Captain Comeback Week 17: 2011 Regular Season Review

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jan 03, 2012



By Scott Kacsmar
Cold, Hard Football Facts Comeback King


The 2011 regular season will be best remembered for all the passing records that fell. The passing onslaught led to the second highest scoring season in NFL history at 44.36 points per game. It probably wasn’t a major factor in the Oakland Raiders setting records for penalties (163) and penalty yardage (1,358).
 
The offensive fireworks created a good atmosphere for comebacks, and while we didn’t set any single-season records (did come close), we did see an unusually high number of comebacks from large deficits. For some teams (Lions, Patriots) that was good news, while some others were the teams often on the losing end of those games (Cowboys, Vikings).
 
Week 17 featured 11 games with a comeback opportunity, but only two teams found a way to win the game. Now is the time to review how all 32 teams did in the final report of the season.
 
Regular Season Report:
Fourth quarter comebacks: 66
Game-winning drives: 83
Games with 4QC opportunity: 151/256 (59.0%)
10+ point comebacks (any point in the game): 41
20+ point comebacks (any point in the game): 6 (single-season record)
Games won in fourth quarter with non-offensive score: 1 (Denver at Oakland…#Tebow)
 
2011 Regular Season 4th QT/OT Records
Team 4QC W 4QC L % 4Q/OT Wins 4Q/OT Losses %
Baltimore Ravens 2 1 0.667 3 1 0.750
Green Bay Packers 1 1 0.500 2 1 0.667
New Orleans Saints 3 2 0.600 4 2 0.667
San Francisco 49ers 5 2 0.714 5 3 0.625
Arizona Cardinals 6 5 0.545 8 5 0.615
Denver Broncos 5 4 0.556 6 4 0.600
New York Jets 4 3 0.571 4 3 0.571
New York Giants 5 5 0.500 6 5 0.545
Cincinnati Bengals 5 5 0.500 5 5 0.500
Detroit Lions 3 4 0.429 4 4 0.500
Tennessee Titans 2 3 0.400 3 3 0.500
Dallas Cowboys 4 4 0.500 4 5 0.444
Atlanta Falcons 3 4 0.429 3 4 0.429
New England Patriots 1 3 0.250 2 3 0.400
Oakland Raiders 1 3 0.250 2 3 0.400
Houston Texans 1 5 0.167 3 5 0.375
Kansas City Chiefs 1 4 0.200 2 4 0.333
Pittsburgh Steelers 1 2 0.333 1 2 0.333
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1 4 0.200 2 4 0.333
Cleveland Browns 1 7 0.125 3 8 0.273
Buffalo Bills 2 5 0.286 2 6 0.250
Chicago Bears 1 2 0.333 1 3 0.250
Washington Redskins 2 7 0.222 2 7 0.222
Minnesota Vikings 0 9 0.000 2 10 0.167
Seattle Seahawks 1 5 0.167 1 5 0.167
St. Louis Rams 1 4 0.200 1 5 0.167
Miami Dolphins 1 5 0.167 1 6 0.143
Philadelphia Eagles 0 6 0.000 1 6 0.143
San Diego Chargers 1 5 0.167 1 6 0.143
Indianapolis Colts 1 7 0.125 1 7 0.125
Carolina Panthers 1 8 0.111 1 8 0.111
Jacksonville Jaguars 0 5 0.000 0 5 0.000
TOTAL 66 139 0.322 86 148 0.368
 
The 2nd-4th columns are for the records each team had in fourth quarter comeback opportunities, as defined by having the ball in the fourth quarter and trailing by 1-8 points.
 
The 5th-7th columns are for the overall record each team had in games decided in the fourth quarter or overtime. The difference would be that this includes games where they may have never trailed and just needed a game-winning drive rather than a comeback. All of these games are based on the offense having the ball, and not the record of the defense in preventing the other team from having a comeback.
 
For example, the Browns were 1-7 at comebacks in the fourth quarter. In addition to those 8 games, they had two games where they won with a game-winning drive (never trailed in fourth quarter; no comeback opportunity). They also had an 11th game that was an overtime loss in which they never trailed in the fourth quarter (again, not a comeback situation). Add it all together and that’s how you get a 3-8 record in 4Q/OT games.
 
Eight of the top 10 teams made the playoffs. The Steelers are the lowest ranked playoff team at 18th, but they have also played in the fewest fourth quarter games (3) this year along with Green Bay.
 

Drive of the Week

Green Bay Packers vs. Detroit Lions
Winner: Green Bay (45-41)

 
Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Deficit: 3 (41-38)
Quarterback: Matt Flynn (1 4QC, 1 GWD – table)
 
It was a Week 17 game between a No. 1 seed that had nothing to play for, and a Detroit Lions team that just wanted to avoid the Saints on Wild Card weekend. Aaron Rodgers took a seat, giving way to Matt Flynn for his second career start. The wind chill was 19, the winds were blowing a wintry mix around, and the teams combined for 6 turnovers.
 
All in all, the perfect ingredients for the biggest passing shootout in NFL history, right?
 
Green Bay ended their fourth quarter comeback drought (first since 12/13/2009 at Chicago) with a rousing 45-41 victory over rival Detroit. Some of the numbers put up were just staggering.
 
Matt Flynn threw for 280 yards and 3 TD…in the first half. He would finish with 480 yards, 6 TD, and 1 INT on 31/44 passing. The yards and touchdowns are both Green Bay records.
 
Matthew Stafford wasn’t bad himself, throwing for 520 yards, 5 TD, 2 INT on 36/59 passing. Stafford finished the season with 5,038 yards (5th all time) and 41 TD passes (tied – 7th all time). But that wasn’t enough to get selected to the Pro Bowl.
 
The two quarterbacks combined for 1,000 yards passing, which is a new record. The net passing yardage (when subtracting sacks) is 971, which breaks the record set in Week 1 between Tom Brady and Chad Henne (906).
 
So how did they get there in the end? Detroit led 34-31 to start the fourth quarter, meaning the Packers have trailed after three quarters in two of their last three games.
 
After Detroit turned it over on downs, the Packers used their often unused running game to move the ball before Flynn hooked up with Donald Driver for a 35-yard touchdown on 3rd and 8.
 
Stafford has been no stranger to comebacks this season, but a false start and first down sack short-circuited the attempt, leading to a three and out. Green Bay returned the favor with their own three and out, and Stafford got the ball back with 5:01 left and needing to go 93 yards.
 
As they had done all day long, yards came with little problem for Detroit. The no-huddle offense got things going, and a 36-yard pass interference penalty on Tramon Williams is even more hidden yardage gained in the passing game this day.
 
Stafford would find Tony Scheffler with two big completions; the second being a 12-yard go-ahead touchdown with 2:39 left. Detroit led 41-38.
 
Now you might recall that Mike McCarthy’s Packers have little track record of pulling off late scoring drives at this stage of the game, but they would make their 6th under him right here.
 
Flynn was 0-2 at comebacks in his appearances last season, so this wasn’t something new for him. With 2:39 left, he had 80 yards of field ahead of him. He was already over the 400-yard mark in the game, so what are 80 more to him?
 
The big play came on a 3rd and 4 at the DET 46. James Jones made a 40-yard catch deep down the right side of the field to put the ball at the DET 6. After a run by John Kuhn, Flynn threw a quick pass to Jermichael Finely for the touchdown with 1:10 left; his 6th touchdown pass of the game. It may have only been the 7th fourth quarter comeback of the Mike McCarthy era, but none were more exciting than this one.
 
Detroit still wasn’t done, as Stafford had 1:10 left and 80 yards to go with a pair of timeouts remaining. Calvin Johnson, who would finish with 11 catches for 244 yards, made a pair of great catches to keep Detroit’s hopes alive.
 
With the ball at the GB 37 and 0:33 left, Stafford had to force a pass that was intercepted by Sam Shields, making it a defensive play that finally puts an end to the shootout. Flynn took a knee and earned his first career victory in a way unlike any other quarterback ever has before.
 
Matt Flynn joins Tom Flores as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to have a fourth quarter comeback and game-winning drive in a game where they threw 6 touchdown passes. Flynn has thrown a record 9 touchdown passes in his first two career starts. He joins Y.A. Tittle (1962), Joe Namath (1972) and Joe Montana (1990) as the only quarterbacks to throw for at least 450 yards and 6 TD passes in the same game.
 
Like Flynn, Flores had to win a similar shootout, 52-49 over George Blanda’s Oilers. Those 49 points are still the most any winning team has ever allowed in a game. This was the biggest Detroit/Green Bay shootout ever, and had a similar score to the 44-40 Green Bay victory in 1986. That day an 83-yard punt return touchdown by Walter Stanley was the winning score.
 
This time it was a classic late-game drill by the offense; the offense with the backup quarterback that threw for 480 yards and 6 touchdowns.
 

The Other Paths to Victory

Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans
Winner: Tennessee (23-22)

 
Type: GWD
Quarterback: Matt Hasselbeck (14 4QC, 22 GWD – table)
 
What past deviance is Houston paying for with their first playoff season being marred by injuries to their top three quarterbacks? We had a Jake Delhomme sighting, folks, and it actually wasn’t that bad of a sight. In fact you could argue it was the best Delhomme performance since the Week 17 finale in 2008.
 
Locked into the No. 3 seed, the Texans had little to play for, but wanted to get some work for their raw rookie quarterback T.J. Yates. The Titans were trying to get the last Wild Card spot, but needed help.
 
Yates completed all four of his pass attempts for 47 yards on a game-opening touchdown drive, but would not see any more action after a shoulder injury. It should not prevent him from making his playoff debut on Saturday, but for a moment, Texans fans were ready to re-hitch their wagons to Jake Delhomme.
 
Delhomme and Matt Hasselbeck exchanged scoring drives, drawing on memories of the 2005 NFC when each player was in their prime. Tennessee took a 16-13 lead into the fourth quarter, but the Texans tied it with a 22-yard field goal by Neil Rackers on the first play of the fourth quarter.
 
The teams would exchange a pair of punts before the Titans took over with 7:03 left at their own 44. Hasselbeck converted a 3rd and 9 with a 9-yard pass to Chris Johnson, before finding Donnie Avery for a 21-yard gain.
 
Two plays later it was Hasselbeck going deep to Nate Washington in the end zone for a 23-yard touchdown with 4:31 left, and a 23-16 lead.
 
Delhomme has had his share of comebacks in his career, and immediately went to Bryant Johnson for a 40-yard gain. But the drive stalled after a sack, and Houston had to punt.
 
After forcing Houston to use all of their timeouts, the Titans had a second down play with 2:00 left, which should have allowed them to burn most, if not all, of the remaining clock. But Ahmard Hall fumbled, and the Texans recovered at the TEN 36 with 1:49 left.
 
Delhomme completed four passes to move the ball to the TEN 5, where he stopped the clock with a spike. After an incompletion, he found Bryant Johnson alone in the end zone for the touchdown with 0:14 left.
 
Now it was time for a smart decision by coach Gary Kubiak to go for the two-point conversion. The Texans did not need to win the game and had no benefit of playing an overtime session, so going for the win on one play was a great call.
 
Going for two in the last two minutes when trailing by one point has not been attempted very often by coaches, as this is just the 7th time since 1994:
 
Do-Or-Die Two-Point Conversions (Since 1994)
Team Date Opponent Time Left Result
Jacksonville 11/19/1995 at Tampa Bay 0:37 Fail, L 17-16
Chicago 10/12/1997 Green Bay 1:54 Fail, L 24-23
Minnesota 12/15/2002 at New Orleans 0:05 Success, W 32-31
Tampa Bay 11/13/2005 Washington 0:58 Success, W 36-35
Denver 9/14/2008 San Diego 0:24 Success, W 39-38
Kansas City 11/9/2008 at San Diego 0:23 Fail, L 20-19
Houston 1/1/2012 Tennessee 0:14 Fail, L 23-22
 
Kubiak’s mentor Mike Shanahan was the last coach to successfully pull it off, and Shanahan appeared to be ready to try it again this year against the Patriots, but Rex Grossman was intercepted before the touchdown.
 
What should be one of the thrilling moments in a NFL game ended up being one of the most anti-climatic (though not as bad as the Rose Bowl). The Texans were moved back 5 yards for a false start, and still determined to go for it; they never even had a chance as the snap was high and sailed over Delhomme’s head before finally being recovered by Tennessee.
 
Tennessee recovered the onside kick and took a knee to end the game. They would still fail to make the playoffs due to their head-to-head loss against the Bengals this year, which was one of Cincinnati’s fourth quarter comebacks.
 
The Bengals will travel to Houston, who is the team they fell victim to a great comeback by Yates earlier this season. In fact we regarded that as the greatest drive in Texans’ history. Now they’ll try to deliver the greatest win in Texans’ history against the same opponent.
 

Miami Dolphins vs. New York Jets
Winner: Miami (19-17)

 
Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Deficit: 4 (10-6)
Quarterback: Matt Moore (3 4QC, 4 GWD – table)
 
Based purely on the drive itself, Miami’s epic 21 play, 94-yard touchdown drive would certainly be the “Drive of the Week.” But the Captain goes more for the bigger story than any one drive, so this game between non-playoff teams in the AFC East ends up here instead.
 
The Jets led 10-6, but Miami took over at their own 6-yard line with 7:56 left in the third quarter. The drive could have ended in a three and out, but Matt Moore found Davone Bess for a 17-yard gain on 3rd and 9.
 
Seven plays later another 3rd and 9 was converted, this time it was a 10-yard gain to Brandon Marshall. The last play of the third quarter was Marshall making a 19-yard play on a 3rd and 13 to keep the drive alive.
 
Three more completions to Bess moved the ball to the NYJ 1. After Daniel Thomas was stopped on two runs, Moore went to Charles Clay for the 1-yard touchdown pass with 10:27 left. The drive ate up 12:29 on the clock, making it the longest drive in Miami history based on number of plays and time of possession. Fitting that it would end with a third down pass, as Moore was 6/6 on third down passing on the drive.
 
If there’s ever been a longer game-winning drive in terms of time consumed, the Captain would love to see it.
 
On 11/15/1987, the Rams took over with 11:01 left in a tied game with the St. Louis Cardinals. They put together a 23 play, 94-yard drive that ended with a game-winning field goal with no time left. That would be the most similar to this Miami drive, except Miami’s was 88 seconds longer and ended with a touchdown.
 
Mark Sanchez had a chance to lead another comeback, but his pass was intercepted, and the Dolphins added a field goal to their lead (16-10). Sanchez came back to lead a long drive of his own, but his 3rd and 6 pass at the MIA 10 was intercepted by Marvin Mitchell, who returned it 55 yards.
 
The Dolphins would add another field goal, taking a 19-10 lead with 2:32 left. The next play for the Jets’ offense looked like another turnover, with Jason Taylor, in his final game, recovering a fumble and returning it for a touchdown. But the dream ending to a great career was not to be, as replay ruled there was no fumble. Still, Taylor got to end his career with a win over the rival Jets.
 
Sanchez would throw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Patrick Turner, but it was too little too late as Miami recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock. The Jets finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs after reaching the last two AFC Championship games.
 
As a sign of the gaudy statistical times we live in, Sanchez finished the season with 32 total touchdowns (26 passing, 6 rushing), which is a higher total than the career-best seasons for quarterbacks such as John Elway, Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw, Bart Starr, and Fran Tarkenton.
 
But in typical Sanchez fashion, he puts together what could be considered “the worst 32 touchdown season ever by a quarterback”, when you look at his 26 total turnovers (18 interceptions, 8 lost fumbles( 6.40 YPA, below league-average 78.2 passer rating, and his general erratic play.
 
Maybe it’s fitting that it can best compare to Al Dorow’s 1960 season for the New York Titans, the inaugural season for the Jets that ended with a 7-7 record. Dorow got one more season to start for the Jets, leading the AFL in attempts, completions, and interceptions (30), but he still made the Pro Bowl.
 
New York didn’t retain him afterwards, which is all Sanchez can hope for at this point in his career. He likely gets one more chance to prove he is the right guy.
 
Matt Moore likely helped Miami win enough games to get them out of the “RGIII sweepstakes”, but his chances to return as Miami’s starter are likely no better than Sanchez’s in New York. Meanwhile Ryan Fitzpatrick implodes after his big contract extension in Buffalo, and you shouldn’t wonder why Tom Brady and the Patriots rule the AFC East.
 

Arizona Cardinals vs. Seattle Seahawks
Winner: Arizona (23-20 OT)

 
Type: GWD
Quarterback: John Skelton (5 4QC, 6 GWD – table)
 
The Seahawks finished 7-9, which is the same record as last season, but there will be no division title this time, as San Francisco took care of that with a 13-3 record. Seattle was outscored by 97 points last year, while outscoring their opponents by 6 points this season. The team improved, but the record didn’t.
 
The “Cardiac Cardinals” finished the season 8-8; once thought highly improbable after their 1-6 start. They did it with all eight wins decided in the fourth quarter or overtime, tying the 2008 Colts for the most such wins in a season (also ties the 2003 Panthers if including playoffs). But they didn’t sniff the postseason either.
 
Such is the misery and charm of playing out West.
 
As the Denver Broncos and Tim Tebow steal the headlines with their 8-8 finish after a 1-4 start, get to celebrate with a division title and home playoff game (against a 12-4 team), there’s little fanfare for John Skelton’s role in taking over for Kevin Kolb and leading the Cardinals back to .500 with six fourth quarter wins of his own.
 
There was no comeback necessary this week, as Arizona opened up a 20-10 lead early in the fourth quarter. Seattle would go three and out, but Skelton’s interception gave them a first down at the ARZ 12.
 
Marshawn Lynch would lose a yard on the ground, and Tarvaris Jackson threw two incomplete passes, leading to a three and out field goal drive. Lynch would be held out of the end zone after scoring in each of the last 11 games.
 
Arizona went three and out, and it only took one play for Seattle to tie the game. Jackson found Ricardo Lockette for a 61-yard touchdown pass with 7:47 left. Each team would punt twice, leading to yet another overtime game for Ken Whisenhunt’s Cardinals.
 
Seattle won the coin toss, but went three and out. Skelton took over and Larry Fitzgerald came up with some highlight-worthy plays, catching three passes for 46 yards on the drive. In between Skelton scrambled for 2 yards on a 4th and 1 to keep the drive alive.
 
After Fitzgerald’s last catch the Cardinals kept it on the ground for three plays, then Jay Feely came on for the 28-yard game-winning field goal.
 
It was Skelton’s 7th fourth quarter/overtime win in just his 11th start (13th game played). The Cardinals improved to 4-0 in overtime this season, setting a record for most overtime wins in one regular season, which is the best overtime record ever (4-0). Only the 2003 Panthers won 4 overtime games (went 4-1), but that includes a playoff win.
 
From Patrick Peterson’s record-setting punt returns to John Skelton’s fourth quarter drives (which featured their share of Larry Fitzgerald heroics), the Cardinals were one of the most exciting teams in the league to watch this season. 13 of their 16 games saw the team have an opportunity with the ball in the fourth quarter or overtime, and they went 8-5 in those games.
 
On a list of all-time Cardiac teams, the 2011 Arizona Cardinals are right near the top.
 

Comeback Failures of the Week

The AFC North came down to predictable fourth quarter failures by the hometown Ohio teams, while the Bills end their season on the opposite side of a big comeback. No one was watching Chicago/Minnesota or Washington/Philadelphia, but we’ll briefly touch on them anyway. The Rams nearly mounted a wicked comeback, while Tim Tebow shockingly failed to deliver one of his own.
 

AFC North Gets Three

The winner of the AFC North was to be decided in the 4:15 P.M. slot on Sunday in Ohio. It looked like all Baltimore early on, with the Ravens jumping out to a 17-3 lead in Cincinnati, while the Steelers trailed 6-0 in Cleveland.
 
Things got interesting in the third quarter as the Steelers scored a touchdown for a 13-6 lead, right around the time the Bengals scored to draw within a touchdown themselves. The Bengals would later settle for a 46-yard field goal in the fourth quarter, trailing 17-13 with 12:35 left.
 
The Steelers were nursing a 13-9 lead in the fourth quarter. Hines Ward caught the 1,000th pass of his career, but it was a dodgy achievement given the play lost 3 yards, putting the Steelers behind schedule on the down and distance in a tight game. Antonio Brown made a great first down catch, as he became the first player in NFL history to have 1,000 yards receiving and 1,000 yards on kick returns in the same season.
 
But on the next play Isaac Redman fumbled the ball. He was filling in for Rashard Mendenhall, who went down with a torn ACL. The Browns were forced to punt, but Redman put the ball on the ground again, bringing the total to four lost fumbles in two games against Cleveland this year by the Steelers’ skill players.
 
With the Bengals down by 4, a promising drive ended as TE Jermaine Gresham fumbled in Ravens’ territory.
 
To exacerbate things for Pittsburgh fans, Ray Rice ripped off a 52-yard touchdown run for a 24-13 lead with 5:41 left. The Bengals would move the ball into the red zone, but had to settle for another field goal with 2:39 left.
 
After a Ravens’ punt, the Bengals had 1:05 left and needed to go 80 yards. A 31-yard pass to Gresham made things interesting, but the Bengals were running out of time. A cheer from the crowd during the final drive when realizing the Bengals were headed for the postseason anyway due to out-of-town scores had to bring about some mixed emotions for the players on the field.
 
After moving the ball to the BAL 33, Dalton’s last three passes would fall incomplete. The next to last pass was a Hail Mary in the end zone, which challenged the referees to throw a flag for obvious interference, which is something they never do in these situations.
 
Dalton’s last pass was another unsuccessful Hail Mary, which ended the game. Baltimore won the AFC North and secured the No. 2 seed in the playoffs.
 
The Steelers punted back to Cleveland, who had 1:46 left, needing 76 yards for a game-winning touchdown. Having to know the news about Baltimore’s win, they continued to play for the win; not pulling any starters on the final defensive drive.
 
Seneca Wallace completed 5 passes to get them close, eventually spiking the ball with 0:05 left at the PIT 24. With time for a Hail Mary, the attempt sailed into the end zone, unsuccessfully finding any Cleveland player.
 
The Steelers swept the Bengals, while the Ravens swept both rivals. At the end of the day, the AFC North gets three teams in the playoffs, meaning this division should play a significant role in determining who reaches the Super Bowl out of the AFC.
 

No One Circles the Wagons Like…the New England Patriots?

Either the Patriots are headed for another rude awakening in the playoffs, or they have just gotten bored with the competition and are purposely getting off to slow starts.
 
Finishing with another top-seed clinching eight-game winning streak to end the season, not much unlike last season’s offensive run, the Patriots found themselves in another early hole. For the fourth time in the last six games, the Patriots trailed by at least two scores in the first half.
 
This time they came back in historic fashion.
 
It was Buffalo that came back from a 21-0 deficit in Week 3 against New England. But just like in 2003 when the Patriots turned a 31-0 loss to Buffalo on opening day into a 31-0 win in Week 17, the Patriots know how to extract their revenge on Buffalo.
 
The Bills went up 21-0 in the first quarter this time, with Ryan Fitzpatrick turning in a near flawless performance on the first three drives. But like last week with Miami, the Patriots turned things around, and Buffalo scored no points on their last 9 drives, turning it over with four interceptions.
 
New England cut it to 21-14 at halftime, and would pull within a point in the third quarter after two more field goals. That’s when Fitzpatrick threw his first interception of the day, and the Patriots only had to go 25 yards for the go-ahead score. Rob Gronkowski caught his 16th touchdown of the season, and Danny Woodhead scored on a two-point conversion for a 28-21 lead. The Patriots didn’t even need the fourth quarter to take control of the game.
 
In the fourth quarter, Fitzpatrick had Buffalo driving, but his interception with the ball at the NE 32 was returned 38 yards by the much maligned Devin McCourty. It only took two plays for the Patriots to add another touchdown for a 35-21 lead.
 
Buffalo went three and out, and Tom Brady threw touchdown pass #300 to Gronkowski, who pushed his tight end record to 17 touchdown receptions on the season. The Patriots weren’t finished, as Fitzpatrick was intercepted for a touchdown on the very next play from scrimmage; this time by Sterling Moore.
 
The last order of business was a fourth Fitzpatrick interception, and with 90 seconds left, the Patriots made sure Jimmy Graham’s TE single-season receiving yardage record was the shortest-lived record in NFL history. Gronkowski caught a 22-yard pass from backup Brian Hoyer, and finished with 1,327 yards, or 17 more than Jimmy Graham. Both players exceeded the former record of 1,290 yards held by Kellen Winslow.
 
The Patriots became the first team ever to trail by 21 points and go on to win the game by more than 21 points.
 
Buffalo finished the year losing eight of nine, and after starting the season with historic comebacks of 18 and 21 points in consecutive weeks, fell victim to the Patriots and their second straight comeback of 17+ points. It’s just been that kind of season.
 
Prior to Christmas Eve, the Patriots had just one win when trailing by more than 14 points at any time in the game since 2000. Two games later and that total has reached 3 games.
 
Can New England get away with slow starts in the playoffs, against teams with winning records? It’s not likely, especially given their 0-2 record all season against such teams. But they will be at home; they have the best offense in the AFC, and won’t panic should they fall behind.
 

Jared Allen Goes on Sack Binge

The Bears can do nothing but stew over season-killing injuries to Jay Cutler and Matt Forte, while the Vikings suffered through one of the worst seasons in franchise history.
 
About the only excitement to come from this season finale was Jared Allen’s relentless pursuit of the single-season sack record. Because even in a season without much signs of defense, a record involving pass defense was still very much in the grasp.
 
It didn’t look that way at the start of the day, with Allen (18.5) trailing Michael Strahan (22.5) by 4 sacks.
 
Minnesota even had a 10-0 lead, but as they did at the start of the season, they let it evaporate rather quickly. This one barely lasted five minutes as the Bears scored a touchdown and then intercepted Christian Ponder for a touchdown to take a 14-10 lead.
 
Allen got to halftime with 1.5 sacks, making him the 8th player to reach 20.0 sacks since they became official in 1982. He wasted no time in the second half, starting the third quarter with another sack. He’d later pick up another on a third down play, giving him 3.5 sacks for the day, and 22 for the season.
 
After that point the Bears would call 12 more pass plays, but no sacks for Allen. The Vikings did finish with 7 sacks on the day.
 
Joe Webb had taken over at quarterback for Ponder, but was unable to move the offense the way he did in Washington last week. Trailing 17-13 in the fourth quarter, Webb threw two incompletions with the ball at the Bears’ 44, forcing another punt.
 
Even after a McCown interception put the ball 20 yards away from the lead, the Vikings lost 3 yards and had to settle for a field goal, which was botched on the hold.
 
The Bears kept it on the ground for six straight plays, much to the chagrin of Allen. Minnesota got the ball back with 1:51 left, but needed a 94-yard drive with no timeouts. Webb started with three completions for 31 yards, and would convert a 4th and 1 with a 9-yard pass to Greg Camarillo, but at his own 46, Webb’s pass was intercepted with 0:26 left.
 
McCown took a knee, and the season was over. Allen finished in a second-place tie with Mark Gastineau at 22.0 sacks on the all-time list.
 
It’s hard to pick a Defensive Player of the Year for this season, but to highlight the relative unimportance of one individual’s sack total, please note the Vikings finished 3-13 with the second worst scoring defense in the league, and the worst defensive passer rating (107.6). Maybe Allen carried his weight, but how much impact did he really have on the worst pass defense in the league?
 

The Anti-Climatic NFC East Finish

The dream team of the off-season managed to put together an 8-8 finish while soaking in the “be glad this team didn’t make the playoffs!” chant of undeserved praise. It was one of the most disappointing seasons in Eagles’ history. There’s no other way to look at it.
 
For three quarters they stuck around with the Redskins, another NFC East team that took the mirage of an early season 3-1 start and turned it into a very real 2-10 finish.
 
Trailing 13-7 to start the fourth quarter, the Redskins had to settle for a 27-yard field goal. The Eagles seized the opportunity by having Michael Vick find DeSean Jackson for a 62-yard touchdown. It was just the fourth touchdown of the season for Jackson, and his longest play this year.
 
The Eagles would go on to add two more touchdowns for a 34-10 final in a game that was closer than the score indicates.
 
The season mercifully ended as Rex Grossman resisted the urge to unleash one final sex cannon with a 24-point deficit, and instead just completed two passes to RB Evan Royster for 15 yards.
 
What did that do? It enabled any stat nerd in the future to reference that Grossman finished the season with only a passer rating of 72.4, and not a 71.0 had he thrown up another interception. It also kept his turnover count to 25, as Josh Freeman led the league with 27. Speaking of turnovers, the Eagles finished the season with 38 (only Tampa Bay had more with 40).
 
Between the Eagles’ problems with turnovers and blown fourth quarter leads, there’s a new saying that goes:
 
There’s no easier way to end a dream than to prematurely screw yourself.
 

Rams Get Up For the Big Boys

It’s now official: the Rams defeating the Saints was the biggest upset of 2011. That result made it a bit ironic that the Saints would have to root for the Rams to beat San Francisco so that New Orleans could clinch the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. Had they taken care of business, the Saints would be 14-2 and Drew Brees would have his first MVP award. But that’s why they’re called upsets.
 
The 49ers were making it look fairly easy early on, taking a 20-7 lead into halftime. Then with a 20-10 lead in the third quarter, their red zone offense stalled once again, just as it has all season. But instead of adding to his record total of field goals, David Akers threw a 14-yard touchdown to Michael Crabtree on a well-executed fake.
 
With the 49ers ahead 27-10 to start the fourth quarter, you could have stuck the fork in this one. But just as the Rams shocked the Saints with a win, the Rams had some fight left in them.
 
Could it have been a last ditch effort for Steve Spagnuolo’s job? Probably not, but who really knows? Spagnuolo’s the guy that’ll be best remembered as defensive coordinator for the upset in Super Bowl XLII, as he never had the Rams relevant enough in his three seasons (10-38 record) to really establish himself in the media as a guy with any type of personality. Did his players love him or hate him? How would we know?
 
Spagnuolo was likely to be fired regardless, but at least the Rams made a game of it in his last try. Kellen Clemens led a field goal drive to cut it to 27-13, but his interception deep in his own territory led to another 49ers’ touchdown with 6:30 left. A 34-13 deficit at that point should have did the trick.
 
The Rams responded with a 69-yard touchdown drive, capped off by Brandon Lloyd’s 36-yard touchdown catch on 3rd and 11. The 49ers blew the onside kick recovery, and after pass interference in the end zone, the Rams were right back in the game with another touchdown; 34-27 with 4:36 left.
 
The 49ers went three and out, and the Rams now had 3:37 to go 54 yards and tie the game with a touchdown. Inconceivable just minutes ago. Clemens found Brandon Gibson for a 21-yard gain on 3rd and 10 to put the ball at the SF 33.
 
But that’s when things finally went south, as Clemens was sacked and injured on a second down sack. Enter the completely unproven Tom Brandstater for his regular season debut, and ask him to convert this 3rd and 17 with the game on the line. Would love to hear Tim Ryan’s “analysis” of what he knew about Brandstater. If it was more than a half-assed attempt at pronouncing his last name, then color me surprised.
 
The conversion didn’t happen, nor did the fourth down attempt. The 49ers gained one first down on the ground and that was all they needed to bleed the clock and clinch the coveted first-round bye, which in all likelihood will set up a Saints at 49ers meeting in the NFC Divisional round.
 

The Tebow Zone: More Like UPN Rehash than S(t)erling Original

Remember when the Broncos went on a 6-game winning streak that was built on not turning the ball over, keeping the score low and close, and Tim Tebow leading late scoring drives?
 
That disappeared in a hurry as of late after the Broncos turned the ball over 6 times against the Patriots and Bills, while allowing 81 points in the process. But Sunday’s game at home against rival Kansas City, with the division on the line, was most troubling.
 
Denver was in their normal “hide the QB” mode in the first half (Tebow: 3/8 for 29 yards). They trailed 7-0 in the third quarter, and only added a field goal after the Chiefs muffed a punt.
 
Then when the fourth quarter came, and the score was 7-3, you expected to see another Tebow miracle take place. Instead the Broncos went to the ground on 9 straight plays, because that was working better. When Tebow finally dropped back to pass, he was sacked, knocking Denver out of field goal range.
 
The next time Denver had a third down in Chiefs’ territory, they went with a cute shotgun run by Jeremiah Johnson. It gained one yard, and they punted again. Kansas City burned some clock, and Tebow was down to 3:59. This is the time, right?
 
Another sack brought up a 3rd and 7, and Tebow’s pass was easily knocked down by Javier Arenas. The Chiefs went three and out again, and Tebow had one last shot: 0:58 left, no timeouts, and 84 yards to go. Denver’s probably overcome something just as unlikely before this season.
 
A third down completion combined with a roughing the passer penalty moved the ball to the DEN 40. But after two incompletions and an 8-yard pass, it came down to a 4th and 2 at the DEN 48. Tebow scrambled around before firing a pass towards Eddie Royal, but it was intercepted by Brandon Carr. Kyle Orton got to take a most-satisfying knee, and Denver still won the AFC West on a tie-breaker, despite finishing 8-8 with three straight losses.
 
The fourth quarter Tebow magic was nowhere to be found, with Tebow going 2/8 for 17 yards, an interception and two sacks in the final quarter. He finished the game just 6/22 for 60 yards, INT, 20.6 passer rating.
 
Now Denver will host the Steelers, and while this is one of the least harassing of Pittsburgh defenses, it is still a stingy one that will make it hard for Tebow to put points on the board.
 
When does “he just wins” come to an end? How does a four-game losing streak sound? That might just be the motive John Elway was hoping for all year to go another direction next year.
 
But alas, the Steelers are a wounded team, and those bad playoff teams without winning records actually do have a good recent track record of winning the first game. They’re 4-1 in the Wild Card round since 2004.
 
Maybe Denver can pull off the upset, which would only blow up Tebow-mania to a new fever pitch, and send Elway into a tizzy from the press box as he begrudgingly displays his approval
 
If you had to pick a game from the Wild Card schedule to show up in next week’s Captain Comeback, this would be the one, right?
 

Drive of the Year

In picking the top game-winning drive of the 2011 season, there were several strong candidates, but in the end, one stood out above the rest.
 

#3 Drive of the Year - Detroit Lions at Oakland Raiders

Week 15
Quarterback: Matthew Stafford
- The Lions trailed 27-21 with 2:14 remaining, and had to go 98 yards. Calvin Johnson took the game over, gaining 92 yards for his offense, including the 6-yard game-winning touchdown catch with 0:39 left.
 

#2 Drive of the Year – New York Giants at New England Patriots

Week 9
Quarterback: Eli Manning
- Trailing 20-17 with 1:36 left at his own 20, Eli Manning took the field with another classic game-winning touchdown drive against the Patriots in mind. It happened, and again with a big helmet catch over the middle by an unsung receiver on third down. Jake Ballard would catch the 1-yard touchdown with 0:15 left, marking the only fourth quarter comeback the Patriots have allowed at home since 2001. But it wasn’t even the best drive of that day.
 

#1 Drive of the Year – Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers

Week 9
Quarterback: Joe Flacco
- Against their bitter rival, the Ravens trailed 20-16 with 2:24 left, one timeout, and needing to go 92 yards against one of the best defenses in the league. The often criticized Joe Flacco put a signature win on his resume with a near-flawless drive, throwing for all 92 of the yards, and overcoming some drops by his receivers. It’s an easy choice for Drive of the Year, given the ramifications it had on the AFC this season. Without the drive, the Ravens are likely preparing to go to Denver as the 5th seed right now, while the Steelers would have had the No. 1 seed, and home-field advantage over the Patriots and everyone else.
 
For a season that produced many great comebacks, no drive had the kind of impact and degree of difficulty as Baltimore stunning Pittsburgh to complete a season sweep.
 
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’s afraid of what can happen to Ryan Clark if he plays in The Tebow Zone. 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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