Clutch Encounters: Divisional Round
by Scott Kacsmar
There have now been 545 playoff games in NFL history, so the chances that we would see something happen in the playoffs for the "first time" are pretty good. That is as many games as we saw in the 2015 and 2016 regular seasons, plus up through Thursday Night Football in Week 3 of 2017. So you can find a lot of "first time where" stats and "never seen a play like this before" plays from just that sample of games.
What happened this weekend, though, were some pretty remarkable things, and I'm not even talking just about the obvious one in Stefon Diggs' game-winning touchdown to shock the Saints. How about the pass that Nick Foles bounced off of an Atlanta defender right to Torrey Smith for a 20-yard gain? That somehow wasn't even among the two ugliest throws in that game, but more on that later.
On a more objective note, how about the fact that Ben Roethlisberger threw a 36-yard touchdown pass before halftime to Martavis Bryant on a fourth-and-11? Since 2001, Brett Favre is the only other quarterback (we'll ignore fakes on special teams) to throw a touchdown pass in the first three quarters of any game on a fourth-and-10 or longer.
These plays helped us to three pretty dramatic finishes this week, and the Titans gave it a go for a few drives in New England on Saturday night. But this was definitely the type of weekend that makes the divisional round the high point of the NFL year.
Game of the Week
New Orleans Saints 24 at Minnesota Vikings 29
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 1 (24-23)
Game Winning Chance Before: 2.6 percent
Game Winning Chance After: 100.0 percent
Win Probability Added: 97.4 percent
Head Coach: Mike Zimmer (7-10 at 4QC and 11-11 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Case Keenum (4-10 at 4QC and 7-12 overall 4QC/GWD record)
I honestly was not expecting to have to cover this game, let alone recap it as one of the greatest endings in NFL history. Minnesota's dream season was humming right along with a 17-0 halftime lead, and the offense was still moving the ball well into the third quarter. Then Case Keenum, in his playoff debut, took a sack that knocked the Vikings out of field goal range. Drew Brees then led a long touchdown drive, but did you expect him to get shut out in a playoff game? Of course the Saints would score eventually, but it still didn't feel like much of a game at 17-7 with just over 16 minutes to play. The Saints were 1-34 when trailing by at least 17 points in the Sean Payton/Brees era (since 2006). Comebacks like that are really hard if you can't stop the other team from scoring.
Then it happened, and we saw the best and worst of times for rookie safety Marcus Williams. Keenum got careless with the ball and floated an interception to Williams, who gave Brees great field position at the Minnesota 30. Michael Thomas caught a 3-yard touchdown, and we had a game again at 17-14 with 13:09 to play.
Payton lost two bad challenges on the same drive after thinking there may have been a bobbled catch and that Keenum's knee may have been down before he got rid of the ball. But both failed, leaving the Saints with one timeout. Kai Forbath missed a 49-yard field goal before halftime, proving that he was a true Minnesota kicker, and that every future kick would be met with dread. But he delivered on a 49-yard field goal here to give the Vikings a tenuous 20-14 lead with Brees heating up. However, the Saints threw in a real wrinkle on a third-and-1 when wide receiver Willie Snead took a lateral from Brees and threw a deep ball to Alvin Kamara. The play was really designed perfectly, but the pass was badly ovethrown. With just over nine minutes left, I think that's a risk you can take to make a big play against a tough defense. The Saints never had a gain of more than 23 yards all day and were just 2-of-9 on third down against statistically the best third-down defense since 1991.
A Minnesota punt was deflected, so Brees had great field position again at the Minnesota 40 with 5:21 left, setting up truly one of the wildest back-and-forth finishes in playoff history. Brees' third touchdown pass of the half went to Kamara from 14 yards out to give the Saints a 21-20 lead with 3:01 left. Keenum only had a 3-10 record in his career at comeback opportunities, so this hasn't been his forte. Adam Thielen made an incredible 24-yard catch even while being interfered with by cornerback Marshon Lattimore. But the Vikings only gained 5 more yards after that and Forbath had to kick a 53-yard field goal. With all the expectations of a miss, Forbath made the kick to give the Vikings a 23-21 lead, but 1:29 is an eternity for Brees with one timeout.
Brees delivered as expected, even converting a fourth-and-10 to Snead for 13 yards to save the game. After getting to the Minnesota 33, the Saints may have gotten a little conservative with short throws and receivers getting out of bounds, but the fact is that Kamara was stuffed on a third-and-1 run. If Kamara had converted there, then the Saints would have been able to kick the game-winning field goal on the final play of the game. With that stuffed run, the Vikings were able to save some time, and Wil Lutz hit a 43-yard field goal with 25 seconds left.
After some of the late drives we've seen this year, scoring with 25 seconds and a timeout left from your own 25 is not impossible, but it is improbable. According to EdjFootball, the Vikings had a 2.6 percent Game Winning Chance at the start of this drive. A false start is a lousy way to begin things, but Keenum found Stefon Diggs for 19 yards to get things moving again. After two incompletions, only 10 seconds remained at the Minnesota 39. The game felt like it was over to be honest. Barring a crazy penalty, the only real hope was a 20-yard pass that led the receiver out of bounds to set up a long field goal. Anything completed in bounds should have ended the game, but again, that's just in theory.
One of the most amazing playoff ending EVERpic.twitter.com/aUDcQArtKa
— NFL Retweet (@NFLRT) January 15, 2018
Keenum delivered a good ball to Diggs, who showed great awareness and balance to stay in bounds and go for the touchdown as time expired. I'm not sure what you want to call the tackling effort by Williams on the play. He may have just been ducking out of the way to avoid getting called for pass interference, but unfortunately he knocked down his teammate in the process, leaving a clear path to the end zone for Diggs on the 61-yard touchdown. Incredible.
This is the first walk-off touchdown with no time left in playoff history. It's also one of the rarest game-winning touchdowns in NFL history. We have a lot of drive data going back to 1981, and this is only the seventh time a team won a game after scoring a touchdown on a drive that started in the final 30 seconds. On the six previous times, four were Hail Mary passes, one was an overtime game between the Jets and Browns in 2010, and one saw the 49ers start only 25 yards away from the end zone in 1987 against the Bengals. So this 75-yard drive and the Diggs play that wasn't really a Hail Mary really stand out here.
|Winning Team Touchdown Drives Starting in Final 30 Seconds (Since 1981)|
|SF||Joe Montana||at CIN||9/20/1987||W 27-26||6||0:02||25||0:00||GW TD pass (J.Rice)|
|CLE||Tim Couch||at NO||10/31/1999||W 21-16||2||0:15||75||0:00||GW Hail Mary TD pass (K.Johnson)|
|CHI||Shane Matthews||CLE||11/4/2001||W 27-21 OT||7||0:24||47||0:00||Game-tying Hail Mary TD pass (J.Allen; deflected)|
|NYJ||Mark Sanchez||at CLE||11/14/2010||W 26-20 OT||0||0:24||37||0:16||OT: GW TD pass (S.Holmes)|
|JAX||David Garrard||HOU||11/14/2010||W 31-24||0||0:08||66||0:00||GW Hail Mary TD pass (M.Thomas; deflected)|
|GB||Aaron Rodgers||at DET||12/3/2015||W 27-23||2||0:23||79||0:00||GW Hail Mary TD pass (R.Rodgers)|
|MIN||Case Keenum||NO||1/14/2018||W 29-24||1||0:25||75||0:00||GW TD pass w/0:00 left (S.Diggs)|
According to EdjFootball, this was the largest GWC increase for a play this season, topping Andy Dalton's touchdown pass on fourth-and-12 against Baltimore in Week 17. This is also the largest GWC swing in the last four postseasons, topping the Blair Walsh missed field goal for the Vikings against Seattle in 2015 (93.0 percent GWC), and Malcolm Butler's interception at the 1-yard line against the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX (73.3 percent GWC)
You have to feel good for head coach Mike Zimmer, who was about to suffer a bitter 11th-straight playoff loss as a coach, coordinator, or assistant. His players came through with one of the most memorable touchdowns ever.
You also have to feel bad for Brees, who turns 39 today. This was supposed to be the year he had a running game and defense again. Kamara and Mark Ingram were largely held in check in the playoffs. The defense almost blew the lead at the end against Carolina last week, and did so in dramatic fashion this time. Brees put his team ahead late (twice even), only to see the defense fail to hold it. This is his 18th lost comeback, which is easily the NFL record. Brees joins Peyton Manning as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to lose multiple playoff games after throwing a go-ahead touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. Brees actually threw two go-ahead touchdowns in a 2011 loss to the 49ers in the divisional round. That's also the last time an NFL playoff game ended with a game-winning touchdown pass in the final minute of the fourth quarter.
For a Minnesota franchise that has been through some difficult playoff losses over the decades, here is one triumph that will be replayed for the rest of our lives. The only thing left to determine how often we'll see this play is whether or not it leads to a championship for the Vikings.
Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind
Falcons at Eagles: Shoveling Dirt on Atlanta's Latest Passing
The Eagles became the first No. 1 seed to be a home underdog in the divisional round since 1975. They embraced that role well, as they should have, because this team got to be 13-3 for reasons beyond Carson Wentz. The running game and defense are formidable, and head coach Doug Pederson has done a good job of designing a quarterback-friendly offense that has scored a lot of points without requiring huge contributions from the quarterback. As long as Nick Foles didn't completely implode in what was his second-career playoff start, the Eagles had a good chance to "upset" an Atlanta team that barely got into the tournament.
After a shaky start where the Eagles put the ball on the ground four times in the first quarter and a half, the team settled down. Atlanta only led 10-9 at halftime, but playoff teams leading by exactly one point at the half are now 11-12 all time. It's not much of a lead, and the Falcons failed to score on their four second-half possessions as the pressure on Matt Ryan increased. Foles really wasn't doing anything impressive, but he didn't have to. He just executed a few simple run-pass options, which the Eagles specialized in this season, and which were part of Foles' 2013 success with Chip Kelly. On a third-quarter drive, Foles hit five passes in a row, all for first downs, for a total 70 yards. The drive ended when Jay Ajayi dropped a short third-down pass with 11 seconds left in the quarter, so the 37-yard field goal by Jake Elliott won't officially go down as a game-winning field goal in the fourth quarter, but close enough.
Brandon Graham dumped Ryan for a sack to end the quarter, which thwarted that drive as well. Receiving backs had a big weekend around the league, and Ajayi made his impact felt there (a rare sight) with a 32-yard gain on a little third-and-7 checkdown from Foles. Again, nothing spectacular by Foles, but effective enough to lead to some more points on the board. That drive of nearly eight minutes led to a field goal and a 15-10 lead. It didn't end before Pederson reminded us that he comes from Andy Reid's School of Clock Management, and this was his first playoff game as a head coach. Pederson used his first timeout on fourth down, but still kicked a field goal anyway. He should have just taken a delay of game penalty to make it a 26-yard field goal, but again, a Reid disciple at work here.
The Falcons had plenty of time with 5:57 left, but may have wanted to show a little more urgency in case they needed a second drive opportunity. Mohamed Sanu had a third-down conversion catch overturned, and at this point I'm not even sure what a good call on those plays is. Was this any less of a catch than the interception by Jalen Ramsey against Buffalo last week that stood? The ball was moving a little and it definitely touched the ground, so I wouldn't have been too opposed to overturning that one. I think Atlanta was right to go for it on fourth-and-6 from its own 42 with 3:30 left. You can trust Ryan to convert, and you shouldn't fear going down 18-10 on a long field goal there. The Atlanta defense had just allowed two long drives in a row, so we couldn't have expected Ryan to get the ball back right away in that spot. Ryan saved one of his best throws for the big down, finding Julio Jones for 20 yards.
Four plays later, Tevin Coleman had a run to set up a first-and-goal at the Philadelphia 9. The Eagles took their second timeout with 1:19 left in an effort to conserve time for the offense to answer. At that point, you can start to question the Falcons for not running the ball on first down, even if it was to get the Eagles to burn their final timeout. Coleman had a very good game with 93 yards on 11 touches, but the Falcons ignored him here.
I've often called Ryan a "poor man's Peyton Manning" for various reasons, and I thought the following sequence was an amusing collection of plays that remind you of Manning's old Indianapolis offenses, but without the sound execution. Maybe Ryan should have taken a cue from Manning in the 2006 AFC Championship Game when the Colts reached the New England 11 and ran three times for the game-winning touchdown.
Embattled offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has had quite the year of criticism, but he really saved his coup de grâce for the team's biggest sequence in the red zone. On first down, I think we can live with a non-rainbow fade to Jones in single coverage, but Ryan just didn't get the throw in the boundary line well enough for Jones to have a chance. On second down, things got weird. Ryan tried a little shovel pass to Terron Ward (read: not Tevin Coleman), but he looked more like someone trying to score 50 points in Skee-Ball.
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) January 15, 2018
On third down, Atlanta had just one receiver run a route into the end zone, and Ryan threw a short slant to Jones for only a 7-yard gain. When looking at the replays, I'm not sure Jones "survived the ground" on his catch. If they can take away the Sanu play earlier, what more did Jones show here to uphold his catch when the ball scraped the ground?
On fourth-and-goal at the 2, the Falcons could have called almost anything … and it probably would have been better than the play of choice. According to EdjFootball, the Game Winning Chance with a rush was 21.5 percent, as opposed to 44.6 percent with a pass. The fact that Atlanta passed with Ryan was really not a problem. The fact that they put fullback Derrick Coleman out wide to the left to basically negate that side of the field was a major problem. The fact that Tevin Coleman threw a cut block and tight end Levine Toilolo stayed in to block was a problem. Ryan was trying to do a sprint-right option, but his two receivers didn't even give him a good target to throw to. Jones even fell down before getting up and trying to come down with Ryan's throw in the end zone. He couldn't, and the pass was incomplete.
Ok.....brief analysis on ATL's last play...
4th down. You have two receivers on the right, one receiver on the left. It's a designed rollout to the right. NO ONE ON THE EAGLES is fooled by where the direction of this play is going. This is not a pro football play call. pic.twitter.com/QZBoRtVsyd
— Jonathan Kinsley (@Brickwallblitz) January 14, 2018
Instead of giving Ryan five receiving options to go through over the whole field, he was limited to two options on one small portion of the field. That was the nadir of fourth-and-season calls. Some have said that Jones dropped the pass, but it looked pretty clear that his two feet were not going to land in bounds anyway. If you want to argue that he gave up concentration of his feet after the ball whistled through his hands, then whatever, but that play shouldn't be considered a drop. This whole red zone sequence should be remembered for being one massive failure in play calling and putting your players in a position to succeed.
Afterwards, the Falcons couldn't even get a safety opportunity after getting flagged for encroachment to give the Eagles a 5-yard boost of breathing space. One run for a first down and the game was over. The Falcons only blew a 10-9 halftime lead this time around, but it still has to sting knowing what this team could have accomplished again by calling better plays.
In 2016, when Atlanta's offense was great, the Eagles held that unit to a season-low 15 points. This year, the Atlanta offense was held to 13 points against the Saints, 10 points against the Eagles, nine points against the Vikings, and seven points against the Patriots. Given those were the remaining playoff teams in the NFC and the favorite in the AFC, I think it's safe to say that the Falcons just weren't going to have the scoring power to avenge last year's Super Bowl defeat.
Still, a good call or two in the red zone should have been enough to at least get by these Eagles, who will now host the Vikings in about the least likely NFC Championship Game matchup in years.
Jaguars at Steelers: Blake 45 Is the Sequel to Tebow 316
The recipe for a classic Pittsburgh playoff loss begins with a bad start, like the Jaguars taking a 21-0 lead not even 20 minutes into the game. Then comes the questions of disbelief -- how is this offense that scored 13 points in its last eight quarters moving the ball so easily with Blake Bortles? How does Ben Roethlisberger keep throwing interceptions to this defense and are they in his head? Usually there's a brief moment of hope that they're snapping out of it, but then an awful return touchdown tends to happen, like the strip-sack for a touchdown by Telvin Smith that gave Jacksonville a 28-7 lead. Even then, the Steelers usually fight valiantly in the second half, sometimes even taking a late lead or forcing overtime before the final collapse.
[ad placeholder 3]
Since 2002, Pittsburgh has averaged 25.2 points per game in its nine playoff losses. That's a higher scoring average than any team that has lost more than one playoff game in this time (so everyone but Cleveland and Buffalo). For a team that historically prides itself on defense, it is alarming that there have been that many losses when the offense was still productive. Pittsburgh shifted towards an offensive approach in 2012, but the high-scoring playoff losses predate that. For a change, the offensive stars all started and finished this game too, which makes it even crazier that the Steelers would lose 45-42 at home.
Pittsburgh is the first team in NFL history to lose a home playoff game after scoring more than 38 points. The previous high was when the Dolphins lost 41-38 in overtime to the Chargers in The Epic in Miami in the 1981 AFC divisional round.
This score was awfully high on a frigid day, but such a game isn't that surprising given the way the Steelers finished this season. When I wrote the preview for this game, I wanted to make it clear that there was no point in writing off Bortles in this matchup. The Steelers had already allowed offenses led by Brett Hundley (Packers), Joe Flacco (Ravens), and DeShone Kizer (Browns) to average 30 points at Heinz Field down the stretch. Roethlisberger and the offense needed to play a lot of perfect football in those games to pull out the close wins. They weren't perfect against Jacksonville's tough defense, but six touchdowns on 12 drives should have done the trick.
The Steelers made a lot of incredible plays against that defense to keep this one competitive. Roethlisberger's 469 passing yards are the most in playoff history in a non-overtime game. Roethlisberger became the first quarterback in playoff history to throw five touchdowns and lose a game. Quarterbacks had been 10-0 all time when doing that. Roethlisberger's first four touchdown passes were all thrown against very good coverage, but the receivers still made the catches anyway. Antonio Brown looked just fine in his return from a calf injury. He had 132 yards and two impressive touchdown grabs.
It was really a game about fourth-down decisions. The Steelers converted on four-of-six opportunities, including a couple of long touchdown bombs, but failed twice on the most obvious of calls: fourth-and-1. In his career, Roethlisberger is 18-of-19 on runs on fourth-and-1, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Roethlisberger hasn't attempted a quarterback sneak, though, since 2015 in Seattle, when he converted. When the Jaguars needed a big conversion in this game, they did the smart thing and ran Leonard Fournette up the gut, including a 1-yard touchdown on fourth-and-1 to start the game. When the Steelers were first faced with a fourth-and-1, they pitched wide to Le'Veon Bell for a 4-yard loss. Why would an offense choose to make their back gain 7 yards when only inches are needed? Why do we write the same things every year about the Steelers under Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley, only to see nothing change? I complained about the lack of a quarterback sneak here in a 2013 loss to Baltimore.
The other huge mistake came in the fourth quarter in the only drive that helped qualify this game as a comeback opportunity. Trailing 28-21, Pittsburgh partially blocked a punt, so Roethlisberger had great field position at the Jacksonville 48. After three Bell runs brought up another fourth-and-1, you thought maybe the previous failure and the heat of the moment would bring these guys to their senses and they would do the quarterback sneak. You know if the Patriots gets these opportunities against Jacksonville next week, there will be sneaks, or at least inside runs. Pittsburgh just has to do things the hard way for some reason. Roethlisberger tried a play-action pass, and he had Eli Rogers wide open for a quick, short pass to convert. Instead he went for the bigger play to JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was tightly covered by A.J. Bouye. The pass was on the receiver's hands, but it was too tough of a diving catch to expect the rookie to make. That was just a bad call in a spot where something much simpler should have continued the drive.
Pittsburgh's defense was a big letdown. Not only did the defense fail to register a sack or takeaway, but the Jaguars were 8-of-14 on third down. Bortles converted a key third-and-8 before finally hitting a big pass to Keelan Cole for a 45-yard gain. That led to Fournette's third touchdown of the day. However, every time it looked like the Steelers were done, they made a big play. Brown caught a 43-yard touchdown from Roethlisberger on a fourth-and-5, and it was back to a 35-28 game. Bortles converted two more third downs, including a backbreaker to T.J. Yeldon out of the backfield for 40 yards, which led to another touchdown on a well-designed play-action pass to Tommy Bohanon.
Even at 42-28 with 4:19 left, it still wasn't over. Roethlisberger used his legs a bit to lead another scoring drive, and he even lateraled a ball back to Bell for another touchdown on a wise move after he crossed the line of scrimmage. Bell scored with 2:18 left, so the Steelers saved the two-minute warning and two timeouts. I think kicking off deep would have been the right call, because onside kicks are so hard to get, and you can get better field position by pinning them deep and getting a three-and-out. The Steelers attempted the onside kick, and it was another one in the running for worst attempts ever. The Jaguars started at the Pittsburgh 36 after the Steelers were called for illegal touching. Three runs by Fournette brought up a fourth-and-1, and I would have seriously considered just going for it to end the game. A 45-yard field goal at Heinz Field is far from automatic, and the same can be said about kicker Josh Lambo. However, Lambo delivered right down the middle and the Jaguars led 45-35.
A big play to Bryant actually got the Steelers into a first-and-goal at the 5 with 47 seconds left, so the Steelers were again in good shape to keep this game alive with a quick score and onside kick (a good one this time). But then they mismanaged things a great deal with a bad intentional grounding penalty and Brown failing to get out of bounds on a catch. In the end, Smith-Schuster caught a pretty irrelevant touchdown with one second left to make it 45-42, but the Steelers weren't able to make anything fluky happen on the kickoff to finally end the game.
[ad placeholder 4]
It is not the time to throw out a "defense wins championships" line, not after a 45-42 final, but this game should further reset expectations for other NFL teams. If the Jaguars are able to go into Pittsburgh and outscore that talented offense 45-42 with Bortles passing for 214 yards on 14 completions, then just about anything is possible. You still need a good defense in place to get some of those key turnovers, but Bortles was good enough against a defense that clearly wasn't good enough to win a championship this season.
Before the Steelers' final touchdown, it sure would have been a fitting ending for Roethlisberger to try a fake spike again. After all, the fake spike that was intercepted against the Patriots in Week 15 after the Jesse James touchdown was overturned was really when Pittsburgh's season ended this year. This team needed to overcome that New England hurdle in a win that would have led to the No. 1 seed, and pitted the Patriots against Jacksonville in this round. Meanwhile, the Steelers would have drawn a Tennessee team that proved it didn't belong this weekend, and had already lost 40-17 at Heinz Field earlier this year. Instead, the Steelers had their toughest road ahead of them, and while they talked a good game about two rematches, they weren't even able to beat the Jaguars or Patriots once this year in three tries. It is hard to imagine how this team would have won in New England next week if the defense can't even stop some of the league's lesser passers.
With the win, Jacksonville now has as many AFC Championship Game appearances since 2011 as the Steelers.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 52
Game-winning drives: 80 (plus two non-offensive game-winning scores)
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 145/264 (54.9 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.