Clutch Encounters: Divisional Round
by Scott Kacsmar
Now that's more like the competitive NFL playoffs we are used to seeing, even if there have only been two drives in eight playoff games where the team with possession was down by fewer than eight points in the fourth quarter. The eight-point lead was in vogue in this divisional-round weekend, with three of the games featuring a team defending such a lead. All three teams won, though we saw one team allow the game to be tied, another give up the touchdown (but not the two-point conversion), and the other stop a rally dead in its tracks after one snap. Even if you missed the entire weekend of action, you probably could have guessed which games had which outcome.
Where you may have been fooled, though, is in the fact that Seattle-Atlanta was not one of the three close games. For the third time in the last eight games, Seattle lost after trailing by multiple scores for the entire second half. This is a huge departure from the team that had a lead or was within one score in the fourth quarter for 98 straight games, far and away the NFL record.
As for the Falcons, is it hard to believe that this franchise is going to its fourth NFC Championship Game since 1998? In that same time, the Cowboys have not been there once, and our game of the week starts in Dallas with a loss that will sting for a while, even if this team's future looks to be very bright.
Game of the Week
Green Bay Packers 34 at Dallas Cowboys 31
Overtime, you thought? Over Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers' dead bodies. The duo has an 0-7 overtime record together, including three playoff defeats. Overall, McCarthy is 1-8-1 in overtime in his career, but this time he was going to get the win on the final play of the game, even if he had to first blow an 18-point lead and then lean heavily on kicker Mason Crosby to get there.
When the Packers took a 21-3 lead halfway through the second quarter, this was looking like a ninth-straight NFL playoff game headed for a final margin of 13-plus points. Fortunately, the Dallas offense responded in a big way with 28 points on its final six drives, as only an interception on a screen by Dak Prescott stopped the Cowboys from scoring the rest of the way. The defense also stepped up, limiting the damage of Prescott's pick with an interception of Rodgers by Jeff Heath. Though Dallas still trailed 28-13 to start the fourth quarter, we were in store for an instant classic finish.
Where Prescott excelled this season was in the range of passes thrown 5 to 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. That range really takes advantage of the strengths of Cole Beasley (short), Jason Witten (medium) and Dez Bryant (long). In the first three quarters, Dallas was leaning too heavily on screens and bombs. The Cowboys were not a good screen team all year, but the bombs weren't falling for Prescott either. He narrowly avoided picks on a number of his deep attempts. But once the Cowboys started getting Bryant heavily involved, the passing game complemented a productive game from Ezekiel Elliott (22 carries for 125 yards), and the offense looked like the unit we have come to expect.
Green Bay's defense also helped with soft coverage, like sitting in a zone into which Witten expertly squatted down for a 15-yard gain on third-and-14. Witten scored on the next play (his first ever playoff touchdown, which is hard to believe), and the Cowboys were down 28-20. If you look closely, left guard Ronald Leary definitely false started on the touchdown, but the officials missed that one.
Dallas started getting home with some blitzes of Rodgers, and Barry Church finished a third-down sack to get the offense the ball back with 9:14 left. Finally, this postseason had some drama in the final 10 minutes of a game. Prescott stuck to that medium range of passes, and Bryant was targeted five times on the 11-play drive. Ladarius Gunter was no matchup for Bryant, who beat him on a third-and-2 for a 7-yard touchdown. The quarterback draw is usually a great call with a player like Prescott, and that was the two-point conversion to tie the game with 4:08 left.
It wouldn't be the playoffs without a little officiating controversy. At the two-minute warning, Rodgers threw deep for Ty Montgomery, but the pass was overthrown and Heath came down with his second interception. However, Anthony Brown was penalized 10 yards for pass interference. He did grab Montgomery, but it also clearly happened while Rodgers still had the ball, so it should have been a 5-yard holding penalty instead. Either way, that's an automatic first down, but if they were applying the rules for pass interference as they did, then why shouldn't that pass have been deemed uncatchable for the offense? We just saw a call of uncatchable in Seattle last week on a closer play than this one. Pass interference was not the right call here.
When you get a first down at the opponent's 35, and they have all three timeouts left, you sure as hell should settle for a long field goal, right? Especially when your quarterback is Rodgers, right? That's what Green Bay did in a situation where another big pass or two could have set up Crosby for a chip-shot kick, as well as potentially draining all of the clock on Dallas. But two conservative runs buried Green Bay into a third-and-13, then Rodgers threw incomplete, saving Dallas a timeout and giving Crosby a tough 56-yard attempt. There was even justification for punting in this spot, since giving Dallas the ball at its own 46 after a miss would have been terrible with 1:33 left.
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Crosby has developed a regular-season choker reputation, but he has been very solid in the playoffs, and we must give him significant credit for coming through again for the Packers. Crosby is 26-of-28 on field goals in the playoffs, and the two biggest makes of his career would happen in the game's last 100 seconds.
Still, Dallas had plenty of time to answer, and Dan Bailey is one of the best kickers in the NFL. After two completions for 35 yards out to the Green Bay 40, Prescott made the cardinal sin of spiking the ball on first down even though the Cowboys had a timeout left. We complain about this often, especially with the way the Steelers do this with Roethlisberger, but a spike is usually not worth wasting a down unless you absolutely have to stop the clock to set up a field goal. With a timeout and 50 seconds left, there was just no reason to spike the ball when you should have been able to call a play in the no-huddle there. A short throw and a pass batted down at the line left Dallas with no decision but to kick the field goal, and Bailey was good from 52 yards away with 35 seconds left.
Again, those 35 seconds may have been 20 seconds had the Cowboys not spiked the ball, and who knows what that first-down play could have produced if it had not been wasted. Now Rodgers had not only 35 seconds, but also two timeouts, which we know he can turn into a scoring drive.
Rodgers did an excellent job of not fumbling on a sack by Heath that could have been disastrous. Some teams may have packed it in for overtime after that scare, but Green Bay used a timeout with 18 seconds left. After getting to a third-and-20, Rodgers looked like he wanted another Hail Mary shot, which only needed to get into field-goal range this time as there were enough seconds left to use the final timeout for Crosby to come out for the win. However, Rodgers eschewed the big bomb for a smarter play to the sidelines that will probably go down as his big playoff highlight now, as well as the career highlight for tight end Jared Cook. We always pump up Cook more than we probably should (he was featured in this season's final ESPN Insider fantasy article, by the way) for his physical tools, but his production has never really been there. Well, on Sunday with Jordy Nelson out, Cook stepped up in top form with six grabs for 104 yards and a touchdown, none bigger than this 36-yard masterpiece.
— Aaron Nagler (@AaronNagler) January 16, 2017
The timeout that Dallas could have used in a constructive manner on its previous drive ended up going to a futile "icing the kicker" effort. Crosby nailed the practice kick, and he just cut in the real attempt too from 51 yards away at the gun to give Green Bay the 34-31 win. In the final 100 seconds, we saw kickers connect from 56, 52, and 51 yards (twice counting the warm-up kick). Eat your hearts out, Mike Vanderjagt and Billy Cundiff.
The game-winning one-minute drill led by Rodgers is just the third in the postseason since at least 1981. The last was Matt Ryan leading Atlanta to a 30-28 win over Seattle in the 2012 NFC divisional on a drive that started with 25 seconds left. The only other instance was Mark Sanchez leading the Jets to a 17-16 win in Indianapolis in the 2010 AFC wild card on a drive that started with 45 seconds left. So this was actually the first time in over three decades that a tie was broken on a drive that started in the final minute of regulation.
Green Bay will now head to Atlanta in an NFC Championship Game where defense will certainly be optional. Meanwhile, Dallas ends another season as a disappointing No. 1 seed, but Prescott and Elliott should have many more big games to come, and they played very well in their playoff debut. There is no shame in losing a game this way.
Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind
Steelers at Chiefs: 3's and 2's
When Le'Veon Bell said he was changing the game like Steph Curry has in the NBA, did he mean the Steelers would start only going for three every drive? Six field goals by Chris Boswell, an NFL playoff record, were all the offense could muster in Kansas City, and yet that was fittingly enough to still beat an Alex Smith-led offense that only looked good on its first and final drives. Kansas City played some of the ultimate bend-but-don't-break defense as Pittsburgh gained at least 28 yards and moved inside the Kansas City 40 on eight of its first nine drives, but still only scored 18 points.
What the Chiefs failed to do was get considerable pressure on Ben Roethlisberger, who had a fairly clean night, but lived up to his recent "Road Ben" reputation for not throwing touchdowns away from Heinz Field. The Chiefs also could not get the game-changing turnovers they got more than anyone else in the regular season, save for a tipped red-zone pick by Eric Berry. Marcus Peters broke up a touchdown to Antonio Brown, but otherwise, Kansas City's stars had a quiet night. Well, stud pass-rusher Justin Houston was beat for a 52-yard gain when he was left covering Brown deep, but more on that later.
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The same was true for an offense that went pass-happy behind Smith. Tyreek Hill only had seven touches for 45 yards on offense, and was contained on kickoffs, averaging 18.0 yards on four returns. All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce statistically goes down with a solid night: he had five catches for 77 yards, including four of the Chiefs' five longest gains, but he had a terrible drop late in the third quarter and took a ridiculous 15-yard penalty for knocking over Ross Cockrell after the whistle. The Chiefs were able to overcome a third-and-20 situation caused by Kelce after Smith actually threw a 20-yard pass -- neutral ALEX when we least expected it -- to Jeremy Maclin, but the veteran wideout only had one other catch on the night.
Jesse James may have been the best tight end on the field on Sunday night, and his fifth catch gave him 83 yards and set up Boswell's record-setting sixth field goal in a playoff game. Down 18-10 with 9:49 left, Smith put together one of the all-time playoff drives that few will remember outside of the part that failed. The Chiefs had to overcome a second-and-25, a third-and-9, and two fourth-down conversions to complete the 75-yard march. After Spencer Ware's 1-yard touchdown run, the Chiefs looked to have an easy game-tying two-point conversion pass, but the celebration was premature as left tackle Eric Fisher was rightfully penalized for holding on his block of James Harrison. The call was pretty much textbook, but there is no doubt that we see such contact allowed at times by officials. The part that really hurts if you're a Chiefs fan is the needlessness of this hold, because Harrison was never going to get to Smith on the play.
With the ball now spotted at the 12, Kansas City still had to go for two, but Smith's pass for Maclin was defensed in the end zone. Since that drive consumed 7:06 and a timeout, the Chiefs were only down to one timeout and 2:43 on the clock. I think Andy Reid needed to go onside kick here just to give his team an extra chance, no matter how unlikely, at getting the ball back. Field position was really irrelevant here, since one first down could have won the game for Pittsburgh. The Chiefs kicked deep, and the Steelers started at their own 5.
Now Bell was great on the night with 30 carries for 170 yards, but it was unlikely that he was going to just carry the offense to victory with obvious run calls in this spot. The last thing the Steelers could do was run three times, punt and put the defense in danger of allowing a field goal for a 19-18 loss. The Steelers needed to be aggressive, and while Roethlisberger was not great on the night, he was given two opportunities to pass the team into victory. His short completion on second down set up a huge third-and-3 at the two-minute warning.
With Brown and James accounting for more than 85 percent of Pittsburgh's receiving on the night, it was hard to believe that the Chiefs would let Brown get a free release in zone coverage to run across the field so that Roethlisberger could find him for a dagger 7-yard gain to end the game. When Houston is not one of the players rushing Roethlisberger on a third-and-season play, and he is instead in pass coverage with Brown again, something is very rotten with that defensive strategy.
Kansas City had one of its best seasons since the merger, but for all the good wins the team had, the fact is the Chiefs lost three of their last five home games, and did not allow 20 points in any of those losses. Only three other playoff teams in NFL history lost three home games in which they did not allow 20 points -- the 1980 Browns, 2001 Jets, and 2010 Jets. In the last six seasons, road teams were 3-23 in the playoffs when scoring fewer than 20 points, but the Steelers have an 18-16 road playoff win for the second year in a row after getting one in Cincinnati last season.
Texans at Patriots: Requiem for a Tall Quarterback
If the 16-point underdog Texans were to pull off the NFL's biggest upset since the merger, then they were going to have to avoid some of the usual pitfalls that plague teams in New England. A quick start would have been good, but Houston fell behind 14-3 in the first quarter after Dion Lewis scored on a 98-yard kick return touchdown against the league's 32nd-ranked special teams unit. The Patriots are 103-1 at home since 2001 when leading by at least eight points at any time in the game. Shortening the game also would have been a preferred underdog strategy. However, this game featured 29 offensive drives and Houston was just 3-of-16 on third down, with zero fourth-down attempts from coach Bill O'Brien. Finally, the Texans were going to need takeaways, and despite getting three that set the offense up inside the New England 35 each time, Houston only turned one of those opportunities into a touchdown. Settling for field goals is a surefire way to lose in New England.
For you see, despite a sloppy performance from the Patriots, the Texans were constantly dragged down by the anchor known as quarterback Brock Osweiler, the $72 Million Man. When Osweiler was benched for Tom Savage in Week 16, the thought was that Savage would remain the quarterback after he recovered from a concussion this past week. However, #PLAYOFFWINZ tend to do crazy things to the minds of decision-makers, and since Osweiler was not abhorrently dreadful against Oakland in the wild-card round, he remained the starter in New England while Savage was the backup again.
Would the game have been any different with Savage at quarterback? That is hard to say, but it would have been difficult for him to do worse than 181 yards on 43 dropbacks with three interceptions. When Osweiler misfired, he usually missed in embarrassing fashion against a New England defense that has taken advantage of one of the softest quarterback schedules any contender has ever seen (more on that later this week).
Despite the final score, the Patriots really struggled to put Houston away. Even at 24-13, this game did not feel quite over, even though history suggested it was. For all of his bad plays on the night, Osweiler did deliver one beautiful pass, only to see rookie Will Fuller live down to his reputation and drop a perfect 45-yard touchdown bomb in the end zone on a third-and-8 with 2:10 left in the third quarter. Tom Brady answered with one of his worst plays of the night, as he threw his second interception, matching his two-pick total from his 12-game regular season. Every team in NFL history for which we have stats for has thrown at least four interceptions in a season (including playoffs). While the 2016 season had the lowest interception rate ever (2.3 percent), the Patriots did not in fact break the game by figuring out how to not throw picks. This was also a testament to how well Houston's defense attacked Brady and frustrated this offense. Brady was sacked twice and hit eight more times.
Houston was back in business at the New England 34 after Brady's second pick, but soon faced a big third-and-4 as the game moved to the fourth quarter. Fourth-quarter comebacks almost never materialize in New England. Since 2001, the Patriots are 51-2 at home when defending a one-score lead in the fourth quarter.
Houston's next two plays from scrimmage sum up the hopelessness behind this rally attempt. On third-and-4, Houston sent three receivers deep for the end zone, while only one receiver was close to the sticks. Osweiler has many weaknesses, but the deep throws have especially plagued him going back to his time in Denver last season. A deep shot for tight end Ryan Griffin was especially hard to justify, and after a terrible throw, the Texans settled for another 46-yard field goal from Nick Novak with 14:51 left.
After the defense forced a punt, we had a legitimate fourth-quarter comeback opportunity, even if it involved Osweiler needing to lead an 89-yard touchdown drive with a two-point conversion just to tie the game. This is what the 2016 postseason is giving us in terms of drama. Of course, the drama ended immediately as Osweiler's first pass was badly overthrown to a wide-open DeAndre Hopkins, and Logan Ryan returned the pick to the Houston 6. Osweiler had a huge window to throw to, but he was late and very high with the throw, which was tipped into a pick.
Huge window for Osweiler and he's as late and high as can be on the throw. INT. Game over. pic.twitter.com/MAH6ekvznU
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) January 15, 2017
Two plays later, Lewis was in the end zone for his third score of the night and the Patriots never felt threatened again. The only remaining drama was the point spread, and Osweiler made Vegas happy with his final interception in scoring territory to secure the 34-16 win for the Patriots -- about the ugliest 18-point playoff win a team could ever have.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 72
Game-winning drives: 85
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 155/264 (58.7 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 37 (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.