Clutch Encounters: NFC Championship
by Scott Kacsmar
Not until the recovery of an onside kick with 2:07 left did we get some one-score drama on Championship Sunday. Oh, and it was some of the best drama the playoffs have ever seen, with Seattle returning to the Super Bowl in unbelievable fashion.
The ending of the NFC Championship Game made it hard to settle down into the AFC Championship Game, which was a shame because that game barely had a pulse in the second half. New England's 38-point rout over the Colts tied the second-largest margin of victory in series history. As usual, the Colts shot themselves in the foot early and came up with no answer for the Patriots' running game. After leading a 93-yard touchdown drive to cut the lead to 14-7, Andrew Luck did not drop back again until the third quarter when Indianapolis trailed 24-7. That was deflating to say the least, and things only got worse from there.
That's enough about the bad game. The NFC game gave us plenty to look at with decisions on fourth downs, onside kicks, two-point conversions, and modified overtime from an instant classic.
Game of the Week
Green Bay Packers 22 at Seattle Seahawks 28
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 12 (19-7)
Win Probability (4QC starting with 3:52 left): 0.05
Win Probability (GWD starting with 14:51 left in overtime):0.52
Head Coach: Pete Carroll (18-37 at 4QC and 26-41 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Russell Wilson (10-12 at 4QC and 15-13 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Repeat after me: all Russell Wilson games end up close eventually.
Through two college programs and one NFL team, Russell Wilson has gone 82 consecutive games where his team was at least within one score in the fourth quarter. Most of the time the result is a win, but none of the losses can be characterized as blowouts. If Seattle's not coasting to victory, then even their bad performances usually find a way of coming down to one score in the fourth quarter. Sunday was the biggest challenge yet, with Wilson turning in a career-worst performance for the game's first 56 minutes. Then the dominos started to fall and the Seahawks pulled off the third-biggest comeback win in championship game history. That includes all Conference Championships, Super Bowls and pre-merger title games.
|Biggest Comeback Wins in NFL Championship Game History|
|1||Colts||Patriots||2006||AFC-C||18 (21-3)||W 38-34|
|2||49ers||Falcons||2012||NFC-C||17 (17-0)||W 28-24|
|3||Seahawks||Packers||2014||NFC-C||16 (16-0)||W 28-22 OT|
|4||Falcons||Vikings||1998||NFC-C||13 (20-7)||W 30-27 OT|
|5||Colts||Jets||2009||AFC-C||11 (17-6)||W 30-17|
By overcoming a late 12-point deficit, the Seahawks also have the largest fourth-quarter comeback win in NFL championship game history. For Wilson, his 10th fourth-quarter comeback win is a new record for a quarterback in his first three seasons. Thankfully, there is no officiating controversy attached to this game. If you're Green Bay, you are only left wondering how the lead was not bigger in the first place, and how this one slipped away at the end.
Wilson's Unusual Pick Parade
The fact is this game was played at a very sloppy level for much of the day, with both teams contributing their share of mistakes. The home team had a surprising amount of pre-snap penalties, and their ball security was never worse. Even the reliable Doug Baldwin fumbled on a kick return. Wilson threw four interceptions, all on targets to Jermaine Kearse, two of them bouncing right off the receiver's hands. The first one was still not a smart throw, because Tramon Williams timed his defense perfectly and Kearse was never going to get the first down anyway. That was an unworthy risk, but still some bad luck on the deflection. In Week 1, the Packers dropped a couple of Wilson interceptions and seemed to cash in a coupon to recover those and then some on Sunday. Also, a week after he was brilliant on third down against Carolina, Wilson did not look like himself on third downs against Green Bay, often throwing short passes that never had a chance to convert. Even in moments when his sometimes overwhelmed pass protection held up, Wilson still did not move around much to try making something out of nothing like he so often does.
McCarthyism, Take One
Despite the five turnovers and some incredible field position, Green Bay did no better than a 16-0 lead thanks to poor play and conservative play-calling in scoring range. Green Bay had three drives start inside the Seattle 33 and only came away with nine points on three field-goal drives that traveled a combined 51 yards. Seattle's defense was outstanding to compensate for the bad spots the offense and special teams put them in, and that doesn't even include the opening drive when Richard Sherman intercepted Aaron Rodgers in the end zone. None of the Packers' six scoring drives exceeded 57 yards on the day.
Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy had a rough day all around, but the decisions to kick field goals from the 1-yard line on back-to-back drives may stand out the most. Green Bay actually had two of this season's five attempts on fourth-and-1 plays from the 1-yard line in a tied first quarter. The Packers converted with a pass against Chicago and Eddie Lacy was stuffed against Detroit in Week 17. Did that recent failure creep into McCarthy's head? There are not many better times to go for it than in a scoreless first quarter, but the Packers were awfully conservative. After Rodgers threw a touchdown on the final play of the first quarter, Green Bay never reached the red zone for the remainder of the game. Rodgers never looked quite like himself after that touchdown as he too suffered a multiple-interception game, with both thefts in scoring range.
Seattle's Unique First Score
This really was an odd game to watch. Not even a 29-yard completion on third-and-19 (thank the three-man rush for not working again) got Wilson going, but it did at least lead to a scoring play. Pete Carroll rolled the dice with a fake field goal and punter Jon Ryan delivered with a 19-yard touchdown pass to offensive tackle Garry Gilliam to make it 16-7 with 4:44 left in the third quarter. Should the Seahawks have gone for two to try the almost never done "8+8" strategy? I think teams worry too much about the tie instead of what gives them the best chance to win. The conversion at this point is only an argument because the offense was struggling so much that expecting two more scoring drives may have been asking for a lot. They had just gotten their only score of the game on a risky fake field goal. Then again, asking for a pair of two-point conversions also seemed unrealistic, so they might as well have taken the sure point and targeted two more scores regardless.
McCarthyism, Take Two
Rodgers was gimpy and ineffective in the second half, but Green Bay's running game picked up the slack for the last time, leading to another field goal. Sherman injured his elbow on the first play of the fourth quarter after a 32-yard run by James Starks. With Sherman basically playing with one arm, you can question McCarthy for not trying to attack him more, but that was probably most egregious on the final drive. When the Packers got the ball back with 6:53 left, they were just trying to get by with third-down conversions. However, K.J. Wright had tight defense with an arm across Andrew Quarless on a third-and-4 to break up the pass.
With just over five minutes left in a 19-7 game, the Packers made another huge mistake after Kearse's second tipped ball led to an interception by Morgan Burnett. Instead of returning the ball into Seattle territory with only Wilson and offensive linemen in his way, Burnett basically did a quick victory slide at his own 43. I have certainly accused this team in the past of playing poor situational football, and maybe that was reflected here in a situation where you need to get great field position for your offense again. Burnett went down like he had just won the game. Is that an isolated incident of a single guy making a mistake, or is McCarthy not teaching the fundamentals of situational football? Was Burnett taking the safe route in light of what he saw happen to DeMarcus Lawrence in the wild-card round, when Lawrence fumbled a Matthew Stafford fumble? All I know is a lot of fans are angry that Burnett took a dive. There was still 5:04 on the clock.
McCarthy said he had a goal of 20 carries in the second half. That's a laughable statement from a coach with a quarterback that will likely take home the MVP award this season. Was Rodgers up to par on Sunday? No, but regardless, you never plan for 20 second-half carries. That just happens as a result of controlling the game, which might suggest that McCarthy thought he was in full control instead of being aggressive in putting the game away against a team that has made crazy comebacks before. Green Bay's four-minute offense has been effective this year, but this time they used nothing more than a run-run-pass strategy. The Packers, with 10 carries in the half at the time, went into shotgun and Seattle dared them to run. As good as Lacy was to start the game, he had just 19 yards on his last 11 carries (all came after the first quarter). After Lacy lost yardage twice, the Packers were in no man's land with a third-and-16. They were not likely to convert, though trying to draw a penalty that would bring up an automatic first down is a more realistic option than ever before in today's game. Instead they went with another run and a bad 30-yard punt set up the classic finish.
Seattle had 3:52 left, one timeout, 69 yards to go and a 12-point deficit to overcome. We have seen crazier things before, but this had yet to feel like Seattle's day, especially on offense. For a crazy coincidence, the Seahawks were riding a 68-game streak of being at least within one score in the fourth quarter. The record belongs to the 2008-2012 Packers at 69 games. It was just a year ago we watched New England's 63-game streak end in the AFC Championship Game in Denver. Was history going to repeat itself? The Seahawks also had yet to lead in the game, something they had done in a record 54 consecutive games.
But plays started happening. Marshawn Lynch picked up 14 yards on a read-option run and nearly had a 35-yard touchdown catch down the sideline, but he stepped out of bounds at the 9. With 2:57 left, Seattle really needed to score right away to make sure another possession was likely. Three running plays killed that idea, but Wilson scored on the 1-yard keeper with 2:09 left. Alright, the one-score streak had been extended to 69 games, but could they get one last drive? Those runs really made the onside kick a necessity with just one timeout remaining.
If there was a moment when you started to believe Green Bay was going to blow this, it probably came on the onside kick. Brandon Bostick was supposed to block, but the ball came his way and he tried to make the catch at the highest point with Jordy Nelson behind him.
That did not work out and Seattle recovered at the 50 with 2:07 left. Incredible. We noted the other day teams were just 9-of-59 (15.3 percent) on onside kicks this season, with the Colts recovering all three of their attempts.
Wilson took off for 15 more yards after the Seahawks realized the read-option was pretty effective this way. Lynch may have caused some more seismic activity with a 24-yard touchdown burst that put the Seahawks ahead with 1:25 left, but Seattle needed to temper their enthusiasm. The ensuing two-point conversion was extremely important, since a failure to convert would open up a game-winning field goal opportunity for Green Bay.
What a conversion that turned out to be. Wilson rolled out to his right, then dipped backwards to unload a -- dare I say it -- mini-Hail Mary from beyond the 17-yard line. The ball hung for a very long time and somehow Luke Willson caught it while Ha Ha Clinton-Dix never made a play on the ball. Seattle led 22-19.
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After that long series of gut-punches, Green Bay still stood with 1:19 and three timeouts left. The Packers looked fast until Rodgers looked so slow on a 12-yard scramble out of bounds at the Seattle 36 with 35 seconds left. In that situation, you'd really rather be down by four to six points so the game-tying field goal wouldn't be an option. Rodgers should have kept attacking the middle of the field and had an excellent opportunity on second down against the blitz, but he chose a sideline throw for which Richard Rodgers was not ready. It was already third down, and Rodgers threw short just to make the field goal a little easier. For some odd reason the Packers immediately called timeout with 19 seconds left. Why save Seattle time to do something?
Despite so many other Green Bay mistakes, Mason Crosby was perfect at his job on Sunday, especially in crunch time with a pair of 48-yard field goals in the fourth quarter, including the game-tying kick with 14 seconds left. Seattle would have killed for overtime most of the day, but it was almost a disappointment to the team now. For fans, it was a perfect way to end this one.
Seattle won the toss and chose to receive, of course. Baldwin returned the kickoff to the 13, which is the worst starting field position to start any modified overtime period. Seattle soon faced a third-and-7 and I was planning on adding yet another team that chose to receive in overtime to the loser list. In 51 modified overtime games, the team receiving first is 24-24-3. Only nine teams have won after an opening-drive touchdown, though it is worth noting Seattle has done this three times now, knocking off the 2012 Bears and 2014 Broncos without ever putting the defense on the field.
Wilson floated a perfect pass to Baldwin for 35 yards against Casey Hayward. One good pass deserves another. Green Bay sold out to stop the run, leaving the middle of the field open for Kearse against Williams, and Wilson dropped another 35-yard throw in the bucket for the game-winning touchdown. What a comeback. What a disaster. What a finish.
Conclusion: The Moment
What happened down the stretch of this game is a great case study for quarterback analysis. According to ESPN, Wilson's QBR was 0.2 through three quarters, but 92.2 in the fourth quarter/overtime. That sounds about right, but how much attention should we put on Wilson's horrible start versus his amazing finish? Do we just judge him on every play he made, or do we take something away from the last two drives because of the onside kick recovery? Shouldn't four touchdown drives outweigh four picks, even if we acknowledge half of each probably should not have happened? If certain other quarterbacks played the way Wilson did for 56 minutes, wouldn't they probably lose by at least 30 points and not even have the chance to come back?
I ask these questions, because I struggle myself to answer them with confidence. Wilson was having the worst game of his career … until he wasn't. Plenty of comebacks involve the recovery of an onside kick. Even Roger Staubach needed an onside kick to pull off a playoff comeback that started the "Captain Comeback" legend. Quarterbacks rarely get those chances, but in the rare case they do, there probably should be some credit for making them count. Not everyone can finish like that, and certainly not after starting the way Wilson did.
There are so many playoff games that have swung on one play breaking a certain way. This one had a few of those moments, though I am not sure there is any one play that stands above all. Maybe the onside kick because of how rare those are to recover. If Green Bay had recovered, they would have won with one first down. If they had gone three and out, Wilson probably would have needed to drive most of the field in about 70 seconds. That's a rare event too.
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For a Seattle team that has finished No. 1 in DVOA in each of the last three years, this was another January high-wire act that has the team teetering between potential dynasty and playoff disappointments. Only the 2012 Falcons have been able to knock this team out, and that was after blowing a 20-point fourth-quarter lead. Last year Colin Kaepernick had a chance to throw the game-winning touchdown, but we know where that pass ended up.
No matter which play you choose to remember most from this game, the Seahawks escaped with the win and have a chance to become the first repeat champion since the 2003-04 Patriots. If the Seahawks continue to win these games, then their legacy will be cemented as one of the greatest teams in NFL history. There will be numbers to back that up, even if the performance is not always there. But if you can keep the game manageable every week, then there's always a chance for a win. Seattle has mastered that.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 67
Game-winning drives: 75
Games with 4QC opportunity: 144/266 (54.1 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 46
Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro-Football-Reference. Win Probability comes from Advanced Football Analytics. Screen caps come from NFL Game Rewind.