by Scott Kacsmar
The holidays brought gifts of division titles and playoff berths for a few teams, while a few unlucky fanbases experienced playoff elimination or a loss of hope after some terrible injuries, including a broken fibula for Oakland quarterback Derek Carr. A great grab by Amari Cooper on a pass from Matt McGloin in the four-minute offense iced the Colts to give Oakland a 33-25 win on Saturday. That's the kind of effort the Oakland supporting cast will need to give for 60 minutes for the Raiders to win another game this season.
Blowouts were in vogue again, with only seven games featuring a comeback opportunity in Week 16. We are down to 60 percent of the games this season featuring a comeback opportunity, but that is still on par with last season (61 percent). There have also been 70 fourth-quarter comeback wins this year after 68 in the 2015 regular season. The 70th, achieved in Pittsburgh on Christmas afternoon, was an instant classic and as good as anything we have seen this season.
Game of the Week
Baltimore Ravens 27 at Pittsburgh Steelers 31
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 10 (20-10)
Head Coach: Mike Tomlin (22-42 at 4QC and 33-47 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger (29-41 at 4QC and 40-46 overall 4QC/GWD record)
We have mentioned several times that the quality of teams around the NFL this season has been down. Maybe one of the benefits of this odd season will be a great postseason where just about anything could happen. On Christmas afternoon in Pittsburgh, this battle for the AFC North between two rivals was as close as 2016 has come to showing us playoff-caliber football. The game had that air of importance, with the Ravens playing for their playoff lives, and the Steelers looking rather tight at home for three quarters.
What a finish, though. Pittsburgh's three-touchdown explosion in the fourth quarter after struggling to 10 early points is a rare performance. NFL teams only do that about twice a season, though Seattle had done the same thing the day before against Arizona (see our next recap). The 31 points allowed were a season worst for Baltimore. Not many teams can just turn it on like that, but to play armchair sports psychologist, this felt like a talented unit realizing it was blowing a golden opportunity, and making amends for it in a big way. The offensive line was having a great game, but Pittsburgh's three superstars needed to finish the deal.
After Ben Roethlisberger threw his second bad interception of the third quarter, the Ravens had a great opportunity to take a 24-10 lead. However, tight end Darren Waller was unable to hang onto a Joe Flacco pass in the end zone on third down, and the Ravens settled for a 23-yard field goal and 20-10 lead with 14:18 left in the game. From that point, Roethlisberger completed 14 of his final 15 passes (excluding two spikes) for 164 yards and two touchdowns. He also picked up 35 yards while targeting Demarcus Ayers on a pass interference penalty on Tavon Young. I'm not sure even a big-name wideout gets that call often, but it led to the first touchdown, a 7-yard run by Le'Veon Bell. The return to an aggressive passing game and getting Antonio Brown involved against a secondary that was missing standout corner Jimmy Smith were keys to the Pittsburgh rally.
Back-to-back big catches by Brown led to an improv move from Roethlisberger on a 7-yard touchdown pass to Bell, who bullied his way (with some help) into the end zone after getting stood up short. Pittsburgh quickly regained a 24-20 lead, but the Ravens still had a big drive left in them. Baltimore wore the clock down with four third-down conversions, including a tough 10-yard run by fullback Kyle Juszczyk for a touchdown with 1:18 left to put Baltimore back on top 27-24.
There has been an Internet debate about whether Baltimore scored too quickly, and while the answer in hindsight is obviously yes, there was nothing Juszczyk could really do about it due to the 4-point deficit. If the Ravens had been leading or tied or down by one or two points, then yes, he absolutely should have gone down at the 1-yard line to set up a later field goal. The debate gets most interesting in a 3-point game, since you can argue that the short field goal with the best kicker in the league (Justin Tucker) is basically a sure thing, and that is in Baltimore's back pocket. But down by four or more points, it really has to be a touchdown at that point, and your defense just has to do its job and not give up a touchdown in return. If anything, one can expect the opponent to get conservative once in field-goal range, likely settling for overtime instead of pushing hard for the touchdown and win.
Oh, but the Steelers went all out for the win and 75-yard touchdown drive. Roethlisberger had 1:18 and two timeouts left, and outside of one of his head-scratching spiked passes with 41 seconds left, the drive was incredibly well done. Bell never touched the ball on the eight non-spike plays, but tight end Jesse James stepped up, Eli Rogers made a fantastic catch for 20 yards to get into the red zone, and Brown of course delivered in the biggest moment of the season.
With only 14 seconds left at the Baltimore 4, Roethlisberger made the risky decision to throw short of the goal line. Baltimore has seen this before, like the 4-yard touchdown from Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes in 2008 to win the division, but even that was less of a risk than this play since the Steelers were out of timeouts here. If Brown had not extended the ball out, the clock likely would have expired before Roethlisberger could have spiked the ball.
Antonio Brown carrying the Steelers to the AFC North divisional title. pic.twitter.com/V68pfM1bBf
— Jonathan Kinsley (@Brickwallblitz) December 27, 2016
The play is an incredible display of strength by Brown, and good football intelligence. The rules for a touchdown favor the offense since the play is over the moment after any piece of the ball breaks the plane. So in a situation where it was touchdown or bust, Brown had every reason to extend the ball out for the win. We rarely see players do this due to the risk of a fumble, but who cares if someone slaps the ball out when this is your last shot anyway? Brown made the play work and the Steelers led 31-27. There was only enough time for a lateral attempt by Flacco, but the pass was tipped for a game-ending interception, clinching the AFC North again for Pittsburgh.
This was the 40th time in Roethlisberger's career (eighth against Baltimore) that he led the Steelers to the game-winning points in the fourth quarter or overtime. His final touchdown pass was the 301st of his career, moving him past his boyhood idol John Elway for ninth in NFL history. This score has to be more memorable than most for him, and it could go down as one of those breaking points between a season that ended without the playoffs and something special to come later.
Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind
Arizona Cardinals 34 at Seattle Seahawks 31
Remember the 6-6 tie in Week 7 when these teams looked incapable of scoring a touchdown on each other? They scored eight touchdowns this time, and each team scored at least 20 points in the fourth quarter alone. That type of fourth-quarter scoring outburst has only happened six times in NFL history, and this was the first time that the home team failed to win in the end. I wrote the Arizona and Seattle chapters in Football Outsiders Almanac 2016 (still available!). One of our stats for the two teams was that Seattle was 31-3 at home since 2012, but 0-2 against the Cardinals with Carson Palmer at quarterback. Make that 38-3 against the rest of the NFL and 0-3 against the Palmer-led Cardinals now.
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With players such as Tyrann Mathieu and Earl Thomas out, it is not surprising to see both defenses taking a few steps back in December. Arizona was in attack mode early, and had leads of 14-0, 21-10, and 31-18 in the game. A Seattle comeback from 31-18 with 4:10 left did not seem likely, but all Russell Wilson games end up close eventually, right? (Well, except for that one in Green Bay in Week 14.) Wilson did most of his damage from the pocket, and he found Jimmy Graham over a crowd of Cardinals down the field for an unexpected 37-yard touchdown with 2:48 left.
We know that Bruce Arians teams like to be aggressive in the four-minute offense, but Arizona really helped Seattle out here. Larry Fitzgerald cut to the wrong side on a short gain, stopping the clock after he went out of bounds to set up third-and-8. Palmer threw incomplete after getting crushed in the pocket, leaving Wilson with 2:22 and a timeout to answer. Worse, a short punt and bad holding penalty put the Seahawks at the Arizona 45.
On first-and-goal from the Arizona 5 with 1:05 left, one could argue that the Seahawks should have called a run to force Arizona to call its final timeout, or at least take half the clock down. Yes, this is starting to sound like Super Bowl XLIX all over again. Seattle also passed again, but this time Paul Richardson was wide open after the Cardinals blew it on a play-action pass. The snap was a little high on the extra point, and Steven Hauschka was wide left on the kick, his ninth miss of an extra point since 2015. Lest we forget, Hauschka also missed a 28-yard field goal wide left at the end of overtime in the Week 7 tie.
This time, I am not sure too much would have changed for the outcome. Yes, Seattle would have led 32-31 with 1:00 left instead of being tied, but we are talking about Arizona and Arians here. I think he would have been just as aggressive either way, and unless Palmer got really antsy with the small deficit, he too likely would have approached the drive the same way that he actually did. David Johnson continued his fantastic season with two big catches for 42 yards, including a 29-yard catch against safety Kam Chancellor deep down the sideline.
This was really the week for rushing out the field goal units on fourth down. One more completion from Palmer to Larry Fitzgerald for eight yards meant the Cardinals needed to hurry, and rushing a shaky kicker like Chandler Catanzaro is never a good idea. The operation was smooth, though, and the 43-yard kick was picture perfect down the middle to give Arizona the 34-31 win, which I again think would have been a 34-32 win had Hauschka come through on his kick.
We really liked both of these teams in our preseason projections, but I made sure to write both chapters with a cautionary tone. Arizona (6-8-1) did fall off in a big way, and Seattle (9-5-1) is going to see its DVOA dynasty come to an end after a four-year reign. At least the Seahawks will still be in the playoffs with a home game, but things are not looking very "Super" for Seattle right now.
Miami Dolphins 34 at Buffalo Bills 31
Well, it wasn't Dan Marino against Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas, but the scoring and big plays were there in Buffalo on Saturday afternoon. Shoddy tackling had a lot to do with that, but it was a far more entertaining game than what we have usually gotten from these two teams in the 21st century. This was actually the first NFL game since 1961 where both offenses rushed for at least 240 yards -- Buffalo had 272 yards to Miami's 261.
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Tyrod Taylor needed overtime in his 29th career start to notch his first 300-yard passing game, but I think if the Bills trusted his arm more than his legs they would have won in regulation with one of Taylor's finest efforts yet. Taylor lost 6 yards in the red zone on a badly snuffed out option run that led to a field goal and 28-24 deficit with 5:51 left. After getting the ball back and driving to the Miami 4, Taylor again lost yardage on a designed run on third down. He also went out of bounds instead of cutting his losses to stop the clock with 1:25 left. Miami was out of timeouts, so had Taylor gone down in bounds on a doomed play, he could have let the clock run down to about 45 seconds before the Bills had to run a perfect play for fourth-and-7. Even with the clock stopped, the Bills used their first timeout to talk it over, putting the game on this play.
Fortunately, Taylor delivered with his arm and a low touchdown catch by tight end Charles Clay to put the Bills on top 31-28. However, Miami still had 1:11 left and a good 39-yard kick return by Kenyan Drake put them in position to go get a field goal. No one gave Matt Moore the memo that he's just supposed to be a backup quarterback that falters in these situations, but his 17-yard completion to Kenny Stills got the offense moving. A short pass on third-and-10 to Damien Williams carried some risk since the back was ruled to have his momentum stopped in bounds, and the Dolphins had to get the field goal unit on the field on fourth down with the clock running. The distance of the kick (55 yards) was a bigger issue than the clock, and Andrew Franks had just missed a 46-yard field goal earlier in the quarter. The biggest kick of Franks' career was good to send the game into overtime. Rex Ryan was coy about trying to ice the kicker, but ultimately decided not to.
Buffalo's reliance on the run is certainly understandable -- the Bills entered the week No. 1 in rushing DVOA and were having another great game. However, some of the calls on second and third downs were frustrating to see in situations where a touchdown was of the utmost importance. In overtime, a little trickery with an end-around to Reggie Bush failed miserably, losing 8 yards and setting up a third-and-20. Taylor's deep shot for the win was well overthrown in the end zone. Dan Carpenter had a chance to make a 45-yard field goal to give his team an overtime lead, but was wide right. When Buffalo had the ball back, it should have known that a tie was not going to keep its playoff hopes alive. So when Ryan punted on a fourth-and-2 with 4:09 left from his own 41, that was disappointing, or possibly expected if you are familiar with Ryan's coaching career. A dominant running team with a mobile quarterback could not find a way to get 2 yards there?
Miami started from its own 15 and Jay Ajayi immediately broke another tackle for a 57-yard run. He surpassed 200 rushing yards for the third time this season, and the second time against Buffalo. All Moore had to do on the game-winning drive was take a knee. Franks' 27-yard field goal won the game with only 47 seconds left. The Dolphins (10-5) are in the playoffs for the first time since 2008, and have scored 34 points in consecutive games with Moore at quarterback, something that has only been done once (Weeks 6-7 in 2015) in the five seasons with Ryan Tannehill under center. The Bills, meanwhile, are looking at another 8-8 season at best, and have still not made the playoffs since 1999, which was Marino's final NFL season. Yes, it really has been that long.
Cincinnati Bengals 10 at Houston Texans 12
Tom Savage may have made his first career start on Saturday night, but he did not show up until the third quarter. In the first half, Savage had minus-5 passing yards on 10 dropbacks. Then what had been a 3-3 bore actually turned into a good finish. The Bengals are 1-5 against Houston in the Andy Dalton/A.J. Green era, but Green's awaited return was axed as a late scratch. Brandon LaFell stepped up and took a simple slant 86 yards for a touchdown to give the Bengals a 10-6 lead with 10:45 left. Savage, who led a comeback off the bench against Jacksonville last week, looked sharp on three straight plays to set up Alfred Blue for a 24-yard touchdown run, his first score of the season. The Bengals blocked Nick Novak's extra point and the Texans only led 12-10.
Cincinnati is just 1-7-1 at game-winning drive opportunities this season, and not capitalizing on favorable opportunities like this one is why the team is missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010. With 3:46 left, Dalton had plenty of time to set up a game-winning field goal. With some help from Rex Burkhead, Dalton did his part, driving the offense to the Houston 25 with five seconds remaining. Unfortunately, Randy Bullock was called upon to nail the 43-yard field goal to beat his former team, for which he was barely an 80-percent kicker (61-of-76). The snap and hold were fine, but Bullock's kick went wide right, and the Texans are still AFC South champions, spoiling wild card Saturday for everyone again.
But at least head coach Bill O'Brien's post-game conference will always be a treat.
Somebody give Bill O'Brien hardo of the year for this pic.twitter.com/lWQVunVT3i
— Jack McGuire (@TailgateHeisman) December 25, 2016
San Francisco 49ers 22 at Los Angeles Rams 21
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 14 (21-7)
Head Coach: Chip Kelly (4-15 at 4QC and 7-16 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Colin Kaepernick (8-10-1 at 4QC and 10-14-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
This game was the cheap stocking stuffer of Week 16. You just wanted to get through it as quickly as possible and get onto the better stuff. Truthfully, Colin Kaepernick engineered a pretty impressive 14-point comeback in the final 10:28 to complete a season sweep of the Rams, the only team the 49ers have been able to beat in Chip Kelly's first season. Kelly's teams were just 3-15 at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities coming into Saturday, but the Rams have had some issues at closing this season.
Rookie quarterback Jared Goff threw for just 90 yards and two interceptions, but his lone touchdown pass seemed to put the 49ers down for the count. However, Goff is now 0-2 in the NFL when leading by double digits in the fourth quarter -- the defense also blew a late 10-0 lead against Miami in Week 11. Goff had terrible defensive support in college, and has not gotten much help from the Rams in his six starts.
Kaepernick scrambled for a 13-yard touchdown with 5:06 left, and the defense forced a three-and-out after sacking Goff on third down. Kaepernick had 3:10 and all of his timeouts to drive for the tying touchdown. Since Michael Crabtree was across the state in Oakland, Kaepernick locked onto Rod Streater as his red zone target for a 10-yard touchdown with 31 seconds left. You would have hoped Kelly had the two-point conversion as his goal all along in this miserable season. He did have the offense go for two, giving this season a fourth "do-or-die" two-point conversion attempt after just eight from 1994 through 2015.
|"Do-or-Die" 2-Point Conversions Since 1994|
|JAC||11/19/1995||at TB||12||0:37||Fail, L 17-16|
|CHI||10/12/1997||GB||7||1:54||Fail, L 24-23|
|MIN||12/15/2002||at NO||15||0:05||Success, W 32-31|
|TB||11/13/2005||WAS||10||0:58||Success, W 36-35|
|DEN||9/14/2008||SD||2||0:24||Success, W 39-38|
|KC||11/9/2008||at SD||10||0:23||Fail, L 20-19|
|HOU||1/1/2012||TEN||17||0:14||Fail, L 23-22|
|WAS||12/15/2013||at ATL||15||0:18||Fail, L 27-26|
|OAK||9/11/2016||at NO||1||0:47||Success, W 35-34|
|TEN||12/18/2016||at KC||15||3:12||Fail, W 19-17|
|PHI||12/18/2016||at BAL||15||0:04||Fail, L 27-26|
|SF||12/24/2016||at LARM||16||0:31||Success, W 22-21|
Kaepernick's superb scrambling ability won out again on the two-point conversion, including a dive into the end zone.
— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) December 25, 2016
The Rams caught a break when a taunting penalty on Zane Beadles after the touchdown led to a good return out to the 42-yard line with 27 seconds left. However, just two plays later Goff's wild throw was picked off by Rashard Robinson to wrap this one up.
Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind
Chargers at Browns: Free Cans of Faygo at Chargers BINGO
When we introduced Crazy Chargers Losses BINGO in Week 10, we weren't expecting San Diego (5-10) to keep adding to its list of improbable defeats in the Philip Rivers era. While there was no blown lead this time, the "Fail on two game-tying field goals in the final four minutes against a 0-14 team" would certainly qualify for another crazy loss.
You had to figure the Browns would put on a good effort in their final home game of 2016, one that was played early in the afternoon on Christmas Eve against a Pacific Time Zone team that has been generous in blowing games. If 0-16 was to be avoided, this had to be the one, and it was done with a strong ground game and a little good fortune. The absence of injured running back Melvin Gordon was a problem for the Chargers, who only ran 18 times for 34 yards against a run defense that ranked 32nd in DVOA coming into the week. Kenneth Farrow was stuffed in the backfield on a third-and-1 with half a quarter to play and San Diego still down 20-17.
Robert Griffin III left the game with a concussion, and Cody Kessler was sacked on third down by another one of The Melvins (Ingram) on San Diego for a three-and-out. Even after starting at the Cleveland 33, the Chargers stalled and settled for a 32-yard field goal attempt by Josh Lambo. Jamie Meder registered a huge blocked kick with 3:45 left. Kessler then could have clinched the team's first win with a third-and-7 conversion, but he took another sack at the two-minute warning.
Rivers had 1:46 left from his own 22. The offense just has not been good in these situations all season, dropping to 1-9 at game-winning drive opportunities. This drive was dominated by four targets to Antonio Gates, including a big 25-yard conversion on a fourth-and-10. However, it was after that key play that things went all wrong for San Diego. First, Rivers could have called another play instead of using a down for a spike with the Chargers in uncomfortable field-goal range at the Cleveland 35. On second down, Rivers fumbled the shotgun snap, but was fortunate to fall on the ball. Not much time was needed to run a third-and-13 play, but the pass to Gates in bounds was very risky. The play brought up fourth down and the Chargers had to hustle the field goal unit onto the field. The kick was rushed to the final second, and Lambo's leg booted the ball wide right to make sure the Browns would not join the 2008 Lions as the only 0-16 teams in NFL history.
Kickers, man. If Cleveland had gone 0-16, the 46-yard missed game-winning field goal by Cody Parkey in Miami would have been the main culprit. Instead, it's a little help from the Chargers on field goals that will keep Cleveland out of the record books. We'll see how the Steelers manage their starters in Week 17, but the 2016 Browns are likely to finish the season the way they deserve to: as a miserable 1-15 team rather than a historically inept 0-16 loser.
Giants at Eagles: Once, Twice, Three Times an Eli Interception
Going back to the Thursday night game, New York's defense did enough for a winning performance, allowing fewer points (17) than the Eagles (19) did. Unfortunately, an early pick-six thrown by Eli Manning to Malcolm Jenkins put the struggling offense in a 14-0 hole that it never fully climbed out of. The Giants ran 88 offensive plays, the most in the league this season in a non-overtime game, and Manning became just the seventh quarterback in NFL history to throw at least 63 passes in a game without suffering a sack. However, he was the fourth quarterback among those seven to throw three picks in the game.
Another Manning interception in the fourth quarter led to a 24-16 deficit. The Giants had a big fourth-and-1 at the Philadelphia 32 at the two-minute warning, but a false start on John Jerry backed them up 5 yards. Sterling Shepard was mugged by Nolan Carroll on fourth-and-6, but there inexplicably was no flag for pass interference. The pulling of the left arm should have been more than enough for a penalty.
This was a rare close win for the 2016 Eagles, now 2-6 in games involving a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity on either side of the ball. The aggressive decision to throw for the win on third-and-5 was the right decision, as icing the game was more important than making the Giants burn their final timeout, but a low-percentage deep shot from Carson Wentz was the wrong play call.
Manning got the ball back with 1:31 and a timeout from his own 15 for a final shot at the win. There was a legitimate shot from the Philadelphia 34, but Manning was unable to hit Odell Beckham in the end zone. On the next play, pressure on Manning as he released the ball caused it to come up short for a dagger interception by Terrence Brooks at the 5-yard line with five seconds left.
New York is still playoff bound, but the Cowboys clinched the NFC East with this loss.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 70
Game-winning drives: 80
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 144/240 (60.0 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 34 (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.