The on-paper game of the week between the Texans and Ravens ended up being a 41-7 Baltimore blowout. That added some excitement for potential new blood in the AFC title game, but it did little to aid in the quest to highlight the five best fourth quarters in this week's Tipping Points. Fortunately, a pair of predicted mismatches between the Cardinals and 49ers and the Vikings and Broncos supplied the drama.
Game of the Week
Cardinals at 49ers
On paper, the three-win Cardinals, 26th in DVOA, were no match for the eight-win 49ers, second in DVOA. But just two weeks ago, the Cardinals had mounted a furious fourth-quarter comeback to fall three points short of a win over their division rival. And on Sunday, it looked like they might take the game early, jumping out to a 16-0 lead through the first 21 minutes built on a 41-yard pass interference call on cornerback Richard Sherman (the rare challenge-reversed DPI foul) and a pair of Kyler Murray passing touchdowns, the first to Larry Fitzgerald and the second to Pharoh Cooper. Just two of the 49ers' other eight opposing quarterbacks had thrown for two touchdowns against them, and now Murray had done it twice, with the second coming early in the second quarter.
That quick punch dropped the heavily favored 49ers to a nadir of a 40.0% Game-Winning Chance (GWC), but it also woke up their No. 1 DVOA pass defense. Murray's second passing touchdown would prove to be his last of the afternoon, and a career-best passing day of 424 yards and four touchdowns for Jimmy Garoppolo sparked a 49ers comeback. They were poised to seal that comeback midway through the third quarter, driving into the red zone and already up 17-16. But Garoppolo threw a baffling interception, apparently never seeing linebacker Jordan Hicks practically standing still in the middle of his throwing lane. That turnover led to a Cardinals field goal and returned the 49ers to catch-up mode at the start of the fourth quarter.
With Matt Breida sidelined with an ankle injury, the 49ers had little success in the ground game, rushing for just 34 yards on 19 attempts. With 14:30 left in the game, Tevin Coleman was stopped for no gain on a first-and-10 at the edge of the red zone. But do-it-all fullback Kyle Juszczyk looked fully back from his early-season knee injury. He followed the Coleman carry with two of his seven catches, the first on a screen pass for 9 yards and the second on a Garoppolo lob that allowed cornerback Byron Murphy time to crash into Juszczyk's legs, sending him head over heels. The athletic Juszczyk nearly stuck the landing so he could ramble the remaining 2 yards into the end zone, but referees ruled him down on the play. That set up a simple play-action pitch and catch from Garoppolo to Kendrick Bourne in the middle of the end zone. Pass pressure forced an incompletion on a two-point try, but the 49ers had still recaptured their lead, this time at 23-19 with 12:14 remaining.
Despite their incentive to run and the 49ers defense's relative weakness against the run versus the pass, the Cardinals had not had dramatically more success with their now-workhorse running back Kenyan Drake than the 49ers through the first three quarters. But after a Murray 8-yard rolling strike to Christian Kirk to start the next drive, Drake exploded through a hole in the left side of the line to pick up 12 yards and a first down. Drake gained just 2 yards on his next attempt but then converted another first down on a third-and-4 carry, set up by an 11-yard Fitzgerald comeback on second-and-long. That advanced the Cardinals into 49ers' territory. Murray faked to Drake and then hit Cooper for 7 yards in a hole in the zone, and then Drake gained 5, 1, and 6 yards on a carry, catch, and another carry, gaining two more first downs and advancing the Cardinals to the 49ers' 22-yard line. That's where Murray -- who enjoyed more rushing success than Drake for the bulk of the game -- took over. With extra space created by a fake Fitzgerald screen that pulled nickelback K'Waun Williams out of the play, Murray raced around the left edge of the line and the 49ers linebackers and into the end zone. With just six and a half minutes left, the Cardinals were back up three and back to a near 50/50 GWC.
Garoppolo had handled the pressure of a deficit well for most of the day, and he looked like he might erase it quickly as he started the next drive with a 23-yard strike to rookie Deebo Samuel just over the outstretched hands of a leaping Joe Walker. Raheem Mostert carried defenders for a few extra yards on a shallow cross, and Garoppolo then found Samuel for an easy 11 yards on the left sideline with corner Byron Murphy offering way too much of a cushion. But excellent coverage forced a Garoppolo checkdown on the subsequent first down, and blitz-driven pressure forced a Garoppolo throwaway on second down. And on third-and-7 from the Cardinals' 24-yard line, Garoppolo threw high and behind tight end Ross Dwelley, who was starting in place of injured George Kittle and enjoying a big day. Dwelley got a hand on the pass, but his deflection made Jalen Thompson's interception possible. Thompson still deserves a ton of credit for reading the ball's change of direction, diving, and securing the pick before the ball could touch the ground.
Thompson's tremendous play cut the 49ers' GWC in half from 64.2% to 31.4%, but with 4:32 remaining and San Francisco still having two of their timeouts, the Cardinals needed several first downs to hold onto their victory. Drake made that feasible with a hard-fought 5 yards on first and second down, but the 49ers brought a blitz on third-and-5. The elusive Murray stepped up into the pocket to avoid Nick Bosa's speed rush around the left tackle, but he couldn't avoid the quick close of pass rusher Arik Armstead straight up the middle. The sack dropped the Cardinals into a fourth-and-16 and forced a punt from inside their 20-yard line. Punter Andy Lee boomed it 52 yards to take back some field position, but Garoppolo still had 2:12, both timeouts, and a relatively short field to drive for a field goal and a tie or a touchdown and a win.
Garoppolo started those efforts with a 7-yard completion to Bourne in the middle of the field at the two-minute warning. But when Garoppolo hit Samuel with a quick pass off the left side of the offensive line, Samuel cut in-field and outran the Cardinals' trailing front-seven, gaining 11 yards and moving the 49ers into Cardinals territory. Garoppolo escaped pressure and scrambled for 7 yards on the subsequent first down and then earned another first down with a 5-yard completion to Marquise Goodwin, who secured the catch despite tight coverage from Patrick Peterson.
That catch advanced the 49ers to the edge of field goal range, and last Monday's overtime duck aside, backup kicker Chase McLaughlin had connected on four field goal attempts and three extra point attempts in two games since taking over for an injured Robbie Gould. But with 69 seconds remaining, the 49ers did the prudent but still shockingly rare thing by maintaining their aggressiveness on offense. Goodwin dropped a well-placed 7-yard pass from Garoppolo, but Samuel secured his for the same length. Thompson made another great play to tackle Samuel quickly and prevent a first down, but he couldn't quite do the same on third-and-3. There, Garoppolo made a quick strike to Dwelley just at the line, and while Thompson tackled him before he had any chance to advance, Dwelley had just reached the line to gain on the catch. Referees reviewed the spot themselves inside of two minutes, but they upheld the placement.
The 49ers stopped the clock there with their second timeout, but with all of their work to the middle of the field on the drive, they were down to just 37 seconds on a first-and-10 from the Cardinals' 25-yard line. Those last 10 yards had dramatically improved their chances of a successful field goal to force overtime, but that proved unnecessary. On the very next play, Garoppolo beat a blitz and found running back Jeff Wilson. With a sharp cut upfield, Wilson lost normal pass-rusher Chandler Jones in coverage. And with so many of the Cardinals defenders back at the line of scrimmage, Wilson had just daylight between him and the end zone 20 yards upfield. He hit it in a straight line, providing the game-winning 49ers touchdown.
With their full set of three timeouts and 31 seconds remaining, the Cardinals had a slim 4.4% chance of another comeback, but they lost that quickly when Damontre Moore forced a KeeSean Johnson fumble on his 5-yard catch to start the drive. They regained possession again with 11 seconds left, but their second-and-10 hook-and-ladder never got past the 32-yard line and eventually ended with a 49ers fumble recovery and touchdown, extending the final margin to 10 points that belied the competitiveness of the game and killed Las Vegas sportsbooks.
A two-game losing streak wouldn't figure to be the end of the world for a team that started the season 8-0. But that undefeated first half didn't offer the 49ers the comfortable lead in the NFC that one would have expected. Had the Cardinals pulled off the upset, the idle Seahawks would have jumped the 49ers for an NFC West lead thanks to their head-to-head win last week. Meanwhile, following Week 11 wins for the Saints and Vikings, four other NFC teams have reached eight wins, just one behind the 49ers' new total. They've been dominant by both record and DVOA, but the 49ers maintain a surprisingly low 31.8% chance of the top seed and 50.7% chance of a bye. In addition to the quality of their competitors, the 49ers have to contend with a schedule that is about to ramp up dramatically in difficult. So far this season, the 49ers have faced the 30th-ranked DVOA defense, easier only than the Bills' and Patriots'. But for the rest of the season, the 49ers have the second-hardest schedule, easier only than the Rams'. The Rams may actually be the easiest team left on a schedule that includes matchups with the Packers, Ravens, Saints, and Seahawks.
Already with six losses and a tie before they hemorrhaged Sunday's lead, the Cardinals were all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. But it's still hard to read the short-term disappointment as long-term pessimism. Murray has acquitted himself well with a -1.5% passing DVOA in his rookie season, and he seems increasingly comfortable making plays with his legs. With improved roster talent around him, Murray looks like a franchise quarterback who could drag the Cardinals into the mix in future seasons in an NFC West that may already be the strongest in football.
The Best of the Rest
Broncos at Vikings
If you were impressed by the 49ers' comeback from a 16-0 second-quarter deficit, then you should be doubly so by the Vikings' win on Sunday. They trailed 20-0 at halftime. They are the first of 100 attempting teams to overcome a halftime deficit of that much or more in the last five years, and the EdjSports' GWC model offered them just an 11.3% chance of a successful comeback.
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) November 17, 2019
The Broncos' No. 6 DVOA defense put on a first-half clinic, allowing just 37 total yards on 23 Vikings plays and forcing a turnover on a Shelby Harris strip-sack. But Kirk Cousins stormed out of the second-half gates, leading the Vikings on nine- and 18-play touchdown drives that culminated in a 3-yard Dalvin Cook touchdown run with 13:30 left in the fourth quarter. That latter score cut the Vikings deficit to 23-13, and the Vikings followed the recent trend of trailing teams making good strategic decisions after touchdowns by going for two, improving their GWC by 1.2% over attempting a kicked extra point. But when Derek Wolfe brought down Cook's jet sweep a yard shy of the conversion, the Vikings saw their GWC decline to 16.3%, still a long shot despite their tremendous third quarter.
The Vikings needed defensive stops, and they had a chance to make one after Phillip Lindsay took a pair of carries for 9 combined yards to set up a Broncos third-and-1. Brandon Allen faked a handoff to Lindsay and instead pitched the ball to tight end Noah Fant. But running laterally 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage, the 249-pound Fant made little headway before cornerback Trae Waynes chased him down for a 5-yard loss. That forced a Broncos punt that almost ended in disaster for the Vikings when returner Mike Hughes -- in the role because of an earlier-season injury to Chad Beebe -- muffed the catch for the second time of the game. This time, Vikings special teamer Eric Wilson was able to jump on the loose ball in a sea of white Broncos jerseys.
With a new possession secured, the Vikings were up to a 22.4% GWC, but a batted pass and quick tackle on an 8-yard completion to Tyler Conklin set up a critical third-and-2. There, Cousins faked a handoff to Cook and instead went deep, throwing it 40 yards in the air and two steps in front of cornerback Chris Harris to Stefon Diggs for a 54-yard touchdown.
Perhaps deterred by their previous failure, the Vikings sacrificed 0.8% GWC by kicking an extra point. But the long touchdown nevertheless doubled the team's GWC to 44.4%, down 23-20 with 10:21 remaining. It would have been easy for the Broncos to turtle, desperate to kill clock to hang onto their rapidly narrowing lead. But to offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello's credit, he remained aggressive and trusted his inexperienced quarterback. Allen airmailed a slant pass to Tim Patrick on first down, but then he delivered a smooth spiral to Courtland Sutton 40 yards down the field. A bit more air in the pass may have led Sutton to a score over the top of the defense, but the 43-yard completion still did wonders, advancing the Broncos into field goal range and costing the Vikings 16.5% GWC.
From there, the Broncos returned to a conservative approach to drain clock. Royce Freeman ran up the middle for 3 yards, and after another overthrow -- this one off the tips of tight end Troy Fumagalli's fingers -- Allen handed off to Devontae Booker on third-and-7. To me, the latter was a play call that suggested a possible willingness to go for it on fourth down. A decision on a fourth-and-3 from the Vikings 25-yard line that would have increased the Broncos' GWC by 2.6% with a pass and 2.8% with a run versus attempting a 43-yard field goal. Instead, head coach Vic Fangio called for his kicker, and Brandon McManus promptly missed the kick badly to the right after converting all three of his previous attempts on the day.
Perhaps desperate to make up for the miscue, Fangio brought a blitz on the Vikings' ensuing first-and-10, but the Vikings called the perfect play for that defense with a screen pass to Cook. If Cook makes waves in the MVP discussion this year, he'll have screen passes to thank. He entered this week with 23 screen targets, the most at the position, and averaging 11.7 yards per screen targets, third-best of the 13 running backs with 10 or more such targets. He caught this one and outraced trailing linebacker Todd Davis for 21 yards and into Broncos territory.
Cousins advanced the Vikings further into an advantageous second-and-4 with a short completion to Bisi Johnson, but then he took a sack trying to scramble up and out of the pocket. On third-and-5, he placed a perfect ball to Diggs' back shoulder, blocking out the defensive efforts of cornerback Duke Dawson. And on the subsequent first down, he grabbed the Vikings' first lead of the day with a floating pass over Dawson to tight end Kyle Rudolph, who strutted the final 18 yards of his 32-yard catch untouched into the end zone.
Rudolph was wide open thanks to the Cousins' play-action fake, the same play fake he used on the long Diggs touchdown and has used effectively all season. The Vikings entered the week throwing the highest rate of their passes (34%) from play-action and averaging 8.3 yards per play-action attempt according to Sports Info Solutions (subscription required). The Broncos defense had been in the top 10 allowing just 6.6 yards per play-action attempt this season, but they couldn't maintain that success in the second against the Vikings.
Trailing for the first time with six minutes left in the game, the Broncos weren't dead. They maintained a 16.9% GWC that was stronger than the Vikings had experienced through much of the third and fourth quarters. Diontae Spencer sparked the Broncos' comeback efforts with a 42-yard weaving kickoff return from the end zone and up the left sideline. And after a wobbly overthrow out of bounds and 3-yard sack, Allen hit Freeman on a third-and-13 lob that Freeman took for a first down courtesy a forced Xavier Rhodes missed tackle on a sharp cut to the right sideline. Freeman followed that with a 2-yard carry, and then Lindsay sped around the left edge for 13 yards and an apparent first down. However, that play was negated by a questionable offensive holding call where Anthony Barr sold a penalty on what was a fairly textbook edge-sealing block from fullback Andrew Beck.
That penalty dropped the Broncos into a second-and-13, which Allen nearly picked up with a strike to Sutton. An unfavorable spot gave the Broncos a full yard to gain, and that became 6 yards after a false start. But after a pressure-forced throw away, Allen connected with Noah Fant on a crossing pattern at the line to gain, which he proceeded to pull forward to the Vikings' 34-yard line.
Fant touched down with 3:22 left in the quarter, and the Broncos may have been right at this point on the field to take their time, allowing seconds to drain to try to prevent the Vikings from answering the touchdown they hoped to score. But a 4-yard Lindsay carry with draining clock later, there was 2:04 left in the quarter. Safety Jayron Kearse dove in and dislodged a pass to Fumagalli that the Broncos challenged for a non-called defensive pass interference penalty and lost. And after an incomplete deep shot to Fant, Allen again converted a fourth-and-6, this one with a 6-yard slant that Tim Patrick took past the sticks by falling backward on top of his defender Hughes.
By that point, the Vikings started to call timeouts to preserve clock. The first one stopped the clock with 1:32 left in the game. Lindsay squeezed through a hole for 5 yards to take the clock to 1:05, and after an incompletion to Patrick in the end zone, Allen found Patrick in the middle of the field. Waynes flew in for a tackle to force the Broncos third fourth-down of the drive, and after the Broncos called their final timeout to plan, Allen converted it with a zone read run to the outside. Kearse escaped his block to spear Allen down both shy of the end zone and still in bounds. That was with 27 seconds left on the clock. But watch how much time the Broncos waste casually approaching the line on their next play. Were it not for a Vikings called timeout with 10 seconds remaining, the Broncos may have forced themselves into a final two plays.
As is, the Broncos had time for three quick plays, but the first two had to be touchdowns, end out of bounds, or incomplete to stop the clock or the game would be over. Their odds would likely have been significantly better if they had preserved more time for the red zone, but the Broncos were still in decent shape with a 52.1% GWC. And at least two of Allen's three end zone pass attempts could have been caught. The first hit Patrick in the hands as he sprung up and over his defender Waynes, but Waynes did stick his arm in front of Patrick's chest, possibly distracting him enough to prevent the catch. The second was closer to a Kearse interception than a Fant touchdown, but the third sailed right past Fant and could likely have been caught had Fant picked up the flight of the ball earlier. But he didn't pick up the ball, and clock ran out on the Broncos' attempt at a game-winning drive.
The Broncos continue to find agonizing ways to lose close games. This was their fourth loss this season by four points or fewer and the fourth time they have lost despite holding a lead in the latter half of the fourth quarter. That futility is remarkable, but given the playoff implications for their opponent, the Vikings are the story. The Vikings improved on their -69.4% first- and -97.9% second-quarter DVOA numbers with 25.4% in the third quarter and 135.0% in the fourth quarter to pull this one out. And with the win, the Vikings added a buffer of 1.5 games between their current spot as the sixth seed in the NFC and the rest of the conference's wild-card contenders. That may prove critical as the Vikings are set to face off with the Seahawks in Week 13 after their upcoming bye week.
Patriots at Eagles
This rematch of Super Bowl LII didn't quite match the offensive fireworks of the original. That game between the No. 1 (Patriots) and No. 8 (Eagles) DVOA offenses featured 1,151 total yards and 74 total points. This one between the No. 1 (Patriots) and No. 9 (Eagles) DVOA defenses had just 553 total yards and 27 total points. But there was plenty of trickery. In the second quarter, Tom Brady handed off to Rex Burkhead, who then lateraled back to Brady for a 50-air-yard incompletion downfield. And in the third quarter, Brady lateraled back to Julian Edelman, who then found Phillip Dorsett open in the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown pass. That latter play was the difference as the Eagles opened the fourth quarter at their own 20-yard line down 17-10.
Wentz produced a quick first down with a strike to well-covered Zach Ertz for 11 yards, but Boston Scott couldn't elude Kyle Van Noy in the backfield and then Wentz was forced out of bounds on a scramble by Jason McCourty still 2 yards shy of another new first down. Wentz hit de facto No. 1 receiver Agholor in the hands on a pass that would have converted, but Agholor dropped it, his seventh drop against 100 catches the last two seasons according to Sports Info Solutions (subscription required).
After a punt, the Patriots enjoyed their own quick start to a drive with an 11-yard Ben Watson screen that he patiently let develop before spinning past a final defender for a first down. And then two plays later, Brady converted a third-and-6 with a low pass in front of Jacoby Meyers where only Meyers could secure it, cutting in on the field away from cornerback Ronald Darby. They were close to midfield with a new first down, but then a Watson hold backed them up to a first-and-20. James White found a hole to regain 9 of those yards, but Brady missed on a pair of deep shots, the former to Meyers and the latter to Edelman where Edeman was forced to play defensive back against a better-positioned Avonte Maddox. That forced a Patriots punt and returned the ball to Wentz and the Eagles offense with just over 10 minutes left in the quarter.
Continuing the string of first-play drive success, Wentz pump-faked and then threw a 25-yard line drive completion to Ertz surrounded by five Patriots defenders. That play extracted the Eagles from deep in their own territory and set them up at their 37-yard line. But again, quality defense forced the drive to stall, this one following passes defensed by both Jamie Collins and McCourty. Cameron Johnston booted a beautiful 59-yard punt that touched down on the 20 and tumbled all the way to the Patriots' 2-yard line. But it was still seven straight failed third-down conversions for the Eagles, and the Patriots again had the ball on offense with 8:18 remaining.
Brady created some space near his own goal line with a quick out to Edelman for 5 yards, and then Sony Michel did the rest of that work, bouncing a carry to the outside and cutting sharply in to break an attempted Kamu Grugier-Hill tackle and pick up 12 yards. Brady netted 14 yards with a play-action pass to Edelman that Edelman did an excellent job to stick with after a tip at the line knocked it off course and out of its initial spiral. Those were three big plays, but they advanced the Patriots just to their 33-yard line. And after a short Michel run and two short passes to N'Keal Harry and White left them 4 yards shy of a new first down, the Patriots again punted. But their offensive efforts had at least flipped field position, allowing Jake Bailey to pin the Eagles back to their 6-yard line with the assistance of an illegal block penalty that halved their distance from the goal.
Now with just 4:07 left in the quarter, the Eagles needed to make something happen offensively. On the first play of the new drive, Wentz was nearly sacked. But he stumbled away from the defensive line crashing down on him in his own end zone, rolled to the left, and threw a 40-air-yard bullet to rookie J.J. Arcega-Whiteside.
Wentz had room to breathe, but he threw incomplete on first and second down. Fortunately for the Eagles, a defensive holding penalty turned that second play into a new first down, which Wentz converted with a 5-yard out to Agholor and a 10-yard sidearm sling across his body to Dallas Goedert working the middle of the field. That play took the clock down to the two-minute warning, and with all three of their timeouts left, the Eagles had plenty of time to cover the last 45 yards they needed to score a game-tying touchdown. Wentz had his passes deflected on both first and second down, but then on third-and-10, he threw a 19-yard pass that Agholor leapt and caught in the middle of the field, advancing the Eagles to the 26-yard line with 1:18 remaining.
That last completion boosted the Eagles to a quarter-high 17.6% GWC, but that low total implies the difficulty of throwing against the Patriots on a short field. But really it was Wentz and not the Patriots defense that sabotaged their next sequence. He overthrew Ertz on first down, overthrew Agholor out of bounds on second down, and underthrew Ertz on third down. That left a fourth-and-10 with 1:05 remaining, and down to his last chance, Wentz made one of his best throws of the night. Falling backward at the 37-yard line, Wentz lobbed a rainbow that came down perfectly in the back of the end zone just beyond the reach of defender J.C. Jackson. Agholor got both of his hands on the pass, but he was awkwardly reaching back behind his body and couldn't secure the catch.
After the turnover on downs, the Patriots ran the ball three times and punted. That exhausted the Eagles' timeouts and left them with just 34 seconds to gain 88 yards, a proposition with just a 0.6% chance of succeeding. Wentz threw an interception that was nullified by a roughing-the-passer penalty, but even those 15 penalty yards failed to change the equation. With two seconds left from his own 42-yard line, Wentz heaved a Hail Mary. But in the cold and wind and with pass rushers around him, he could only air it out to within 5 yards of the end zone, where McCourty batted it down to end the game.
The Patriots rebounded from their Week 10 loss to the Ravens to secure their ninth win of the season. At this point, they have all but locked up a first-round bye (96.3%), but the Ravens' head-to-head win against them leaves the top AFC seed in some doubt. Currently, the Patriots have a 70.0% chance of locking that down.
With the continued success of the Seahawks and Vikings in front of them in the NFC wild-card race, the Eagles have likely set their sights on an NFC East title. Despite the Cowboys' victory over the Lions on Sunday, the Eagles are still just a game back in the division with a Week 16 Cowboys rematch looming. If they can get through the Seahawks in Week 12, they will be in good shape with bottom-five DVOA opponents in the Giants, Redskins, and Dolphins the following three weeks.
Cowboys at Lions
Speaking of those Cowboys, they had a road test against the Lions on Sunday that looked much tougher by DVOA -- the Lions entered the week at 16th -- than by win-loss record. And even with backup Jeff Driskel in at quarterback, the Lions enjoyed some success on offense. The Cowboys made it easy on him at the start with Ezekiel Elliott fumbling away the team's second offensive touch and setting the Lions up for a five-play, 28-yard touchdown drive. But Driskel also ran in a second-quarter touchdown and capped the opening third-quarter drive with a 39-yard dime to Marvin Hall on the left sideline and a rolling 11-yard touchdown across his body to Marvin Jones in the back of the end zone.
The Lions offense had 21 points and was driving at midfield to start the fourth quarter. That wasn't the problem. The Lions No. 23 DVOA pass defense just couldn't slow down Dak Prescott, who threw for 444 yards and three touchdowns on the day despite No. 1 receiver Amari Cooper contributing just three catches and 38 yards on eight targets, playing through ankle and knee injuries and locked down by Lions cornerback Darius Slay. That had the Lions trailing 27-21 at the start of the fourth, and on fourth-and-2 from the Cowboys' 48-yard line, they lined up to punt. A punt would have been a big strategic error, costing them 5.9% GWC versus an optimal pass. But the decision became moot thanks to a neutral zone infraction by Michael Bennett, awarding the Lions 5 yards and a new first down.
Unfortunately for the Lions, Driskel couldn't capitalize on the big break. He threw a strike to Kenny Golladay on first down, but Chidobe Awuzie defensed it from blanket coverage, further delaying Golladay's first (and only) catch of the day. Driskel bounced a pass short of Logan Thomas while rolling right away from pressure, and then he threw short of Danny Amendola while rolling left away from pressure and while being hit by pass-rusher Robert Quinn. GWC would still have preferred a pass attempt over a punt in no man's land on this fourth down, but with 10 yards to gain, the error was much less severe. A punt netted just 27 yards but did pin the Cowboys back to their own 16-yard line.
On the ensuing first down, Prescott threw a perfect back-shoulder pass to connect with Cooper for one of the few times on the day. Those 15 yards moved the Cowboys out of the shadow of their own end zone and allowed the team to use its full playbook to try to kill the more than 13 minutes remaining of game clock. Elliott did well to gain 2 yards on a first down where the Lions broke through into the backfield, and then Prescott, with all day to throw on both passes, hit Jason Witten on back-to-back plays to net a combined 16 yards and earn a new Cowboys first down.
With a blitz coming behind him on first down at midfield, Prescott tried to rifle the same right sideline throw to Cooper that he had converted to start the drive. This time, Slay was ready, positioned just under Cooper where he seemed poised to intercept the pass and take it to the end zone for a game-tying pick six. But somehow, the pass sailed over the leaping Slay, and Cooper secured it for another 16-yard gain.
Slay was justifiably baffled by his missed interception after the game, but his positive plays no doubt counterbalanced his handful of poor ones on the day.
Still, the Lions needed someone to step up and make a play on the drive, and no one could. Tony Pollard wove a jet sweep through the right side of the line for 8 yards, which Elliott followed with a 3-yard carry to create a new first down. An illegal contact penalty moved that first-and-10 forward another 5 yards into the Lions' red zone, and two plays later, the Cowboys set up a screen. Pass pressure forced an errant throw that Elliott somehow still secured, and with the Lions bringing a heavy blitz, Elliott was able to weave his way down the right sideline for a 17-yard score.
A successful two-point try handed the Lions a full two-touchdown deficit with just under eight minutes to try to erase it. But Driskel was undeterred. He avoided pass pressure on the first two plays of the Lions' next possession and scrambled forward for a combined 29 yards and into Cowboys' territory. Two plays later, he rolled right and threw softly back across his body to Danny Amendola for 21 yards. And a play later, he hung in the pocket and delivered a strike to Jones in range of the goal line so that Jones could dodge one tackle and plow his way in for his second receiving touchdown of the day.
As the Panthers attempted last week down eight, with the same logic, and unfortunately with the same results, the Lions went for two and failed to convert on a pass behind and short of running back J.D. McKissic. But an eight-point deficit still offered the Lions a chance to make a defensive stop with 5:42 remaining and orchestrate a touchdown drive with a two-point conversion to tie the game and force overtime. Prescott tried to erase those chances on one play with a deep shot to Cooper, but blind-side pressure from Trey Flowers forced an overthrow. Still, the Cowboys remained aggressive, allowing Prescott to throw a 6-yard slant and then a 22-yard touch pass, both to Michael Gallup, advancing the Cowboys to Lions territory and draining the clock to 4:46 remaining. That became 4:04 after a short Elliott run, but Randall Cobb couldn't secure a 15-yard Prescott bullet on the run and pressure forced a third-down throw into the turf. The Lions would have 3:44 to try their game-tying drive from their 14-yard line.
On second-and-5, Driskel supplied his familiar roll to the right and again threw deep across his body. This one was a bit overthrown, but Golladay backed up, leaped, and made an amazing 34-yard catch through a Darian Thompson defensive effort and facemask. The completion and penalty catapulted the Lions forward to the Cowboys' 32-yard line. There, Driskel threw another jump ball to Golladay, and Byron Jones appeared to grab some jersey and could have been flagged for defensive pass interference. Instead, the Lions drew a penalty for an ineligible player downfield, backing their offense up to a first-and-15.
It was a difficult down and distance for an inexperienced quarterback to try to convert, and it got much tougher after a second-down sack backed the Lions into a third-and-26. Demarcus Lawrence brought pressure to disrupt a third-down screen pass, and the Lions decided to punt. That too was an error by GWC, but facing a fourth-and-26, they Lions' best-case odds were just 3.0% in any case. But with just two timeouts and now on the other side of the two-minute warning, the Lions never saw the ball on offense again. They stopped Elliott at the line on first down, but Prescott play-faked and hit a wide-open Blake Jarwin on second down for an easy conversion. That extinguished the last the Lions' timeouts and allowed the Cowboys to take three knees to seal a 35-27 victory.
Dallas' win combined with the Eagles loss created a 14.8% swing in playoff odds between them. Now, the Cowboys have exactly double the chance (75.0%) of reaching the postseason as their division rivals (37.5%), motivated as much by their substantial DVOA edge as their one-game advantage in wins and losses. Still, the Cowboys face a tougher schedule to close out their season, with three of their next five games coming on the road, starting in Week 12 in New England and finished with the Eagles rematch in Week 16 in Philadelphia.
Bears at Rams
The Sunday night game fell well short of living up to its billing as America's game of the week. Mitchell Trubisky and Jared Goff combined to complete just 35 passes for 363 yards, and the Rams in particular seemed reluctant to even attempt passes against the Bears' No. 7 DVOA pass defense. I supposed they didn't have to considering the Bears' abysmal efficiency of 3.6 yards per play and Eddy Pineiro's pair of first-half missed field goal attempts, both inside of 50 yards. But despite the Rams' cocooning, the Bears defense still found a way to make big plays, forcing a Todd Gurley fumble and Jared Goff interception in the first quarter and three three-and-outs in the first three quarters. The closed out their fourth three-and-out of the game two plays into the fourth quarter, earning their offense another chance down 10-7 with 14:07 left in the game.
Trubisky started that next drive with a rare strike on a 15-air-yard pass to No. 1 receiver Allen Robinson, but Robinson dropped the pass off of his chest. He did secure a shorter grab on second down, but that set up a third-and-4. Trubisky danced in the pocket, scanning for an open receiver. But he never unloaded the pass, and several seconds into the dropback, Aaron Donald broke free of his block and smashed into Trubisky for a 12-yard sack. That would have forced the Bears' third straight three-and-out, but a defensive holding penalty nullified the play and earned them a new first down. Still, Trubisky couldn't take advantage, checking down to Robinson on second-and-6 and then dramatically underthrowing Robinson on third-and-5 and hitting cornerback Jalen Ramsey in the back several yards shy of Trubisky's intended target.
Jared Goff opened the Rams' next possession with a downfield shot to Cooper Kupp, but another Rams penalty set them back, this time for offensive holding. Goff missed badly on the ensuing first-and-20, Malcolm Brown gained just 4 yards on second-and-20, and then Kupp fumbled a wide receiver screen on third-and-16. Receiver Mike Thomas made a miraculous recovery from a pancake block to jump on the loose ball, avoiding a Bears possession that would have started in the red zone. Instead, the Rams were able to punt the ball away, gaining an absurd 67 yards of field position on Johnny Hekker's booming kick.
On second-and-8 from his own 7-yard line, Trubisky dodged pressure from Clay Matthews and connected with Anthony Miller on the right sideline. That put the Bears in a manageable third-and-1, but Trubisky threw well low and offline to receiver Taylor Gabriel. And rather than attempting a carry to improve their GWC by 0.7%, Matt Nagy chose to punt, showing an unsurprising lack of confidence in his young quarterback.
With the Bears defense bottling up Gurley in the second half, the Rams relied on their passing attack on the subsequent drive. On second-and-8, Goff used a play-action fake and hit Josh Reynolds on an 18-yard comeback. The next play, Goff unloaded deep to Reynolds, who hauled in the 51-yard catch and then toppled into the left side of the end zone. An illegal formation penalty nullified that play, but two plays later on a third-and-7, Goff found Reynolds just past cornerback Kyle Fuller, breaking forward to try to intercept the pass. His failure to make the pick allowed Reynolds to double his yardage to 26 yards on the catch-and-run and advanced the Rams' offense to the Bears' 22-yard line. A play later, Goff threw a perfect sideline pass that tight end Gerald Everett secured, tapping both feet down before falling right and out of bounds. And now just 5 yards out, Brown could easily finish the drive with a power run up the middle.
Now down two scores with 3:24 left in the game, the Bears had just a 1.0% GWC. And that's when Nagy finally decided to make the switch from Trubisky to veteran backup Chase Daniel. Daniel made a nice 9-yard throw to Gabriel that set up a third-and-1 Tarik Cohen conversion, but that was pretty much all he could manage in an untenable situation. He took a pair of sacks on the next sequence, leading to a fourth-and-14 attempt that he sailed over running back David Montgomery while being hit again. The turnover on downs returned the ball to the Rams with 1:48 left in the game. The Bears had their three timeouts, but Gurley netted 12 yards on three runs to earn a Rams first down and allow them to kneel twice to end the game.
Even before this loss, the Bears had less than a 5.0% chance of reaching the postseason, boasting a losing record and stuck in a division with the eight-win Packers and Vikings. Following another loss, they are down to an exceedingly unlikely 1.3% chance of making the playoffs. The final six weeks of their season will likely be dedicated to quarterback evaluations.
The Rams' win gave them an edge over the Eagles and Panthers (who both lost to fall to 5-5) in the NFC wild-card race, but they still trail the eight-win Seahawks and Vikings by two wins for one of those spots. That relegates them to just a 14.5% playoff chance, facing the most difficult remaining schedule in football that includes the Ravens, Seahawks, Cowboys, and 49ers over the next four weeks. Despite this win, it looks like the Super Bowl loss hangover will claim another victim.