Clutch Encounters: Wild Card
by Scott Kacsmar
Some years really put the "wild" in "wild-card weekend," and this one did that right away with Tennessee's 18-point comeback in Kansas City. Three of the games featured a comeback opportunity; the one that did not was, surprisingly, Falcons-Rams on Saturday night.
Atlanta played things close to the vest all year, but took an early 13-0 lead on the road and held on for a wire-to-wire 26-13 win. Things might have gotten interesting in a 19-13 game before a little screen pass to Mohamed Sanu picked up 52 yards. On a field that looked terrible (and it wasn't due to weather) and saw players slipping all night, Matt Ryan delivered a floater to Julio Jones for a touchdown to take a 26-13 lead with 5:48 left. Atlanta's baffling decision to not go for two would be drawing way more criticism if the Rams could have found the end zone one more time. But tight end Tyler Higbee dropped a touchdown in the end zone from Jared Goff, and the Rams turned the ball over on downs twice in the final minutes.
All the buzz for the Rams this year behind rookie coach Sean McVay led to a quick playoff exit at home, and an offensive dud for its young stars. That's really not unique in NFL history for a young team driven by offensive players. Just look at where the Falcons started in the Ryan era with Roddy White, Michael Turner, and Tony Gonzalez. Ryan once had the label of "can't win a playoff game" after starting 0-3 in the postseason. Flash forward to now and he's a road win in Philadelphia next week away from leading Atlanta to a third NFC Championship Game in the franchise's last three postseason appearances.
The playoffs are where narratives are born, but we shouldn't let them fester in light of new developments. Unfortunately, in the case of Kansas City, another loss on the Indian burial ground known as Arrowhead Stadium reaffirms a sad, old narrative.
Game of the Week
Tennessee Titans 22 at Kansas City Chiefs 21
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 11 (21-10)
Game Winning Chance Before: 18.6 percent
Game Winning Chance After: 50.0 percent
Win Probability Added: 31.4 percent
Head Coach: Mike Mularkey (10-28 at 4QC and 11-29 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Marcus Mariota (8-14 at 4QC and 9-14 overall 4QC/GWD record)
In the NFL, there are regular-season losses, playoff losses, and Kansas City home playoff losses. The Chiefs extended their unfathomable NFL record with a sixth-straight playoff loss at home, and this may have been the worst one yet. It's one thing to lose on a bad kicking night in 1995 to the Colts. If we're being honest, the 1997 Broncos and 2010 Ravens were better teams anyway. There's no shame in losing to Peyton Manning's Colts in their prime, or Pittsburgh's talented offense last year, though the Chiefs probably could have at least forced one punt in 2003 or managed to not get outscored by six field goals in 2016.
But how do you blow a 21-3 halftime lead at home to a Tennessee team that didn't even look like it belonged on the same field? When I wrote the preview for this game, I wanted to get the point across that the Chiefs were the superior team and should win, but the Titans had a habit of making things close in the end. At 21-3, it did not like this one would get to that point, but the seeds of this comeback were planted late in the first half.
This one should go down as "The Forward Progress Game," as we need to bring back that habit of giving playoff games nicknames. Right before the two-minute warning in the first half, Derrick Johnson laid a bone-crunching sack on Marcus Mariota, who clearly fumbled on the play. Justin Houston picked up the ball and had the potential to return it for a touchdown to give the Chiefs a 21-0 lead. However, the play was already blown dead for "forward progress" being stopped on the sack. That's an absurd call on many levels, especially on a sack that was such an obliteration of the quarterback. If there's any good news about this botched call, it was the final straw for official Jeff Triplette's career, because he has reportedly decided to retire from the NFL.
That led to a field goal for the Titans, and any points are big in a game that was decided 22-21. The Chiefs then lost superstar Travis Kelce to a concussion, which also had a huge impact on the game. Still, it was 21-3 at halftime. The Chiefs had numerous opportunities to close this game out in the second half. Mariota settled down and scrambled for 11 yards on a big third-and-9 to get a long drive going. He capped off that drive with a most fortunate play. Keep in mind that the game's major botched call and key in-game injury had already gone against the Chiefs. Now the luckiest bounce did as well when Mariota scrambled and threw a pass with nearly his whole body beyond the line of scrimmage, and Darrelle Revis deflected his pass right back to him for a touchdown.
Mariota really did throw a touchdown to himself, in the playoffs pic.twitter.com/hv1B0midRg
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) January 6, 2018
Mariota's unexpected recovery and dive for the score was reminiscent of Andrew Luck's Superman leap for a touchdown in the 2013 AFC wild-card round, which was a game where the Chiefs blew a 38-10 lead in Indianapolis. Andy Reid is going to take some deserving credit for how these things continue to happen for his team in the playoffs, but some of this stuff is really out of anyone's control. It's just bad luck.
The Chiefs had some good fortune when the Titans muffed a punt, but Harrison Butker then missed a 48-yard field goal off the left upright. The Titans were able to respond with a 35-yard touchdown run by Derrick Henry, who warmed up as the game went on. At 21-16 with 14:08 left to play, I don't think it was 100 percent necessary for the Titans to go for a two-point conversion, but I like the call. Tennessee just wasn't able to convert.
The Chiefs needed to get a drive going, but Orson Charles, one of Kelce's backups, dropped a third-and-2 pass that was a good throw from Alex Smith, who played a great first half with Kelce available.
Mariota continued his third-down mastery in the half with three conversions. That led to a 22-yard touchdown pass to Eric Decker, who overcame an ugly third-down drop earlier in the game when the Titans looked overwhelmed by the moment. Suddenly they had the lead, and a two-point conversion would have been big with the score at 22-21. Mariota was sacked and forward progress was again called to prevent a fumble and return score, but this one was much more reasonable than the first call.
With 5:58 left, Smith quickly found the season on the line and the Chiefs were putting together a slow-paced drive, only needing a field goal to take the lead. On a third-and-9, Smith tried to scramble for anything he could, but was officially taken down for a zero-yard sack. Smith did run into some trouble with trying to improvise on third down throughout this game. The Chiefs were really in a position where they had to go for it on fourth-and-9 at the Tennessee 44 with 2:15 left.
On the biggest play of their season, the Chiefs were inexplicably out of sorts. The snap was premature, which threw off the timing of the play. Tight end Demetrius Harris was stuck in his stance for so long that he could never be a factor on the play. Smith went deep for Albert Wilson, and while the ball was on the receiver's fingertips, it would have been a really difficult catch to finish with contact coming. That's just another spot where Kelce was sorely missed.
The Titans turned to Henry to put the game away. After the two-minute warning, Henry was ruled to have fumbled, which was returned by Johnson for an incredible touchdown. However, this is why we have replay even if it can be so frustrating at times. Henry was clearly down and there was no turnover. Still, it's amazing how much fumble luck the Titans had in this game. If there was a 50/50 call, it seemed to always go their way, which is key in a major comeback as the underdog. The Chiefs still had a chance to get the ball back, but the 32nd-ranked run defense stayed true to its colors on third-and-10. Henry was able to get a block from Mariota and ran for 22 yards to ice the game. Henry finished with a career-high 156 rushing yards, and he did not need a meaningless 70-yard run this time to crack 100 yards. The Titans won their first playoff game since the 2003 season, which also led to a trip to New England.
There will be plenty of finger-pointing for the collapse by the Chiefs here. I don't think the usual suspects (quarterback and coach) are much at fault though. You can criticize Reid for his defense's performance, especially on third down and some of the effort level against the run. However, the criticism of Kareem Hunt only getting 11 carries is a bit unfounded. It wasn't an issue in the first half when he had six carries (for 25 yards) and the Chiefs led 21-3. The problem in the second half was just an unusual game script brought on by Tennessee's long drives. If you think of the muffed punt as an unorthodox gain of yardage for the Chiefs, the offense basically had three possessions in the second half. Since the kicker failed to make his field goal and Kelce's backup failed to hang onto a third-down pass, the offense was dealt with a do-or-die drive. That's a tough spot to fall into, but that's just how the game shook out.
The irony in calling this The Forward Progress Game is that it could actually be a major step backwards for the Chiefs as a franchise. Maybe Patrick Mahomes will take over for Alex Smith and be the kind of playmaking, high-variance quarterback the team needs to pull off some late-game magic in the postseason. Maybe the Chiefs will get through a postseason where Eric Berry, Justin Houston, and the offensive studs are all healthy. But after five winning seasons and four bites at the playoff apple with Reid and Smith, the Chiefs have one playoff win to show for it. Are better times ahead or did this team already peak? Either way, this has to go down in the annals of the most disappointing playoff losses in franchise history, which says a lot given the rich history there already.
The Titans can certainly progress forward from this game, but expecting all of these advantages to go their way in New England next week would be the ultimate case of fool's gold. Instead of watching a highly-anticipated rematch between the Chiefs and Patriots, we're left with seeing if the Titans can stay within two touchdowns.
Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind
Bills at Jaguars: Can We Get Mark Brunell and Doug Flutie Instead?
The Buffalo Bills finally ended their playoff drought, but the stay was cut short when the offense only managed a field goal against a tough Jacksonville defense. We thought Buffalo's playoff hopes had ended with five Nathan Peterman interceptions in Week 11, but in an odd twist, Peterman threw a game-ending interception for the Bills in the playoffs. At least that's how the play was ruled on the field, but we'll get there.
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The lowest-scoring playoff game in 20 years was just about everything you could have imagined it would be between these teams. The weather was of course fine, and LeSean McCoy's ankle did not look to be as much of a problem as expected, but the teams were still stuck in a 3-3 tie late into the third quarter. Scrambles were really the most effective plays of the day from quarterbacks Tyrod Taylor and Blake Bortles. A couple of runs by Bortles highlighted a 15-play drive that ended with a play-action pass on fourth down for a 1-yard touchdown to Ben Koyack with 42 seconds left in the third quarter. Given the field position, I think the fourth-down call was a no-brainer, but it was a good job by Koyack to hang onto the ball with little real estate in the back of the end zone.
The fourth quarter featured some odd plays. McCoy was given a first down on a third-and-1 run where he was clearly short of the marker, but no challenge was issued. There later was a successful challenge by the Jaguars to take away a completion to Charles Clay after he stepped out of bounds before catching the ball. Bortles only had one (failed) completion in the quarter, and his biggest gain was a 26-yard run after he dropped the ball after the snap. Bortles also nearly had a disastrous play with 9:11 left. Instead of just taking a third-down sack, he tried to fling the ball away to Leonard Fournette, but the ball went backwards for a lateral, and fortunately the rookie got on the ball to save possession deep in Jacksonville territory.
In the end, Jacksonville trusted its defense to uphold the 10-3 lead. Comebacks have not been Buffalo's forte, and Taylor is just 3-15 at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities now. This was a tall order with 63 yards to go in 1:51, but not impossible. Taylor scrambled and was hit hard enough to go right into the concussion protocol. That left the Bills in a precarious situation with a fourth-and-3 and the rookie Peterman having to enter the game with the season on the line. The play was ugly, but Peterman managed to scramble for a first down. Two plays later, Peterman was flagged for intentional grounding, which carries a 10-second runoff.
The last play was really an inevitable outcome in a no-win situation for the Bills. When you need 48 yards in 32 seconds, you probably don't want to throw an 8-yard curl route to Deonte Thompson that challenges Jalen Ramsey. The stud corner broke on the ball and tipped it to himself for a diving interception to seal the game. However, did he actually complete the process going to the ground? Did he "survive the ground" as they like to say this year?
The ruling on the field was an interception, but the league has been overturning calls without conclusive evidence all year long. I think it was pretty clear here that the ball touched the ground with movement and Ramsey used the ground to help him secure the ball. It's not so much to be outraged over this being deemed a catch, but how is a play like this a better catch than the infamous Dez Bryant play in Green Bay or the Jesse James touchdown that was taken away against New England this season? Why are some players allowed to use the ground to help complete the process, and others who catch the ball in the air and make a move for the goal line are penalized for not surviving the ground? This is a major problem for the NFL to sort out.
The No. 3 seed Jaguars will visit the No. 2 seed Steelers next week, and that matchup is largely happening because of varying interpretations of the ball surviving the ground.
For now, the Jaguars survived this game after Bortles only passed for 87 yards and got away with some terrible accuracy on short throws. He did rush for a game-high 88 yards, but the Jaguars will have to get a lot more offense than this to keep advancing in the playoffs.
Panthers at Saints: The Ultra-Rare Fourth-and-2
It is difficult to beat a division rival three times in one season, but if you already took care of the first two games, then it is actually the expected result. Teams are now 14-7 since 1970 when meeting a division rival in the playoffs after sweeping the regular-season series. The Saints completed the first 3-0 sweep since the Cowboys did so to the Eagles in 2009. It sure helps when the team usually has home-field advantage for the third game.
While Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram have stolen many of the headlines for the Saints this year, the duo only combined for 68 yards from scrimmage in an unusually quiet game. Even Ted Ginn Jr. had an 80-yard touchdown catch to outgain them on one play. In case anyone forgot, Drew Brees is still lights-out in the Superdome. Also, since his last playoff game was in the 2013 season, you may have forgotten that Brees is a very prolific quarterback in the postseason. He had another monster game with 376 yards on 33 attempts, but that final throw could have had a memorable impact on this game and perhaps his legacy. It also should have sparked another catch controversy, but we seem to be getting uncannily used to that inconsistency.
Speaking of inconsistency, Cam Newton also had one of his really good games for the Panthers, who wouldn't go away quietly despite settling for too many field goals early on. Newton even left the game momentarily after an apparent concussion with just over nine minutes left. Derek Anderson entered the game for one incompletion on third-and-17, so he wasn't quite ready to pull off a Billy Volek off the bench and lead a comeback win. However, Newton returned to the game with the Panthers down 31-19 and quickly got his team back in it. I just mentioned that 2007 Chargers-Colts playoff game, which featured a 56-yard touchdown pass on a short throw to running back Darren Sproles. Oddly enough, Newton found Christian McCaffrey on a short pass and the rookie back showed his speed on his own 56-yard touchdown to make it 31-26 with 4:09 left.
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The Saints could have won the game in the four-minute offense, and Brees threw a fantastic back-shoulder fade to Michael Thomas to convert a third-and-6 for 16 yards. However, New Orleans was stopped on a third-and-2 run with Kamara, which brought up the two-minute warning. That was disappointing, but most coaches in this situation would have just punted and hoped the defense holds onto the 5-point lead. Most of the time that works out, but it was just a week ago when Jameis Winston drove the Buccaneers 95 yards in the final 1:58 to beat the Saints.
Perhaps that weighed on Sean Payton's conscience, because he went with one of the gutsiest calls in playoff history to go for a fourth-and-2 at the Carolina 47. If the Saints had been up 33-26 or 34-26, then I think it's a great call. But when a touchdown loses the game, the risk to give Newton half a field to drive feels too nutty. According to EdjFootball, the Game Winning Chance by New Orleans punting was 94.4 percent compared to 92.1 percent with a pass.
This decision should remind you of the infamous fourth-and-2 from his own 28-yard line that Bill Belichick went for in Indianapolis in 2009, which didn't work out in a 34-28 game. Peyton Manning made the Patriots pay with a game-winning touchdown pass in a 35-34 win. Teams just don't make fourth-down calls like that. Most offensive plays in these situations are intentional safeties or long passes into the fifth row or kneeldowns with a few seconds left in the game to run out the clock. Between Belichick in 2009 and Payton's call on Sunday, only one other time has a team gone for a fourth down in a similar situation with a lead of one to six points in the final 2:30 of a game. It also happened to be Belichick's Patriots in 2010 against the Chargers. Leading 23-20 with 2:00 left and a fourth-and-1 at the New England 49, the Patriots failed again when BenJarvus Green-Ellis was stuffed for a 1-yard loss. The reason this play isn't remembered is because the Chargers missed a 50-yard field goal and lost the game. Had the Saints lost here, Payton's call would go down in instant lore.
Brees is a pretty reliable passing option here, but it didn't even seem like he'd get the chance when the Saints tried to draw the Panthers offsides before calling a timeout. But Payton stuck to his guns and did have the offense run a play. Brees tried to improvise (poorly), but had to force a pass down the field, which was intercepted by Mike Adams, costing the Panthers 16 yards in field position. The replays were pretty brief, but it looked like Adams may have lost possession of the ball after getting both feet down. It should have at least been worth a review as an incompletion obviously would have helped Carolina in that spot. The decision to intercept the ball versus knocking it down cost Carolina about 8.0 percent in GWC. It's pretty bad when there are interceptions in the final two minutes of both games on Sunday and we're not actually sure if either play was a catch.
Anyways, Newton had 1:51 to drive 69 yards to be the hero. He sure looked like he was going to make Payton and Brees pay with some quick completions to get the ball as deep as the New Orleans 21. That's when the pass rush, namely by Cam Jordan, stepped up for the Saints. On a second down, Jordan forced Newton into a throwaway that was flagged for intentional grounding. It looked like Newton had an argument that he may have been outside the tackle box when he released the ball. That's a tough call in that spot.
On third-and-23 from the New Orleans 34, Devin Funchess had a look at a ball in the end zone, but couldn't adjust to it in time. The Saints didn't blitz on those three plays, but on fourth-and-23, they brought five rushers and Vonn Bell finished Carolina off with a big sack of Newton.
Carolina's offense improved in each matchup against the Saints this year, but it was never enough to topple Brees and his offense. Now we'll get an interesting rematch from Week 1 between the Saints and Vikings, which is also a rematch of the 2009 NFC Championship Game. That's the third reference to 2009 in this recap, but Saints fans have to like that since this is really their best shot at a Super Bowl since that season.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 51
Game-winning drives: 79 (plus two non-offensive game-winning scores)
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 142/260 (54.6 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 26
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.