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02 Dec 2014

Clutch Encounters: Week 13

by Scott Kacsmar

If there is such a thing as too much football, it might come on the Monday night finale to Thanksgiving week. By that time you could be watching your seventh full NFL game in five days. It doesn't help when the Thanksgiving games weren't very competitive -- Philadelphia and Seattle led by double-digits for 69.4 percent of the games -- and the Monday game featured the Jets' prehistoric offense. At least the latter gave us a fifth game with a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity this week (and 100th on the season). In the last five years, we have never had a full slate of games with fewer than five of them having a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity.

Speaking of the last four years, Jacksonville's 21-point comeback win gives the 2014 season four comeback wins from a 21-point deficit. That ties the regular-season record also set in 2013, 2011 and 1999. Big leads are not what they used to be when passing is up and the tempo is faster.

Game of the Week

San Diego Chargers 34 at Baltimore Ravens 33

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 10 (30-20)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD starting with 2:22 left): 0.24
Head Coach: Mike McCoy (6-7 at 4QC and 6-8 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Philip Rivers (19-41 at 4QC and 22-44 overall 4QC/GWD record)

An early-season favorite for the MVP award, Philip Rivers' play had slipped in the last month amid talk of a rib injury. In Baltimore, Rivers had his most MVP-worthy game yet in leading San Diego to one of the best fourth-quarter comebacks of the season. The Ravens actually led by 10 points three times in the game, including a 23-13 lead to start the fourth quarter, which saw five consecutive scoring drives between the two offenses. Part of San Diego's ability to keep pace early was its red-hot performance on third down (9-of-11 conversions), but on three touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, the Chargers were so efficient they only faced two third downs and converted both (one via penalty).

Baltimore's offense had to keep scoring, but needed a few more breaks along the way. Torrey Smith dropped a touchdown on third-and-9, but a pretty soft pass interference penalty on Shareece Wright put the ball at the 1-yard line. Joe Flacco knifed through the middle on a quarterback sneak for a touchdown that put Baltimore ahead 30-20 with 6:13 left.

Throughout most of the Ravens' history, a lead like that at home would have been a lock. Baltimore is 44-4 (.917) at home when scoring at least 30 points, and half of those losses came in the team's infancy (1996-97). However, this year's secondary is not up to par, and that's where Rivers was able to expose the defense. Danny Gorrer wears No. 37 just like Deion Sanders did when he was in Baltimore, but that doesn't mean he has to play like a washed-up veteran too. Keenan Allen beat Gorrer for a touchdown with 3:40 left to make it 30-27.

Jacoby Jones picked a good time for a 72-yard kick return to the San Diego 30. Two first downs could have won the game for Baltimore as the Chargers started using their timeouts. Flacco needed to convert a third-and-4 to clinch the win, but he was pressured on a play-action pass and threw the ball away. Considering the Chargers were able to pick up 26 yards before the two-minute warning, maybe Flacco should have taken the sack to run the clock. It's not like Justin Tucker would have minded a field goal a little longer than 31 yards. He's 55-of-56 from under 40 yards in his career.

But the big question is: should Tucker have been kicking at all to take a dangerous six-point lead, or should the offense have just gone for the win? We cannot criticize John Harbaugh for making the same decision every coach in the NFL, past and present, would have made here. We must somehow convince the future generation of coaches that going for it is often a good decision, because as long as it's a three-point game, the other team is going to keep the field goal as an option. When that gap widens to six points, the opponent is going balls-out, four-down football to score the game-winning touchdown that beats you by a point and leaves you little time to answer.

Even below-average offenses tend to convert on fourth down from this distance about 43 percent of the time. There may have been some play-calling disadvantages in the confined red-zone area, but it was not a dire conversion rate by any means. For reference, Flacco has converted about 50 percent of the time when he needs 4 yards on third and fourth down. That's over 112 plays in his career. The numbers drop to 23.5 percent in the red zone, but that's based on 17 plays, including a drop by Mark Clayton on fourth down against the 2009 Patriots. If this was fourth-and-1 or even fourth-and-2, then I would be crucifying Harbaugh right now for kicking, but I'll cut him some slack on fourth-and-4. Rivers still had a tough task ahead of him with 80 yards to go.

Allen was again hard to cover, and when the Ravens looked to apply pressure, Rivers had a quick screen ready.

Of course the play that gets all the attention is Anthony Levine being penalized 23 yards for pass interference in the end zone against Malcom Floyd. I thought it was a solid call. While both players initiated contact with each other, Levine's left arm came across Floyd's body, and his right arm significantly obstructed Floyd from catching the ball. If Harbaugh thought this call was "not fair" then I wonder what he would say about the penalty on Wright earlier in the quarter that benefited his team. Royal finished the drive with an easy touchdown on a rare screen from the 1-yard line.

Baltimore's best hope of kick-starting the ensuing drive was a long Jones kick return, but he fumbled the ball and ended up costing his team six yards and six seconds relative to taking a touchback. I'm not criticizing the effort to try the return, but it was a bad result.

Rarely-used Kamar Aiken ended up being the target of Flacco's final three passes, but he made a good effort with two catches for 39 yards. On the last play of the game, Brandon Flowers deserves major credit for the perfect tackle of Aiken in bounds, causing the clock to expire before Tucker had a shot at a 61-yard field goal.

Rivers has 19 fourth-quarter comebacks, but I think this ranks right up there with season-saving wins against the 2008 Chiefs and 2013 Chiefs among the best he's had. Calling it a 10-point comeback does not do it proper justice when San Diego needed three touchdown drives that covered 216 yards. This one could really haunt the Ravens.

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

Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind

Miami Dolphins 16 at New York Jets 13

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 7 (13-6)
Win Probability (GWD starting with 5:42 left): 0.62
Head Coach: Joe Philbin (6-15 at 4QC and 6-15 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Ryan Tannehill (6-15 at 4QC and 6-15 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Geno Smith returned as the Jets' starting quarterback, but Rex Ryan may as well have gone with Tim Tebow given the obscenely run-heavy game plan. The Jets rushed for 210 yards in the first half alone, but only scored 10 points and failed to sustain that success while never bothering to establish a passing game. The Jets' 13 pass attempts are the fewest for any NFL offense since the 2011 Broncos had eight passes and 55 runs against the Chiefs. The Jets outgained Miami 277 to 74 in rushing yards, but it's hard to say the "hide the quarterback" strategy was effective. Given the inexperience Miami matched up at cornerback on Eric Decker at times, it might have been downright bullheaded.

Since 1950, teams are 295-6 (.980) when outgaining the opponent by at least 200 rushing yards. The Jets are only the third home team to lose (187-3). The other two home losers only managed to score 13 or 14 points, including the 2012 Chiefs (plus-262 against the Colts) and the 1984 Bears (plus-224 against the Cowboys).

Miami also did little to impress and trailed 13-6 to start the fourth quarter. ESPN pointed out something that should be painfully obvious to Miami fans: this team has been the worst at coming back in the fourth quarter for a solid decade now. The Dolphins had lost 48 of their last 49 road games when trailing by any margin in the fourth quarter, only knocking off Pittsburgh last season by the slimmest of margins. That stretch, dating back ten years ago, includes a 1-26 (.037) record at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities. Miami had not won on the road after trailing by more than four points in the fourth quarter since a 2002 game in Denver -- the longest drought in the league.

As soon as I saw the Jets simply run the ball on third-and-10 deep in their own end, almost assuring great field position for the Dolphins, I felt I knew exactly where this one was headed. Miami only needed 39 yards for the tying touchdown and Lamar Miller finished the drive with a 4-yard scoring run to tie the game 13-13.

A short kickoff and some effective scrambles had the Jets driving again, but then Smith lost 8 yards on a big third-and-7 sack by Koa Misi. Nick Folk, who had missed earlier in the game, was wide left on a 45-yard field goal with 5:42 left. With Charles Clay inactive, Ryan Tannehill hooked up with the bigger tight end Dion Sims for two catches for 35 yards to get to the red zone. The drive stalled at the two-minute warning when Tannehill could only find a 3-yard completion on third-and-7. Caleb Sturgis was good from 26 yards away and Miami had its first lead of the game at 16-13.

When your quarterback is 4-of-8 for 42 yards in the game's first 58 minutes, what do you expect to get from a two-minute drill? As we have seen a few times this year with the Jets in this situation, getting a first down is like pulling teeth, but a third-down conversion to Decker gave the Jets some hope at their 44-yard line. That's when Smith tried to force a pass down the middle and the Dolphins tipped the ball for a game-ending interception by Reshad Jones.

At that point ESPN's Jon Gruden declared this to be a huge signature win for the Jets, because that's the type of thing one may say after a game like this.

New York Giants 24 at Jacksonville Jaguars 25

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 5 (21-16)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD starting with 3:26 left): 0.42
Head Coach: Gus Bradley (2-5 at 4QC and 2-5 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Blake Bortles (1-2 at 4QC and 1-2 overall 4QC/GWD record)

In the last two years the Giants have been very consistent in terms of game results correlating with caliber of opponent. They usually beat the teams they should beat while losing to the teams you'd expect. New York had lost six games in a row heading into Jacksonville, but that was against a rough schedule of Philadelphia, Dallas (twice), Indianapolis, Seattle, and San Francisco.

So when the Giants led 21-0 in the second quarter against 1-10 Jacksonville, this was over, right? The Jaguars had never won a game in team history after trailing by more than 15 points, so why would they be capable of doing so in one of their worst seasons? Well, the Giants let them off the hook, which is a most appropriate phrase given the nature of this comeback. In the third quarter Eli Manning coughed up a fumble for a Jacksonville touchdown, and Josh Brown missed a 43-yard field goal. In the fourth quarter, Larry Donnell turned a meaningless 3-yard catch on third-and-15 into another fumble and score for the Jaguars after Aaron Colvin returned the ball 41 yards for a touchdown. Jacksonville had just its third fourth-quarter lead of the season.

Blake Bortles threw too high for Marcedes Lewis on the two-point conversion, but Jacksonville led 22-21. Both quarterbacks continued to face pressure, with Bortles suffering seven of the game's 11 sacks. With 6:02 left, Manning started driving with quick passes, but the offense stalled in the red zone after he was unable to create anything out of the pocket. Brown was good on the 33-yard field goal, and the Giants led precariously 24-22 with 3:26 left.

Gus Bradley was coaching his 28th game with the Jaguars (6-22 record), but despite all the losing, this was only his seventh game-winning drive opportunity. He probably paid close attention to pal Pete Carroll's game against the Giants from Week 10, when Russell Wilson ran wild against the defense. Bortles' legs were a big factor here with two zone-read runs gaining 31 yards on the drive. Bortles finished the game as Jacksonville's leading rusher with 68 yards. His 20-yard run moved the ball to the New York 25, and three Toby Gerhart runs cost the Giants their three timeouts. Josh Scobee converted the 43-yard field goal and the Jaguars led 25-24 with 28 seconds left.

Manning started at his own 20 and immediately lost his second fumble of the day on another sack. Jacksonville clinched the biggest comeback in team history, leaving Carolina (17) and Kansas City (18) as the only current NFL franchises without a 20-point comeback win.

On Sunday night, NBC had a graphic about Tom Coughlin becoming the first coach in NFL history to lose three games after leading by at least 18 points in the second half. Bortles is the second rookie quarterback to trip up the Giants, following in Vince Young's 2006 footsteps. Everyone probably remembers the Philadelphia game in 2010 with DeSean Jackson's punt return, because that game had significant postseason implications. With the Giants at 3-9, this game's legacy may just be a footnote in the sad swan song of a respectable coaching career.

Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind

Patriots at Packers: Just Watch the Fireworks

As far as annual "Game of the Century" hype-fests go, this one was pretty good. The Patriots and Packers entered as the hottest, highest-scoring teams in the league, and the 26-21 final does not fully represent the level of offensive prowess on display. The game only had 17 total possessions, both kickers missed makeable field goals, and the Packers were only looking to run out the clock at the end.

I was not sure we would get a close finish, because each offense had just one fourth-quarter comeback opportunity all year (both in Miami). Green Bay has been deadly at home, and the Packers led 13-0 after one quarter. What helped keep the Patriots in striking distance was red-zone play. The Packers were 0-for-4 at getting touchdowns, really the only area where they struggled, while the Patriots were 3-for-3.

In some ways, this looked like New England's wire-to-wire loss in Denver in the 2013 AFC Championship, when the Broncos averaged 60.5 yards per drive. On Sunday, Aaron Rodgers had a brilliant first half with 282 passing yards and the Packers averaged a stunning 69.4 yards per drive, scoring 23 points on five drives. The second half wasn't quite the same, but the Packers finished at 53.0 yards per drive for the game, which is still absurd.

However, the second half began to follow a script we have seen many times before in games involving the Patriots, where they just hang around and steal the game at the end. Green Bay failed to capitalize on opportunities. Mason Crosby missing a 40-yard field goal and Tramon Williams was flagged very late for an illegal contact penalty instead of forcing a three-and-out drive. Tom Brady threw his second touchdown pass of the day to Brandon LaFell and the Patriots trailed 23-21 with 13:51 left.

Green Bay's fourth trip to the red zone was the most interesting of the day. New England rushed four and Rodgers was still able to dance around in the pocket for more than 12 seconds. I have never seen pocket protection last that long before in the NFL, yet somehow the Patriots still covered well and forced an incompletion. On the next play, Davante Adams beat Logan Ryan on a slant, but the rookie having a breakout game flat-out dropped an easy touchdown. Green Bay kicked the field goal for a 26-21 lead.

These things almost write themselves. This was where Brady throws the go-ahead touchdown pass, and if Rodgers fails to answer, we knew what the narrative would have been on Monday, right? When Brady converted to Julian Edelman on fourth-and-3 and to Rob Gronkowski on third-and-7, the sound of inevitability started to get louder.

When Brady softly lofted a pass to Gronkowski in the end zone with 3:31 left, the only sound was laughter. Rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix helped knock the ball away after Gronkowski nearly had another impressive touchdown on a diving effort.

Green Bay has a sack in 32 consecutive games, which is the best active streak in the league. The Packers struggled to get to Brady all day, but this was the most opportune time to extend that streak. On third-and-9, Mike Daniels and Mike Neal quickly converged on the quarterback for a monster sack. On fourth-and-18, the Patriots had to settle for a longer field goal; the sack also left precious time ticking away. Stephen Gostkowski is one of the best kickers in the league, but he Vandershanked the 47-yard attempt on a cold day.

Make or miss, the Patriots still needed to get the ball back, and the Packers had 2:40 left to burn. In a very simplistic four-minute offense, Eddie Lacy ran twice for 6 yards, setting up a third-and-4 with the Patriots out of timeouts. That's a game-clinching situation, so of course the call was for a pass. Rodgers bounced around in the pocket and found Randall Cobb with a great throw worth 7 yards and three Brady f-bombs. The kneeldown finish probably made this game fall short of "classic" territory, but it was easy to appreciate the caliber of play.

Was Sunday a Super Bowl preview? I'm not so sure. Patriots-Packers has been as trendy as any Super Bowl pick for the last four years, but it has really never come close to fruition. What I do know is, while it's really special when you see two teams dominating the competition, when they clash in a heavyweight battle, the game gets much tighter. Sunday may have been the best example of this since the 2007 Patriots-Colts game. This will always be Rodgers-Brady I, and it's not unrealistic to think this could be the only career meeting between two quarterbacks likely to be remembered among the best to ever play the game. Those matchups are rare, and it's even rarer to have one at a time when both are playing at a high level.

Bengals at Buccaneers: The Number 12 Looks Like Another Loss

Prior to kickoff, a flu-stricken Andy Dalton threw up at least 20 times according to teammate Mohamed Sanu via the Cincinnati Enquirer. Bengals fans likely threw up at least 20 times themselves after watching Dalton throw three awful interceptions in the first half that kept the division-leading Bengals behind a two-win team. Dalton did not find his composure until a third-quarter drive put Cincinnati ahead 14-10 on a touchdown pass to A.J. Green. The Bengals opted for a surprise onside kick, which I thought was foolish in such a low-scoring game. Generating an extra possession that was unlikely to score was not worth the risk of giving a struggling Tampa Bay offense great field position.

The Buccaneers started at the Cincinnati 31 and only netted 7 yards before settling for a 42-yard field goal with 14:12 to play in the fourth quarter. Dalton's protection of the one-point lead was not great, but Sanu let him down with a big drop on a perfect pass on third-and-16. Later, the Bengals had a chance to burn off the final 4:01, but the Buccaneers fortuitously benefitted from some of Cincinnati's success. James Wright gained 30 yards on a pass, but his momentum carried him out of bounds to stop the clock. Jeremy Hill gained 12 yards on a first-down run in the only situation where you would actually prefer to gain 9 yards and chew up more clock.

With Tampa Bay out of timeouts, Dalton looked for a clinching throw on third-and-11, but threw the pass away. A sack really would have been just as good, but the Bengals took a delay of game penalty and still landed the 45-yard punt in the end zone. Amazingly, that punt only consumed six seconds, leaving Tampa Bay with 2:01 left and saving the two-minute warning. Punts without returns often take around 10 seconds in this league and this was obviously not a quick one.

This is just the latest example of questionable clock operations in NFL games. In the last three weeks we have seen the Raiders robbed of another Hail Mary attempt and the Falcons denied a kick return against Cleveland with a second left. This error was actually shadier in nature.

Kevin Huber was able to catch the ball and get his punt more than halfway down the field before the clock elapsed a second to 2:06. That's more action than a Hines Ward halftime analysis, and even those last more than a second. I watched every other punt in this game and the clock usually moved a full second before the punter's foot made contact with the ball. This is unacceptable and goes beyond "human error."

Tampa Bay did not require many plays to get into field-goal range. Bobby Rainey took a swing pass 29 yards to the Cincinnati 36. He moved the ball to the 30 on a run, but a big holding penalty on Garret Gilkey set up first-and-15 at the Cincinnati 41 with 38 seconds left. Two plays later, Josh McCown appeared to hit a dagger with a 21-yard pass to Louis Murphy, but an odd scene broke out when coach Marvin Lewis stepped onto the field and threw his challenge flag in a non-challenge-able situation. Lewis later confessed he lost his mind, but his beef was legitimate: Tampa Bay clearly ran the play with 12 men on the field. The only punishment to Lewis for an illegal challenge was the loss of a timeout, and his tactic stopped the Bucs from running another play, letting replay correct the error the referees should have caught in the first place.

That pushed Tampa Bay back to the 46 and set up second-and-20. McCown threw two bad incompletions that were nearly intercepted, leaving the Buccaneers' with a fourth-and-20. At that point, you might as well throw a Hail Mary, since anything in the field of play likely expires the clock. McCown's not one for situational awareness, and his pass to Mike Evans only gained 13 yards and ended the game.

Well, there was actually one second left for a Dalton kneeldown after the whistle blew the play dead at four seconds, but who's counting?

Season Summary
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 49
Game-winning drives: 54
Games with 4QC opportunity: 100/192 (52.1 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 34

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 02 Dec 2014

5 comments, Last at 03 Dec 2014, 1:30am by buzzorhowl


by oaktoon :: Tue, 12/02/2014 - 7:10pm

Re: Ravens FG decision, what are the success rates for TD-necessary (4 downs the whole way) drives in final 3 minutes? And are they different in a high-scoring high offense production game like this one was?

by Scott Kacsmar :: Tue, 12/02/2014 - 10:10pm

A must-have TD drive, you might be talking 20-25% success rate. Your last sentence is something that's always interested me, but I haven't been able to fully study yet. In theory, I like to think there might be a higher success rate in a high-scoring game, just because you've demonstrated that you can score better on this defense than a team that's down 13-9 and has done very little for 57-58 minutes. Why would the offense suddenly work now? Oh yeah, more passing and four-down football should help a little, but the other part of this sounds like momentum talk, so you'd expect inconclusive results. Going 80 yards is still going 80 yards, so any little slip-up (dropped pass, holding penalty, sack, etc.) can quickly short-circuit a drive no matter how well you played earlier in the game.

But yep, once I get better organized and 100% complete on 30-plus years of data, I'll be able to answer these things in great detail.

by BDC :: Tue, 12/02/2014 - 7:37pm

"At that point ESPN's Jon Gruden declared this to be a huge signature win for the Jets, because that's the type of thing one may say after a game like this"

This is the same ESPN that, with the first half winding down, declared "Geno Smith leads Jets to early lead". At the time, Smith was 2-4 for 16 yards, meanwhile the Jets were closing in on 200 yards rushing.

by Scott Kacsmar :: Tue, 12/02/2014 - 10:12pm

The craziest MNF commentary this year was by Mike Tirico at the beginning of Panthers-Eagles. He flat out said "Michael Vick and the Panthers" and didn't even correct himself. He confused Cam for Vick. At least "Michael Vick and the Eagles" would make a little sense since Vick has that history, but Cam?

by buzzorhowl :: Wed, 12/03/2014 - 1:30am

Tom Brady at the 2 minute warning: Nuclear. Sad. Nuclear.