Captain Comeback: 2012 NFL Regular Season Review

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jan 01, 2013



By Scott Kacsmar

Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)

The regular season is complete. It ended with a bit of a comeback drought, as just two teams managed a fourth-quarter comeback win in the final three weeks.

But at least we had some competitive games that mattered this week, which will hopefully be a sign of things to come in the playoffs. Nine games featured a comeback opportunity in Week 17.

Comparing this season to the 2011 regular season review, we had 66 fourth-quarter comeback wins in both seasons, but two fewer game-winning drives in 2012, and 10 fewer opportunities overall.

Let’s see how each offense did, and in addition to the usual weekly recap, we will pick the Drive of the Year.

 

Season Review
Fourth quarter comebacks: 66
Game-winning drives: 81
Games with 4QC opportunity: 141/256 (55.1 percent)
10+ point comebacks wins (any point in the game): 38

 

NFL 2012 Regular Season 4QC/GWD Opportunity Records (Offense)

Team

4QC W

4QC L

Pct.

4Q/OT W's

4Q/OT L's

Pct.

Indianapolis Colts

4

2

0.667

7

2

0.778

Atlanta Falcons

4

2

0.667

6

2

0.750

Denver Broncos

3

1

0.750

3

1

0.750

Houston Texans

2

1

0.667

2

1

0.667

Cincinnati Bengals

2

4

0.333

4

4

0.500

Dallas Cowboys

5

5

0.500

5

5

0.500

Minnesota Vikings

1

2

0.333

2

2

0.500

San Francisco 49ers

0.5

0.5

0.500

1.5

1.5

0.500

Tennessee Titans

3

2

0.600

3

3

0.500

Seattle Seahawks

3

4

0.429

4

5

0.444

St. Louis Rams

3.5

4.5

0.438

3.5

4.5

0.438

Baltimore Ravens

3

2

0.600

3

4

0.429

Green Bay Packers

2

4

0.333

3

4

0.429

New York Giants

3

4

0.429

3

4

0.429

Arizona Cardinals

2

3

0.400

2

3

0.400

New England Patriots

1

3

0.250

2

3

0.400

Philadelphia Eagles

4

5

0.444

4

6

0.400

Washington Redskins

3

5

0.375

3

5

0.375

Pittsburgh Steelers

3

6

0.333

4

7

0.364

New York Jets

2

4

0.333

2

4

0.333

Oakland Raiders

2

4

0.333

2

4

0.333

New Orleans Saints

1

4

0.200

2

5

0.286

Detroit Lions

3

8

0.273

3

8

0.273

Chicago Bears

1

3

0.250

1

3

0.250

Kansas City Chiefs

1

4

0.200

1

4

0.200

Buffalo Bills

0

5

0.000

1

5

0.167

Miami Dolphins

1

5

0.167

1

5

0.167

Jacksonville Jaguars

1

5

0.167

1

6

0.143

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

1

6

0.143

1

6

0.143

Carolina Panthers

1

6

0.143

1

7

0.125

Cleveland Browns

1

7

0.125

1

7

0.125

San Diego Chargers

0

6

0.000

0

7

0.000

TOTAL

67

127

0.345

82

138

0.373

No one finished better in 2012 than the Colts, with Andrew Luck’s record-tying seven game-winning drives, and the team’s 9-1 record in games decided by 1-7 points.

Eight of the top 10 teams made the playoffs, as only Dallas and Tennessee missed. The Cowboys actually led the league with five fourth-quarter comeback wins in 2012. The average team faced 6.9 opportunities on offense for a clutch win this year.

The Denver Broncos, led by Peyton Manning, had the best record in fourth-quarter comeback opportunities (3-1), which is what the first set of numbers represents. Denver’s only loss was that “impossible” situation against Houston when they turned a 20-point deficit into six points, and Manning had only 0:20 to go 86 yards.

Only San Diego (0-6) and Buffalo (0-5) went completely (no ties) winless at comebacks, while the Chargers (0-7) were the only team in 2012 to not have a single comeback or game-winning drive. Goodbye, Norv Turner.

No teams played in more close games on offense than Pittsburgh and Detroit with 11, and no team had more losses than Detroit’s eight. Houston and San Francisco played in a league-low three “close” games.

If you are wondering why the totals are adding up to one more than the numbers above, that is because of the pesky tie between the 49ers and Rams from Week 10.

 

DRIVE OF THE WEEK

Minnesota Vikings vs. Green Bay Packers

Winner: Minnesota (37-34)
Type: GWD
Quarterback: Christian Ponder (1-5 at 4QC, 3-6 overall 4Q/OT record - table)

With the intrigue of the Minnesota Vikings playing for their playoff lives, Adrian Peterson needing 208 rushing yards to break Eric Dickerson’s record, and the Packers needing a win to clinch the No. 2 seed, this was a game with plenty of hype.

In the end, it turned into one of the best games of the 2012 season.

But at the start, it was not really living up to the hype, as the Vikings came out hot to build a 13-0 lead on their first three drives. But a long drive for a touchdown by Green Bay finally got things going, and each team scored again to end the half with a 20-10 lead by Minnesota.

Peterson was up to 91 yards, and the Packers are 0-12 under Mike McCarthy (0-8 in games with Aaron Rodgers) when trailing by double digits at halftime.

Green Bay answered with an 80-yard touchdown to start the half, but on their next possession, Rodgers was sacked and fumbled the ball at midfield. Minnesota faced a 2nd and 27 following penalties, but Peterson converted it with a 28-yard run. He favored the right side of Green Bay’s defense, with three runs of 20+ yards to the right side on the day.

Peterson finished the drive with a 2-yard touchdown catch from Christian Ponder, who played the best game of his young career. Minnesota led 27-17.

But on a 3rd and 4, Rodgers delivered a perfect pass to Jordy Nelson for 73 yards, then James Jones scored on a touchdown. Minnesota had to punt, and Rodgers trailed just 27-24 with the ball at the 50 to start the fourth quarter.

However, the drive would stall at the MIN 22. D.J. Williams was covered over the middle, then Rodgers floated an uncatchable ball for Greg Jennings. Mason Crosby had to make a clutch 40-yard field goal, and he surprisingly did so to tie the game.

But Ponder responded immediately with a 65-yard bomb to Jarius Wright. Green Bay had the Vikings stopped on third down, but an illegal use of hands penalty on Tramon Williams extended the drive. On 3rd and 3 Ponder somehow got the ball to Michael Jenkins for the touchdown despite tight coverage. Minnesota led 34-27.

A sack of Rodgers threatened to end the drive early, but he overcame a 3rd and 21 with a 20-yard pass to Jermichael Finley. On 4th and 1 Rodgers threw to Jarrett Boykin, and despite being interfered with, he made the 7-yard catch.

Moving into the red zone, Green Bay got a first down with pass interference to put the ball at the MIN 2. Rodgers went to Nelson for the touchdown, and it was tied again with 2:54 to play. Rodgers finished the season with 39 touchdown passes and four on the day.

The Vikings quickly faced a 3rd and 11 and may have punted the ball back to a hot Green Bay offense. But that’s when Ponder had plenty of time to find Jenkins open for a 25-yard gain down the sideline.

Now at the GB 48, Peterson was 46 yards away from the record. After modest gains of seven, four and zero, it looked like Minnesota was content on great rookie kicker Blair Walsh making a long one. But that’s when Peterson took one more carry, and this time he tried the left side for a big 26-yard run, coming up nine yards shy of Eric Dickerson’s record.

Minnesota could only stop the clock once, and did the smart thing. They called timeout with 0:03 left, and Walsh came out and drilled the 29-yard field goal to send Minnesota to the playoffs.

Now these teams will meet again Saturday night in Green Bay, and should the Packers lose that one too, they will be kicking themselves for not closing the Vikings out when they could.

But on a day when the Vikings needed something big out of Ponder, he played the game of his career, passing for three scores and zero turnovers. Peterson was the story, but Ponder delivered.

 

THE OTHER PATHS TO VICTORY

Seattle Seahawks vs. St. Louis Rams


Winner: Seattle (20-13)
Type: GWD
Quarterback: Russell Wilson (3-4 at 4QC, 4-5 overall 4Q/OT record - table)

Seattle has received a lot of buzz for the 150 points they scored in the previous three games, but they had to avenge a Week 4 loss in St. Louis to complete an 8-0 record at home.

The high-flying Seahawks were grounded early, shut out in the first quarter before taking a 3-0 lead. St. Louis responded with a touchdown drive, and led until 2:09 left in the third quarter when Russell Wilson threw a touchdown pass. It was his 26th of the season, tying Peyton Manning’s rookie record.

Down 13-10 the Rams had a first and goal at the SEA 5, but had to settle for Greg Zuerlein’s 25-yard field goal after a conservative run call on 3rd and 9. Now it was tied 13-13.

Wilson was sacked six times, but not in the fourth quarter. Penalties stopped Seattle’s next drive, resulting in a punt. The Rams would also punt, giving Wilson the ball at his own 10 with 5:11 to play.

Marshawn Lynch fumbled at his own 18, but Golden Tate was there to recover. On a 3rd and 5 Wilson bought time and found Tate for a big 44-yard gain. At the two-minute warning, Wilson scrambled for 15 yards down to the 4-yard line. Lynch was then ruled to have a touchdown run, but replay spotted the ball at the one. Instead Wilson scrambled in for the winning touchdown with 1:39 to play.

Down 20-13, Sam Bradford had to go 80 yards. A 25-yard gain on pass interference was a good start, followed by a 15-yard pass to Lance Kendricks. Four plays later Bradford scrambled on a 4th and 5, picking up six yards and getting out of bounds with 0:53 left at the SEA 29.

Bradford threw low on first down, then Earl Thomas’ blitz on second down forced a quick incompletion. The next pass was a short one to Danny Amendola, and he had it knocked away incomplete. On 4th and 10, Bradford went for the end zone, but only Richard Sherman was there for the game-ending interception.

Seattle’s Wilson along with Andrew Luck in Indianapolis match the feat by rookies Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan in 2008, and that is finishing the season with 11-5 records and playoff berths.

 

Cincinnati Bengals vs. Baltimore Ravens

Winner: Cincinnati (23-17)
Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Deficit: 1 (14-13)
Quarterback: Bruce Gradkowski (6-7 at 4QC, 7-7 overall 4Q/OT record - table)

In a game between teams unlikely to move in the playoff standings, both treated it like a preseason game. Joe Flacco did not make it to the second quarter, while Andy Dalton played a half. Enter backups Tyrod Taylor (first significant regular season appearance) for Baltimore, and Bruce Gradkowski for Cincinnati.

Points were hard to come by, but the Bengals had a 13-7 lead at home into the fourth quarter. Taylor, working largely with the backup offense, converted a 3rd and 11 with a 15-yard pass to Ed Dickson. He then showed off his mobility with two productive runs, including a 3-yard touchdown run with 12:50 left. Baltimore led 14-13.

The Bengals went three and out, then the Ravens missed a 45-yard field goal from rookie Justin Tucker. Gradkowski has some experience with comebacks, leading one off the bench over Cleveland last season, and he came out firing with a 44-yard bomb to Brandon Tate.

That was enough for the drive to end with Josh Brown’s 38-yard field goal and a 16-14 lead with 7:16 left. On a 3rd and 7, Taylor’s pass was tipped and picked off by Carlos Dunlap, an athletic lineman who returned it 14 yards for the touchdown.

The Ravens called a fake punt on 4th and 1, and their long drive ended with Tucker’s 49-yard field goal with 1:21 left. Down 23-17, the last option was an onsides kick, and the Bengals recovered. Gradkowski took two knees to end it.

A pretty meaningless game, but the Bengals get the 10th win of the season, ensuring we have a playoff field of all 10+ win teams for the first time since 2005.

Believe it or not, Gradkowski is 6-7 (.462) at comebacks, and 7-7 overall in clutch opportunities. That is one of the best records in the league obviously. Just what you want from a backup.

This is also just one of two comeback wins in the fourth quarter in the final three weeks of the regular season.

 

COMEBACK FAILURES OF THE WEEK

Oh brother, that could not have gone any worse for Tony Romo on Sunday night. Meanwhile his Texas counterpart, Matt Schaub, lost the biggest game of his career…and he has a chance to do it again this Saturday.

The Falcons went all out in a strange home loss, the Lions and Bears both come up short this season, Cleveland challenges the Steelers with a JV offense, and the Jets’ come full circle with a season-ending loss to Buffalo; the team they smacked 48-28 in Week 1.

 

Tony Romo indefensibly blows it

The Cold, Hard Football Facts have shown a lot of support for Tony Romo in the past. Facts showed the perception did not match the reality, but on Sunday night in another do-or-die Week 17 game on the road against a NFC East rival, Romo threw away some of that goodwill he built up with a poor performance.

Romo started the de facto playoff game for the NFC East crown with interceptions on the first two drives, and both coming in Washington territory. However, the Cowboys survived the early drama, as Washington was not clicking on every cylinder offensively this night.

Dallas even took a 7-0 lead on an 89-yard touchdown drive with Romo finding Jason Witten thanks to the three-man rush. Washington would not make that mistake again, as the linebacker blitz right up the middle would be a hazard for Dallas all night.

With just a 7-7 game at halftime, Dallas was in this one. Washington took the lead for good late in the third quarter with an 82-yard touchdown drive. Trailing 14-7, this season was going to come down to a Romo comeback attempt, which has been working out lately for Dallas.

But if they were going to return to the playoffs, Romo would have to be the 10th quarterback to lead six comeback wins in one season.

The first attempt saw Dallas settle for a 48-yard field goal by Dan Bailey. Down 14-10, the defense let down the Cowboys. Robert Griffin III played a very pedestrian game with just nine completions for 100 yards, but he still had enough speed to run for 17 yards on one designed play.

Running well all night was rookie Alfred Morris, who finished with 200 yards and three scores. He capped off the drive with a 32-yard touchdown run, and Dallas trailed 21-10.

London Fletcher ended Dallas’ drive with a third-down sack of Romo. But Washington quickly went three and out. A big 39-yard punt return by Dwayne Harris mixed with a 15-yard flag on Washington punter Sav Rocca for his brutal takedown tackle put Dallas at the WAS 16 with 6:35 to play.

Romo threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Ogletree, then had a perfect pass to Harris for the two-point conversion. It was now 21-18, and game on.

Washington had to punt after Anthony Spencer sacked Griffin on third down for a 13-yard loss. Romo had his chance with 3:33 left, at his own 15, to be the hero. He started the drive with a 14-yard pass to Witten.

But then the play that will define his season happened. Facing another one of those blitzes up the middle, Romo panicked and lobbed a pass out into the flat for DeMarco Murray. Unaware of defender Rob Jackson, the pass was easily intercepted with 3:00 to play.

Romo had all but blown it with three interceptions after throwing two interceptions in the last two late-season finishes combined (nine games).

Dallas still had a chance to get the ball back, likely trailing by six points, but they blew that too. On 3rd and 7 Griffin threw an incomplete pass with 2:35 left, but Jason Hatcher was penalized for roughing the passer after hitting Griffin in the head. It was a weak call, and it was also the first Dallas penalty of the night.

What timing, Dallas.

Morris finished it off with his third score of the night, and Washington won 28-18. Romo only managed to complete three passes for 16 yards in the final 1:02 to end it. The Redskins will host a playoff game for the first time since the 1999 season, while Dallas (8-8) once again just goes home for the postseason.

Romo has received a lot of unfair criticism in the past, with his 1-6 record in elimination games, but this time it was justified. He did the bad things he has avoided in recent weeks, and he failed to close big like he has down the stretch.

Without Romo’s run of great, clutch play the Cowboys are never even in this Week 17 position, but all that will be remembered is how it ended, and once again Romo had the bad ending.

 

Houston drops from No. 1 to No. 3

What a loss for the Houston Texans. After staying on top of the AFC all season, being the last AFC team to lose, the Texans drop to the No. 3 seed on the last day of the regular season.

The drop from No. 1 to No. 3 is monumental, as hosting Cincinnati, then going to New England and Denver is such a more difficult path than the bye, then likely only having to take care of Baltimore and just one of New England and Denver.

Houston knew this, but the Colts did not care, as they wanted to win a game that did not change anything for them, but did see the return of coach Chuck Pagano to the sidelines. This would not be like the old Indianapolis teams that would rest in Week 17.

But one thing the Colts had in common with the past: they beat Houston in Indianapolis, as they are now 11-0 all time against the Texans at home.

The Colts came out with one of their best drives of the year, going 75 yards in 13 plays for a touchdown. Houston would eventually fight back to take a 16-14 lead in the third quarter, but that lasted 12 seconds when Deji Karim went 101 yards untouched on the kick return touchdown.

Houston trailed 21-16 in the fourth quarter, and a sack of Matt Schaub threatened to take them out of scoring range. Shayne Graham was wide right on the 52-yard field goal attempt. The Colts had done nothing on offense in the second half, and were facing a 3rd and 23. That’s when Andrew Luck delivered arguably his best pass of the season with a perfect strike down the field to T.Y. Hilton for a 70-yard touchdown.

Luck finished the season with 23 touchdown passes, which ranks third all time for a rookie quarterback.

Indianapolis led 28-16, and Schaub threw a bad interception in the end zone to Vontae Davis for his second of the day. The Colts then ran out the final 9:46 on the clock with a perfect drive to clinch their 11th win, and drop Houston to a 12-4 finish.

Given the playoff circumstances, this was the biggest game of Matt Schaub’s nine-year career, and it went as all Houston fans feared: poorly. Though he passed for 275 yards, Schaub had two interceptions and was sacked four times. The 28-16 final was a good reversal of the 29-17 win the Texans had over the Colts in Week 15.

These teams look to be heading in opposite directions right now. While Indianapolis has relied on a season of scrappy wins, they looked to be in control of this one. Still, the Colts finished 11-5 despite allowing 387 points, which is the highest total ever for a team with 11+ wins in NFL history.

It was Houston’s fourth loss by 12+ points this season, which is why they are playing Saturday, when Schaub will get another chance in the next “biggest game” of his career.

Usually Houston (Oilers) teams waited until the playoffs to implode. The 2012 Texans may have started before Christmas.

 

Rare home loss for Falcons

Atlanta had nothing to play for except franchise records for best record (14-2 in 1998) and Matt Ryan did break Steve Bartkowski’s mark for touchdown passes in a season (32). But with the No. 1 seed locked up, this was just a warm-up before the bye week, and against a division rival on a five-game losing streak.

So what happened here with the starters playing all out in just the sixth home loss for Ryan (33-6) in his career?

Tampa Bay led 16-3 in the second half, but a Josh Freeman interception gave the comeback some life. Michael Turner scored on a 17-yard touchdown run, though Tampa Bay answered right back with Doug Martin’s 40-yard scoring run.

Tampa Bay led 22-10 to start the fourth quarter, yet Ryan and his starters remained in the game. The defense would lose John Abraham and Dunta Robinson. Ryan threw a 7-yard touchdown to Harry Douglas on fourth down with 7:02 left.

Getting the ball back with 3:44 left, we know how good Ryan has been with comebacks in his career. But down 22-17, he could not get things moving this week.

Dinking and dunking the ball to the ATL 33 in the no-huddle offense, the drive would stall. Ryan went deep for Roddy White, but Tampa Bay had good coverage and the pass was too far. Under pressure, Ryan was nearly intercepted on second down.

More tight defense led to an incompletion on third down to Douglas. Going for it on 4th and 10, rookie safety Mark Barron ended his season on a high note by knocking a pass away from Tony Gonzalez.

With 2:02 left Freeman oddly came out throwing deep, but Atlanta was penalized for 12 defenders. Martin ripped off a 24-yard run to cap his rookie season too. Actually they gave him two more meaningless carries for -2 yards with the game decided. Was that an attempt at stat padding or Greg Schiano’s detest for kneel downs shining through? It just added to the odd feel of the game.

Maybe the Falcons are going to be like the Saints, who lost to Tampa Bay 20-10 in Week 16 of the 2009 season (last home game) before going on their Super Bowl run. Either way, it was a strange game, and no one is sure what to expect from Atlanta in the postseason.

 

Lions and Bears come up short

Chicago had to win to keep their playoff hopes alive, while the Lions were just playing for passing records. Both teams had minor degrees of success, but both came away disappointed in the end.

The Bears jumped out to a 20-3 lead, but Detroit made a game of it, which has been their usual performance this season. Even with four giveaways, the Lions were still alive in this game.

Matthew Stafford set records for most pass attempts (727) and drop backs (791) in a season. Guess we can drop the durability questions for now. Stafford has started all 32 games since last year despite a record amount of plays (1,512 drop backs since 2011).

The Lions set the NFL record for most pass attempts by a team (740). That helped Calvin Johnson reach 1,964 receiving yards, but 14 targets in this game were not enough to get him to 2,000 yards.

Detroit could have used a huge fourth quarter from Stafford and Johnson, but it never came. Chicago extended their lead to 26-17 with a field goal. Detroit did answer with an 80-yard touchdown drive in which Johnson was not targeted once. It was 26-24 with 6:55 to play.

After a Chicago punt, Stafford had 4:37 left at his own 9. His sidearm delivery was off the mark to Johnson. On 3rd and 6, Tim Jennings had no problem defending away Stafford’s pass, and the Lions went three and out.

Once with such a great record at comebacks, this eight-game losing streak to end the season has killed Stafford’s mark. He is just 8-14 (.364) at comeback opportunities now.

Chicago put this one away when Jay Cutler scrambled for 19 yards on 3rd and 3. Two plays later Matt Forte broke off a 13-yard run, which took the clock down to two minutes. Cutler only had to kneel down three times to end the game.

The Bears finished 10-6, but Minnesota’s win knocked them out of the playoffs. They are just the fourth team since 1978 to start 7-1 and fail to make the playoffs. You can add them to the list of greatest second-half collapses.

This one cost Lovie Smith his job.

 

What is a “Thad Lewis” anyway, Cleveland?

The Steelers were in the rare position of playing a meaningless Week 17 game that would serve as their season finale. Just looking to avoid getting swept by the Browns for the first time since 1988, the Steelers basically went through the motions early on.

Meanwhile the Browns were starting an underwhelming offense with Thad Lewis at quarterback. The Captain never even heard of him before this week. Rookie back Trent Richardson was also out, though Cleveland would actually find success at moving the ball.

Lewis passed for 204 yards, though he did suffer a brutal interception thrown right to Troy Polamalu. The Steelers managed just 212 yards of offense, but finally got some takeaways (four) to fuel their offense.

Ben Roethlisberger only passed for 134 yards, but did throw three touchdown passes. His second came on a third and goal to give the Steelers a 17-10 lead late in the third quarter. Cleveland was then driving, resulting in Thad Lewis’ first comeback opportunity.

But his pass on 3rd and 19 was incomplete, forcing a punt. Then with great field position, the Browns only went three and out. Finally a missed tackle by Pittsburgh resulted in a strange fumble by Travis Benjamin, and Roethlisberger went 2004 on the Browns with a 12-yard touchdown to Plaxico Burress. That made it 24-10 with 3:20 to play, and Cleveland turned it over on downs for their last drive.

Pittsburgh (8-8) avoided their first losing season in the Roethlisberger era, but it was still a very disappointing season. Thirteen of their 16 games this season featured a comeback opportunity for at least one team.

Cleveland (5-11) went 1-7 at comeback opportunities this season, so they were competitive, but just could not finish. The Browns fired coach Pat Shurmur on Monday, meaning they will be hunting for their sixth full-time coach since returning in 1999.

 

Marky Mark: Schoetty and Tanny are gone, now what about Rexy?

Remember when the Jets proved the preseason to be meaningless with a 48-28 win over Buffalo in Week 1? Well the preseason is still pretty meaningless, but the Jets did have clear offensive issues that only got worse when their best players were injured.

The mess of a season came to an end with Mark Sanchez getting the start in place of injured Greg McElroy. His pick six put Buffalo ahead early, and the Bills led the entire second half.

It was only a 14-9 deficit to start the fourth quarter, but Sanchez faced a 3rd and 7. He overthrew Braylon Edwards, and the Jets went three and out. Brad Smith took a direct snap for a 4-yard touchdown run, and the Bills led 21-9 after an 80-yard drive.

After two punts, the Jets failed on a 4th and 1 at their own 48 as Bilal Powell was stuffed in the backfield. Buffalo crushed the Jets’ souls with conversions on third and long twice, and they even scored a 13-yard touchdown run (by Tashard Choice) on 4th and 4 for good measure. That made it a 28-9 final.

Both teams disappointed with 6-10 finishes. Whether it is the coach and/or quarterback, something significant has to change for these teams.

 

Drive of the Year

This was a harder choice than last season, as Week 9 2011 alone had two strong candidates with the winner (Joe Flacco leading Baltimore 92 yards in Pittsburgh) edging out a Super Bowl preview of Eli Manning beating the Patriots again.

Looking for that right mix of difficulty, memorable plays, and importance (prefer it to be a direct game-winning drive) produced this top three:

3rd Place – Drive of the Year
Week 4: Atlanta Falcons vs. Carolina Panthers (QB: Matt Ryan)

Down 28-27 and out of timeouts, the Falcons were backed up at their own 1-yard line with 0:59 to play after a Carolina punt. But Matt Ryan has been rather special at these one-minute drills, and he immediately went for the kill with a 59-yard bomb to Roddy White to flip field position. A penalty and two more short passes moved the ball far enough for Matt Bryant’s 40-yard game-winning field goal with 0:05 left to stun the Panthers, 30-28.

When it comes to a game-winning field goal drive, this is about as good as it gets. Atlanta is the only team since 1981 to start a drive in the last 60 seconds of the fourth quarter inside their own 10-yard line and go on a game-winning drive.

2nd Place – Drive of the Year
Week 13: Indianapolis Colts at Detroit Lions (QB: Andrew Luck)

The Colts were actually down by two touchdowns with 4:02 to play, but it was the final drive that was most shocking. With 1:07 left, no timeouts and 75 yards to go, Andrew Luck took control. He bounced out of a sack to get things started with a 9-yard scramble and spike. Then a perfect pass down the seam to Reggie Wayne for 26 yards, followed by another scramble for 16 yards.

After getting the ball into the red zone Luck actually had the game-winner in Wayne’s hands in the end zone, but he did not hang on. Three plays later it came down to a 4th and 10 at the DET 14, and Donnie Avery came across the formation and Luck flipped the ball to him before running out as a blocker, or as if he wanted him to pitch the ball back. Avery was able to get into the end zone with 0:00 left, and the Colts completed the improbable comeback for a 35-33 victory.

1st Place – Drive of the Year
Week 5: Indianapolis Colts vs. Green Bay Packers (QB: Andrew Luck)

Here they are again. In the first game on their CHUCKSTRONG run this season, the Colts rallied from a 21-3 halftime deficit to Green Bay. But after falling behind again, 27-22, Luck took over at his own 20 with 4:30 to play. On a 3rd and 9, Luck converted with a 15-yard pass to Wayne, who would dominate the drive with five catches for 64 yards.

The best came at the two-minute warning. Facing a 3rd and 12, Luck was practically being sacked by Clay Matthews, but still got the ball off to Wayne for a 15-yard gain. Wayne then made an 18-yard catch to put the ball in the red zone. Luck scrambled to convert a 3rd and 7, and the Colts used their final timeout.

Luck went to Wayne one more time, and he extended for the goal line for the game-winning touchdown with 0:35 left. It will always be the first fourth-quarter comeback for Luck, and it was the first win for interim coach Bruce Arians after the team learned about Chuck Pagano’s leukemia diagnosis in their bye week. You can say it paved the way for a season of unlikely victories.

But that winning drive was probably the first sign that there was something special building in Indianapolis this season.

 

Next week

It is playoff time, so no more tales of the bad teams, such as Jacksonville and Tennessee. At the two-minute warning in the first half, Jacksonville led 14-7. Just 4:57 of game time later, they trailed 35-14, and the Tennessee offense had not taken the field for even a second. We are not likely to experience a burst of two pick six’s and two punt return touchdowns like that ever again.

But the playoffs should be great, and there will be plenty of big-time data to come, both past and present.

 

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 smk_42@yahoo.com, or you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.


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