Captain Comeback Week 8: More Tricks than Treats

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Nov 01, 2011



By Scott Kacsmar
Cold, Hard Football Facts Trend Tracker


Defense has returned to the NFL. It took nearly half a season, but the blistering offensive pace at the start of the season has settled down into the more conventional type of production we’ve seen in the last few years.
 
That means another week with no 400-yard passers, and five quarterbacks went over 300. That also means comebacks are slowing down, with the exact same number of comebacks (2) as Week 7. There were four game-winning drives, and seven games featured a comeback opportunity.
 
Sunday was a day of unusual events, including the Ravens falling behind 24-3 to Arizona before making the largest comeback in their team’s history. It marked the 5th time this season a team came back from 20+ points down to win a game, already a single-season record.
 
In perhaps the upset of the season, the Saints went from a 62-7 rout of the winless Colts to a 24-0 deficit against the winless Rams. Even the winless Dolphins had a 14-3 lead over the Giants before losing in the fourth quarter. As for the Colts, well they’re still hopeless in Indianapolis.  
 
The “practically midway point of the season” count:
Fourth quarter comebacks: 35
Game-winning drives: 40
Games with 4QC opportunity: 73/116 (62.9%)
10+ point comebacks (any point in the game): 23
20+ point comebacks (any point in the game): 5 (single-season record)
 

Drive of the Week

New York Giants vs. Miami Dolphins
Winner: NY Giants (20-17)

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Deficit: 7 (17-10)
Quarterback: Eli Manning (17 4QC, 21 GWD – table)
 
They don’t run the ball well (85.6 yards/game - 30th in the league). They don’t stop the run well (130.1 yards/game – 28th in the league). They are 5-2, despite outscoring their opponents by just 10 points this season. Injuries have been piling up. They rely on their defensive line and the quarterback leading game-winning drives in the fourth quarter.
 
Since when did the New York Giants turn into the Indianapolis Colts?
 
As the only active Manning this season, Eli is off to the best start of his career. It’s the type of season that would have his brother Peyton in MVP consideration, which is what Eli deserves to this point. The Giants have not been a dominant team, but they keep finding ways to win, and Eli’s fourth quarters have been a big factor. His 119.4 passer rating in the fourth quarter is the highest in the league.
 
After getting Tebowned last week against Denver, the winless Dolphins didn’t look like a great challenge for the bye-week rested Giants, but as we learned with their loss to Seattle, you never know what you’re going to get.
 
The Dolphins were game enough to grab a 14-3 lead in the first half. They led 17-10 after three quarters, and that’s when Manning went to work. On the two fourth quarter scoring drives, he was 8/9 for 121 yards, including the 25-yard game-winning touchdown pass to Victor Cruz on a 3rd and 12.
 
It was Manning’s 11th game-winning touchdown pass of his career. The 45 pass attempts were the most he’s ever had in a win.
 
After the Giants failed to run much clock, the defense shut Miami down, forcing an interception on a desperate 4th-and-23 throw by Matt Moore. It secured Miami’s 10th straight loss dating back to last season. The Dolphins have scored more than 17 points in just two of their last 12 games (1-11 record).
 
The schedule now gets extremely tough for the Giants, starting with a trip to New England. The Giants will need Eli to keep up this type of production against the better opponents. 
 

Eli Manning’s Fourth Quarter Wins: How many?

It was only two weeks ago when Tom Brady’s fourth quarter wins for the Patriots lapsed into the semantics mess. Now it’s Eli Manning and the Giants’ turn. Fittingly, these two teams will meet in Week 9.
 
Fans of the Giants (should) know Eli has been one of the best quarterbacks in the league in this area, but how many know exactly how many times he’s done it?
 
The Giants themselves actually aren’t doing that bad of a job here. In their weekly media releases they list Manning with 17 “Game-Winning Drives”, which they describe as “victories in which Manning rallied the Giants from a fourth-quarter deficit or tie to win.” That is the same kind of language the Patriots use in their guides, except the word “comeback” does not appear here.
 
On Twitter the Giants did in fact update the number to 18, and avoided the word “comeback” altogether. They also mentioned it was the fourth time Eli had done it this season, which is true.
 
All the Giants are doing is counting game-winning drives in the regular season, and they aren’t expressing otherwise. Of course the Patriots and several other teams include the playoffs for their quarterback’s total.
 
Eli became the only quarterback in NFL history to lead 3 game-winning drives in the same postseason in 2007, so they’re not doing their franchise quarterback any favors here by excluding them. Basically the Giants seem to follow the same methods the Colts use, which just happens to be the team Peyton Manning plays for.
 
The problem is in the interpretation of this data. People instantly want to convert that “from a fourth-quarter deficit or tie to win” into one word: comebacks. But we know they aren’t all comebacks, as winning a game after it was only tied (such as the winning drive against Buffalo two weeks ago) is not a comeback.
 
This leads to all kinds of reports of Eli having his 18th comeback, and his fourth comeback of the season. Start finding sources that would use Brady’s playoff wins to enhance his total, while keeping Eli’s to the regular season, and it’s about time for an aspirin to sort through it all.
 
You can get to 18 comebacks for Eli without even using the numbers from the Giants, which is what Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News did. He included in his own personal list New York’s 2007 victory over the Buffalo Bills, a game in which Eli, down 21-17, fumbled on the first snap of the fourth quarter. Two plays later the Giants intercepted Trent Edwards for the go ahead touchdown. The Giants do not count this game, nor is it counted at pro-football-reference due to the lack of an offensive score.
 
“Many don’t count it,” Vacchiano said of including such a game. “It's not an official stat so there's no standard. I choose to count them all because [the] line is undefined.”
 
We know all too well about the unofficial nature of these stats, which is why standardization is so important if people are going to continue using them for these quarterbacks.
 
As always, the solution is simple: Eli Manning has 17 comebacks and 21 game-winning drives in his career. If you want to include the 2007 Bills game as a footnote, have at it. The work’s already been done.
 

The Other Paths to Victory

Minnesota Vikings at Carolina Panthers
Winner: Minnesota (24-21)

Type: GWD
Quarterback: Christian Ponder (1 GWD – table)
 
It didn’t take long for the Carolina Panthers to return to Captain Comeback. Unfortunately, their record has fallen to 1-6 in comeback situations this season. This time it was another battle of the rookie quarterbacks, and Christian Ponder picked up the first game-winning drive of his career.
 
After taking a 21-14 lead in the third quarter, Carolina went three and out on three straight drives. The game was tied 21-21 to start the fourth quarter.
 
Minnesota put together a long scoring drive, jumpstarted by Ponder’s conversion to Percy Harvin on 3rd and 7. Ryan Longwell kicked the go-ahead 31-yard field goal with 2:43 left.
 
Cam Newton once again was put in position to be a hero. It looked bleak as Carolina faced a 4th and 15, but Newton stayed in the pocket to deliver a strike to Brandon LaFell for 44 yards.
 
A holding penalty on Steve Smith stalled the drive in the red zone, and it was up to kicker Olindo Mare to make a 31-yard field goal to tie the game.
 
The problem is he missed with 0:26 left, and that ended Carolina’s hope. It was the first true “do or die” miss by a kicker this season, and Mare is no stranger to blowing crucial kicks for his team. Earlier in the season he missed a go-ahead 52-yard field goal against Chicago, and in the 2003 season with Miami, Mare missed on a pair of 35-yard field goals against the Patriots early on in their record 21-game winning streak.
 
The Panthers have been in every game this season; they just find a way to lose most of them. Few ways are more excruciating than watching your kicker miss a short one at the end.
 

Baltimore Ravens vs. Arizona Cardinals
Winner: Baltimore (30-27)

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Deficit:  4 (24-20)
Quarterback: Joe Flacco (5 4QC, 9 GWD – table)
 
The Ravens looked like they were still in their Monday Night mode, as 1-5 Arizona jumped out to a shocking 24-3 lead in the first half in Baltimore.
 
All comebacks have to start somewhere, and the Ravens added an important field goal just before halftime to make it 24-6. Anquan Boldin (7 catches, 145 yards) went nuts against his former team in the second half, as Joe Flacco, booed in the first half, rebounded to lead two long touchdown drives in the third quarter.
 
After a Kevin Kolb interception, the Ravens scored the go-ahead touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter. Flacco was in line for the cheap (statistically) fourth quarter comeback, but the Cardinals weren’t done just yet. They would add a field goal to tie the game at 27.
 
After several punts, Flacco took advantage of great field position in the last minute to find rookie Torrey Smith for a 36-yard gain, setting up Billy Cundiff for the 25-yard game-winning field goal with no time left.
 
It was the biggest comeback in Ravens’ history, and just the 5th of Flacco’s career. Flacco became the 5th quarterback since 1960 to win a game with 50+ pass attempts and zero touchdown passes (Warren Moon did it twice).
 
Arizona lost their sixth straight game, and it was another disappointing performance by Kolb. Some may say it was a disappointing day for the Ravens as well, as they have now struggled against Tennessee, Jacksonville and Arizona.
 
Was their dominant Week 1 performance against the Steelers a fluke? We’ll find out Sunday night when they go to Pittsburgh for the primetime rematch.
 

Kansas City Chiefs vs. San Diego Chargers
Winner: Kansas City (23-20 OT)

Type: GWD
Quarterback: Matt Cassel (5 4QC, 8 GWD – table)
 
Just last week we pointed out Philip Rivers’ struggles in the fourth quarter dating back to 2010. It happened again, dropping Rivers to 2-8 in comeback situations since 2010.
 
The way it happened was about as jaw-dropping as it gets.
 
Rivers started the game poorly, throwing two interceptions in the first quarter. He heated up afterwards, but San Diego continued to settle for field goals through three quarters.
 
The Chiefs pushed the lead to 20-12 in the fourth quarter, and that’s when Rivers had his best drive of the night. He uncharacteristically scrambled to his right twice, finding a receiver open downfield both times for big gains.
 
Little-known reserve running back Curtis Brinkley made three big plays in a row: a 20-yard catch, a 2-yard touchdown run, and a 2-point conversion catch to tie the game.
 
The Chiefs went three and out, Rivers converted a huge 3rd and 18 to Patrick Crayton, and it appeared the Chargers were going to be able to set up a last-second field goal for the win.
 
That’s when absolute disaster struck. With the ball at the KC 15 and just over a minute left, Rivers failed to handle the snap properly from the center and fumbled the ball. The Chiefs recovered.
 
On Halloween night, Rivers tried his best Joe Pisarcik costume. Ron Jaworski (the winning quarterback in that Pisarcik game) was obviously there to call the game. Also in attendance was Rivers’ first head coach, Marty Schottenheimer, the man that had to witness Earnest Byner and “The Fumble”, among other disappointments.
 
Rivers thought it was the worst day ever, but he has competition for that title.
 
The game didn’t end at that point though. Matt Cassel threw a late interception, which made it 8 turnovers on the night between the two teams. That was a good sign to just go to overtime.
 
San Diego went three and out, only after Rivers fumbled again and almost lost another. Cassel came back to make some big throws on the drive, and his conversion to Steve Breaston on 3rd and 14 allowed the Chiefs to run the ball the rest of the drive.
 
Ryan Succop, bad last name and all, came out and calmly hit the 30-yard winning field goal.
 
The Chiefs have come back from a brutal 0-3 start to win four straight games and hold a first-place tie in the AFC West. But that’s not going to be the story from this one.
 
Philip Rivers coughed one up on primetime. He leads the league in interceptions (11). He’s had bad turnovers in the fourth quarter the last two weeks, and now San Diego has to host a rested Green Bay team. Only days later do they host Oakland on Thursday Night Football.
 
The season can fall apart in a hurry here for Rivers and San Diego. That fumble could be the play of the year in the AFC West.
 

Top Comeback Failures of the Week

The role reversal in Pittsburgh, the uninspiring rookie in Jacksonville, the inspired city of St. Louis, and the legend of Tebow, praying for a Sunday do-over.
 

Steelers vs. Patriots: Role Reversal

The Steelers picked up their first win over Tom Brady since Halloween 2004. To do it, they borrowed a page right out of the Patriots’ playbook. It was nothing more than a little role reversal.
 
In 2002 the Steelers went into New England’s new Gillette Stadium looking for revenge after the 2001 AFC Championship defeat. Instead, they got a first dose of the Patriots’ unique approach to offense that would set the tone for years to come in how some capable teams would handle Pittsburgh’s defense.
 
Tom Brady was in his second year as the starting quarterback, and Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis made sure the training wheels were completely off. They let Brady spread the field with 4-5 receiver sets, and pass, and pass, and pass. Brady dropped back to pass on 25 straight plays at one point. The Patriots easily won the game 30-14, and the nightmare was only beginning for the Steelers.
 
Teams took immediate notice of this approach to attacking the zone blitz and LB-heavy defense of the Steelers, and Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon threw 64 passes the following week, completing 43 of them.
 
It didn’t stop there, as the Steelers struggled all the way through the playoffs against the pass. Cleveland’s Kelly Holcomb passed for 429 yards in the AFC Wild Card game at Pittsburgh, only to lose after a 17-point comeback by the Steelers. Steve McNair ended their season the following week with 338 yards passing in an overtime win.
 
Two years later the Steelers brought Dick LeBeau back as defensive coordinator. The defense stymied Brady and the undermanned Patriots, ending their record 21-game win streak. But in the AFC Championship, the Patriots came back with more weapons and Deion Branch got behind the defense twice for huge gains en route to a 41-27 win.
 
The Patriots came back to Heinz Field the following year and Brady passed for 372 yards in a comeback win. Brady would continue to post huge numbers against the Steelers, beating them in 2007 and 2010 as well, which improved his record to 6-1 against the Steelers. The Steelers beat the Patriots in 2008 when Matt Cassel started the game.
 
Along the way other top quarterbacks used a similar offensive approach to Pittsburgh’s defense with great success. Kurt Warner almost pulled off the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history against the league’s #1 defense in 2008. Just last season, Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers went 3-0 against the Steelers, with each quarterback going over 300 yards and multiple touchdown passes.
 
This finally pushed the media to get down on LeBeau’s flawed schemes against the spread in the build-up to Sunday’s meeting with the Patriots. The pass rush from outside didn’t work as the quarterback gets the ball out so quickly. The large cushions given up by the cornerbacks allowed for easy completions. Something had to change.
 
The Steelers’ best defense was a ball-control offense. But this wasn’t your normal ball-control offense. The Steelers took a page right out of the Patriots’ playbook and utilized the short passing game and spread the field with five receivers early and often.
 
Ben Roethlisberger was 23/32 in the first half alone. He would finish the game 36/50 for 365 yards. He became the 10th quarterback since 1960 to throw 50+ passes in a game that his team won by more than 7 points. Teams rarely throw the ball this much in games that aren’t extremely close.
 
The Steelers used the pass to control the clock, winning time of possession 39:22 to 20:38. They were 10/16 on third down, and didn’t punt until the last half-minute.
 
Then there was the defense. Despite missing several starters, LeBeau finally tried something different. It was something so obvious, that you have to wonder why he hasn’t tried it earlier, or why most teams don’t use it.
 
Tight man coverage. Don’t allow a free release to the receivers, disrupt the timing of the play, and be as physical as you can be. The results were a season-low 198 yards for Brady (sacked three times), and just 39 yards for Wes Welker.
 
Even with all the good things the Steelers did, the Patriots still had a small chance very late in the game for a winning touchdown. Brady held onto the ball too long and Brett Keisel knocked it out of his hands. Troy Polamalu knocked the ball out of the end zone for a safety.
 
The safety meant the Steelers finished yet another game with no takeaways on defense. Just last week we looked at quarterback turnovers and safeties, and how these plays should count as turnovers. Brady lost the ball; the Steelers gained two points on the scoreboard and possession. What else would that be other than a turnover?
 
The record goes on with the Steelers having the fewest takeaways (3) in the first 8 games of a season since 1940. Regardless, they’re 6-2 for the fifth straight year under Mike Tomlin, and ready for another big AFC showdown with Baltimore. That’s hardly a spread attack to get concerned over, but if teams want to try it, the Steelers finally look prepared to defend it.
 

Blaine Gabbert’s Uninspiring Season

While rookie quarterbacks like Cam Newton, Andy Dalton and Christian Ponder have shown impressive flashes this season; Blaine Gabbert has been underwhelming to say the least. After struggling to pass for 109 yards in Pittsburgh, Gabbert was just 9/20 for 93 yards in the win over Baltimore. Against Houston, he threw an interception on the first play of the fourth quarter, which the Texans used to push the lead to 14 points. Gabbert finished 10/30 for 97 yards, TD, 2 INT and a 26.7 passer rating. He’s completing just 45.7% of his passes and the Jaguars are dead last in scoring (12.2 PPG). You may recall some people thought Gabbert was going to be the #1 overall pick in the draft this year. Early returns explain why he fell to #10.
 

Stepping Out of the Tebow Zone

Last week the stat was given in that all five of Tim Tebow’s significant NFL appearances, he turned a fourth quarter deficit of 10+ points into a one score game. The question was whether or not he could successfully try this against a better team.
 
The Detroit Lions answered that resoundingly with a 45-10 win in Denver. Tebow gave the Lions more touchdowns (2) than he scored for his team (1). Tebow finished with 56 drop backs, but only gained 180 yards. 38-3 is not a manageable fourth quarter deficit for anyone.
 
At the time it was 38-3, Tebow had passed for only 37 yards, and lost 44 more on sacks for a net of -7 yards. How does that even happen in today’s NFL? What would Tebow do against a pass defense like the Jets (they play them on November 17th)? At this rate, we won’t find out as he’s not going to remain the starter without significant improvement.
 

Saints: What If Texas Won the World Series?

Did 62-7 anger the football Gods? Can the World Series champions actually inspire a football team to pull off this kind of upset? Whatever happened, this was a game no one could have predicted. Drew Brees went from a flawless performance last week to a sloppy three quarter shutout against one of the worst teams in the league. By the time the Saints were within 10 points, Brees went 0/4, throwing a game-clinching pick six for the Rams. He missed out on the chance to tie the NFL record for six consecutive games with 300+ yards passing, but he did extend his consecutive games with a touchdown pass streak to 35 games thanks to a garbage time score.
 
Then again, the 0-8 Rams got their first win in 2007 against the Saints. In 2009, they were a Hail Mary short of pulling off the upset against the undefeated Saints. The Rams lost convincingly 31-13 last year in New Orleans, but challenging the Saints in three out of four games isn’t bad.
 
Keeping the butterfly effect in mind, one has to wonder how this game would have played out if Texas simply broke the hearts of St. Louis fans and got one of those final outs they failed to get in Game 6.
 

Say Two Hail Marys

1. On Devil’s Night, Dallas laid an egg in Philadelphia. It was a stunning turn of events, considering Dallas had played 11 straight games decided by a total of 30 points before cruising to a 34-7 victory over the Rams last week. They lost to the Eagles by that same 34-7 score as Andy Reid improved to 13-0 after regular season bye weeks. For that, the Cowboys get Dan Dierdorf’s seal of apprewwval.
 
2. Mike Shanahan was shut out for the first time in his career as a head coach, and in a game played in Toronto to boot. Buffalo managed 9 sacks after having just 4 heading into the game.
 
Next week: Green Bay looks to make history while Philip Rivers will try to avoid the hot seat for the first time in his career. The timing of this matchup should make for some interesting drama.
 
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 doesn’t like baseball, but still thinks Game 6 of the World Series was actually more interesting than a lot of Weeks 7 and 8 of the NFL season.  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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