Captain Comeback: Special Mistakes Set Up Super Rematch

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jan 23, 2012



By Scott Kacsmar
Cold, Hard Football Facts Comeback King


It was four years in the making, but we will indeed have a rematch to Super Bowl XLII as the New York Giants will play the New England Patriots in the house that Peyton built in Indianapolis.
 
For just the second time ever (1995), both Conference Championship games were won with a fourth quarter comeback. It’s the third time ever (1987, 1995) that both games featured a game-winning drive. Home teams completed an 8-2 postseason. But what will likely be remembered more is how both losing teams blew the game in epic fashion on special teams.
 
We divert just a little from our usual format to bring you the historical recap of what went on during a Championship Sunday in which over seven hours of football were played with neither team holding a lead of more than 7 points.
 
The day was special, and then it was “special.”

AFC Championship: The Drop and The Choke

New England Patriots vs. Baltimore Ravens
Winner: New England (23-20)

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Deficit: 4 (20-16)
Quarterback: Tom Brady (25 4QC, 35 GWD – table)
 
It had all the makings of a Baltimore win until the final few plays.
 
The defense had done their best to contain New England’s offense, holding them to 23 points (the Patriots scored at least 27 in each game during their 9-game winning streak). They flustered and intercepted Tom Brady twice, and got a third takeaway on special teams. The offense had 398 yards, one giveaway, and converted 53% on third down. They outgained the Patriots by 68 yards. Joe Flacco even managed to outplay Brady.
 
In fact, according to Elias, the Patriots may have pulled off the greatest escape in modern postseason history. Teams that are +2 in turnover differential and outgain their opponent by 50+ yards are 110-1 in the playoffs.
 
Make that 110-2.
 
The only other team to previously lose such a game was the 1960 Packers, who lost to the Eagles in the 1960 NFL Championship (Vince Lombardi’s only playoff defeat). Note: link provides slightly different results due to two AAFC games that are not counted, and search only goes back to 1940. But that should give you an idea of how teams that do what Baltimore did usually have little problem coming away with the win.
 
It had to take something special for them to lose, and it did.
 
Early on, the Ravens didn’t look like they came prepared with an offense capable of competing in this game. Their first three drives were all three and out, they never threw the ball on first down, and they had a combined -6 yards.
 
The Patriots dominated the field position battle early, but on their second drive, Brady missed a wide open Rob Gronkowski for an easy touchdown. New England settled for the field goal and led 3-0.
 
But on their next drive, Brady threw a bad pass in Ravens’ territory, which was intercepted by Lardarius Webb. This ignited the Baltimore offense, as Flacco, finally throwing a pass on first down, started the drive with a designed rollout and threw a bomb to Torrey Smith. The play gained 42 yards, but a better throw would have produced a touchdown.
 
On the first play of the second quarter, the Ravens would come up a yard short on third down, and went for the 20-yard field goal to tie. Now the offenses began to wake up, and the Patriots came right back with a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. After starting the drive with runs of 13 and 11 yards, BenJarvus Green-Ellis finished it with a 7-yard touchdown run.
 
Baltimore came right back, as Flacco completed passes of 20 and 37 yards to Lee Evans and Anquan Boldin, respectively. On a second-and-goal play, Flacco found Dennis Pitta for a 6-yard touchdown pass to tie the game.
 
New England responded with a 63-yard drive that ended with a field goal after a surprise no-challenge from Belichick on what appeared to be a very close catch near the sideline with Gronkowski. The Ravens would watch their drive end with Ed Dickson dropping a third down pass at midfield. New England took two knees to end the half, deciding not to risk anything with 0:58 and two timeouts left.
 
Playing into their decision was likely the fact they were getting the third quarter kickoff, which they used to go on another 74-yard march, but ended with another field goal for a 16-10 lead.
 
Flacco came up with one of his best drives, as he avoided some pressure, and converted on three different third downs: 13 yards on 3rd and 11 to Evans, 8 yards on 3rd and 6 to Pitta, and finally a 29-yard touchdown pass to Smith on 3rd and 4. Smith broke a tackle and took off for a diving leap into the end zone to give the Ravens their first lead of the game.
 
A huge turning point came as Danny Woodhead fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and the Ravens were at the NE 28 with 3:26 left in the third quarter. But after getting a first down at the NE 11, the Patriots would hold on defense, forcing a 39-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff. He made it, and Baltimore led 20-16. The extra four points would have been critical, but Flacco missed his fullback on a first down pass that should have been an easy touchdown.
 
The Patriots took over with 0:43 left in the third quarter at their own 37. Gronkowski started the drive with a 23-yard gain, but Patriot killer Bernard Pollard was at it again, injuring him on the tackle, which caused Gronkowski to momentarily leave the game. It wouldn’t be a Super Bowl without spending two weeks talking about some injured player trying to return in time for the game.
 
Into the fourth quarter, the Patriots had the ball at the 1-yard line, and Brady did a long quarterback sneak that was initially ruled a touchdown. Replay confirmed he was down short, and Green-Ellis was knocked back on a third down run. The Patriots made the right decision to go for it on fourth down, and Brady did a Brees impersonation by extending the ball out on a leap over the pile for the touchdown. Ray Lewis would spear him on the play, but it was too late. The Patriots led 23-20 with 11:29 left in the game.
 
Baltimore kept the ball on the ground as they were grinding out tough yardage with Ray Rice and Ricky Williams. But at the NE 46, Flacco threw an ill-advised pass and it was intercepted and returned to the 50 by Brandon Spikes with 7:22 left.
 
Just when you think the Patriots would milk some clock and take a 30-20 or 26-20 lead, Brady decided to go deep to Matt Slater, and Pollard was there to tip the ball to rookie CB Jimmy Smith who made an incredible catch. He also returned the ball to his team’s 38. With little to no success passing the ball down the field all day long, the decision was very questionable by Brady.
 
Flacco looked to capitalize on the gift, converting a 3rd and 1 with a 16-yard pass to Dickson, who took the ball to the NE 37. But the Ravens again stuck with the ground game, and Rice lost 3 yards on a 3rd and 3. Rather than attempt the 50-yard field goal, the Ravens used their first timeout to set up a crucial 4th-and-6 play.
 
What ever the plan was failed as Flacco was pressured and could not find a decent throwing lane in time. His pass fell harmlessly incomplete out of bounds, and the Patriots took over on downs. After a pass to Deion Branch on first down for 7 yards, the Patriots lost one yard on the ground, setting up a big 3rd and 4 as the two-minute warning passed.
 
New England is a team that has no problem staying in shotgun and throwing in these situations to ice the game, though they haven’t been as successful in recent years. It was in the 2006 AFC Championship when Brady, protecting a late 3-point lead, threw a pass on 3rd and 4 that was nearly intercepted by Bob Sanders.
 
History would just about repeat itself, as Ed Reed defended Aaron Hernandez perfectly on the play, and Baltimore got to keep their two timeouts. They would get the ball back with 1:44 left at their own 21, setting Flacco up for a legacy-shaping drive.
 
It was in the 2008 AFC Championship at Pittsburgh when Flacco needed a field goal to take the lead late, but was intercepted for a touchdown by Troy Polamalu. That was his rookie season. Now in his fourth year, it was now-or-never time for Flacco to come through.
 
If you judged a drive by the first play, it didn’t look like Baltimore had any chance of pulling this off, as Flacco’s throw was nowhere close. But on 3rd and 5, he converted with a 13-yard gain to Boldin, who was being covered by Julian Edelman, a wide receiver. It’s not so cute when the Super Bowl is on the line and the opponent’s best receiver is beating your receiver-turned-DB.
 
Boldin would catch another pass at the BAL 48 with 0:58 left, as the Ravens used their second timeout. On the next play, Boldin got wide open and followed his blockers down the left sideline for a 29-yard gain down to the NE 23. Suddenly this was looking like the Pittsburgh game when Baltimore went on the drive of the year to go 92 yards and stun the Steelers.
 
That night the Ravens trailed 20-16, and they probably wish they were down by four points this time as well. The Manning brothers (get used to hearing about them the next two weeks) always talk about how they’d rather be down by four, because you know that you have to get a touchdown, everything is four-down territory, and you don’t have to worry about getting conservative and playing for a field goal. Maybe most importantly, you don’t put the game on the foot of this guy.
 
Boldin’s fourth catch of the drive saw him fumble, but the ball went out of bounds. They were now 14 yards away from the end zone, and time was ticking away. That’s when Flacco threw the pass that could define his career as the moment he stepped up and passed Baltimore into the Super Bowl.
 
Only problem was that instead of treating the ball like an infant son, Lee Evans protected it like a loaf of moldy bread, and Sterling Moore knocked it loose in the end zone with 0:22 left.
 
On third down, Flacco scrambled, but threw a dangerous pass to Pitta, that was also defended by Moore. It appeared, with one timeout left, Flacco could have scrambled for a few yards and a first down, but he misplayed it.
 
At least this would set up a 32-yard field goal for overtime, right? Wrong. Cundiff came onto the field late in the play clock, rushed the kick, and was wide left with 0:11 left. Game over. How does a team even get in the position where they have to rush the game-tying field goal like that? Did Evans’ drop already put Cundiff in a frozen state, knowing he’d have to be a hero?
 
It was a classic game that deserved an overtime finish, rather than a joke (or choke) of a field goal attempt. The AFC Championship has been known for “The Drive” and “The Fumble”, but how about “The Drop and The Choke” on this one? While Scott Norwood’s kick hurt more since it would have flat out won the Super Bowl, Cundiff’s kick was much easier, which makes it even more difficult to get over.

Ravens Can’t Close Again

The Ravens finished their season by keeping one NFL-record streak alive: no quarterback threw more than one touchdown pass against them all season. The only other team to do that 18 times in a season is the 1997 Green Bay Packers, and they played 19 games.
 
But Baltimore’s 6-1 (.857) record against quality opponents compared to New England’s 0-2 proved to be futile, as the Patriots snuck away with their biggest win of the season.
 
It’s also just another example of Baltimore’s inability to win the close ones against the Patriots:
  • In 2007 they had a chance to stop Brady on the final drive, did a few times on fourth down before penalties negated them, but allowed the winning TD pass to Jabar Gaffney and they lost 27-24.
  • Two years later the Ravens were down 27-21, same spot on the field (NE 14), and Mark Clayton dropped Flacco’s 4th-and-4 pass with 0:28 left.
  • Last year the Ravens led 20-10 in the fourth quarter, but after allowing the comeback, the offense did nothing their final 5 drives before the Patriots won 23-20 in overtime.
 
Even in the playoffs last year at Pittsburgh, the Ravens had big drops by Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh in the fourth quarter. It’s always something with this team that prevents them from getting over the hump, and it’s clearly not just the quarterback.
 
Each quarterback completed exactly 22/36 passes, but Flacco (306) gained 67 more yards than Brady (239), had an extra total touchdown, and one fewer interception. The Ravens handed the ball off 27 times for 89 yards, compared to the Patriots’ 25 times for 94 yards.
 
When Flacco won his playoff game at New England, he was 4/10 for 34 yards and a pick. Now he plays what is easily his first or second best playoff game of his career, but it’s a loss after incredible circumstances on the final drive.
 
That’s the folly of being a “playoff winner” to the media, because Flacco picks up the loss in a game he actually deserved to win based on his performance.

Badmouthing Brady and Praising Patriots’ Defense

Despite the playoff record-tying 16th win, despite the 25th comeback win (puts him 10th all time), you don’t have to go far to find criticism of Tom Brady’s performance, as he put it out there himself. “I sucked pretty bad today, but our defense saved us”, Brady said after the game. Brady didn’t throw any touchdown passes; breaking his playoff streak of 18 consecutive games with one (Favre will keep the record with 20).
 
The good news for Brady is he won’t have to play another defense this season like the Ravens. But it does bring back shades of 2007 when he lit up a team (Jacksonville) in the Divisional round, then threw 3 interceptions against San Diego in the AFC Championship, before struggling with the Giants in the Super Bowl.
 
Brady’s 57.5 passer rating was the second lowest in his playoff career, with the lowest (49.1) also coming against Baltimore. It’s the second year in a row the AFC Championship winning quarterback had a passer rating under 60.0. Last year Ben Roethlisberger (35.5) and Aaron Rodgers (55.4) both were under that mark on Championship Sunday. On the AFC side, quarterbacks under 60.0 went 2-4 in the Super Bowl, while in the NFC they went 2-3.
 
Struggling in the AFC Championship is nothing new for Brady. Despite tying John Elway with a 5-1 record, it’s been his worst individual round of the postseason, with just one standout performance (2004 at Pittsburgh).
 
Tom Brady - By Playoff Round
Round Games Rec. Att. Comp. Pct. Yds YPA TD INT PR Rush TD Fum Lost
Wild Card 3 2-1 103 60 58.3 567 5.50 7 3 84.1 0 3 1
Divisional 8 6-2 314 199 63.4 2202 7.01 16 8 90.5 2 3 0
AFC Champ. 6 5-1 179 113 63.1 1239 6.92 6 7 78.4 1 1 0
Super Bowl 4 3-1 156 100 64.1 1001 6.42 7 1 94.5 0 2 2
Total 21 16-5 752 472 62.8 5009 6.66 36 19 87.6 3 9 3
 
In the Super Bowl era, which quarterbacks have won a Championship game when their teams were -2 or worse in turnover differential? Joe Namath, Johnny Unitas, Terry Bradshaw (twice), Joe Montana, and Tom Brady. The last four have at least three rings, and winning fortunate games like this has a lot to do with that.
 
Brady will have to be much better than he was today and four years ago to beat the Giants this time. He said the defense saved them this time, and there is some truth to that. If Sterling Moore doesn’t make his play on Evans, that’s probably the game-winning touchdown right there.
 
How about that New England defense? After so much criticism all year long, there is one fact that is pretty amazing.
 
Minmax stat of the year: The New England Patriots are the only defense in the league to never allow more than 27 points in any game this season (including playoffs).
 
A few caveats: this is all about points allowed by the defense. Buffalo scored 34, but 7 were the result of a pick six thrown Brady. The Patriots allowed 27 twice on defense (Buffalo, Washington), which is their “minmax” this year. Only the 49ers also allowed no more than 27 points in the regular season (and also twice), but did allow 32 to the Saints in the NFC Divisional. Every other team gave up 28+ at least once on defense.
 
Was it just a coincidence the Patriots and 49ers hosted on Championship Sunday? We’ll leave that one on the research backburner. Just know for right now that the Patriots haven’t given up more than 27 to any offense, and that has been a critical factor in getting to Super Bowl XLVI.
 

NFC Championship: The Day Ted Ginn Proved His First Round Value

New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers
Winner: New York Giants (20-17 OT)

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Deficit: 4 (14-10)
Quarterback: Eli Manning (20 4QC, 24 GWD – table)
 
Well the title is more in jest than anything; the absence of Ted Ginn Jr. truly did prove to be costly to the San Francisco 49ers. Priding themselves on not turning the ball over all season (just a record-tying 10 times in the regular season), backup return man Kyle Williams etched his name in the darkest pages of postseason lore, as he was involved in two costly fumbles in the fourth quarter and overtime that led to the Giants’ comeback and game-winning drive.
 
The 49ers forced 5 takeaways from the Saints last week, with two coming on special teams. This week it was their special teams unit that turned it over twice, and at the worst possible moments. The offense didn’t turn it over once, but they had their own struggles.
 
The weather was expected to be a factor, and the rain did come and go at times in the game, creating a dream-like effect over the screen for the Fox broadcast, which looked better than the effects used in Terra Nova.
 
By the time the game ended, there were 31 offensive drives by the teams, with the Giants scoring 20 points on 17 drives. Horrific third down offense was a main culprit, as the teams combined to convert just 8/34 attempts (23.5%). The 49ers were 1/13.
 
On their second drive of the game, Alex Smith found Vernon Davis down the right sideline, and he easily outran the Giants for a 73-yard touchdown to take a 7-0 lead. Davis and Smith appeared to be picking right up where they left off last week.
 
Brandon Jacobs was stopped short on a 4th and 1 at the SF 34 on the ensuing drive. But a bad call on a reverse led to a three and out for the 49ers, rather than a good, momentum-building drive. Establishing offensive consistency never happened for the 49ers.
 
The Giants moved the ball 69 yards in 10 plays, with Eli Manning finding TE Bear Pascoe for a 6-yard touchdown to tie the game. With 1:36 left in the half, the Giants got the ball back and Eli went to work in the hurry-up, continuously finding Victor Cruz for solid gains.
 
That set up Lawrence Tynes for a 31-yard field goal to end the half with a 10-7 lead. Manning had 181 yards passing at halftime, with Cruz catching 8 passes for 125 yards. Meanwhile Smith was just 2/7 for 79 yards, and 73 of them coming on the one big play to Davis.
 
Even though the weather rarely got any worse, the offenses would really falter in the second half as the quarterbacks continued taking hits. Manning was sacked six times in the game. Smith was sacked three times, and scrambled 6 times for 42 yards.
 
On their second possession in the third quarter, the 49ers finally made some plays, as Frank Gore went 24 yards on a dump-off, and then Smith went back to Davis for a perfect 28-yard touchdown pass in the end zone. San Francisco led 14-10 with 5:18 left in the third. Late in the quarter, Eli avoided an interception on a bad throw after Dashon Goldson collided with teammate Tarell Brown, who was going for the pick.
 
In the fourth quarter, the Giants went three and out, but that’s when the first big mistake would happen. Kyle Williams, filling in for Ted Ginn, let the punt bounce off his leg, and instead of reacting immediately to go down and pick it up, he let it go, and the Giants recovered it. By rule, you cannot advance the ball in this situation, but the Giants were correctly awarded possession at the SF 29 after a challenge.
 
Facing a 3rd and 7, Manning found Nicks for 14 yards. After a holding penalty forced a 1st and 20, the Giants would be looking at a 3rd and 15. Eli, as he’s done all year, stepped up and made a huge connection with Mario Manningham for a 17-yard touchdown in the end zone, and the Giants led 17-14 with 8:34 left.
 
Williams momentarily made up for his mistake with a big kick return to the SF 45. Smith, trying to tie the NFL record with a 7th fourth quarter comeback win (Peyton Manning, 2009) had a 17-yard scramble that would set up David Akers for the 25-yard game-tying field goal with 5:39 left.
 
Four straight three and outs took place, followed by another New York punt after Cruz nearly came down with a miracle catch on third down. With 0:04 left, the 49ers would get a 29-yard gain on the last play of the half, but time expired and we would have overtime.
 
It would be a real overtime, unlike the Tim Tebow experience. After each team punted, the Giants were facing a 3rd and 3 at the SF 46. Eli was buried for a sack by Justin Smith, forcing another punt.
 
That’s when the final mistake happened, as Williams caught this punt, but fumbled after a 5-yard return. The Giants now had the ball at the SF 24. Ahmad Bradshaw ran it 3 times for 18 yards, before Manning took a knee to center the ball. After a delay of game penalty (seriously, what’s with the kicking unit not getting out there and doing this in a timely fashion?), Tynes came on for the 31-yard game-winner, and he nailed it. No Cundiff-iculties here.
 
Heartbreaking stat for San Francisco: the Giants had the ball 12 times in the second half/overtime. They punted 10 times, and the only two drives they scored, came on short fields after the fumbles by Williams: a 29-yard touchdown drive and an 11-yard field goal drive in overtime.
 
A magnificent first season for Jim Harbaugh ends in Championship Sunday disaster. Williams wasn’t the sole loser of the game, as the San Francisco offense was atrocious on third down, and Smith (12/26 for 196 yards, 2 TD) was 1/9 for 3 yards when targeting his wide receivers.
 
But no player had a bigger impact on what was a very tight game than the backup return man that fumbled twice in crunch time. After the branding of goats for Baltimore, it was hard to imagine the 49ers could find anything to top that.
 
It had to take something “special.”
 

Eli Ties Peyton

The Giants win 20-17, and they’re headed to Indianapolis to take on the Patriots in what could be another classic Super Bowl. It was another inspired run, as they defeated three straight teams that had a better regular season record this year (two on the road). Eli Manning will now be starting his second Super Bowl, tying his brother’s number of Super Bowl starts, and he’ll be doing it in his home stadium.
 
Eli Manning now holds the NFL record with 5 road postseason wins as a starter. Sunday wasn’t his best game. He was 32/58 for 316 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT, 82.3 rating. But he did drop back 65 times, and took a beating for it, while never turning the ball over (albeit twice 49ers botched interceptions).
 
The 58 attempts are the second most any quarterback has ever had in a playoff win. Bernie Kosar had 64 in the 1986 AFC Divisional vs. New York Jets, and that game was in Cleveland and went to double overtime. The previous record for road attempts in a playoff win was Dan Fouts’ 53 in the “Epic at Miami.”
 
With Alex Smith and Eli both having 6 game-winning drives in the regular season, it was obvious this game would go down to the wire. While Smith made some plays to try and get a 7th comeback win, in the end Eli gets the credit. It was only the fourth playoff  meeting between two quarterbacks with at least 6 game-winning drives that season.
 
Playoff Meetings Between QB's with 6+ Game-Winning Drives
Winning QB Team GWD Losing QB Team GWD Year Round Result
Eli Manning NY Giants 7 Alex Smith San Francisco 6 2011 NFC-C W 20-17 OT
Drew Brees New Orleans 6 Peyton Manning Indianapolis 7 2009 Super Bowl W 31-17
Tom Brady New England 7 Jake Delhomme Carolina 8 2003 Super Bowl W 32-29
Dan Pastorini Houston 7 Steve Grogan New England 6 1978 AFC-D W 31-14
 
We last seen it just two years ago when Brees actually got his 6th game-winning drive of the season in the Super Bowl against Peyton’s Colts. The younger Manning picked up his 7th game-winning drive of the season, which marks the 10th time someone has done that in a season. It was the 20th fourth quarter comeback win of his career.
 
Most GWDs - Single-Season (Incl. Playoffs)
Rk QB Team Season GWD Result
1 Jake Delhomme Carolina 2003 8 Lost Super Bowl
2 Dan Pastorini Houston 1978 7 Lost AFC-C
3 Brian Sipe Cleveland 1979 7 No Playoffs
4 Bernie Kosar Cleveland 1986 7 Lost AFC-C
5 Don Majkowski Green Bay 1989 7 No Playoffs
6 Jake Plummer Arizona 1998 7 Lost NFC-D
7 Peyton Manning Indianapolis 1999 7 Lost AFC-D
8 Tom Brady New England 2003 7 Won Super Bowl
9 Peyton Manning Indianapolis 2009 7 Lost Super Bowl
10 Eli Manning NY Giants 2011 7 Super Bowl
 
Peyton Manning is the only player to do it twice, while Tom Brady and Jake Delhomme met in a Super Bowl during that 2003 season. Eli will now try and beat Brady, possibly with yet another game-winning drive, which would tie the all-time record of 8.
 

NEXT TWO WEEKS

The Captain will have Super Bowl-sized studies on quarterbacks and playoff drive stats (updating this one from last year), New England’s Super Bowl defenses, why Eli Manning’s fourth quarter history has always been impressive, Super Bowl comebacks and game-winning drives, and maybe some more things depending on how little sleep he thinks he needs to function at a “special” level.
 
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 hopes there’s a special place in hell for field goal kickers. You can send any questions or comments to Scott at smk_42@yahoo.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.

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