By Scott Kacsmar
Cold, Hard Football Facts comeback king

Once again comebacks are the defining story of the trials and tribulations of our 32 teams for the 2011 season. They are usually more subtle than they have been this season, but consider where we stand at the first quarter mark.
  • Detroit is shockingly 4-0 thanks to two straight road comebacks from a 20+ point deficit. Similarly, Buffalo holds a tie-breaker advantage over New England (for now) thanks to big 18+ point comebacks against Oakland and the Patriots.
  • Arizona and Carolina played a close game in week one (won by Arizona), and have had a comeback opportunity in all four games each has played; both starting 1-3 in the Kevin Kolb/Cam Newton eras. Carolina’s comeback win was against Jacksonville, in Blaine Gabbert’s first start.
  • Tony “Oh No” Romo gift-wrapped two games for the opponent, including the New York Jets in week one, but he’s also handed both Washington and San Francisco their only loss of the year with comeback wins to keep Dallas at 2-2.
  • Minnesota is winless thanks to blown leads against San Diego, Tampa Bay and Detroit, and they failed in the fourth quarter to come back against the lowly Chiefs.
  • Pittsburgh came back to beat the winless, Manning-less Colts last Sunday night, but struggled mightily in their comeback attempt at Houston, a week after the Texans blew a two-score lead in New Orleans.  
  • Speaking of blown leads, Philadelphia has lost after holding a fourth quarter lead the last three weeks, falling to 1-3. Atlanta was the first team to beat the Eagles, and after going 13-3 last year, their only other win came (barely) against the Seahawks, who missed a 61-yard field goal at the end on Sunday.
  • The Giants took care of the Eagles last week, and then literally stole another comeback win from the Cardinals on Sunday in Arizona to get to 3-1. It’s reportedly Eli Manning’s favorite stadium to play in.
  • Miami lost a late lead to Cleveland, and are still winless. The Browns have the same record as Cincinnati, a preseason favorite for “worst team” that’s won two games with fourth quarter comebacks already.
  • Tennessee came back to beat hopeless Denver last week, the middle of a three-game win streak that started with the only loss of the season for Baltimore, a team that’s been dominant in their three wins.
  • The St. Louis Rams simply don’t make comebacks, and of course the Green Bay Packers haven’t needed any, not even against a Chicago team that usually plays them close. That can be a very interesting Thanksgiving day game when Green Bay travels to, that’s right, Detroit.
And that’s taking you full circle around the league, comeback-style, for the first quarter of the season. There have been a record number of points and passing yardage put up this year, so we expect the crazy pace and style of comebacks to keep coming.
The count so far:
Fourth quarter comebacks: 23
Game-winning drives: 24
Games with 4QC opportunity: 42/64 (65.6%)
20+ point comebacks (at any point in game): 4*
*ties NFL record for single-season, with 75% of a season left

Drive of the Week

Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys
Winner: Detroit (34-30)

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Deficit: 13 (30-17)
Quarterback: Matthew Stafford (4 4QC, 4 GWD – table)
With so many angles, where do you start with this one? Guess we’ll go with the obvious.
O Romo, Romo! Wherefore art thou Romo?
Defy thy Garrett and refuse thy pass;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn to check down,
And you’ll no longer be an ass

He did it again. The Cowboys played their tenth straight game decided by four points or less, but it should have never come to that. Dallas built a 27-3 lead in the third quarter behind an excellent three touchdown performance from Romo. The defense was shutting Detroit down and just forced a punt, and that’s when disaster struck.
Romo threw the first of his three critical interceptions in the second half, and the first of a pair of pick 6’s. Careless. Unnecessary. Devastating. Still, leading 30-27, Romo had a chance to pick up some first downs and end the game. He immediately threw a poor pass over the middle that was intercepted at the DAL 40. Detroit scored the go ahead touchdown.
With one last chance to redeem himself, the last drive ended in a comedy of errors for the Cowboys. After reaching the Detroit 45, Felix Jones dropped an easy pass on first down, Romo was submerged for a sack on second down, Laurent Robinson dropped a short, wide open pass on third down, and finally, Jones must have forgot it was fourth down and just casually stepped out of bounds (after a broken tackle nonetheless) after gaining seven yards.
The Cowboys are 2-2, and Romo’s performances this season are a good argument for quarterbacks deserving to have a win-loss record accredited to their name. He has been that kind of difference maker for the Cowboys and their opponents this year.
All the goodwill Romo built up the previous two weeks will be washed away with this performance. The only good news is it wasn’t in primetime.
The Dallas Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki left a message for Romo, telling him not to listen to the “garbage” from the critics. Dirk’s right. There is a lot of garbage out there when a player’s legacy is constantly questioned. The difference is Dirk got many playoff series (with a best-of-seven format) to show that he can perform well under pressure, eventually winning a championship and Finals MVP. Romo gets one game in January at best to perform, and that hasn’t gone well for him. This year he’ll be fortunate just to get another playoff opportunity.
When we said we’d be revisiting the Romo saga soon, we didn’t expect weekly updates. Now with a bye week and trip to Foxboro on the schedule, the branding iron will be white-hot again.

Detroit: Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!

Lift up your weary heads Lions fans, for your team is 4-0. After Buffalo set the NFL record for consecutive comebacks of 18+ points, the Lions raise the bar even higher by becoming the first team to overcome consecutive deficits of 20+ points, and they were on the road both weeks. They tied the NFL record for largest road comeback (24 points).
The Lions haven’t been this comeback-crazy since 1957, which is the last time Detroit won a championship. They have just one playoff win since.
On October 20, 1957, the Lions were hosting a young Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts. They fell behind 27-3 in the third quarter thanks to four touchdown passes from Unitas. The Lions would answer with four touchdown passes of their own: the first from Tobin Rote, the last three coming all in the fourth quarter from Hall of Famer Bobby Layne. Apparently the kneel down wasn’t in vogue yet, as the Colts took over with 1:22 left and a 27-24 lead, but ran the ball three times, with Lenny Moore fumbling. The Colts lost five fumbles in the game.
Later that season, the Lions went to San Francisco for a Divisional playoff game on December 22nd. They fell behind Y.A. Tittle’s 49ers 27-7 in the third quarter. This time Tobin Rote was at the controls, leading the Lions to 24 unanswered points for a 31-27 win; the same score as the victory over Baltimore. Tittle threw for 3 TD and 3 INT in the game, just like Romo, but without the pick 6’s.
See Dallas fans, even a HOF quarterback can lose a huge second half lead against Detroit. They just didn’t cough it up with the same kind of dramatic fashion as Romo.
How did Detroit do it this time? Romo obviously helped a lot, closing the gap to 27-17, then 30-17 to start the fourth quarter. We learned in week one that Dallas never blew a 14-point lead before, but they aren’t strangers to letting 13 points slip away. That time it was Santana Moss getting behind the Dallas defense. This time it was a Moss-like receiver doing the damage, but we’re talking Randy, not Santana.
Calvin Johnson became the first player in NFL history to have two receiving touchdowns in each of the first four games of the season. His first came on a pass that eventually came from Matthew Stafford, after he had enough time in the pocket to check a calendar and count down the days until Thanksgiving. Megatron hauled it in despite double coverage. Then on the winning drive, Dallas had 12 players on the field, but just one Terence Newman, which meant an easy jump-ball win for Johnson in the end zone.
We talked about Stafford’s impressive comebacks last week. He now has four in his first 17 games. While this wasn’t his greatest game and the defensive scores really helped, it was another impressive performance on the road for the young quarterback, and quickly puts him in some select company.

Most Comeback Wins From 20+ Point Deficit

QB Games Deficits
Drew Bledsoe 4 20, 21, 21, 22
Matthew Stafford 3 20, 21, 24
Ryan Fitzpatrick 3 21, 21, 21
Randall Cunningham* 3 20, 21, 21
*Cunningham started the 10/3/1993 game against the Jets, falling behind 21-0. He led the Eagles to one touchdown drive, then was injured on the next drive and replaced by Bubby Brister for the rest of the game. Brister completed the comeback for a 35-30 win.

San Francisco 49ers at Philadelphia Eagles
Winner: San Francisco (24-23)

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Deficit: 6 (23-17)
Quarterback: Alex Smith (6 4QC, 8 GWD – table)
It wasn’t quite Joe Montana throwing four touchdown passes in the fourth quarter against Reggie White and Buddy Ryan’s 1989 Eagles, but it was the best win the 49ers have had in Philadelphia since that day. It’s also the second straight comeback win for the 49ers, and the third straight blown fourth quarter lead by the Eagles.
The Eagles led 23-3 in the second half, and all seemed well. That’s when the 49ers, a franchise with a storied history of great comebacks, began yet another.
After Eagles’ rookie kicker Alex Henery missed a 33-yard field goal that would have put Philadelphia ahead 26-17 with 6:28 left, the 49ers went to their ground game for a 77-yard game-winning touchdown drive. Frank Gore had a 25-yard run, and the touchdown was a 12-yard run by Gore.
Alex Smith mostly handed off on the drive, but on the two previous touchdown drives, Smith completed all six of his passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns.
This is actually the third time in Smith’s career he led game-winning drives in consecutive weeks. The last time was the first two games of the 2007 season. The 49ers lost their next eight games. But maybe things are different now that Smith has some weapons and a coach (Jim Harbaugh) that may be turning things around in San Francisco. A win like this is something the 49ers haven’t had since the glory days.
Michael Vick finished this game, but the Eagles did not. Their last three drives ended with a missed field goal of 39 yards, missed field goal of 33 yards, and then a Jeremy Maclin fumble just as he got the ball into field goal range.
Had Maclin held on, you have to wonder if the rookie kicker would have just gone for the trio of misses and the Eagles still lose anyway. The worst kicking performance of the quarter-old season.
If you’re expecting another corny reference to the “Dream Team being a nightmare”, you’ve come to the wrong place. This isn’t a nightmare. This is just the result of another team failing to understand that a free-agent frenzy, especially in a lockout-shortened off-season, is not the way to build a championship team. It also doesn’t help to hitch your wagon to a quarterback that’s as durable as a counterfeit package of batteries sold by Wal-Mart.
Ever realize Andy Reid rhymes with anarchy? Fourth quarter struggles have been a thorn in the Eagles’ side during his tenure, and this year could be the final straw should they not find a way to start winning games again.

Cincinnati Bengals vs. Buffalo Bills
Winner: Cincinnati (23-20)

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Deficit: 7 (20-13)
Quarterback: Andy Dalton (1 4QC, 1 GWD – table)
Is Buffalo teasing us like they did in 2008 when they started 4-0 and finished 7-9? Maybe they aren’t comfortable playing from ahead? Only time will tell, but this was a big step back in Cincinnati, the same place they overcame a 21-point deficit last season for a 49-31 win.
Buffalo led 17-3 at the half, and rookie quarterback Andy Dalton looked highly unlikely to lead a second-half comeback. Dalton was 7/20 for 116 yards and 2 INT (one returned for a touchdown) in the first half. That’s a 15.8 passer rating.
Things changed after a great catch by rookie receiver A.J. Green on the first possession of the third quarter. Green finished with 118 receiving yards.
Later, down 20-13 in the fourth quarter, Dalton led an 80-yard touchdown drive to tie the game. Then he led a classic two-minute drive to set up Mike Nugent for 43-yard game-winning field goal with no time left.
The 2009 Bengals made the playoffs on the strength of many late-game drives. Last year they were just 4-12 because they struggled to win in those situations. So far in 2011, they have again played four competitive games, and won two via comebacks. Looking at the schedule, 8-8 is not unreasonable, which would be impressive for a team that was expected to compete for the top pick in the draft.

Houston Texans vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Winner: Houston (17-10)

Type: GWD
Quarterback: Matt Schaub (7 4QC, 10 GWD – table)
It took four weeks, but we finally have our first game-winning drive without a comeback situation. These are fairly common games, where a team gives up their lead for a tie, only to regain it and hold on for the win, but this is the first of the 2011 season.
Surprisingly it’s the Texans that came through with the big win over the Steelers. The game should not have even been this close. The Texans started things off with the best opening drive in franchise history: 19 plays, 95 yards for a touchdown, consuming 10:55 off the clock. Due to penalties, the Texans actually gained 115 yards of offense on the drive.
Houston blocked a field goal on the last play of the first half and returned it for a touchdown, which would have made the score 17-0. However, Danieal Manning was called for a completely unnecessary illegal block that negated the score and kept it 10-0 Houston at the half.
Despite fielding an offensive line that would be shredded by much of the NCAA’s Top 25, the Steelers were able to tie the game on the first play of the fourth quarter.
The Texans, having just one three and out possession in the third quarter, absolutely needed to mount a drive, which is exactly the kind of momentum-shifting performance this franchise has lacked.
This time they delivered. Owen Daniels made two key catches, then Arian Foster went right around the Pittsburgh defense for a 42-yard touchdown run. No running back has rushed for a touchdown of at least 42 yards against Pittsburgh’s defense since Kevan Barlow went 78 yards on 11/17/2003.
The Steelers, unable to block the Texans all game long, had one last chance, but they had to go 99 yards in 1:02 with no timeouts left. Roethlisberger’s Hail Mary was intercepted by Jason Allen with 0:10 left, securing the win for Houston.
Arian Foster finished with 30 carries for 155 yards; the most Pittsburgh has allowed since Curtis Martin gained 174 yards on 12/14/2003. Ray Rice had been the only other running back to rush for 100+ yards against Pittsburgh since 2008, and he did it twice, including this season’s opener.
This is not the same defense we’re used to seeing from the Steelers. Stopping the pass has usually been a problem, but you could always count on them to stop the run. Not true this season.
It’s also alarming how historically bad the Steelers have been in the turnover department. They are last in the league with a -10 turnover differential, thanks in large part to the defense having just one takeaway. Only six other teams since 1940 have had one takeaway through four games, and none of those teams won more than six games.

Fewest Takeaways, First 4 Games

Team Year Takeaways First 4 Games Final Record
Pittsburgh 2011 1 2-2 ?
Buffalo 2010 1 0-4 4-12
Houston 2005 0 0-4 2-14
Philadelphia 1998 1 0-4 3-13
Washington 1998 1 0-4 6-10
TampaBay 1994 1 1-3 6-10
San Francisco 1977 1 0-4 5-9
You can go back to the playoffs, and the Steelers have one takeaway in the last 22 quarters. Their only takeaway is a fumble from the charitable Curtis Painter. They have no interceptions, and have not intercepted a pass since a Joe Flacco floater in the third quarter of the AFC Divisional game. They have faced 200 passes since then, allowing 9 TD and 0 INT.
Between Jonathan Scott ass blocks and Troy Polamalu missing tackles, it’s about time to push the panic button, Pittsburgh.

New York Giants at Arizona Cardinals
Winner: NY Giants (31-27)

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Deficit: 10 (27-17)
Quarterback: Eli Manning (16 4QC, 19 GWD – table)
Is it safe to say Eli Manning enjoys playing in University of Phoenix Stadium? He’s 3-0 as a starter, throwing 7 TD and 1 INT in games played there. Sunday wasn’t as important as his Super Bowl XLII victory, but it was another impressive comeback win.
The Giants were down 27-17 with just over five minutes left. A quick 80-yard touchdown drive and three and out forced by the defense set Eli up with another game-winning drive opportunity.
That’s when things got controversial. The Giants had the ball at the ARZ 48, just eight yards ahead of where Manning-to-Tyree started. Eli passed to Victor Cruz, who went down to the ground on his own, got up and left the ball on the ground. It looked like a fumble, but the referee ruled that Cruz gave himself up, meaning it could not be challenged.
The Giants get a little luck again at midfield in this stadium.
Had this play been ruled a fumble, the Giants were already out of timeouts and would have had a difficult time in getting the ball back with enough time to tie the game.
Apparently this was one of those demoralizing plays where the defense fails to regain their composure, as on the very next play Hakeem Nicks went down the left side of the field and caught a game-winning touchdown that looked even nicer than Plaxico Burress’ grab in the Super Bowl on that side of the field. It is the 10th game-winning touchdown pass of Eli’s career.
Like last week, Kevin Kolb couldn’t complete the winning drive, and the Giants picked up their second straight road comeback.
Eli Manning now has the most fourth quarter comeback wins (16) and has tied Charlie Conerly (19) for the most game-winning drives in Giants history.
Sometimes he may start games like Archie, but he has the ability to finish like Peyton. That’s something a lot of teams in this league could use right now.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Indianapolis Colts
Winner: Tampa Bay (24-17)

Type: GWD
Quarterback: Josh Freeman (8 4QC, 9 GWD – table)
It was almost eight years to the exact date (10/6/2003) when the Colts pulled off one of the most improbable comebacks in NFL history against the Buccaneers on Monday Night Football. It was only fitting to schedule this game for this week, but not everything went as planned.
There was no Peyton Manning or stingy Tampa Bay defense this time. Jon Gruden was in the press box instead of on the sideline. Did he actually get through the whole broadcast without a reference of “The Sheriff”?
Instead it was the first primetime start for Josh Freeman, and the first NFL start for Curtis Painter. It was shaky at times, but overall the game was entertaining enough. Tampa Bay lived up to their reputation as slow starters, falling behind 10-0 in the first half.
Freeman was fourteen seconds away from picking up his 9th fourth quarter comeback win. The Buccaneers tied the game with a touchdown with just 0:14 left on the clock in the third quarter. One play later and he would have had it. Consider this the statistical equivalent of a quarterback that makes a great pass play where the receiver is tackled at the one, and the running back runs in the touchdown, denying the quarterback the passing touchdown. Sometimes that’s just how stats work.
What you can call a statistical anomaly is Adam Vinatieri missing a clutch field goal. The setup wasn’t perfect, but Vinatieri still had a good look at a 43-yard field goal to give the Colts the lead, and he missed it wide left. That was the 7th time in Vinatieri’s career that he missed a go-ahead field goal in the fourth quarter or overtime.
Tampa Bay would later drive 60 yards, all on the ground, for the game-winning touchdown, a 35-yard scamper by LeGarrette Blount. A key play to the drive was Freeman’s balancing act on a scramble on 3rd and 6 for the first down.
The Colts went three and out, never touching the ball again. Curtis Painter threw two touchdowns, but was just 13/30 and lost another fumble. Painter has played in four games in his career, completing less than 50% of his passes each time. He is 26/69 (37.7%) for his career. He’s not quite Randy Hedberg, but he is in the aptly named Kurt Kittner-territory.
Since putting together a record seven comeback wins in 2009 on their way to 14-0, the Colts have now lost their last nine comeback opportunities, a streak that started with Super Bowl XLIV.

Top 3 Comeback Failures of the Week

Another rousing tribute to those who tried, but in the end, failed.
(Note: here we prefer to give attention to games that weren’t already featured above)
3. Jason Campbell, Oakland QB – Though it was before halftime, a special mention must be made for how bad Campbell’s red zone interception was. He looked to be throwing the ball away, but he threw it directly to Patrick Chung in the end zone. This was a big turning point in the game. The Raiders gained 504 yards of offense on the day, yet when you throw away 80 like this and you pick up the most garbage of 99-yard touchdown drives you’ll ever see, it’s just another case of hollow yardage/volume being overrated.
2. Minnesota Vikings, Team – Not sure what’s worse: blowing three straight halftime leads of 10+ points, or losing to the 2011 Kansas City Chiefs. Is this what Donovan McNabb’s career has whittled down to? Losing a lot of games and being replaced by Rex Grossman was bad enough, now it could happen again in another city and with a rookie quarterback. McNabb had the chance to lead a big-time drive in this game (we can already hear the roar from Philadelphia fans), but threw four straight incompletions at the KC 41, ending the last threat for the Vikings. They’re now 0-4 with a loss to a team that sure looked like the worst in the league.
1. St. Louis Rams, Team – Why can’t the Rams ever produce a comeback win? You have to go back to 10/12/2008 to find the last time the Rams had a comeback win. They went almost two years without a GWD prior to that one (12/24/2006). Guess who both these games were against? Washington Redskins. So when the Redskins came back to town and Rex Grossman was gift-wrapping interceptions, the Rams should have taken advantage of them. They cut the 17-0 deficit to 17-10, and had the ball at the WAS 19 to start. Great chance. But the poor offense of the Rams ended up losing 20 yards due to sacks, and they had to punt the ball. One last chance and Sam Bradford could only move the offense 11 yards on 7 plays. Bradford has produced just one field goal on 10 career drives in the fourth quarter/overtime with a 0-8 point differential.
Scott Kacsmar is a football researcher/writer who has contributed large quantities of data to, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. He ranks Colts/Bucs 2003 MNF as the greatest fourth quarter comeback of all time. You can send any questions or comments to Scott at and you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.