By Scott Kacsmar
Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)
From the humble beginnings of rookies to historic records for veterans, the first week of the 2012 NFL season was highlighted again by the close finishes.
That is what Captain Comeback analyzes each week, and we are going even deeper into the data on fourth quarter comebacks (4QC) and game-winning drives (GWD) this season.
Career opportunity records for quarterbacks will be included each week, and there will be a summary of the league-wide numbers, such as the following.
Fourth quarter comebacks: 5
Game-winning drives: 5
Games with 4QC opportunity: 9/16 (56.3 percent)
This week’s highlights include a new Comeback King in Denver, a self-inflicted comeback in Cleveland, a historic finish in Minnesota, and another loss for the Green Bay Packers that you should have seen coming before halftime.
Drive of the Week
Denver Broncos vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Winner: Denver (31-19)
Largest Deficit: 5 (19-14)
Quarterback: Peyton Manning (36-43 at 4QC, 48-47 overall 4Q/OT record - table)
While the big headline of the night was Peyton Manning’s comeback from injury to the NFL, the Captain was focusing on another historic comeback that could have taken place.
If you have not already heard, this 36th career fourth quarter comeback win by Manning tied Dan Marino for the all-time record. For something that happened 35 times in Manning’s first 227 games (15.4 percent), the chances of it going down Sunday were not great.
But you had to figure Manning was not about to disappoint on such a big stage, and he did not. After a sluggish start, the Broncos essentially looked like the Denver Colts.
There was Manning masterfully running the no-huddle offense, even throwing to past receivers like Brandon Stokley and Jacob Tamme. His manipulation of the defense with audibles produced both of his touchdown passes, including the 400th of his career to Steelers-killer Demaryius Thomas.
There was also the drive-limiting defense, which was being picked apart on third down most of the night by Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger. The Colts — or we mean Broncos — only had seven possessions on offense, but produced 25 points, including three 80-yard touchdown drives.
Averaging 3.57 points per drive against a defense like Pittsburgh’s is improbable. In last year’s Wild Card game with Tim Tebow, the Broncos’ offense averaged 2.64 points per drive.
Though the uniform change is never going to be easy to adjust to, it was hard to tell Manning ever left Indy.
After Roethlisberger threw a touchdown to Mike Wallace to take a 19-14 lead early in the fourth quarter, the stage was set for Manning. Pittsburgh’s failure to convert the two-point conversion left the window open for a Denver lead.
Failing on his last six comeback attempts dating back to Super Bowl XLIV, Manning worked the entire 10-play drive out of the shotgun, completing six of seven passes for 57 yards, including the 1-yard touchdown to Jacob Tamme with 9:23 left. A two-point conversion pass to Willis McGahee put Denver ahead 22-19.
After the defense finally forced a three-and-out drive, the Broncos added a field goal to the lead. This gave Roethlisberger the opportunity to upstage Manning. With 3:00 left and 80 yards to go for the winning touchdown, the attempt did not last long.
On the third play of the drive, Roethlisberger forced a pass to the left sideline, and Saints’ hero Tracy Porter intercepted it and returned the ball 43 yards for a touchdown with 1:58 left. It was the insurance Manning needed to cap off the record comeback.
Manning finished 19 of 26 for 253 yards, two touchdowns and a 129.2 passer rating. He improved to 7-1 against defensive guru Dick LeBeau.
Roethlisberger finished with some of the exact same numbers he had in the 2011 Wild Card loss at Denver. In both games he completed 22 of 40 passes, and was sacked five times.
While the two games had some similarities, this was not Tebow hitting deep balls on his way to a day with 10 completions. Both quarterbacks worked much of the game out of the no huddle, but Manning played a flawless final three quarters, and Roethlisberger made the big mistake late.
You can still chalk it up as another eyesore on LeBeau’s resume against the game’s best quarterbacks. This is the fourth lost comeback of Roethlisberger’s career, and the second in his last four overall losses dating back to last season’s Baltimore game.
In Pittsburgh’s last five losses, the defense has allowed four long game-winning touchdown drives.
Game-Winning Touchdown Drives vs. Dick LeBeau's Defense (2011-12)
L 29-23 OT
From 2007-2010, the defense allowed three game-winning touchdown drives of 60+ yards. Allowing four such drives in less than a calendar year is a big problem for a defense that continues to get by on reputation.
Pittsburgh issues aside, this game was about Denver making a statement that they have what is still the old Peyton Manning, and that makes them a team that can hang with anyone in the league.
The Other Paths to Victory
Philadelphia Eagles at Cleveland Browns
Winner: Philadelphia (17-16)
Largest Deficit: 6 (16-10)
Quarterback: Michael Vick (10-23-1 at 4QC, 14-25-1 overall 4Q/OT record - table)
“Do you still get credit for a comeback if you are the reason the team had to come back?”
That could easily be the question posed by any Philadelphia fan (or even Detroit fan) after this weekend’s action. The Eagles made what looked like an easy win in Cleveland into a real adventure in the fourth quarter.
Excluding kneel downs, Michael Vick dropped back on 62 plays despite the Eagles never trailing by more than six points. He would not have needed as many if he had played more effectively. Vick completed 29 of 56 passes for 317 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT, 51.0 passer rating, sacked twice, and had four carries for 36 yards.
Cleveland was starting rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden, and it was as ugly an opening season game by a Cleveland quarterback as we have ever seen.
After Vick’s third interception of the game gave Cleveland the ball at the PHI 22, the Browns settled for a field goal with 14:15 remaining. They now trailed 10-9.
Vick threw his fourth interception, which was returned 27 yards for a touchdown by D’Qwell Jackson. Now Cleveland led 17-16, and Weeden was in that limbo for a partial comeback, which would have been a sham on a day he completed 12 of 35 passes for 118 yards, 0 TD, 4 INT, and a 5.1 passer rating.
At least Weeden had a 5.02 ERA as a minor league pitcher. No joke.
With Vick putting himself into this comeback opportunity, he had to deliver. The first drive resulted in the shaky second-year kicker Alex Henery missing a 45-yard field goal with 9:01 left.
At the 6:25 mark, the Eagles took over with 91 yards to go. The drive lasted 16 plays, and Vick barely overcame a red-zone interception by L.J. Fort, which could have ended the game.
On the next play, Vick squeezed the ball into Clay Harbor for the 4-yard touchdown with 1:18 left. Philadelphia led 17-16.
Weeden had a chance to make his first game-winning drive, with 1:12 left at his own 30 and only needing a field goal. But that hope died after one play when Weeden badly overthrew his receiver and Kurt Coleman made the interception.
Each team’s quarterback threw four interceptions, which has only happened 25 times since 1960. It was the first time since 12/19/1999 when the Ravens beat the Saints. Interesting to note the team who threw for more yards was 16-9 in those games.
For Vick, it was the 36th time since 1960 a quarterback threw four interceptions in a fourth quarter comeback win. The last was Tony Romo in 2007 against Buffalo when he threw five interceptions on Monday Night Football.
Rarely do you want to credit a player that creates a self-inflicted comeback opportunity after a pick six, but they happen. Brett Favre has done it twice, but that probably does not surprise anyone.
The last player to do it before Vick? Drew Brees against the Falcons in 2010 on Monday Night Football. He came back to throw the game-winning touchdown pass with 3:24 left in a 17-14 win.
There have roughly been 28 successful comeback opportunities following a pick six. Vick is the latest, and one of the rarest thanks to the four-interception day.
Of course, it always helps when the opponent has a rookie with a single-digit passer rating and his own four-pick parade. At least Vick completed the 91-yard drive for the win. It ended a 0-5 streak at comeback opportunities dating back to the 2010 playoff loss against Green Bay.
Detroit Lions vs. St. Louis Rams
Winner: Detroit (27-23)
Largest Deficit: 7 (20-13)
Quarterback: Matthew Stafford (6-6 at 4QC, 7-6 overall 4Q/OT record - table)
While the Lions struggled to beat the better competition last season (1-5 against playoff teams), there was little doubt they would open the season with a victory over the lowly Rams, even if Jeff Fisher’s debut as head coach.
But after piling up the numbers last season, Matthew Stafford was picked three times in the first half, including a pick six, and there should have been a fourth just before halftime. Things were not quite going as planned.
The game was tied 13-13 in the fourth quarter. Sam Bradford, with just 95 yards passing through three quarters, finally got things moving with a perfect 23-yard touchdown strike to Brandon Gibson with 9:45 left.
Stafford did lead four impressive game-winning drives in 2011, and he came through on the game’s final two plays. First it was an 80-yard touchdown drive, ending with Kevin Smith’s 5-yard score to tie the game.
Bradford led one of his better drives in recent games, and the Rams again led 23-20 after a 46-yard field goal by Greg Zuerlein.
Stafford had 1:55 and one timeout left at his own 20. Using the no-huddle and shotgun, he moved the offense quickly into field goal range. After a strike to Calvin Johnson at the 5-yard line, Stafford quickly spiked the ball.
On the next play, Stafford found Smith for the touchdown with 0:10 left. The Rams would not have enough time to answer. It was as well as you can execute the two-minute drill.
Was it enough to make fans forget about the three picks in the first half? Probably not, but at least it was another win. Back-to-back 80-yard touchdown drives is a great way to close the game.
Stafford improved his record to 7-6 (.538) in overall fourth quarter/overtime wins, and he only trails Tim Tebow (.636), Tom Brady (.632), and Matt Ryan (.593) among active quarterbacks in win percentage (min. 10 opportunities).
The only knock on Stafford is that he has not been able to do it against the better competition, but he also is only 30 starts into his career.
Between Stafford and Michael Vick’s interception-heavy comebacks, it was the first time since 9/24/200 that two quarterbacks (Neil O’Donnell and Vinny Testaverde) threw at least three interceptions and led a comeback and game-winning drive on the same day.
Minnesota Vikings vs. Jacksonville Jaguars
Winner: Minnesota (26-23 OT)
Largest Deficit: 3 (23-20)
Quarterback: Christian Ponder (1-3 at 4QC, 2-4 overall 4Q/OT record - table)
The worst game on paper ends up producing the best finish of the week. It was also a historic finish. Imagine that.
Second-year quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder actually looked competent in this contest, and their running backs Maurice Jones-Drew and Adrian Peterson actually took a backseat to the passing game for a change.
Minnesota increased their lead to 17-12 early in the fourth quarter, which was answered back by a Jacksonville field goal. Later, down 20-15 the Jaguars decided to punt at the two-minute warning. It was a risky decision with only two timeouts left.
The Vikings helped Jacksonville out with an illegal cut penalty on second down, stopping the clock. Instead of throwing for the first down to win the game, the Vikings stayed conservative like most four-minute offenses, and ran the ball on third down. They went three and out.
Gabbert had 1:18, no timeouts left, and 76 yards to go. After converting a 4th and 3 to rookie Justin Blackmon, Gabbert went deep down the right sideline with a perfect pass to Cecil Shorts for the 39-yard touchdown with 0:20 left.
Jacksonville appeared to have pulled off the stunning drive. Blackmon caught the two-point conversion, and Jacksonville scored 23 points, which is something they did just once in all of 2011.
But Minnesota still had a chance for a quick drive. Ponder had 0:14 left at his own 31. A 26-yard pass to Devin Aromashodu and 6-yard pass to Kyle Rudolph, who got out of bounds, set up a field goal attempt.
Rookie kicker Blair Walsh came through with the 55-yard field goal with no time left to force overtime.
Last year we looked at the successful one-minute drills, and this Minnesota drive is just the seventh since 1981 that was started in the final 0:14 of the game. They are hard to come by.
In overtime, Minnesota received the ball first and kicked another field goal after driving 55 yards. In the first regular season game to feature the new overtime rules, we saw history made.
For the first time in NFL history, a team had an overtime comeback opportunity. Now this does not change the semantics as Jacksonville still trailed in the fourth quarter too, but some day we will have an overtime comeback that was not a fourth quarter comeback, which sounds like more future headaches.
But not today. Jacksonville could use all four downs to drive for a game-winning touchdown, which makes you wonder if the strategy should be to kick off or not. Minnesota was constrained by three-down football; Jacksonville was not.
It did not materialize, as Jacksonville went four and out, with Gabbert’s last pass sailing well incomplete over everyone. Gabbert was 0/3 on the drive, but it was still one of his best NFL performances yet.
Just when you thought the Vikings allowed another heartbreaking, long touchdown pass to lose a game, an improbable game-tying drive saved Minnesota this time.
As did the defense holding up on the first overtime comeback opportunity in NFL history.
Arizona Cardinals vs. Seattle Seahawks
Winner: Arizona (20-16)
Largest Deficit: 3 (16-13)
Quarterback 1: John Skelton (6-1 at 4QC, 8-1 overall 4Q/OT record - table)
Quarterback 2: Kevin Kolb (3-8 at 4QC, 3-8 overall 4Q/OT record - table)
If you are wondering why two quarterbacks are listed, that is because both Arizona quarterbacks get credit.
We avoided this rare situation last season, but this is the first one since the 2007. Since these are drive stats, they are about the scoring drive, and not just the scoring play.
After Seattle had taken a 16-13 lead with 9:20 left, the Cardinals still had starter John Skelton at quarterback. But on the second play of the drive, Skelton was injured and in a lot of pain. He had just completed a 17-yard pass for a first down at the team’s own 32.
Enter the ridiculed Kevin Kolb at 8:18, and fans probably were expecting the worst. Instead, Kolb stepped up and deliver. He completed six of eight passes for 66 yards and the go-ahead touchdown pass to Andre Roberts with 4:59 left.
Since Skelton started the drive and Kolb finished it, they both get credit. That also means Skelton gets to continue his ridiculous record; now up to 8-1 overall at fourth quarter/overtime wins.
He may have only contributed one first down to the drive, but the point is he contributed. What would Arizona have done if Skelton was sacked and it was a 3rd-and-22 situation when Kolb entered the game? Probably nothing. A 17-yard completion, whether he finished the drive or not, is still more involvement than what numerous quarterbacks have had on their game-winning drives in NFL history.
Down 20-16, rookie Russell Wilson had a chance to be Seattle’s hero. On a drive that lasted forever, the Seahawks ran 18 plays, but ultimately turned it over on downs after Wilson’s 4th-and-goal pass at the 4-yard line fell incomplete.
The replacement referees did give Seattle an extra timeout on the final series of downs, because they did not understand the rule about 10 second runoffs for injuries. However, it was still likely Seattle would have had three more shots to the end zone anyway, unless they panicked and spiked the ball after Marshawn Lynch’s first-down run.
Either way, Arizona held, and won yet another close game with a comeback. Let’s see them try this in New England in Week 2.
Comeback Failures of the Week
Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees may have won the last three Super Bowl MVP awards, but they were unable to lead game-tying drives in Week 1. Neither did Cam Newton in Carolina, which was a big problem last season for the Panthers as they failed to finish games.
The Phrase “3-19” Has New Meaning for Aaron Rodgers, Packers
There was a special irony to Aaron Rodgers using the “3-19”snap count late in the fourth quarter in Green Bay on Sunday.
He may want to change that one, because 3-19 now stands for his career record in fourth quarter comeback opportunities after this latest failure against San Francisco.
If you were watching the game and have read the Cold, Hard Football Facts on Green Bay, you probably could have seen the loss coming as early as the second quarter. It was textbook Green Bay.
The Packers trailed 10-0 in the second quarter after Randy Moss caught his 154th career touchdown to move into second place all time.
- Rodgers is 8-19 (.296) as a starter when the Packers trail by at least seven points at any point in the game. That includes a now 0-9 record at home.
- When trailing by more than seven points at any point in the game, Rodgers is 2-15 (.118).
The Packers trailed 16-7 at halftime after David Akers tied the NFL record with a 63-yard field goal that luckily bounced over the crossbar.
- When the Packers do not lead at halftime, their record since 2008 is 6-19 (.240).
- That includes a 2-9 home record.
All of these bad records usually boil down to what happens in the fourth quarter.
This time it did not look like the Packers would even have an opportunity in the fourth quarter, as they trailed 23-7. This would have snapped a 50-game streak where the Packers, if not outright leading, had at least one fourth quarter possession when trailing by one score.
The special teams helped out, with Randall Cobb returning a punt 76 yards for a touchdown with 11:16 remaining. Rodgers went to Jordy Nelson for the two-point conversion, and the Packers trailed 23-15.
The defense did their job to force a three and out, and Rodgers now had his chance. It was short-lived, as his first pass was easily intercepted by NaVorro Bowman and returned to the GB 23. It only took one play for Frank Gore to make it a 30-15 deficit.
Green Bay’s offense finally got going thanks to the 49ers easing up defensively. They rushed four on the first play, then it was a three-man rush the rest of the way. Why do teams do this? Wuss-coaching mentality. Naturally, James Jones caught a 10-yard touchdown.
The 49ers punted again, and Rodgers had another chance, down 30-22 with 3:37 left. The 49ers are good, probably even great defensively, but this was doable.
Rodgers almost threw another pick to start this drive, and Donte Whitner would have returned this one for a touchdown. After the two-minute warning, the 49ers were now dialing up the pressure, and it was working.
On 4th and 10 at the SF 45, Rodgers’ last-gasp effort fell incomplete with great coverage by Chris Culliver on Nelson. Like that, the game was over.
Maybe some of the Green Bay players are right when they say they beat themselves. They only know one way of winning, and when the offense is not clicking early, it makes it hard for the defense to get takeaways. They had none in this game, and Mike McCarthy is 0-10 as a coach when he does not get a takeaway. The only other winless team in the league since 2006 is St. Louis (0-21).
After their record streak of 19 consecutive wins without trailing in the fourth quarter, the Packers have trailed in the fourth quarter in four of their last five games. They are also just 2-3 in their last five games.
If they do not start closing games, they may find themselves as one of the surprise mediocre teams of the season. A quick turnaround to Thursday night with Chicago should offer another challenge.
You can probably predict the outcome of that game before halftime as well.
Tony Romo and Dallas Cowboys Finally Close
Since the Wednesday opener was so long ago, we pretty much already covered it last Friday, along with the data on NFL offenses in the four-minute drill last season.
For the sake of completeness, recall that the Cowboys led 17-10 to start the fourth quarter. Eli Manning had the ball, but a sack on third down put an end to that comeback opportunity.
Dallas held the ball just as they did the whole second half, and Tony Romo found Miles Austin for a 34-yard touchdown on a 1st-and-30 play. Dallas led 24-10 with 5:57 left.
However, this was similar to the game in Dallas last year, and almost like clockwork, the Giants went down the field for a touchdown with 2:36 left.
Dallas had to prove they could close on the road, and they did so this time. Facing a 3rd and 10, Romo threw the quick slant to breakout receiver Kevin Ogletree, and that iced the clock.
Romo is six of eight on such third-down situations in the four-minute offense in his career, which is pretty good considering quarterbacks league-wide in 2011 were just 5/25 (20 percent) at converting third down in the final 3:00 of games (ahead by 1-8 points).
The Giants became the first defending Super Bowl champion to lose their opener since the 1999 Denver Broncos. No comeback for Eli Manning when he does not get the ball again at the end.
Dallas made sure of it this time. We will see if that continues this season.
Washington Redskins Rattle Drew Brees Again
The Saints were a bit awestruck over rookie Robert Griffin III’s debut. Griffin was 19 of 26 for 320 yards, two touchdowns, no turnovers and a 139.9 passer rating. The Saints trailed by double-digits early, and were in an uphill battle all day.
Drew Brees abandoned the run, dropping back 54 times against 10 handoffs for 32 yards. Brees did make some history – or at least history that logically should be recognized – with his 50th consecutive game of throwing a touchdown pass (including playoffs), but he was only 24 of 52 for 339 yards and two interceptions.
When the Saints looked like they were ready to get back into the game, down 33-25, Brees badly overthrew Lance Moore for an interception with 3:23 left. Washington returned the ball to the 3-yard line and scored an insurance touchdown.
Brees would end the game with a Hail Mary interception as well.
Before you overreact to the Saints without Sean Payton this season, consider these facts:
- Drew Brees is 2-3 against the Redskins in his career; one of only three teams he has a losing record against with a min. of five starts (Denver and St. Louis the other two).
- Brees has a 68.8 passer rating against the Redskins, which is his third lowest against all teams. He has thrown 6 TD and 9 INT in those five games.
- Mike Shanahan teams start off hot, including a 28-14 win over the New York Giants last season.
- Shanahan is 3-0 in Week 1 with Washington and has won five consecutive season openers.
Brees has always played the Redskins close, but he usually struggles in the clutch.
W 23-17 OT
INT (LOS: WAS 41)
3 and out
Game tying TD run
INT (LOS: SD 30)
INT (LOS: WAS 44)
OT: GW TD run w/14:26 left
41 yd FG (J.Carney)
INT (LOS: NO 30)
Incomplete on 4th & 7 at WAS 16
INT (LOS: NO 48)
W 33-30 OT
Game tying TD pass w/1:19 left
58 yd FG is no good w/0:00 left (G.Hartley)
OT: 18 yd GW FG w/8:31 left (G.Hartley)
INT (LOS: NO 27)
Hail Mary INT (LOS: WAS 39)
Five games, 15 drives, 48.0 passer rating
It is not a pretty sight. It is not what you expect from Drew Brees, unless he is playing Washington apparently.
Sean Payton would not prevent Marques Colston from fumbling the ball through the end zone before halftime, or the referees making a bad call on a pass interference in the end zone on fourth down that benefited Washington in the third quarter. Washington scored a touchdown one play later to take a 27-14 lead.
Sometimes good teams blow it in Week 1, and teams that are not actually good start 1-0. The Saints have no need for panic mode yet.
They just better hope their star quarterback does not see the Redskins too many more times as he plays out his record contract.
Tampa Bay Ends Losing Streak By Continuing Carolina’s in the Clutch
The only team who could rival Green Bay in fourth-quarter futility would be the Carolina Panthers. Since 2009, they have a 4-21 record in comeback opportunities (2-15 since 2010). Cam Newton is now 1-9 in his opportunities, including seven straight losses.
The difference is Green Bay is a team that has arrived and has expectations, while people are just waiting for Carolina to make that leap.
It did not start well on Sunday in Tampa Bay. The rejuvenated Buccaneers under rookie coach Greg Schiano took a 13-0 lead into halftime.
Newton would get the ball, down 13-7, with 13:21 left in the game. He faded back on his third-down throw and rookie safety Mark Barron was able to knock the ball away. Carolina’s punt was blocked, and the Buccaneers were able to add a field goal.
A few drives later, Newton had the Panthers in the red zone, but two quarterback draws were unsuccessful. Newton finished the game with just four yards on five carries. The Panthers as a team rushed for 10 yards after 13 carries.
Settling for a field goal, Carolina trailed 16-10 with 2:46 left. Tampa Bay went into the four-minute offense. Even though Josh Freeman was just four of 10 in the second half for 16 yards, he converted a big third down to burn Carolina’s final timeout.
Rookie back Doug Martin broke off a 15-yard run to ice the game at the two-minute warning. It was another well-executed four-minute drill by an offense this week.
Carolina never got the ball back, and have to be very disappointed with this start. They waxed the Buccaneers by a combined score of 86-35 in two games last December.
Now that the 10-game losing streak is over for Tampa Bay, we will see which direction these two teams head next. The NFC South is bizarrely inconsistent.
Next week: You can count on Captain Comeback to consistently bring the same type of analysis each week. We will be waiting to see what happens next for Green Bay (hosting Chicago) and Carolina (hosting New Orleans). Also might have an opportunity to see Matthew Stafford in prime-time against the 49ers, Andrew Luck’s first close game (hosting Minnesota), and if “Matty Ice” will melt in Atlanta on Monday night against the quarterback he has been often compared to this year.
Did we mention every week is now a comeback record watch for Peyton Manning? It is one thing to tie a record, but breaking it is the bigger achievement. That could happen next Monday night on ESPN.
Someone get Jon Gruden a towel.
Scott Kacsmar is a football writer/researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive. Please send any questions or comments to Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.