 39.5 rushing yards per game and 3.7 yards per carry over the first 12 weeks of 2018. The Colts entered the week as the No. 5 rushing defense by DVOA too. Henry's 33-yard run was the highlight of his 93-yard night, and it helped set up a Gabbert touchdown pass to make it 24-17 going into the fourth quarter. The Titans even used Henry in the Wildcat, but when Gabbert had to deliver on a third-and-6, he was intercepted by Kenny Moore with 9:05 left. That led to a 25-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri, and the Colts had a commanding 27-17 lead with 3:55 left.

The Titans were then flagged for four penalties, but the last one was an unfortunate case of catching the second guy for unnecessary roughness rather than the instigator. That set up a fourth-and-14, and Gabbert threw incomplete. One play later the Colts were back in the end zone with an 8-yard run by Marlon Mack, but Vinatieri missed the extra point to keep it a two-possession game at 33-17. It didn't matter as Gabbert threw an interception to Darius Leonard, a fitting ending for someone with a strong case for Defensive Rookie of the Year. The Colts also may have the Comeback Player of the Year (Luck) and the Coach of the Year (Frank Reich) to thank for this return to the playoffs, the first for the team since 2014.

Season Summary

Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 69
Game-winning drives: 88 (plus three non-offensive game-winning scores)
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 147/256 (57.4 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 34

After a real down year in 2017, comebacks returned to their normal range this season with a nice total of 69. From 2012 to 2016, there were always 68 to 73 fourth-quarter comeback wins (including playoffs), but that dropped to 54 games in 2017. Success rate returned to normal ranges at 33.2 percent in 2018 after falling to 27.3 percent in 2017.

The following table shows a summary of each team's success in close games this season. First, the offense's record in games with a 4QC opportunity is shown. As a reminder, that is games having possession in the fourth quarter (or overtime) with a one-score deficit. Next is the overall 4QC/GWD record, which also includes the games where the score was tied in the fourth quarter or overtime. For the defense, the holds are the games where the defense was successful in defending a one-score lead in the fourth quarter or overtime.

The number of games lost in which the team had a fourth-quarter lead is also shown. The last section shows the team's overall record in close games, which are defined as games involving a 4QC/GWD opportunity on either side of the ball.

NFL 2018 Regular Season Close Game Summary (4Q/OT)
OVERALL OFFENSE DEFENSE ALL CLOSE GAMES
Team Record 4QC Pct. 4QC/
GWD
Pct. HOLD BLOWN
LD
Games W-L Pct. CG%
NO 13-3 6-1 0.857 7-1 0.875 6 0 8 7-1 0.875 50.0%
LAR 13-3 4-2 0.667 4-2 0.667 6 0 9 7-2 0.778 56.3%
NE 11-5 1-2 0.333 2-2 0.500 6 1 9 7-2 0.778 56.3%
LAC 12-4 3-2 0.600 3-2 0.600 4 1 8 6-2 0.750 50.0%
HOU 11-5 5-3 0.625 6-3 0.667 4 2 9 6-3 0.667 56.3%
MIA 7-9 4-2 0.667 4-3 0.571 4 2 9 6-3 0.667 56.3%
CHI 12-4 2-3 0.400 3-4 0.429 6 2 10 6-4 0.600 62.5%
TEN 9-7 4-4 0.500 5-4 0.556 5 1 10 6-4 0.600 62.5%
IND 10-6 3-4 0.429 3-4 0.429 5 3 10 6-4 0.600 62.5%
DAL 10-6 3-4 0.429 5-4 0.556 3 0 10 6-4 0.600 62.5%
WAS 7-9 1-3 0.250 1-3 0.250 3 2 7 4-3 0.571 43.8%
BAL 10-6 0-5 0.000 1-5 0.167 6 2 11 6-5 0.545 68.8%
PIT 9-6-1 2-5 0.286 3-5-1 0.389 6 3 12 6-5-1 0.542 75.0%
PHI 9-7 4-6 0.400 4-6 0.400 5 2 12 6-6 0.500 75.0%
SEA 10-6 2-6 0.250 4-6 0.400 3 3 12 6-6 0.500 75.0%
CIN 6-10 2-5 0.286 4-5 0.444 4 1 10 5-5 0.500 62.5%
CLE 7-8-1 3-4-1 0.438 4-4-1 0.500 3 2 9 4-4-1 0.500 56.3%
KC 12-4 2-3 0.400 2-3 0.400 4 3 8 4-4 0.500 50.0%
DEN 6-10 3-5 0.375 4-5 0.444 3 3 9 4-5 0.444 56.3%
ATL 7-9 1-5 0.167 1-5 0.167 3 4 9 4-5 0.444 56.3%
BUF 6-10 2-4 0.333 3-4 0.429 2 2 7 3-4 0.429 43.8%
OAK 4-12 3-4 0.429 3-4 0.429 1 3 7 3-4 0.429 43.8%
GB 6-9-1 3-5 0.375 3-5-1 0.389 1 2 9 3-5-1 0.389 56.3%
ARI 4-12 1-5 0.167 2-5 0.286 3 2 8 3-5 0.375 50.0%
MIN 8-7-1 0-4-1 0.100 0-4-1 0.100 2 0 7 2-4-1 0.357 43.8%
JAX 5-11 0-5 0.000 1-6 0.143 3 2 9 3-6 0.333 56.3%
NYG 5-11 1-7 0.125 2-7 0.222 3 4 10 3-7 0.300 62.5%
SF 4-12 0-6 0.000 1-7 0.125 2 4 10 3-7 0.300 62.5%
TB 5-11 0-7 0.000 1-7 0.125 2 2 10 3-7 0.300 62.5%
CAR 7-9 2-6 0.250 2-7 0.222 3 3 11 3-8 0.273 68.8%
DET 6-10 0-5 0.000 1-5 0.167 1 3 6 1-5 0.167 37.5%
NYJ 4-12 1-6 0.143 1-6 0.143 1 4 7 1-6 0.143 43.8%

We highlighted a few teams for regression in 2018 based on the 2017 results. Arizona had the most clutch wins with five in 2017, but will be picking first in the draft in April after going 2-5 at game-winning drive opportunities this season. Carolina was a league-best 8-1 in close games last year, but went one-and-done in the playoffs and then finished 3-8 in close games this year, the third-worst percentage ahead of only the Lions (1-5) and Jets (1-6). The Colts were miserable in 2017 without Andrew Luck, with five blown leads and a 1-7 record at game-winning drive opportunities. They were much more respectable this year with Luck back and Frank Reich taking over at head coach, though they did blow three leads on the way to that 1-3 start.

A couple of playoff teams have loaded up on clutch wins this year, with the Saints (seven) and Texans (six) leading the league. In fact, New Orleans is a league-best 7-1 in close games this season, with zero blown leads. Of course, all it takes is one moment in the playoffs, as that team knows all too well, but it will be interesting to see if they crack in a close game again. The Rams also have six holds of a one-score lead with no blown leads under Sean McVay this season. The Colts, Seahawks, and Chiefs lead all playoff teams with three blown leads in the fourth quarter or overtime.

Baltimore (0-5) is the only playoff team to not win after trailing in the fourth quarter or overtime this season. Their lack of a passing game in those situations could come back to haunt them. Along with the Ravens, the Vikings (0-4-1), Lions (0-5), Jaguars (0-5), 49ers (0-6), and Buccaneers (0-7) were also winless at comeback opportunities. The Vikings (0-4-1) were the only team in the NFL this season to not have a comeback win or game-winning drive, which doesn't reflect too well on Kirk Cousins, The $84 Million Man. Of course, if he had a kicker against Green Bay (Week 2), he'd have that win, plus a playoff appearance, but people are going to remember the offensive struggles from late in the season more than those early games. That's the story of Cousins' career.

The Giants, Falcons, Jets, and 49ers all tied for the league lead with four blown leads. Pittsburgh had three blown leads in losses and a fourth one that led to Cleveland's crucial tie in Week 1. If Sam Darnold develops properly and the Jets nail their head coaching search and the offseason, 2019 could be a year they return to relevance. The Jets had just one successful hold and four blown leads this year.

Finally, if you think we've featured a lot of the Pennsylvania teams this year, it's because we have. The Steelers and Eagles both played 12 close games, tying Seattle for the most in 2018. All three of those teams were 6-6 or 6-5-1 in those games too. In a weird twist, the Lions played a league-low six close games under Matt Patricia, who swept the Packers and beat the Patriots, but also had some ugly losses along the way to finish his first year.

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.

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