Captain Comeback Week 16: Lucking Out, or not?

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Dec 27, 2011



By Scott Kacsmar
Cold, Hard Football Facts comeback king


Who says this was the season to “Suck for Luck”?
 
Both the Indianapolis Colts (2-13) and Minnesota Vikings (3-12) watched their backup quarterback lead the first game-winning drive of their careers. The Vikings are out of the race for the coveted #1 pick, leaving a showdown between the Colts and Rams.
 
After having the inside track to the top pick practically all season, the Colts could lose out with a win over Jacksonville, which would complete a season sweep of their AFC South rematches after starting 0-13. The Rams will host a 12-3 San Francisco team that’s looking for a first-round bye.
 
Who would imagine a Week 17 game between teams that were 2-13 and 4-11 could dramatically alter the course of events in the NFL for the next decade?
 
Would the Rams trade Sam Bradford? Would they pass on Andrew Luck? Could someone offer a Herschel Walker-type trade to them? Will Luck just stun everyone and go back to Stanford for one more year?
 
Oh, there’s also plenty of action still going on for the playoff teams this season that will try to reach Super Bowl XLVI. In the AFC, that path will be largely impacted by the AFC North, which is trying to get three teams in the tournament, and likely a first-round bye.
 
As for Week 16, we had eight games feature a comeback opportunity, with the Colts and 49ers cashing in. Three more teams picked up game-winning drives. Choosing the best was simple, as this team has been waiting a long time for one.
 

Drive of the Week

Indianapolis Colts vs. Houston Texans
Winner: Indianapolis (19-16)

 
Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Deficit: 4 (16-12)
Quarterback: Dan Orlovsky (1 4QC, 1 GWD – table)
 
After setting records in 2009 with seven fourth quarter comeback wins (five in a row at one point), the Indianapolis Colts were 14-0. They just came off a Thursday night game in Jacksonville where Reggie Wayne caught a game-winning touchdown from Peyton Manning. That was the record seventh comeback of the season, and the date was December 17, 2009.
 
After that night, the Colts would go on an Indianapolis-worst streak of 14 straight failed comeback opportunities. They happened in a variety of ways, and with four different quarterbacks.
 
When the Colts started this season 0-13, they were 0-7 at fourth quarter comebacks. After switching to Dan Orlovsky, the quarterback that couldn’t win any game in the NFL, they finally broke through with a win in his third start of the season.
 
But that was with Orlovsky passing for 82 yards. When the Houston Texans came to Indy last Thursday night, Orlovsky was going to have to play better for the underdog Colts to avoid their first in-division sweep since 2002.
 
Things got off to a terrible start with Orlovsky fumbling on a sack on the first play, and Houston only needing two plays to walk into the end zone for a 7-0 lead.
 
The Colts would pull within 10-6 in the second quarter, and could have made it a one-point game before halftime, but Adam Vinatieri missed the 42-yard field goal. Evil Peyton was not pleased. This was one of many entertaining shots of Manning throughout the game. Others included him yawning, lifting his leg up, and falling to the ground.
 
Trailing 13-9 in the fourth quarter, the Colts watched another promising drive stall in the red zone, and were forced to kick another field goal to make it 13-12 with 6:48 remaining.
 
The Texans worked the clock and added another field goal. This set up what is essentially your classic comeback situation: down by 4 points, 1:50 left, 78 yards to go, and no timeouts.
 
This is what you want to see, but rarely ever get from a game. When it’s the Colts and Dan Orlovsky, you don’t expect this to go very far. But with defensive coordinator Wade Phillips recovering from his gall bladder surgery, some of the old Houston habits of failing in the clutch resurfaced.
 
Orlovsky started the drive with an 11-yard completion to Pierre Garcon, before finding Jacob Tamme for 10 yards three plays later. What really got things going was a great Reggie Wayne catch on a 3rd and 7 that gained 34 yards. It was vintage Wayne, and Orlovsky quickly got the offense ready to spike it with 0:46 left at the HOU 20.
 
This is when things got out of control for the Texans. Orlovsky scrambled for two yards, but rookie defensive end J.J. Watt was called for illegal use of hands, giving the Colts an automatic first down.
 
Orlovsky threw incomplete, but Watt was called for a consecutive penalty; this time a shady roughing the passer call as he was pushed low into the quarterback’s legs. Now the Colts had a 1st and goal at the HOU 6, and looked poised to pull off the upset.
 
On second down, Orlovsky had Tamme open in the end zone for the touchdown, but the relentless Watt got a hand on the ball to deflect the pass short of the receiver.
 
On third down, it was Glover Quin getting called for pass interference; the third defensive penalty on Houston in the last 0:46.
 
Now with the ball at the 1-yard line, Orlovsky dropped back and threw left to Wayne for the touchdown with 0:19 left, which is the closet thing resembling Wayne’s game-winning touchdown in the “4th and 2” game against New England in 2009. Wayne has four of Indy’s last five game-winning touchdown passes in the fourth quarter.
 
The Texans only had 0:14 left and T.J. Yates’ final desperate heave fell incomplete to end the game. He was 13/15 for 132 yards before that play, but the Texans could never put up enough points to put the Colts away, and that was with Arian Foster rushing for 158 yards. Houston is now 0-10 in Indianapolis.
 
The Colts won, and with a fourth quarter comeback. The drought is over, stopped at 14 games. It was 12/17/2009 on a Thursday night NFL Network game when they last had a comeback, and now on 12/22/2011 they did it again, and with another key Reggie Wayne performance. If that’s his last moment in a home game for the Colts, it will be a memorable one.
 
The drive should be a memorable one, not just as the highlight of the Colts’ season, but as one of the best two-minute drills for a touchdown the Colts have had in the Indianapolis era.
 
Fourth Quarter Two-Minute Drill Touchdowns: Colts 1980-2011
QB Date Opp. Down Score Time Start Time End QB DL
Mike Pagel 10/21/1984 PIT 6 TD 1:35 0:34 3/4 for 89 yards, TD 80
Jack Trudeau 9/30/1990 at PHI 6 TD 1:51 0:00 7/13 for 82 yards, TD 82
Peyton Manning 10/6/2003 at TB 7* TD 1:41 0:35 2/3 for 64 yards 85
Peyton Manning 11/15/2009 NE 6 TD 2:00 0:13 2/2 for 16 yards, TD 29
Dan Orlovsky 12/22/2011 HOU 4 TD 1:50 0:19 5/11 for 59 yards, TD 78
 
*Game-tying touchdown drive to force overtime, where Colts won to complete improbable comeback
 
Jack Trudeau was just too legit to quit.
 
That was just the fifth time since 1980 the Colts took over in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter and scored a tying or game-winning touchdown on their way to victory. Now with their draft fate and possible long-term future in the balance, Colts fans may find themselves actually rooting for that Week 17 loss.
 
The last two victories have erased the 14-game losing streak and the 14-game failed comeback streak. Now it’s time to best prepare for 2012 and what they can do with Peyton Manning and the top pick in the draft.
 

The Other Paths to Victory

New England Patriots vs. Miami Dolphins
Winner: New England (27-24)

 
Type: GWD
Quarterback: Tom Brady (24 4QC, 34 GWD – table)
 
The close-call shocker of Week 16 was when the Miami Dolphins headed into Foxboro and opened up a 17-0 halftime lead on the Patriots. Tom Brady was sacked three times and completed just 3/14 passes for 37 yards on New England’s first six possessions.
 
Given that the Steelers were winning their game, and that the Patriots had only once overcome a deficit of more than 14 points in the Bill Belichick era (21 points at Chicago), things were starting to shake up in the race for home-field advantage.
 
The Patriots received the ball to start the second half and moved 54 yards to settle for a field goal and their first points of the day. That’s when the Miami offense that was so good in the first half started to fall apart, as Matt Moore’s fumble was recovered by Vince Wilfork at the MIA 38.
 
Brady would find Deion Branch in the back of the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown pass. Miami ran three plays and lost 7 yards, going three and out. The Patriots started this drive at the MIA 41, and used seven plays to score a touchdown after Brady sneaks it in on a 1-yard play.
 
After 12:43 elapsed in the third quarter, the Patriots had erased the 17-point deficit, and only had to gain 133 yards in the process.
 
With a chance to regain some control of things in the fourth quarter, Miami converted a third down with a pass to Brian Hartline. Belichick challenged the spot, but lost his first challenge of the season.
 
On the very next play Moore hung up a deep ball that was easily intercepted by Devin McCourty. The Patriots would drive 74 yards, highlighted by a 42-yard gain to Wes Welker, before Stephen Gostkowski made a 42-yard field goal with 8:55 left.
 
Miami continued to sputter on offense, with Moore throwing two incompletions and then being sacked on 3rd and 10 by Jerod Mayo. The Patriots would add an insurance touchdown, another 1-yard Brady run, with 2:56 left for a 27-17 lead. It capped off a 27-0 run by the Patriots in the second half.
 
As expected, the Dolphins would go to the no-huddle and quickly put together an 80-yard touchdown drive against New England’s defense. But after kicking deep, and with any film study of the last five years telling you who the ball was going to on 3rd and 5, they couldn’t prevent the completion to Welker that enabled New England to run out the clock for a 27-24 win.
 
It was a tale of two halves, but as expected, the Patriots were the better team in the end. The Dolphins are 0-6 in fourth quarter comeback opportunities this season.
 
With his 34th game-winning drive, Tom Brady moves into elite company on the all-time list:
 
Most Career GWD (Incl. Playoffs)
Rank Quarterback GWD
1 Dan Marino 51
2T Peyton Manning 46
2T John Elway 46
4 Brett Favre 45
5 Johnny Unitas 40
6 Warren Moon 37
7T Fran Tarkenton 34
7T Tom Brady 34
 
It was elite company he had just passed, as Joe Montana retired with 33 game-winning drives.
 

Oakland Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs
Winner: Oakland (16-13 OT)

 
Type: GWD
Quarterback: Carson Palmer (11 4QC, 18 GWD – table)
 
The Raiders and Chiefs often play close games, and this was no different. It was however much different than the first meeting this season when the Chiefs intercepted 6 passes from Kyle Boller and Carson Palmer (in his season debut), on their way to a 28-0 victory.
 
It was Boller and Matt Cassel starting that game at quarterback. Now it was Palmer and Kyle Orton, making his second start for the Chiefs in the second game with Romeo Crennel as interim coach.
 
Still alive for the AFC West, the Chiefs continuously stalled on offense for three quarters, and trailed 10-6 to start the fourth quarter.
 
Orton, known for his ability to usually protect the ball, threw an interception on third down with 12:53 left. The Raiders would go three and out, giving the ball right back.
 
The Chiefs rolled the dice on a 4th and 1 at their own 43, and Jackie Battle was stopped for no gain. Of all the favorable fourth down decisions coaches pass on, this one, with 7:45 left, was a surprise from a defensive-minded coach in Crennel.
 
The Raiders added a field goal, and now the Chiefs had to score a tying touchdown instead of a game-winning touchdown. They had 2:57 left and needed 80 yards.
 
Dwayne Bowe caught passes for gains of 15 and 13 yards to start the drive. A short pass to Dexter McCluster gained 49 yards down to the OAK 3. On the very next play Orton found Bowe on a back-shoulder pass for the touchdown with 1:02 left.
 
Not showing the greatest clock management, the Raiders went three and out and gave the Chiefs one more chance in regulation. They only had 0:16 and two timeouts left at their own 33.
 
Orton threaded two dangerous, but accurate passes to Bowe for 25 and Terrance Copper for 11 yards to set up a 49-yard field goal attempt.
 
Timeout: Terrance Copper? Wow, it’s sure felt like that guy has been floating in the “Free Agents” list on every version of Madden since the days of Playstation 2. Guess not. Third season with the Chiefs.
 
Ryan Succop’s field goal was blocked by Trevor Scott. The Raiders also blocked Succop’s earlier attempt in the second quarter. That time it was Richard Seymour.
 
The game would go to overtime, with the Raiders winning the coin toss. On the very first play from scrimmage, Palmer had all day to survey the field and launched a bomb to Darrius Heyward-Bey for 53 yards.
 
It’s a play Al Davis would be proud of, and it’s exactly the type of play that makes many of us hate the NFL’s overtime system. A team wins a coin toss, makes one big play, and just like that they’re in field goal range. If this was a playoff game, Oakland would not be able to just kick a field goal and win. Why not expand that rule to the regular season next year and see what happens?
 
After just two runs for 5 yards by Michael Bush, Sebastian Janikowski came out and nailed the 36-yard game-winning field goal. That was just the third time Carson Palmer has led a game-winning drive in a game he’s thrown at least two interceptions. The other two times he backed it up with 4 TD passes.
 
Kansas City was eliminated, and the Raiders still have a shot to win the AFC West thanks to Tim Tebow’s unexpected holiday pick parade in Buffalo. Who had Denver and Oakland alive for the 2011 AFC West in Week 17 with Kansas City and San Diego eliminated?
 
They may prove to be fodder for the AFC North runner-up, but they also could pull off a huge upset to shake things up. The AFC has been anything but consistent this year.
 

Minnesota Vikings at Washington Redskins
Winner: Minnesota (33-26)

 
Type: GWD
Quarterback: Joe Webb (0 4QC, 1 GWD – table)
 
It’s hard to talk up a fairly meaningless Minnesota win when the big story was superstar running back Adrian Peterson suffering a serious knee injury after tearing his ACL and MCL.
 
Peterson is the type of talent that you could say “he will be a first-ballot Hall of Fame lock as long as he stays healthy.” Now that the serious injury has happened, you can only hope he can return and be the same dominant runner he was. It’s just a reminder of how quickly things can change when injury is involved; especially at the running back position (Terrell Davis, Billy Sims, Bo Jackson, Gale Sayers, William Andrews to name a few). The shelf life isn’t often very long.
 
You’re born and you’re red. You’re dead and you’re blue. You’re green at 19 and gray at 22. – Les Savy Fav
 
Peterson’s injury happened on the first play of the third quarter. Sadly, on the very next play Christian Ponder suffered a concussion on a huge hit by London Fletcher. That would knock him out of the game as well.
 
Joe Webb came in and kept the offense moving, rushing and throwing for a touchdown in the third quarter to take a 23-20 lead into the fourth quarter. Rex Grossman completed a 29-yard pass on 2nd and 19 on the last play of the third quarter.
 
The drive would stall at the MIN 7, but the Redskins were able to tie the game at 23 on Graham Gano’s 25-yard field goal.
 
Webb would answer right back with a 36-yard pass on 3rd and 10 to Percy Harvin. Three plays later it was Webb to Harvin again for an 8-yard touchdown pass. Grossman went deep (of course!) and was intercepted. All is right in the world with Rex Grossman leading the league in turnovers (24). The only strange part is he’s tied by Philip Rivers.
Minnesota added a field goal for a 33-23 lead.
 
The Redskins would get a field goal, but after Minnesota went three and out, Grossman had 0:55 to drive 64 yards with no timeouts. An illegal motion penalty led to a 10-second runoff, and Grossman’s desperation pass fell incomplete to end the game.
 
It’s the first game-winning drive for Joe Webb, who accounted for 3 touchdowns (2 passing, 1 rushing) and 115 yards on 11 drop backs.
 
The Vikings won the game, but they lost their stud running back, their rookie quarterback had a concussion, and they no longer can get the #1 pick in the draft. It was a win, but what Minnesota lost this week is the real story.
 

San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks
Winner: San Francisco (19-17)

 
Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Deficit: 1 (17-16)
Quarterback: Alex Smith (9 4QC, 11 GWD – table)
 
The San Francisco 49ers continue to be the statistical anomaly of 2011. Now 12-3, they have elite numbers in many key categories, but they lack the high-level passing game most of the favorites possess today. But they make up for it by making timely plays through the air, which happened again in their 5th fourth quarter comeback of the season.
 
After an emotional win over the Steelers on Monday night, they travelled to the difficult Qwest Field in Seattle on a short week. Correction: apparently Qwest Field was renamed CenturyLink Field this year. The Captain thinks he’ll stick to calling it Qwest.
 
The Seahawks had won five of their last six games and have been playing well under Pete Carroll as of late. Not surprisingly they played the 49ers tough, trailing 13-10 to start the fourth quarter.
 
The 49ers would add a field goal, which has become a bit predictable this season. David Akers set the NFL record with his 41st successful field goal of the season. That gave the 49ers a 16-10 lead with 12:37 left.
 
A punt by Seattle led to a punt by San Francisco, except the unexpected happened: the Seahawks blocked the punt. The 49ers recovered at their own 4, but it didn’t matter. Seattle was going to take over with great field position and 6:47 left.
 
Marshawn Lynch got the ball immediately and would break two impressive San Francisco streaks: he scored the first rushing touchdown allowed by the 49ers all season, and he went over 100 yards rushing. No one broke 100 yards rushing on San Francisco in the previous 36 games.
 
The Seahawks led 17-16, but the 49ers have been used to coming back this season, especially on the road. An offensive pass interference penalty on Braylon Edwards to start the drive threatened to put a quick end to this attempt, but on 2nd and 18, Alex Smith found Michael Crabtree down the field for a 41-yard gain on a perfect pass.
 
Three conservative running plays later, and it was Akers kicking his 42nd field goal of the season for a 19-17 lead with 2:57 left.
 
Tarvaris Jackson had a good chance to lead a game-winning field goal drive, but after an attempt to scramble he fumbled the ball. The 49ers went three and out, and Jackson had 0:41 left. The Seahawks would go four and out.
 
That’s what the 49ers do. They don’t turn the ball over (possible NFL record-tying 10 on the season). They take the ball away (league-leading 36 takeaways). They make some key plays in the passing game when they need to, and David Akers has been money this season (42/49 FG’s).
 
Will it work against the Saints or Packers? We should get the answer to at least one of those questions in the coming weeks. A yet-to-be-won game over the hopeless Rams is the only thing keeping the stars aligning for a Saints/49ers meeting in the NFC Divisional round.
 
Until then, the unlikely quarterback success story of the season continues with Alex Smith. Back in Week 2 it was easy to pan Smith after a close loss to Dallas, given his history. But no player may have ever gone through such a one-year change like Smith has.
 
This was his 5th fourth quarter comeback of the season, and the fourth on the road. When you play for the San Francisco 49ers as a quarterback, you are talking about the loftiest of standards. Smith has put himself in good company this year when it comes to comebacks.
 
Most 4QC, Single Season - 49ers
QB Season 4QC Wins
Alex Smith 2011 5
Y.A. Tittle 1957 5
Jeff Garcia 2001 4
Joe Montana 1989 4
 
It’s not just a franchise record that he set.
 
Most Road 4QC Wins, Regular Season
QB Season 4QC Road Wins
Joe Montana 1989 4
Jim Everett 1989 4
Peyton Manning 2008 4
Peyton Manning 2009 4
Eli Manning 2011 4
Alex Smith 2011 4
 
Montana and Everett met in the NFC Championship in the 1989 season. Not going to pencil in a rematch between the Giants and 49ers for this year’s game, but as things stand right now, it is a possibility.
 

Comeback Failures of the Week

In the battle of New York, New York, Rex Ryan and Brandon Jacobs showed about as much love for one another as you’d expect in real life from an in-his-prime Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli. What was Marty thinking? In other news, the plug has been pulled on The John Skelton Show, but it had a good run. Last week we mentioned how Cleveland fans would be thrilled to have a season like Arizona’s, and Sunday proved another good example, as a huge comeback win at Baltimore failed after inexplicable fourth down plays on both sides of the ball.
 

New York, New York

It’s the battle of New York…played in New Jersey. The most hyped game of the week was really the sloppiest, offensively. Since the teams showed such little flow, the Captain is going to slice and dice his way through this game recap as best he sees fit.
 
When each team has 16 possessions, and that’s with only having to count one kneel down drive, and the game didn’t go to overtime, you know something was majorly screwed up about the offenses.
 
Eli Manning and Mark Sanchez combined to complete 39/86 passes for 483 yards, 4 turnovers and a safety. But that’s just scratching the surface of the ugly quarterback numbers produced in this game.
 
But before we dig into the dirt, what happened to the vaunted pass defense for Rex Ryan’s Jets? Eli completed only 9 passes (27 attempts), but they went for 225 yards, including a 99-yard touchdown to Victor Cruz. Last week Michael Vick had 9 completions for 222 yards early in the game against the Jets. That’s 24.8 yards per completion when you combine the two. How does that happen?
 
While Eric Smith has certainly proven time and time again he can’t get the job done at safety, you still have the supposedly great defensive mind of Ryan, Revis Island locking down a part of the field, and yet teams have been exposing the Jets in ways they couldn’t the last two years.
 
Then there’s that offense. They actually scored an opening-drive touchdown, which is a true rarity, and was aided by the Giants getting caught with 12 men on the field on fourth down.
 
But what offensive gameplan would call for Sanchez to drop back 68 times in a game the Jets never trailed by more than two scores in? The game was never even really out of reach until the final two minutes, and they still let him drop back 68 times.
 
The Giants took a 17-7 lead into the fourth quarter, and on the very first play it was Sanchez throwing an interception. That led to a field goal and a 20-7 lead.
 
After some subterfuge with another lame tuck rule call (on a play involving Justin Tuck of all people), the Jets get the ball down to the NYG 1. That’s where Sanchez fumbles the center’s snap. How does that still happen at this point in the season?
 
But the Giants were in a gift-giving mood, as Eli’s pass was immediately tipped and intercepted right back to the Jets. Sanchez would eventually scramble for a 1-yard touchdown run to make it 20-14 with 7:17 left. The game literally went on forever. The Eagles and Cowboys were trying to figure out if they could rest the starters, if they were going to play a meaningful game, and they couldn’t make those decisions as this disaster endured.
 
Joe Namath was on Twitter looking for a comeback:
 
 
 
So was Fox, as they continued being naughty with their graphics and semantics for fourth quarter wins. First it was Kenny Albert mentioning Sanchez has nine fourth quarter comebacks since Week 6 of last season; the most in the league. How’d he get 9? Apparently by counting all regular season game-winning drives as “comebacks” would be the only way.
 
Then it was graphic time. This one said regular season and postseason, and that Sanchez had 10 “game-winning or game-tying drives” in his career. First, how is it not 11? Second, why would you put “game-tying” in there? What happens if you tie the game with a touchdown and lose, such as Kyle Orton did against Oakland this week? Nothing in those semantics should say you would exclude it.
 
To put the cherry on top. Daryl Johnston would later comment on Sanchez’s comebacks, as evident by the graphic that was up earlier. You know, the same graphic that never actually mentioned the word “comeback” at all.
 
Come on Fox. New Year’s resolution: you will fix your fourth quarter wins semantics, and you will stop making sitcoms so bad you already know they’ll be cancelled after three episodes.
 
But down 20-14, Sanchez got the ball at the 50. He threw incomplete twice and then was sacked. The Giants punted, only after Tom Coughlin nearly suffered a Sean Payton injury on the sideline.
 
Sanchez now had a big spot: down 20-14, 92 yards to go, 2:24 left, and one timeout left.
 
Not today. Cue the throw while falling down in the end zone pass to D’Brickashaw Ferguson (yes, he’s still an offensive tackle), which was ruled down in the grasp; a sack, and a safety.
 
The onside kick try went out of bounds, and it took Ahmad Bradshaw one play to put it away with a 19-yard touchdown run. Sanchez threw one final pick for good measure, mercifully bringing the game to its demise.
 
How bad was the production by Sanchez on 68 drop backs? The best comparison would be a game by none other than Chris Weinke, back in his rookie season with the Carolina Panthers.
 
Extreme Cases: High Volume, Low Productivity
QB Date Opp. Passes Yds Sacks Yds Runs Yds Drop Backs Yards Yds/DB
Mark Sanchez 12/24/2011 NYG 59 258 5 32 4 13 68 239 3.51
Chris Weinke 12/30/2001 CRD 63 223 0 0 5 19 68 242 3.56
Donovan McNabb 11/12/2000 at PIT 55 213 3 11 5 27 63 229 3.63
 
Weinke lost his game 30-7. McNabb actually won 26-23 in overtime. Sanchez played a close game, yet the play-calling was still this unbalanced, despite the terrible production from the Jets’ passing game.
 
Happy Holidays, New York. You might get at least one team in the playoffs this year.
 

Pulling the Plug on The John Skelton Show

Well it finally happened. John Skelton found a fourth quarter comeback he couldn’t finish, dropping that pristine 5-0 record to 5-1.
 
This time, the hole was dug too big. The Bengals took a 17-0 lead in the second quarter after Jerome Simpson made the highlight-reel of the year with his touchdown catch and flip into the end zone. You don’t need a link, because any NFL fan worth their salt has seen it multiple times by now.
 
It was Andy Dalton’s 20th touchdown pass of the season, which puts him in rare company for rookies that threw at least 20: Peyton Manning (26), Charlie Conerly (22), Dan Marino (20) and Cam Newton (20).
 
While the athletic touchdown stole all the headlines, it was Arizona making another interesting comeback attempt in the fourth quarter. This time the deficit was 23-0, and they had only 14:17 left. Of their six fourth quarter comebacks this season, the largest deficit overcame was 10 points against Cleveland the previous week. 23 points would be rare company.
 
It started with a 61-yard touchdown drive; Larry Fitzgerald outran Cincinnati’s defense for a 30-yard score. Cedric Benson fumbled, and the Cardinals now had great field position at the CIN 39. Three straight completions got the ball in the end zone, with Skelton’s 2-yard pass to TE Jeff King capping the drive. The two-point conversion attempt failed as Skelton had the ball knocked out of his hand.
 
The Cardinals responded on defense again to force a three and out. Skelton would find Fitzgerald with a 39-yard gain down to the CIN 1. Just when you thought they could make it 23-20, a near-disastrous fumble lost 10 yards and forced a 2nd and 11. Skelton couldn’t complete another pass, and the Cardinals settled for the field goal (23-16).
 
Benson was in the gift-giving mood, as he immediately coughed up the ball for his second fumble of the quarter. For all the talk about Tebow’s winning streak and the crazy things that happened for Denver this year, they may have been even crazier for Skelton and Arizona.
 
Now with 3:04 left and 22 yards away from tying the game, Skelton had his opportunity to fully erase the 23-point deficit. Arizona took their time on the drive, and after a screen to Fitzgerald only gained two yards, they were faced with a 4th and 5 at the CIN 17. Skelton lofted a pass for Early Doucet, who was wide open in the end zone, but he tripped and fell down. The ball just landed harmlessly on the ground, and back in possession of the Bengals.
 
Not wanting to win easily, the Bengals stopped the clock with a personal foul on first down. Arizona used their two final timeouts and got the ball back with 0:48 left, needing 60 yards. Skelton completed two passes for 18 yards, spiked the ball, then had an 8-yard completion to the CIN 34. Not choosing to spike it, he set up a play with time running out, and threw complete over the middle to Andre Roberts, who went down rather easy at the CIN 15.
 
The clock expired, and the Bengals’ playoff chances improved, while the Cardinals were eliminated. They didn’t go down without a fight. They just tripped themselves.
 

Cleveland’s Fourth Down Failure Works Both Ways

For the sixth time in their last seven games, the Browns and their opponent played it close in the final minutes. And for the fifth time, Cleveland lost in the end.
 
It didn’t look like it would come to that, with Baltimore opening up a 17-0 lead in the first half. The Browns squandered points before halftime by unsuccessfully running the ball without any timeouts left, as they watched the clock expire. Some teams are just way ahead of the curve than others. Should have been an obvious spike or pass play situation.
 
Baltimore would go up 20-0 before Josh Cribbs provided that needed spark with his 11th career return touchdown; this one for 84 yards. It’s just the third punt return touchdown of Cribbs’ career.
 
In the fourth quarter, Seneca Wallace completed an 80-yard touchdown drive with a 6-yard pass to Evan Moore to make it 20-14. Baltimore went three and out, and the Browns had their chance.
 
After an incomplete pass on 3rd and 5 at their own 45, the Browns decided to burn their final timeout with 4:03 left. Rather than punt the ball, they decided to go for it, which was a questionable decision given Baltimore’s lackluster offense in the second half and other factors (field position, time).
 
What happened next made the decision look even more foolish, as Wallace floated a short dump-off pass to Peyton Hillis, who (maybe) caught the ball at the line of scrimmage, and gained no yards. That type of pass when you need five yards gives you no realistic shot to convert. Baltimore stopped it with ease and took over on downs.
 
To add to the holiday misery of being a Browns fan, they weren’t finished yet. The Ravens decided to line up for a 4th and 2 at the CLE 37 at the two-minute warning. Joe Flacco used a hard count, and rookie Phil Taylor jumped, drawing the five-yard penalty and the game-clinching first down. Three knees by Flacco ended it.
 
The Ravens are 8-0 at home for the first time ever, but should they lose in Cincinnati on Sunday, coupled with a Pittsburgh win, they will be heading on the road in the playoffs as the fifth seed.
 
Cleveland helped Baltimore out this week. Will they help them again with a win over Pittsburgh? The AFC North will be decided in Ohio on Sunday.
 
NEXT WEEK: Tony Romo picks worst week for right hand injury. Cowboys at Giants will be at least the fourth most scrutinized game of his career, with a chance to move up to third (only behind 2007 Giants’ playoff game and the hold). Passing records and milestones will officially fall in bunches, but keep an eye on this one: 2011 has seen 64 fourth quarter comeback wins. We need six more to tie 1989 for the most ever with 70. It’s asking a lot, but you never know what you’re going to get, especially in Week 17.
 
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 wonders what kind of QB you can get combining Tim Tebow and John Skelton. 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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