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.