Clutch Encounters: Week 1

Clutch Encounters: Week 1
Clutch Encounters: Week 1
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Scott Kacsmar

Meaningful NFL games are back, but quite a few teams still looked to be in preseason mode on a sluggish Sunday. After Kansas City's stunning start in New England on Thursday, we expected a weekend of surprises, but got a lot of duds instead. Only four of Sunday's contests featured a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity. We usually have double that amount. Go figure, only the Lions -- one year after setting the NFL record with eight fourth-quarter comebacks -- were successful on Sunday, even winning by 12 points. One of the other games with a dramatic swing in win probability was Eagles-Redskins, and even that was decided by 13 points in the end.

Some games just missed the cut and were closer than the final score indicates. For instance, Pittsburgh needed a miraculous 38-yard catch from Antonio Brown to hold off Cleveland from getting an opportunity in the final two minutes of a 21-18 game. Pittsburgh can also thank Cleveland head coach Hue Jackson for using his last two timeouts to unsuccessfully challenge that play. I would personally like to thank the Buffalo Bills for immediately extending their 14-12 lead to a 21-12 final early in the fourth quarter, which proved to be insurmountable for the Josh McCown-led Jets. It also helped when Todd Bowles chose to punt on fourth-and-8 from his own 44 with 4:00 to play. That all but ensured his team would need to recover an onside kick for an improbable comeback.

If Jets-Bills was the AFC's Week 1 Toilet Bowl, then Raiders-Titans was the marquee matchup. However, despite a 16-13 score going into the fourth quarter, Oakland finished strong in the final 15 minutes again. With Oakland leading 23-16 with 4:41 left, Marshawn Lynch did what one of his main responsibilities should be: bleed the clock in the four-minute offense. Eight straight runs from Lynch and Jalen Richard led to another field goal to give the Raiders a 26-16 victory.

If you wanted to see some actual down-to-the-final-minute drama in Week 1, you had to watch the Falcons nearly blow another double-digit fourth-quarter lead, this time in Chicago. Fortunately for Dan Quinn's crew, someone made a game-clinching play this time. Last season, which saw the Falcons blow five fourth-quarter leads (one more spectacularly than the others), is history. The Chargers closed the week in dramatic fashion as well, but as we have come to expect, that just meant they found another way to lose spectacularly. Some things apparently never change.

This is a new season in other ways, and I am happy to announce that we will feature new Game Winning Chance (GWC) data this season courtesy of EdjFootball. Their data will help us quantify just how much win probability a team's game-winning drive added to their cause, and we will look at what the numbers say for big strategic decisions that come up during the season. We already featured some of EdjFootball's GWC stats in Football Outsiders Almanac 2017, primarily in the Detroit chapter, and it is probably not that surprising that we are starting with another Lions comeback win from Week 1.

Game of the Week

Arizona Cardinals 23 at Detroit Lions 35

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 2 (17-15)
Game Winning Chance Before: 44.0 percent
Game Winning Chance After: 67.5 percent
Win Probability Added: 23.5 percent
Head Coach: Jim Caldwell (24-27 at 4QC and 27-27 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Matthew Stafford (26-35 at 4QC and 29-35 overall 4QC/GWD record)

This game could have been dated 2016 and we wouldn't have known the difference. The Lions started slowly, falling behind 10-0 and 17-9 before a 26-0 run. They did little on the ground, including 15 carries for 30 yards in Ameer Abdullah's return, but finished strong behind Matthew Stafford's short-passing attack (he threw for four touchdowns). The defense got a timely takeaway to seal another fourth-quarter comeback win. The Cardinals just looked inferior in every way to their dominant 2015 form, starting with Carson Palmer's throwing velocity, the decline of the offensive line, and a defense that failed to close the game again. Aside from David Johnson getting shut down on the ground (11 carries for 23 yards), this was very much a 2016 Cardinals game. It was winnable, but the team was just not good enough in all phases.

In Football Outsiders Almanac 2016, I wrote how Bruce Arians had this incredible run of late-game success since 2012 that was unlikely to continue as favorably. Before 2016, Arians was 19-8 (.704) in games where his team had an opportunity for a game-winning drive. No other active head coach was above .500. Since 2016, Arians' Cardinals are 3-6-1 (.350) in such games. From 2012-2015, Arians was 31-1 (.969) when defending a one-score lead in the fourth quarter or overtime. Since 2016, the Cardinals are 4-3-1 (.563) in such games, a percentage below the league average (about .661).

How did this one turn? A fumble by Johnson late in the third quarter helped the Lions to a 10-yard touchdown drive to get closer at 17-15. In the fourth quarter, Stafford caught fire and hit his final seven passes. He threw a 10-yard touchdown to rookie Kenny Golladay, who beat Justin Bethel in the end zone. Palmer tried to respond without Johnson, but an offensive pass interference penalty brought up third-and-18. Palmer was nearly intercepted by Darius Slay after forcing the ball deep to Larry Fitzgerald. The Cardinals punted, and five plays later, Golladay was back to beating Bethel for a diving 45-yard touchdown. Safety Antoine Bethea was also too slow to come over in time.

Down 28-17 with 4:13 left, Arizona's GWC was already down to a bleak 1.8 percent. Palmer's hurried pass for Andre Ellington was off target and deflected to the hands of safety Miles Killebrew for a 35-yard return touchdown, Detroit's third touchdown in a little more than five minutes. Palmer added a 1-yard touchdown pass to J.J. Nelson in garbage time, but the damage had been done.

Stafford's 26th fourth-quarter comeback win gives him the most in NFL history through a quarterback's first 10 seasons. He just completed the first game of his ninth season, and missed 19 games to injury in his first two years. The record through someone's first 11 seasons is 28 comebacks by Peyton Manning (1998-2008), so there is something to shoot for with the way Detroit plays these days. Stafford gets criticized at times for needing so many comebacks in the first place, but this was the eighth time he led a game-winning drive in a game where he threw at least four touchdown passes. That ties Dan Marino for the most such games in NFL history.

Most Games with 4+ TD Passes and Game-Winning Drive
Rk Player Total GWDs GWD w/4+ TD passes Pct.
1 Matthew Stafford 29 8 27.6%
Dan Marino 51 8 15.7%
3 Peyton Manning 56 6 10.7%
4 Johnny Unitas 40 5 12.5%
Dan Fouts 26 5 19.2%
6 Tommy Kramer 20 4 20.0%
Brett Favre 45 4 8.9%
Jay Cutler 25 4 16.0%

For the Cardinals, did any team have a worse Week 1? They lost the lead here and lost Johnson for potentially a few months, and the offense does not look ready to compensate for such a big loss. It was only one week, but Arizona looks to be our most precarious playoff projection. For the Lions, it was another exciting comeback win, but the team looks to face some rather stiff competition from the Vikings and Packers again this year in the NFC North.

Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind

Seahawks at Packers: The Prestige

Seattle and Green Bay have been two of the league's best teams in recent years, making this an important matchup every time it takes place. We did not know much yet about the Seahawks in Week 3 of 2012 when they took on Green Bay on a Monday night, but the "Fail Mary" ending of that game has turned this into a rivalry with little love lost. The Seahawks won the 2014 season opener in dominant fashion, which led to a head-to-head tie-breaker for home-field advantage in the playoffs. That set up another instant classic in the NFC Championship Game, a wild comeback by the Seahawks that is still referenced often today. But since 2015, the venue has shifted to Lambeau Field as part of an odd NFL scheduling quirk where one team has played host to another for three consecutive seasons. The Packers have been able to win every home meeting, meaning the home team is 6-0 when these teams have played since 2012.

[ad placeholder 3]

So Sunday's matchup was very important even if it was just Week 1, because both teams have Super Bowl aspirations again. The game also showed the impact that home-field advantage can have in officiating. If this game was in Seattle, do you really think the early pick-six thrown by Aaron Rodgers would have been negated by such a soft flag for an illegal block in the back, or that the play would have led to an ejection for Jeremy Lane for a punch that wasn't even thrown? That was a huge moment that Seattle did not take advantage of, instead taking a 3-0 lead into the third quarter in an offensively-challenged game.

While the mega-talented Seattle defense was generating good pressure on Aaron Rodgers, Seattle's bugaboo that will follow it to every venue this year is its bottom-feeding offensive line. The game changed entirely when new left guard Luke Joeckel was beat inside by Mike Daniels, who stripped Wilson of the ball on third-and-18. When teams run really safe draw or screen plays deep in their own end on third-and-long, we sometimes groan, but this might have been a logical situation to do so given the state of Seattle's offensive line. The Packers took over at the Seattle 6 and were in the end zone with Ty Montgomery one play later to take a 7-3 lead in the third quarter.

Seattle trailed for the remainder of the game and the offense never really got on track. Meanwhile, Rodgers started warming up and controlling the pace, catching the Seahawks in numerous offsides or 12-men-on-the-field situations. With Seattle trailing 14-6 to start the fourth quarter, Jimmy Graham had a really bad drop on third-and-3 that would have moved the ball inside Green Bay's 40.

The teams traded field goals, giving Green Bay a 17-9 lead with 6:17 left and Seattle having all three of its timeouts to use. That is a lot of time to burn against a top defense, but you have to respect Green Bay's aggressive approach. Five times Rodgers threw the ball on second down, and he converted each of his last four opportunities to put the Seahawks away. Despite some gimpy-ness on the drive, he also had a key third-down scramble for another first down with 2:59 left. Following that play, Rodgers threw an interception on first down, but he knew he had another free play (Michael Bennett was offside), so there was no harm done. The eight seconds he burned in the process was also helpful in this situation. Seattle's last hope was stopping a second-and-6, but Rodgers found Martellus Bennett for 26 yards, and the new tight end was wise enough to go down in bounds, leading to the three kneels for victory finish after the two-minute warning.

The Packers managed to possess the ball for 11:54 in the fourth quarter and 39:13 for the game. I am not a fan of time of possession, but in Week 1, that can be significant when players aren't fully conditioned to get through a whole game since so many starters do so little in the preseason anymore. Seattle's defense clearly looked tired in the second half after pitching a first-half shutout. Prior to Sunday, the Packers had only been shut out at home in the first half once in Rodgers' career (Week 17 vs. 2010 Bears).

That win led to the last Super Bowl run for the Packers. With a win in Atlanta next Sunday night, the Packers can quickly establish themselves as the favorite in the NFC this year. Make of that what you will in mid-September.

Falcons at Bears: From the 2016 Archives

This game could have been pulled right out of the 2016 archives for both teams. The Falcons had Matt Ryan operating his offense at an MVP-level performance, producing 23 points on eight drives. It may not have been flawless, since the Falcons settled for three field goals and went three-and-out three times, but 46.8 yards per drive and 2.88 points per drive are league-leading averages. In fact, Atlanta's offense led 2016 with 40.5 yards per drive and 3.06 points per drive.

Meanwhile, Chicago was again outmatched, but still scrappy enough with "(John) Fox Ball" to keep the game close. The 2016 Bears were the most injured team (155.1 adjusted games lost) in our database going back to 2000. They even entered this game without starting guard Kyle Long and starting cornerback Prince Amukamara, and lost wideout Kevin White (scapula) to another season-ending injury. This comes on the heels of losing Cameron Meredith in the preseason. With limited receiving targets, Mike Glennon had 50 passing yards through three quarters, and that does not account for the three sacks he also took to that point.

However, there was Glennon in the fourth quarter, staring down a two-score deficit and passing for 163 yards in another close call for an Atlanta defense that has done this a bit too frequently under head coach Dan Quinn. It really did not look like things would come to this, especially after Ryan completed an 88-yard touchdown pass to tight end Austin Hooper to put the Falcons up 20-10 with 11:55 left. The awkward lean in Ryan's motion should make this a mainstay in any of his highlight packages (as well as the stiff-arm for Hooper).

But the Bears were far from finished. Glennon completed a 75-yard drive with a 19-yard touchdown pass to breakout rookie running back Tarik Cohen. After Jordan Howard finished second in rushing as a fifth-round pick last year, the Bears may be at it again with Cohen in the fourth round. He finished with 113 yards on 13 touches, including a 46-yard run that helped him outrush Howard on the day (66 to 52 yards). This could be like when Fox had DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart together in Carolina. It could also be a Week 1 fluke a la Frisman Jackson (2005), but the Bears just may have something here. When they don't have many quality wide receivers, getting Cohen on the field more may become a necessity.

The lack of receiver depth ultimately did prove costly to the Bears. Atlanta added a field goal to take a 23-17 lead after a 40-yard effort from Hooper moved the ball into scoring range. Glennon had 3:18 and two timeouts left to lead an 82-yard drive that would earn him instant clout with Bears fans and add to Atlanta's 2017 misery.

Glennon mostly stuck to his backs in the flats and attacked the middle of the field just short of 10 yards to move the drive into Atlanta territory. A big conversion to Josh Bellamy on fourth-and-3 for 14 yards had the Bears thinking upset just 28 yards away from the end zone. Tight end Zach Miller added two more catches to give the Bears a first-and-goal from the Atlanta 5. With only 21 seconds and no timeouts left, the Bears really had to be thinking about throws into the end zone here. The first-down pass to Bellamy was the best shot, but similar to last year in a failed comeback against the Titans, Bellamy couldn't make the catch in the end zone.

You can change your jersey number, but you can't change your hands. On second down, Howard had an easy catch to make at the goal line, but took his eyes off the ball as he was anticipating contact to get into the end zone. That was another pretty solid opportunity for the go-ahead touchdown missed.

After an incompletion to Miller on third down, the Bears were down to one play. Right tackle Bobby Massie was beat by linebacker Brooks Reed, who brought Glennon down for the game-clinching sack. Even without the sack, Glennon didn't seem to have an attractive receiving option available in the end zone. He was going to have to really force something, or hold the ball and create. But the offensive line left him no time to create.

With "28-3" in the rearview mirror and Aaron Rodgers on his way to town, the Falcons had to have this one.

Eagles at Redskins: Definitely Didn't Like That

Some more Sunday afternoons like the one Kirk Cousins had and it will be really hard for a team to justify making him the next highest-paid player in NFL history. The last time we saw Cousins, he threw a huge interception against the Giants in Week 17 when Washington trailed 13-10. The Redskins would have made the playoffs with a victory, so many feel Cousins is responsible for keeping the team out at 8-7-1. However, there were some more improbable events that went against Washington a year ago, such as Dustin Hopkins missing a 34-yard field goal in overtime in what ended as a tie in London against the Bengals. Also, it was far more reasonable for the Washington defense to defend a 75-yard field in Detroit -- except it failed in the final 65 seconds -- than it was for Cousins to lead a 75-yard touchdown march against a tough Giants defense.

But on Sunday, Cousins was the main culprit in a loss that was far more winnable than the 30-17 final suggests. Leading a new-look offense without DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, Cousins struggled to find a rhythm with Terrelle Pryor and Jamison Crowder. Situational football was difficult against this Eagles offense -- Cousins was 3-of-11 on third down, failed to score a touchdown on two red zone opportunities, and turned the ball over three times.

Still, in a game with wild swings, the Redskins only trailed 19-17 early in the fourth quarter. Pryor had just taken a 28-yard gain to put the offense inside the red zone, but Cousins soon faced a third-and-6 at the Philadelphia 14. The Eagles weren't too shy about showing an all-out blitz, and actually brought seven rushers at Cousins. The Redskins had a perfect play ready with a wide open Crowder running a slant, but the incoming pressure caused Cousins to panic and badly loft a ball over Crowder to Jalen Mills for a huge interception.

You don't need a $30 million quarterback to make that play, but you need someone able to handle the pressure and still deliver a good throw. Crowder had an easy first down at the very least, and the interception cost the Redskins a chance at a go-ahead field goal as well.

The next time Cousins touched the ball, Washington was buried in field position back at the 1-yard line. The offense went three-and-out, the Eagles took advantage of the field position with a field goal to make it 22-17, and Cousins was down to a final drive with 1:59 and two timeouts left.

The chance for redemption was short-lived. On the second play of the drive, right tackle Morgan Moses was beat by Brandon Graham, who knocked the ball away from Cousins. Fletcher Cox scooped up the ball and returned it 20 yards for a game-clinching touchdown with 1:29 left.

I want to like Cousins as a franchise quarterback. He has ranked in the top six in DVOA in back-to-back years, almost making the playoffs both times despite little help from his running game or defense. Even in this game, Cousins tied Rob Kelley for the team lead with 30 rushing yards. Cousins had some of the more impressive numbers when we looked at DVOA by routes. He seems to offer up one great locker room celebration per season.

However, he also consistently leaves a lot of plays on the field. When you follow up last season's bad finish with this game against another NFC East rival, it makes it really hard to be all in on giving this quarterback an enormous contract. At least with Derek Carr and Matthew Stafford, you can point to more success in these situations. Carr's fourth-quarter comeback opportunity record is 12-15 (.444) and Stafford's is 26-35 (.426). Cousins is only 6-14-1 (.310) so far.

Those records are closer than they look due to sample sizes. But don't doubt for a second that the perception of Cousins would be much brighter had he thrown game-winning touchdowns against the Giants and Eagles instead of memorable interceptions in losses.

Reality would also like that.

Chargers at Broncos: So This Is the New Year?

All it took was one game for the San Diego Los Angeles Chargers to start a fresh BINGO card of crazy losses. We'll call this one "Icing the Korean Kicker," but poor Younghoe Koo had no idea what kind of voodoo he was messing with when it comes to pulling out games in the clutch for this franchise.

New coach Anthony Lynn blew through all of his timeouts before the six-minute mark in the first half and did not get aggressive late in the contest, and the offense looked unorganized with the game on the line. It was almost like Mike McCoy never left the Chargers. In fact, McCoy was in the building, but calling the offensive shots for Denver. For nearly the first 50 minutes, Denver did little wrong in head coach Vance Joseph's debut. The offense was productive behind Trevor Siemian and the defense was stifling Philip Rivers again. The Broncos led 24-7 and it looked like Week 1 was ending with another dud.

[ad placeholder 4]

But it wouldn't be very Chargers-like to lose in such boring fashion. This team has to tease you a bit first before the suffering starts. The Broncos tried a bubble screen on third-and-10, and the Chargers were all over that to the point where a flag probably needed to be thrown. Instead, Adrian Phillips came away with a big interception and Rivers was able to lead a 43-yard touchdown drive, finding Keenan Allen for a score in the receiver's return from a torn ACL. No big deal, right? The "No-Fly Zone" isn't going to blow a 17-point lead at home, right? That's what happens to the Chargers; not the other way around.

Enter Jamaal Charles, who quickly soured his Denver debut with a big fumble two plays into the next drive. The Chargers were at the Denver 38, and Rivers immediately took advantage with a 38-yard bomb to Travis Benjamin in the end zone. The Chargers did not have any other pass play gain 15-plus yards on the night. Just like that, it was a 24-21 game with 7:00 left. Siemian only needed one 44-yard pass to get the Broncos right back into the red zone, but the Denver offensive line continued to show some struggles. Back-to-back sacks pushed the Broncos back to the 32, forcing Brandon McManus into a 50-yard field goal attempt. He was wide right with 4:07 left.

The Chargers had no reason to rush with plenty of time in a 24-21 game, but really botched their third-and-10 play: a dreadful bubble screen call. It was so disorganized that Antonio Gates actually tried to catch the ball intended for Benjamin instead of blocking the defender (Brandon Marshall) who ultimately made the tackle for a 1-yard loss. That play had little shot of converting, wasted precious seconds of time, and really made a fourth-and-11 decision too difficult from the team's own 49. I have to agree with the decision to punt, but I would have never tried a screen there to be in that situation. Both offenses had a very regrettable bubble screen on third-and-10 in this quarter.

The Chargers saved their final timeout thanks to Siemian throwing a third-down pass away instead of staying in bounds to run clock. Fortunately for Denver, the punt took nine seconds to get to the two-minute warning, or else Siemian's gaffe could have saved the Chargers two clock stoppages to use on offense.

Given the way the offense performed on its final drive, the Chargers needed all the time they could get. Rivers abandoned his vertical approach for more safe passes, but through some short gains and Denver's gang-tackling of Melvin Gordon, the Chargers used 97 seconds and their final timeout just to move the ball 11 yards. The Chargers could have easily called timeout at the 1:02 mark to set up an important fourth-and-1 play, but waffled until finally deciding to call the timeout with 42 seconds left, wasting 20 seconds in the process. Only a 17-yard defensive pass interference penalty on Bradley Roby left some hope in this comeback.

Rivers completed one more short pass to Allen, who got out of bounds. Koo came out for a 44-yard field goal to force overtime. He nailed the kick, but Joseph did the sneaky/sucky coaching thing of icing the kicker by calling timeout at the last possible moment to negate the make. This was now Koo's first official field goal attempt in his NFL career, and it is likely one he'll never forget.

Shelby Harris got the block, and for the second year in a row, the Broncos got a favorable outcome on a game-deciding kick to end Week 1. Icing the kicker will be back shortly thanks to this one, but this was really "ice the blocking." Hopefully Koo will shrug it off and make his next real kick, provided it isn't negated or blocked too.

They can move the team from San Diego to Los Angeles, but the Chargers are still just only good enough to lose a close game like this.

Season Summary

Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 2
Game-winning drives: 2
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 6/15 (40.0 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 2

Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro Football Reference. Screen caps come from NFL Game Pass. Game Winning Chance (win probability) data is from EdjFootball.


14 comments, Last at 14 Sep 2017, 9:42pm

1 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 1

"The Broncos tried a bubble screen on third-and-10, and the Chargers were all over that to the point where a flag probably needed to be thrown."

When I saw that play I wondered if pass interference applies when the ball is thrown to a receiver behind the line of scrimmage. The defender had basically completed the tackle before the ball got to the receiver so the only explanation that made sense to me was that the rules for contact with a receiver are different when they are behind the line of scrimmage versus downfield.

2 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 1

"Note 4: There can be no pass interference at or behind the line of scrimmage, but defensive actions such as tackling a receiver can still result in a 5-yard penalty for defensive holding, if accepted."

That was probably applicable there.

3 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 1

So no tingles at all with Siemian? Even when he juked Bosa? That had to make you feel a little bit special.

9 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 1

If only Steve Bono was as tingles-inducing as BONO Bono. Or even Sonny Bono. Though I imagine Steve has Chaz Bono beat. In fact, I'd rank it like this:

Bono >>>>> Sonny Bono >> Steve Bono >>> Trevor Siemian > Chaz Bono

Where each ">" is a marginal tingle.

4 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 1

The Seahawks did not actually win a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Packers in 2014. The Cowboys were also involved in the tie, and the Seahawks claimed it based on conference record.

6 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 1

"On the second play of the drive, right tackle Morgan Moses was beat by Brandon Graham, who knocked the ball away from Cousins. Fletcher Cox scooped up the ball and returned it 20 yards for a game-clinching touchdown with 1:29 left."

That was a forward pass. The officials made a horrible, horrible call. Graham did not "knock the ball away from Cousins". The ball war airborne before he touched it.

I mean, sure, the Redskins would probably have lost anyway. But there's no reason to paper over bad officiating.

8 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 1

That was one of the most egregious missed calls I've ever seen.

I seriously thought I needed to get my eyes checked as maybe they were deceiving me. Cousins so obviously released the ball forward. It was even a spiral for a second. And then batted back by Cox. this was SO OBVIOUS.

10 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 1

In defense of Josh Bellamy: 1) that was a tough catch; 2) as your gif clearly shows, he was held coming out of his break, otherwise he gets to that ball much more within his catch radius. It was a good play by the Falcons CB (Alford), because it wasn't egregious enough to draw a for-sure call, and even if it does get called it's effectively a 3-yard penalty with no change in number of plays the Bears have left.

12 Howard, too

The second-down throw was a *good* drop by Howard; he'd have gotten stuffed at the 1 in-bounds and the game would have ended had he caught that.

Bad play call / route running / throw decision / throw placement (wherever it is that the fault lies) to have a ball go to an unmoving receiver outside the endzone in that situation. But a good drop to keep the game alive.

14 Re: Clutch Encounters: Week 1

Thank you, Scott, for crowning the Packers champs based on a ref-assisted win, while proclaiming that 4th quarter comebacks against a tough defense count for nothing.