By Scott Kacsmar
Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)
Though it looked dire at halftime for each, the Harbaugh brothers coached their road warriors to second-half shutouts for two unbelievable wins.
Now John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens will match up with Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII after just the third Championship Sunday (since 1970) to feature two road wins (1992 and 1997).
These were no ordinary second-half shutouts on the road either.
Matt Ryan was 34-6 (.850) at home in his career, but has fallen to 5-5 against playoff teams at home. The Patriots have had one of the most absurd home-field advantages ever dating back to 2001. The Patriots were 58-4 (.935) when leading after the first quarter, and 71-0 when leading at halftime.
You can add a loss to each mark for the Patriots, and it was a failed fourth-quarter comeback opportunity for both Ryan and Brady, who have had the best record in NFL history in such situations.
Best 4th Quarter Comeback Opportunity Records (Min. 16 Games)
A year after bitter defeats, it was nothing but sweet victory (twice) for the Harbaugh family this time. Let’s review how they did it, which included the 40th comeback win from a double-digit deficit in the 2012 season. San Francisco’s 17-point comeback is the third-biggest road comeback win in playoff history.
Fourth quarter comebacks: 70
Game-winning drives: 85
Games with 4QC opportunity: 148/266 (55.6 percent)
10+ point comebacks wins (any point in the game): 40
DRIVE OF THE WEEK
San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons
Winner: San Francisco (28-24)
Largest Deficit: 3 (24-21)
Quarterback: Colin Kaepernick (1-0-1 at 4QC, 2-1-1 overall 4Q/OT record - table)
It was a tale of two halves for the Atlanta Falcons this postseason. Finishing 1-1, the Falcons showed us four quarters where they looked like the best team in the playoffs (outscored opponents 44-14), and they showed us four quarters where they looked like the worst team in the playoffs (outscored 42-10).
After barely escaping last week with another brilliant one-minute drill from Matt Ryan, the Falcons blew the largest lead by a home team in championship game history (17 points). They even did it against a team that had not won after trailing in the fourth quarter all season long, and the 2012 49ers never won three games in a row until now.
It is just the fourth comeback win in the fourth quarter allowed by Mike Smith’s Falcons since 2008, and none will sting more. The only bigger blown lead in a championship game belongs to the 2006 New England Patriots, but that happened on the road.
Biggest Comeback Wins in NFL Championship Game History
W 30-27 OT
Previously it was the 1998 Falcons who pulled off the biggest road win, coming back from a 13-point deficit to beat the Vikings. But 17-0 at home for a team that is supposed to be the best closing team in the league? This is not supposed to happen, and yet it did in epic fashion.
It nearly happened last week with the 20-point lead blown in the fourth quarter to Seattle, and now it was a 17-point lead. The closest thing we have recently seen to the Falcons this postseason is what the 2011 Minnesota Vikings did in Weeks 2 and 3 last year. The Vikings (3-13) were at home, led 17-0 and 20-0 at halftime over Tampa Bay and Detroit respectively, but lost 24-20 and 26-23 in overtime.
There’s just nothing common about blowing three-score leads in consecutive home games.
Early on it was all Atlanta and their star receivers. Roddy White made a tough catch on 3rd-and-9, and two plays later Dashon Goldson was caught peeking into the backfield as Julio Jones ran by for an easy 46-yard touchdown.
After the 49ers went three and out, the Falcons drove a long field again for a field goal. Colin Kaepernick was sacked on third down, forcing another three and out. Jones was on fire with a 20-yard touchdown to start the second quarter, putting Atlanta up 17-0.
But the 49ers stuck with their game plan, which meant a lot of running, and were able to put together an 80-yard touchdown drive. Vernon Davis then got heavily involved, which has not been the case this season, and he led the way on a consecutive touchdown drive to tighten things up at 17-14.
However, Ryan was given 1:55 and three timeouts to work with, which is an eternity for this offense. Ryan continued to pick the defense apart, ending the half with a third touchdown pass, this time to Tony Gonzalez.
At halftime, Ryan was 18/24 for 271 yards, 3 TD and a 151.2 rating as Atlanta led 24-14. Things could not have gone much better for the offense, which produced 24 points on five drives. If there was a complaint, it would be that the only receivers involved were the big three (White, Jones and Gonzalez). Only those three players would catch Ryan’s first 23 completions.
But for as good as those five drives went, the five drives in the second half were a disaster for the Falcons: interception, fumble, punt, turnover on downs, and one last gasp that came up well short of the end zone.
Starting the second half with possession, San Francisco once again went 82 yards for a touchdown. Randy Moss stepped up with a pair of catches for 38 yards on the drive, which made it 24-21 Atlanta.
The Falcons moved the ball into opponent territory again, but Ryan had to step up and take a 0-yard sack. On the next play, the game’s first turnover arrived. Ryan threw for White, who had fallen, and Chris Culliver was there for the interception. FOX never showed a good replay, but White clearly does go to the ground early, so it is hard to say the pick was clearly on Ryan.
Poised to take the lead, the 49ers had to settle for the struggling David Akers to attempt a 38-yard field goal, and sure enough he doinked it off the left upright.
With Michael Turner injured, the Falcons turned to Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling on the ground, and they answered with a few productive runs. Jones was open for another big conversion on a 3rd-and-10.
But two plays later with the ball at the SF 28, Ryan made his biggest mistake of this postseason. Getting a good snap, Ryan panicked with a six-man blitz coming, and he fumbled the ball (an unforced error). Aldon Smith made the recovery, and the Falcons missed the opportunity to take a 6-10 point lead.
San Francisco nearly went three and out, but a lame roughing the passer penalty on third down extended the drive. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Michael Crabtree had Robert McClain draped over him, but still made the catch and run for 33 yards. Two plays later Crabtree would get a slant, but in trying to do too much, he fumbled just short of the goal line and the Falcons recovered the huge turnover. Dunta Robinson forced the fumble.
Was Jim Harbaugh going to become the new Marty Schottenheimer or what with these missed field goals and crucial fumbles?
Fortunately for the 49ers it pinned the Falcons at the 1-yard line, and they went three and out. Ted Ginn Jr. returned the punt 20 yards, and Kaepernick had a straightforward opportunity set up at the ATL 38.
Four straight runs moved the ball to the ATL 17 before Kaepernick threw a screen to Crabtree, and this time he held on for an 8-yard gain. Frank Gore then scored the go-ahead 9-yard touchdown run with 8:23 left. The 49ers had their first lead of the day, 28-24.
Ryan had 8:23 left and has already led seven game-winning drives this season. He started at his own 20, looking to tie the NFL record with an eighth. Ryan started the drive with a 9-yard pass to White before Rodgers picked up the first down on the ground. Three plays later Ryan hung in the pocket just in time to deliver the first-down strike to Jones on third down.
The protection had been good early, but now under pressure Ryan scrambled for three yards. On a 3rd-and-2, Ryan had Harry Douglas wide open after Carlos Rogers stumbled, but Douglas also was stumbling as he tried to make the catch. If he keeps his feet, this could be a go-ahead touchdown. Instead it becomes a debated catch as Harbaugh challenged. We know the NFL is nuts on what counts as a catch, but there appeared to be enough movement/contact with the ground for this to be overturned.
The call on the field stood, and Harbaugh’s reaction was priceless.
It could have been a 50-yard touchdown, it could have been an incompletion that brought up 4th-and-2 at the 50, but it goes in the books as a 22-yard gain as the clock moved under four minutes.
Atlanta gained another first down, setting up 1st-and-10 at the SF 16. The Falcons were putting the game on this drive, which may not have been the best idea. Rodgers got a carry for a yard, and the game hit the two-minute warning.
Under pressure, Ryan dumped the ball off to Snelling for five yards. Ryan was also dumped, and separated his left (non-throwing) shoulder on the play. Trying a sprint-right option pass against the franchise that perfected it, Ryan’s pass was tipped behind the line by linebacker Ahmad Brooks.
The game would come down to a 4th-and-4 at the SF 10. Ryan had Gonzalez, who may have played his final game, on a slant if he wanted it quickly, but went to his security blanket in White. Even if caught White was going to have to make a strong move to gain the first down, but after being contacted considerably on the play by NaVorro Bowman, the pass fell incomplete with no flag. The 49ers held.
The team who lived on the edge so successfully this season failed to deliver with the Super Bowl on the line.
Gore carried the ball three times before the 49ers punted. Ryan had 0:06 left at his own 41. He has done incredible things with this much time left before, but this was a 4-point deficit. No long throw with an ailing left shoulder today and that may have been the reason Ryan only threw a 24-yard gain to Jones, who looked like he wanted to do a hook-and-lateral play. Instead he just went down at the SF 35, as did the Falcons’ season with him.
That last play gave the Falcons 477 yards, which are the most ever for a home team in a playoff loss, breaking the previous record held by the 1981 Dolphins against San Diego (472 yards).
In that game Don Strock went off for 403 yards and 4 TD off the bench for injured starter David Woodley. Ryan joins Strock, Peyton Manning (twice) and Y.A. Tittle as the only quarterbacks to throw at least three touchdowns in a home playoff loss.
Ryan’s 114.8 passer rating is the highest ever by a starting quarterback in a home playoff loss, breaking Manning’s 108.7 rating against the 2010 Jets. Strock had a 118.7 rating in 1981, but again that was off the bench.
However, not included in that passer rating is the crucial fumble Ryan lost late in the third quarter. When you follow that play with a three-and-out drive, then a failure to convert in the red zone with the game on the line, passer ratings mean very little. The final play bumped Ryan up 1.7 points, but it was too little too late, as getting shut out in the second half allowed the 49ers to come back.
It was still a successful season for the Falcons, doing things they have not done in past years. But their Jekyll-and-Hyde postseason could be the defining, haunting image of the Smith/Ryan era, and that’s too bad for a team that usually pulls out victories in these games.
COMEBACK FAILURE OF THE WEEK
New England lost four games by a combined 11 points this season, but it was all for naught as they fell to the Ravens by 15 points at home in their worst game since, well, their last playoff loss at home (2010 AFC Divisional vs. New York Jets). Our usual picture of failure is most appropriate this week.
Ravens at Patriots: Another rematch shuts down New England’s scoring machine
A NFL season can be a real trip through the highs and lows.
Some thought the Patriots were the best team in the league, and appeared to have caught a break when the Houston Texans blew their first-round bye, and the Denver Broncos lost last week, setting up this AFC Championship at home where Tom Brady and Bill Belichick were 3-0 in such games.
Many thought the 2012 Ravens were a disappointment, and may have never even made the playoffs if not for an injury to Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger at midseason, or a ridiculous “Dump Mary” to Ray Rice on 4th-and-29 in San Diego, or a million other scenarios. Rahim Moore graciously kept their season alive last week, which may have already been dead if Ray Lewis never announced this was his last run, which it likely would have already been if not for the new injured reserve rule put in this season.
Tricky thing, a NFL season, and especially a Super Bowl season.
But here the Ravens were, right back where they were last season, one play away from the Super Bowl. This time, things would be different for them and the same for the Patriots, who since last winning a Super Bowl have turned into the biggest disappointment in NFL history.
This latest loss, a soft 28-13 effort at home to a team they were favored over again, may sting in a way even the Super Bowl losses did not. Despite scoring the third-most points (557) in NFL history, it was just a 13-point output this time, and on 12 drives.
At least in the losses to the Giants the Patriots can argue they only had the ball nine times offensively. This was different.
New England's Offense - Playoff Meltdowns (2005-12)
Reg. Season Pts/Dr
New England did show off their vaunted no-huddle offense early, but on a 3rd-and-2, Brady’s pass was just over the outstretched arms of Wes Welker down the field. We have seen this before, and we would even see a repeat of “that play” in this one, with more clear blame this time around.
Baltimore looked even worse with a very conservative three-and-out drive to start things. Brandon Lloyd made some of his tough catches he is known for, and the Patriots moved into the red zone. But three straight runs, including a failed third-down run when using the quick snap, led to a 31-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski. Sometimes the hurry up catches teams off guard, but the Ravens were ready this time. The red zone domination would be huge in this game.
Baltimore had to punt, but a big moment came on third down when Aqib Talib was injured and lost for the game. After Lloyd could not complete a diving attempt at a ball, the Patriots surprisingly passed on a 4th-and-8 situation at the BAL 35 and punted, though it did pin the Ravens back at their own 8.
That was the story early on: Baltimore’s horrible field position. Through the first three quarters the Ravens would be stuck starting at their own 13, 10, 8, 10, 14, 25 and 13.
On a 3rd-and-2, Brady’s pass to Lloyd was deflected and nearly intercepted by Paul Kruger, but that’s why he plays on the defensive line. The Ravens survived the first quarter with a 3-0 deficit, which is exactly what the score was in last year’s AFC Championship at this point.
The Ravens finally found a groove on offense, utilizing Bernard Pierce along with Ray Rice, who finished the 90-yard touchdown drive off with a few missed tackles on his 2-yard touchdown run. Baltimore led 7-3.
This is the one moment in the game where the Patriots seemed to have Baltimore figured out, with Brady calling an audible that let to a screen to Welker for 24 yards. On 3rd-and-goal at the BAL 1, Welker got lost in the coverage for an easy touchdown as New England regained the lead.
Rob Ninkovich sacked Flacco on third down, producing a three-and-out drive and big chance for the New England offense to score before the half ended. Brady scrambled and was actually tackled by a ref (Lewis of course gets credit for the tackle). A direct snap to Danny Woodhead on 4th-and-1 produced a first down, and Brady converted a 3rd-and-10 with a pass to Aaron Hernandez for 17 yards.
But after that play, Brady was again slowly scrambling, ending with a big kick-slide for just three yards. Rather than immediately call the last timeout to have a shot at the end zone, Brady tried to get back to the line to run a play. Instead the Patriots had to burn their timeout with 0:04 left, blowing the opportunity for an extra four points.
That sequence was costly, and Gostkowski made the 25-yard field goal. Still, a 13-7 lead with Baltimore’s offense not showing much had to feel pretty good to a team that was 71-0 at home when leading at the half since 2001.
Baltimore deferred the coin toss, so they started the second half with the ball. However, offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell was stuck on calling too many runs on first down, and the Patriots knew it was coming, stopping Rice for gains of 1 and -2 yards on the drive. Baltimore punted again.
A big catch by Welker with an additional 15 yards for a personal foul had New England in business again. But on 3rd-and-8 at the BAL 34, Welker had a catch at the 25 for the first down, except he dropped the ball. Though an easier play than in Super Bowl XLVI, this was a bad drop by Welker this time. Again, the Patriots punted from the BAL 34, which is unusual for this aggressive team under Belichick.
Baltimore was done screwing around now. The Ravens were either going to sink or swim with Flacco, as they had him drop back on 10 of the next 11 plays, working out of the shotgun and no-huddle offense. Flacco responded with accurate throws, and led an 87-yard touchdown drive to take a 14-13 lead.
Brady had Woodhead for a first down on third down, but a big holding penalty on Nate Solder brought up a 3rd-and-12. This time Brady was off target for Hernandez, and it was another three-and-out for New England.
Utilizing all of their skill players, the Ravens were again on the move as the game moved into the fourth quarter. Flacco went to Anquan Boldin in the back of the end zone, and he came down with the 3-yard touchdown. Baltimore led 21-13 with nearly a whole quarter to play, but it was one quiet, nervous crowd.
After Stevan Ridley moved the chains, Brady hit Lloyd for 12 yards after more spotty tackling by the Ravens. But they would clean up on the next play, as Bernard Pollard, Mr. Patriot Killer, delivered a vicious hit to Ridley, causing a fumble at midfield. Baltimore recovered and it was the game’s first turnover.
The old Ravens may have got conservative here, but this team is confident in their offense right now. Staying with Flacco’s passing – why not when the Patriots are so banged up in the secondary? – and the no-huddle, Flacco hit three more passes and even a 14-yard scramble, ending another drive with a touchdown. This time it was an 11-yard touchdown to Boldin who again went up for the catch in the middle of the end zone.
The Ravens stunningly were up 28-13 with 11:13 to play. It was far from over, but things were looking bad for the home team, who had trailed only once in the fourth quarter in their last 10 games.
Brady moved the offense to the BAL 19, but the Ravens once again won in the red zone. Shane Vereen dropped a pass after looking up the field first. Brady was wide of the mark to Welker on third down.
On 4th-and-4, Brady might have been able to outrun Haloti Ngata for the first down (probably not Terrell Suggs who was coming from behind though), but lofted a pass with no chance for anyone to catch it in the end zone, and the Ravens took over with 8:27 left. Baltimore should have been calling run-run-pass, but instead two incompletions by Flacco only burned a minute off the clock.
Brady had 7:25 left and was looking to make a game of it again quickly. A double move by Welker turned into a quick 36-yard gain, and the Patriots were already at the BAL 24. But the Ravens were able to get a piece of Brady’s pass at the line, and the deflection went right to Dannell Ellerbe for the interception.
Baltimore called nine straight runs, twice converting on 3rd-and-1 attempts. The only mistake was the bad 22-yard punt, but the Patriots were down to just 2:05. Brady again moved the ball to the BAL 22, but with 1:13 left, he threw a bad pass in the end zone that was easily intercepted by Cary Williams. Two knees by Flacco and this one was in the books with a 28-13 final.
The Patriots were +25 in turnover differential in the regular season, but went -3 on the day. After such an efficient season by the offense, this time it turned six drives inside the Baltimore 25 into just 13 points. That’s not counting the two drives when the Patriots were at the BAL 34 and 35 and punted both times.
This was only the fifth time Brady has been shut out at home in the second half of a start in his career.
Brady threw the ball 54 times despite the Patriots being known for having a more balanced attack this season. Brady’s 62.3 passer rating was his lowest this season, and the lowest since the 57.5 he had in last year’s 23-20 win over Baltimore in this game.
Four of the last five times Brady has been held under a 70.0 passer rating, the opponent was Baltimore, and that includes the three playoff games since 2009.
After starting his career with that record mark of 10-0 in the playoffs, Brady is 7-7 since. All seven losses have been to teams the Patriots played in the regular season, and the scoring has gone from 26.8 PPG in the regular season to 18.0 PPG in the postseason against those teams. This was the sixth time the Patriots were held to 21 or fewer points.
Meanwhile Flacco threw for three touchdowns and no interceptions for the second straight week on the road, giving him a NFL record with six road playoff wins. Flacco has 8 TD and 0 INT this postseason.
The Ravens have had many hard-fought battles with the Patriots, and they have been working towards a breakthrough win like this for years. They have it now, reaching their second Super Bowl in team history.
For the Patriots, the wait for another ring continues. They should still have prime years left competing at the top of the AFC, but the chances are running out for Belichick and Brady. Opportunities like this at home are not ones they can afford to waste anymore.
Baltimore was not the better team for much of this season, but it was the better team both times the Ravens met up with the Patriots in 2012. That’s all that matters in the playoffs.
New England used to know that, and Baltimore is learning.
No Captain Comeback until after the Super Bowl in two weeks, but look for an update to the quarterback playoff drive stats, along with other stuff leading up to the big game. As a reminder, here are recaps of classic playoff finishes in NFL title games and the Super Bowl.
Hopefully we will continue this golden age of Super Bowls with another tense finish in Super Bowl XLVII.
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.