By Scott Kacsmar
Cold, Hard Football Facts comeback king


While Week 5 saw the beginning of bye weeks, there was no stopping the comebacks, as five more teams (all on the road) snatched a victorious rally, raising the season total to 28. Eight of the 13 games featured a comeback opportunity for at least one team.
 
It wouldn’t be the 2011 season without a comeback from a large deficit, and we got one from the “Suck for Luck” toilet-bowl of the week in Indy, as the Chiefs tied their team record with a 17-point comeback.
 
Along with Green Bay’s comeback from a 14-0 deficit in Atlanta, we now have seen 18 teams come back from double-digits at any point in the game to win. The Packers of course erased their deficit prior to the fourth quarter, which puts their 11-game winning streak in rare (rarest?) territory, but more on that later.

Drive of the Week

New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers
Winner: New Orleans (30-27)

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Deficit: 4 (27-23)
Quarterback: Drew Brees (18 4QC, 27 GWD – table)
 
The Carolina Panthers are getting used to a competitive 60 minutes of football on a weekly basis; a far cry from last year’s 2-14 effort. The New Orleans Saints have grown accustomed to winning these kinds of close games, a real departure from a franchise that was synonymous with losing for so many years.
 
That’s the kind of impact the hiring of Sean Payton and signing of Drew Brees can do for a team, and that’s what Carolina is hoping they can get out of Ron Rivera and Cam Newton. These regimes met for the first time on Sunday, with Carolina holding a 6-4 edge since 2006.
 
Just like the previous four games this season, the Panthers were right in the thick of things in the fourth quarter behind rookie Cam Newton. His 5-yard touchdown pass to Greg Olsen put Carolina ahead 27-23, hoping to notch himself a second comeback win.
 
Instead it would just set the stage for another classic Drive of the Week by Drew Brees, which is something he’s made look routine since 2009.
 
Brees went 8/9 for 80 yards and the game-winning touchdown to Pierre Thomas with 0:50 left. It was the fourth game-winning touchdown pass thrown by Brees since the Thanksgiving game in Dallas last season. Those four drives have covered 89, 68, 90 and 89 yards.
 
In the process, Brees set the New Orleans’ franchise record for fourth quarter comeback wins with 13, and tied Aaron Brooks (Him?) with his 18th game-winning drive, all since joining the team in 2006. It was the third season in a row Brees led a game-winning drive against Carolina.
 
Brees has 13 game-winning drives since 2009. With much of the 2011 season left, he could set a record for the most game-winning drives in a three-year span, which is 15 and just so happens to be held by Peyton Manning (2007-09 and 2008-10) and Tom Brady (2001-03).
 
The improvement by Brees to take over games in the fourth quarter has helped the Saints reach consecutive postseasons, and put him in the upper-elite class of NFL quarterbacks. Many people forget it was his touchdown pass to Jeremy Shockey that put the Saints ahead for good in Super Bowl XLIV, which just capped off his career-year in 2009.
 
Drew Brees' 4th Quarter Drives
Years Games Record Att. Comp. Pct. Yds TD INT Rating Fum Pts/Dr
2001-08 43 14-29 322 203 63.0 2541 17 13 88.3 3 2.47
2009-11 20 13-7 182 129 70.9 1372 9 3 102.2 1 2.89
 
Things haven’t always been this routine for Brees. From 2001-08, he led his teams to a go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter eight times, only to go on to lose the game. He watched helplessly as the first piece of evidence in the “Nate Kaeding is a choker” case was presented in the 2004 AFC Wild Card against the New York Jets, costing Brees his first playoff comeback and game-winning drive. Then there were times when Brees was the one making the critical errors, as evident by the 16 turnovers.
 
That hasn’t been the case in recent years, as Brees continues to gut out close win after close win for the Saints, trying to reach the playoffs for the third consecutive year. It’s these types of performances that make him more than just a quarterback that can put up stats. Brees should very much be in the MVP discussion, which is one of the few awards he has yet to claim in his career.
 

The Other Paths to Victory

Oakland Raiders at Houston Texans
Winner: Oakland (25-20)

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Deficit: 2 (17-15)
Quarterback: Jason Campbell (7 4QC, 10 GWD – table)
 
Only a day after their owner Al Davis passed away, the Oakland Raiders took the field in Houston for a competitive AFC battle. They finished with just 11 first downs. They were 3/15 on third down. They were outgained by 195 yards. They had 11 penalties for 89 yards.
 
But as Davis’ teams often did for decades, they came out on top on the scoreboard when time expired. Just win, baby.
 
The game wasn’t pretty, but the Raiders persevered behind some strong efforts from scrutinized Davis draft picks such as Sebastian Janikowski (the 1st round kicker that tied the NFL record with three field goals of 50+ yards), Darrius Heyward-Bey (7 catches for 99 yards, TD), and Michael Huff (4 tackles and a game-ending interception).
 
Down 17-15, the Raiders took the lead on Jason Campbell’s touchdown pass to Chaz Schilens early in the fourth quarter.
 
Houston still had a chance to pull out the win and make the weekend even worse for the Raiders. Matt Schaub delivered the game-winning drive against Pittsburgh last week and had a chance for another statement drive. There may be no quarterback in the league you’d want more with the ball in his hands in the last two minutes and having to go 63 yards for a touchdown…that is only if your team was trailing by 14+ points instead of 5.
 
While Tony Romo gets all the criticism in Texas, there’s another quarterback in the Lone Star State that has more than his share of blunders in the fourth quarter and overtime of games. We’ve seen some bad pick 6’s from Schaub in these moments (2009 at Arizona, 2009 vs. Indianapolis, 2010 vs. Baltimore). This time was a little different, but maybe more embarrassing.
 
To Schaub’s credit, he did drive the Texans, minus Andre Johnson (hamstring), down to the RAI 5. He did that with a 34-yard completion on a 3rd and 23. After spiking the ball, Schaub had seven seconds remaining, time enough for possibly two plays.
 
Schaub was not decisive enough on his read, and instead of trying to scramble in for the winning score, he skirted on the line of scrimmage and lobbed a terrible pass in the end zone that was intercepted by Michael Huff. Raiders win.
 
Did the ghost of Al Davis stop Schaub in his tracks, or was this just another case of the Houston quarterback not able to deliver a winning play? Is it really a choke if this is what people expected you to do? Either way, this day was about Oakland pulling off the emotional win.

Seattle Seahawks at New York Giants
Winner: Seattle (36-25)

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Deficit: 3 (25-22)
Quarterback: Charlie Whitehurst (1 4QC, 1 GWD – table)
 
In keeping with the theme of holy spirits, Charlie Whitehurst (“Clipboard Jesus”) came off the bench for Seattle to deliver a rare performance.
 
You see, it’s rare for Whitehurst to actually play significant minutes in a real NFL game. He was drafted by San Diego in the third round in the 2006 draft, played in two games there without ever throwing a pass. Then he was traded to Seattle for a third round pick and a swap of second round picks, which could only be described as a reach at best.
 
Whitehurst made his first career start against the Giants last season, a game in which they fell behind 41-0. He did start the NFC West-clinching victory over the Rams in Week 17 last season before giving way to Matt Hasselbeck for the playoffs. After Seattle acquired Tarvaris Jackson in the off-season, the trade for Whitehurst looked more peculiar than it did a year ago.
 
But with Jackson injured and the Giants the opponent again, Whitehurst entered the game in the third quarter with a chance to do something this time.
 
Meanwhile, the Giants were looking for their third straight comeback win. It looked like they were going to get it on the strength of yet another big play involving Victor Cruz. This time it was in the form of a 68-yard touchdown pass that Cruz caught off a deflection to put the Giants ahead 22-19.
 
Cruz fumbled on the next possession, and unlike last week in Arizona, this one counted. It enabled the Seahawks to tie the game with a field goal (22-22).
 
Down 25-22, Whitehurst delivered the kind of drive few knew he was capable of. There are a lot of things we don’t know about Whitehurst, as he’s only thrown 118 passes since 2006.
 
We don’t know a lot about undrafted free agent rookie receiver Doug Baldwin either, but these two connected like they were Jim Zorn and Steve Largent on Sunday. Baldwin caught 3 passes for 57 yards on the drive, including the 27-yard touchdown. In between, second-year TE Anthony McCoy had a 20-yard catch. Not sure who these Seahawks are, but they had little trouble beating the Giants’ defense.
 
Eli drove the Giants down to the SEA 5, but after a false start, his pass to Cruz was off the mark, it deflected off Cruz’s one hand, and Brandon Browner ended up returning the interception 94 yards for the game-clinching touchdown.
 
Last week we mentioned it’s been a long time since the St. Louis Rams had a comeback win. Well, this was Seattle’s first fourth quarter comeback win since 12/14/2008, a game against the Rams of course. That day it was Seneca Wallace at quarterback, tying the game with runs and catches by Bobby Engram, Koren Robinson, Leonard Weaver, and a T.J. Duckett touchdown run, and then completing a 45-yard pass to Deion Branch to set up Olindo Mare for the winning field goal. None of those players are still with the Seahawks, and some are no longer in football, so you know it’s been a while.
 
The Seahawks appear content with going back to Jackson as their starter, sending Whitehurst back to the clipboard, and continuing one of the stranger quarterback careers we have ever seen.
 
Speaking of enigmas, the Giants have been stuck in football purgatory ever since Plaxico Burress shot himself in 2008. They’ve been good enough to win some games (23-19 record), but there’s nothing worse in this league than to be the team that wins just enough games to miss the playoffs and to miss out on a high draft pick.

Cincinnati Bengals at Jacksonville Jaguars
Winner: Cincinnati (30-20)

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Deficit: 4 (20-16)
Quarterback: Andy Dalton (2 4QC, 2 GWD – table)
 
So it was the first AFC battle of rookie quarterbacks. Some would say it was a battle of two head coaches that have managed to keep their jobs for nine seasons despite each having just two playoff appearances and one playoff win between them both. With each man serving as part of Baltimore’s old coaching staff, Marvin Lewis and Jack Del Rio know a lot about unfathomable job security.
 
It must be miserable to be a fan of the Bengals. Just when everyone thinks they are going to be a terrible team in 2011, that coach Marvin Lewis would finally get fired, they come out and start 3-2 with three comeback wins. Who needs Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco when you have Andy Dalton and A.J. Green?
 
It must also be miserable to be a fan of the Jaguars. Peyton Manning’s probably going to be out for the year. Chris Johnson was in a holdout and Tennessee had a new coaching staff. Houston was beatable. So what does Jacksonville do right before the season starts? They toss their starting quarterback David Garrard to the curb and go with Luke McCown to save some money. No one’s going to confuse Garrard for an All-Pro, but he would have the Jaguars doing better offensively than 11.8 points/game (31st) and the fewest yards in the league.
 
Hard to say if either team is heading in the right direction, but as long as these coaches continue to remain in place, fans of the AFC North and South can probably rejoice that these teams will continue to underachieve. After all, we’ve had nine seasons of evidence. Dick Jauron can smile at that figure.
 
Oh, and about the game on Sunday…
 
Down 16-13, Blaine Gabbert found Jason Hill all alone for a 74-yard touchdown pass. The blown-safety coverage has become a defensive trend in 2011. It was also significant in that it was only the third touchdown pass of the season for the Jaguars, and it marked the first time they scored 20 points in a game in 2011.
 
A bad punt by Jacksonville gave Andy Dalton a favorable situation, only needing 23 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. A 9-yard pass to Jermaine Gresham on 4th and 6 was the key play of the drive. Bernard’s Scott 2-yard touchdown run with 1:56 left proved to be the game-winner, giving the rookie Dalton a consecutive comeback and game-winning drive.
 
The game ended in a comedy of errors. Gabbert was not ready for the snap, resulting in a fumble. Then on the last gasp, a series of laterals ended with Gabbert fumbling the ball, and the Bengals scooping and scoring to pad the final score (30-20).
 
The Bengals actually boast one of the league’s stingiest defenses, and with a favorable schedule, they should be able to finish with great defensive numbers, and maybe an 8-8 record. All of that would lead to the dreaded “they showed improvement and potential”, which can lead to a 10th season for Lewis.
 
Well, he’s already lasted longer in Cincinnati than Paul Brown, Forrest Greg and Sam Wyche did.

Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts
Winner: Kansas City (28-24)

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Deficit: 3 (24-21)
Quarterback: Matt Cassel (5 4QC, 7 GWD – table)
 
For the 2011 Colts to win a game without Peyton Manning, there was probably no better opportunity than on Sunday when Kansas City came to town. When you look at the schedule, their best hope now is to steal a game from Jacksonville.
 
The chances of getting Andrew Luck get better by the week, and the conspiracy theorists will keep growing stronger as well if this continues. This was a game the Colts should have won. They led 24-7 late in the second quarter before giving up an inexcusable 80-yard touchdown drive that really changed the complexion of the game.
 
Dwayne Bowe made the touchdown catch of the year for the Chiefs to cut it to 24-21 late in the third quarter. Curtis Painter was not able to get the Colts on the scoreboard in the second half.
 
Matt Cassel’s 11-yard touchdown pass to Steve Breaston with 5:15 left put the Chiefs ahead 28-24. It was Cassel’s fourth touchdown of the day, a big difference from the quarterback we seen a few weeks ago.
 
Painter threw three straight incompletions, and the Colts turned the ball over on downs. The Chiefs ran out the clock, mostly thanks to unknown running back Jackie Battle (19 carries, 119 yards).
 
It was practically a throwback to the Jim Mora/young Peyton Manning days for the Colts. That was when the Colts would blow a 21+ point lead once a year, and let an unknown have a career day against their run defense. The Colts had not lost a game with a 15+ point lead since 9/10/2000.
 
Last week we said the Colts had lost their last nine comeback opportunities. Credit to Nate Dunlevy from 18to88.com for pointing out that number should have been 10, as the cold streak started with the infamous Curtis Painter game against the Jets when the Colts were 14-0 and began pulling the starters from the game. That is where this streak, which now hits 11 consecutive failed comebacks, really began. It’s amazing to see the team that made comebacks look routine for so long struggle to buy one in the last 11 chances.

The Most Bizarre Stat in NFL History?

The Colts also lost this game despite not having any turnovers. Hardcore fans of the Colts may know this is a rare occurrence, at least in the regular season. This marks just the third time since 1998 where the Colts lost a regular season game when they had zero turnovers.
 
Games With No Turnovers
Season Type Years Colts Win% Lg Rank Rest of League Win%
Reg. Season 1998-2010 38-2 0.950 1st 955-279 0.774
Postseason 1998-2010 1-5 0.167 19th 43-4 0.915
Postseason 1970-2010 3-7 0.300 26th 97-15 0.866
 
During the Manning era, no team has had a better record in the regular season when they don’t turn the ball over (38-2). But in the playoffs, the Colts are just 1-5 when they don’t turn the ball over, while the rest of the league is a dominant 43-4. Going back to 1970, and it’s more of the same for the Colts in the playoffs.
 
This is our submission for most bizarre stat in NFL history.

Green Bay’s Path to Victory

While the Colts have their 11-game streak of comeback futility, the Green Bay Packers have put together an 11-game winning streak for the ages.
 
In winning the last six games of the 2010 season on their way to claiming Super Bowl XLV, and starting 5-0 in 2011, the Packers have not trailed in the fourth quarter one time during the 11-game streak. Only once have they been tied, and that was just briefly against the Bears in week 17.
 
Before the season started we looked at the front-running nature of the Packers, and how they win almost all of their games by getting ahead and staying there. Right now they’re performing at a level where no team is able to get ahead of them and force them to come back in the fourth quarter.
 
Since they haven’t been blowing every team out, the defense has been exceptional in preventing late-game rallies by the opponent. They secured key fourth quarter interceptions against Jay Cutler in week 17, Michael Vick in the NFC Wild Card, Caleb Hanie (twice) in the NFC Championship, and from Matt Ryan on Sunday night. They forced the fumble of Rashard Mendenhall in the Super Bowl, and they had goal line stands this season against the Saints and Panthers.
 
Just how unprecedented is this streak? We looked through several other successful runs to find the best winning streaks without trailing in the fourth quarter.
 
Winning Streaks Without Trailing in 4th Quarter
Team QB Year(s) Games Games Tied in 4th QT Notes
Packers Aaron Rodgers 2010-11 11 1 Last 11 games incl. SB XLV
Steelers Terry Bradshaw 1975 11 2 Lost season finale; won SB X
Colts Peyton Manning 2005 11 0 Lost week 15 after 13-0 start
Colts Earl Morrall 1968 10 1 Lost SB III
Cowboys Troy Aikman 1993-94 10 1 Incl. SB XXVIII; lost week 3
Dolphins Bob Griese 1973 10 0 Lost week 13; won SB VIII
49ers Joe Montana 1984 9 0 Last 9 games thru SB XIX
Cowboys Roger Staubach* 1971 9 1 Last 9 games thru SB VI
Packers Brett Favre 1996-97 9 0 Incl. SB XXXI; lost week 2
Dolphins Dan Marino 1984 9 0 First 9 games; lost SB XIX
Vikings Randall Cunningham 1998 9 1 Lost NFC Championship
Steelers Ben Roethlisberger 2005 8 0 Last 8 games thru SB XL
Patriots Tom Brady 2007 8 0 Lost SB XLII after 18-0 start
Giants Phil Simms 1986 8 1 Last 8 games thru SB XXI
Browns Otto Graham 1954 8 0 Lost season finale; won title
49ers Steve Young 1992 7 1 Lost NFC Championship
Broncos John Elway 1997 6 0 First 6 games; won SB XXXII
Colts Johnny Unitas 1966 5 0 Finished 9-5; no playoffs
 
*Staubach was injured in 1972, and the Cowboys extended their streak to 11 straight wins without trailing in the fourth quarter.
 
The Packers are looking rather historic here. Notice that so many of these runs not surprisingly culminated with a Super Bowl championship.
 
Other notable streaks:
In 1976, the Steelers won 10 straight games while starting Mike Kruczek and Terry Bradshaw at quarterback, never trailing in the fourth quarter until their loss to the Raiders in the AFC Championship. Hard to trail when you allow 4.2 PPG.
 
The 1928 Packers won their last game of the season 6-0 over the Bears. They started 10-0 in 1929, never allowing more than 6 points. Their 11th game was a 0-0 tie. That’s likely an 11-game winning streak without trailing in the fourth quarter, but you can never tell for sure with games from those days.
 
The 1933 Chicago Bears won their last four games of the regular season, before picking up a comeback win (thanks to a jump pass by Bronko Nagurski turned into a lateral) over the Giants in the first ever NFL Championship Game. Then in 1934, the Bears were 13-0 in the regular season, setting the NFL record with an 18-game winning streak. But they lost the NFL Championship game to the Giants. It appears they started the season 9-0 without trailing in the fourth, before needing a 9-point comeback to defeat those Giants 10-9. This would make their streak 9 games.
 
The Bears would have another 18-game win streak in 1941-42. Sid Luckman led a comeback on 12/7/1941 (day of the Pearl Harbor attack). He would lead another in the first game of the 1942 season. The Bears finished 11-0, losing in the championship game again, meaning this win streak without trailing in the fourth quarter was 10 games long.
 
The 1969 Vikings won 12 straight games, but the comeback they needed on 11/16 at Green Bay limits their streak to 7 games.
 
The 1972 Dolphins were 17-0, but they didn’t string together more than 6 straight wins without trailing in the fourth. They actually were a better team the following season when they won the Super Bowl again.
 
The 1985 Bears only needed one comeback win, which came on 11/3 against the Packers. That breaks their streak at eight games to start the season. They went on to win the last six games of the season. In 1986, they started 6-0, but needed a comeback in the third game; again the opponent was Green Bay (notice how they keep coming up here). Comeback wins against the Packers bookend 8-game win streaks without trailing in the fourth for Ditka’s Bears.
 
With the winless, comeback-less Rams up next on the schedule, Green Bay should have no problem pushing this streak to 12 games. Maybe someone with a deeper database can say otherwise, but we haven’t found any team in NFL history that’s won 12 straight games without trailing once in the fourth quarter. Certainly no team in the modern era.
 
We’ll be keeping track of this as it progresses. History says the streak shouldn’t last much longer.

Top Comeback Failure of the Week

Based on pure individual failure, Matt Schaub would take the top spot here for that interception, but instead this space will just be occupied this week by the Philadelphia Eagles, who lost their fourth straight game to fall to 1-4. Michael Vick threw a career-high 4 interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, and the last coming off Jason Avant’s hands, ending the Eagles’ final hope in the game, and probably their season.
 
Ever since DeSean Jackson’s game-winning punt return TD against the Giants last year, which prompted Michael Vick to say he should win league MVP, the Eagles are just 1-7 in their last 8 games. Let’s repeat that.
 
The Eagles are 1-7 since the New Miracle at the Meadowlands.
 
That’s not a dream. That’s reality.
 
Scott Kacsmar is a football researcher/writer 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. He takes offense to the claim he only likes to look at fourth quarters because it’s a quarter of the work. You can send any questions or comments to Scott at smk_42@yahoo.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.