By Scott Kacsmar
Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)
The best weekend of the NFL year delivered once again. After a lackluster Wild Card slate, the Divisional playoffs lit up the scoreboard with a record 276 points in the four games.
Each losing team even scored at least 28 points. The previous record for most games in a single postseason with the losing team scoring 28+ points was three, which happened in the 2002 season. We are at four and counting in this high-scoring season.
The surge in points only produced two games with comeback opportunities, but they were both instant classics. The two quarterbacks from the 2008 draft class, Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan, both produced signature wins for their careers.
Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers were sent home on Saturday, while Colin Kaepernick was historic in victory in just his eighth start. Russell Wilson added another rookie record, but his last-minute magic was snuffed out by a Falcons team just dying for a chance in the clutch in one of these playoff games. Rahim Moore and Matt Bryant carved out some very different postseason lore for themselves.
It was the last-minute drama that defined this week.
Fourth quarter comebacks: 69
Game-winning drives: 84
Games with 4QC opportunity: 146/264 (55.3 percent)
10+ point comebacks wins (any point in the game): 39
DRIVE OF THE WEEK
Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos
Winner: Baltimore (38-35 OT)
Largest Deficit: 7 (35-28)
Quarterback: Joe Flacco (10-17 at 4QC, 15-20 overall 4Q/OT record - table)
While Matt Ryan may technically have the best record ever at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities (16-13; .552), there is another “quarterback” that has done better.
His name is “Peyton Manning’s playoff opponent,” as Manning has watched the other side produce a 6-4 (.600) comeback record against him in the postseason, including a preposterous 5-1 record since his Super Bowl XLI win. Four losses have come after leading in the final 40 seconds of the fourth quarter.
Most Playoff Losses with 4th Quarter Lead
None have been more crushing than this defeat, as the top-seeded Broncos were upset at home by the Baltimore Ravens; a team Manning had nine straight wins against. What was supposed to be the “best defense Peyton Manning’s ever had” suffered the biggest letdown he’s ever had, as safety Rahim Moore badly misplayed a ball that resulted in a 70-yard touchdown with 0:31 left. That simply never happens in that situation.
Ray Lewis’ farewell season continues, while Manning may have just watched his last great chance for another Super Bowl ring float away in the thin Denver air. Neither team ever led by more than seven points, and the opportunities to pull away were countless.
Such an epic game demands an epic recap.
The game started well for Denver, forcing a Baltimore punt that Trindon Holliday returned 90 yards for a touchdown, which is a postseason record for the longest ever. In his first 19 playoff games, Manning had only enjoyed one return touchdown (Kelvin Hayden’s pick-six of Rex Grossman in Super Bowl XLI), so this was different.
But the defense would give it right back on a 94-yard drive. Actually the Broncos had Baltimore stopped on 3rd-and-8, but a bad call for pass interference (ball was uncatchable) gave Joe Flacco new life. Two plays later he had Torrey Smith open down the middle of the field, beating Champ Bailey for an impressive 59-yard touchdown to tie the game.
Manning, playing in the coldest game of his career (13 degrees at kickoff and dropping as the game went on), wore two gloves for the first time. It did not appear to be a problem, but on the third play for Denver’s offense, his pass for Eric Decker was tipped and intercepted for a 39-yard touchdown by Corey Graham.
Replays clearly showed Decker was grabbed early, causing the tip and interception, but there was no flag. The officiating was painfully bad in this one, and Baltimore’s first two touchdowns were a direct result of the officials not understanding pass interference.
Manning came back with a long drive that ended with his 15-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Stokley on a 3rd-and-8 conversion to tie the game 14-14. It was one of the wildest first quarters in playoff history with the numerous big plays.
Flacco has been looking for big plays often this postseason, and on the first play of the second quarter, he went deep for Smith, who beat Bailey again on 3rd-and-2. But the pass was too wide and Smith was unable to complete the catch in bounds anyway.
Much was made of guard Chris Kuper returning to the lineup, but his presence hurt the Broncos, as their next drive was set back by a Kuper holding penalty. Denver finished with 10 penalties for 87 yards on a mistake-filled day.
Smith smoked Bailey deep once again – classic Jack Del Rio defense in a big game – but Flacco missed another one. Flacco had to throw it away on third down, and Baltimore punted.
Denver drove 86 yards for a touchdown. Decker had a 32-yard gain off play action, which was by far the longest (pass) play of the day for Denver’s offense. On the next play, Manning used a pump fake and double move to get Knowshon Moreno open for the 14-yard touchdown and 21-14 lead.
Baltimore went three and out, and Denver was driving again. But after Manning was just off on a pass to Demaryius Thomas, Matt Prater badly missed a 52-yard field goal. He kicked the ground before the ball, and it was well short.
Denver’s defense could not be any more “anti-clutch” than they were on this day. Flacco picked the defense apart with three straight completions, including a 32-yard touchdown to Smith despite Bailey’s better coverage this time.
It was 21-21 with 0:35 left, and Denver had all three timeouts. Surprisingly, Jacob Hester got a carry for a yard, and the Broncos were content to go to the half.
Holliday excited the crowd again with a 104-yard kick return touchdown to start the half, setting another record for longest kick return in playoff history. The defense was struggling again, called for three penalties on one drive. But they finally caught a break with Flacco fumbling the center exchange, resulting in a takeaway for Denver.
Lewis was flagged for hooking former teammate Stokley, but it again was followed up by a holding penalty on Kuper. Baltimore thought they had a fumble off a sack of Manning, but an illegal use of hands penalty resulted in a first down. The drive ended with an odd run call on 3rd-and-5 to Hester that did not produce.
Denver could never get that two-score lead. With Moreno out due to injury, things were very thin at running back. Hester converted a 3rd-and-1 run at the BAL 45, but once again Kuper was flagged for holding, and this was a huge one.
Instead of a first down, it was 3rd and 10. Manning, who was sacked three times in the half (a rarity), went down again and fumbled the ball. No “Tuck Rule” for Manning, and it was the first lost fumble on a pass play in his playoff career. Ray Rice was given five straight carries, and he produced 37 yards and the game-tying touchdown.
An instant classic of a fourth quarter
Moving into the fourth quarter, Baltimore’s defense looked strong, forcing a three and out after Manning was sacked by Terrell Suggs on third down. Broncos never trailed in the fourth quarter in their last eight games, nor were they even tied until now. But Baltimore also went three and out, as Anquan Boldin almost made an incredible one-handed catch. Almost.
With 12:09 left, Manning started at his own 12. A play-action pass was dumped off to Ronnie Hillman for 11 yards. Four plays later Joel Dreessen caught an 11-yard pass, and was hit helmet-to-helmet for 15 more yards. On a 3rd-and-3 at the BAL 33, Thomas badly dropped Manning’s pass at the 19, but the Ravens were flagged five yards for defensive holding. It was a very soft call.
Three plays later Manning changed the play to a bubble screen, and Thomas broke a tackle for the 17-yard touchdown. Denver led 35-28 with 7:11 left. It was an 88-yard drive, and Manning was looking to make that game-winning drive No. 50. It is the 11th straight playoff game Manning has given his team a fourth-quarter lead (NFL record), but it would come down to the defense to finish the job.
Flacco stepped up with a big 19-yard throw to Boldin to convert a 3rd and 7. Moving the ball to the DEN 31, Flacco’s 3rd-and-5 pass was flat out dropped by Jacoby Jones. Flacco’s receivers have really let him down in the previous two postseasons. Having to go for it with 3:16 left, the fourth-down pass to Dennis Pitta was defended by Mike Adams. It was a good throw, but Pitta failed to make the catch. This is the only time Denver’s defense really stepped up on the day, and it still involved drops.
Some thought the game was over, but 3:12 remained on the clock, and Baltimore still had two timeouts. Hillman gained five and eight yards on the ground, picking up one first down. But after a 2-yard run, Baltimore was out of timeouts with 2:19 left, and Denver faced 2nd and 8.
When one first down wins the game, you have to give Manning a play here. Maybe even two plays. Teams often run the ball about 90 percent of the time here, though that is inflated with kneel downs.
Since 2000, no quarterbacks have more pass plays in the last 2:20 of the fourth quarter with a one-score lead on second and third down than Manning (14) and Tom Brady (21).
Manning is 9-of-12 for 104 yards and two sacks, so you can usually expect positive plays. Denver ran the ball on second down, setting up a 3rd-and-7 with 2:00 left. On third-down plays in the last 2:00 with a one-score lead (since 2000), Manning is 7-of-8 for 92 yards, and no other quarterback has more than five attempts or three completions in these situations.
But Denver ran again, and Hillman gained nothing. It probably was the right strategy percentage-wise, but Manning’s arm was worth a shot here. After the punt, Flacco had 1:09 left and no timeouts at his own 23.
Now these drives are not ultra rare. This is very similar to what Andrew Luck did in Detroit (1:07 left at his own 25), or Josh Freeman in Carolina (1:02 left at his own 20) this season. So while these drives happen once in a while, it usually does not come in such a high-stakes game, or in such a reprehensible fashion for the defense.
Flacco threw incomplete to Pitta, then scrambled for a 7-yard gain, with the clock running. At this point it is 3rd-and-3 at the BAL 30 with 0:41 left, and Denver fans are rightfully thinking about the AFC Championship next week.
But that is when Rahim Moore committed the worst defensive blunder in NFL history.
Defensive backs are taught to not get beat deep. In the last minute of the game, this is always the strategy. Nothing cheap, nothing deep. People hate the prevent, but it is specifically designed to negate these plays.
Under pressure, Flacco stepped up and threw the ball as far as he could down the right sideline. Moore was in position for the game-ending interception, or at least a chance to knock the ball down and bring up fourth down. Instead he terribly misjudges the ball, and the result is him coming up short, and the pass going right to Jones for the walk-in touchdown.
Epic choke. This one will be used to teach players of all ages how to not play safety.
This is the seventh touchdown pass of 45+ yards thrown in the final minute of a tied or one-score game since 2000.
- Three were Hail Mary’s (Tim Couch to Quincy Morgan in 2002, David Garrard to Mike Thomas in 2010 and Shaun Hill to Titus Young this year).
- One was a short pass to Cecil Shorts this year in Indianapolis that he turned into an 80-yard touchdown.
- One was Donovan McNabb checking down to Brian Westbrook, who turned it into a 52-yard touchdown vs. 2006 Buccaneers.
- One was the Kyle Orton pass that was tipped and caught by Brandon Stokley off the deflection for an 87-yard touchdown to beat Cincinnati in Week 1 (2009).
It usually takes a Hail Mary or something bizarre to give up such a huge play in the last minute. Drew Pearson had his push-off score for the Cowboys in Minnesota for the original Hail Mary, but that might be the closest thing in the playoffs to this.
This was no Hail Mary, nor was it an illegal play by Baltimore. Rahim Moore just flat out blew it for his team.
Now many thought John Fox blew it when he had Manning take a knee after getting the ball at the 20 with 0:31 and two timeouts left. What Atlanta did in this situation the next day fueled that thought.
Personally, the Captain is fine with what Denver did. The chances were likely better in modified overtime anyway. On a cold day with a tougher field goal range, when Manning was not hitting downfield throws, against a good defense, you do not want to force things.
Interestingly enough Manning has been in this position in all three of his overtime playoff losses. In Miami (2000) he handed off to Edgerrin James once at his own 20 with 0:28 left. In San Diego (2008) he had 0:24 at his own 19. He threw two short passes, one deep one, then just took a knee.
Since 2000, teams that are tied in the final 0:35 of the fourth quarter, inside their own 20, have called six passes, 13 runs and 32 kneel downs. Assuming Manning needed 47 yards to set up a 50-yard field goal attempt, you are looking at a very rare game-winning drive. Even the 1998 Minnesota Vikings, record offense and deep threat Randy Moss, played it safe in this situation in the NFC Championship against Atlanta.
Overtime: Baltimore outlasts Denver
Going into overtime, Denver’s problems were clear. They did not make the big plays on defense. Baltimore won the toss, but immediately faced 3rd and 8. Boldin made a big catch for a first down that flipped field position. Denver did eventually force the punt after Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil finally showed up with some pressure for a sack on third down.
Manning started at his own 16. He converted a 3rd-and-5 with a diving catch by Stokley. But Suggs would then get the tackle on two straight short-yardage runs that failed, including Hester’s carry for no gain on 3rd and 1. Denver handed the ball off 40 times, but only gained 126 yards (3.15 YPC), which is one of the worst postseason rushing performances for a team with so many carries.
Baltimore was pinned at their own 6 after the punt. Facing a 3rd-and-13, it was another chance for the defense to make a play and get great field position. Instead Flacco was money with a 24-yard strike to Pitta. On 3rd-and-3 at the BAL 34, Flacco got lucky with a pass that Chris Harris dropped.
Denver was pinned at their own 7 after Holliday lost seven yards on the return. Manning threw two short passes for 16 yards, and this time they were able to convert on 3rd-and-1 with Hester’s 2-yard run.
But two plays later Manning did something he practically never does. Rolling to his right, he threw across his body to the middle of the field – strikingly similar to Brett Favre in the 2009 NFC Championship – and Graham made the interception on a pass intended for Stokley.
Baltimore now had the ball at the DEN 45, and one first down would probably do it. Flacco threw an incompletion, then the Ravens got smart and gave it to Rice, who had help from his blockers for 11 yards. That ended the first overtime.
The first double-overtime game since Panthers/Rams nine years ago, things continued at the DEN 34. Rice carried three times for five yards, as the Ravens kept it conservative. Rookie kicker Justin Tucker came out for the kick of his life, and he just squeezed it inside for the 47-yard game-winning field goal.
Like that, another No. 1 seed fell, 38-35. The Broncos are just the fourth team to ever lose a home playoff game in which they scored at least 30 points. The 35 points in a loss ties the most Manning has had in his career (games against 2004 Chiefs and 2010 Cowboys).
Most Points in Home Playoff Loss
L 41-38 OT
L 38-35 2OT
L 37-31 2OT
Another team entering the playoffs on a double-digit winning streak bites the dust, and the Denver defense picked a bad time to have their worst game. After a regular season in which the Broncos led the league in pressuring quarterbacks and keeping pressure off their own, it was Flacco who had plenty of time to throw as Miller and the pass rush never showed up.
Flacco finished with 18 completions for 331 yards and a playoff-high 3 TD passes. It was similar to past dominations of the Denver pass defense in the postseason, authored by Manning with the Colts (2003-04), Ben Roethlisberger in the AFC Championship (2005), and Tom Brady last year.
The stigma of Manning in the playoffs will stay with this one, but the indelible image is Denver’s young safety coming up woefully short on the ball. Sometimes you get the game-ending interception, and once in 80 years you do what Rahim Moore did there. If Jackie Smith is the “Sickest Man in America,” then Moore is the sickest man on Earth.
Maybe Ray Lewis really is friends with God, because this was a shocker.
THE OTHER PATHS TO VICTORY
Atlanta Falcons vs. Seattle Seahawks
Winner: Atlanta (30-28)
Largest Deficit: 1 (28-27)
Quarterback: Matt Ryan (16-13 at 4QC, 23-13 overall 4Q/OT record - table)
All Matt Ryan wanted was a chance to win a playoff game in the fourth quarter. He never was close enough the first three times for an opportunity, and we always cover it in Captain Comeback how good this Atlanta team is at closing games late.
This time the Falcons blew a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter, and Ryan’s first comeback opportunity in the playoffs was having 0:25 left at his own 28, needing a field goal with two timeouts in his pocket.
But as he has done before, Ryan led the fifth one-minute drill of his career; the most ever by a quarterback. It was the third time this season Ryan did so, tying him with Mark Sanchez (seriously) for the most in a season since 1981.
It is hard to believe this game produced one of the greatest finishes in NFL history, as it was all Atlanta for three quarters.
Tired of hearing about their 0-3 playoff record, the Falcons came out strong. It apparently helps to have the early start time against a West Coast team, as Atlanta jumped out to a 3-0 lead. Both teams exchanged turnovers, with Ryan throwing an interception and Marshawn Lynch fumbling for the second straight week.
Ryan used great catches from his tight ends to get the first touchdown on the board, going to Tony Gonzalez (0-5 in the playoffs coming into the game) for the 1-yard scoring toss. Ryan would throw three touchdowns on the day, matching his career playoff total from the first three games.
Finally getting plenty of help from the receivers and running game, Ryan led Atlanta to a 13-0 lead, much like the 14-0 lead Washington had last week against Seattle. But there would be no limping, injured quarterback this time around, and Russell Wilson was going to have to produce in a big way.
After driving to the ATL 11, the Seahawks ignored Lynch on two straight plays, getting stuffed on runs on both third and fourth down when they only needed a yard. It looked like a Pete Carroll game from his USC days.
Ryan took over and threw a perfect 47-yard touchdown to Roddy White, and the Falcons led 20-0. Seattle had a long drive to end the half, but after Wilson was sacked on 3rd and 11, the Seahawks could not get the field goal unit out there or run another play. They came away with no points, which was just an awful end to the half for them.
Teams trailing by 20+ points at halftime in the playoffs are 1-56 (.018). It is pretty obvious what the one win was. Big playoff comebacks almost always come from the home team, as only the 1957 Lions (20 points at San Francisco) and 1972 Cowboys (18 points at San Francisco) have come back from 18+ points down on the road.
But Wilson came out firing in the third quarter, and his receivers, namely Zach Miller and Golden Tate, were getting open. Tate caught a 29-yard touchdown. But the Falcons answered like a legit No. 1 seed, getting two third-down conversions with tough catches from Gonzalez. On a 14-play, 80-yard drive, Ryan finished it off with a well-designed shovel pass to Jason Snelling for the 5-yard touchdown. The lead was back up to 20.
Though the Falcons really should have went for the two-point conversion to make it 21, especially since the Seahawks were offsides and it would have been at the 1-yard line. This tactical error nearly ended Atlanta’s season.
As the fourth quarter began, Seattle was at the ATL 13. Four plays later Wilson scrambled for the 1-yard touchdown with 13:01 to play. Ryan threw a bad interception on a deep ball to Earl Thomas, and suddenly this was a game again.
Miller was left wide open in the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown. Not sure how that happens when Miller had eight catches for 142 yards on the day after being so key last week as well.
The Falcons have only allowed three fourth-quarter comeback wins under Mike Smith since 2008, which is the best in the league. Could they really blow this 20-point lead? At 3:35 p.m., I put this out there on Twitter:
This seemed all too familiar for Atlanta, and Seattle for that matter. After a quick three and out from Atlanta, Seattle had their first chance to take the lead. The drive stalled at midfield, and a chop block on third down would have negated a dropped pass by Sidney Rice. Seattle punted.
With 5:32 left, the Falcons are a threat to run out the clock in the four-minute offense, but they only gained one first down as Ryan could not connect with White on 3rd and 8.
Wilson had 3:00 left at his own 39, so there was plenty of time. After not having a 300-yard passing game all year, Wilson passed for 385 yards on just 36 attempts. It broke Sammy Baugh’s rookie playoff record when he passed for 335 yards in 1937.
After a 19-yard pass to Tate at the two-minute warning, Wilson ran for five yards. Hard to sack, Wilson got away and threw a short pass to Lynch, who gained 24 yards down to the ATL 3. The Falcons then had 12 defenders on the field, putting the ball at the ATL 2 with 0:34 to play.
Almost needing to let the Seahawks score, Lynch broke the plane on first down for the touchdown. He appeared to fumble in the worst fashion since Earnest Byner, but his lineman recovered the ball. It was a moot part of the play as replay confirmed the Lynch touchdown. Seattle led 28-27 as they were looking at the biggest fourth-quarter comeback in playoff history.
Problem is they still left too much time for Ryan. That would be 31 seconds and two timeouts, which is what Denver had left the day before when they took a knee. But the Broncos were tied, and the Falcons were down by a point with the season on life support.
Jacquizz Rodgers returned the kickoff to the ATL 28. Ryan had 0:25 left, but he has done this before. The first play is often the big one in determining if we are going to have something here, and Ryan started with a great pass to an open Harry Douglas for 22 yards at the 50. Atlanta used their second timeout with 0:19 left.
Seattle rushed five and nearly won the game with a sack of Ryan, but Rodgers just got over to his man in time for the block, and Ryan got rid of the pass, which went to an open Gonzalez at the SEA 36. He picked up five more yards before going down at the SEA 31.
Atlanta called their final timeout and brought out the kicking unit. Matt Bryant was wide right, but it was a warm-up kick as Carroll called timeout. Bryant adjusted and drilled the 49-yard kick with 0:08 to play, roughly 35 minutes after I tweeted the Falcons would win 30-28 in this exact fashion.
It was just another perfectly executed drive in the clutch from Ryan and the Falcons. Not as well executed was the ensuing kickoff, as the Falcons squibbed it or basically did an onside kick, giving Seattle the ball at their 46 with 0:06 left.
For some reason the Seahawks threw short for a 6-yard gain and got out of bounds. With 0:02 left at the ATL 48, fitting the Seattle season would come down to a Hail Mary. But this time there was no Golden Tate in the vicinity, though a wide receiver did make the game-ending catch.
It was Julio Jones for the Falcons on the interception, and they finally had their first playoff win in this era. It was hard-earned to say the least.
Wilson led a furious comeback and should have a bright future with this team. Though having the No. 1 scoring defense, the Seahawks let down too often in crunch time this year, especially on the road. It cost them dearly this time, as Ryan led his offense to 30 points again, just like last year in Seattle. The Falcons are the only team to score 30 on this defense the last two seasons, and their talented receivers have a lot to do with it.
Ryan improves his fourth-quarter comeback record to 16-13 (.552), the best winning percentage ever, and is 1-0 in the playoffs in that regard. Maybe this performance will silence some of the critics.
This was the season of one-minute drills, but it was only the third in the playoffs since 1981, and easily the shortest in terms of time to execute. If we had more data on older games, it is possible this could be the latest an offense has ever started with the ball trailing in a playoff game and won.
One-Minute Drills (All Field Goals) in NFL Playoffs (1981-2012)
W 23-20 2OT
It is just the third playoff game ever to have two lead changes in the last minute, following the Music City Miracle (1999 Titans/Bills) and the listed Jets/Colts Wild Card game from two years ago.
In five seasons Ryan has 16 comebacks and 23 game-winning drives; both are records for a player’s first five seasons. Ryan has seven game-winning drives in 2012, marking the 12th time a player has done that.
Now a home win away from the Super Bowl, Ryan is on the cusp of finally being recognized for his achievements. He is no longer the quarterback without a playoff win.
COMEBACK FAILURES OF THE WEEK
The Houston Texans kept it closer this time around in New England, but not close enough to mount any scary comeback attempt. The real surprise was the ultra-competitive Green Bay Packers getting pasted in the second half in San Francisco. We know Green Bay is usually good for getting Aaron Rodgers a comeback opportunity, but the Packers’ offense could do no better than being within 14 points in the fourth quarter this week.
Packers at 49ers: From deer in the headlights to galloping great
Even though it has been obvious the athletic advantages Colin Kaepernick gives the San Francisco offense, Jim Harbaugh’s decision to start him over Alex Smith was going to draw heat if the postseason was a failure.
Things did not start well. Hard to say what it was like live as the Baltimore/Denver game ran over, but on the fourth play from scrimmage, Kaepernick held the ball forever before making a terrible pass that Sam Shields intercepted and returned 52 yards for a touchdown. Just like that the 49ers trailed 7-0.
After two more shaky passes, you had to start to wonder about Kaepernick in just his eighth start, tasked with the challenge of outscoring Aaron Rodgers. But on 3rd-and-10, Kaepernick scrambled and lofted a pass for Frank Gore, who gained 45 yards with some big running after the catch. Now the young quarterback could take a breath.
On a 3rd-and-8 designed pass, Kaepernick simply saw the path and took off for a 20-yard touchdown run. Little did we know it would be the start of the greatest rushing performance by a quarterback in NFL history.
Green Bay’s offense started slow with a three-and-out drive, but came back strong with DuJuan Harris’ 18-yard touchdown run capping off an 80-yard drive for a 14-7 lead.
The game changed when the 49ers punted, and returner Jeremy Ross muffed the punt at his own 10. San Francisco recovered, and Kaepernick found Michael Crabtree for the touchdown on 3rd and 12.
Rodgers threw up a punt on 3rd down that was intercepted and returned to the GB 48, and the 49ers really took over from this point. Crabtree caught yet another touchdown for the 49ers’ first lead of the night. The Packers did answer with James Jones’ 20-yard touchdown, and once again we had a high-scoring playoff half.
The 49ers kicked a field goal to take a 24-21 lead at the half. Green Bay would tie in the third quarter, settling for the field goal after a great job by the 49ers to tackle Randall Cobb short of the first down.
But that’s when Kaepernick broke off a 56-yard run for a touchdown to continue his domination of the Packers on the ground. It was the read-option again, and it fooled everyone, while Kaepernick’s speed outran everyone.
Green Bay didn’t answer, and the 49ers embarked on another long scoring drive to close the third quarter and extend into the fourth, which is something they have done several times behind Kaepernick this year.
This time it was a beautiful 44-yard pass to Vernon Davis that was the big play, and on the first play of the fourth quarter, Gore scored a 2-yard touchdown run. San Francisco led 38-24, and Green Bay was in trouble, seeing as how they have not won a game they trailed by 14 points in the fourth quarter of since Brett Favre came off the bench in 1992.
When the Green Bay drive stalled, it was a very curious decision not to go for it on a 4th-and-5 at the GB 49. The Packers punted, and the defense continued to get shredded. This time it was a 93-yard touchdown drive that ate up 7:54 on the clock, and the 49ers were up 45-24 in a rout with 3:34 to play.
Rodgers strung together a garbage-time drive, which should have ended with an interception in the end zone, but the referees called pass interference on the wrong side (again this weekend), and Rodgers threw a 3-yard touchdown to Greg Jennings, which might be his last catch with the team.
But that only made the final score 45-31, as Kaepernick finished with a record 181 rushing yards; the most ever by a quarterback in any NFL game. He also passed for 263 yards, accounting for 444 total yards of offense and four touchdowns. He even should have had the rushing record at 183, but two kneel downs brought him down two yards.
That’s what Alex Smith was truly needed for: the victory kneel downs. Kaepernick had this one in the bag, even if he did have to overcome a poor start. But he overcame it in record fashion, and it is hard to believe the Packers were beat down in the playoffs for the second straight year. You expect something more completive than this.
Texans at Patriots: Even with broken toys, New England still has more to play with than Houston
Some of the Texans thought the Week 14 game in New England was the biggest in franchise history. They did not look that ready on the field, getting crushed 42-14. However, the team was right. They were just off by five weeks as the rematch would be the biggest yet.
The only problem is this game would also take place in New England after the Texans slumped to end the season as the No. 3 seed. As we have detailed, the No. 2 seed is now 23-7 (.767) in the playoffs against the No. 3 seed since 1990.
New England is a tougher place to win than most as well. Houston started the game with a great equalizer: special teams. But the Texans could not finish the opening kick return. Danieal Manning went 94 yards, but was tracked down by Devin McCourty on a great recovery.
On second down, Matt Schaub’s pass for a touchdown was dropped by James Casey. Schaub was nowhere close on third down, and Houston settled for a field goal. That was literally their best chance to take control of this game, and they blew it in the first minute.
New England started slow offensively with two punts, and an inaccurate deep pass by Tom Brady led to Rob Gronkowski breaking his forearm again when he came down out of bounds. Not that it would matter, but Danny Woodhead went out early as well, so the Texans had their early chances with the Patriots down two skill players.
But on the third drive New England’s other running backs, Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley, began to take the game over. They gained 51 of the 65 yards on the first touchdown drive, putting the Patriots ahead (for good actually) 7-3.
Third down really helped decide the game, as Houston struggled (4/15) while the Patriots did well (6/13), often finding Wes Welker open for a big conversion. Welker even had catches of 30 and 47 yards, which he never does, especially in the postseason.
Welker’s long catch set up another touchdown, and the rout was starting to warm up as the Patriots led 17-3. To their credit, Houston did fire back as Arian Foster finally got things going on the ground, carrying five times for 47 yards and a touchdown. Schaub did not even drop back once on the drive.
The Patriots went three and out, and Brady’s two incomplete passes stopped the clock for Houston, who saved their three timeouts. With 0:24 left at his own 38, Schaub went to work, able to use his tight ends to set up a field goal. Shayne Graham drilled the 55-yard kick with no wind on the day, and New England led 17-13 at halftime.
That is still bad news, as the Patriots are 70-0 at home since 2001 when they lead at halftime. Hell, they are 57-4 (.934) when they lead after the first quarter. This is part of why the Texans needed this game in Houston.
The 10-0 run to end the half evaporated after New England took the second-half kickoff and drove 69 yards for another touchdown. The big play came when Aaron Hernandez just shoved his defender down and was wide open for a play that gained 40 yards.
Two drives later Schaub delivered arguably his best pass of the day, converting a 3rd-and-16 with a 22-yard pass to Andre Johnson. But when it was 3rd-and-8 at the NE 37, Schaub threw his worst pass over the middle directly to Rob Ninkovich, who did his best Tedy Bruschi impersonation making a big play in the playoffs. The Patriots turned that into another touchdown, as Brandon Lloyd found the end zone in his first playoff game.
Down 31-13, the Texans were in desperation mode in the fourth quarter. Foster barely converted one 4th-and-1 run, then Schaub threw incomplete on another. That put the ball at the HOU 33, and it only took one play for Brady to throw his best pass of the day for a touchdown to Vereen in the end zone. Have to love the matchup with the running back on linebacker Barrett Ruud. Bill Belichick barely flinched on the sideline after the score.
In less than 17 minutes the Texans went from trailing by four points to a 38-13 deficit.
The Texans did drive for two straight touchdowns to make it 38-28 with 5:08 to play. The onside kick attempt was a good one, and the ball was live for the taking, but just like in Week 14, it bounced to the Patriots, ending Houston’s last real chance. The Patriots tacked on a field goal for a 41-28 lead with 1:14 left.
Schaub padded 40 yards to his total (343 yards on 34/51 passing), but the clock expired. Foster played a decent game, Johnson had his moments, and Owen Daniels finished with nine catches for 81 yards, but Houston just lacks the offensive weapons beyond these players to outscore New England.
Even without Gronkowski, the Patriots had too much for Wade Phillips’ defense, which allowed a fourth 40-point game to a top quarterback/offense since last year. Ridley and Vereen had 28 touches for 219 yards and four touchdowns. Brady passed for 344 yards and the offense had no giveaways.
While some want to get rid of coach Gary Kubiak and Schaub, the replacement plan is just not there. Houston needs more talent to go along with what they have, but it is hard to add such a player (or two) in one offseason, especially when you are picking low in the draft.
Houston is still not ready for the cream of the crop in the AFC, which more often than not is New England.
For the first time since 1992-93, the Conference Championship games will repeat three teams from the previous year: Baltimore, New England and San Francisco. We came so close to a “HarBowl” last year, but now the Harbaugh brothers will both need a road victory Sunday to meet in New Orleans.
At least one needs to win, because two more losses will drop the Harbaugh’s to a combined 0-5 on Championship Sunday. No Lee Evans, Billy Cundiff or Kyle Williams this time, please.
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.