Clutch Encounters: Week 1
by Scott Kacsmar
This is my third season covering the NFL's close games on a weekly basis. While the calendar may read 2013, I can quote a lot of reusable material from the 2011-12 archives to review Week 1.
Most of the teams which have struggled to win games with late scoring drives over the last few years lost again on Sunday. That would include Green Bay, which is now 9-25 (.265) at game-winning drive opportunities under Aaron Rodgers. The Panthers blew their ninth fourth-quarter lead of the Cam Newton/Ron Rivera era. Cleveland is 4-16 (.200) at game-winning drive opportunities since 2011. Remember when Josh Freeman led all those comebacks against bad teams in 2010? Tampa Bay is 3-11 (.214) ever since.
The week finished in fitting fashion as the San Diego Chargers blew a 28-7 lead in the second half to Houston. Philip Rivers went from a brilliant start to another embarrassing finish, throwing a game-tying pick-six to Brian Cushing. You will not even believe the record he has in these situations over the last four seasons.
As for the records, if you are not familiar with my work on fourth-quarter comebacks (4QC) and game-winning drives (GWD), which has been available at Pro-Football-Reference since 2009, then here is a brief description of what we will be looking at each week in this column.
- Fourth-quarter comeback opportunity: The offense has the ball at any time in the fourth quarter, trailing by 1-8 points.
- Game-winning drive opportunity: Very similar, but this also includes drives where the game was tied and includes overtime. Technically, a team can now trail in overtime as well under the modified rules.
As a new addition this season I will include the Win Probability as found at Advanced NFL Stats for the game-winning drive (not the whole comeback). It will be for the start of the drive, which is how I used it in our recent game-winning drive study.
In the 2011 regular season there were 66 fourth-quarter comebacks and 83 game-winning drives. In 2012, there were 66 fourth-quarter comebacks and 81 game-winning drives. In 2011, 151-of-256 games (59.0 percent) featured a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity. Last year it was 141-of-256 games (55.1 percent). These numbers are expected to be similar in 2013, but Week 1 was especially tight.
In Week 1 we had 13 games with a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity. Only Baltimore vs. Denver (, which was historic in its own right), Kansas City vs. Jacksonville (the first 28-2 game ever), and Philadelphia vs. Washington (needed an onside kick recovery) did not have one.
Eight teams won this week after trailing in the fourth quarter. That sets a record for the most fourth-quarter comeback wins in Week 1. Week 1 of the 1979 season had seven.
Game of the Week
Green Bay Packers 28 at San Francisco 49ers 34
While some games were lacking in quality this week, Green Bay at San Francisco was premium content for a potential playoff preview. Aaron Rodgers and Colin Kaepernick put on a passing clinic with Jordy Nelson and Anquan Boldin leading the way for each team. After a 13-1 stretch of dominance the Packers had held against the 49ers, they have now lost three straight since last year.
It was also another close loss for the Packers, which should be all too common to fans by now.
Neither team could get a running game going, which is never surprising for Green Bay (17 carries for 50 yards), but a bit of a surprise for San Francisco (27 carries for 68 yards). The passing duel was won by Kaepernick, who threw for a career-high 412 yards after his prolific 181-yard rushing game in the playoffs. His potential is unbelievable.
The game was tied after each of the first three quarters. Phil Dawson kicked a 27-yard field goal to give San Francisco a 24-21 lead early in the fourth quarter. Green Bay could only go three-and-out with Rodgers' third-down pass broken up. Sam Shields had just enough coverage on Kyle Williams to prevent a bomb for the 49ers and force a punt.
Now the Packers responded, highlighted by an incredible 37-yard catch by Nelson, who laid out at the sideline to make the catch. There's no defense for that one. Rookie Eddie Lacy finished the drive with a two-yard touchdown run. Green Bay led 28-24 with 8:26 to play. It was their first lead of the game.
Boldin made another big catch for 43 yards, cutting over the middle of the field and into Green Bay territory. Kendall Hunter exploded for a 23-yard run. Frank Gore finished off the drive with the one-yard touchdown run. The 49ers were back on top, 31-28, with 5:47 left.
Backed up at his own nine, Rodgers' first pass was batted down at the line. He took a hard hit after a seven-yard scramble. He tried Nelson on third down, but came up incomplete. It was another three-and-out drive.
The 49ers had 4:52 to burn. Each team was out of timeouts at the three-minute mark with the 49ers facing a fourth-and-2 at the Green Bay 36. How refreshing it was to see Jim Harbaugh stay aggressive and go for it here. Of course Boldin came free (after Kaepernick moved around) and made the catch for 15 yards.
Boldin caught 13-of-17 targets on the day for 208 yards and a touchdown. The guy sure knows how to make a debut. He had 10 catches for 217 yards and two scores in his 2003 rookie debut with Arizona. In his first game with Baltimore (2010), he had seven catches for 110 yards. This may have been his best debut yet given the magnitude of the game and opponent. This was not Cardinals at Lions in a battle for the fast track to 5-11.
After the conversion the 49ers were able to keep it on the ground and add a field goal for a 34-28 lead. Rodgers only had 26 seconds left at his own 20. He completed a 38-yard pass to Randall Cobb, but the Packers could not get out of bounds. After a spike we were expecting a Hail Mary finish, but Rodgers could not even get that bomb off as a short, incomplete pass over the middle ended this one.
San Francisco had zero turnovers. Mike McCarthy is 1-14 as Green Bay's coach when not getting a takeaway. That's the third-worst winning percentage in the league since 2006.
For as exciting as the game was, it was predictably won by San Francisco in the end. This is just not the kind of game Green Bay has shown it can win on a consistent basis, especially against a good opponent on the road. Remember, Rodgers is 0-18 at comeback opportunities against teams .500 or better. That will probably go to 0-19 given the quality of this San Francisco team.
One look at this updated table of active quarterback records in fourth-quarter comebacks and overall game-winning drive opportunities shows us something is rotten in the state of Wisconsin.
|Career Records in 4th Quarter Comeback/Game-Winning Drive Opportunities|
|Quarterback||4QC Wins||4QC Losses||Pct.||4Q/OT Wins||4Q/OT Losses||Pct.|
|Quarterback||4QC Wins||4QC Losses||Pct.||4Q/OT Wins||4Q/OT Losses||Pct.|
When bringing up Rodgers' 9-25 record, there's always a response about how many times he put Green Bay ahead only for the defense to lose the lead. Yes, that happened on Sunday and it was the seventh time it's happened in Rodgers' career. It's also happened seven times to Peyton Manning, five times to Joe Flacco and 10 times to Drew Brees. Those quarterbacks still have a lot of wins to hang their hats on as well.
Taking the lead one time is rarely the full responsibility of the offense. Just in this game alone Kaepernick had to put the 49ers ahead twice in the fourth quarter before getting the win. He also had to make plays to burn the clock late so that Rodgers did not have a good chance to regain the lead.
There's also the fact that these games are about more than just the Packers. They have an opponent and an opposing quarterback too. On several occasions, that other quarterback just played better than Rodgers and was more deserving of the win.
Matt Schaub had a 414-yard passing day in Green Bay in 2008. In 2009, Rodgers was outplayed by Brett Favre (twice), Ben Roethlisberger and then Kurt Warner in the playoffs. Eli Manning and Kaepernick were better than Rodgers in the playoffs the last two years. Kaepernick was better on Sunday.
These are games where the "best quarterback in the league" was not the best quarterback on the field. From the offense to Dom Capers' defense to kicker Mason Crosby, McCarthy's Packers rarely put it all together on a day where the opponent is playing well too. That's why they will continue to be the league's best front-running team and a liability when the game is close like it was on Sunday.
Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind
Houston Texans 31 at San Diego Chargers 28
Well, we can keep Norv Turner out of this one. At 21 points, it is the largest comeback win in Texans history. Of course, it had to come at the expense of the San Diego Chargers on Monday Night Football. It was just last season San Diego blew a 24-0 halftime lead to Denver. This one should not sting as badly, but it's right up there.
Philip Rivers seemed to have a bounce-back game with four touchdown passes to put San Diego ahead 28-7 with 10:42 left in the third quarter. Matt Schaub, who had an interception off a tipped ball to start the game, was quietly playing well and led a 70-yard touchdown drive to get the comeback started.
Early in the fourth quarter, the game swung on a pathetic call. Settling for a 37-yard field goal and 28-17 deficit, Houston got a gift when Cam Thomas was penalized for contacting the center on the field goal. Supposedly that's a "defenseless player" and you cannot touch them or something silly like that. With an automatic first down, Schaub threw a touchdown to Owen Daniels to make it 28-21. Suddenly we had a one-score game again.
Assuming San Diego starts at its own 20 after a score, the swing in win probability was 0.90 with the field goal and 0.81 after the penalty and touchdown.
Maybe it would not have mattered given the way Rivers lost his touch. San Diego went three-and-out. Houston showed some courage with a fake punt on fourth-and-1 from its own 36, but the drive stalled. Then the "bad" Rivers showed up. Starting at his own 13, he tried to hit Danny Woodhead over the middle but linebacker Brian Cushing made a great play on the ball for an interception. He returned it for the tying touchdown with 9:30 left.
How many times are we going to see this with Rivers? Of course San Diego went three-and-out again. Rivers threw two bad passes before Eddie Royal dropped a third-down catch that would have extended the drive. The next drive would not be any better with Rivers missing badly on a third-and-2 throw.
With 3:53 left at his own 39, Schaub went to work in a tied game. Andre Johnson was the man of the night with three catches on the drive to set up the field goal. He finished with 12 catches for 146 yards. Kicker Randy Bullock was good on the 41-yard attempt as time expired, giving Houston its only lead for the stunning 31-28 win.
Yet is it really all that stunning? While Houston's not a team you would pick to make this comeback, the Chargers are the team you would pick to suffer this choke job.
After his four-touchdown start, Rivers finished 1-of-9 for eight yards and an interception. He is the Jekyll & Hyde of NFL quarterbacks, but we can always count on the bad one to show up in crunch time.
Rivers is now 2-20 (.091) at game-winning drive opportunities dating back to his 2009 playoff loss against the Jets. His turnover forced the tied situation this time. Rivers is right to argue he does not need to be "fixed" as a quarterback, but he and this team may need some sports psychology sessions. The consistency at which leads are blown in San Diego with Rivers gifting turnovers is uncanny.
You can change head coaches, but this fell right in line with the last three seasons. For Houston, it's a sigh of relief to get the win, but the Texans must realize the top teams in the AFC will not give away a game like the Chargers.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 17 at New York Jets 18
Well, "Geno" kind of rhymes with "Tebow," right? A year after expecting a different signal caller than Mark Sanchez in New York, Geno Smith did start the Jets' opener against a revamped Tampa Bay defense featuring Darrelle Revis.
Given what he was working with -- Santonio Holmes learning to walk again and a soldier at tight end -- you have to be fairly impressed with the debut. Smith even led the Jets in rushing (47 yards) as they had just 23 runs for 43 yards. It was the last scramble that will be most memorable, but let's back up a second.
There were rookie mistakes, but we did not expect so many from a fifth-year veteran in Josh Freeman. Smith had an interception and lost a fumble in the first half. The overall level of play was sloppy, but that was probably expected. A scoreless third quarter paved the way for a lead-changing fourth quarter.
Down 14-12, Smith took over at his own 23 with 11:25 left. He engineered a 14-play drive, handling pressure packages well for a rookie, for 65 yards and a go-ahead field goal with 5:05 left. Freeman was flustered on a three-and-out drive. New York had a chance to burn the clock, but Smith was sacked on third down.
Freeman had another opportunity and needed to capitalize after the struggles of the last two seasons. He started at his own 20 with 2:14 left. Doug Martin, who was mostly kept under wraps throughout the game by the Jets defense, had a 17-yard run to kick things off. On a big third-and-10, Freeman found Vincent Jackson at the marker and he broke a tackle for a 37-yard gain. Greg Schiano kept things conservative with three runs as the Jets burned all of their timeouts to bring up fourth down. Veteran kicker Rian Lindell was true on the 37-yard kick. The clock management deserves criticism, but the offense did put the team ahead late.
So with the ball at his own 20, no timeouts and 0:34 left, the expectations were not high for Smith. The win probability was just 8.0 percent. We are seeing offenses have more success on these one-minute drills, but surely this is too much to ask of a rookie in his first start, right?
Kellen Winslow failed to catch the first pass, but was good on the second over the middle for a 25-yard gain. The Jets quickly spiked it as 0:15 remained. Then came the big scramble. Trying to get out of bounds, Smith was pushed down by linebacker Lavonte David on the white part of the sideline, drawing a 15-yard flag that put the ball at the Tampa Bay 30. An incredible error, this greatly aided the Jets as just 0:07 remained.
Nick Folk was good on the 48-yard field goal and the Jets stunningly led 18-17. Tampa Bay did have time for a lateral attempt and it was a very good one, but it was finally stopped at the New York 30.
Smith becomes the sixth true rookie quarterback to lead a game-winning drive in Week 1 since 1960. The random list includes David Carr (2002), Ryan Leaf (1998), Jerry Golsteyn (1977), Archie Manning (1971) and Bob Griese (1967). Jets fans will hope Smith's more like the last two names than the more recent ones.
Did Smith catch a lucky break? Absolutely, but let's not forget it was Rex Ryan's vaunted defense who blew a third-and-10 and allowed Tampa Bay to regain the lead in the first place. Unlike some of the recent comebacks with a high degree of awful quarterback play attached to them for the Jets, Smith's effort was very respectable given the circumstances.
Tampa Bay falls to 1-10 against the Jets, and this could be the start of another long season.
Cincinnati Bengals 21 at Chicago Bears 24
This was a hard game to get a read on. Neither team really got the running game going in what no one will be renaming the "Cedric Benson Bowl" any time soon.
One predictable aspect was that both of these teams would be led by their star receivers. A.J. Green (nine receptions for 162 yards and two touchdowns) and Brandon Marshall (eight receptions for 104 yards and a touchdown) did not disappoint even though Green did cause one of Andy Dalton's two interceptions with a drop.
Cincinnati seemed to be in control of things with a 21-10 lead in the third quarter after a strong drive to start the half. Cutler and the Bears did answer, making it 21-17 as the game went into the fourth quarter. But after improvising on a 24-yard pass to Matt Forte, Cutler threw an awful interception right to Vontaze Burfict. Rather than build on the lead, Cincinnati receiver Mohamed Sanu was stripped of the ball at the Chicago 17.
Cutler went to Marshall three times for 63 yards on the ensuing drive, including a 19-yard touchdown with 7:58 left. Cutler even had an 18-yard scramble on second-and-20 on the drive. The Bengals could only go three-and-out as Dalton was nearly intercepted on third down.
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With 6:38 left, the Bears did something I love to see: they ran out the clock. That's a lot of time to burn, but it's the best strategy to close a game with a one-score lead. Cutler delivered a strike to a diving Martellus Bennett to convert third-and-8. Michael Bush used three carries to gain 10 yards and another first down. Bush got another third-down carry with 1:15 left, and was stopped well short, but nstead of getting the ball back with a few seconds to spare, linebacker Rey Maualuga drew a 15-yard flag for throwing down a Chicago player well away from the play. That ended the game.
The heat on Maualuga should not be that strong given it would have been a nearly impossible situation for Cincinnati to do anything, but it was a sour ending to a day that could have gone much differently for the Bengals.
For the Bears, Cutler now shockingly has the fifth-best record at game-winning drive opportunities among active starters at 18-18. Part of his secret to success has been failing to keep it close more often than he should, but when the games have been close, he's been solid. He proved it again on Sunday with his 12th game-winning touchdown pass.
Oakland Raiders 17 at Indianapolis Colts 21
So I predicted the Raiders to be the worst team in the NFL this year. Either I should temper that prediction after this competitive showing, or the Indianapolis Colts are just a deeply flawed team, without an offensive line or pass rush, elevated by Andrew Luck's amazing talent.
The game started as planned. Luck led the Colts to a 14-0 lead and completed his first 11 passes (career high). In a game with long drives and limited possessions -- just like the old Colts -- Terrelle Pryor did surprise for the Raiders with 19-of-29 passing for 217 yards. He even rushed for 112 yards on 13 carries behind a makeshift offensive line.
Pryor converted a pair of third-and-10 passes for first downs and capped off his drive with a five-yard touchdown to Denarius Moore. Just like that the Raiders scored 17 unanswered to take a 17-14 lead with 11:09 to play.
But the Colts still had Luck, who had arguably the most efficient game of his brief career. He converted a third-and-8 to T.Y. Hilton for 12 yards to prevent the Colts from going three and out again. He converted another third down to Reggie Wayne, who caught all eight of his targets on the day. Why not finish the drive with a third-down conversion? A hole opened up and Luck scrambled for a 19-yard game-winning touchdown with 5:20 left. That ties the longest run of his career.
Now it was up to the defense. On third-and-1, Pryor used play action to find tight end Jeron Mastrud completely wide open for a 41-yard gain. Had he been any faster, he would have scored. The Colts forced a fourth-and-9, but that just meant another chance for Pryor to convert to Moore for 21 yards.
Defensive end Robert Mathis will probably never get any Hall of Fame love, but his 92.5th sack was a game saver. Pryor lost 16 yards. Two plays later, the other veteran defender, safety Antoine Bethea, put the game away with an interception. The Colts survived what would have been an embarrassing loss, or so it seems in Week 1. Oakland gave them real trouble.
The Colts only had seven offensive drives, so the 21 points look better than they sound. For Luck, that makes it eight game-winning drives in 18 games. By my research, that's the fastest anyone has reached it (including playoffs). Jake Plummer had his ninth in his 26th game. With the way the Colts play football -- nine of the last 10 home games for the Colts have been decided by one score -- this should be easy to get.
|Fewest Games (Playoffs Included) to Eight Game-Winning Drives|
|Quarterback||Games to 8th GWD||Age||Date||Games to 9th GWD|
The ease at which Luck operates in these situations should not be taken for granted. It's not always going to work out, and this near loss may speak to a potential problem with the team moving forward.
This was just coach Chuck Pagano's sixth game on the sideline for the Colts. It was the third time he's led by 11-14 points and lost that lead, relying on Luck to come through late:
- Week 2 vs. Minnesota: Colts led 20-6 in the fourth quarter, but the Vikings tied it up late. Luck led his first game-winning drive in the last 0:31 for a 23-20 win.
- Week 3 vs. Jacksonville: The very next week, Colts led 14-3 in the third quarter before Jacksonville took the lead. Even after regaining it, Cecil Shorts scored an 80-yard touchdown in a 22-17 Jacksonville win.
The Colts only lost one two-score lead (at Kansas City) in three chances with Bruce Arians coaching the team. Coming from a defensive background with an emphasis on the ground game, Pagano may not be coaching aggressively enough once he gets a decent lead. This may be nothing more than a (very) small sample coincidence, but it's something to keep an eye on moving forward. The Colts are not a great team yet, but they should not need late stops against teams like Jacksonville and Oakland at home.
Seattle Seahawks 12 at Carolina Panthers 7
Last season this was a 16-12 game where the Panthers had a great chance to take a late lead, but Cam Newton short-hopped a terrible pass in the end zone. This year the score was even lower, but like clockwork, the Panthers froze up in the fourth quarter.
Football Outsiders projected the Panthers to have an elite defense this season and we got glimpses of that in this game. Seattle scored just three points in the first half after Russell Wilson was sacked and fumbled in the red zone right before halftime. The running game was stifled all day as Marshawn Lynch had just 17 carries for 43 yards.
Carolina hung on to a 7-6 lead as the fourth quarter began. This team has notoriously blown eight fourth-quarter leads since 2011 (four each year). However, it is hard to put it on any defense for not holding up a one-point lead for an entire quarter. The offense needed to help out, and that never happened. Newton scrambled for 10 yards on third-and-12, but that just brought up another punt.
Wilson went to work, converting a third-and-5 to Golden Tate for 11 yards. Stephen Williams could not hang onto a deep ball, but Wilson used play action and went right back to deep right with a 43-yard touchdown to Jermaine Kearse. Pretty nice play for the fifth catch of your career. That's already Wilson's fourth game-winning touchdown pass. We expected this receiving corps to feature Tate, Sidney Rice, Percy Harvin and Zach Miller. On Sunday it was guys like Kearse and Doug Baldwin stepping up.
Down 12-7, the Panthers maintained possession after a personal foul on Michael Bennett converted a third-and-7. Bennett was going for the sack but accidentally ended up with a face mask. On the next play, DeAngelo Williams ran for 10 yards, but safety Kam Chancellor was penalized 15 yards for a late hit. The Seahawks had the No. 1 scoring defense last year, but they too struggled in these situations, especially on the road against lowly opponents. This was looking like another of those games.
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Carolina was driving just fine, but Williams fumbled the ball at the Seattle 8 after a big run. Earl Thomas forced it and the Seahawks emerged from the pile with the ball. With 5:25 left, Seattle did what the Bears did to Cincinnati: bleed the clock. The best defense late in the game is a time-consuming drive from the offense, but few ever capitalize on this. Wilson made four key throws, all gaining at least 11 yards on the drive. After Carolina used its final timeout, Lynch iced the game with a 14-yard run to take things to the two-minute warning. From there it's just knees to victory.
The loss drops Carolina to 2-16 (.111) at game-winning drive opportunities in the Ron Rivera era. This is one fourth-quarter failure that you cannot blame Newton for, but the overall lack of production from the offense was again concerning. The defense had a rough fourth quarter after holding strong early.
New England Patriots 23 at Buffalo Bills 21
Apparently the only proven formula for Buffalo to beat Tom Brady is to intercept him four times. He's 21-2 against the Bills now and has six game-winning drives, which does not include this comeback from the 2006 opener. This was not an easy win by any means, but in the end a familiar outcome, as Buffalo just was not able to close out the Patriots.
The elite offense was not on display with the Patriots taking advantage of Buffalo mistakes to score 17 points on three drives that went just 68 combined yards. Kenbrell Thompkins was a preseason standout, but caught just 4-of-14 targets for 42 yards. Tight end Zach Sudfeld botched his only target into an interception for Brady, who relied on his two Wes Welker clones, Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, to the tune of 17 completions for 183 yards and two scores.
The running game was strong as usual with 30 handoffs for 162 yards, but Brady was 29-of-52 for 288 yards (5.54 yards per attempt). Shane Vereen was the only running back to go over 100 yards (101) on Sunday, but he broke his wrist and will be out several weeks.
Buffalo certainly made a game of it in the debut for rookies EJ Manuel and coach Doug Marrone. They came out of halftime and went 80 yards for a touchdown to take a 21-17 lead. The problem was Buffalo never scored again.
New England looked poise to immediately take the lead back, but something incredible happened: Brady failed on a fourth-and-1 run at the goal line. Of course something unusual had to happen, which it did with Brady botching the snap from the center. Brady's now 88 of 92 (95.7 percent) on short-yardage runs on third and fourth down in the regular season. This ends a streak of 56 straight conversions dating back to 2005.
In the fourth quarter Brady was sacked on third-and-5, forcing a 33-yard field goal and 21-20 deficit. Buffalo really had a chance to extend the lead again, but Manuel threw incomplete on a third-and-1 at midfield. Stevie Johnson was wide open, but the pass was just wide and he could not make the catch. You have to make those plays to beat good teams. While the defense held Brady one more time, the offense failed again with a quick three-and-out drive.
So Brady had 4:31 left at his own 34, needing only a field goal. He could do this blindfolded if he knew his receivers better, but it's uncanny how much Amendola already looks like Welker in this offense. Like Welker, Amendola came up with some big catches on the drive, including a pair of third-down beauties. Not bad for a receiver who hobbled off earlier in the game with a groin injury.
After Vereen was nearly tackled in the backfield, he turned it into a 15-yard gain down to the Buffalo 14. That was enough for New England. Brady took two knees to kill the clock and set up Stephen Gostkowski for the 35-yard game-winning field goal. He nailed it. Manuel would get the ball back, but only had five seconds left. The lateral attempt went nine yards before coming to a quick end.
The Bills drop to 1-10 at game-winning drive opportunities against New England since 2001. The key to turning that around will likely include the retirements of Brady and Bill Belichick.
Arizona Cardinals 24 at St. Louis Rams 27
The Rams now have as many fourth-quarter comeback wins since 2012 (four) as they had in 2006-11 combined. This was a big moment for Sam Bradford as he starts a make-or-break fourth season. In his career Bradford was just 2-21-1 (.104) when the Rams allowed more than 17 points in a game. The Rams trailed 24-13 to start the fourth quarter following a third quarter in which Bradford threw a pick-six and Larry Fitzgerald reminded us he's alive with a beautiful touchdown from Carson Palmer. Given past history, things did not look good for the Rams at home.
But this would be the Jared Cook show as he shined in his Rams debut with seven catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns. He did fumble in the red zone earlier, but his 36-yard catch to end the third quarter put the Rams in position for a comeback. Bradford threw a one-yard touchdown to Cook and ran in the two-point conversion himself on a quarterback draw.
Robert Quinn had a big day with 3.0 sacks, which may force Bruce Arians to rethink just how elite Levi Brown really is. None of the sacks were bigger than the next one, as Quinn forced Palmer to fumble. The Rams had great field position at the Arizona 22, but could not get a first down. Greg Zuerlein made the 38-yard field goal to tie the game. The offenses would continue to stall with Palmer missing badly on a third-and-2 pass at the two-minute warning.
The stage was set for Bradford at his own 20 with 1:45 to play. Once again Cook made the key play with a 25-yard catch. However, the Rams ran a toss play on third-and-1 -- you know, instead of the quarterback sneak that likely would have converted and allowed the Rams to run down the clock -- and lost two yards. Zuerlein came through with the 48-yard field goal with 0:40 to play.
Palmer was out of timeouts at his own 20, but a 15-yard pass to Andre Roberts to start the drive was promising. Then, a familiar scene for an Arians' offense: a jailbreak on the quarterback for the sack. With time ticking away, a harmless completion to the Arizona 43 ended the game.
As is often the case, Palmer finished with some solid numbers (26-of-40 for 327 yards), but struggled to generate offense on the final four drives. It's not as easy to overcome protection issues when the quarterback is not Andrew Luck.
For the Rams, it's their first Week 1 win since 2006 when the team finished 8-8. It was the first time they came back from a two-score deficit in the fourth quarter since a 14-point comeback against Houston in 2005. This game really does nothing to alter season expectations, but it was a good effort from a young team not used to such wins.
Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind
This year's version of "Eli Does Dallas" has a twist ending no one seen coming. The Lions and Saints actually get big stops from their defenses. Cleveland's offense looks lousy again, but no team may have been as bad as Pittsburgh at home against the Titans.
Giants at Cowboys: If Tony Romo Did What Eli Manning Did...
Games between the Giants and Cowboys are used to being close and exciting. This one had some differences, namely six turnovers by the Giants to a Dallas defense with 16 takeaways in all of 2012. Yet somehow Dallas could not put the Giants away until the final minutes as Eli Manning and Victor Cruz (three touchdowns) did their part in making sure this story had a new chapter. The question is: how many people will remember how this one ended?
Dallas survived an injury scare to Tony Romo in the first half and built a 27-10 lead with just under 20 minutes remaining. Manning led the New York offense to touchdown drives of 80 and 90 yards to pull within 30-24. Romo suffered his first two sacks of the night, and just like that everyone expected Manning to do it again to the Cowboys in the clutch.
Manning has already led three game-winning drives in "Jerry's House" since 2009 and this was only the fifth time he's played here. Instead, the Giants went three-and-out. Dallas had a good chance to convert on a third-and-4, but Romo's pass to Dez Bryant came too late and too short of the chains. Dallas punted and it was all set up for Manning again: down by six, 2:41 left at his own 17, one timeout and a national audience just expecting a magical drive. It may not have been the magnitude of Super Bowl XLII, but it was pretty big for an opener. Keep in mind the Giants lost to Dallas in a close one to start last season and missed the playoffs by a game.
It looked to go sour in a hurry with a quick third-and-5 situation, but Manning delivered one of his "he's so unlikely to make that throw in the first quarter" types of play for 26 yards to Rueben Randle. Just 52 yards away from a probable win, something went wrong for our hero out of the two-minute warning. Manning anticipated running back Da'Rel Scott to turn for the ball, throwing it well before Scott was looking. By the time he turned the pass could only deflect off his one hand and went right to cornerback Brandon Carr for the clinching pick six.
NBC's Cris Collinsworth was very hard on the running back with no blame on Manning for the throw. It's hard to imagine Romo ever would have been given the same benefit of doubt had the roles been reversed here. The miscommunication allowed for tight end Brandon Myers to do what Brandon Myers does: catch four passes for 42 yards and a touchdown against a soft defense. At 36-31, this one finally ended after the Giants just missed at recovering the onside kick.
Manning finished with 450 yards, but has thrown three interceptions in his three-highest passing games. Romo finished 36-of-49 for 263 yards, which gives him only 7.31 yards per completion. That's the third-lowest average for a quarterback with at least 35 completions since 1960. Chris Weinke (6.19) had the worst game.
Romo will take those stats over another big turnover in a prime-time game. It's about time the Giants are the ones making those mistakes in this rivalry.
Falcons at Saints: Another Red-Zone Failure
Last season the Falcons started 8-0, but lost in New Orleans (31-27) despite running seven plays inside the 10-yard line in the fourth quarter. Matt Ryan threw incomplete on fourth-and-2. In the NFC Championship, Atlanta blew a 17-0 lead and again was facing a red-zone opportunity with a four-point deficit. This time Ryan was incomplete on fourth-and-4 at the San Francisco 10.
Flash forward to Sunday and it was more of the same for Atlanta. Things started well with a 10-0 lead, but it would soon turn into the back-and-forth affair we are used to seeing with these teams, especially with Sean Payton back to run the offense. New Orleans led 20-17 to start the fourth quarter, but there would be only one more score in the game.
A big holding call on Sam Baker thwarted one Atlanta drive, negating a conversion on third-and-8. After Atlanta punted, Drew Brees engineered a drive for a field goal. Ryan had 3:12 left and 80 yards to go in a 23-17 game. One of the best in the game in these situations, this was shaping up to be another classic finish.
Under pressure for most of the game, Ryan had a clean pocket on this drive. Five straight completions quickly moved the ball 73 yards to the Saints 7, but that's where things would stall. Ryan was too high for Harry Douglas on first down. A short pass to Roddy White, who only had two catches for 19 yards as he nursed a high ankle sprain, moved the ball four yards closer.
After handling a low snap, Ryan fired a pass to Steven Jackson in the front-middle of the end zone, but the running back dropped the ball. Michael Turner could have done that for free. On "fourth-and-game" Ryan had one more chance. He went for Tony Gonzalez in the end zone, but the pass was just tipped by rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro and intercepted by Roman Harper. Even with the tip the ball still grazed Gonzalez's hands.
Literally a game of inches, but another game where the Falcons came up short in the red zone. Ryan still has the gaudy 23-15 record at game-winning drive opportunities, but he may not get the respect he deserves until he finishes some more of these drives where only a touchdown will do.
Vikings at Lions: Did Reggie Bush Outplay Adrian Peterson?
This game could have went south in a hurry for Detroit after botching the snap on a field goal and watching Adrian Peterson shred the defense for a 78-yard touchdown run on his first touch of the season. Then something strange happened: Peterson only gained 15 yards on his final 17 carries while Reggie Bush had a better success rate with 21 carries for 90 yards. He was the more effective rusher and chipped in with four catches for 101 yards and a 77-yard touchdown. We already expected Matthew Stafford to be a better quarterback than Christian Ponder, but when these teams meet, there's usually a strong imbalance on the ground that makes Detroit a one-dimensional attack. That was not the case this time with Bush's strong debut.
Detroit dominated the game statistically, but this one remained close until Bush's long touchdown, reminiscent of his USC days, opened up a 27-17 lead for the Lions. Ponder did answer with one of his best drives of the day, throwing a touchdown to Peterson who scored three times.
But down 27-24 in the fourth quarter, an unforced error proved costly. Ponder stumbled on a handoff to Peterson, tripping over his own lineman's feet, which threw off the play and Peterson could not secure the ball. Detroit recovered at the Minnesota 39 and was aided heavily by a roughing the passer penalty on third-and-18. Stafford finished the drive with a one-yard touchdown to Joseph Fauria for a 34-24 lead with 6:47 to play. Unable to lean on Peterson this late in the game, Ponder failed to put the Vikings in scoring position again. His last pass was his third interception of the game.
Last year Detroit was often losing this kind of game, so it was good to see a defense rebound after a shocking early touchdown to contain Peterson and force the Vikings into the one dimension they are not prepared to excel at. When Detroit can out-pass its opponent and get contributions on the ground, this is a difficult team to beat instead of the pass-happy loser Lions we have grown used to.
Dolphins at Browns: Cleveland Loses Ninth Straight Opener
Not only did the Browns lose their ninth consecutive season opener, but they were held under 21 points for the 11th straight time in Week 1. Last season rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden was trapped by the pre-game flag, threw four interceptions, and still somehow nearly beat the Eagles. This year was supposed to be different. Instead, Weeden threw three picks in the first half, but Cleveland still led 7-6 at halftime. That may say more about the Dolphins, who got one catch for 15 yards out of big-money receiver Mike Wallace in his team debut.
Miami would salvage the second half, but the Browns once again found themselves in a tight one. Down 13-10, a drive stalled at midfield after a pump fake by Weeden led to a sack by Derrick Shelby. An awful attempt at a screen pass to Trent Richardson -- held to 47 yards on 13 carries behind an offensive line who allowed six sacks -- was followed by a failed completion on third-and-19. Miami proceeded to put the game away with Ryan Tannehill passing for 78 yards on an 85-yard touchdown drive. Miami led 20-10 with 6:48 to play. A quick four-and-out drive with Cameron Wake sacking Weeden on fourth-and-2 all but ended this one. Miami added a field goal while Weeden could only add some hollow passing stats before failing on another fourth down.
Last season the Browns were 1-7 at game-winning drive opportunities and they are off to a bad start in 2013. That's the hallmark sign of a team good enough to play competitively, but bad enough to find a way to lose in the end. Miami's the better team and had a fuller complement of players, but it did not exactly shine this day with 18 handoffs for 17 yards. As expected, unless you fall for the trap that is preseason football, the offense remains the problem in Cleveland.
For that matter, it's the same story in Miami.
Titans at Steelers: Pittsburgh Unleashes Hell in September
In the 94-year history of the NFL, Darius Reynaud produced one of the dumbest plays ever to start a team's season. After stepping out of the end zone on the opening kickoff and going back in for a touchback, he committed a self-inflicted safety and gave Pittsburgh a 2-0 lead.
Little did we know the Steelers would actually be the biggest embarrassments of Week 1. While Pittsburgh took the ball and was driving, disaster struck when guard David DeCastro cut down his own teammate, center Maurkice Pouncey, who will now miss the season with a torn ACL and MCL. The injury deflated the team as four plays later Isaac Redman fumbled on a critical third-and-1 at the six-yard line.
From there things just got worse as this was one of the most lifeless performances in the Ben Roethlisberger era, which started Year 10 in pathetic fashion. At one point Roethlisberger threw for 37 yards and was sacked three times on seven drives. It took until the fourth quarter for Pittsburgh to score some points on its own. Roethlisberger was sacked five times and he never targeted a tight end once (unless you count fullback David Johnson). The running game produced just 15 carries for 32 yards.
Tennessee had little going offensively as well. Jake Locker only completed four passes in the first half, but at least he did convert on a third-and-13 and a third-and-15 in the third quarter to build a 10-2 lead. Despite Troy Polamalu having another one of his perfect-timing plays against the Titans, it was a forgettable day all around.
Even though the crowd began departing Heinz Field, there was a chance to come back in the fourth quarter, still down 10-2. Roethlisberger hit Emmanuel Sanders for a 20-yard gain as the Steelers went with the no-huddle. However, tight coverage on the wide receivers downfield forced two incompletions and a punt. Tennessee proceeded to put the game away with a 62-yard drive for a field goal and 13-2 lead with 6:01 left. A third-down sack of Roethlisberger produced another three-and-out, and Tennessee added a field goal on another short field. Only then did the Steelers drive 75 yards for a touchdown, but it was too little too late as the Titans recovered the onside kick to ice the game with an unexpected 16-9 victory.
Roethlisberger started his career 40-0 at home when the Steelers allowed 0-17 points. He lost to the Bengals 13-10 in Week 16 last year. With this game, he's 41-2. Depleted cast and all, when the Steelers cannot reliably score 17 points at home, it makes you wonder where this team is headed. Larry Foote and LaRod Stephens-Howling will join Pouncey on injured reserve.
If "the standard is the standard" for Mike Tomlin, then how can he not realize just how far that standard has fallen?
Fourth-quarter comebacks: 8
Game-winning drives: 8
Games with 4QC opportunity: 13/16 (81.3 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 4
After so many close games, we should expect more blowouts in Week 2. The whole AFC North lost, but half of it will start 0-2 as the teams play each other this week. We can only hope to be talking about the (last?) Manning Bowl and standout NFC games like Washington at Green Bay and San Francisco at Seattle in this column next week. Hopefully the Toilet Bowl, Jacksonville at Oakland, is not competitive enough to make the cut.