by Scott Kacsmar
Week 9 pushes us just over the halfway point of the 2018 NFL season. The schedule featured a few big games, and they were among the seven games with a comeback opportunity this week. Drew Brees and Tom Brady led game-winning drives in the two marquee affairs. The Steelers-Ravens and Chargers-Seahawks contests both came down to the very last snap.
That sounds like a fantastic week, right? Not quite. The Saints and Patriots still won by double digits, and the Steelers and Chargers were largely in control of their road wins. Even the Monday night game in Dallas was a 28-14 final where Tennessee was barely threatened.
We'll see what the second half brings, but the last few weeks have had some of that comeback drought that plagued 2017. The good teams are starting to separate themselves. Also, home teams are winning 59.7 percent of their games, the highest rate through Week 9 since 2013 (61.7 percent).
Game of the Week
Green Bay Packers 17 at New England Patriots 31
Game Winning Chance Before: 68.7 percent
Game Winning Chance After: 90.5 percent
Win Probability Added: 21.8 percent
Head Coach: Bill Belichick (54-79 at 4QC and 70-80 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Tom Brady (43-38 at 4QC and 56-40 overall 4QC/GWD record)
In a rare battle of "GOAT" quarterbacks on Sunday night, the game was ultimately decided the way it usually is in these hyped matchups: by the non-quarterbacks. If you wanted to see a high-flying quarterback duel in Week 9, you had to watch Jared Goff and Drew Brees in New Orleans. On Sunday night in New England, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady both looked a bit off their games, which has been the case throughout this season. After Week 9, Brady (21.2 percent) and Rodgers (20.4 percent) have two of the four highest rates of off-target passes in 2018, according to ESPN Stats & Info. The stat excludes throwaways and spikes.
In the end, the Patriots effectively used a wide receiver at running back, while the Packers tried to give a running back more touches only to see him fumble at the worst moment. Cordarrelle Patterson looked good in the backfield for the Patriots, who were outplaying the Packers into the third quarter. Things took a turn towards Green Bay after a great goal-line stand against Brady. The Packers even overcame a brutal roughing the punter penalty that helped the Patriots retain possession on fourth-and-21. After getting Rodgers the ball back in a 17-17 game, the quarterback made two of his best throws of the night to Marquez Valdes-Scantling for a combined 50 yards to end the quarter.
Suddenly, Green Bay looked to be in good shape at the New England 34 to start the fourth quarter. That's when running back Aaron Jones took his season-high 13th carry and gained 6 yards before journeyman lineman Lawrence Guy forced a huge fumble. It was the first fumble of Jones' career and only the second that Guy has ever forced. According to EdjSports, Green Bay's Game-Winning Chance dropped from 50.9 percent to 31.3 percent on that fumble. That won't make him lose his job like it did for the traded Ty Montgomery after his fumble on a kick return in Los Angeles last week, but it was very costly.
This was the fourth time one of Rodgers' skill players lost a fumble in the fourth quarter or overtime when tied or down by one score. It's the third time since Geronimo Allison did it at the end of a comeback attempt in Carolina in Week 15 last season. So that's three times in Rodgers' last nine games after it happened once (James Jones vs. 2010 Bears) in the previous decade. For those curious, this has happened to Brady four times in 18 years: Julian Edelman against 2016 Seahawks (down 25-24), Stevan Ridley in the 2012 AFC Championship Game against Baltimore (down 21-13), Benjamin Watson against the 2006 Lions (tied 21-21; still won game), and Kevin Faulk against the 2002 Chargers (down 21-14). (Note: this has actually happened to Drew Brees eight times in New Orleans since 2006, but we won't stray from NBC's GOAT farm today.)
FO's own Tom Gower actually referenced the Ridley fumble at the end of Audibles this week, but this play reminded me of a more famous fumble that went Green Bay's way eight seasons ago. In Super Bowl XLV, the Pittsburgh Steelers looked to be in great shape as the fourth quarter began, but that's when Clay Matthews forced a Rashard Mendenhall fumble from the Green Bay 33. The Packers added a touchdown to the lead and the rest is history.
This time Green Bay was on the wrong end of things as the Patriots used some trickery to get to the end zone. Brady threw a backwards pass to Edelman, who threw a pass to James White for a 37-yard gain to the 2. White finished the drive in the end zone three runs later. Two of New England's three biggest plays of the game were a double pass and a flea-flicker. There was no such creativity from the Packers, who promptly went three-and-out after Rodgers was buried on a third-down sack.
Brady was close to going a second straight game without a touchdown pass for the first time since 2006, but that's why the Patriots made a low-risk move for Josh Gordon. He can especially help on nights where Rob Gronkowski is out injured. It's not that Gordon did anything phenomenal, but he took advantage of some awful defense by the Packers. Two defenders reacted to Chris Hogan on a fake bubble screen while the more dangerous Edelman and Gordon freely ran down the field wide open. Edelman actually moved his arms as if the ball was overthrown, but Gordon was there for the catch. Tramon Williams should have been there for the tackle at the Green Bay 38 to keep this a game, but he badly whiffed and Gordon scored a 55-yard touchdown.
That made it 31-17 with 7:20 left. Say what you will about Rodgers' career fourth-quarter stats or recent heroics, this game felt like it was already over. Green Bay left little doubt with a slow-moving drive that barely reached New England territory before Rodgers threw incomplete on fourth-and-4. The Patriots ran out the final 3:48 on the clock.
Green Bay (3-4-1) is under .500 through eight games for the first time in Rodgers' career as a starter. If you ranked the Packers by point differential through eight games since 2008, the worst three seasons are the last three seasons, and 2018 is the lowest yet (-12). Things have been trending downward for years. If any GOAT emerged from Sunday night, then it's probably Mike McCarthy as the ultimate scapegoat for not doing more to coach a winning team around Rodgers the way Bill Belichick has done for Brady all these years.
Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind
Los Angeles Rams 35 at New Orleans Saints 45
Game Winning Chance Before: 60.3 percent
Game Winning Chance After: 64.7 percent
Win Probability Added: 4.4 percent
Head Coach: Sean Payton (27-45 at 4QC and 38-48 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Drew Brees (33-59 at 4QC and 49-66 overall 4QC/GWD record)
One could say the Rams were heading for a loss like this after squeezing out their second two-point win of the season against decent competition last week. Teams with Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers at quarterback were able to give the Rams all they could handle, and the same can be said of Minnesota with Kirk Cousins in Week 4, a 38-31 win that required near-flawless play from Jared Goff and the offense. Any little slip-ups against a tough opponent could spell defeat, and so a 45-35 loss in New Orleans actually makes a lot of sense for these Rams.
There is no great defense in the NFL in 2018. This season could be one where four teams (Saints, Rams, Chiefs, and Patriots) march to Championship Sunday in January with a head-to-head win by the home team deciding home-field advantage. The schedule just happened to have the Rams going into New Orleans after Los Angeles hosted last year's matchup. It's always tough to slow down Drew Brees in the Superdome, but it may be harder than ever these days when he has an incredible receiving back (Alvin Kamara) and the best wide receiver (Michael Thomas) he's ever had. Thomas had a career-high 211 receiving yards and Kamara matched his career-high with 19 carries in scoring three touchdowns.
After Bob Griese and Earl Morrall, Brees must be the favorite quarterback of the undefeated 1972 Dolphins. Brees has unmatched experience at slaying undefeated teams in the second half of the season. The Rams were the NFL's 30th team since 1940 to start 8-0 or better, and they're the third team to suffer their first loss to a team with Brees at quarterback. Brees helped take down the 8-0 Falcons in 2012 and ended Indianapolis' 13-0 start in 2005 when he was still with the Chargers. One week after he threw for his fewest yards (120) in a full game with the Saints last week in Minnesota, Brees was almost flawless in building a 35-14 lead in the first half.
However, the Saints still leave something to be desired on defense. Despite the loss, I think this game actually bodes well for the Rams going forward. They could have folded on the road, but the offense scored on four consecutive drives to tie the game at 35 in the fourth quarter. A front-running team wouldn't do that. Had it not been for some early special teams snafus (a failed fake field goal and missed 51-yard field goal), who knows what could have happened for the Rams.
With the strength of both offenses (they were both just south of 500 yards), the coaches really need to adjust traditional punting decisions. The Saints opened the second half with two punts, including one on fourth-and-4 from the Los Angeles 44. With 9:41 left, Brees needed to get the offense going again in a tied game. Thomas came through on a big third-and-10 for an 18-yard gain. That led to a 54-yard field goal by Wil Lutz with 6:23 left on what was technically the game-winning drive.
While these defenses may not get many stops against these offenses, getting a late one is paramount. The Saints forced the Rams into a three-and-out, but should it have been that quick of a drive? Sean McVay punted on fourth-and-7 at his own 28 with 4:58 left. While Brees was obviously having a great day, risking giving up a field goal to trail 41-35 may have been worth it to try extending the drive. Either way, giving up a touchdown was the last thing the defense could do, but that's what happened. On a third-and-7, Marcus Peters was still giving orders to his teammates with a second left on the play clock before trying to cover Thomas, who smoked him for a 72-yard touchdown. Peters doesn't have a takeaway since Week 1. Thomas then paid homage to Joe Horn with a planned celebration of pulling out a cellphone from the goal post.
Michael Thomas with the 72-yard TD and then pulls out a flip phonepic.twitter.com/mRxbWatDKF
— NFL Stats (@NFL_Stats) November 5, 2018
The celebration led to a penalty and deep kickoff with plenty of free space for the Rams to return the ball to their own 42 with 3:46 left. The defense stepped up again to force a four-and-out after Brandin Cooks was unable to come down with a tough catch on fourth-and-2. The Saints ran out the final 3:26 on the clock to secure a seventh-straight win.
Houston Texans 19 at Denver Broncos 17
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 1 (17-16)
Game Winning Chance Before: 37.7 percent
Game Winning Chance After: 46.3 percent
Win Probability Added: 8.6 percent
Head Coach: Bill O'Brien (12-20 at 4QC and 13-20 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Deshaun Watson (3-4 at 4QC and 4-4 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Houston has won six games in a row, including four late game-winning scores, on the strength of steadier quarterback play from Deshaun Watson and an improving defense led by J.J. Watt. We would be remiss not to mention the impact that coaching has had on the winning streak as well. No, not necessarily what Bill O'Brien has done for Houston, but what his counterparts have failed to do. First, there was Frank Reich's decision in Indianapolis in Week 4 to bypass a sure tie in overtime and go for it on fourth-and-4 in his own territory. A week later, Dallas head coach Jason Garrett punted on a fourth-and-1 -- a "long 1" according to Garrett -- in overtime before the Texans won by a field goal.
On Sunday, Denver head coach Vance Joseph badly botched the end of each half to give Houston the edge again. In the second quarter, Joseph had Brandon McManus attempt a 62-yard field goal. Now those are makeable in Denver, but McManus' career long is 57 yards. These are also usually attempted as the final play in a half, because any miss gives great field position to the opponent. There were 22 seconds left when Denver attempted the kick, or simply too much time after a miss. Houston had two timeouts to move the ball 20 yards and set up its own field goal, which was good after Joseph tried to ice the kicker. I'm not a lip reader, but it sure looks like O'Brien knew he had taken advantage of Joseph's error.
— Mostly Football (@MostlyFBShow) November 5, 2018
That was Joseph's first big mistake to hurt the Broncos on the scoreboard. The offense still rebounded to take a 17-16 lead into the fourth quarter, but a long Houston drive stalled with a go-ahead field goal by Ka'imi Fairbairn. Over 14 minutes remained, but the teams continued to trade punts. In my research, giving any offense three chances to score is asking for a loss, especially when your lead is just 19-17.
On Denver's third drive of the fourth quarter, Case Keenum finally got the offense going, aided by the benefits of four-down football. He converted a fourth-and-8 with an 18-yard pass to Emmanuel Sanders, which led to Denver using its second timeout at the Houston 37 with 43 seconds left. With the clock stopped, Denver could have easily had two plays called. The first was a 5-yard slant, which is fine, but at that point Denver should have been ready to spike the ball to bring up third down, or throw the ball again to gain more yards before using the final timeout. Instead, Denver just let the clock go down to 13 seconds before handing off into a run blitz that lost a yard. Then Joseph used his final timeout with 3 seconds left to set up McManus for a 51-yard field goal.
That was just awful, conservative coaching to settle for a long field goal. McManus is only 13-of-26 on field goals from 50-plus yards in his career. Even an extra 5 yards of field position there would have increased Denver's Game-Winning Chance by 11 percent, according to EdjSports. McManus was wide right on the kick and Denver lost to fall to 3-6. Demaryius Thomas was traded to Houston earlier in the week, and he had an interesting quote about Joseph after the game:
Demaryius Thomas to @MikeSilver on Broncos going passive at the end, settling for long FG attempt: "That's what they do over there. I ain't a part of that no more. We like to win over here" https://t.co/dszzVJcwnJ
— Chris Wesseling (@ChrisWesseling) November 5, 2018
Joseph's days may be numbered in Denver. Houston's days of winning are also numbered if this reliance on the other coach to hand the game over on a silver platter continues. Fortunately, the schedule following this bye looks pretty favorable for a 6-3 team in control of its division.
Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind
Steelers at Ravens: Encounter No. 50
For the third year in a row, the Steelers dealt Baltimore a significant blow in its pursuit of a division title. The Ravens (4-5) haven't won the AFC North since 2012 and have dropped four of their last five games. After getting shut out at home in the second half of a Week 4 loss to Baltimore, the Steelers played a consistent game on the road with points in each quarter.
There was a brief, scary moment in the fourth quarter where it looked like the whole dynamic of the AFC North might have changed with a tackle of Ben Roethlisberger on a scramble. He stayed on the ground injured and had to be replaced by Joshua Dobbs, who had never thrown a regular-season pass before. With the Steelers clinging onto a 20-13 lead at their own 5, Dobbs was trusted to deliver a 22-yard strike while standing in his own end zone to JuJu Smith-Schuster. That was a gutsy call with an unproven quarterback, and it got the Steelers out of a second-and-20 jam. Fortunately, Roethlisberger returned to the game after that one missed snap as he just had the wind knocked out of him. His first throw was Pittsburgh's biggest of the day with a 51-yard bomb to tight end Jesse James. That led to a 29-yard field goal and the Steelers led 23-13 with 8:26 left.
Baltimore's second-half offense consisted of Joe Flacco trying to make throws to draw pass interference penalties, and he was able to get two flags. The Ravens settled for a 37-yard field goal to pull within 23-16. Roethlisberger was able to burn clock with a pair of third-down conversion throws. He could have iced the game with a third-and-11 conversion, but was wise to take a sack instead of forcing anything. That bled more clock and was the only sack the Ravens got all day in just the second Ravens-Steelers game (out of 50) without a single turnover.
Flacco had 44 seconds left from his own 24. Baltimore was down both starting tackles all day, but mostly managed it well until the final minute. Stephon Tuitt chased down Flacco for a big sack, and that really forced the Ravens to try a series of laterals. They got off several before the ball eventually went out of bounds to end the game. Pittsburgh (5-2-1) has won four in a row ever since the Baltimore loss.
While the division hopes look bleak for Baltimore, Pittsburgh still has to host the Panthers, Chargers, and Patriots and play at New Orleans this season. So the division is far from a lock, but this is one of the bigger wins in the rivalry.
Chargers at Seahawks: Not Yelling "BINGO" This Year
We haven't covered the Chargers much this year, but they are 3-0 in close games, joining the Patriots (5-0) and Saints (4-0) as the only teams with perfect records in games that featured a comeback opportunity on either side of the ball. In starting 5-2, the Chargers had basically beaten the lesser competition they were supposed to beat but weren't good enough to take down elite teams in the Chiefs and Rams.
Seattle was a unique test since the game was on the road, and despite a 4-3 record, the Seahawks were No. 6 in DVOA coming into Week 9. After this 25-17 win by the Chargers, respect should go up a little for L.A.'s other team, and it's definitely fair to question if the Seahawks are still good. For about 58 minutes on Sunday, this was actually one of the worst performances by Seattle in the Russell Wilson era. Seattle was fortunate that the Chargers thrived on chunk plays to offset a bad day on third downs (2-of-9) while Caleb Sturgis missed two extra points and a 42-yard field goal. At one point in the fourth quarter, Seattle was down 19-10 and ran the ball for no gain on second-and-24. The mantra used to be "all Russell Wilson games end up close eventually," but that felt like a distant memory after Wilson threw his second pick-six in a fourth quarter this season to Desmond King with 6:44 left.
With Sturgis' kicking struggles, you have to wonder if that wasn't a perfect opportunity to go for two and put the game away at 27-10 (three possessions). But Sturgis missed the extra point, so it remained 25-10. Finally, the offense showed some life, but still had to overcome three fourth-down conversions. Wilson threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Nick Vannett on fourth down, but the drive took long enough that the Seahawks used the two-minute warning. Naturally, the onside kick failed, but Seattle had three timeouts. After two runs, Philip Rivers was sacked on third down, so Wilson was able to get the ball back with 1:24 left from his own 22 in a 25-17 game.
Suddenly, overtime seemed doable. Wilson pulled off a few of his usual magic tricks, and the Seahawks faced a fourth-and-2 at the Los Angeles 20 with the clock running. He couldn't spike the ball, so the best he could do was launch a pass to the end zone as time expired. Tyler Lockett was the target, but Michael Davis played him instead of the ball to draw a rare pass interference penalty in such a big spot. That led to an untimed down at the 1-yard line, the type of finish that sunk the 2009 Browns in Detroit and beat the Chiefs in Oakland last season. This seemed right up the Chargers' alley, but Seattle lost an edge in play calling after a false start moved the ball to the 6. Practically forced to throw, Wilson stepped up and found David Moore, who has scored three weeks in a row. But this time, Jahleel Addae got just enough contact of the ball to alter its path to Moore, who was unable to hold on as the game ended.
The extra-slow-motion replay of Russell Wilson's final throw. Safety Jahleel Addae tips it just enough at the last second to alter the trajectory right before it gets to David Moore. pic.twitter.com/knSDZRgiXz
— Brady Henderson (@BradyHenderson) November 5, 2018
It should go without saying that Moore still needed to make that catch, but at least there's a reason it was harder than it first appeared. The Chargers are 6-2 and have somewhat of a signature win now, but wins in Seattle aren't quite what they used to be.
Jets at Dolphins: Kicking Festival Meets Pick Parade
Given all the record offensive numbers around the league this year, the Jets and Dolphins might as well be playing a different sport. Only one play in the two meetings this year (both Miami wins) gained 30 yards, and it did not happen on Sunday. In fact, this was the second time this season that Miami had its longest play from scrimmage on the first snap of the game (a 26-yard pass from Brock Osweiler to Danny Amendola). This was largely a festival of punting and field goals as Miami led 6-3 going into the fourth quarter.
New York used back-to-back facemask penalties to move into position to tie the game, but Cameron Wake sacked Sam Darnold and the Jets had a costly delay of game penalty on third down. That led to a 50-yard field goal for kicker Jason Myers, who had been 19-of-20 on the season. He missed this time with 12:37 to play, strengthening the case that Adam Gase has voodoo dolls for every NFL kicker. On the next possession, Darnold corralled a bad snap before throwing a terrible pass that was intercepted by Eric Tomlinson for a 25-yard touchdown. That made the comeback much harder, but at least Myers responded with a 56-yard field goal to make it 13-6 with 5:57 left.
Myers redeemed himself. The defense forced Miami into two more three-and-out drives. The opportunities were there for Darnold, but he didn't deliver this week. Darnold ended the Jets' last two drives with desperation interceptions on fourth-and-long, but each drive featured an open Robby Anderson down the left sideline. Darnold's timing and accuracy was just off with his best vertical receiver.
Darnold finished the game with four interceptions, including three in a one-score game in the fourth quarter. A quarterback has done that only seven times since 2001, and incredibly, the last four instances involve three Jets quarterbacks and a win by Gase's Dolphins in 2016 against Philip Rivers and the Chargers. Maybe the most incredible part is that of the 14 offenses and defenses associated with these games, 11 of them were AFC East teams.
|Quarterbacks with Three Interceptions in Single 4QC Opportunity Since 2001|
|Tom Brady||NE||at DEN||10/28/2001||L 31-20||4||12||33.3%||40||0||3||4.2|
|J.P. Losman||BUF||at NYJ||12/14/2008||L 31-27||10||19||52.6%||81||0||3||24.1|
|Matt Cassel||KC||BUF||12/13/2009||L 16-10||8||17||47.1%||79||0||3||21.1|
|Geno Smith||NYJ||at NE||9/12/2013||L 13-10||3||12||25.0%||55||0||3||6.6|
|Ryan Fitzpatrick||NYJ||at BUF||1/3/2016||L 22-17||5||12||41.7%||44||0||3||12.5|
|Philip Rivers||SD||MIA||11/13/2016||L 31-24||8||16||50.0%||127||1||3||58.1|
|Sam Darnold||NYJ||at MIA||11/4/2018||L 13-6||4||13||30.8%||65||0||3||9.0|
|Passing statistics are for fourth quarter only|
Darnold has thrown five interceptions when trailing by one score in the fourth quarter this season. The only other quarterback with more than one is Russell Wilson (two). Darnold was always going to be a project this season, but games like this one make you concerned about whether or not progress is being made.
Titans at Cowboys: Clap Your Hands Say Ugh
On Monday night, after the Titans stopped fumbling in the first quarter, they did essentially anything they wanted to the Dallas defense. Tennessee was 11-of-14 on third down. One of the very few misfires was on third-and-goal when Marcus Mariota missed a wide open Corey Davis for another touchdown. The Titans settled for a field goal, but Ryan Succop hit the upright with a 28-yard attempt that would have given Tennessee a 24-14 lead.
That opened the door for a short-lived comeback opportunity. For the first time all night, Dallas called passes on consecutive early downs outside of a two-minute situation. It did not work as Dak Prescott suffered another sack and the Titans swarmed Ezekiel Elliott for a no-gain completion on second-and-12. Prescott suffered another sack, and then the Titans continued to eat up clock on third down. Mariota put the Titans up 28-14 after a 9-yard touchdown run. Dallas looked better in the no-huddle offense, but things stalled in the red zone. On fourth down, Prescott scrambled around before sailing a pass out of bounds to effectively end the game with 1:31 left.
At 3-5 and with a tough upcoming schedule, Dallas owner Jerry Jones could basically see another season ending before his eyes. Not with a bang, but a whimper.
This is legit impressive restraint pic.twitter.com/d5TSiGhQgs
— Melissa Jacobs (@thefootballgirl) November 6, 2018
In his team debut, Amari Cooper caught 5-of-8 targets for 58 yards and a touchdown, but was also the target of an end zone interception that Prescott forced to him that set the tone for the rest of the night. When former player and current ESPN analyst Jason Witten is complaining during the game about how the Cowboys wait too long to use no-huddle, that is another strike on head coach Jason Garrett. At some point soon, a change has to come there, because there hasn't been a change on the field in quite some time. Dallas has been largely lethargic on offense over a stretch of 16 games now.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 34
Game-winning drives: 41 (plus two non-offensive game-winning scores)
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 76/134 (56.7 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 17
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.