Three-quarters good: Steelers, Pats in unique company

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Nov 11, 2011



By Scott Kacsmar
Cold, Hard Football Facts Novella Writer


Last Sunday, fans of the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers were reacquainted with a certain dreadful feeling.
 
It’s late in the fourth quarter and your team is left precariously hanging onto a lead of no more than six points. Your defense takes the field with the goal of one last stop to secure the victory. There is a long field to defend, which gives you confidence, but in the back of your mind you know giving up that touchdown likely means bitter defeat.
 
That confidence is only fleeting as the opponent begins to make first downs, with each one increasing your anxiety. The game clock starts to feel like it’s moving slower than it normally does. The pass rush that was so effective earlier becomes nonexistent. You are just waiting for someone, anyone, to make the big play and put an end to this. And all the while, that overwhelming sense of helplessness absorbs you.
 
And then it happens.
 
That ultimate kick to the gut: watching your defense allow the game-winning touchdown in the final seconds. Your heart may momentarily stop at the sight of it. There is no time left to retaliate. Your team just blew their opportunity and lost the game.
 
As a sports culture that celebrates winners first and losers never, we must remember the other side of the thrilling finish: the agony of defeat.
 
Kurt Warner knows this feeling all too well, having lost two Super Bowls in the final seconds after leading historic comebacks. “There are few things worse than sitting on the sidelines with game in the balance and knowing you no longer have a say in the outcome,” said Warner, who’s story is intertwined with this week’s subjects.
 
This week, fans of the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers have been dealing with that feeling of bitter defeat. Despite the past success, despite their defenses being operated by revered masterminds Bill Belichick and Dick LeBeau, it’s a feeling these fan bases have had to deal with too often in recent years.
 

Recent Origins for AFC Powerhouses

The Patriots and Steelers have enjoyed two of the most successful runs in NFL history. They have represented the AFC in the Super Bowl seven times in the last 10 years, winning five championships between the two. However, each team has lost their most recent Super Bowl.
 
The defenses implemented by coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau have received a lot of credit for the success of each team, and their instrumental role cannot be disputed. What can be disputed is how much credit they deserve for the successes, and how much blame they should be getting for the failures.
 
Each team has gone through some significant changes in recent years.
 
Belichick’s Patriots have lost many veteran players on defense over the years due to retirement, trades or free agency. We are talking about players such as Rodney Harrison, Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi, Richard Seymour, Ty Law, Asante Samuel and Mike Vrabel. They have not reloaded nearly as well on this side of the ball in recent drafts, and have instead focused on building an offense with a great offensive line and many weapons for Tom Brady to utilize.
 
After coach Bill Cowher’s retirement, the Steelers hired Mike Tomlin as their new head coach in 2007. Known for a 4-3 defense in Minnesota, Tomlin retained Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator and continued utilizing his 3-4 zone blitz scheme. The Steelers have continued to age gracefully on defense, but some younger replacements will need to be groomed to sustain long-term success.
 

The Year-By-Year Look

You can find a summary of stats, findings and tables below, but the yearly look provides the context to the data plus more nuggets. Yes, this section’s long, but so was Das Boot, which is awesome.
 

2007: And All That Could Have Been

The Patriots were coming off a disastrous heartbreaker in the 2006 AFC Championship when they allowed 32 points in the second half. Their defeat to Indianapolis after a 21-3 lead in the first half is the largest blown lead in championship game history. They allowed an 80-yard game-winning touchdown drive with one minute left. It was just the second time since 2001 the Patriots lost a game in which they had a fourth quarter lead.
 
Shaking off the Spygate controversy at the start of the season, the Patriots used their newfound identity on offense to set league records for points scored and became the first team to ever start 18-0 on their way to Super Bowl XLII.
 
They rarely played games where the defense needed to be clutch in the fourth quarter, but they were successful at doing that four times. The game they didn’t succeed was the Super Bowl. Eli Manning led two 80+ yard touchdown drives, including the greatest drive in NFL history to win the game with his touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress with 0:35 left. The perfect season came to an end in stunning fashion.
 
Meanwhile the Steelers had a successful 10-6 playoff season in Mike Tomlin’s rookie year, but struggled in close games, especially on defense.
 
Week 4 at Arizona (L 21-14) - After falling behind 14-7 in Arizona thanks to a punt return touchdown, the defense allowed Arizona to chew up over seven minutes of clock and score another touchdown (21-7), which led to the 1st loss of the season.
 
Week 7 at Denver (L 31-28) – The offense erased a 28-14 deficit in the fourth quarter to tie the game with 1:10 left. The defense allowed Jay Cutler to lead a game-winning field goal drive with no time left.
 
Week 10 vs. Cleveland (W 31-28) - After the offense scored two fourth quarter touchdowns to take a lead over Cleveland, Derek Anderson drove down the field to set up a 52-yard game-tying field goal, but Phil Dawson missed with 0:06 left.
 
Week 11 at NY Jets (L 19-16 OT) – After the offense spotted the defense a 3-point lead, the Jets drove 76 yards on the Steelers in the last 2:23 to force overtime, where they won 19-16 after a good punt return set up a short field.
 
Week 15 vs. Jacksonville (L 29-22) - Twice the Steelers came back from large fourth quarter deficits to Jacksonville at home, only to see the defense allow the winning score in the last two minutes. In the first meeting, the Steelers trailed 22-7, tied the game at 22, but Fred Taylor scored a rushing touchdown with 1:57 left for a 29-22 win. Maurice Jones-Drew rushed for 20 yards on a 3rd-and-11 play on the drive.
 
AFC Wild Card vs. Jacksonville (L 31-29) - The Steelers overcame a 28-10 deficit in the fourth quarter to take a 29-28 lead. Jacksonville took over with 2:38 left, converted a 4th and 2 along the way, and that 32-yard scramble by David Garrard set up the Jaguars’ winning field goal with 0:37 left. The 18-point comeback would have been the largest ever in the fourth quarter for a playoff game, but they were unable to hold off Jacksonville again.
 
Despite a defense that only allowed a league-best 51 points in the fourth quarter in 2007, most of the points they allowed were the game-winning points.
 

2008: Things Falling Apart

Tom Brady’s ACL injury in the first quarter of the 2008 season opener changed the entire complexion of the NFL season, especially in the AFC.
 
The Patriots would still finish with a respectable 11-5 record behind Matt Cassel, but were just 3-4 against teams with a winning record. They did not lose any fourth quarter leads during the year. After a great comeback that was only completed on a Randy Moss touchdown catch with no time left against the Jets, the Patriots lost in overtime after the Jets won the coin-toss and marched 64 yards for the game-winning field goal.
 
Perhaps no team took advantage of Brady’s absence more than the Steelers, who would finish 15-4 and win the Super Bowl. Their season was defined by close wins, as Ben Roethlisberger led six wins in the fourth quarter/overtime (five comebacks, five game-winning drives).
 
The nature of those wins reflected well on the offense of Pittsburgh, and not so much on the defense, which ranked #1 during the season in many key categories.
 
Week 4 vs. Baltimore (W 23-20 OT) – Holding onto a 20-13 lead in the fourth quarter, Baltimore went 76 yards for a touchdown to tie the game. The Steelers would hold on the next two drives, and win the game in overtime on a field goal by Jeff Reed.
 
Week 5 at Jacksonville (W 26-21) – After taking a 20-14 lead into the fourth quarter, the Jaguars finished a 76-yard touchdown drive to take a 21-20 lead. Roethlisberger’s go-ahead touchdown pass with 1:53 left gave Pittsburgh a 26-21 lead. The defense was able to hold, forcing Jacksonville to turn the ball over on downs after their drive gained 7 yards.
 
Week 11 vs. San Diego (W 11-10) – The Steelers led 8-7 after three quarters. San Diego went on a long, 78-yard drive that ended with a field goal. Roethlisberger led a 73-yard drive that ended with the game’s winning field goal with only 0:11 left. By the time Philip Rivers touched the ball, there were only five seconds left and not enough time to realistically do anything.
 
Week 14 vs. Dallas (W 20-13) – Trailing 13-3 in the fourth quarter, the Steelers came back with 10 straight points to tie the game with 2:04 left. The defense made arguably their best stand of the season with a pick six of Tony Romo and subsequent turnover on downs for a 20-13 win.
 
Week 15 at Baltimore (W 13-9) – This is the game that really won the division for the Steelers in 2008. Trailing 9-6 with 3:36 left, Roethlisberger led the Steelers on a 92-yard drive, ending with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes with 0:43 left. Joe Flacco had little time and threw a desperate pass that was intercepted to end the threat.
 
Super Bowl XLIII vs. Arizona (W 27-23) – In what may be the greatest fourth quarter in Super Bowl history, it was Pittsburgh’s #1 defense that surrendered a 20-7 lead to Kurt Warner’s prolific passing performance. Two of the points were the result of a safety by the offense (holding in the end zone), but right after that Larry Fitzgerald went 64 yards right down the middle of the field for the go-ahead touchdown. Roethlisberger had 2:30 left, but went 88 yards for the classic touchdown throw to Holmes with 0:35 left. Warner didn’t have enough time for the touchdown and was sacked and fumbled on the final play. The Steelers avoided the biggest collapse in Super Bowl history thanks to one of the all-time great drives.
 

2009: Broken

The 2009 season provided many excruciating moments for fans of these two teams. The Patriots would lose 33-14 to the Ravens in the AFC Wild Card, while the defending champion Steelers would finish 9-7 and miss the playoffs entirely.
 
Returning for a season debut on Monday Night Football, Tom Brady led the Patriots to a thrilling comeback win over Buffalo. After that game, we wouldn’t see the Patriots pull off another comeback win for over a year (21 games). But they watched their opponent make several against them in that time.
 
Week 5 at Denver (L 20-17 OT) - Patriots led 17-7 at halftime, but did not score in the second half. Kyle Orton led the Broncos back in the fourth quarter with a 98-yard touchdown drive. The game would go to overtime, where Denver drove 58 yards for the game-winning field goal, handing Brady his first loss in an overtime game (he never got on the field).
 
Week 10 at Indianapolis (L 35-34) - After some dominant wins to get to 6-2, the Patriots played the Colts in their annual primetime showdown, in a game that would again change the nature of the AFC for the season. Despite leading 31-14 in the fourth quarter, the Patriots gave up two quick touchdowns to Peyton Manning and found themselves ahead 34-28 with 2:23 left. Brady would throw the ball on three straight plays, including an infamous 4th-and-2 decision at their own 28 by Belichick, which they did not convert. Manning threw the game-winning touchdown with 0:13 left, completing the huge comeback and bringing loads of criticism on Belichick. Did he not trust his defense? Why didn’t he punt?
 
Week 13 at Miami (L 22-21) – After taking a 21-10 lead early in the third quarter, the Patriots again did not score in a road game the rest of the way. Miami did end up with four chances to overcome a 2-point deficit, and on their last drive, they did. Dan Carpenter’s 41-yard game-winning field goal came with 1:02 left. Brady threw a desperation interception and the Patriots had allowed another comeback win.
 
Week 17 at Houston (L 34-27) – Even with a 27-13 lead in the fourth quarter, Houston came back with three consecutive touchdown drives to take a 34-27 lead with 1:54 left. Belichick subbed in Brian Hoyer, who was unable to lead the comeback, and the Patriots allowed their 4th fourth quarter comeback of the season. This was a team that had allowed three comebacks total from 2001-2008.
 
If you thought the Patriots struggled to finish in 2009, the Steelers took things to a new level. For a team that only allowed 127 points in the first half all season, they allowed 135 points in the fourth quarter (ranked 30th).  Their timing couldn’t have been much worse.
 
Week 2 at Chicago (L 17-14) – After Jeff Reed missed a 38-yard field goal that would have put the Steelers ahead 17-7; Jay Cutler led a 72-yard touchdown drive to tie the game. Reed missed another field goal, and like 2007, Cutler put together a game-winning field goal drive, with the winning points scored with 0:15 left.
 
Week 3 at Cincinnati (L 23-20) – One of the great stats of Bill Cowher’s career was his record with an 11+ point lead (102-1-1). It didn’t take that long for Mike Tomlin to pick up his first loss, as the Steelers held a 20-9 lead into the fourth quarter. The Bengals would later take over with 5:14 left, down 20-15, and used most of the clock to score the game-winning touchdown and 2-point conversion with just 0:14 left. By the time Roethlisberger got the ball back, the clock read 0:02 and he had to try a Hail Mary. Cowher’s lone loss was also against the Bengals (12/30/2001).
 
Week 11 at Kansas City (L 27-24 OT) – After taking a 24-17 lead in the fourth quarter and dominating on defense for most of the game, the Steelers allowed Matt Cassel to lead the Chiefs on a 91-yard touchdown drive to tie the game. They would play to overtime, where Cassel converted a 3rd and 5 with a 61-yard gain to Chris Chambers to set up the winning field goal.
 
Week 12 at Baltimore (L 20-17 OT) – Playing with Dennis Dixon at quarterback, the Steelers took a 17-14 lead on a Dixon scramble. While Flacco will be known best for Sunday’s drive, he had another good one here (6/7 for 90 yards) to tie the game with 1:51 left. Ray Rice gained 44 yards on a 4th-and-5 pass. Dixon’s overtime interception would set the Ravens up with great field position for their game-winning field goal.
 
Week 13 vs. Oakland (L 27-24) – Planning to “unleash hell” in December, Tomlin’s team lost their fourth straight game against an Oakland team with Bruce Gradkowski at quarterback. This was probably the low point of the season, as Gradkowski became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw three go-ahead touchdown passes in the fourth quarter of a game. After Roethlisberger put the Steelers ahead with 1:56 left, Gradkowski drove the Raiders 88 yards, finishing with the game-winning touchdown pass with 0:09 left (sound familiar?).
 
Two weeks later Tomlin had his own Belichick moment against the Packers. After losing a 24-14 lead in the fourth quarter, the Steelers regained it with a field goal (30-28). Despite there still being 3:58 left, Tomlin decided to do a surprise onsides kick. Green Bay recovered and scored a go-ahead touchdown. This appeared to be another case of a coach not trusting his defense (and defensive coordinator) to finish the game. It may have actually worked to his advantage, as Green Bay left enough time for Roethlisberger to drive 86 yards, winning the game with a touchdown to Mike Wallace with no time left.
 
Of the Steelers’ seven losses, they led in the fourth quarter five times, and were tied in a sixth game. Three times they allowed the winning score with less than just fifteen seconds left. The main difference between 2008 and 2009 for Pittsburgh? They usually had time left for Roethlisberger to do something in 2008.
 

2010: Fixed (?)

The teams appeared to reestablish some order with their defensive stops in 2010. The Patriots finished 14-2 to claim the best record in the league, while the Steelers were 12-4 and the 2nd seed in the AFC.
 
Even though they allowed a high volume of yardage, comeback attempts against New England proved futile in the end, often thanks to a key takeaway or stop.
 
The Steelers did allow another Baltimore comeback early in the season. This time Joe Flacco only had to drive 40 yards in the last 1:08. He did, throwing the game-winner with 0:32 left.
 
That pass may not have been the most harmful if Steve Johnson didn’t drop a game-winning touchdown in overtime when the Steelers played Buffalo. He dropped it, and the Steelers were able to win the game with their own drive. The play was eerily similar to Torrey Smith’s drop on Sunday night. The difference is Smith came back with the game-winner.
 
One team that gave both the Steelers and Patriots trouble was the New York Jets. The Jets beat the Patriots in Week 2, and ended their season in the Divisional playoffs with a stunning upset given the 45-3 blowout in December.
 
The Jets had already won in Pittsburgh thanks to a game-winning drive and defensive hold of Roethlisberger and the offense. They would meet again in the AFC Championship with interesting results. After the Steelers opened up a 24-0 lead, the Jets, as they often did in 2010, fought back to make it 24-19 with 3:06 left. The Steelers let Roethlisberger throw the ball, and he was able to convert the 3rd and 6 that allowed the Steelers to run out the clock and spare the defense any opportunity to lose the game late.
 
Had Roethlisberger not converted that play to rookie Antonio Brown, the Jets may have very well went to the Super Bowl after making another classic comeback/Pittsburgh letdown at the end. Santonio Holmes thrives in these situations. The potential 24-point comeback would have been the largest in championship game history (remember, that dubious distinction belongs to Belichick’s 2006 Patriots).
 
It was Pittsburgh that reached the Super Bowl, but their performance against Green Bay left much to be desired. In the fourth quarter, they were unable to stop the Packers from extending the deficit to 28-17. Then after a score by the Steelers (28-25 now), the defense forced the Packers into a 3rd and 10 at their own 25. A three-and-out stop such as this would have been huge momentum for the Steelers, but Aaron Rodgers found Greg Jennings on a rope for 31 yards. Green Bay added a field goal and it was up to Roethlisberger to repeat his magic from 2009. He didn’t this time, and the Packers won Super Bowl XLV. The Steelers finished -3 in turnover differential, giving it up three times and forcing no takeaways.
 

2011: The Downward Spiral (?)

Through nine weeks of this season, neither the Steelers nor Patriots inspire much confidence in their defense’s ability to close games.
 
In ending their 15-game losing streak to the Patriots, Buffalo put together a 95-yard drive in the fourth quarter to tie the game. It was aided by three different penalties on the defense. After Brady did his part to tie the game, Buffalo simply played keep away and milked the final 3:25 to kick the game-winning field goal.
 
Following some improved defensive performances, such as holding Dallas to a field goal in the red zone late in the game, some people thought the Patriots might be turning the corner on defense. That thought quickly evaporated after their performance in Pittsburgh, only to return after a very good three quarters against the Giants.
 
But when it reached the fourth quarter, things went back to Super Bowl XLII mode and there was Eli Manning once again leading a pair of 80+ yard touchdown drives to win the game in the final seconds. It was the first time the Patriots have allowed a fourth quarter comeback at home since 2001.
 
Then you have the Steelers.
 
After getting a rare takeaway this season against the Colts, the Steelers promptly let Curtis Painter engineer an 80-yard touchdown drive to tie the game. Roethlisberger had to lead a game-winning field goal drive. After tying Houston, the Texans immediately went on an 85-yard game-winning touchdown drive.
 
Though they did their job well enough against the Jaguars and Patriots, the big blow came Sunday night when Baltimore embarked on the greatest drive in Ravens’ history: 2:24 left and 92 yards to go. The Steelers had no answers, no pass rush, and played a baffling style of defense once Baltimore got close enough to take shots in the end zone. It was almost as if the Steelers weren’t aware the Ravens had no choice but to score a touchdown. It’s inexcusable for the defense not to have tighter coverage with safety help in that situation.
 

Not So Super Defense

Between Belichick (5-2) and LeBeau (2-4), they combine for 11 Super Bowl appearances and 7 rings. Looking into their big-game performances provides some interesting facts about their defenses.
 

Super Bowl XXIII

Finding a close Super Bowl that went down to the wire used to be a dream for NFL fans. Many times the game was over at the half. Nowadays, we are spoiled by expecting the game to be great, because since the 1997 season, it usually has been.
 
We finally struck gold with Super Bowl XXIII between the San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals. This game was close from start to finish, and it provided the first great game-winning touchdown drive in Super Bowl history.
 
It was the game’s best quarterback, Joe Montana, going 92 yards in the last 3:20, working the middle of the field perfectly as he dissected Cincinnati’s defense. That defense was of course coordinated by Dick LeBeau, who was also the defensive backs coach in 1981 when the 49ers first beat the Bengals in the Super Bowl.
 
Montana’s touchdown pass to John Taylor came with 0:34 left, and LeBeau’s defense was the culprit.
 

Super Bowl XXV

Just two years later we had another classic in Super Bowl XXV between the New York Giants (#1 defense with Bill Belichick as defensive coordinator) and Buffalo Bills (#1 offense). The Giants would prevail 20-19 after Scott Norwood missed a 47-yard field goal with 0:04 left.
 
Belichick’s defensive game plan was put into the Hall of Fame, which given the outcome, was an absurd move. It’s also an overreaction to Buffalo scoring 44 and 51 points in their two previous playoff games compared to 19 in the Super Bowl.  It’s almost as if people forgot they were playing the best defense in the league, and that these teams already played a 17-13 game in December. We already knew the Bills could be contained by this defense.
 
It makes things even easier when you win time of possession 40:33 to 19:27 the way New York did. Their best defense was the ball-control offense. Buffalo, despite the low time of possession, still piled up 371 yards. Their main struggle was on third down (1/8).
 
You are probably aware of how Belichick likes to take away what the opposing offense does best. Well, Thurman Thomas rushed for 135 yards on 15 carries. He broke two tackles on his way to a 31-yard touchdown run to start the fourth quarter. Jim Kelly was almost never hurried or pressured, was sacked once, and had a solid day passing (18/30 for 212 yards). Buffalo had no turnovers on offense.
 
Most importantly, when Buffalo had 2:16 left at their own 10-yard line, down 20-19, they moved down the field to give their kicker a chance for the game-winner.  Had that kick, the same type which Adam Vinatieri would later make famous, been successful, then there’s no game plan in Canton. The Bills win, and Belichick’s defense is the scapegoat for giving up all those points and yards in less than 20 minutes of possession.
 
LeBeau (1995 Steelers) and Belichick (1996 Patriots) would lose Super Bowls in the mid-90’s with their new teams, in games that were remembered more for a cornerback’s unlikely interceptions (Larry Brown) and a Heisman Trophy winner’s big return day (Desmond Howard).
 

New England Dynasty

Five years later, Belichick would return to the Super Bowl. This time he was the head coach of the Patriots. As 14-point underdogs, Belichick’s defensive game plan was working wonders against the St. Louis Rams’ #1 offense. They played very physical with the receivers, gave up some yards, but did not break and made key turnovers to build a 17-3 lead.
 
Then the fourth quarter came, and the Rams got hot. A 77-yard touchdown drive was later followed by a 55-yard touchdown drive, and the game was tied with 1:30 left. In 45 Super Bowls, no one has ever erased a fourth quarter deficit as large as that 14-point deficit in Super Bowl XXXVI.
 
We all know what happened next. Belichick’s young quarterback, Tom Brady, set up Adam Vinatieri for the game-winning field goal (48 yards, one more than Norwood’s), and Belichick won his first Super Bowl as a head coach.
 
Two years later it was déjà vu. The Patriots had the #1 scoring defense in the league, and were leading Carolina 21-10 in the fourth quarter. Jake Delhomme got hot and Carolina scored 19 points in the quarter, even taking a 22-21 lead at one point. Once again the combo of Brady and Vinatieri provided the winning points at the end.
 
The Patriots would win another Super Bowl the following year with a fairly impressive performance over Philadelphia. Their lone Super Bowl appearance since is XLII, which has been detailed enough already.
 

LeBeau’s Return

After the Patriots run of three Super Bowls in four years came to an end, the Steelers reemerged as a perennial Super Bowl contender thanks to the drafting of Ben Roethlisberger in 2004, which is the same year they rehired Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator.
 
The Steelers won Super Bowl XL in 2005, and returned for Super Bowl XLIII against the Arizona Cardinals in 2008. The Steelers featured a historically great #1 defense, and had a 20-7 lead in the fourth quarter. But that’s when Kurt Warner got hot once again.
 
Warner passed for 224 yards in the fourth quarter, leading two touchdown drives to put Arizona ahead 23-20 with 2:37 left. LeBeau’s defense had been shredded again by a spread passing attack and great quarterback. He would need a drive out of Ben Roethlisberger much like the one he watched Joe Montana orchestrate against him in Super Bowl XXIII.
 
After a penalty, Roethlisberger drove the Steelers 88 yards for the game-winning touchdown with 0:35 left. The legacy of the defense was saved, but the tape will always show which unit failed and which stepped up in the fourth quarter that day.
 

2007-11 Team Data for Comebacks and Game-Winning Drives

Note: The following data is based on 2007-2011. More data would be required to do a full study of which defenses protect fourth quarter leads the best, which is something that will definitely be compiled in the future.
 
The first table is a list of all 32 teams and how many fourth quarter comebacks (4QC) and game-winning drives (GWD) they have allowed in losses from 2007-2011. Their overall record (including playoffs) is included, followed by the percentage of losses that resulted in a 4QC or GWD.
 
Losses Resulting From 4QC/GWD, 2007-11
Team 4QC GWD W L T 4QC %L GWD %L
Green Bay Packers 13 18 53 26 0 50.0% 69.2%
Pittsburgh Steelers 11 16 54 26 0 42.3% 61.5%
Baltimore Ravens 13 16 47 32 0 40.6% 50.0%
New England Patriots 7 9 58 19 0 36.8% 47.4%
Indianapolis Colts 9 13 51 28 0 32.1% 46.4%
Washington Redskins 16 18 30 43 0 37.2% 41.9%
Houston Texans 11 14 37 36 0 30.6% 38.9%
Dallas Cowboys 10 12 44 31 0 32.3% 38.7%
New Orleans Saints 8 11 48 29 0 27.6% 37.9%
Kansas City Chiefs 9 18 24 49 0 18.4% 36.7%
Philadelphia Eagles 11 12 43 33 1 33.3% 36.4%
Chicago Bears 9 12 40 34 0 26.5% 35.3%
San Diego Chargers 7 10 48 30 0 23.3% 33.3%
Buffalo Bills 8 14 29 43 0 18.6% 32.6%
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 8 12 35 38 0 21.1% 31.6%
New York Jets 6 11 42 36 0 16.7% 30.6%
Miami Dolphins 11 14 27 46 0 23.9% 30.4%
Arizona Cardinals 11 12 38 40 0 27.5% 30.0%
Detroit Lions 9 15 21 51 0 17.6% 29.4%
Cincinnati Bengals 11 12 31 41 1 26.8% 29.3%
Atlanta Falcons 6 9 42 32 0 18.8% 28.1%
Minnesota Vikings 6 10 39 36 0 16.7% 27.8%
Tennessee Titans 5 9 41 33 0 15.2% 27.3%
Oakland Raiders 10 12 26 46 0 21.7% 26.1%
San Francisco 49ers 8 10 33 39 0 20.5% 25.6%
Cleveland Browns 10 11 27 45 0 22.2% 24.4%
Seattle Seahawks 8 11 30 46 0 17.4% 23.9%
Denver Broncos 7 10 30 42 0 16.7% 23.8%
Jacksonville Jaguars 7 8 34 40 0 17.5% 20.0%
Carolina Panthers 6 8 31 42 0 14.3% 19.0%
St. Louis Rams 10 11 14 58 0 17.2% 19.0%
New York Giants 6 5 50 27 0 22.2% 18.5%
 
You’re probably not surprised to see Green Bay rank so high. When they lose, it’s almost always a close game, and the same is true for (most) other successful teams. Of course, they’ve been the most stout fourth quarter defense in the league during their win streak, shutting down 16 straight drives to protect a one score lead.
 
Right behind Green Bay is Pittsburgh, and then New England is fourth. The Ravens are also right up there, as they do surrender a lot of leads. Just consider the fact the Steelers came back from 10 down to force the situation at the end on Sunday night.
 
How have the Giants allowed one more comeback than GWD? DeSean Jackson.
 
Next we looked at teams that allowed the most game-winning drives with the only caveat that the points were scored in the last 2:00 of the fourth quarter.
 
No team has allowed more game-winning drives under those circumstances since 2007 than the Steelers (8).
 

Pittsburgh's Late Losses
Date Opp. Down Time Start Time End DL Score
10/21/2007 DEN 0 1:10 0:00 49 FG
12/16/2007 JAX 0 5:41 1:57 73 TD
1/5/2008 JAX 1 2:38 0:37 44 FG
9/20/2009 CHI 0 3:18 0:15 41 FG
9/27/2009 CIN 5 5:14 0:14 71 TD
12/6/2009 RAI 4 1:48 0:09 88 TD
10/3/2010 BAL 4 1:08 0:32 40 TD
11/6/2011 BAL 4 2:24 0:08 92 TD
 
Note that seven times the Steelers have allowed the winning points in the last 0:37, and the last four instances have all been in situations where the opponent had to score a touchdown, and did so with 0:32 or less remaining.
 
The Buffalo Bills are the only other team with 8, but a quick comparison between the two shows some major differences.
 
Buffalo's Late Losses
Date Opp. Down Time Start Time End DL Score
9/9/2007 DEN 2 2:13 0:00 42 FG
10/8/2007 DAL 2 0:18 0:00 12 FG
11/17/2008 CLE 1 2:18 1:39 28 FG
9/14/2009 NE 5 1:56 0:50 31 TD
10/11/2009 BUF 0 2:59 0:23 15 FG
11/22/2009 JAX 5 6:12 0:56 68 TD
10/2/2011 CIN 0 1:48 0:00 56 FG
10/16/2011 NYG 0 4:02 1:32 76 FG
 
The Steelers have allowed longer drives (all 40+ yards), and have allowed five touchdowns compared to two for Buffalo. Half of Buffalo’s drives ended with at least 0:50 left.
 
The team with the most similar drives to Pittsburgh is, believe it or not, the Baltimore Ravens.

 
Baltimore's Late Losses
Date Opp. Down Time Start Time End DL Score
12/3/2007 NE 4 3:30 0:44 73 TD
10/5/2008 TEN 4 6:07 1:56 80 TD
12/14/2008 PIT 3 3:36 0:43 92 TD
10/11/2009 CIN 4 2:15 0:22 80 TD
10/18/2009 MIN 1 3:37 1:56 66 FG
11/11/2010 ATL 1 1:05 0:20 80 TD
1/15/2011 PIT 0 3:48 1:33 65 TD
 
For all the talk about the defense led by Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs, they are right at the top of the league in defenses that allow late winning scores. Their seven drives include six touchdowns, and every drive is 65+ yards.
 
Finally, here are the Patriots and their six games.
 
New England's Late Losses
Date Opp. Down Time Start Time End DL Score
2/3/2008 NYG 4 2:39 0:35 83 TD
11/15/2009 IND 6 2:00 0:13 29 TD
12/6/2009 MIA 2 3:44 1:02 51 FG
1/3/2010 HOU 0 3:49 1:54 28 TD
9/25/2011 BUF 0 3:25 0:00 70 FG
11/6/2011 NYG 3 1:36 0:15 80 TD
 
Once again Eli and the Giants stand out with their 80+ yard touchdown drives.
 
Here’s a table showing the shift since 2007 for the Patriots and Steelers. “4QL” are losses with a fourth quarter lead.
 
Team Losses 4QL %
2001-06 Steelers 38 7 18.4%
2007-11 Steelers 26 11 42.3%
2001-06 Patriots 28 2 7.1%
2007-11 Patriots 19 7 36.8%
 
Finally this table shows comeback wins for a dozen quarterbacks. “3Q Mg.” is the scoring margin after three quarters in those games, followed by the average margin and the splits for how many times they were behind, tied, or ahead after the third quarter before making their 4QC.
 
QBs - Fourth Quarter Comeback Splits
QB 4QC Wins 3Q Mg. Avg. Behind % Tie % Ahead %
Eli Manning 18 -95 -5.28 16 88.9 1 5.6 1 5.6
Peyton Manning 35 -149 -4.26 26 74.3 5 14.3 4 11.4
Philip Rivers 13 -49 -3.77 10 76.9 1 7.7 2 15.4
Steve Young 14 -50 -3.57 10 71.4 0 0.0 4 28.6
Dan Marino 36 -113 -3.14 27 75.0 3 8.3 6 16.7
Troy Aikman 16 -47 -2.94 12 75.0 1 6.3 3 18.8
John Elway 34 -95 -2.79 23 67.6 1 2.9 10 29.4
Tom Brady 24 -59 -2.46 16 66.7 3 12.5 5 20.8
Joe Montana 31 -72 -2.32 18 58.1 2 6.5 11 35.5
Drew Brees 18 -17 -0.94 10 55.6 2 11.1 6 33.3
Ben Roethlisberger 20 -15 -0.75 10 50.0 1 5.0 9 45.0
Brett Favre 30 -12 -0.40 15 50.0 1 3.3 14 46.7
 
For example: out of Eli Manning’s 18 fourth quarter comeback wins, on average his team trailed by 5.28 points after three quarters, they were behind 16 times, tied once, and (on Sunday) were ahead after three quarters.
 
Roethlisberger and Favre were either tied or ahead in 50% of their comebacks, which signifies the defense would give up the lead during the fourth quarter and they would have to regain it more often than the other quarterbacks on the list. That falls in line with LeBeau’s defense needing to be bailed out a bit more by the offense rather than the other way around.
 

The Cold, Hard Football Facts

Add it all up and some of the results are stunning.
 
  • Since 2007, the Steelers (8) are tied with the Bills for the most games allowing the winning points in the last 2:00 of the fourth quarter. Seven of the drives ended in the last 0:37.
  • Since 2009, the Steelers have allowed 4 game-winning touchdowns in the last 0:32 of the fourth quarter.
  • From 1990-2008, the Steelers had allowed 2 game-winning touchdowns in the last 1:00 of the fourth quarter (both vs. Bengals)
  • Patriots have 2 “lost comebacks” since 2007, both to Eli’s Giants (a lost comeback is where a quarterback does everything to qualify for a 4QC except win the game)
  • From 1991-2006, the Patriots had 2 lost comebacks total. This is a franchise that’s used to winning when they lead in the fourth quarter.
  • Sunday was the only time since 2001 the Patriots allowed a fourth quarter comeback win at home (7 other times on road, 1 on neutral vs. NYG)
  • Since 2007, no team has allowed more fourth quarter comebacks than the Redskins (16)
 
Postseason Facts:
 
  • The largest fourth quarter lead lost in a Super Bowl belongs to Bill Belichick’s 2001 Patriots (14 points vs. Rams)
  • The 2nd largest fourth quarter lead lost in a Super Bowl belongs to Dick LeBeau’s 2008 Steelers (13 points vs. Cardinals)
  • The 3rd largest fourth quarter lead lost in a Super Bowl belongs to Bill Belichick’s 2003 Patriots (11 points vs. Panthers)
  • All three teams still won game thanks to late game-winning drives led by Tom Brady (twice) and Ben Roethlisberger
  • The only three defenses to allow two go-ahead/game-tying touchdown passes in the fourth quarter of a Super Bowl: 1988 Bengals (LeBeau), 2003 Patriots (Belichick), 2007 Patriots (Belichick)
  • The first two iconic game-winning touchdown drives in Super Bowl history came against the 1988 Bengals (LeBeau) and 2007 Patriots (Belichick)
  • The third came a year later to put the 2008 Steelers (LeBeau) ahead
  • Kurt Warner has led the two largest fourth quarter comebacks in Super Bowl history, but went on to lose both games
  • The 1990 Bills had a go-ahead touchdown run in the fourth quarter and are the only team to lose a Super Bowl on a game-deciding field goal miss (Belichick)
  • The largest blown lead in a championship game in NFL history belongs to Bill Belichick’s 2006 Patriots (18 points vs. Colts)
 
Belichick and LeBeau have been at the forefront of some of the greatest defensive collapses in playoff history.

Conclusion

This is not a case for dismissing the notion that Bill Belichick and Dick LeBeau are highly successful and great defensive minds. They have a long history of documented success and are worthy of Hall of Fame-praise. They are legends.
 
We would be remiss not to mention some more of their triumphs, such as Belichick’s dominance over high-powered San Francisco offenses in the 80’s/90’s, Colts offenses in the early 2000’s, or the Super Bowl win over the 2004 Eagles. LeBeau had a wonderful postseason run in 2005, slowing down top offenses like the Colts and Seahawks. His defense confused Joe Flacco immensely in the 2008 AFC Championship, a game they clinched on a pick six by Troy Polamalu when Baltimore could have went ahead.
 
The problem with legends is that they quickly become bulletproof to criticism. When the facts prove that criticism is deserved, then it should be dished out. No one is perfect, and that most certainly includes Belichick and LeBeau.
 
What causes these late-game letdowns to happen? One idea would be that the later it is in a game, the less value defensive scheming has as the opponent abandons their game plan and shifts into a more desperate, open style of offense that often utilizes the no-huddle/hurry-up and four downs of football to work with. The NFL really is turning into the NBA (pre-lockout) where you want to have the ball last to have the best shot at winning.
 
There’s also a practical reason: quality of teams.
 
We understand a big reason their name shows up on these bad lists is because they’re actually coaching teams good enough to get to this point. The Houston Texans aren’t blowing 21-3 leads in the AFC Championship, because they’re too busy flying the Rosencopter to a 17-point choke job in regular season games on their way to 8-8 seasons. The Detroit Lions aren’t blowing 11+ point leads in the Super Bowl, because they never make it that far.
 
We get it.
 
But the point is there’s a place for all history to be judged, good or bad, and we can’t just ignore one side and focus on the other. Call a spade a spade. Call a choke a choke.
 
Why should the Baltimore Ravens get the benefit of the doubt last year when they let Matt Ryan go 80 yards in 0:45 on primetime?
 
The Bengals and Seahawks (and some others) fans are probably smirking, wondering why they can’t enjoy the type of success that a Pittsburgh or New England gets so often. Well, the Pittsburgh/New England fan isn’t greedy. They’re just being realists. The mouth dries fast when you thirst for victory.
 
For as great as it is to enjoy huge success, it hurts more to watch epic failure like last Sunday. It hurts even more when it's a big game, or the worst, a Super Bowl. “Genius” guarantees nothing. Sometimes luck just wins, or the better field goal kicker. No “genius” in that.
 
There was a great quote by Eli Manning after Sunday’s game. “I'd rather [have possession of the ball] down by three with 1:30 than up by four with 1:30 and Tom Brady on the field," Manning said. "You like those situations where you have the opportunity to go win the game."
 
You can probably switch Eli’s name with Brady’s, or throw in a Roethlisberger, and they’d all say the same thing. Doesn’t matter if your defense is run by a Belichick or LeBeau or Ryan, they feel more confident in their ability to win the game than leaving it up to the defense to stop the other guy.
 
That’s the kind of offensive league we’ve been building towards. They should be the ones that want the ball last. If you’re an offense and you mess up the last drive, it’s certainly disappointing. But if you’re the defense that gives up the last second score to lose the game, it’s devastating.
 
Even more so when that’s what your coach is known for. Is it safe to look again?
 
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 even listen to Nine Inch Nails these days, but the titles were too fitting, and he’s glad to have finished this before buying Skyrim. 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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