As I continue to work on the best database I could have for NFL game data this century, I keep finding new absurd facts about Kansas City’s comeback win in Super Bowl LIV.
Imagine a team leading 20-10 more than halfway through the fourth quarter in a nationally-televised game. Then that team goes on to lose 31-20 in regulation.
That’s what happened to the 49ers in the Super Bowl, but the last time the NFL has seen such a reversal of fortune — a double-digit lead halfway through the fourth turning into a double-digit loss — it also involved the 49ers, a 20-10 lead, and a 31-20 loss in prime time.
Yep, same exact scores, but much different stakes. In 2002, the 49ers (10-6) were wrapping up a playoff-bound season on Monday Night Football against disappointing division rival St. Louis (7-9 finish). The 49ers rested and pulled starters from the game, but still led 20-3 in the fourth quarter. That’s when Rams backup quarterback Jamie Martin began to lead a comeback, pulling the team to within 20-17 with 7:09 left after throwing a touchdown pass to future HOFer Isaac Bruce. On the next play from scrimmage, Garrison Hearst fumbled and Dre’ Bly returned it for a touchdown to take a 24-20 lead. Hearst fumbled again on the next drive and the Rams had a chance to run the clock out, but on 4th-and-1, Martin threw a pass to tight end Ernie Conwell for a 32-yard touchdown to make it 31-20 after the two-minute warning. A bit of a rub-it-in-their-face score for sure for a team that rarely threw to the tight end. The Rams were actually 2-point favorites so it was a surprising cover and comeback to close a game that ultimately didn’t mean anything.
It’s not terribly rare to see a team trail by double digits in the last eight minutes (or 7:30 if you want to think of it as half the quarter) of the fourth quarter and come back to win the game. It happens about five times a season. But those games often go to overtime or are won in regulation by 1-7 points. An 11-point win in regulation like the 2002 Rams had goes way against the grain.
It wouldn’t happen again in the NFL until the 49ers blew yet another 20-10 lead in this Super Bowl. The infamous 3rd-and-15 “Wasp” play by the Chiefs for 44 yards came at the 7:13 mark. The Chiefs got into the end zone with 6:13 left and would return there two more times, including Damien Williams’ 38-yard run with 1:12 left that crushed my ticket of “Chiefs by exactly 4 points” to produce the historic 31-20 final.
So like the Falcons holding a 28-3 lead — as if this will ever happen again in Dan Quinn’s career — you just can’t trust the 49ers with a 20-10 lead halfway through the fourth quarter. Oddly enough, Quinn was a defensive quality control coach for the 2002 49ers too.
I haven’t been able to confirm the stats before 2001 yet, but it would be interesting to see a list of double-digit reversals like these two games in NFL history. I know the Chiefs are the only team since 2001 to do it in the final 7:00 while the 2002 Rams are the only other team in that time to do it in the final 8:00. I thought maybe the 1968 Jets-Raiders “Heidi” game would be one, but the Jets only led by 3 late and never more than 7 in the whole game. You’ll find that the “win by 10+” part is really hard to find.
Still, I’d love to see more so if you have any ideas of examples from pre-2001, leave them in the comments or hit me up on Twitter with them.
UPDATE: I’ve compiled a table of all seven games discovered since 1981. The first five I included all involved the 49ers or Chiefs if you could believe it, but then I also stumbled on an incredible comeback by the 1987 Cardinals against Dallas. They were down 13-3, but scored three touchdowns after the two-minute warning to win 24-13. They scored the first at 1:58, forced a three-and-out punt, then scored another, got a turnover on defense, and finally ran in a 15-yard touchdown on 4th-and-14 with 19 seconds left after Dallas used all three timeouts.