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09 Dec 2014

Clutch Encounters: Week 14

by Scott Kacsmar

Another mystifying week of the 2014 season is in the books. Could anyone imagine the Saints would suffer their worst home loss (31 points) of the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era at the hands of the lowly Panthers? What about a Peyton Manning offense finishing with three passing first downs, the fewest in any of his 276 games? Chip Kelly is an offensive wizard, but the game of the week featured Seattle limiting the Eagles to 139 yards of offense, the first time in 22 games that Philadelphia failed to score at least 20 points.

At least some normality was established with the AFC's usual suspects getting the job done on the road. The Colts and Patriots had their first fourth-quarter comebacks of 2014, while the Steelers and Ravens finished off two annual pretenders in Cincinnati and Miami. They account for four of the six games this week with a comeback opportunity.

Barely missing the cut was Atlanta's impressive attempt at a 24-point second-half comeback in Green Bay on Monday night. Mike McCarthy thought a 53-yard field-goal attempt was a better decision than to let Aaron Rodgers go for it on fourth-and-4, a decision that gave Atlanta some hope with a 13-point deficit. After the Falcons scored a touchdown to make it 43-37, Mike Smith added his own coaching blunder with a no man's land onside kick that the Falcons never had a real chance to recover, one that did his team no favors in field position. Atlanta still had four clock stoppages with 2:09 left, but the Packers were able to breathe easy after James Starks broke off a 41-yard run. At least the clock operators were honest this week, forcing the Packers to take a knee on fourth down with one second left to officially put a wrap to Week 14.

Game of the Week

Pittsburgh Steelers 42 at Cincinnati Bengals 21

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 4 (21-17)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD starting with 12:45 left): 0.61
Head Coach: Mike Tomlin (17-34 at 4QC and 27-38 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger (25-35 at 4QC and 36-40 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Few teams have shown a wider range of performance this year than the Bengals and Steelers. The twists and turns in the AFC North may have outdone themselves on Sunday when an unexpected shootout erupted in the second quarter. Cincinnati took a huge emotional lift into the final act with a 21-17 lead following A.J. Green's 81-yard touchdown catch on the last play of the third quarter. So how did the Bengals become the ninth team in NFL history to lead at the end of three quarters and still lose by more than 20 points?

NFL History: Led to Start Fourth Quarter, Lost by 21-Plus Points
Team Date Opp Start 4th Final Margin Turnaround
WAS 10/27/2013 at DEN Led 21-14 L 45-21 -24 -31
CHI 10/26/1952 at LARM Led 7-3 L 31-7 -24 -28
MIN 11/21/1965 GB Led 13-10 L 38-13 -25 -28
OAK 12/4/1960 LAC Led 17-14 L 41-17 -24 -27
NYG 11/26/1978 at BUF Led 17-14 L 41-17 -24 -27
CAR 10/29/2006 DAL Led 14-10 L 35-14 -21 -25
CIN 12/7/2014 PIT Led 21-17 L 42-21 -21 -25
BUF 11/2/1969 KC Led 7-6 L 29-7 -22 -23
BUF 11/1/2009 HOU Led 10-9 L 31-10 -21 -22

It's all about the b-words. A blunder and a barrage of Bell, Brown, Bryant and Ben combined to bungle Marvin Lewis again, dropping him to an unfathomable 2-11 at home against the Steelers in his career. It's hard to imagine any coach having a worse home record against one opponent over a similar number of games. Even Jim Mora, always a good comparison for Lewis, was 3-7 in New Orleans against San Francisco.

This time, Andy Dalton was having his best game of the season, but things fell apart after he simply fumbled an ill-fated zone-read keeper, which was recovered by the Steelers at the Cincinnati 24. Ben Roethlisberger converted a third-and-7 to Antonio Brown and Le'veon Bell finished off the drive with another 13-yard run to the left that worked all day long. Bell became the first player since Walter Payton in 1977 to record three consecutive games with at least 200 yards from scrimmage. Heath Miller stumbled his way into a two-point conversion catch and the Steelers led 28-21.

Dalton forced a long pass to Green on third-and-9, but this time the Steelers were able to defend the deep ball. A good punt pinned the Steelers at their own 6. Roethlisberger's deep ball has been off for about a month, but he picked an excellent time to drop a dime to Martavis Bryant over Leon Hall for a 94-yard touchdown, the longest play from scrimmage in 2014. Bryant now has seven touchdowns in his first seven games.

Dalton took a hard shot to the ribs that brought Jason Campbell in for a play. Instead of forcing Lewis to make a fourth-and-2 decision at his own 35, Mike Tomlin accepted a holding penalty to bring up third-and-20 with Dalton able to return. That was a curious decision to say the least, because we know coaches love to punt in that situation. Things worked out for Pittsburgh and the Bengals punted on fourth-and-13.

The Steelers kept abusing Cincinnati with counter runs with David DeCastro pulling left and Bell found holes of comical proportions. In the fourth quarter alone Bell gained 110 yards on seven carries using this play, including a dagger 22-yard touchdown run with 5:09 left.

The Steelers outscored the division-leading Bengals 25-0 in the fourth quarter. Keep in mind this was a Pittsburgh offense that had scored 39 combined points in four road games against the Ravens, Jaguars, Browns, and Jets this year. Inconsistent as they may be, the 2014 Steelers are the 10th team in NFL history to have at least four games with 500 yards of offense. That's a group that surprisingly includes the 1979 Steelers. From Bell's breakout year to Brown's unparalleled consistency and the emergence of Bryant, this is the most talented and lethal attack the Steelers have had in the Roethlisberger era. Sunday's win could be a launching point towards the team's first AFC North title since 2010.

Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind

Indianapolis Colts 25 at Cleveland Browns 24

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 5 (24-19)
Win Probability (GWD starting with 3:46 left): 0.24
Head Coach: Chuck Pagano (5-7 at 4QC and 6-8 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Andrew Luck (9-8 at 4QC and 12-9 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Generally speaking, Andrew Luck does not put out his own fires. When the Colts have rallied from a multiple-score deficit, Luck has rarely been the initial problem. When the Colts have failed to come back, Luck was usually bad early and the team played so poorly as a whole that he was unable to rescue Indianapolis in the end.

On Sunday in Cleveland, Luck pulled off the duel performance of both arsonist and fireman. Two of his turnovers were returned for touchdowns to give the Browns a 21-7 lead in the third quarter. Fortunately, Brian Hoyer stunk up the joint so much that Luck had ample opportunities to chip away at Cleveland's tough defense. Luck nearly erased the deficit late in the third quarter, but T.Y. Hilton dropped a touchdown in the end zone. Adam Vinatieri, yet to miss this season, kicked a 33-yard field goal and the Colts trailed 21-19 with 14:50 left.

Luck is 8-12 (.400) when trailing by at least 12 points in his career, which is about four times better than the league average rate. One of his strengths has been eliminating mistakes when the margin of error is so tiny. However, Hilton had his share of struggles in the second half. In addition to the aforementioned dropped touchdown, Hilton lost a fumble and watched a high pass tip off his hands for Luck's second interception of the day. (There were a good eight passes or so in this game the Colts had their hands on but failed to bring in for the catch.) The Cleveland offense only managed 2 yards after the great field position, but the pick produced three more points and a 24-19 lead. The offense was never able to take advantage of Vontae Davis' absence.

Luck's ability to avoid sacks has also been key in his game-winning drive success, but the Browns threatened to finish this defensive effort with two big sacks in the quarter. Luck was on his 16th possession of the day and things looked mighty bleak with the Colts 94 yards away from the end zone and just over three minutes remaining. But on a third-and-7, everything changed when Donte Moncrief displayed amazing concentration and hands on a pass down the middle for 27 yards. Luck then overthrew Dwayne Allen, but Buster Skrine was penalized 35 yards for pass interference after a clear jersey grab cut off Allen's path. However, I'm not sure Skrine ever needed to grab Allen due to the inaccuracy of the throw. That was a tough break for the Browns, which is a broken record thing to say given the team's history.

Given that history, you could fel where this one was headed with the Colts at the Cleveland 25, but the Browns didn't make the rest of the drive so easy. A Luck scramble moved the ball to the 3, but the Colts had to gut out 1 more yard for a first down on two Dan Herron runs. On fourth-and-1, the Browns looked to have the game won in the backfield, but Herron's spin move saved the day. How small is the margin between winning and losing in this league? Look at the push the Browns had in the backfield and the effort Herron needed to get the first down.

It's a good thing Indianapolis went with Herron over Trent Richardson there or else the Browns would have a big win right now. Mike Pettine immediately called timeout with 36 seconds left, which was questioned by the FOX broadcast, but it's a fine strategy to save time for the answer drive. No coach can have that much gall to expect they will stop an NFL offense from scoring with a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line.

The Colts snapped the ball while Joe Haden was still communicating with his teammate, and the natural pick action freed up Hilton for the easy touchdown with 32 seconds left. A day before the game I predicted Luck would lead his first 4QC/GWD of the season in a 27-24 type of finish. Well, Haden knocked down the two-point conversion pass, but the Colts led 25-24. Close enough.

Hoyer had 28 seconds and two timeouts left at his own 13 to answer, which isn't unreasonable if we recall the drive Cleveland had in Atlanta in Week 12. Sure, win probability says 0.02, but the two timeouts make all the difference. It really hurts when you have to use one with the clock stopped for an injury timeout, which was the case after a bomb for Josh Gordon barely fell incomplete and the receiver couldn't get up right away. After a roughing the passer penalty, Hoyer forced a deep ball into triple coverage and the Colts came away with the game-ending interception.

This one will probably go down as the end of the Hoyer era in Cleveland*. For the Colts, it's not a comeback worthy of high praise, but they showed they can still pull one out. Like Luck's beard, this was just a little more rough around the edges than usual.


New England Patriots 23 at San Diego Chargers 14

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 1 (14-13)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD starting with 0:38 left in third quarter): 0.48
Head Coach: Bill Belichick (42-70 at 4QC and 57-71 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Tom Brady (32-29 at 4QC and 44-31 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Tom Brady and Philip Rivers have been two of the best quarterbacks of the past decade, but their six career meetings have not reflected that caliber of play. If we compare last week's Brady-Rodgers clash to a meticulous work by Stanley Kubrick, then Brady-Rivers often comes out looking like an Ed Wood production.

The third quarter alone featured seven punts and a bad Rivers interception. San Diego's defense did all it really could to hold a 14-13 lead, which included a fumble returned for a touchdown as the Chargers managed just seven offensive points on 11 drives. Once Ryan Mathews was injured after being tripped, the Chargers had no rushing ability, and in addition to multiple breakdowns in pass protection, that led to a dreadful night from Rivers.

The first play of the fourth quarter was a sign of things to come. Julian Edelman turned a 5-yard loss in the backfield into a 4-yard gain. Two Edelman catches set up a 38-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, which actually proved to be the game-winner with 10:34 left. After San Diego went three-and-out, Edelman only needed one play to break a pair of tackles for a 69-yard touchdown. The Chargers could have stopped him at midfield, but Edelman gained 55 yards after the catch to give New England a 23-14 lead.

If that didn't put the nail in this one, Mike McCoy sure did. Rivers scrambled on a third-and-11, which of course brought up a fourth-and-4 down by nine points with about 6:50 left. Despite being known for his competitiveness, Rivers casually walked to the sideline without even a glance towards his coach, which makes one question the mindset McCoy has instilled to his team. This was an obvious situation to go for it, but McCoy made of the worst decisions of the year and opted to punt from the 50. The call was even more outrageous than it seems because Mike Scifres was lost for the game in the second quarter and kicker Nick Novak struggled to replace him. McCoy's punt showed no confidence in his team or any understanding of the opponent or situation in front of him.

Naturally, the Patriots burned off four minutes and Rivers was left with only 2:05 to work with. He couldn't even get one first down after the thousandth crossing route of the night was a yard short on fourth-and-5.

According to ESPN, Rivers was just 2-of-10 on passes thrown more than 5 yards downfield on Sunday night. That's the fewest such completions he has ever had in a game. The stat was so hard to believe I had to re-watch every Rivers throw to verify, and sure enough, it's accurate. The only two completions were spectacular catches where Malcom Floyd bailed out Rivers, who had one defensed-drop and that ugly interception on his throws beyond five yards. That's a credit to New England's defense for not allowing him a comfortable pocket from which to throw, but we have seen Rivers overcome that this year. That's also a credit to the coverage from Darrelle Revis and company, but again, Rivers is used to threading the needle down the field. Sunday night was just one of the worst games he has ever played and his 12.2 QBR (lowest under McCoy) sums that up adequately.

With the win, Brady moved past Joe Montana for the fifth-most fourth-quarter comeback wins in NFL history with 32.

New York Jets 24 at Minnesota Vikings 30

Type: GWD (OT)
Win Probability (GWD starting with 12:00 left in overtime): 0.33
Head Coach: Mike Zimmer (3-1 at 4QC and 4-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Teddy Bridgewater (3-1 at 4QC and 4-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)

The field goals were flowing and the offenses were showing glimmers of hope, but Everson Griffen nearly intercepted a Geno Smith pass off a deflection to start the fourth quarter. Nick Folk kicked one game-tying field goal and was called on for another after the Jets had a peculiar drive that melted the clock, but gave Smith tougher passes to try scoring the winning touchdown. If there had been more urgency in the last two minutes, then Smith would not have been trying to throw a 26-yard touchdown with 40 seconds left. Folk was good from 44 yards away on the field goal to tie the game at 24.

If we take nothing else away from this fairly insignificant game, can we at least praise the Vikings for aggressively trying to win in regulation? Maybe the team's 5-7 record increased Mike Zimmer's willingness to avoid overtime, but this was refreshing. With 16 seconds left at the 22, most teams would take a knee and play for overtime. Even a team with two timeouts and a stud quarterback would probably take a knee here. Teddy Bridgewater, just a rookie in his tenth start, let a pass rip and Jarius Wright brought it down for 27 yards. The Jets were in the neutral zone, which stopped the clock, but Minnesota had two timeouts anyway. Bridgewater threw to Greg Jennings for 13 more yards, and he got out of bounds to stop the clock with three seconds left.

The Vikings gained 40 yards in 13 seconds without even using a timeout. Granted, there was one clock stoppage, but any team with a timeout could have pulled this drive off. Keep this game in mind when thinking about the prospects of these late-game drives. Blair Walsh is a great kicker, but kicks from 56 yards are always tough, especially when the Vikings are outdoors in December. Still, he had a shot for a game-winning field goal, but the kick was not even close.

In overtime, the Jets won the toss and received, because apparently even Rex Ryan thinks his offense can drive 80 yards for a touchdown. The Jets actually reached the Minnesota 43, but Smith had another pass deflected and New York punted on fourth-and-6. The Vikings were pinned at their own 8, but only needed a field goal to win. Bridgewater checked to a bubble screen on third-and-5 and Wright did the rest of the work on the 87-yard game-winning touchdown pass. Jaiquawn Jarrett had a chance to tackle Wright short of the first down, but that missed tackle led to the second-longest touchdown pass in NFL overtime history.

Bridgewater is the 13th true rookie quarterback since 1950 to lead at least three game-winning drives (including playoffs).

Most Game-winning Drives, Rookie Season (Playoffs Included)
Rk Quarterback Year Team Rookie GWD Career GWD
1 Andrew Luck 2012 Colts 7 12
2 Ben Roethlisberger 2004 Steelers 6 35
3T Vince Young 2006 Titans 5 13
3T Russell Wilson 2012 Seahawks 5 13
3T Geno Smith 2013 Jets 5 5
6T Matt Ryan 2008 Falcons 4 27
6T Andy Dalton 2011 Bengals 4 12
8T Johnny Unitas 1956 Colts 3 40
8T Virgil Carter 1968 Bears 3 3
8T Kerry Collins 1995 Panthers 3 30
8T David Carr 2002 Texans 3 11
8T Bruce Gradkowski 2006 Buccaneers 3 7
8T Teddy Bridgewater 2014 Vikings 3 3

You probably noticed Smith is on there with five game-winning drives last season. The Vikings are having a sort of 2013 Jets year with a great record in these games (4-1), but a bad record overall due to blowout losses (mostly from earlier in the season). This year we have seen the Jets slump to a league-worst 0-7 record at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities. We'll see how Bridgewater progresses among this group, because there's definitely that foreshadowing of sustained success with Johnny Unitas, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson. That's the company to which you want to belong as a young quarterback.

Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind

Ravens at Dolphins: As the Ice Comes Down It's the End

Miami had another golden opportunity to prove itself as a contender with a home game against the same-record Ravens (7-5), who were without the services of the suspended Haloti Ngata. Despite taking an early 10-0 lead, the Dolphins actually put up less of a fight than they did a year ago in Baltimore's 26-23 win. Once Baltimore stopped failing on third-and-1 situations and Joe Flacco started engineering long touchdown drives, the Ravens led 14-10 to start the fourth quarter.

Ryan Tannehill had completed eight passes in a row and the Dolphins had a first-and-goal at the 4-yard line. The offensive line was the main culprit to their offensive struggles last season, and the ensuing sequence was a harsh reminder of problems from yesteryear. Over a span of four plays the Dolphins were beaten up the middle for a 2-yard loss, committed a false start, allowed a pressure that caused Tannehill to miss a touchdown pass, and gave up an unblocked sack to C.J. Mosley on third down. Needless to say, Miami settled for a field goal and trailed 14-13.

Baltimore continued its offensive surge with an 80-yard touchdown drive, keyed by an 18-yard catch by Steve Smith on third-and-5 after he beat Brent Grimes on the route. Once again Grimes lost his footing in coverage, which has happened too easily and about three times too often in close fourth quarters this season.

The touchdown still kept things a one-score game at 21-13 with 8:09 left. Even without Ngata, the talent in Baltimore's front seven is excellent. Tannehill tried to start the drive with a play-action pass, but Elvis Dumervil beat Dallas Thomas for a big sack. Tannehill nearly threw an interception on second down and the Dolphins quickly went three-and-out. After being held in check for most of the day, Justin Forsett broke off a 44-yard run and the Ravens completed an 81-yard drive (all runs) with Flacco's quarterback sneak for the touchdown.

With 3:30 to play, all that was left was for Baltimore to tally six sacks for their second game in a row against Tannehill. Elvis Dumervil had 3.5 sacks on Sunday, giving him 16 for the season.

Miami is the only 2014 team to play the top four teams in DVOA (Denver, New England, Green Bay and Baltimore), and this was its worst performance yet. Does that make it a signature win for the Ravens, or is beating Miami in a big December game far too common to get excited about?

Chiefs at Cardinals: The Stanton Benchmark

After losing Carson Palmer for the season with a torn ACL last month, Arizona coach Bruce Arians proclaimed that the Cardinals can win the Super Bowl with Drew Stanton. If he could make just one addendum to that statement, it would be that the Cardinals can win the Super Bowl with Drew Stanton as long as the opponent doesn't score more than 14 points. The prospects are a little bleak for Arizona when that element is not present.

Stanton has played in five wins this season (four starts and one game-winning drive off the bench), and Arizona allowed exactly 14 points in four of those games. The other win was 14-6 over Detroit, so the standard of defense has been incredibly high for the Cardinals to succeed with their backup quarterback.

Fortunately, a low-scoring duel in the desert with Alex Smith was in Stanton's wheelhouse, but it took some incredible plays on third-and-long to take the lead. In the third quarter, the usually cautious Smith inexplicably forced a short pass on third-and-20 that was intercepted. Instead of settling for yet another field goal, Stanton fired a perfect pass down the seam on third-and-18 to Jaron Brown for a 26-yard touchdown.

That set up the Cardinals with a 17-14 lead, but another scoreless fourth quarter was in their future. Kansas City had four drives to respond, but failed to even run a play inside Arizona's 40 in the quarter. The best opportunity appeared to be a 19-yard catch by Travis Kelce at the Arizona 22 with 5:23 left, but Arians challenged the ruling on the field that the runner was down by contact. The catch was never in dispute, but was this a fumble? You can see the ball start to slip out of Kelce's grasp before he's tackled down, but it never fully comes out until after he lands and rolls over. Amazingly, the call was reversed on replay to a lost fumble with clear recovery by Arizona. I have a hard time buying any of the footage as conclusive enough to overturn the call on the field, but whatever.

Arizona leaned on the run to burn clock, but another classic "three vs. six" situation came up on fourth-and-2 at the Kansas City 16 with 1:14 left. Sure, coaches probably think a 34-yard field goal is safe, and Smith was unlikely to lead a long touchdown drive in just over a minute to win, but why give him a chance and why not trust your offense to gain 2 little yards? In perhaps a case of "ball don't lie" for Arizona, Chandler Catanzaro missed the 34-yard field goal off the left upright with 1:09 left. Now the Chiefs only needed a field goal to tie the game and had plenty of time to get it.

There have been some atrocious attempts at game-winning drives this year (see Eagles at 49ers), but the Chiefs never even gave themselves a chance. Smith threw seven passes on the drive and only one traveled more than 6 yards past the line of scrimmage. He threw more horizontal passes, including an ill-timed wide receiver screen, than he did shots downfield. With Arizona's aggressive defense forcing the issue, this was never going to work and it came as no surprise when Smith's fourth-and-15 pass was tipped away by Calais Campbell.

The Cardinals survived another close one and ran their numbers to 10 fourth-quarter stands, allowing just three points on 18 drives with the game tied or leading by 1 to 8 points.

Season Summary
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 52
Game-winning drives: 58
Games with 4QC opportunity: 106/208 (51.0 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 37

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 09 Dec 2014

2 comments, Last at 09 Dec 2014, 7:47pm by Theo


by young curmudgeon :: Tue, 12/09/2014 - 6:12pm

Sunday's win could be a launching point toward the team's first AFC North title since 2010...alternatively, it could be setting us up for another pathetic performance against a team with a losing record.

by Theo :: Tue, 12/09/2014 - 7:47pm

Enjoy watching Le'Veon Bell, who's really underrated, as long as it lasts, because this kid will go the way of the Steelers Runningback.
I can imagine they run this kid all day long in practice too.
Like I said. 2016; he's a Cardinal.