Clutch Encounters: Week 9
by Scott Kacsmar
With 133 games in the books, we are truly at the halfway point of the 2016 NFL season. After a fun Week 8, the drama was dialed back with just one game-winning drive in Week 9. Only six games even had fourth-quarter comeback opportunities. Not helping matters were the Steelers and Rams each trying absurd onside kicks in the final minutes of their one-score losses that were not as close as the final scores suggest. Also, the Colts did not give the Packers a chance to return an old favor with an 18-point comeback of their own, as Andrew Luck did an incredible job on two dagger throws on third down in the four-minute offense to hang on for the 31-26 win in Green Bay.
Game of the Week
Detroit Lions 22 at Minnesota Vikings 16
Type: 4QC/GWD (OT)
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 3 (16-13)
Head Coach: Jim Caldwell (20-25 at 4QC and 23-25 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Matthew Stafford (22-33 at 4QC and 25-33 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Which is scarier at the end of a game: defending Matthew Stafford or resting your hopes on the leg of Blair Walsh? More Stafford heroics and one kicker being much more clutch than the other led to a third-straight loss for the once 5-0 Vikings in an overtime stunner.
At this point, one has to wonder if Walsh's troubles are mostly just in his head. After Walsh missed the shortest do-or-die field goal in playoff history (27 yards) this past January, I said "Now we have to see how he rebounds from this since kicking is such a mental position." Kickers usually play forever, but some high-profile misses have sunk careers before, including Lin Elliott, Mike Vanderjagt, and Nate Kaeding. This season, Walsh has made 12-of-16 field goals, but also missed three of his 16 extra points. On Sunday, he missed a game-tying extra point that hit the right upright in the third quarter, and had a 46-yard field goal blocked with 13:41 left in the fourth quarter. The block was extra costly since its field position led to a field goal and 13-9 Detroit lead.
Given how bad Detroit's defense has been this season, expectations were higher than this for Minnesota's offense in the first game since Norv Turner stepped down as offensive coordinator. Sam Bradford had a very dink-and-dunk performance with Stefon Diggs catching 13 passes for 80 yards, but the insipid Minnesota running game failed to convert a fourth-and-1 at the Detroit 5 with 8:09 left. After getting the ball back with 4:14 left, Bradford led another drive deep into the red zone that again was turned over to the running game. This time it was partly to burn some clock after the Lions used their last timeout. Minnesota was trying to score as late as possible, but probably could have waited even longer to call its second timeout with 27 seconds left before a third-down play.
We knew the Lions had been terrible against tight ends this season, but has anyone ever seen an NFL team run a jet sweep to a backup tight end before? Rhett Ellison's stumble into the end zone was just enough for a touchdown before he lost the ball.
Detroit seemed to be in a hopeless situation with just 23 seconds and no timeouts left at its own 25, but this team should know better than anyone that the game was not over. It was just last December when the Lions had Green Bay down to 23 seconds and no timeouts at the Packers' 21, and Aaron Rodgers won the game with a Hail Mary pass.
During his career, Stafford has been one of the game's best quarterbacks in the final minute, and he went to work with a checkdown to Golden Tate, who wisely stepped out of bounds after an 8-yard gain. With 17 seconds left, there was really just one time for a deep pass and spike to set up a long field goal. Detroit's execution was great, with Andre Roberts pulling in a diving 27-yard catch before Stafford lined everyone up for the spike with two seconds to play. Matt Prater's 58-yard field goal silenced the crowd, and it was really one of the better pressure kicks you will ever see in a game.
We shockingly had overtime, with the Lions looking to put a stamp on their fifth fourth-quarter comeback win of the season. Stafford overcame four third-down situations, including a costly pass interference penalty on Xavier Rhodes that was warranted in coverage with Marvin Jones. Three plays later, Stafford found Tate through double coverage at the 15-yard line, and Harrison Smith especially had trouble with the tackle, leading to a game-winning touchdown after a sweet little flip into the end zone from one of the game's more underappreciated receivers.
Golden Tate, this is UNREAL pic.twitter.com/uOT3jvhSuX
— Football Is Life (@FootbaIl_Tweets) November 7, 2016
The NFC North is now a murky three-team race after the latest Detroit miracle. Stafford joins Norm Van Brocklin (1960 Eagles) and Jim Plunkett (1982 Raiders) as the only quarterbacks with five fourth-quarter comeback wins through a team's first nine games. He also joins Jake Delhomme (2003 Panthers) and Eli Manning (2011 Giants) as the only quarterbacks with five game-winning drives through nine games. Three of those four seasons led to an appearance in that season's championship game. Detroit may not be headed to Super Bowl LI, but wherever the Lions go, it will be with Stafford leading the way. This was the 25th game-winning drive of his career, accomplished in just 104 career games. You can say he has a flair for the dramatic.
Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind
New York Jets 23 at Miami Dolphins 27
Type: 4QC via non-offensive game-winning score
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 3 (23-20)
Head Coach: Adam Gase (1-3 at 4QC and 2-3 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Ryan Tannehill (10-24 at 4QC and 12-24 overall 4QC/GWD record)
No offense to Ryan Fitzpatrick, but the Bryce Petty era probably should have started a week ago when Geno Smith's injury forced the Jets went back to The Bearded One from Harvard. An injury to Fitzpatrick against Miami forced Petty into action, and he entered right in the thick of a fourth-quarter comeback attempt with the Jets down 20-13 in Miami. A little screen pass to Bilal Powell for 15 yards eased Petty into his first snap to end the third quarter, and then a quick pass on third-and-7 gave him his first failed completion, but still set up a 28-yard field goal for Nick Folk. And like that, Petty was gone. Fitzpatrick returned on the ensuing drive in a 20-16 game, and he did what he's known to do: throw a pick in a game-winning drive opportunity. This one was a pretty inexplicable miscommunication, as Fitzpatrick panicked under the pass pressure and forced a throw on third down from the Miami 11 into the waiting arms of Brice McCain with 7:00 left.
Miami was hardly impressive itself in this one. Punter Matt Darr dropped the ball and set up Fitzpatrick at the Miami 18. Two plays later, Fitzpatrick fired a strike to Jalin Marshall for the go-ahead touchdown with 5:42 left. Very few go-ahead touchdowns in the fourth quarter have ever been enjoyed for fewer seconds than this one.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Jets were penalized for being offsides, and had to redo the kick instead of Miami taking over at its own 19. Penalties on special teams have become a commonly accepted part of the game. We almost expect to see some yellow on the field for any kick or punt these days. While these penalties usually have a marginal impact on the outcome, this one was huge. Kenyan Drake returned the kick this time, and he broke through the middle of New York's unit and outraced everyone to the end zone for a 96-yard touchdown. This is the 16th game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter or overtime on a kickoff return in NFL history, and only the seventh by a trailing team.
|NFL: Game-winning Kickoff Return Touchdowns in Fourth Quarter/Overtime|
|9/5/1937||PIT||PHI||4||Johnny Blood||92||Tied 14-14||W 27-14|
|11/17/1963||PIT||at WAS||4||Gary Ballman||92||Down 28-27||W 34-28|
|10/17/1965||CHI||at MIN||4||Gale Sayers||96||Down 37-31||W 45-37|
|10/30/1967||GB||at SLC||4||Travis Williams||93||Down 23-17||W 31-23|
|9/18/1978||BAL||at NE||4||Joe Washington||90||Tied 27-27||W 34-27|
|11/27/1980||CHI||at DET||OT||Dave Williams||95||Tied 17-17||W 23-17|
|9/6/1981||HOIL||at LARM||4||Willie Tullis||95||Tied 20-20||W 27-20|
|9/13/1987||KC||SD||4||Paul Palmer||95||Tied 13-13||W 20-13|
|1/8/2000||TEN||BUF||4||Kevin Dyson||75||Down 16-15||W 22-16|
|9/8/2002||NYJ||at BUF||OT||Chad Morton||96||Tied 31-31||W 37-31|
|9/15/2002||ARI||at SEA||4||MarTay Jenkins||95||Down 13-10||W 24-13|
|9/28/2003||KC||at BAL||4||Dante Hall||97||Tied 10-10||W 17-10|
|1/1/2006||NYJ||BUF||4||Justin Miller||95||Down 26-23||W 30-26|
|9/26/2010||SEA||SD||4||Leon Washington||99||Tied 20-20||W 27-20|
|10/25/2015||NYG||DAL||4||Dwayne Harris||100||Tied 20-20||W 27-20|
|11/6/2016||MIA||NYJ||4||Kenyan Drake||96||Down 23-20||W 27-23|
|Source: Pro Football Reference's Touchdown Finder|
Ndamukong Suh came up with a big third-down sack to force a three-and-out. The Jets really had no choice but to punt on fourth-and-14 from their own 21 with 3:06 left. They still had two timeouts left, and had been a reliable run defense this season. Jay Ajayi, fresh off a bye week following back-to-back 200-yard rushing games, had mostly been held in check with 67 yards on his first 20 carries. Ryan Tannehill had a quiet game, but was featured here with an ill-advised zone-read keeper, and a third-and-3 pass that drew a penalty for pass interference on Julian Stanford. That penalty was a killer, and Ajayi's four runs for 44 yards on the drive cemented the loss for New York.
For all of the expectations that came with Adam Gase in fixing the passing game, Miami's running backs have really powered this three-game winning streak. Even Drake is a backup running back on this team that does not miss Lamar Miller, and never really needed Arian Foster with the way Ajayi has been running.
Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind
Bills at Seahawks: If It Ain't Rough, It Ain't Me
Monday night games in Seattle sure have been good in recent years, but there is usually some officiating controversy that dominates the discussion too. Last year, it was the illegal bat penalty that was never called on Seattle in a 13-10 win over Detroit. This time, we are talking about a botched officiating situation at the end of the first half that cost Buffalo what should have been an easy field goal. With three seconds to go in the half, Richard Sherman was way offsides on a field goal attempt, and he took a shady dive at kicker Dan Carpenter's leg, which caused an injury. It should have led to a 15-yard flag for unnecessary roughness, which would have allowed Carpenter to remain in the game. It also would have set up an easier 38-yard field goal. The Bills did a quick spike to bring Carpenter back into the game, and then the officials compounded their mistake by not resetting the play clock for Buffalo, leading to a delay of game that negated Carpenter's 49-yard field goal. After all of that mess, sure enough Carpenter officially missed the field goal from 54 yards away to end the half.
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Now, Buffalo trailed 28-17 at the time in a surprisingly offensive half, but then there was no score in the third quarter, so this loomed a bit larger than it should have in the game's 31-25 final. I do not like to pretend that the second half would have played out exactly the same had it been 28-20 at halftime, but I can understand why Bills fans are upset here. The referees have to do better on such an obvious call.
Buffalo, 12-of-17 on third down on the night, had three scoring drives of 12-plus plays, and was working on a fourth with a 31-25 deficit in the fourth quarter. But for some reason, the Bills had a horrible response to a significant tripping penalty that set up third-and-21 at the Seattle 43 with 4:05 left. That is not field goal range, and the field goal really was not the goal anyway at that late point in the game. So why in the world would the Bills run a draw to LeSean McCoy for minus-2 yards? Even if it gained 10 yards, the Bills were looking at fourth-and-long or a 50-yard field goal from a kicker who may have been a little gimpy after the Sherman hit. Neither situation would have been ideal. To make matters worse, only 3:14 remained by the time the Bills punted the ball back to Seattle. The draw was just a strange, terrible call in that situation.
Seattle could have closed things out with a couple of first downs, but the offense was very one-dimensional all night. The running backs had just eight carries for 10 yards, and while Russell Wilson shared a spectacular night with Jimmy Graham and Doug Baldwin, he was also sacked four times. Kyle Williams just got enough of Wilson's feet to bring him down on third down for a quick three-and-out. Reggie Bush turned a booming 62-yard punt into a decent return, and with 2:41 left, Tyrod Taylor was 60 yards away from a potential game-winning drive.
Taylor was making his 23rd start, and he has been an interesting player to watch so far. I like to call him "East Coast Russell Wilson" -- though his vertical passing has not been anywhere near as consistent as his counterpart, but he is a very effective runner and playmaker. This could have been a signature moment for him, but Seattle's defense made the task difficult with some effective blitzing, including a sack that brought up third-and-21 with 1:25 left. Taylor has always had great intentions in regards to third-down ALEX, but he has not had the success of consistently hitting those passes. Here, he made one of the best plays of the season. Taylor eluded another blitz, got out of the pocket and fired a pass to Robert Woods (who had a career night with 10 catches for 162 yards) for a 22-yard gain. Tack on a 15-yard penalty for roughing the passer, and this was starting to look like another Seattle letdown.
Is Tyrod elite? https://t.co/jV7RpA1L5h
— Deadspin (@Deadspin) November 8, 2016
Remember, the Seahawks were 1-14 in the Wilson era (since 2012) when allowing at least 25 points. Unfortunately, Taylor is just 1-9 at 4QC attempts, and the Bills are the league's only winless team (0-24) when allowing at least 25 points since 2012. Taylor was 11 yards away from his first 300-yard passing game, but the Seahawks did not surrender another completion. After reaching the Seattle 7 in the final minute, Taylor suffered back-to-back sacks that set up fourth-and-goal from the 15. Taylor really needed to throw the ball away instead of taking a loss on second down, but I did like that Pete Carroll used his timeouts to conserve time for an answer drive just in case. Taylor never stood a chance with Cliff Avril coming in immediately on a third-down sack. On the decisive fourth down, Seattle only rushed three, which bought Taylor plenty of time, but he was unable to find anyone open after drifting out of the pocket. Yes, receivers can be legally decked once the quarterback leaves the pocket. Taylor threw to where he could since two of his four receivers left standing ran routes short of the goal line, but Earl Thomas had a better chance at the pass than Woods did in the end zone.
With such an exciting finish, maybe it was a good thing that the Bills could not have simply tied the game with a field goal to bring up another dreaded overtime session.
Eagles at Giants: Getting Familiar
A season ago, the Giants surrendered a game-winning score six times in the fourth quarter or overtime on their way to a 6-10 finish. After the season, offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo was promoted to head coach to replace Tom Coughlin, and the defense reloaded in free agency and the draft. That is usually not a quick path to improvement, but the defense has been strong in closing games out this year, tying for the league lead with five holds in the fourth quarter, and a 5-1 record in close games.
Meanwhile, the Eagles tried to quickly move on from the Chip Kelly era with the hiring of coach Doug Pederson and draft selection of quarterback Carson Wentz. So far, the new regime has continued the front-running aspect of Kelly's tenure, as the Eagles are now 0-4 at game-winning drive opportunities this season. Philadelphia has lost its last 18 games in which it trailed in the fourth quarter -- last coming back for a win in Week 2 of the 2014 season. It feels long ago when the Eagles were 3-0, the defense had allowed 20 total points, and the offense had zero giveaways. Now, the Eagles are 1-4 in their last five games with nine giveaways. Two early interceptions by Wentz set the tone for a 14-0 New York lead, and Eli Manning threw four touchdowns to build a 28-17 lead going into the fourth quarter.
Philadelphia's offense entered the week ranked 23rd in touchdowns per red zone appearance, and things only got worse with a two-for-six performance. That does not even include a drive that stalled at the New York 22 that saw Jason Pierre-Paul block a 40-yard field goal, and another drive that ended on fourth-and-2 at the New York 23 after a horrific quarterback sweep attempt. Overall, the Eagles penetrated New York's 25 on nine drives, but only scored two touchdowns. The settling for field goals in the fourth quarter was a disappointment, but not reflective of bad coaching decisions. After Wentz overthrew Dorial Green-Beckham, Pederson was right to go for the 38-yard field goal on fourth-and-10 with 3:58 left. That brought the score down to 28-23.
Manning had a chance to seal the deal with a third-and-4 conversion with 1:55 left and the Eagles down to one timeout. His pass was just tipped at the line by Connor Barwin, and Jordan Hicks came away with a huge interception at the New York 34 with 1:48 left. One pass from Wentz picked up half of the yards towards a game-winning touchdown, but things stalled from the New York 17. While the Giants had three timeouts to use, the Eagles had to think about the clock here too, so it is reasonable to criticize them for calling four straight pass plays. Wentz practically threw the first three passes away, including a near interception by Pierre-Paul in the face of a significant blitz on third down. On fourth down, the Giants blitzed seven -- OK, six real blitzers and one half-hearted attempt from rookie safety Andrew Adams -- and Wentz was wide of the mark for Jordan Matthews in the end zone.
For the second week in a row, the Eagles, 0-3 in the division, let a golden opportunity slip away, and they now sit in last place in the NFC East.
Titans at Chargers: The Ken Whisenhunt Bowl
Remember in 2015 when the Chargers were going to trade Philip Rivers to Tennessee and draft Marcus Mariota as their next franchise quarterback? The common link was Ken Whisenhunt, who had been Rivers' offensive coordinator in 2013 and was then coaching the Titans. Well, the trade never happened. Tennessee drafted Mariota and fired Whisenhunt during the 2015 season, and the coach returned to San Diego as Rivers' coordinator this year. The two have done some phenomenal work in keeping the offense thriving despite several key injuries. In fact, the San Diego offense looked on Sunday like what the Titans have only hoped to build with Mariota: an efficient aerial assault combined with a dominant rushing attack.
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Melvin Gordon was the target of many offseason jokes after the Chargers moved up to the 15th pick to take him, only to see him fail to score a touchdown in his rookie season. The joke's on us now, as Gordon leads the NFL in rushing touchdowns (nine) and carries (193), and just had the greatest game of his brief pro career. Gordon rushed for 196 yards and added 65 more yards on four receptions. Meanwhile, Tennessee's ground attack was mostly grounded, with just 16 carries for 66 yards, forcing the ball into Mariota's hands 46 times after San Diego took an early 16-0 lead.
It wouldn't be a real San Diego game this year if the Chargers did not blow that lead, as the Titans actually went ahead 21-19 in the third quarter. However, a long drive engineered by Rivers put San Diego ahead for good, and Mariota fumbled on a designed run. The Chargers returned that loose ball for another touchdown to make it 33-21 going into the fourth quarter.
Still, the Titans eventually had a comeback attempt. Leading 33-28, San Diego could have gone for a fourth-and-1 at the Tennessee 18 with 6:10 left. Finishing that drive with a touchdown likely would have iced the game, but the Chargers kicked a 36-yard field goal for a 36-28 lead. That is defensible, but certainly not an aggressive move, which fits Mike McCoy's reputation as a coach.
Mariota needed to lead a 75-yard touchdown drive, but just three plays into it, he threw late to Kendall Wright, and Brandon Flowers read the pass perfectly for a 33-yard pick-six with 4:51 left. While Mariota was able to answer right back with a 75-yard touchdown drive to make it 43-35, too much damage had already been done with the two return touchdowns. Gordon fittingly put the game away with two more runs for first downs, including a 47-yard gallop. San Diego ran out the final 2:45 on the clock, denying Mariota a final shot at redemption.
Mariota is only 21 games into his career, but already has a 3-10 (.231) record at 4QC/GWD opportunities. This season alone he has turned the ball over for a touchdown in the fourth quarter three times. While neither of these teams is making much of a dent in a top-heavy AFC, the Chargers have to feel good about not trading Rivers and adding another big-time back in Gordon to help him out in his senior years.
Jaguars at Chiefs: Sunday Is Garbage Day
While there may not have been any garbage time for Blake Bortles in Kansas City, it was still a garbage day for his Jaguars. Even though quarterback Alex Smith and lead back Spencer Ware were among the Chiefs' inactive players, the Jaguars spotted Kansas City a 19-7 fourth-quarter lead thanks to three giveaways and two special teams miscues. The Chiefs only had to gain 96 combined yards on their five scoring drives, and none of those drives traveled longer than 38 yards.
Jacksonville's lack of scoring was troublesome given the 32 runs for 205 yards, led by Chris Ivory's 107-yard rushing performance. While the Chiefs were 23rd in rush defense DVOA coming into the week, the Jacksonville rush offense was only 30th in DVOA, so this was a surprise. Teams that rush at least 30 times for over 200 yards have won 87.8 percent of their games since the 1970 merger (including playoffs).
However, the Chiefs made two crucial run stops to thwart the Jacksonville comeback attempt. Down 19-7, Ivory carried from the 1-yard line on second down, but fumbled the ball as he was crossing the plane. Ball magnet Marcus Peters recovered the fumble in the end zone. On replay, it sure looked like Ivory broke the plane before the ball was lost.
The thought here was that the call on the field (fumble) stood due to a lack of conclusive evidence that Ivory had maintained control before crossing the plane. It seemed pretty conclusive to me, but this is another case of why the NFL needs a true goal-line camera for every game, and to put a GPS chip in the ball. This isn't exactly asking for harmful Black Mirror-style technology, but it is just common sense advancements that would help the game have more undisputable calls.
After getting the ball back, Bortles relied more on receiving back T.J. Yeldon, who has been loading up on failed receptions this year. Yeldon made some plays here to reach the end zone with 4:10 left to make it 19-14. The Chiefs went three-and-out in the four-minute offense after Nick Foles threw a dangerous incompletion and took a third-down sack.
The Jaguars had plenty of time (3:01 and two timeouts) and 65 yards to go for the go-ahead touchdown. Bortles had a 26-yard scramble that added to his offense's effective rushing performance. But when facing a third-and-1 at the Kansas City 30, a draw to Yeldon was engulfed in the backfield by Dontari Poe at the two-minute warning. On fourth-and-3, Bortles' pass was defensed by nickel cornerback Steven Nelson. The overall coverage on the play was exceptional by Kansas City.
Charcandrick West did not excel in a starting role on Sunday, but after carrying the ball 12 times for 25 yards, he put the game away with a 14-yard run thanks to a couple of missed tackles.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 37
Game-winning drives: 42
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 80/133 (60.2 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 22 (and one tie)
Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro Football Reference. Screen caps come from NFL Game Pass.