By Scott Kacsmar
Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)
It was supposed to be the NFL’s “Statement Sunday” or “Separation Sunday” in Week 15. For the first time ever this late into the calendar year, six games between teams with winning records took place.
When the dust settled, many teams did make statements and separate themselves. But in terms of competitive, playoff-style football, Sunday was one big snooze until the dinner-time hours.
The average final score in Week 15 was 31.7 to 13.0.
We had just five games this week with a comeback opportunity, which represents a two-season low going back to last year. Only one team came back in the fourth quarter to win, and there were only two game-winning drives, and one of those involved Tony Romo falling on the ground. It was close to looking like another no-comeback edition like in Week 10.
But then there was the night game in New England. Just when you thought all hope was lost for a great game, especially when San Francisco took a 31-3 lead, we finally had a new candidate for game of the year when the Patriots stormed back to tie it before the 49ers closed the door.
At least they saved the best for last, and no, we are not talking about Monday night, which unfortunately was inept enough to make its way into Captain Comeback this week.
The big comeback that was not completed by New England could be the game that creates future separation in the NFL playoffs with its ramifications in both conferences.
Fourth quarter comebacks: 65
Game-winning drives: 75
Games with 4QC opportunity: 125/224 (55.8 percent)
10+ point comebacks wins (any point in the game): 36
DRIVE OF THE WEEK
San Francisco 49ers at New England Patriots
Winner: San Francisco (41-34)
Quarterback: Colin Kaepernick (0-0-1 at 4QC, 1-1-1 overall 4Q/OT record - table)
The San Francisco 49ers are the only franchise in NFL history to erase a 28-point deficit for a victory in the regular season. They did it from a 35-7 deficit against the Saints in 1980, which was Joe Montana’s first comeback win just over 32 years ago.
On Sunday, the 49ers nearly became the second team to blow such a lead, and Montana fanboy Tom Brady was at the controls for New England. This one had much bigger stakes than the 1980 game, as both teams were looking for a first-round bye.
Now 28-point comebacks rarely ever happen, because the team with the lead usually thwarts the other team with key stops, takeaways, and it always helps to score again. But this one had some of the right ingredients with New England’s prolific offense, and a run-based offense from the 49ers that can get conservative with the lead.
If the 49ers blew this one, they may have never recovered this season much like San Diego when they lost to Denver in Week 6. The truth is the lead should have been far bigger than 28 points. That is how many mistakes the 49ers had; often unforced even.
- There was Delaine Walker’s fumble in the red zone following Brady’s fifth interception of the season. This play looked very similar to a bang-bang play in Dallas that was ruled incomplete hours earlier. Patriots were fortunate here. (3-7 points).
- David Akers missed a 39-yard field goal after Jim Harbaugh’s ballsy fake punt on 4th and 10 worked (3 points).
- Kaepernick missed a wide open Vernon Davis for a 34-yard touchdown, then fumbled the snap on 4th and 1, which was a problem on the rainy night (7 points).
- With first and goal at the NE 4 before halftime, Randy Moss was flagged for offensive pass interference, then a conservative run led to just a field goal (4 more points). The 49ers led 17-3 at halftime.
To say the 49ers should have had a 38-3 halftime lead is no exaggeration at all.
It got worse for the Patriots early in the third quarter. Kaepernick converted a 3rd and 15 with a screen to Frank Gore for 26 yards. Looking for more points, Kaepernick missed the safety and Devin McCourty had a big interception in the end zone.
But Stevan Ridley fumbled on a good hit, and the 49ers returned it to the NE 3. Despite Kaepernick fumbling the ball again, Gore picked it up and ran into the end zone for a touchdown.
Now up 24-3, the 49ers started this drive by going to the dreaded three-man rush. But it only took two plays before a Brady screen attempt was bobbled and intercepted for yet another turnover (fourth of the night).
Kaepernick immediately made them pay with the 27-yard touchdown strike down the middle to Michael Crabtree for a 31-3 lead with 10:21 left in the third quarter. Stunning. Even more stunning when you consider how much worse it should have been at this point. How does 52-3 sound? Okay, 44-3 at the very least.
At this point the Patriots had nine drives, three points, four turnovers, and were 0/7 on third down. This one could not have been any more lopsided through 35 minutes.
But every comeback needs a starting point, and New England’s came three plays later when they faced a 3rd and 10 at their own 27. Brady found Aaron Hernandez open over the middle for 17 yards. A failure to convert and you are likely looking at a punt. All of the drama to come may have never happened without this conversion.
Likewise, Danny Woodhead had another key play with a 15-yard run on a shotgun draw on 3rd and 9. He finished the 73-yard drive with a 6-yard touchdown. After one good run, the 49ers had to punt.
Brady, who has two career wins when trailing by 21 points (2002 at Chicago, 2011 vs. Buffalo), was getting in a rhythm, the 49ers were no longer pressuring, Justin Smith was greatly missed, and the Patriots were driving again.
They faced a 4th and goal at the SF 1 on the first play of the fourth quarter, trailing 31-10, and the unstoppable Brady sneak converted for the touchdown. That was an 86-yard drive.
Teams who trail by exactly 21 points to start the fourth quarter are 4-412 (.010) since 1950, but when it’s the Patriots at the 1-yard line and a whole quarter to go, you have to raise their chances. Game on.
San Francisco obliged with a three and out. The Patriots were quickly forced into a 4th and 2 at the NE 42, but Brady kept the offense on the field, and they had the right play on for Wes Welker’s 15-yard reception. After 38 yards on a shady pass interference penalty, Brady threw a 5-yard touchdown to Hernandez, and it was 31-24 with 12:13 left. This was starting to look dangerously bleak for the 49ers. You could see it in Harbaugh’s face.
The New England defense kept it going with a huge sack of Kaepernick that led to a three and out. The Patriots had to start at their own 8, but did it really matter at this point? Brandon Lloyd, who had his best game as a Patriot with 190 yards, beat Chris Culliver down the right sideline for a 53-yard gain. Woodhead finished the 92-yard drive off with a 1-yard touchdown.
Like that, the game was tied 31-31 with 6:43 to play. The Patriots had moved it 317 yards on four touchdown drives, while the 49ers went 19 yards on three punts in that time.
This makes the Patriots the fourth team to erase a 28-point deficit for a tie/lead, but still lose the game.
NFL History's 28+ Point Comebacks
W 38-35 OT
W 41-38 OT
Just a 2-4-1 record for the team making the big comeback in these games, but that is why you have to finish the job.
After all the hard work the Patriots put in to tie it, the 49ers took two plays to regain the lead. First it was rookie LaMichael James returning the kickoff 62 yards. Then Crabtree made Kyle Arrington miss the tackle, and he was gone for a 38-yard touchdown. The 49ers back up 38-31 with 6:25 to play.
That’s the thing with having “momentum.” Eventually the other team is going to make a play. The Patriots have felt this sting before, having erased a 21-point deficit in the fourth quarter, only to lose the game. This is the third time it has happened to them. The immortal Tom Ramsey (1987) and Hugh Millen (1991) led the Patriots back those days.
21+ Point 4th Quarter Comeback - Loss
L 31-28 OT
L 34-31 OT
On that day in 1980 when the 49ers were coming back from a 28-point deficit, the Colts came back from a 25-point deficit in the fourth quarter alone, only to lose on a late field goal by the Bengals. That week would have been quite the retro Captain Comeback column.
But there was still time for the hot New England offense to answer. Brady completed two passes to Welker to move to the 50. After missing Lloyd down the sideline, the pressure returned and Brady was sacked on consecutive plays. The Patriots had to punt.
Ted Ginn Jr. muffed the punt, bringing back shades of Kyle Williams in the NFC Championship, but he recovered. Facing the four-minute drill of the year, the 49ers just handed off three times and punted. A bit gutless after that hot start Harbaugh had his team on.
Now Brady was backed up at his own 3 with 2:56 and two timeouts left. Brady avoided the safety and overthrew Hernandez. He completed an 8-yard pass to Lloyd to set up 3rd and 2, which is what NBC had, and any understanding of measurement would tell you the same. For some reason the NFL game book says this was a 9-yard gain.
Either way, Brady threw incomplete to Woodhead, and with 2:30 and three clock stoppages left, Belichick once again put all the marbles on a 4th and 2. Imagine that.
The game is essentially over without a conversion, and Brady, with time, overthrew Woodhead incomplete. The 49ers took over at the NE 12. Three runs and Akers kicked a 28-yard field goal for a 41-31 lead.
Brady got the ball back with 1:56 left, but was out of timeouts and needed two scores. He kept the drive alive with two fourth-down conversions. The Patriots were 5/6 on fourth down in the game, which helped ease the pain of a 2/15 night on third down for the league’s best third-down offense. But they missed that major fourth down.
After a spike, the Patriots brought out the kicking unit early. Stephen Gostkowski made the 41-yard field goal with 0:38 left to make it 41-34, but everything would come down to the onside kick recovery. Walker took care of that for San Francisco, and Kaepernick took the game-winning kneel down on an incredible night of football.
Brady finished with 443 yards passing on a career-high 65 pass attempts. He completed 36 of them for a 55.4 completion percentage, which will end his streak at 14 games over 60 percent in the hunt for that obscure record.
The inability to finish may have also taken him out of the MVP race with two weeks to play. Brady is just 1-3 at comeback opportunities this season with all losses against the NFC West.
More importantly for the Patriots, they lose the path to a first-round bye, which is obviously huge for them. Now they may have to travel to Denver and/or Houston to return to the Super Bowl. All this coming days after they were universally regarded as the best team in the league after thrashing Houston.
Maybe the NFC is just better?
Kaepernick has the truly unique 1-1-1 record in clutch games, and it would be 3-0 had it not been for Akers’ inability to put away the Rams in overtime. He is just one of three quarterbacks (Brett Favre in 2008, Eli Manning in 2011) to lead a game-winning drive in New England since 2001.
Kaepernick also threw four touchdown passes, which is something Alex Smith has never done in 77 career starts (including playoffs).
Think we can put that all to rest now? If Kaepernick can win in Foxboro in December, he can win just about anywhere this season.
Maybe this move was a sign of the inevitable. Which other teams besides the 1990 Giants (Jeff Hostetler) and 2001 Patriots (Tom Brady) made such a move at quarterback like Harbaugh’s 49ers have with Smith to Kaepernick? Hell, even Tony Banks was benched for Trent Dilfer when the 2000 Ravens won the Super Bowl.
If Sunday’s game was a Super Bowl preview, then a rematch in New Orleans would be must-see TV. Just don’t expect the 49ers to call off the dogs so early next time.
It almost cost them again.
THE OTHER PATHS TO VICTORY
Dallas Cowboys vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Winner: Dallas (27-24 OT)
Largest Deficit: 7 (24-17)
Quarterback: Tony Romo (18-23 at 4QC, 19-25 overall 4Q/OT record - table)
It took two of the league’s most historic franchises, the Steelers and Cowboys, to give us Sunday’s first quality game. These franchises are used to playing in big games. This was an important one for two inconsistent 7-6 teams. While the Steelers have the reputation of being champions, the Cowboys are unfairly known as December chokers.
On this Sunday in Dallas, they played a bit of role reversal with the Cowboys making the big plays, and the Steelers continuing their 2012 trend of careless mistakes at the worst moments.
The Steelers could not get a handle on the ball early, and Dallas jumped out to a 10-0 lead. But the Steelers would knot it up before halftime, including one of Ben Roethlisberger’s best touchdown passes yet. It involved three pump fakes and making three Cowboys miss before Heath Miller was open for the 30-yard touchdown to tie things up at the half.
They exchanged third-quarter touchdowns with each team’s head-case receiver (Dez Bryant and Mike Wallace) making a big play. Wallace made a 20-yard catch to end the third quarter.
After a great 21-yard catch by Jerricho Cotchery to put the ball in the red zone, the Steelers converted a 3rd and 2 with Roethlisberger’s 7-yard touchdown to Antonio Brown. Steelers led 24-17 with 12:37 to play.
The win would have been the Steelers’ fifth this season when trailing by 10+ points. It also would have been Roethlisberger’s 30th game-winning drive, and move him to 3-0 against Dallas with a 10-point comeback win each time.
But that’s what the Steelers used to do in the past, and there was still plenty of time left for the 2012 team to find a way to blow this one.
After forcing the Cowboys to punt, Brown made the first of several errors by fumbling the ball on the return. Dallas recovered at the PIT 44. The Cowboys were good with YAC, and Dwayne Harris picked up 17 yards on a bubble screen. On 3rd and goal DeMarco Murray walked in for the touchdown to tie things up with 6:55 left.
The Steelers were driving again, but DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer shared a third-down sack on Roethlisberger, pushing Pittsburgh out of field goal range. Dallas went three and out after Harris was tackled a yard short.
With 1:47 left, Pittsburgh had plenty of time. They gained 11 yards with a pass to Brown, plus 15 more yards for roughing the passer on Ware. But instead of a few more first downs to kick the winning field goal, Roethlisberger was sacked on consecutive plays, with rookie guard David DeCastro showing his inexperience in his first start. DeCastro allowed just one sack in college. He’s already matched that in the NFL.
That made it 3rd and 26, and Brown only gained 11 yards. He even went out of bounds to help Dallas save a timeout. Real smart. Harris returned the punt 39 yards to the PIT 49, and this was looking like the losses to Oakland and Tennessee all over again.
But the defense did hold, forcing a three and out. Dallas momentarily thought about kicking a 61-yard field goal, but common sense must have entered Jason Garrett’s head and they punted. Pittsburgh took a knee, playing for overtime where they won the toss.
Now we mentioned this last week. Though Pittsburgh is better than Baltimore, it is still hard to go 80 yards for a touchdown. But they wanted the ball anyway.
Coming out aggressive with the shotgun and no huddle, it was only two plays before Roethlisberger threw late to the sideline to Wallace, resulting in a Brandon Carr interception returned 36 yards down to the PIT 1. Tony Romo took a knee, and Dan Bailey came out for the easy 21-yard field goal to win it.
It was like watching Jacksonville’s Rashean Mathis beat the Steelers and Tommy Maddox in overtime in 2005. Or for a more recent example, Tracy Porter did this to Roethlisberger in Denver to start this season.
That’s the problem. The Steelers have been making critical mistakes like this all season long, and the defense fails to create similar mistakes to balance it out. That’s why they are -14 in turnover differential.
They were -13 last year, but you still expected them to close games out. Not this year. The team that has been closing is actually Dallas.
Romo now leads all 2012 quarterbacks in fourth-quarter comeback wins with five. That also sets a new franchise record for a single season. More than that, the recent surge has put Romo into the top seven in terms of the best clutch opportunity records for active quarterbacks.
Top Active Clutch Records (Min. 16 Games)
The third consecutive comeback win is another Dallas record.
- In games 11-13 of the 1990 season Troy Aikman led a game-winning drive in all three contests (but only one comeback).
- In games 14-16 of the 1991 season Steve Beuerlein led two fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives, and in between that, the Cowboys erased a 2-point deficit against the Eagles with a game-winning punt return by Kelvin Martin.
This means the last three games are the first time in Dallas Cowboys’ history a quarterback led three consecutive comebacks and game-winning drives.
More than that, Dallas is 5-1 in their last six games, and Romo has led four comebacks and game-winning drives. The fifth victory was that game-winning punt return touchdown in Philadelphia where the Cowboys scored three return touchdowns in the fourth quarter to put it away.
Dallas has scored the winning points in the fourth quarter or overtime in five of their last six games, putting them at 8-6 and a shot to not only make the playoffs, but still win the NFC East.
Maybe that would change some of these narratives on Romo and the Cowboys in December. They have been coming up big when they have to.
COMEBACK FAILURES OF THE WEEK
At least two of our marquee matchups made it here, but they were not exactly threatening or dramatic comeback attempts. In fact, they were rather feeble. But at least they were attempts.
Eleven other teams this week couldn’t keep it this close this late in the game. Unfortunately to the disgust of the viewing nation, the Jets and Titans did.
“Just End the Season” works in Tennessee
The New York Jets (6-8) have finally been eliminated from the playoffs, and Monday night’s product in Tennessee should have been a good example of why expanding the playoff field is downright lunacy.
ESPN’s Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden did not hide their scorn for this game on the air, treating it like a replacement referee in Seattle. Gruden even said “everything looks painful in this Jets’ pass offense.”
The Captain promises to be swift and thorough as well, as we do not want to spend any more time on this game than it deserves.
Mark Sanchez played another brutal game with four interceptions. Tim Tebow even made an extended appearance that resulted in nothing but more insults from Gruden.
About the only highlight was Chris Johnson’s 94-yard touchdown run, which extends his record to six touchdown runs of 80+ yards in his career. Otherwise, Johnson had just 20 carries for 28 yards the rest of the night.
The Jets actually had a 10-7 lead after a bad punt by Tennessee, though the Titans responded with the go-ahead touchdown, just 20 seconds too early to be a fourth quarter comeback. Tennessee led 14-10.
The fourth quarter consisted of several three and outs until Sanchez was picked off by Michael Griffin. Getting the ball back at his own 8, Sanchez was actually driving the Jets along – a lame roughing penalty on 3rd and 4 helped – until they reached the two-minute warning and the TEN 23.
That was when Sanchez just carelessly faded away and threw up a pass towards the end zone, which Griffin again picked off. That was Sanchez’s fourth of the night. But the Titans would just run it three times before punting.
Another terrible punt gave the Jets a golden opportunity: starting at the TEN 25 with 0:47 left. They were 25 yards away from the win, but All-Pro center Nick Mangold skipped a garbage snap into the ground, Sanchez fell to grab it, but the Jets kicked the ball away and it was recovered by the Titans to end it.
A fitting end indeed.
Colts stumble in their worst comeback attempt of the season
The upstart Colts (9-4) controlled their own destiny in the AFC South, but any honest fan knew sweeping Houston (11-2) was going to be a tough task. Still, the Colts battled well enough to have a chance, but too many errors doomed them from pulling off another improbable comeback.
This week’s deficit was the result of a poor second quarter that featured a fumble by Mewelde Moore at the 1-yard line, and a blocked punt returned for a touchdown. Houston led 20-3, but the Colts would strike quickly for a 61-yard touchdown after T.Y. Hilton was wide open for the score. Obviously still some issues in this Houston secondary.
But the front seven had their way with the battered, untalented Indianapolis offensive line, sacking Luck five times on the day, including three more sacks for J.J. Watt (19.5 this season). Watt was absurdly dominant in the game as the Colts had no answers for him.
The Colts still managed an 80-yard touchdown drive that made it 23-17 late in the third quarter. Luck became the seventh rookie quarterback to throw for at least 20 touchdowns in a season.
Matt Schaub was sacked on the first play of the fourth quarter, leading to a punt three plays later. The Colts now had their chance, and Luck has put his team ahead in all seven games where he has had an opportunity to do so in the fourth quarter or overtime.
With that in mind, expectations were high, but coach Bruce Arians hijacked the drive’s chance for success. After Vick Ballard gained no yards on first down, the usually pass-heavy Colts went to the ground again and Ballard lost five yards (Watt again). This set up a 3rd and 15 at the IND 3, and not surprisingly Luck was hit as he threw and the pass fell incomplete.
Indianapolis had to punt out of their end zone, and Houston returned it to the HOU 46. But you can tack on 15 more yards for Arians being flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, and Houston was at the IND 39 to start the drive.
Arian Foster had a touchdown taken away by a holding penalty, but the Texans’ Shayne Graham made a critical 46-yard field goal to take a 26-17 lead with 8:30 left. The Colts have come back from tougher situations, but these weren’t the Detroit Lions.
Putting together a drive, Luck was again pressured but had to throw the ball away, resulting in an intentional grounding penalty. If he didn’t throw it the play would have been a sack, so either way you end up in 3rd and 20. Luck stepped up under more pressure to find Wayne, but the pass hit his hands and was incomplete. That would have at least given them a shot to go for it, but the Colts punted.
Foster iced the game with big runs of 26 and 25 yards, and the Texans finished the 78-yard drive for another field goal and 29-17 lead.
Down to 1:05, the Colts just went through the motions and moved the ball 21 yards before time expired, dropping them to 9-5 and crowning Houston as AFC South champions for the second straight season.
Luck’s glowing record of 6-1 in all clutch opportunities dropped to 6-2.
It was not the stellar performance some may have expected from Houston after their Monday night debacle, but they took care of business. The Colts had their opportunities, but some of these mistakes are just insurmountable on the road against a superior team. When they meet again in Week 17, Houston may have nothing to play for given other results, so the Colts will have a chance either way to win that game and perhaps finish 11-5.
Compared to how they fared on the road against Chicago, the Jets and Patriots, this may be a sign of progress for the Colts, but there is still clearly a gap between them and the elites of the NFL like Houston.
Dom Capers is Jay Cutler’s daddy
This was anticipated to be a showdown for the NFC North ever since their Week 2 meeting in Green Bay. It was indeed that, but the Bears came in struggling, and the end result was all too common.
Both defenses keep the score down, but Aaron Rodgers makes more plays, and more importantly fewer mistakes than Jay Cutler, and the Packers beat the Bears once again.
Rodgers passed for 291 yards, three scores and no turnovers. Cutler had only 135 yards, was sacked four times, and threw a costly interception before halftime, which Rodgers turned into a touchdown.
Green Bay chewed up some clock in the third quarter, converted a 4th and 6 thanks to the ineptitude of kicker Mason Crosby, and added the third receiving touchdown of the day for James Jones to take a 21-7 lead.
Green Bay would take a 21-10 lead into the fourth quarter, but for the eighth straight game, Crosby missed a field goal; this one from 42 yards away with 10:10 to play.
However, Bears’ rookie receiver Alshon Jeffery was flagged for offensive pass interference – shockingly one of three times he did this in the second half – and the Bears were quickly forced into a three and out.
The only good news is Mike McCarthy got cute with a throwback on the punt return, and Randall Cobb’s lateral turned into a fumble with the Bears recovering at the GB 16. But again Green Bay’s defense held, forcing a 34-yard field goal by newly signed veteran kicker Olindo Mare.
Green Bay picked up one first down when Julius Peppers was penalized for roughing the passer on third down, but they would punt after three more plays. Cutler had 3:47 left, trailing 21-13 with a chance.
Jeffery had a huge 36-yard play on 3rd and 10, but it was his third offensive pass interference of the half. That would lead to a 4th and 9, and Cutler went back to Jeffery, but Sam Shields had tight coverage. In fact, it was too tight, but there was no flag.
After three runs for nine yards, the Packers took a delay of game and punted. Cutler had just 0:56 now, and no timeouts at his own 3. There was the incredible play to Brandon Marshall in this situation against Seattle, but not this time.
After a 10-yard gain to Matt Forte, Cutler held the ball forever and was sacked by what was essentially a two-man rush. It was the worst sack any quarterback has taken this year in a clutch situation (or probably any situation).
So much time went off the clock that the Bears only ran three plays, and it ended with a meaningless 18-yard completion to Forte, who was tackled without even a lateral attempt at the CHI 22.
The win gave the Packers the NFC North title for the second straight season, and the Bears (8-6) have dropped five of their last six games, and for the time being, dropped out of the Wild Card spot.
What was a promising season is coming undone for Chicago, and they have yet to figure out the Green Bay puzzle. As a Bear, Cutler is 1-7 against Green Bay and averages just 13.3 points per game.
The defense can only do so much to slow down Green Bay. They need the offense to score to, and the Bears have only exceeded 17 points once the last six games. Not surprisingly, that was their lone win (28-10 over Minnesota).
Green Bay is on an 8-1 run, and outside of that brutal loss to the Giants, they have been playing solid offensively and strong defensively. If they get the right opponents in the playoffs, they could make a deep run.
They just better hope they do not need a clutch field goal along the way.
We have a Week 16 playoff game as the Steelers look to stay alive against Cincinnati. The Giants badly need a win against slumping Baltimore. Saints can play spoiler to the Cowboys in Dallas. Finally, the 49ers have the very difficult task of performing big in a consecutive road prime time game against a contender when they visit Seattle.
Week 16 Prediction: more closer games of course.
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.