Captain Comeback Week 10: NFC West Gone Wild

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Nov 15, 2011



By Scott Kacsmar
Cold, Hard Football Facts Comeback King


Since realignment in 2002, the pigskin punditry’s punching bag of choice has been the NFC West. Whether it’s sending 8-8 teams into the playoffs, the league’s first-ever 7-9 division winner, or the general, sustained ineptitude each team has gone through, it has been the weakest division in today’s NFL.
 
On (any given) Sunday, that changed for one week, as the NFC West teams went 4-0 for the first time since realignment.
 
It took the week’s three fourth quarter comebacks and the biggest upset (Seattle over Baltimore) to get to 4-0. Chalk this up to the perplexingly good things the NFC West has accomplished, such as appearing in two Super Bowls (2005 Seahawks, 2008 Cardinals) and that 7-9 Seattle team knocking out the defending champion New Orleans Saints last year in the playoffs.
 
With a full schedule of 16 games, we had our usual 9 that featured a fourth quarter comeback opportunity this week. The 49ers (8-1) won their fourth comeback of the season and have now tied the Bengals (6-3) and Giants (6-3) for most in the league.
 
It was the CHFF Game of the Week, and that’s where we start.
 

Drive of the Week

San Francisco 49ers vs. New York Giants
Winner: San Francisco (27-20)

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Deficit: 1 (13-12)
Quarterback: Alex Smith (8 4QC, 10 GWD – table)
 
Despite their 7-1 record, people still wondered if the San Francisco 49ers were a legitimate contender this season. They did their best to make that a “yes” with this victory over the comeback-savvy Giants. Last week we said this game would show up in Captain Comeback, so it’s no surprise this was one of the more competitive games of the season, and one we might see again in the playoffs.
 
The first five drives of this game ended with field goals, with the 49ers leading 9-6. Then each quarterback threw an interception, though Ted Ginn Jr. was directly responsible for Alex Smith’s, just his third of the season.
 
Trailing 12-6, Eli Manning didn’t wait for the fourth quarter as he hooked up with Mario Manningham on third down on an excellent pass in the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown.
 
San Francisco had the ball to start the fourth quarter, and on their third play, Smith found Vernon Davis for a short pass that Davis was able to run with the catch 25 yards to the end zone, leaping into the air for the touchdown. Michael Crabtree caught the two-point conversion, and the 49ers were ahead 20-13.
 
Eli, the highest rated passer in the fourth quarter this season, had high expectations to lead another comeback for the Giants, but after a miscommunication with Manningham, his pass was easily intercepted by Carlos “I Couldn’t Catch a Thing in Washington” Rogers. The 49ers immediately turned it into points, with Kendall Hunter’s 17-yard touchdown run.
 
Staring at a 14-point deficit, Eli led an 80-yard touchdown drive, ending with a touchdown to Hakeem Nicks. The 49ers went three and out, and the stage was set for another comeback attempt.
 
The Giants found themselves facing a 4th and 6 at their own 35-yard line with 3:33 and two timeouts left. Given the season David Akers is having for the 49ers, a failure to convert would likely mean game over. Tom Coughlin decided to go, and Eli found Manningham with an 18-yard gain on one of his classic “fading away” throws that don’t always end well.
 
Another fourth down was converted by Victor Cruz, only after Manning just failed to connect with Manningham on the tying touchdown. The Giants would face 4th and 2 at the SF 10 with 0:37 left, and that’s when Justin Smith made the game-saving stop by batting down Eli’s last pass.
 
Eli’s attempt for a sixth fourth quarter win in the last seven games came up short. It’s the first time since 2001 that the 49ers have had four fourth quarter comebacks in a season. They finished 12-4 that year, losing at Green Bay in the playoffs.
 
Are they due for a repeat, or can this season get even better? Jim Harbaugh has seen something similar in his career.
 

Alex Smith and Captain Comeback

They’re #1 in scoring defense (15.3 PPG). They lead the league in turnover differential (+13). No one has allowed fewer rushing yards (73.2/game), and they haven’t surrendered a single rushing touchdown in nine games. They’re 8-1, and half of their wins are fourth quarter comebacks.
 
These aren’t the stats for the Pittsburgh Steelers or Baltimore Ravens; this is what Jim Harbaugh, your easy choice for Coach of the Year, has been getting out of the 49ers in his first season as head coach.
 
Alex Smith, the #1 overall pick in the 2005 draft, had a 19-31 record as a starter prior to this season. He wasn’t even the guaranteed starting quarterback before the season started. He had only led four comebacks, all against the NFC West, and none since 9/16/2007. Yet here we are with Smith enjoying a career-best season as the 7th-rated passer (95.8) in the league, and tied with Eli for the most comebacks (4).
 
There’s nothing like doubling up your career comeback total in season seven. In fact, would you believe the only other player since 1960 to double their career comeback total in season seven or later (min. 35 starts) was Steve Young?
 
Doubling Your Comebacks After 7th Season+
QB Years Starts Record 4QC Double-Up Year 4QC
Steve Young 7 (1985-1991) 39 15-24 3 8th (1992) 3
Alex Smith 6 (2005-2010) 50 19-31 4 7th (2011) 4
 
Of course Young had a much different career path than Smith. It started with flaming out with the downtrodden Tampa Bay Buccaneers, then being traded to Bill Walsh’s 49ers where he was able to sit behind Joe Montana before taking over in 1991. The following year, Young went on to win his first MVP and lead the 49ers to a 14-2 record.
 
Smith hasn’t been dominating with great volume, but we know efficiency matters most, and his coach, Captain Comeback, enjoyed a similar career-year with the Indianapolis Colts in 1995.
 
Captain Comeback: QB vs. Coach
QB Alex Smith Jim Harbaugh
Year 2011 1995
Team 49ers Colts
Starting Record 8-1 7-5
Passing YPG 189.9 171.7
Passer Rating 95.8 100.7
Comp. % 64.0 63.7
INT % 1.27 1.59
Team Scoring DEF 15.3 (1st) 19.8 (5th)
Team Turnovers 8 (1st) 22 (4th)
Team Pass Attempts 31st 30th (last)
4QC 4 3
GWD 4 4
Result ? Lost AFC-C
 
Note: Harbaugh played in 15 games, but only started 12.
 
Each team had a good defense, were around the bottom in pass attempts, had a good starting running back (Frank Gore and Marshall Faulk), and they protected the ball on offense. The Colts were able to reach the AFC Championship game, which ended with the most famous Hail Mary incompletion ever as the Colts just came up short in Pittsburgh.
 
Harbaugh picked up the “Captain Comeback” moniker because his season was so unexpected, they had some wild comebacks from large deficits early in the year, and it lasted all throughout the season, as did his exceptional play.
 
As a coach, he is going through a similar experience, with a quarterback no one expected to do much, and a team that keeps winning by playing smart and strong situational football.
 
“Captain Comeback” is alive and well in San Francisco, as they continue the march on their most impressive season in years.
 

The Other Paths to Victory

New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons
Winner: New Orleans (26-23 OT)

 
Type: GWD
Quarterback: Drew Brees (18 4QC, 28 GWD – table)
 
First place in the NFC South was on the line.
 
Fans of the Falcons/Saints rivalry are probably well aware of the series’ propensity for close games. 43 of the 85 all-time meetings have been decided by 1-7 points, as have 32 of the last 57 (since 1983). For the sixth straight meeting, this game was decided by one score, and in overtime.
 
After the Falcons fell behind 23-13 with 7:13 left in the fourth quarter, Matt Ryan was in desperate need of putting together a scoring drive. He did, with the ageless Tony Gonzalez catching a 20-yard touchdown.
 
The Saints added a field goal, but TE Jimmy Graham was called for holding, forcing them to punt. This penalty would set in motion a chain of events leading to a much-talked about decision by Atlanta coach Mike Smith.
 
First, Ryan had 1:55 left and starting at his own six-yard line to at least force overtime. The Saints inexplicably left Harry Douglas open over the middle for three gains of 20+ yards. After Ryan narrowly avoided an interception by Roman Harper, he completed a pass to the NO 9 with time running down.
 
After a spike, Ryan took two shots at the end zone to try and win the game, but both were incomplete. Matt Bryant kicked a 27-yard field goal to send the game to overtime.
 
Each team went three and out. On the Falcons’ second possession of overtime, Mike Cox caught a third down pass that was initially ruled a first down, but was overturned by replay and brought up a 4th and 1 at the ATL 29. There was 10:52 left in the game, and we all know what happened from there.

Mike Smith didn't punt, the Saints stopped them, and John Kasay was trotting on the field a couple plays later to win it for New Orleans and probably end the Falcons' hopes of winning the division.
 

Arizona Cardinals at Philadelphia Eagles
Winner: Arizona (21-17)

 
Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Deficit: 7 (14-7)
Quarterback: John Skelton (3 4QC, 2 GWD – table)
 
Okay, it was one thing when a Jake Plummer-led Arizona team could walk into Philadelphia and pull off a stunning comeback over Andy Reid’s Eagles.
 
But John Skelton? This is just sad.
 
The Eagles became just the 10th team since 1940 to lose for the fifth time in a season after leading through three quarters. They’re the only team to lose four such games at home.
 
Fourth quarter failures have been a trademark of Reid’s tenure. It’s never been worse than it has been in 2011, despite what is supposed to be a loaded roster. The Eagles are +64 in scoring differential through three quarters, which is good for 5th in the league. In the fourth quarter, they are outscored 74-27, the worst differential (-47) in the league.
 
Michael Vick couldn’t buy poor DeSean Jackson a better alarm clock? By sleeping in for a Saturday meeting, Jackson was inactive. Not that it would have changed much, given his sub-par season. (Was that a comment towards Vick or Jackson? How about both?)
 
Arizona boasts one of the lesser defenses in the league, yet Vick passed for 128 yards and a 32.5 passer rating. The offense scored just 10 points, and their field goal was a direct result of a Skelton interception.
 
Skelton was shaky at times, but did manage to do what most players do, rally against the Eagles in the fourth quarter. His 7-yard touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald capped off an 89-yard touchdown drive to tie the game at 14.
 
The Eagles went three and out, but Skelton threw a bad interception that was returned to the 26-yard line. Vick left the game after a scramble, bringing Vince Young in for a third down handoff. Had the ensuing field goal by Alex Henery held up as the winning score, both Vick and Young would get credit for a game-winning drive, despite the drive essentially being a three and out.
 
But John Skelton wasn’t ready to let that happen, and he started clicking with ease to his receivers, completing 5/8 passes for 100 yards (yes, triple-digits on one drive) and the game-winning touchdown pass to Early Doucet with 1:53 left. A brilliant catch by Fitzgerald for 37 yards set up the Cardinals at the 1-yard line on the drive.
 
Vick had one last chance, but his desperation pass was intercepted, and the Cardinals technically moved ahead of the Eagles in the NFC.
 
Philadelphia’s now 0-8 in fourth quarter comeback opportunities ever since Jackson returned that punt against the Giants for the winning touchdown. It’s well past the time to stop talking about them as a playoff contender.
 
Meanwhile this John Skelton comes out of nowhere (Fordham, actually) to pick up his third fourth quarter comeback since last Christmas. He’s only played in 7 career games.
 
Ken Whisenhunt might want to shop in the bargain bin more often, considering:
 
  • Kevin Kolb is 4-10 as a starter with 1 comeback and a 75.1 passer rating (77.8 in 7 starts in 2011)
  • John Skelton is 4-2 as a starter with 3 comebacks and a 70.5 passer rating (84.1 in 2 starts in 2011)
 
Hard to ignore results. Hard to stomach the Eagles and their inability to close games. They may have closed the door on Andy Reid’s career in Philadelphia.
 

St. Louis Rams at Cleveland Browns
Winner: St. Louis (13-12)

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Deficit: 2 (12-10)
Quarterback: Sam Bradford (1 4QC, 1 GWD – table)
 
It’s only fitting the Rams would end their fourth quarter comeback futility in forgettable fashion. What better place to do it than that factory of sadness in Cleveland?
 
The Rams did not have a fourth quarter comeback win since 10/12/2008. That was a 1-point comeback against the Redskins, over 37 months ago. Obama wasn’t even elected yet, for reference.
 
This time it was a 2-point comeback, in another ugly offensive game featuring the NFC West and Cleveland. The last time this happened, the Browns won 6-3 over Seattle in Week 7. One can only imagine what the Cleveland/Arizona meeting in Week 15 will bring.
 
In college, Sam Bradford and Colt McCoy met in the Red River Rivalry between Oklahoma and Texas. Sunday…was nothing like those games.
 
Statistically, the teams played to a draw. The difference was Cleveland never could put the ball in the end zone, settling for five field goal attempts.
 
Trailing 12-10 in the fourth quarter, the Rams went three and out. Sure-handed Josh Cribbs fumbled the punt, setting Bradford up with great field position at the CLE 27.
 
This ends up being Bradford’s first ever comeback and game-winning drive, and all he did on it was complete a 7-yard pass, and then lost 7 yards on a sack. That’s a net of 0 yards. Josh Brown made the 34-yard field goal, and that’s your game-winner.
 
Brown came right back and kicked the ball out of bounds, giving McCoy a good chance for a game-winning field goal. He helped drive the Browns to the 4-yard line, but kicker Phil Dawson shockingly missed a 22-yard field goal, wide left, with 2:10 left. Overall, it was a rather poor weekend for kickers (right, Boise State?) Steven Jackson ran for the first down to seal it, and the Rams finally had that elusive comeback win.
 
The streak is dead. The comeback ended the 52-game streak of not having a fourth quarter comeback win, which was only another month short of the all-time franchise record.
 
Seasons Games Record
1985-1989 56 31-25
2008-2011 52 11-41
1971-1974 44 27-16-1
1989-1992 42 11-31
1939-1944 41 15-24-2
 
Rams fans will hope Bradford has much better moments in the future, but everyone has to start somewhere, and it still beats losing another close one. 
 

Comeback Failures of the Week

It’s the same-old story with the Chargers, a different ending for the Steelers, another loss on the path to imperfection for Indy, the oddity that is only capable in the Tebow Zone, and making fun of Fireman Ed. How many fires has he ever put out anyway?
 

San Diego: Crying a Rivers

In a span of 19 days, the Chargers may have watched their 2011 season fall apart. Losers of four straight (close ones), Philip Rivers is having the worst stretch of his career. After losing the fumble at the end of the Kansas City game on a Monday, he threw three interceptions (two pick six’s) to Green Bay on Sunday, and then on the first Thursday night game of the year, he completed less than 50% of his passes and failed to deliver in the fourth quarter once again. He threw an interception in Oakland territory and then fumbled on the last play of the game with the Chargers down 24-17.
 
That drops the San Diego record for Rivers in fourth quarter comebacks to 2-10 since 2010. Play-by-play man Brad Nessler tried to get this stat out during the game, but like Rivers as of late, he just choked up. Still, glad to see the mainstream attention starting to come for those that continue to struggle in close games.
 

Pittsburgh Flips the Script

After last week’s devastating finish with Baltimore, the Steelers found themselves in a familiar fourth quarter situation against young Andy Dalton and the upstart Bengals. Holding onto a 24-17 lead, LB Lawrence Timmons caught a deflected Dalton pass for that rare Pittsburgh takeaway. The first three interceptions of the season for Pittsburgh’s defense have all come on deflected passes.
 
The Steelers would come up with their biggest takeaway of the season at the right moment. After the Bengals drove to the PIT 25 with 2:33 left, William Gay, who gave up the winning touchdown to Torrey Smith last week, shot out of a cannon to intercept Dalton’s pass. Ben Roethlisberger ran out the clock with a completion to Mike Wallace for a first down, and the Steelers regained 1st place in the AFC North.
 
It was the first time in 12 games the Steelers came up with multiple takeaways. They were still able to set the record for fewest takeaways (6) through the first 10 games of a season, but with a trio of takeaways the last two weeks, maybe it’s time they’ll start adding up.
 

Winless, Almost Scoreless in Indianapolis

It was the best chance all year for a win for the Colts. They were at home against a familiar opponent that actually scores fewer points per game than the Colts. Well, it still didn’t happen. The Colts have scored 20 points on offense in their last four games combined.
 
Down 10-3 in the fourth quarter, Curtis Painter was intercepted in Jacksonville territory. The Colts replaced Painter with Dan Orlovsky, and it was more of the same. Orlovsky was sacked, fumbled, and the Jaguars only had to drive eight yards for the clinching touchdown (17-3 final).  That makes it 7 lost fumbles for Colts quarterbacks this year. Peyton Manning lost 7 fumbles over the course of his last 133 games.
 
The failed opportunity also makes it 13 straight comeback losses for the Colts, dating back to 2009. It’s a stunning number for a team known to often pull these games out. But without Peyton Manning, no one understands what this team is.
 
With the Rams on the books now, the only teams with longer comeback droughts than the Colts (12/17/2009, 0-13 record) are the Packers (12/13/2009, 0-7 record) and Dolphins (12/6/2009, 0-10 record).
 

Grossman Being Gross

The Redskins trailed 13-9 in the fourth quarter. Rex Grossman threw a bad red zone interception. Reggie Bush scored a touchdown (20-9 final). It was 2006-esque. You’re not interested in this game.
 

Chiefs Trapped in the Tebow Zone

Your only “quarterback” is 0/4 passing in the first half, yet you lead 10-0. He has one completion for 13 yards in the first 53 minutes, yet you still lead 10-7. And then that next completion comes, a perfect pass on 3rd and 10 for the clinching 56-yard touchdown. The offense runs the ball 55 times, throws 8, and wins the game in today’s NFL.
 
Denver fans have been on the losing end of such a game. Back in 2000, the Bengals rushed for 407 yards while Akili Smith and Scott Mitchell combined to go 2/14 for 34 yards in a 31-21 win.
 
This time it was Tebow, somehow outplaying Matt Cassel (in his last appearance of the season; injured reserve) with only two completions. The Chiefs had the ball, down 10-7, to start the fourth quarter, but had to punt. That’s when Tebow finished with his big pass of the day.
 
The Jets come to Denver for Thursday Night Football, and on a short week, after an emotional loss, will have to try and handle this unique type of offense. Will Tebow even throw for 6 yards against that secondary? Does he even have to?
 
That’s just another frightening step into…the Tebow Zone.
 

Jets Crash and Burn in Primetime

In what was supposed to be a “changing of the guard” night for the Jets, the New England Patriots put a stop to their two-game losing streak with an emphatic 37-16 win to take control of the AFC East. The win gave Brady and Bill Belichick a record 117 together in the regular season, the most in NFL history.
 
The Jets missed out on several opportunities in the first half, including a 24-yard missed field goal by Nick Folk on the opening drive, and a couple of dropped interceptions thrown by Brady.
 
The Patriots were starting such a banged-up defensive unit, that the NBC player introductions had just two still images and no audio for LB Jeff Tarpinian and FS Sterling Moore. The only thing funnier would have been a faceless photo like you might see in Madden.
 
After pulling within 23-16 on the first play of the fourth quarter, the Jets were dissected by New England’s no-huddle, only forcing one third down on a 13 play, 84-yard drive that ended with a touchdown pass to Deion Branch.
 
Branch immediately took the opportunity to celebrate with a rousing mockery of Jets’ fan Fireman Ed and his “J-E-T-S” chant. Branch’s mixture of rapid movements, overall mischievousness, and highly-visible teeth brought to mind a film creature from the 80’s cult-classic Gremlins.
 
Shame on Fireman Ed for sitting idly as the Jets’ season was going down in flames Sunday night.

 

Fox’s “Comeback Graphics” Failure

Finally, a perfect opportunity to showcase inconsistencies on fourth quarter wins, courtesy of Fox.
 
During the Giants/Patriots game last week on Fox, the on-screen graphic was used for how many comebacks Tom Brady has in the “4th quarter or overtime when tied or trailing.” As was mentioned last week, the number of games for Brady (34) is right. The wording is what needs work.
 
Flash forward a week later, and thanks to the RedZone channel, two similar graphics were shown in succession for Fox games featuring the Saints and Eagles.
 
Even though they were both Fox games, the graphics contained different information. The phrasing was also different from Brady’s graphic last week, seeing as how the word “comeback” was never used on Sunday.
 
Here is the evidence of these graphics:

 
 
Note: it was decided the Philadelphia/Arizona game was not worth the HD space (or ratio-killing) to acquire, so instead a graphical recreation was used to illustrate what you may have seen during Sunday’s game. Yes, it is unlikely Vick was wearing his Atlanta jersey, or that a dog was chasing him on the field, but the stats are verbatim and that’s what’s important. 
 
So what did we learn? Vick has a rather ordinary “game-winning drives” mention, and nothing else. The number, 11, is correct if you’re talking simply game-winning drives.
 
Meanwhile, Brees gets a bar above noting that postseason is included, which was not used for Brady the previous week. Either they didn’t actually include Brees’ postseason games, or they didn’t include his two games this year, because their number, 25, is two short of the correct 27 (which is now 28 after the game ended). Brees also has “game-tying drives” included in his, which is unique and such semantics doesn’t indicate a win. If that was really a collection of game-tying drives, then the number would be larger. Either way, it should be larger, as 25 is wrong.
 
What’s the fan at home supposed to think if they’re watching all three games? The graphic should be getting across the same standardized data, but that’s not what is going on. Not when you use different phrasings and incorrect numbers.
 
If Brady has 34, that means they are including a game like Buffalo in 2006. That means for Vick, they are not including the 21-point comeback against the Giants last season. That’s a problem.
 
The solution is simple.
 
Tom Brady has 24 fourth quarter comebacks and 33 game-winning drives.
Drew Brees has 18 fourth quarter comebacks and 28 game-winning drives.
Michael Vick has 9 fourth quarter comebacks* and 11 game-winning drives
 
*Comeback wins; Vick has a 10th comeback that resulted in a tie in 2002 (Pittsburgh)
 
If you need to include a bar that says “Regular & Postseason”, then that’s fine. But you do it for everyone, and you keep the phrasing the same for everyone. All that needs to change is the number.
 
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. Don’t worry Fox. He watches Family Guy, The Cleveland Show, and House. Just get your stats right.  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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