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25 Nov 2014

Clutch Encounters: Week 12

by Scott Kacsmar

The week got off to a great start with Oakland's upset win over the Chiefs, but the rest of Week 12's national games were also really good for a change. The Saints finally dropped a home game in prime time, Odell Beckham's catch blew up the Internet, and Peyton Manning broke a record that rarely gets broken in the NFL's 95-year history.

Game of the Week

Miami Dolphins 36 at Denver Broncos 39

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 11 (28-17)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD starting with 11:17 left): 0.38
Head Coach: John Fox (32-45 at 4QC and 41-50 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Peyton Manning (41-48 at 4QC and 53-53 overall 4QC/GWD record)

For the second year in a row, the Denver Broncos won the season's biggest shootout with a fourth-quarter comeback. Last season's 99-point track meet in Dallas was not unexpected, but few would have imagined with the pass-rushing talent on display that the Broncos and Dolphins would combine for 75 points on 18 drives (4.17 points per drive).

Miami's offense was not expected to keep up with Denver, but Ryan Tannehill had a strong game and special teams failed the Broncos in the third quarter. Brandon McManus missed a 33-yard field goal after a long drive and Isaiah Burse fumbled a punt return, leading to a 28-17 Miami lead and a lot of nervous fans. A temporary sigh of relief came from C.J. Anderson's 20-yard run on fourth-and-2 to end the quarter. Anderson was outstanding on the day with 167 rushing yards.

Fortunately, Peyton Manning has some experience at these comebacks, leading his teams to six wins in his career after trailing by at least 11 points in the fourth quarter. Manning only threw three incompletions in the second half, but they all came on consecutive throws where he missed Sanders for big plays with Brent Grimes and Jimmy Wilson getting beat in coverage. Manning was able to finish the drive anyway with an easy 5-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas after Grimes fell in the end zone. I recall Grimes falling down several times against Jordy Nelson in the fourth quarter earlier this year in Green Bay's comeback. For all the talk about Miami's injured cornerbacks, most of the damage was done against the usual starters.

With 14:09 left Denver had that decision we talked about last week of whether or not to go for the two-point conversion in a five-point game. The game records are certainly interesting since 1994 in this situation:

  • Total: 35-139 (.201)
  • Kick the extra point: 2-16 (.111)
  • Two-point conversion: 33-123 (.212)
  • Failed two point-conversion: 25-57 (.305)
  • Successful two-point conversion: 8-66 (.108)

We could study this better in the offseason, but I think teams converting the two and cutting it to a three-point game lose most often because they keep the tying field goal an option instead of having to score the go-ahead touchdown. Would you rather trust Manning with four downs or settle on the ever-shrinking field goal range of McManus? So even though I hate to oblige Phil Simms' "don't chase the points" talk, I think early in the fourth quarter the extra point is fine in this situation. It should be noted Miami had the same decision late in this game, but at that point the two-point conversion was a no-brainer even for Simms…maybe.

Denver went for two and Sanders was wide-open after Grimes was subtly picked off by Wes Welker. Miami only led 28-25 and picked a bad time for a quick punt. Sanders continued to beat every coverage thrown his way. The Dolphins' biggest mistake was playing zone on a second-and-19 following a holding penalty on Orlando Franklin. Sanders picked up 17, and that really saved the drive. Needing to avoid the field goal with that shaky kicker, Anderson sprinted right up the middle for a 10-yard touchdown, and the Broncos had their first lead of the day at 32-28.

Struggling to close out games has been a hallmark of the Joe Philbin/Tannehill era, with a poor 5-15 (.250) record in game-winning drive opportunities. This next sequence would not help. Tannehill's pass for Jarvis Landry came in a little high and wide, and the deflection went right to T.J. Ward, who returned it 37 yards to the Miami 8 with 3:30 left.

Denver probably should have come out running, but threw two safe passes to Welker, who beat Wilson for Manning's fourth touchdown pass of the day. Even with a 39-28 lead, we know the Broncos tend to make things interesting. Tannehill marched Miami right down the field with the help of a few penalties, quickly adding eight more points to the scoreboard.

Anderson ended most of the drama by recovering the ensuing onside kick, but with 1:33 left and the Dolphins still having a timeout, that's not an automatic three-knees-to-victory situation. Anderson ended things for good with a 26-yard run.

You can argue that Miami earned some respect by performing well on the road, but at some point the team has to start winning these games. The reality is that Miami blew a fourth-quarter lead for the third time this season and sits at 6-5 -- good for 10th place in the AFC with Buffalo (6-5) right there.

Manning now has the most game-winning drives in NFL history with 52, passing Dan Marino and fittingly doing so in a game against Miami. Since 1950, only three other quarterbacks have earned sole possession of the game-winning drive record: Sammy Baugh (1950), Johnny Unitas (1962), and Dan Marino (1995). Should my clock expire before this record gets broken again, then I'll fondly remember this game's place in history as the first time a player ever broke the record with the NFL actually acknowledging he has it. I like to think I can take some credit for that.

Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind

Dallas Cowboys 31 at New York Giants 28

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 4 (28-24)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD starting with 3:00 left): 0.26
Head Coach: Jason Garrett (16-19 at 4QC and 20-21 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Tony Romo (23-31 at 4QC and 27-33 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Odell Beckham, Jr., stole the show in the first half with his incredible touchdown catch, but the Cowboys stole the game in one of the finest passing duels Tony Romo and Eli Manning have ever had. Seven of their last eight meetings have featured fourth-quarter comeback opportunities. Naturally, Dallas led 24-21 heading into the final act.

With Beckham suffering a fourth-quarter injury, Manning stepped up to make some of his best throws of the night to his other receivers on a 93-yard drive. Rashad Jennings ran hard behind an improved line and gained 27 yards on a swing pass. The drive was capped off by Adrien Robinson's 1-yard touchdown catch.

That set the stage for Romo to deliver in prime time in a classic situation: three minutes left, 80 yards to go and your team absolutely needing a touchdown. Dallas has pulled off a drive with those specifics just one other time since 1981, and that too was engineered by Romo against the 2007 Lions.

Cowboys: Game-winning Touchdown Drives Started in Last 3:00, Down 4-6 Points (Since 1981)
Date Opp Quarterback Down Final Time DL Touchdown
9/8/1986 NYG Danny White 28-24 W 31-28 2:10 72 Herschel Walker 10-yd TD run w/1:16 left
11/16/1986 at SD Steve Pelluer 21-17 W 24-21 2:09 61 Steve Pelluer 2-yd TD run w/1:37 left
9/15/1997 PHI Troy Aikman 20-15 W 21-20 2:56 62 14-yd TD pass to Anthony Miller w/0:51 left
10/13/2002 CAR Quincy Carter 13-7 W 14-13 2:48 67 24-yd TD pass to Antonio Bryant w/0:56 left
12/26/2004 WAS Vinny Testaverde 10-6 W 13-10 1:25 75 39-yd TD pass to Patrick Crayton w/0:30 left
12/9/2007 at DET Tony Romo 27-21 W 28-27 2:15 83 16-yd TD pass to Jason Witten w/0:18 left
1/2/2011 at PHI Stephen McGee 13-7 W 14-13 2:54 54 4-yd TD pass to Jason Witten w/0:55 left
11/23/2014 at NYG Tony Romo 28-24 W 31-28 3:00 80 13-yd TD pass to Dez Bryant w/1:01 left

After DeMarco Murray did his part to convert on third-and-1 with a 9-yard run to get to the two-minute warning, Romo took over the rest of the drive. Perhaps more accurately, the offensive line took over. The Giants have been famous for their four-man rush in the Tom Coughlin era, but this defensive line was no match for Dallas' offensive line. Romo held the ball for about seven seconds before finding Jason Witten for 16 yards. That's the time some quarterbacks would take to fire three or four passes.

One example of pristine pass protection is not much to gush over, but two plays later the Cowboys held up for more than seven seconds again, with Romo using the pump-fake to buy extra time. He eventually found his matchup in the back of the end zone and Dez Bryant beat Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to the ball for the 13-yard touchdown with 1:01 left. That was just awesome protection.

The Giants still had three timeouts and only needed a field goal. The unheralded Dallas defense put enough pressure on Manning to force an incompletion on third down, quickly bringing up fourth-and-2. Manning looked off the defense before going back to his right, but his pass to Jennings was not thrown deep enough to get to the sticks and Rolando McClain made an excellent tackle to prevent any yards after the catch. After review, the call on the field of a first down was correctly changed to a turnover on downs and the Cowboys pulled off their first fourth-quarter comeback win over the Giants since 2003.

Romo is the first quarterback in NFL history with at least four game-winning drives in four consecutive seasons. It was funny to hear NBC's Cris Collinsworth remark that "Isn't it amazing that Tony Romo has those kind of numbers in the fourth quarter, yet he's known for not being successful in that situation?" Yes, that's exactly what I have been writing about for the last four years. At some point the volume of success should be too big to ignore, but this is the curse of not having playoff success in today's game. Romo's critics are already waiting for him to falter in Thursday's first-place showdown with Philadelphia, which is only for first place because of the late-game success Romo has had this season.

Cleveland Browns 26 at Atlanta Falcons 24

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 1 (24-23)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD starting with 0:44 left): 0.11
Head Coach: Mike Pettine (4-2 at 4QC and 4-2 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Brian Hoyer (5-3 at 4QC and 5-3 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Matt Ryan needed to lead a third consecutive fourth-quarter comeback, but of the 20 comebacks he has led in his career, only two were from a two-score deficit (10 points in both cases). The Browns led 23-14 to start the fourth quarter, but Ryan engineered a 14-play, 80-yard drive that ended with Steven Jackson's 1-yard touchdown run.

Cleveland turned away from an effective running game at the wrong moment. On a first-and-goal from the 6-yard line, Brian Hoyer threw one of the worst interceptions we will see this season. Hoyer actually faded away and threw off his back foot from about 14 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Desmond Trufant made the athletic catch in the back of the end zone. Again, this was a first-down play.

Game management seemed to go right out the window on both sides once the clock hit five minutes to play. Thanks to Julio Jones turning into a defender, Buster Skrine dropped a Ryan interception on third down and the Falcons punted. No worries, because Hoyer gave the ball right back with his third interception of the day. He appeared to have miscommunication with Josh Gordon, who had just returned from a 10-game suspension.

Ryan had 2:42 at his own 45 and this was turning into another Matt Bryant opportunity. Time was an enemy of the Falcons and they did not handle it well, running multiple plays about 10 seconds too quickly. The first big mistake was immediately calling a timeout to set up a third-and-2 at the Cleveland 35 with 55 seconds left. That's already in Bryant's range, so they should have let the clock run and see if the Browns were foolish enough to not call one of their three timeouts. Mike Smith initially said the timeout was to make sure the Falcons had the perfect play for third-and-2, but that still could have been handled better. He later admitted he would have done things differently. Well, if he had let Cleveland call timeout and then ran the ball on third-and-2, even a stop would have likely left the Browns with just one timeout to answer the field goal.

But it's history now and Ryan missed a deep shot on third-and-2 for Devin Hester. It's hard to believe that was the optimal play call. Bryant came on and calmly nailed the 53-yard field goal, but 44 seconds remained and the Browns still had three timeouts. That meant Hoyer could use any part of the field he wanted and he wisely chose the middle for two big plays for 39 yards. Cleveland called its third timeout at the 30-yard line with 16 seconds left. My initial thoughts were that it would be too risky to throw in the middle again, because any kind of pre-snap penalty would end the game with a 10-second runoff. But if I can pull a Smith and reflect the next day, then yeah, getting closer for Billy Cundiff was a good idea. Miles Austin caught a pass over the middle for 11 yards and the Browns were able to spike the ball with five seconds left. That's great work. Hoyer passed for 61 yards on the drive. Even though he put out his own fire in this one, Hoyer is tied with Tony Romo for the league lead with four game-winning drives.

Cundiff made the 37-yard field goal, and much like the Raiders-Chargers game last week, the clock operator ended the game despite there clearly being at least a second left when the kick was over. Maybe the clock operator is also fed up with the Falcons.

The Falcons have given up a fourth-quarter lead in seven games this season, including one in each of the last four games. The offense has often been able to get the lead back, but when Smith keeps calling shaky timeouts in the final minute to set up the other team's game-winning field goal, then there's no margin for error.

If you would like to read more about this game, check out Any Given Sunday.

Washington Redskins 13 at San Francisco 49ers 17

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 3 (13-10)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD starting with 7:36 left): 0.33
Head Coach: Jim Harbaugh (13-10-1 at 4QC and 15-13-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Colin Kaepernick (7-7-1 at 4QC and 9-9-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Ever since the 49ers jumped out to a 28-3 lead in Dallas in Week 1, this team has been unable to comfortably put away any other opponent. Despite being a nine-point favorite at home against a Washington team in turmoil, this is San Francisco's ninth appearance of the season in Clutch Encounters. At least their record is 6-3 in these games as opposed to Washington's 2-6 record.

Frank Gore fumbled with 10:03 remaining, setting up a go-ahead field goal for the Redskins. Gore's atonement was a 3-yard run on fourth-and-1 from his own 34 with 5:28 left. Anquan Boldin was the drive's go-to receiver with three catches for 49 yards, but none were bigger than his 29-yard grab drilled into a small window by Kaepernick. Ryan Clark was actually penalized 15 yards for an illegal hit on Boldin, but Clark took the worst of that collision. Three plays later, Carlos Hyde was in the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown with 2:59 left.

Robert Griffin III had 11 completions for 106 yards to that point, but he needed to start making plays with Washington 80 yards away from the win. San Francisco only brought a four-man rush, but Griffin held the ball and took a sack in between two misfires. The Redskins punted for the eighth time on the day and lost out on the two-minute warning in the process.

The 49ers had 1:57 to burn, but as we have seen in multiple games this season, Kaepernick was not given a chance to end the game with his arm or legs. Hyde carried three times in a row, including a third-and-3 shotgun run that lost 2 yards. Washington used all three timeouts and got the ball back with 1:29 left. Fortunately for the 49ers there was a penalty on the punt, costing the Redskins 20 yards in field position and 10 percentage points in win probability (down to 0.13).

Griffin could drive this offense 92 yards (actually 96 after a false start) for the win, right? On third-and-8, rookie left tackle Morgan Moses was no match for Justin Smith, who forced Griffin to fumble the ball right into the hands of Ahmad Brooks.

The 2014 Redskins are averaging 1.26 points per drive with Griffin and 1.99 points per drive without him. That's about the difference of going from an offense like Oakland to one like Atlanta. Since tearing his ACL in the 2012 playoffs, Griffin is 1-for-10 at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities and has led Washington to zero points on 20 out of 22 drives.

Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind

Bengals at Texans: The Challenge

The first two seasons of the Andy Dalton era in Cincinnati (2011-12) ended with miserable performances in playoff losses in Houston. The Bengals returned to that site on Sunday and were able to control most of the action. When Dalton threw a pick-six to Johnathan Joseph in the third quarter, flashbacks of the playoffs were hard to ignore. However, this time Dalton responded well with three third-down conversions on an eight-minute drive that should have ended with a touchdown to Mohamed Sanu, but Sanu dropped the pass in the end zone. Mike Nugent's 31-yard field goal extended Cincinnati's lead to 19-13.

Ryan Mallett started for only the second time in his career, but this Ohio defense gave him a tougher time than Cleveland's did last week. Mallett appeared to make his best throw of the day when he hit DeAndre Hopkins for 32 yards down the sideline on third-and-4, but Marvin Lewis' challenge overturned the call with clear evidence that Hopkins' left foot landed out of bounds. The throw into coverage really could not have been any better, but the defense was wise to push Hopkins so that he could not get both feet in for the catch.

That would have been a nice highlight on a day where Mallett struggled with his accuracy, often overthrowing receivers. He also had some bad reads where he failed to see defenders underneath. On the first play of his next opportunity, Leon Hall tipped a dangerous Mallett pass. On third-and-8, Carlos Dunlap beat Derek Newton on his way to a sack to force another three-and-out drive.

Even though Giovani Bernard was back, Jeremy Hill had the more productive outing and the two nearly ran out the final 4:56 on the clock. A third-down holding penalty gave Houston a glimmer of hope, but Nugent was good on the 49-yard field goal. Mallett only had 1:55 left, down 22-13, and Houston spent all the time going for the touchdown to no avail. Box score be damned, Mallett only passed for 119 yards in the game's first 58 minutes.

Buccaneers at Bears: Chicago Asks to Schedule More Lovie/Josh Play Dates

Months ago, this would have been billed as Lovie Smith and Josh McCown heading back to Chicago in a game filled with dominant, tall receivers. This season, the offensive fireworks have been about as exciting as a snake (Tampa Bay) and a box of sparklers (Chicago). Chicago's five wins this season have come against the 49ers, Jets, Falcons, Vikings and Buccaneers. That's a lot of dysfunction clashing together. Only the Vikings haven't been linked to a story about their head coach's cloudy future, but the Adrian Peterson situation is a big enough stain on its own. Except for the Atlanta win, the Bears have had to hold off an 8-point comeback attempt in the final minutes each time.

The way Chicago led at all in this game was hard to believe. Tampa Bay led 10-0 against a lifeless Bears offense, but McCown turned the ball over twice in the third quarter to set up short fields. The Bears scored three touchdowns in the third quarter and those drives covered a grand total of 86 yards combined.

The 2013 Bears had such an odd offense with McCown and Jay Cutler leading the league in DVOA when pressured. McCown is the only quarterback in four years to have a season with positive DVOA under pressure, but I can assure you his DVOA will be very negative this season. Two sacks in the red zone led to Tampa Bay settling for a 39-yard field goal with 4:56 left, and we mercilessly still had a game at 21-13.

Chicago went three-and-out and only managed a 20-yard punt, setting up McCown from 45 yards away. After allowing 9 yards on first down, Chicago's defense made a stand on the next three plays, even stopping the quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1. That's not a call to knock like the FOX broadcast did. The decision to throw deep to Mike Evans on second-and-1 was more suspect when the checkdown was wide-open over the middle of the field for at least 10 yards.

Maybe this is part of the reason McCown is an abysmal 4-17 (.190) at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities. Better quarterbacks would usually take the checkdown and get a fresh set of downs, but here's McCown airing it out for the hopes of a low-percentage 26-yard play. Granted, a team down eight has to be in a bit of a hurry in case the two-point conversion fails, but that throw was not essential in this situation. By the time McCown got the ball back, there were 13 seconds left and he needed 63 yards. That's when you have to gamble, but McCown has been gambling all season for Tampa Bay and it hasn't worked out.

Rams at Chargers: Tragedy in the Red Zone

Turnovers marred the first three quarters of this game, but the offenses were on point with long touchdown drives in the fourth quarter. Philip Rivers appeared to strike a dagger with a 29-yard touchdown on a screen to Keenan Allen to take a 27-17 lead, but the Rams brought back the fake punt to spark another drive that ended with Shaun Hill's touchdown pass to Stedman Bailey. Rookie Aaron Donald sacked Rivers on third-and-2 and the Rams were in business in the final two minutes, down 27-24.

It is possible that Tavon Austin should have had a 73-yard punt return to the 5-yard line, but a shaky offensive holding penalty was called on Marshall McFadden. From the only angles FOX showed on the broadcast, McFadden barely touched a player who then fell over, which would be a rubbish penalty call. However, the officials were delayed in announcing that the spot of the foul was the San Diego 40, which is ultimately where the ball was spotted. Perhaps McFadden later did something illegal, but it was not clear from the replay what the penalty was really all about. Frankly, the call helped St. Louis burn more time in trying to set up the go-ahead score. Kenny Britt snagged a deep ball for 27 yards at the San Diego 6, so the Rams ended up there anyway with 18 seconds consumed. San Diego took its first timeout after a first-down run.

With the Rams eyeing another upset, Hill forced a pass to Britt and never saw Marcus Gilchrist coming across the field for the game-ending interception. Hill finished the game as the 218th quarterback in NFL history to surpass 1,000 career pass attempts, and he has the 19th-best touchdown-to-interception ratio (1.65) on that list. This was just one pass he would love to have back.

When St. Louis stopped the 49ers in the red zone in Week 9, we observed that the last four game-ending fumbles by a quarterback in the red zone (down 1 to 3 points in the final two minutes) all involved the Rams. This was the seventh instance of such a red-zone interception since 1998, and the first since the 49ers closed Candlestick against the Falcons last year. This was the first to happen from inside the 5-yard line since Samari Rolle ended Mark Brunell's game-winning drive attempt in 1999.

Season Summary
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 46
Game-winning drives: 51
Games with 4QC opportunity: 95/176 (54.0 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 29

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

Posted by: Scott Kacsmar on 25 Nov 2014

2 comments, Last at 25 Nov 2014, 11:15pm by techvet


by Mike B. In Va :: Tue, 11/25/2014 - 6:20pm

Ah, the AFC Central, when the Jags were actually good.

by techvet :: Tue, 11/25/2014 - 11:15pm

4th-quarter comeback stats are interesting. The top 5 all-time QBs in the playoffs have all won multiple Super Bowls. There's another QB who played in 10 playoff games and had no such comebacks, yet he won five (5) NFL titles and is 9-1 all-time in the playoffs. If you have lots of opportunities for comebacks, either you're crapping the bed in the first 3 quarters or you have a sieve for a defense (let's not forget special teams!) or some combination of both. (There's also the possibility you're getting to the playoffs a lot and sooner or later, the situation will present itself.)

This leads me to ask: how did Dan Fouts not get to a Super Bowl?