The Greatest Irrelevant Comeback in NFL History

by Scott Kacsmar

If a team pulls off the largest fourth-quarter comeback in NFL history, but does it in a preseason game, does anyone notice?

On Saturday night in Indianapolis the Giants trailed 26-0, but still won. In the regular season and playoffs, only four teams have ever won after trailing by at least 26 points at any point in the game. A fifth game with a 31-point deficit ended in a tie, but generally these types of comebacks almost never happen in the NFL's 95-year history. If we consider this the sixth game, then the Colts have been involved in three of them, including a blown 26-0 lead in Buffalo and a playoff win you should remember.

We avoid preseason games like the plague on Football Outsiders, but I couldn't help but notice this improbable 27-26 victory. At one point during the evening, I detected from the box score that Eli Manning and Curtis Painter were a combined 2-of-14 for 13 yards passing. The Colts led 26-0 four seconds into the fourth quarter, but then the real craziness began.

By the end of the night, the Giants had set a new "record" for the largest fourth-quarter comeback in "NFL history" at 26 points. I use record and history lightly because it's the preseason, and I certainly don't research preseason results, but I find it hard to believe anyone's matched or surpassed this.

Based on my research, only three teams have ever erased a deficit of 25 points in the fourth quarter, but none from 26 points:

  • 12/7/1980 - Bert Jones helped the Colts erase a 31-6 deficit in Cincinnati into a 33-31 lead, but the Bengals answered with a 21-yard field goal by Jim Breech for a 34-33 escape.
  • 11/8/1987 - Tampa Bay beat St. Louis (31-28) after trailing 28-3 to start the fourth quarter. This is the official NFL record for largest fourth-quarter comeback (25 points).
  • 10/21/2007 - Houston erased a 32-7 fourth-quarter deficit for 36-35 lead behind Slingin' Sage Rosenfels, but Tennessee won 38-36 on Rob Bironas' eighth field goal of the day with no time left.

Yeah, two of those efforts still ended up as losses, which almost happened to the Giants on Saturday night. By my research, the 1980 Colts and 2007 Texans are the only teams to erase a fourth-quarter deficit of at least 22 points and lose the game.

So how did New York pull this one off? Of all people, Painter got the comeback started, which probably wouldn't have succeeded without a defensive holding penalty to negate a third-down sack. Seriously, these flags have been downright pathetic through two preseason weeks. Anyways, after one 80-yard touchdown drive, the Giants got the big break every team needs to pull off such a huge comeback. Just 16 seconds later Phillip Tanner fumbled deep in his own end and the Giants recovered it for a touchdown. With a 26-14 score and 10:00 to play, that's now a doable comeback like we've seen several times before. This scoring sequence was similar to the one the 1985 Vikings had when they overcame a 23-0 fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Eagles.

Ryan Nassib took over at quarterback and led the Giants on a 92-yard touchdown march. The Colts went three-and-out in response. Nassib converted a big fourth-and-16 that eventually led to the game-winning touchdown with 55 seconds left. That was an 86-yard drive.

However, teams who erase huge deficits (26-plus points) actually have lost the game more times than they've won. The Colts still had time for the game-winning field goal, and punter Pat McAfee had a shot from 64 yards away. He appeared to have the distance, but was a little wide left with four seconds left to preserve New York's unbelievable quarter.

That also means one record feat was almost beaten by another record feat, because McAfee's 64-yard field goal would have been the longest game-winning kick in NFL history. Only one kicker has ever had a longer successful field goal in any NFL game, and that was Ola Kimrin from 65 yards away in a 2002 preseason game.

It's remarkable how similar the Giants' comeback was to the 1987 Cardinals' win over the Buccaneers. Both quickly followed up their initial touchdown drive with a fumble return for a touchdown. Both defenses stiffened with the Giants allowing two first downs the rest of the way compared to one for St. Louis. Both teams still had to hang on at the end as Tampa Bay missed a 53-yard field goal at the buzzer that would have forced overtime. This is apparently the standard for what it takes to come back from four scores down in the fourth quarter.

This game won't have any impact on the Giants and Colts going forward, but it's one for the memory banks of just what is possible in the NFL as long as there's time on the clock. For once we can actually say it was worth it for fans to stay and watch an entire preseason game. Of course, if you're a Colts fan you were probably in utter disgust, but just think of how Chiefs fans felt when they watched a 28-point collapse in the playoffs in this very building in January.

That one counted.

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14 comments, Last at 25 Nov 2015, 2:20pm

#1 by thok // Aug 17, 2014 - 7:04am

Ryan Nassib took over at quarterback

Surely this is by far the most important statement, right? Eli hasn't looked particular sharp this preseason, and Painter is Painter.[/potential overreaction to a QB getting lots of second half reps in the preseason and to Eli maybe declining slightly]

Points: 0

#9 by David C // Aug 18, 2014 - 5:20pm

Well, based on current Matt Schaub-reasoning, a previously successful 33-yr old quarterback who has at least 4 bad games in a season is done for his career, and is at best worth only a 6th round pick. However, based on current postseason-logic, any quarterback who leads a team to a win over Tom Brady's team in a Superbowl must be extremely talented; with occasional mentions of Hall of Fame induction. So it's a wash really.

Points: 0

#2 by Pied // Aug 17, 2014 - 12:20pm

I'm a Colts fan and I wasn't in utter disgust.

Points: 0

#4 by Bernie // Aug 18, 2014 - 10:17am

Yeah, I'm a Colts fan, and I was really happy about the game. The Colts looked dominant in all phases of the game in the first half, when the people who mattered were playing.
By the time the 4th quarter rolled around, it was pretty much every 3rd string camp body they had on the field. The only concern I take away from the game is the question of depth. If we have too many injuries, the guys down the roster are no help.

Points: 0

#5 by rosmith51 // Aug 18, 2014 - 1:00pm

I would think that the label 'irrelevant comeback' would only apply to a situation where the game itself had relevance... i.e. a regular or post-season game.

Preseason games don't register at all.

And 'greatest' doesn't necessarily mean largest. Is Favre the 'greatest' QB just because he has the most passing yards?

The game that sticks out to me as being irrelevant is the 2010 Eagles/Giants game where the Eagles were trailing by 21 with 7:30 minutes left but scored the next 28 points to win by 7 in regulation.

Nice comeback, but irrelevant since they wouldn't win another game that season (2 regular season losses) followed by a home loss in the play-offs in the WC round.

Points: 0

#6 by JoeyHarringtonsPiano // Aug 18, 2014 - 1:25pm

I think your definition of "irrelevant" is a little too broad. That Eagles-Giants game did decide a division winner, and that Eagles team went down to the wire against the eventual SB champion Packers (which was a hell of a team once they got healthy).

By your definition, every single NFL game except those played by the eventual Super Bowl Champion is irrelevant (I know that's an exaggeration of the point you're trying to make, but where do you draw the line?).

Points: 0

#8 by dank067 // Aug 18, 2014 - 5:16pm

Speaking of the eventual Super Bowl champion, the Packers might have missed the playoffs if the Eagles didn't finish the comeback. Green Bay earned the #6 seed in a three-way tie with NYG and TB, if the tiebreaker had just been with Tampa straight up or with TB and PHI, I'm not sure they would have made it.

(Here's a fun one to think about: how different does Josh Freeman's career turn out if he makes the playoffs in 2010?)

Points: 0

#10 by MilkmanDanimal // Aug 18, 2014 - 5:47pm

Thank you for that last sentence. Really. I'll be out hunched over in my driveway slamming a hole in the concrete with my head if you need me.

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#7 by Kevin from Philly // Aug 18, 2014 - 3:05pm

On the contrary, that game forced two Giants fans who yapped that entire time to leave the bar I usually go to. They've never come back since. Certainly relevant to how much I enjoy that bar.

Points: 0

#11 by dbostedo // Aug 18, 2014 - 11:27pm

"I would think that the label 'irrelevant comeback' would only apply to a situation where the game itself had relevance..."

I think it's just a matter of what makes it irrelevant. Certainly this was a comeback. And certainly it didn't matter because the entire game was irrelevant. So that makes the regular season examples more interesting, but not more irrelevant.

"And 'greatest' doesn't necessarily mean largest. Is Favre the 'greatest' QB just because he has the most passing yards?"

One possible meaning of "greatest" IS largest, and that's the meaning here. You COULD irrefutably say that Favre has the greatest career yardage total in history.

Points: 0

#12 by MC2 // Aug 19, 2014 - 2:40pm

If "greatest" = "largest", then Mike Glennon, Jared Lorenzen, and even JaMarcus Russell are obviously among the greatest QBs in NFL history!

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#13 by techvet // Jan 02, 2015 - 11:29pm

"Tampa Bay beat St. Louis (31-28)". Actually, it's the other way around.

Points: 0

#14 by schmitzer // Nov 25, 2015 - 2:20pm

You have the score/outcome reversed in the Cardinals/Bucs comeback. St. Louis won in regulation. I was there - my first NFL game.

Points: 0

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