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19 Nov 2013

Clutch Encounters: Week 11

by Scott Kacsmar

There were three big games this week with the best quarterbacks in the world -- we have to exclude Aaron Rodgers until he returns -- taking on three of the top defenses. The mega-hyped Chiefs-Broncos failed to make it here as Kansas City could not score enough points to keep close to Peyton Manning, which frankly surprised no one.

The other two went down to the final snap, but questionable officiating stole the headlines. We'll tackle it all with nine games featuring a comeback attempt this week.

Game of the Week

New England Patriots 20 at Carolina Panthers 24

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 3 (20-17)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD): 0.28
Head Coach: Ron Rivera (4-18 at 4QC and 4-18 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Cam Newton (4-18 at 4QC and 4-18 overall 4QC/GWD record)

This was the biggest game for the Carolina Panthers since the night Jake Delhomme self-destructed in the playoffs nearly five years ago. This one delivered as both teams played efficiently with just seven possessions each. New England had two turnovers while the defense failed to get one for the first time in 36 regular-season games. You could say that decided the game, but few will forget this ending any time soon.

Games with few possessions are usually great because that should mean few balls are hitting the ground and the offenses are producing. As expected, Tom Brady picked apart Carolina's suspect secondary with the short-passing game -- he completed 25 of his first 28 passes. Cam Newton made some big throws and was a nightmare on the ground with a game-high 62 rushing yards.

Down 17-10 to start the fourth quarter, Brady hit his longest pass of the night with a play-action setup to find Kenbrell Thompkins open for 37 yards. Stevan Ridley finished the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run.

With 12:33 left, we had a tied game between the quarterback/coach duo with the best record (40-27) at game-winning drive opportunities and the duo with perhaps the worst record (3-18) in NFL history.

That experience started to look like it would pay off as the Panthers had an ugly three-and-out drive. Starting at the Carolina 39 after a punt, Brady drove his offense into the red zone again. However, with a third-and-1 at the Carolina 8, there was no quarterback sneak or handoff to convert for the first down. Instead, Brady threw an incomplete pass that was definitely uncatchable and the Patriots kicked the field goal to take a 20-17 lead with 6:32 left.

Carolina had not won a game after trailing by more than two points in the fourth quarter since October 24, 2010, but all that was about to change.

Newton threw several inaccurate passes, but he had a big 15-yard scramble to convert a third-and-6 and picked up three yards on a quarterback draw on third-and-2. Facing third-and-7 at the New England 36 on a windy night, it would have been a very difficult field-goal attempt. Newton threw incomplete to Greg Olsen, but he embellished contact with Devin McCourty and that drew a flag for defensive holding. It wasn't a good play by McCourty, but Olsen really sold it to earn a huge call.

Four plays later, Newton found Ted Ginn, who beat Kyle Arrington badly near the sideline and ran into the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown with 59 seconds left. That was an 83-yard drive and the Panthers led 24-20.

Still having all three timeouts, the Patriots weren't done yet with 80 yards to go. We know from earlier this season against New Orleans and also the Lions against Dallas that such drives are very rare, but not impossible.

This one looked dead on arrival with three quick incompletions, but Brady found Rob Gronkowski for 23 yards down the middle. There goes one timeout. Danny Amendola caught an 11-yard pass to use the Patriots' second timeout. Brady threw a few more incompletions, including a near-interception, but the Panthers were penalized for pass interference.

Down to 10 seconds at the Carolina 36, Brady dumped a short pass to Shane Vereen for 11 yards, using the final timeout. Six seconds is just enough time for the modern strategy of throwing a quick out to make the attempt shorter. Aaron Dobson caught a 7-yard pass and went out of bounds with three seconds left to set up a final play at the Carolina 18.

Having to go for the end zone, Brady stepped up in the pocket, but underthrew a pass to Gronkowski that was easily intercepted by Robert Lester to end the game. However, we had a flag in the end zone as linebacker Luke Kuechly clearly did grab the tight end. The referees talked it over and said there was no penalty and the game was over. The stunning ending drove up the controversy, but the ruling was that the pass was uncatchable, so there cannot be any pass interference.

Now the contact did not happen until the ball was in the air, so there's no illegal contact and there's no defensive holding (Rule 8, Section 4, Article 7). When McCourty was penalized for defensive holding earlier, that contact happened before the ball was even in the air. So it has to be pass interference or nothing, and the referees determined it was uncatchable.

Gronkowski's momentum carried him to the back of the end zone. He made zero effort to come back to the ball. He simply watched the interception unfold. Even if Kuechly did not hug him, the underthrown ball would have forced him to make a cut back to the front of the end zone to have any chance of catching the ball.

Just based on the laws of physics, there's no way Gronkowski could have made this catch, so I agree with the uncatchable ruling, which is a judgment call. Every week there are passes likely impossible to be caught that are deemed catchable, so it's not a ruling referees are consistent on. However, something still feels shady about the play and what Kuechly did, which was not even necessary as Gronkowski would never get in a position to make the catch.

This ending serves as a reminder that NFL referees are afraid of making critical calls on a late fourth down or on a game-ending play like this. We saw it with the Golden Tate play against Green Bay. Anyone asking for offensive pass interference there is dreaming. In recent history, only the Browns in 2009 against Detroit were penalized for defensive pass interference on a Hail Mary. Referees let guys get away with murder down there.

We saw it in the Super Bowl when there was no call on the Ravens on fourth down for how they defended Michael Crabtree. This is just how the NFL works.

When it comes to referees and critical calls, you live by the sword and you die by the sword. The Patriots should know that as well as any team. Here's Gronkowski pushing off on a fourth-down touchdown against the Giants in 2011:

There's another crucial fourth down with no penalty. Oddly enough, that's the last time Brady suffered a lost comeback (he only has three in his career).

Speaking of swords, it's about time the Panthers stop trying to commit hari-kari and start stacking clutch wins over quality teams. No matter if the call was legit, the ending to this one will linger, but let's not forget the Panthers were the better team in this game.

Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind

Detroit Lions 27 at Pittsburgh Steelers 37

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 4 (27-23)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD): 0.30
Head Coach: Mike Tomlin (15-31 at 4QC and 23-35 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger (23-32 at 4QC and 32-37 overall 4QC/GWD record)

For as long as I have watched the Pittsburgh Steelers, I've learned any lead of 11 points or more is usually going to hold up thanks to a great defense and the ability to close teams out with the running game. The Steelers have neither of those things now, but have not lost at home after leading by 11-plus points since November 29, 1987 against the Saints. They also blew a 21-7 lead in Miami that year.

On Sunday, Detroit greatly tested that streak with one of the weirdest game flows you'll ever see. Pittsburgh dominated early (14-0) with a no-huddle offense while Matthew Stafford missed on a couple of potential touchdown passes. In the second quarter, Detroit shredded the defense and piled up 27 points. Calvin Johnson abused Ike Taylor and had 179 yards at halftime while the Lions had 379 yards of total offense. Detroit led 27-20.

When asked about helping out Taylor, Mike Tomlin told FOX at the half that "We'll keep doing exactly what we're doing, but we'll do it better." That type of stubbornness to adjust the plan is the core problem with this Pittsburgh team, but on this day, it seemingly worked out in their favor. I have not watched the All-22 yet, but it did appear Taylor continued to receive little-to-no help in covering Johnson. Instead, the flow of the game and some pass rush dictated throws to other receivers while Detroit also worked on the run.

Detroit was effectively using the run on a drive that extended into the fourth quarter. On a third-and-5, Stafford threw to Johnson in the end zone, but Ryan Clark provided safety help on an incompletion. Detroit sent out the field-goal unit in a 27-23 game with 12:56 left, but it was a fake as the Lions apparently saw something they liked on film. Rookie punter Sam Martin was the holder and took the direct snap, but he fumbled on contact after gaining three yards.

I do not love or hate the play design, but following what Jim Schwartz didn't do last week in Chicago, I hate that he thought this was the advantageous situation to get a little greedy. In Chicago, Schwartz had a 20-13 lead with 2:22 left and kicked the extra point instead of trying the two-point conversion to all but seal things at 22-13. That's a mistake with little risk involved. Leading by seven is still a good position.

Here, we're talking about a lead of four versus seven versus 11 points. Obviously 11 would be nice, but there was nearly a whole quarter left and Ben Roethlisberger was having a strong game. Leading by seven on an easy field goal isn't a bad situation, but a failure to execute and keeping it at four points leaves you vulnerable to giving up the lead. That's a bigger risk than the opportunity Schwartz passed on last week. He says he wants to be aggressive, but I think he's picked the wrong spots in the last two games.

You never expect your defense to give up a 97-yard touchdown drive, but that's what Roethlisberger engineered. He converted a fourth-and-2 with a 3-yard pass to Le'veon Bell. He had Antonio Brown open in the end zone, but Brown bobbled the ball on a rainy day where both teams (both sides of the ball too) had a terrible time with drops. Eventually Pittsburgh got it right with Will Johnson catching the touchdown off a play-action fake.

Instead of a tie, Detroit trailed 30-27 with 4:40 left. Jeremy Ross had a brutal drop on second down. On third-and-10, Stafford carelessly threw one up to Johnson. We've seen this work in triple coverage this season, but this ball was underthrown and easily intercepted by Will Allen, who returned it to the Detroit 34.

Facing a third-and-6, the Steelers had a beautiful play design with Roethlisberger faking the wide-receiver screen -- a play they beat to death on third down throughout the game -- to find Jerricho Cotchery wide open for the 20-yard dagger touchdown with 2:29 left. Pittsburgh led 37-27 and Roethlisberger finished with 367 yards and four touchdowns.

Stafford took a sack on fourth down to end his incredibly miserable half. After throwing for 327 yards in the first half, Stafford had just 35 yards on 3-of-16 passing in the second half.

San Francisco 49ers 20 at New Orleans Saints 23

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 6 (20-14)
Win Probability (GWD): 0.70
Head Coach: Sean Payton (16-24 at 4QC and 22-26 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Drew Brees (22-39 at 4QC and 33-45 overall 4QC/GWD record)

In terms of the standings this was a big game, but if we're going to be honest, this one was lackluster to watch and the ending was downright sloppy. San Francisco's offense continued to struggle. The 49ers led 17-13 to start the fourth quarter, but those points were all set up by a muffed punt, a pick-six the Saints should have had (but botched) and an interception by Drew Brees.

Last season Colin Kaepernick was sharper in New Orleans, leading a long drive into the fourth quarter that put the 49ers ahead by 10 points. This time he had to settle for a field goal and a 20-14 lead after Vernon Davis, who was grabbed by the arm, could not haul in a third-down pass.

Brees hit two big plays to his wide receivers, but the drive stalled when Pierre Thomas went nowhere on a third-and-goal run at the San Francisco 3. Maybe Sean Payton expected he would get more and would choose to go for it on fourth down, but surprisingly the Saints kicked the 21-yard field goal with 7:50 left.

Frank Gore had a terrible drop with space in front of him, but it was a scrambling throw from Kaepernick, so it's not terribly surprising. The 49ers had to burn a timeout following the play. Jonathan Baldwin was not even looking for the third-down pass and San Francisco went three-and-out.

The Saints soon faced a third-and-2 at the San Francisco 35 with 3:18 left. Ahmad Brooks delivered a huge hit on Brees, forced a fumble and the 49ers recovered. The officials called roughing the passer for "contact to the neck of the quarterback" -- not something we've heard before, but there is language in the rule book about such hits. However, at what point are we severely limiting the defense's ability to do their job and spitting in the face of simple physics that show it's just about impossible to not have violent collisions in football?

Look at the target just before impact. I refuse to accept this being a penalty.

Gee, I guess if Brees was a few inches taller this wouldn't have been a penalty as Brooks would have hit him around the chest. If this was Chris Doleman against one of Mike Ditka's Billy Joe's in 1998, then that goes down as a lost fumble in crunch time. Then again, if Steve Young was the quarterback getting hit, maybe one would think of a penalty since some star treatment (especially for pocket passers) seems to be at work here. The NFL added the rule about a defenseless player getting hit in the head or neck in 2010. That season Haloti Ngata broke Ben Roethlisberger's nose on a sack and was not penalized. The NFL had to change it to "forcible blows" in 2011, but there's no consistency here.

It wouldn't have ended the game, but it would have made overtime more likely. Two plays after the gift Brees was rightfully penalized for intentional grounding, which blew up the drive. Garrett Hartley made the 42-yard field goal to tie.

The pressure was amped up on Kaepernick and he went down on a sack to start the drive. On the next play, he just barely got out of the tackle box near his goal line to avoid a grounding penalty. The referee said he was "well outside the pocket" even though it was more like inches or a foot at best. It would not have been a safety either way. Kaepernick scrambled for 16 yards, but that's not good enough on third-and-19. The drive was a disaster.

Brees got the ball at his own 40 with 1:41 left, which is stealing in a tied game. A 20-yard pass to Marques Colston put the ball in field-goal range and a 12-yard pass to Jimmy Graham made it a chip-shot. Hartley connected from 31 yards out as time expired for the 23-20 win.

Rarely does a team win by erasing a six-point deficit in the fourth quarter with three field goals, but not much else made sense in this one either.

Baltimore Ravens 20 at Chicago Bears 23

Type: 4QC/GWD (OT)
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 4 (17-13)
Win Probability (GWD): 0.47
Head Coach: Marc Trestman (3-3 at 4QC and 3-3 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Josh McCown (4-13 at 4QC and 4-15 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Most people would acknowledge JFK's assassination provides the most interesting conspiracy theories. Ray Lewis probably would side with the one where the NFL (and Mother Nature) has conspired to delay games involving his Baltimore Ravens. It's happened three times now in 2013 and the Ravens have been outscored 97-43 following the lengthy delays.

On Sunday in Chicago, the Ravens actually looked like a competent offense again and Ray Rice looked like his old self as Baltimore built a 10-0 lead. Then the 113-minute weather delay hit with the rain and wind, the field turned into a mess and the Bears regrouped. The delay should not be blamed for Joe Flacco throwing a terrible pass to defensive end David Bass for a game-tying pick-six.

Still, Baltimore led 17-13 to start the fourth quarter. Josh McCown, starting for the injured Jay Cutler, capped off an 83-yard drive with a 14-yard touchdown to Matt Forte on a running back screen.

The Ravens went three-and-out as Tandon Doss dropped a pass on third-and-1. Chicago faced a fourth-and-1 at the Baltimore 44 with 4:55 left. It would be easy to argue going for it here, but Marc Trestman decided to punt. Flacco was at his own 16 with 4:48 left in a 20-17 game. A horse collar tackle by Zackary Bowman extended the drive.

It stalled again, but the Ravens went for it on fourth-and-4 at the Chicago 44 with 3:07 left. Dallas Clark made an incredible one-handed catch for 14 yards. Two plays later the Ravens were in the red zone and Rice ripped off an 11-yard run to the Chicago 5. The clock ran down to 36 seconds before Rice got another carry.

Chicago was not using their timeouts in this situation, but Trestman had a very good explanation for why it was not really beneficial to use them. After that 11-yard run by Rice, using all three of your timeouts still means you have likely 18 seconds or so left to respond to a score, assuming the Ravens keep the clock running too. That's not enough time.

Rice lost a yard on second down, which made me question why Flacco wasn't attempting to throw a game-winning touchdown here. Isn't this the way to get that return on investment for your quarterback? Flacco handled a bad snap on third down and overthrew his target in the end zone. The Ravens had to settle for Justin Tucker's 21-yard tying field goal, which sent us to overtime in a game that lasted five hours and 16 minutes.

Now if there was ever a modified overtime game where the coach would defer after winning the coin toss, this would have to be it, right? The field was a mess and neither offense was particularly effective. John Harbaugh has clout with a Super Bowl win and Trestman studies the numbers. Trestman's timeout explanation heavily referenced the 13-percent odds of getting the ball at your own 16 and scoring a touchdown.

Harbaugh won the toss and foolishly received. The Bears being offsides on the kickoff was the one saving grace as a retry put the ball at the Baltimore 36 -- the best starting field position for any coin-toss winner in 32 modified overtime games.

However, the drive soon stalled and Baltimore punted. It was the perfect example of the difference between playing conventional three-down football versus the advantage of four downs:

  • Down 20-17 in regulation, Baltimore went for it on fourth-and-4 at the Chicago 44.
  • Tied 20-20 in overtime, Baltimore punted on fourth-and-5 at the Chicago 46.

By going first in overtime, you practically confine yourself to traditional three-down football. The Ravens were scared to give up that field position with Chicago only needing a field goal. If you can't be really aggressive and your only advantage is ending the game with a low-probability touchdown drive, then why does every coach continue to want the ball first? I look forward to the time where Trestman wins a coin toss on a day his offense has struggled and see if he sticks to his numbers and kicks off first.

On this day, his offense started at its own 20. McCown stepped up with a 14-yard pass to Alshon Jeffery on third-and-9. The next play was the dagger as Martellus Bennett hauled in the pass and gained 43 yards. After a couple of runs by Forte, Robbie Gould came out with the kicking unit. The 38-yard field goal was good and McCown amazingly picked up his first comeback/game-winning drive since the Week 17 finale in 2004. The span of 3,241 days in between wins is the third longest in NFL history:

Longest Gaps Between a 4QC or GWD in NFL History
Quarterback Previous Next Days Between
Doug Flutie 10/2/1988 10/18/1998 3,668
Vince Evans 11/13/1983 12/26/1992 3,331
Josh McCown 1/2/2005 11/17/2013 3,241
Jamie Martin 12/21/1996 10/23/2005 3,228
Frank Tripucka 11/27/1952 10/23/1960 2,887
Jeff Kemp 11/25/1984 12/8/1991 2,569
Tobin Rote 12/22/1957 11/8/1964 2,513
Cotton Davidson 12/4/1954 9/24/1961 2,486
Charlie Batch 9/7/2006 12/2/2012 2,278
George Blanda 11/7/1954 12/18/1960 2,233
Scott Zolak 11/15/1992 12/20/1998 2,226
Donald Hollas 11/8/1992 11/15/1998 2,198
Damon Huard 11/26/2000 10/8/2006 2,142

The best part here? The quarterbacks with the three longest gaps all played for Chicago.

Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind

Redskins at Eagles: 8 + 8 + 8

It has yet to happen in NFL history, but some day we will see a team erase a 24-point deficit by scoring three touchdowns and three two-point conversions.

Only three teams have converted at least three two-point conversions in a game. The 2000 Rams made four due to an injured kicker and historic offense. The 1996 Ravens were the only team to do it when trailing by 24 points in the fourth quarter, but during the comeback attempt they allowed New England's Tedy Bruschi to score on a blocked punt return in a 46-38 loss.

Baltimore was the closest to "8 + 8 + 8" so far, but Washington gave it one of the best attempts ever in Philadelphia. When these teams met in Week 1 the Redskins turned a 33-7 deficit into a 33-27 final. Once again they fell flat out of the gates, trailing 24-0 to start the fourth quarter. To that point Robert Griffin had just 63 yards passing. The Eagles failed on a fourth-and-1 when Bryce Brown was stopped for no gain at the Washington 38. With 13:08 left, Griffin went to work on the improbable comeback.

Griffin found Darrel Young open near the sideline and the fullback made two defenders miss for a one-play, 62-yard touchdown drive. Nick Williams was wide open (pick play) on the two-point conversion.

Though not in a hurry to snap the ball, the Eagles stayed with the no-huddle offense, but Nick Foles' third-down pass was tipped incomplete. Washington's 85-yard march was capped off by Griffin's 41-yard touchdown pass to Aldrick Robinson, who did a good job of adjusting to the ball with Roc Carmichael in coverage. Griffin executed the quarterback draw for the second two-point conversion and we had a 24-16 game with 5:57 left.

A scramble by Foles converted on third down, but Washington's challenge was successful as Foles was down short of the marker. The Eagles went three-and-out.

The Redskins had 96 yards to go and 3:26 (two timeouts) to do it. In his career Griffin's really struggled when it comes to obvious passing situations like third-and-long, but he delivered on this drive with Santana Moss. First it was a 13-yard pass on third-and-10, then later following a penalty, Griffin found Moss for 28 yards on third-and-25. A defensive holding penalty converted another third-and-10 for Washington.

Fitting the ball into a tight window to avoid an interception, Griffin hit Pierre Garcon for 17 yards on third-and-5. He went out of bounds at the Eagles' 27 to stop the clock with 54 seconds left. Griffin had a chance to scramble, but saw Robinson breaking free in the end zone and overthrew him. Garcon gained nine yards and the Redskins used their final timeout with 40 seconds left.

It was third-and-1, so they could technically run it to get the first and spike it, leaving three shots at the end zone. Instead, Griffin made a terrible play to end the game. Pressure was coming, so he faded back 14 yards behind the line of scrimmage and launched a pass off his back foot into the end zone. It may have been an attempt to throw it away, but Brandon Boykin made the easy interception to prevent the historic comeback that will have to wait for another day.

Raiders at Texans: Matt Schaub Déjà vu

With the Raiders hanging on to a five-point lead in the final moments in Houston, Matt Schaub had his team inside the 5-yard line with a chance to win the game. If this sounds familiar, it's because this exact situation happened in 2011. That day, Schaub threw an interception to Michael Huff in the end zone that was so bad you have to laugh at the sight of it.

This time, the fact that Schaub was even in the game came as a real surprise. Promising young starter Case Keenum was pulled in the third quarter by coach Gary Kubiak, who returned from his mini-stroke. It was a bad decision as the season's already lost and the franchise needs to see Keenum learn through mistakes. The deficit was hardly all on Keenum.

Oakland started undrafted rookie Matt McGloin and he threw three touchdowns without a turnover. Houston's defense entered Week 11 allowing the fewest yards in the league, but ranked 22nd in points per drive and that's even with an average ranking of 14th in starting field position. It's one of the oddest disconnects you'll see as the pick-six plays can only explain so much of it. This game offered two more good examples as early Houston giveaways led to the Raiders scoring a pair of touchdowns on 16-yard drives.

Houston trailed 28-17 when Schaub entered the game and naturally he looked rusty. He did engineer two field-goal drives, but could not finish in the red zone. Oakland did little to burn the clock with the lead.

Down 28-23, Schaub had 3:43 to lead a touchdown drive that could have regained him his starting role. He found Andre Johnson for a 22-yard gain and Ben Tate followed it up with some quality touches. Tate fumbled a catch, but recovered to set up a third-and-1 at the 2-yard line with 1:28 left. It's hard to ever fault a team for running on third-and-1, but the big I-formation failed to work as Oakland snuffed it out for a loss of a yard. Brandon Brooks exacerbated the situation with a false start to set up fourth-and-7 at Oakland's 8.

Johnson's an obvious target here, but Schaub threw a more catchable ball to Usama Young, an Oakland safety, to continue this eight-game losing streak. Johnson had some choice words for Schaub and walked off the field before the game ended.

It's the most overused pun in the NFL, but at least it's plural now. Houston, you have many problems and half the number of wins as the Raiders.

Colts at Titans: Another Rope-a-Dope Performance?

Two fourth-quarter comebacks were required for the Colts to sweep last year's Titans. Lately they have been falling behind by large deficits and that script repeated itself Thursday night when Tennessee opened up a 14-0 lead. The difference this time is Andrew Luck's only early mistake was handing the ball off to Trent "3.0" Richardson.

Down 17-3, the Colts got a field goal to close the first half and went 74 yards for a touchdown to start the third quarter. That was the turning point as Tennessee's Devon Wylie fumbled on the ensuing kick return. Luck improvised for a beautiful 11-yard touchdown run and the Colts never relinquished the lead, which grew to 23-17 to start the fourth quarter.

Ryan Fitzpatrick played a solid game (22-of-28 for 222 yards), but it was a lot of dink-and-dunk as Delanie Walker and Kendall Wright caught 19 of his 22 completions. He put together a 40-yard drive that ended with a third-down drop by Wright, but it would not have been a first down anyway. The Titans kicked a field goal.

Luck hit Coby Fleener for 39 yards in what was a career night for the tight end, but two incompletions at the Tennessee 38 led to a disappointing punt. Fitzpatrick finally went deep, but Justin Hunter could not haul in the pass. Wright's 11-yard gain on third-and-12 led to another punt.

With 7:41 left in a 23-20 game, this is where a power-running offense is supposed to put it away, right? Six straight runs with Donald Brown getting most of the touches moved the ball well, allowing for Luck to use play-action to find Fleener wide open for 14 yards. The only mistake was Fleener going out of bounds to stop the clock. Four plays later and after the Titans used their final timeout, Brown capped off the 80-yard drive with an 11-yard touchdown run with 3:01 left.

It's preferable to run the clock instead of keeping the smallest of windows open for Tennessee, but 30-20 felt daunting. However, poor defense from the Colts watched the Titans drive 80 yards in four plays for a touchdown with 1:54 left. To end the drama, Pat Angerer recovered the onside kick, allowing the Colts to kneel down three times for the 30-27 win.

This marks the sixth time in 27 games that Luck has led the Colts to a win after trailing by at least 12 points. That's as many as Ben Roethlisberger (two) and Drew Brees (four) have combined in their full careers. Even Tom Brady only has seven such wins in his distinguished career. It's not relatively common to pull off -- unless you're talking about the Colts as Peyton Manning has 17 comeback wins after trailing by two touchdowns.

Chargers at Dolphins: Not Quite Dan Fouts vs. Dan Marino

It was a battle of 4-5 teams competing for that final AFC Wild Card spot, but it was far from a heavyweight bout as both teams have their share of flaws. Miami led 17-13 to start the fourth quarter. Failing to capitalize on Ryan Mathews' 51-yard run, San Diego settled for a 29-yard field goal after Philip Rivers nearly threw an interception to Nolan Carroll.

Both teams went three-and-out as the Dolphins made huge tackles for losses on consecutive plays against San Diego. Miami was able to add a field goal to regain the four-point lead at 20-16.

Rivers drove the Chargers to scoring territory, but rookie tackle D.J. Fluker was eaten alive by Olivier Vernon. That sack brought up fourth-and-12 at the Miami 36 with 4:07 left. San Diego showed no hesitation to punt the ball. Nick Novak's a solid kicker and it did not appear to be particularly windy, so the field goal was certainly an option. You could go for it too. Punting seemed like the worst option if you wanted to win the game, yet it was the chosen one.

Miami started at its own 6 with 3:58 left and immediately threw a pass for 15 yards on first down. How rare is a first-down pass in the four-minute offense? We only seen nine of them in the 2011-12 seasons combined. Miami was as aggressive in this situation as any team I recall charting.

Tannehill dropped back to throw on the next two plays, scrambling once and throwing another completion for 13 yards. After San Diego used its second timeout, Tannehill threw incomplete on second-and-8. On the next play, he made the same mistake rookie Mike Glennon made against Miami on Monday night when he scrambled and ran out of bounds to take a sack. Not only did that give up six yards, but it saved San Diego's last timeout.

The stage was set for Rivers to engineer a classic game-winning drive. He had 1:54 to drive 83 yards, but was down a weapon as rookie Keenan Allen left the game with an injury. Cameron Wake looked to sabotage the drive with a sack that forced Rivers to use his last timeout, but he had a 2010 flashback and converted with a 20-yard pass to Seyi Ajirotutu. After a spike he went back to Ajirotutu for 18 more yards to the Miami 25. He probably should have spiked it again as time (27 seconds when receiver went down on the catch) was the issue, but Rivers called a play at the line.

To make it worse, Rivers threw a very short pass to Antonio Gates that served no purpose when 25 yards were needed. It initially looked like a catch and fumble with the ball going out of bounds, but officials ruled it incomplete.

Down to seven seconds, Rivers had to go for the end zone. Miami stacked six at the line and rushed them all, which is admirable given the tendency to rush three here. Rivers adjusted and made the throw, but Brent Grimes had better position than Vincent Brown and did the right thing by knocking the ball down to end the game.

San Diego's lost six games by a combined 34 points and the only real difference from the last two years is not every failed game-winning drive ends with a turnover from Rivers. However, that's a three-game losing streak after the bye as the red zone continues to hurt this offense.

Packers at Giants: Tolzien Can't Create a Tolkien Fantasy for Green Bay

After starting three quarterbacks during a span of more than 21 years, the Packers were on their third starter in three weeks with Scott Tolzien getting his first opportunity. It was a tough spot on the road, but the Packers hung around and trailed the Giants 20-6 to start the fourth quarter.

The last time the Packers came back from a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win was on September 20, 1992 against Cincinnati. Brett Favre came off the bench for an injured Don Majkowski and started writing his legend in true mythical style.

Tolzien hoped to have his own special moment and got things started with a 52-yard pass to Jarrett Boykin, who beat Trumaine McBride deep. Eddie Lacy scored a touchdown on a day the Packers were held to 55 yards rushing and we had a one-score game. Green Bay's defense responded by sacking Eli Manning twice, including a third-down sack by Clay Matthews to force a three-and-out.

If you believe in momentum, this was the reminder that momentum cannot stop Jason Pierre-Paul from being an athletic freak. On the first play of the drive, Pierre-Paul jumped Tolzien's short pass and returned the interception 24 yards for a crushing touchdown with 10:49 left. New York led 27-13, which held up as the Packers went three-and-out and Tolzien threw his third interception on the game's final drive of relevance.

Excluding two spikes, Tolzien completed 24-of-32 passes for 339 yards, but three interceptions is something Aaron Rodgers has only done three times in 94 starts. The Packers have many issues, but not having their quarterback cannot be overstated. Green Bay has quickly fallen to 10th in the NFC and it is unbelievable which team is one game behind them.

Yes, freefalling at 0-6, the Giants have reeled off four straight wins thanks to a defense allowing just 26 total points during the streak. It sure helps when you get to play Josh Freeman (struggling veteran in his first game with Minnesota), Matt Barkley (clueless rookie off the bench), Terrelle Pryor (inexperienced starter) and Tolzien.

If Week 11 taught us anything, it's that catching teams at the right time and playing a lot of backup quarterbacks doesn't mean a team has a great defense. It can help produce great statistics, but as always, proper respect should only come following sustained success.

Season Summary
Fourth-quarter comebacks: 41
Game-winning drives: 51
Games with 4QC opportunity: 102/162 (63.0 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 22

Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro-Football-Reference. Win Probability comes from Advanced NFL Stats. Screen caps come from NFL Game Rewind.

Posted by: Scott Kacsmar on 19 Nov 2013

73 comments, Last at 21 Nov 2013, 4:21pm by Ryan D.


by Supadome :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 3:17pm

Maybe another pic will help you understand the Brooks penalty on Brees: http://twitpic.com/dlv0pl

Still need more? http://img.gawkerassets.com/img/196qwzdwbmbu6jpg/ku-xlarge.jpg

It's pretty clear that Brooks' has his hands on Brees' neck as the QB is going down. Sorry if you don't agree that this isn't a legal hit, but it's not 1998 anymore.

by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 3:24pm


These "I'm blindly ignoring what happened because I have a certain agenda" posts/articles are fine for a fan blog, but they don't belong on FO.

by Rhombus (not verified) :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 3:49pm

As a 49ers fan, I was not happy with the Brooks call. On replay, it was clear that Brees was hit across the shoulders, and it was nothing but a legal, violent hit. But I didn't have much of a problem with the refs throwing the flag, because in fast motion you could see Brees neck snap back, and the follow-through on the tackle made it look like Brooks had tackled him by the neck (as shown in the above pictures, although Supadome's conclusion is completely incorrect). And even though the call changed the course of the game, it didn't cause the 49ers to lose it. They still had plenty of chances to convert or stop the Saints' offense.

What the call did, IMO, was reinforce the necessity of instant replay on penalties that could easily be reviewed. It would probably have been overturned after a few seconds under the hood. That goes especially for important, high-yardage calls like pass interference or any personal foul.

It also throws into light the issue of refs erring on the side of "safety" rather than correctness. You should never throw the flag unless you know it is a penalty, if you saw something illegal happen. But these refs are trained to think that if there was a possibility of an unsafe play, you should throw the flag, and take the abuse on a bad call later. That might be a good policy if there was any indication this actually increased player safety, but it clearly has not: injuries are just as prevalent, and all the policy has accomplished is making players and coaches more upset and confused about borderline calls.

by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 4:00pm

The picture makes it pretty damn clear that Brooks right arm is wrapped around Brees neck, and his hand is on either his neck, or the side of his helmet.

I can't see any way to find any other conclusion from that photo that doesn't just boil down to just outright homerism.

by Rhombus (not verified) :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 4:25pm

Okay... the post was not meant to dissect the pictures, but to point out a flaw or two in the system that can actually be fixed. I'm not going to spend my life complaining about a particular call that can never be changed, since that is human error and will always be there. But I will complain about a policy that will continue to allow bad calls to be made. At the very least, we can both agree that there have been bad calls that could easily have been overturned on review.

As I am not a homer by any means, I'll let that comment slide. I like the Saints and I like Brees. But if you need to know why someone can look at these pictures and still know it's not a penalty:

Both pictures show instances of the tackle after the initial hit, which was clearly across the upper shoulder and not the neck. There is no way to tell from the pictures when the force is being applied, but in slow motion it did not look at all like he was forcibly throwing Brees down by the neck, or purposefully grabbing the neck. As Brees goes down, Brooks' hands and arms will naturally slip up, which is what is happening in the pictures. A player is allowed to touch the neck area as the QB falls down, but he is not allowed to HIT the neck area.

by Supadome :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 4:44pm

I'd be willing to bet that the refs would confirm the ruling under replay, not because of the hit, but because of the arm around the neck, the hand on the facemask (which is probably incidental, but still avoidable if Brooks' had hit lower) and the way Brooks appeared to fling Brees to the ground while he had his arm around his neck.

I think one reason that injuries haven't decreased is the threshold for injury has gone down...players don't get a pass when they have concussion symptoms anymore. It used to be they'd give the player a pretty easy test for confusion, and if they passed, end of story. Now they get a neurologist involved on the sideline. This is a good thing in my mind.

As for errant throwing of the flag, if they don't throw the flag, there won't be an opportunity to review it during the game, but you can bet it'll be reviewed afterwards, when the refs get their grades. The refs are under pressure to reduce/eliminate violent hits, so of course they'll be quick to flag, because they'll hear about it later if they don't.

by DisplacedPackerFan :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 5:01pm

The play reminded me of the Nick Perry hit on Andrew Luck last year. ( http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-game-highlights/0ap2000000071775/Unnecessa... ) Though I think Perry's was even cleaner than Brooks. But like you say, the refs are going to call those every time now. I'm not sure that's as bad of thing as you are claiming, but it's consistently called and players should be aware of it by now.

As to if it helps reduce injuries, that is hard to say, there are a lot of factors that contribute to injury rates in the NFL so trying to isolate the effects of any one of them is not a simple task making them all fairly easy to anecdotally attack from either the pro or con side. Is the reduced padded practice time the issue? Are the players being coached to do things that are more likely to cause injury? Are the rules allowing huge men too many opportunities to hit each other at high speeds? The average NFL player is demonstrably bigger, stronger, and faster than they were X years ago, are we simply seeing the edge of what a human body can do or withstand? None of those are easy to answer. All that being said, I do think some of the penalties are carrying things too far, and I do think that using instant replay for some of them would be good.

It is pretty clear and easy to show that hits hear the QBs head with any part of the defenders body are going to be flagged, by league policy as you state. So that is what mostly bothers me about the complaining. The common argument I hear about it being related to Brees height, if Brees were as tall as Luck, Brooks probably would have gotten flagged for helmet to helmet like Perry was because while his arm would have been more clearly in the chest, his helmet would have been closer to Brees. The league wants the defenders head around waist level and they are going to flag everything that isn't.

by usernaim250 :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 7:17pm

The measure isn't injuries per se, its impacts to the head. That's harder to assess, but it isn't to be assessed by a few borderline calls but by what happens on all the hits that might be aimed differently now.

The hit doesn't start at the neck but it surely ends there. Brees' is short--so what. We all know where his neck is.

If you look at the photo, you can see Brooks could easily have gotten a helmet to helmet impact in his tackle of Brees. Five years ago, he might have. Twenty years ago, I think it is a sure thing he would have. New rules and enforcement really do change player behavior. Once players believe they will be flagged and fined for blows to the head/neck, they will stop. It wouldn't have been that hard for Brooks to lower his arm/bend his legs. It actually would have been better tackling form.

The issue here (as with the coming change in locker room comportment that will be mandated by the league) is that the transition is painful as players get caught in the switches and/or test the boundaries of the new rules.

by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 3:20pm

"Gronkowski's momentum"

I'm not sure Keuchly would enjoy enjoy being called Gronkowski's anything.

by Ryan D. :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 3:30pm

Gronkowski is still running unimpeded toward the back line of the end zone when safety Robert Lester plants his foot, changes direction, undercuts him and dives for the ball at the front of the end zone. If Gronkowski hadn't already made his move back toward the ball, he was never going to get to the ball. Lester was going to intercept it, and Gronk was going to watch it happen regardless of Kuechly's actions.

Video: http://espn.go.com/video/clip?id=9998877 (@21 seconds)

by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 3:45pm

We're seeing different things there.

Keuchly and Lester both make contact with Gronkowski at 20 seconds. Thats when the foul begins. At that time, Gronkowski has his head turned back towards the quarterback, and has turned his torso partially back. Lester is behind him, and Keuchly infront. Lester puts both hands on Gronkowski, then begins to undercut as Keuchly hugs him. Keuchly rides him deeper into the endzone and he goes along with it. It happens before Lester undercuts him.

It's just patently absurd to believe that a 250+lb linebacker hanging on your back and driving you deeper into the endzone isnt' going to affect your ability to cut.

It seems very clear to me that Gronkowski was interfered with, and then gave up on the play because it was clear (to him) that he'd been fouled, and being ridden would further sell that.

I really don't like when Referees make guesses on what the player "would have done" had they not been fouled. There's no real way to tell, and the fact that there's discussion about this proves that.

by Rhombus (not verified) :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 3:56pm

It's very rare that a flag will be thrown in the end zone on the final play of the game. There are numerous instances of both offensive and defensive penalties that have gone unflagged in that situation. The offense should be aware of that, and plan accordingly.

It's a borderline call, and I think the Patriots certainly have a reason to be upset. But the fact is, on the last play of the game, the only sure way to get a touchdown is to actually catch it in the end zone. Gronk was clearly very, very covered, and Brady made a bad throw. I'm pretty sure Brady was just hoping for the penalty call. And you can't rely on that. It was a bad decision by Brady. Or, at best, a calculated decision that backfired.

by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 3:57pm

Yeah, I'm sorry, but "the officiating has been shitty at other times, so we should be ok with it being shitty now" just doesn't fit with me.

It was clear PI.

by Rhombus (not verified) :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 4:05pm

It's not "shitty officiating". It's more along the lines of SOP. Borderline calls are called less frequently in those situations. It's a gamble to rely on them, like Brady did, and like the 49ers did in the Super Bowl. The refs are very hesitant to decide a game, which I think is a good thing. It's like how some umpires have a short strike zone: if you keep pitching high strikes you're being stupid, regardless of what you think is fair.

by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 4:09pm

I'm sorry, but ignoring the rules because the game situation is tense is pretty much the definition of shitty officiating.

Not making the right call decides the game as much as making the wrong call.

by RickD :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 5:18pm

Tangent: this is why very few Red Sox fans were upset with the umps after Game 3 of the WS. (Well, maybe I should say "most Red Sox fans were upset but accepted the call.") The interference call on Will Middlebrooks gave game 3 to the Cardinals. That's the ultimate in terms of a "tense situation." And yet it was the right call.

Pocketing the whistle because it's a "tense situation" is inane.

by Johnny Socko (not verified) :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 4:15pm

Clear in your mind at least. Perfectly reasonable people watch the same video and conclude no PI. It was such a poorly executed play (under thrown ball & receiver making little effort to catch it) that I suspect if the flag was never thrown in the first place, the game would have ended with no hang ringing.

by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 4:17pm

And I suspect if Gronkowski wasn't interfered with, he would have scored a touchdown, which is why this is all a little silly, and why an article like this has no place on a stats site.

Its a waste of time.

by Led :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 4:36pm

I call shenanigans. You don't honestly think that Gronkowski would have caught that ball, do you? I mean, reasonable people can argue technicalities of the rules (which is why an article like this fits in fine here), but that's just ridiculous.

by RickD :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 5:03pm

I don't think the rule requires certainty that the receiver would have caught the ball, only that he was impeded from having a chance at a ball he might have caught.

by Ryan D. :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 5:20pm

The ball was deemed uncatchable. The referees determined that there was zero chance that "he might have caught" the ball, even if Kuechly had not touched him. Based on Gronk's own inertia, and the superior body positioning of Robert Lester, this is the correct call.

by PatsFan :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 5:34pm

That's all fine in the abstract.

However, we all see DPI calls made and enforced every week where the ball is significantly more uncatchable than that ball was. That's my problem with the call.

by Scott Kacsmar :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 5:38pm

Yes, I think by the laws of physics, uncatchable is 100% the right call. However, we know refs are not getting all of these calls right by physics. So that lack of consistency is an issue and one that's not going away as long as humans are involved in the process.

by Led :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 5:54pm

I think it's true that you see DPIs on more uncathable passes, but I'd argue for a bit more robust application of the uncatchable rule in practice. Regardless, isn't that a bit like arguing for a WR to get into the HoF because he was better than Lynn Swan? The existence of worse calls is not an argument for making a bad call. Plus, if there was ever a time to err on the side of let them play so long as it didn't effect the outcome, then the last play of the game when the QB heaves a poorly-thrown prayer into the endzone while about to be sacked would be it.

by PatsFan :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 6:14pm

I'm also for a more robust application of the uncatchable rule. But done consistently on a league-wide basis, not on an arbitrary pick-and-choose basis.

by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Wed, 11/20/2013 - 2:02am


What is the uncatchable rule adding to the game?

I'd rather have it be called PI, whether or not its catchable. We don't give a lineman who holds a pass if the run goes to the other side. We don't give a special teams player a pass if the returner doesn't benefit from his block in the back. So why are we giving a cornerback a break if the ball isn't well thrown?

by Tim F. (not verified) :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 7:17pm

Do we see balls significantly further away not ruled uncatchable but which are then picked off 4 yards in front of the intended receiver by the opposing team?

Maybe it's happened, but I can't remember any. That's a much closer analogy but I don't think you can reasonably make it.

by Ryan D. :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 4:06pm

The incidental contact at 20 seconds has not been called on an end-of-game pass to the end zone in any game that I've ever seen. And let's be honest, Lester's contact was incidental, at worst. Lester barely brushed him with his hands, and in no way inhibited Gronkowski's movement in any direction (31 seconds). Lester had already weaved around Gronkowski moving toward the location of the ball (22 seconds) before Kuechly noticeably altered Gronkowski's ability to come back toward the ball (23 seconds).

Gronk cannot possibly catch that ball, even if Kuechly isn't there. Gronk's best case scenario would be reaching over Lester's shoulder and trying to punch the ball out to prevent the interception. Even that would have been a stretch, given the angle of the incoming throw and the momentum of the two players.

by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 4:11pm

I don't know how you can make any inference to what a player could have done without being interfered by judging what he did with a 250 lb man hanging all over him.

Gronkowski is a world class athlete. It wouldn't be the first ball he stopped and caught over or around a defender.

by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 4:37pm

Talk about blatant homerism...

You can argue that similar plays are often called pass interference, but you can't possibly argue that Gronkowski had any chance whatsoever of catching the touchdown. Unless he's also Plastic Man, there's no way he can even get a hand on the ball no matter what Keuchley does. It was a severe underthrow by Brady.

by Ryan D. :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 4:43pm

Agreed. Lester broke for the ball while Gronkowski was still running freely in the wrong direction. Lester barely caught the ball while diving to the ground. Gronkowski would have to completely stop, plant and drive back to the ball, and then dive through Lester to have any chance at a catch. It couldn't have happened, even if Kuechly was behind Gronk pushing him toward the ball.

by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Thu, 11/21/2013 - 1:29pm

"Lgreed. Lester broke for the ball while Gronkowski was still running freely in the wrong direction."

This is simply not true. Gronkowski has already planted his back foot and turned his torso when Lester breaks for the ball. Lester has better position on the ball than Gronkowski at that point, but not significantly.

by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Thu, 11/21/2013 - 1:32pm


Here is a screenshot of what I'm talking about. Gronkowski is trying to change direction, Keuchly is clearly interfering with him, and Lester has not yet cut in front of him.

by Ryan D. :: Thu, 11/21/2013 - 4:21pm

Gronk is not yet attempting to change direction. He is just turning his head and torso to look for the ball. He might be about to try to plant his right foot, but he isn't yet there. He is still voluntarily moving in the direction of the back line of the end zone.

In this same frame, Lester has already planted his right foot and stepped forward with his left foot. Also, he is already cutting underneath Gronk, moving in the direction of the ball. At this exact moment in time, Lester has Gronk 100% beat to the ball. Kuechly is touching his shoulder, but has yet to start pushing in the opposite direction.

by usernaim250 :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 7:27pm

If you can argue that he might have been able to defense the interception, then it is interference. That seems obvious.

If he's close enough to influence the play, then he is close enough to catch it. Even if the only way he could catch it is if Lester bobbled/tipped the ball, it's pass interference. [Once he tips it of course, contact becomes legal, but not before.] Uncatchable should only apply if a) over the receiver's head, b) too far out of bounds, or c) touches the ground much further in front of the receiver than was the case here.

If you flip the situation and one receiver pushes a db to allow a second receiver to catch a ball the db might have defensed, that would be OPI, wouldn't it?

by morganja :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 7:34pm

Clearly not as evidenced by the Patriots screen pass game. I don't think I've seen them throw a screen pass in ten years in which they weren't blocking while the ball was in the air.

by c0rrections (not verified) :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 10:58pm

His only method to defense the interception would be to committ interference himself since the other player had superior body position. In any case he had no chance to break that up. He doesn't even try to come back towards it until well after he could have possibly caught the ball.

by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Wed, 11/20/2013 - 2:42am

Of course, because 6'6 260 lb receivers never catch the ball over 6'2 defensive backs when the defensive back has better position.

by dmstorm22 :: Wed, 11/20/2013 - 10:17am

Not when the 6'2" guy had to come back towards the ball and caught it at chest level. There is no way Gronk is catching that ball.

by Ryan D. :: Wed, 11/20/2013 - 10:43am

Are we talking about a different throw than the one that arrived low and 5 yards in front of Gronkowski on the final play of the game? I must have went to bed before the referees apaprently must have sent both teams back out on to the field for an extra play on an untimed down.

Since I didn't see the extra play, I'm just guessing that on this well-placed high throw that you are describing, Brady threw a jump ball that Lester leaped up and caught directly in front of Gronkowski, right? But, he must not have made a play on that ball because of Kuechly mugging him, again. In that case, they definitely should have called something, and given Gronk back his lunch money.

by arm2013 (not verified) :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 3:26pm

honestly think you need to recrunch your ot deferring numbers. I have done the math including the advantage of having 4 down territory up until you are in fg range if the other team scores first. However you still always have a greater than 10% advantage in winning the game, regardless of your opponents strengths and weaknesses, if you receive. The only factor that would sway this would be weather. Im not sure what the weather was for the game, however unless it was very windy i do not see why you would not defer. If you can email me with your math that makes you think it is advisable to defer i would greatly appreciate it. I am not calling you out here i just know that my math is pretty solid and i can see no way there isnt an advantage to receiving. Unless of course the weather makes it impossible to score going against the weather, if that is what you are saying as well than i apologize and completely agree. Here is a link of a simplified version of my math that shows the superiority of receiving: http://www.advancednflstats.com/2010/03/new-proposed-overtime-rules.html

by Sisyphus :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 6:23pm

The weather had been driving rain and the winds were still an issue which at Soldier's Field is not uncommon. The field conditions were terrible, traction was poor, the field was slow, and receivers were rounding off routes just to avoid falling down. Both offenses were ineffective largely as a result of the field conditions. These elements did make it very tempting to take the wind as one end of the field there tends to be worse than the other in terms of swirling winds. (I remeber several years ago seeing a field goal attempt there that ended up going out of the side of the end zone due to the wind.)

by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 3:27pm

"then why does every coach continue to want the ball first?"

Because kickoffs get returned for touchdowns. Because even bad offenses score touchdowns relatively frequently.

Does this offset being forced to play 3 down ball while your opponent plays 4 down ball? Maybe, maybe not. But there are certainly reasons to prefer having the ball first.

Also, kicking off after winning the toss, and having the other team march down the field, or return the kick for a TD, would probably lose you your job.

by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 3:35pm

Scott has mentioned this before, but Marty Morninwheg ruined it for everybody else.

by Scott Kacsmar :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 5:19pm

I think the 2011 change to the kickoff rule has an impact on this that's not being captured by past data and probabilities. It's clear average starting field position is worse than it was prior to 2011. Just look at FO's drive stats. Touchbacks are way up and with more drives starting at the 20, that makes it harder to get a touchdown. Marc Trestman is citing such numbers, so I have to believe he's aware of the odds of going 80 yards for a TD. It was Harbaugh's decision this week, but I do think we'll see a coach try it at some point. This would have been one of those perfect games to do it as neither offense played that well and the field was a mess.

The true advantage of going first is you're more likely to get a second possession before the opponent. So far, 19 of these 32 games have ended before the coin-toss winner got that second possession, but they're still more likely to.

I just believe that when you have to get a TD to make that first drive end the game, you're not at a real advantage unless you play very aggressively to score that TD. Historically, we know most teams aren't that aggressive in such situations. Just look at the end of regulation. I think Baltimore could have done a lot more to get the winning TD instead of settling for the tying FG.

Modified OT is new territory, yet I think we've seen pretty much every team employ the old strategies as if nothing's changed.

by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 3:31pm

Even though Schwartz' fake FG decision ended up backfiring, I have no problem with going for it. Worst-case scenario is that the other team is pinned well inside their own 10 yard line. If the opposing offense can drive 90+ yards for a touchdown, then they deserve to win (which is exactly what happened).

My only problem with that scenario is that when you have a good offense, I feel like you have higher chance of converting with said offense, rather than a special teams unit which has been pretty bad this year.

by WeaponX (not verified) :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 4:23pm

The leg whip that caused an MCL injury to Charles Johnson had more to do with the final score than the contact that people are QQing over.

by RickD :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 4:48pm

"Now the contact did not happen until the ball was in the air, so there's no illegal contact and there's no defensive holding (Rule 8, Section 4, Article 7)."

Rule 8, Article 7, Section 4 doesn't say what you claim it says.

If the quarterback or the receiver of the snap demonstrates no further intention to pass the ball (i.e., hands off or pitches the ball to another player, throws a forward or backward pass, loses possession of the ball by a muff that touches the ground or a fumble, or if he is tackled) the restrictions on the defensive team prohibiting illegal contact, an illegal cut block, or defensive holding against an offensive receiver will end...

Unless you want to argue that actually passing the ball indicates "no further intention to pass the ball".

Also, FO alum Bill Barnwell disagrees with you about whether holding could be called:

"The third possibility is defensive holding, which has a much stronger case. Defensive holding has no such disclaimer about the ball being in the quarterback's hands or the receiver being near a catchable pass, so the arguments against the first two possible calls don't apply."


Barnwell curiously argues that holding should have been called, but still the no-call doesn't matter and the Patriots didn't deserve to win.

I'm pretty sure actually holding a receiver while the ball is in the air is still a penalty. It's just not usually called because PI is also a penalty then, and it carries a larger sanction against the defense (usually a lot more than 5 yards). And most cases of holding are also PI.

In any case, you might want to talk to Bill and figure out which of the two of you is correct.

by Insancipitory :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 5:09pm

Think of Barnwell arguing that the official was in error, but the outcome was 'just' in the "(long) Moral Arc of the Universe" sense.

by RickD :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 5:13pm

FWIW, I'm far more interested in learning whether Bill or Scott is correct about defensive holding than trying to make sense of Bill's value judgments. :)

I'll let Bill Simmons, our nation's leading Boston-area homer and head honcho at Grantland, deal with the possible contradictions there. I suspect it'll come up this week.

by Scott Kacsmar :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 5:28pm

There's some shaky language involving the three big penalties of illegal contact, defensive holding and pass interference. Years ago I took it as accepted knowledge that the first two are for when the quarterback still has the ball in the pocket and PI isn't an option until the ball's in the air (we actually have a pass).

On the McCourty penalty, the contact (legit or not) was before the pass was thrown, so that's called defensive holding and not PI. I get that. Maybe we can go look up some more examples of plays, but I would tend to believe that defensive holding gets called for contact prior to the pass being thrown.

The Patriots caught a huge break against the 2007 Ravens on fourth down with a defensive holding penalty. The DB did not let go until about 7-8 yards down the field and obviously was holding before the pass was thrown.

As mentioned below, on Twitter I was talking about the fourth-down play in Atlanta this year with the Patriots using two defenders to jam up Tony Gonzalez. There is a rule for illegal contact inside the five-yard zone where the receiver just has to get even with the defender. I'm not sure how Gonzalez could ever get through two guys and they kept the contact up all the way through the pass and ball in the air. And yes, Belichick got some kudos for that one from Collinsworth I believe. Gonzalez certainly got more than even with at least one of those defenders, but no flag. I'm not sure it should matter if he wasn't the target of the pass (how could he be with that coverage?) as we see penalties on plays away from the ball all the time.

So again, it's always a shaky thing with the officials making/not making calls in crunch time, but I don't see how anyone can say Gronkowski is going to make that TD. I would prefer Kuechly to not be allowed to do what he did without penalty, but the same can be said for what the Patriots did to Gonzalez in Atlanta.

by dmstorm22 :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 5:23pm

Considering that one of the parenthetical instances of 'demonstrat[ing] no further intent to pass the ball' is literally 'throw[ing] a forward pass' then yes, it is a reasonable argument that passing the ball does indeed indicate "no further intention to pass the ball"

And Bill Barnwell tweeted out a link to a Pats Pulpit (Patriots SBNation blog) article that cites the same rule, and said that the tweet is for an article that indicates the refs shouldn't have called DH either.

by RickD :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 6:42pm

Is Barnwell now arguing against himself?

by dmstorm22 :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 7:15pm

He, seemingly, was not aware of rule 8.4.7 before writing that article. Once made aware, he tweeted it out.

by Tim F. (not verified) :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 8:02pm

The link and quote you provided precisely states what you claim is just a suggestion:

"(i.e., hands off or pitches the ball to another back, throws a forward or backward pass, loses possession of the ball by a muff that touches the ground or a fumble, or if he is tackled, the restrictions on the defensive team prohibiting illegal contact, an illegal cut block, or defensive holding against an offensive receiver will end."

So, yes, clearly, actually already passing the ball indicates the QB can no longer have an intention to pass the ball.

Anyone arguing that holding is a permissible call is dismissible. Completely and utterly wrong.

by RickD :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 5:09pm

"Now if there was ever a modified overtime game where the coach would defer after winning the coin toss, this would have to be it, right? "

You don't have an option of deferring with the OT coin toss. You can either elect to kick, elect to receive, or choose which direction you want to move in. I think you mean that Harbaugh should have chosen to go with the wind.

The rest of your argument, that Harbaugh should have been reluctant to take the ball and move in exactly the same direction that the Ravens had had a 75-yard scoring drive, is pretty weak. You may want to quibble about the exact tactics he used. That seems to be the upshot of the "3-down drive" argument. But it doesn't seem like much of an argument.

The Ravens had just driven the length of the field to tie the game. And they had moved the ball with relative ease on that drive. And you're arguing, what, that they should have preferred kicking off instead?

by Scott Kacsmar :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 5:35pm

Rick, you're right about kicking vs. deferring. I kind of knew it when I typed it, but left it go.

Now, unless you're going to come out and play with the same urgency you did when you were trailing, how is it going to be an advantage when you're using three downs instead of four?

That's the other issue. I think if a team scores last in the 4th quarter and wins the coin toss, they need to come out with an aggressive approach and use the hurry-up. Try to continue the same success they just had.

The only team I can recall doing that was New England (go figure; smart coach) against the Jets last year. Both drives produced a FG, then Sanchez lost a fumble to end it.

Again, this is why modified OT is fascinating because it can bring about situations we never really see in regulation in a tight game. Running a hurry-up two-minute drill when there's 15 minutes left? Unusual, even some teams down 21 points early 4th quarter tend to take their time. Playing four-down football without being constrained by the clock? You practically never see that in a one-score game, yet that's what we'd get if the receiving team gets a FG and you have to answer. Too bad that one's only played out four times so far. Jags/Texans was a hell of a game with both teams scoring last year.

by RickD :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 6:32pm

"Now, unless you're going to come out and play with the same urgency you did when you were trailing, how is it going to be an advantage when you're using three downs instead of four?"

This reminds me of a common thing that baseball announcers say. When a good batter is at the plate, they sometimes criticize the guy on 1st for stealing 2nd, if it then leads to an intentional walk. "You've taken the bat out of (x)'s hands!" If it were so much of an advantage to have those guys at 1st and 2nd, the pitcher could have thrown a walk even with the runner still at first. So clearly the defense, at least, thinks it's an advantage to not have the man on 2nd.

The analogy here is that, clearly the offense thinks it's better to have the ball in a tie game than when trailing. If it were such an advantage for the offense to "play with a sense of urgency", they could make exactly the same plays while pretending that they were behind.

If we want to talk tactics, I agree that the Ravens should have played that first drive with the same hurry-up offense that they had used to tie the game. When you're in a sudden-death situation, you have to play with a sense of urgency.

by morganja :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 5:19pm

The uproar over the last play is almost as great as the uproar over the Patriots repeatedly tackling Gonzales at the end of the week 4 game. Man, how espn and everyone howled over that nonstop. It still is the biggest story in the NFL now. I'm sure everyone remembers the blatant illegal contact that didn't get called on three consecutive plays on the final drive that cost the Falcons the game....

by RickD :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 6:41pm

Nobody actually threw a flag in that game.

You cannot honestly expect the media to care as much about the hundreds of complaints every week from fans who think a flag should have been thrown as they will care when a flag is first thrown, and then picked up.

Regarding the Gonzalez play, what penalty do you think should have been called there? Illegal contact? But it wasn't illegal contact. It was all within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. Holding? It wasn't holding. It was just very forceful, legal contact. The only substantive difference between that play and the usual chuck at the line of scrimmage is that the Pats had two players do so, not one. And they coordinated to keep Gonzalez from getting to the pass reception safe area downfield. But as far as I can tell, you can legally pancake a receiver within the first five yards and it's not a penalty.

Let's not forget that the Patriots exposed the rest of the defense by double-teaming Gonzalez. This is a very risky approach to defense that they would never use against a team with multiple high-quality receivers like Denver. (With all due respect to Julio Jones and Roddy White, I think one of the two was injured that week.)

It seems like the Patriots found a way to play within the rules and that people are upset because somehow doing something unexpected is cheating. Or something like that.

Unless somebody wants to argue that actual holding happened on the play. That would be a completely different argument.

by morganja :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 7:27pm

The correct call was illegal contact. One player is allowed to hit a receiver ONE time within five yards and end contact at five yards. They repeatedly hit Gonzales like a ping-pong ball in consecutive plays all throughout the final drive. It was about three hundred and seventy-two times more blatant than what Keuchly did to Gronk. And they did it the entire drive.
Maybe as a fan one might not know the rule. But I guarantee you that the defensive backs know that because it is taught to us from junior high, and I guarantee you that Belichick knew the rule. But the refs allowed them to do it and that is one of my main beefs against Belichick. He coaches his players to break the rules that he calculates the refs will ignore.
It's his MO.
It's effective but poor sportsmanship.
Note that when the Falcons took their complaint to the NFL, the NFL realized they were correct, and penalized the Jets for trying the exact same thing on Gonzales.

by tuluse :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 7:34pm

I've never heard the restrictions that only 1 player is allowed to jam or that he's only allowed to jam once.

Do you have an excerpt of the rule book with that explanation?

by PatsFan :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 9:06pm

Citation for your assertion that only one player can only chuck the receiver once in the five-yard zone, please. The full 2013 NFL rulebook is available at http://static.nfl.com/static/content/public/image/rulebook/pdfs/2013%20-...

by morganja :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 10:06pm

Chucking: Chucking is a means of warding off an eligible receiver who is in front of a defender by contacting him with a quick extension of arm or arms followed by the return of arm(s) to a flexed position, or by maintaining continuous and unbroken contact within five yards of the line of scrimmage, so long as the receiver has not moved beyond the point that is even with the defender (See 8-4 Articles 1-4).

You couldn't look that up on your own?

by PatsFan :: Wed, 11/20/2013 - 4:47pm

And where in there does it say in there that a second defender can't chuck the receiver with the five-yard zone after the first defender goes elsewhere, so long as the receiver hasn't gone past that second defender?

by morganja :: Wed, 11/20/2013 - 5:20pm

That's immaterial to the issue at hand. The Patriot defenders each chucked multiple times and all should have been called for illegal contact.

by Scott Kacsmar :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 7:38pm

Illegal contact can be called within five yards: https://twitter.com/FO_ScottKacsmar/status/402872944742764544/photo/1

Again, this play and the Kuechly play both come off pretty shady to me. I wouldn't want a flag on either, but we've seen weaker stuff than that called before.

by Corey (not verified) :: Wed, 11/20/2013 - 2:21pm

I don't think you all know the laws of physics.

For the pass to be "uncatchable" means that if the receiver is the only person in existance, could he have caught the ball inbounds.

And the answer here is... yes. Hell yes, actually. Just because it was obviously going to be picked off in front of Gronk does not mean it is "uncatchable". If a WR runs an out, and two corners are covering him, and one corner intercepts the pass clearly in front of the WR but the back corner tackles the WR, does that mean it was "uncatchable"? Because even if the WR wasn't tackled, the corner would pick it off? No.

by greybeard :: Thu, 11/21/2013 - 1:25pm

"For the pass to be "uncatchable" means that if the receiver is the only person in existance, could he have caught the ball inbounds."

Did you just make this up? I read in two different places that the rule book does not define what uncatchable means. So if the ref thought that guy could not have catched it, it is uncatchable.

by morganja :: Wed, 11/20/2013 - 4:59pm

There seems to be all kinds of confusion regarding this last play. After going back and looking at it, I'll describe what I saw and why the non-call was the correct call.

When the play develops Gronk is running towards the end zone. As he crosses the end zone line, Keuchly has inside position, Lester is in front of him facing the quarterback.
Gronk sees that Keuchly has inside position and that he can't cut inside him, so he makes the correct decision to take his route to the inside of Lester to the back of the end zone where he will have a one on one matchup with Keuchly.
Brady avoids the pass rush and makes a good throw on a bad decision. For whatever reason, most likely because he didn't see Keuchly, he decided that Gronk was going to cut into the front of the end zone. Brady makes a good pass to that spot.
Unfortunately, Gronk noticed Keuchly had the inside position and adjusted his route.
At this point there was no pass interference. Only incidental contact.
Gronk takes two steps towards the back of the end zone and pivots his head to look for the ball. At this point the ball is in the air, Lester has broken for it, and just as Lester catches the ball, Gronk half-heartedly puts on the breaks, because he already knows it's too late.
It is at that point that Keuchly is called for interference, when he bounces off Gronk without looking back for the ball.
The refs conference and conclude, correctly, that the ball was already being intercepted when the interference occurred and that the ball was uncatchable by Gronk.
This is what the refs saw. This is what I saw.

by Scott Kacsmar :: Wed, 11/20/2013 - 5:31pm

I wrote about the last play after downloading a copy of the game:


Sport Science is trying to say refs had 0.667 seconds to see contact, but they're basing it on Kuechly just touching him. That's not good enough. By the time Kuechly gets that right arm around for the bear hug, ball's already inside the 10 and Lester is stretched out to intercept it. Can easily see why they'd conclude what they did (contact at roughly the same time as INT).

by Led :: Wed, 11/20/2013 - 7:48pm

I agree that the Sports Science bit was a pre-determined conclusion dressed up in pseudo-scientific clothing. To add to your point, they say Gronkowski can decelerate from 16mph to 0 in .5 seconds, leaving him nearly .5 seconds to make a play on the ball. But they don't factor in that that Gronkowski would continue to travel forward while he decelerated. At an average speed of 8mph during that .5 seconds (averaging 16 and 0 mph), he would travel about 2 yards. So Gronk would have to decelerate to zero in terms of his forward motion and then immediately accelerate from 0 in the other direction and travel back to the ball in under .5 seconds. (He'd also need to see the ball and recognize where it is going to be, which takes some time.) Gronk's 40 time is 4.65 or .117 seconds per yard. Of course, the first few yards of a 40 are the slowest because it takes time to accelerate. Gronk's 10 yard split is 1.58, or .158 seconds per yard, and his 5 yard split would be even slower. Assuming uniform acceleration to simplify things, we're looking at .199 seconds per yard. (That gives Gronk a bit too much credit for accelerating from a stopped position as his 20 yard short shuttle time is 4.47, or .2235 seconds per yard.) So under perfect combine conditions, in shorts, with full rest, with no opponent in the way, Gronk could travel 2 yards from a full stop in about .4 seconds. That's barely enough time for Gronk even to theoretically make a play on the ball even if he has superhuman instantaneous reflexes. Now consider that Gronk is wearing full pads(!), and he's exhausted from playing a full game and just sprinting 25 yards into the endzone and then decelerating as fast as he could, and he has to navigate some defenders? No chance. Now also consider that in real life Gronk was not actually attempting to decelerate as fast as he could even before Keuchly started to interfere, and you realize that the whole exercise was based on a false premise.

ESPN as an organization took a very aggressive and critical position on the call during the game and in the immediate aftermath (much as they did with the Seattle/Green Bay game, and the dogmatism was equally wrong then). It doesn't surprise me at all that in both cases they would put together "science" pieces to support the company line.

by morganja :: Wed, 11/20/2013 - 7:59pm

Good article. Unfortunately, if the roles had been reversed and the Patriots intercepted the last second throw on this exact play, there would have been no comment from ESPN and the media. It was a close call, the refs made the correct decision, and if it had been any other team except ESPN's favorite, then it wouldn't even have warranted an article, let alone the paroxysms of hysteria to which we were treated.
The Patriots had already gotten their quota of breaks from the refs that day anyhow. They failed on a fourth down conversion and two third down conversions only to have them converted by penalty.