Where Did the NFL’s Close Playoff Games Go?

Losing is one thing, but when you don’t even make it competitive, it’s another thing.

That was Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray after his team’s embarrassing 34-11 playoff loss to the Rams on Monday night, concluding a not-so-competitive Super Wild Card weekend with four routs and two close finishes.

None of the six games saw a second-half lead change, let alone a fourth-quarter lead change. We have gone 19 straight playoff games without a fourth-quarter lead change. The last was Kansas City, thanks to a third-and-15 conversion, in Super Bowl LIV against the 49ers. The last second-half lead change was in the 2020 NFC divisional between the Saints and Buccaneers after Jared Cook fumbled at midfield in the third quarter with the Saints up 20-13.

But this past weekend and all last postseason have sucked a lot of the usual drama and breaking point moments we are accustomed to seeing out of the NFL playoffs. You want to know who wins these games ahead of time? Pick the team leading after the third quarter. Hell, pound the live moneyline for the team leading at halftime.

Excluding ties, the team leading at halftime has won 25 straight playoff games. The last loss was the 2019 Bills in Houston in the wild card round. Teams leading at halftime win 79.4% of all playoff games since the 1970 merger, so it’s not that surprising these teams usually win the game. But 25 in a row? We haven’t seen a streak like that in the Super Bowl era.

I did the research, and learned some annoying things along the way about how Excel treats times copied from Stathead, and I compiled a chronological database of all 589 playoff games in NFL history. If the Bengals-Titans game on Saturday afternoon does not deliver a fourth-quarter lead change (AKA comeback), this streak of 20 straight playoff games without one would tie the NFL record. We just surpassed an 18-game streak from 2004-06 as the second longest in NFL history.

A total of 129 of the 589 NFL playoff games have been won by a team trailing in the fourth quarter (21.9%).

Interestingly enough, the first two playoff games in NFL history both saw fourth-quarter comebacks. The Bears exchanged touchdowns with the Giants in a 23-21 finish in 1933, and the Giants paid them back a year later with a 27-0 fourth quarter run that turned a 13-3 deficit into a 30-13 win. Can you believe that record for points in a fourth quarter of a playoff game (27) still stands today? Something that was set in 1934 in the second playoff game ever.

But after those two thrillers to start the postseason, fans were treated to 20 straight playoff games without a fourth-quarter lead change, which spanned a time from 1935 to 1950. That means the pre-TV era where you’d have to listen to the game on the radio at best, or read about it in the newspaper the next day, and that’s if you weren’t worried about bigger things like World War II.

Finally, in 1950 things changed when a few AAFC teams integrated into the NFL and the Cleveland Browns were the best of the bunch. In their first season against the prolific Rams, the Browns played one of the best championship games ever, a 30-28 comeback win. The rest is history.

 But we are definitely in a drought for playoff excitement. I’ve already mentioned Super Bowl 54, famous for Kansas City’s “Wasp” call on third-and-15, and that Texans-Bills overtime game that started the 2019 postseason. Those are the only two fourth-quarter comebacks in the last three postseasons. That means 28 of the last 29 playoff games have not had a fourth-quarter lead change.

To find something comparable, you have to go back to a stretch in 1983-86 when 24 out of 25 playoff games did not have a 4QC. That’s as close as it gets, so we are really in uncharted territory.

While I am not a fan of it, I do not believe the expansion to a 14-team playoff field is causing this drought. I’ve said repeatedly since last year ended that the most competitive and best played playoff game by both teams was the inaugural No. 7 vs. No. 2 seed when the Colts and Bills opened the playoffs in Philip Rivers’ last game.

The 2021 Raiders had a minus-65 point differential and still came the closest to pulling out a clutch win this weekend. Yes, technically they would have gone to overtime with a touchdown and extra point, but going for two and the win was an option, and at least they threw near the goal line instead of having Derek Carr run without timeouts like some slapdick team this weekend.

If you like decisive wins, then these recent postseasons should keep you happy. But as a fan of drama, a connoisseur of comebacks, a bettor who hates what blowouts do to prop bets, I am not having a good time with the pandemic playoffs.

I’ll have previews on the divisional round games, my favorite week of the NFL year, on Thursday and Friday. Hopefully we’ll get some much needed drama from these games, because this is often a round where many teams that go on to win the Super Bowl experience a real breaking point during their run. It’s especially common for lower seeds who had to fight off a tougher road opponent coming off a bye in this round. I have highlighted 14 of those Super Bowl winners since 1978 when the 16-game season and expanded wild card playoff era began where the divisional round gave them a major test, if not their biggest on the way to a championship.

  • 1980 Raiders at Browns: Red-Right 88 in Cleveland. Tom Flores is never sniffing the Hall of Fame if Brian Sipe didn’t foolishly throw a red-zone pick in a 14-12 game in bad weather.
  • 1987 Redskins at Bears: An obscure one, but Chicago’s Jim McMahon threw a red-zone interception down 21-17 early in the fourth quarter, a scoreless quarter that saw the Redskins pull off the upset.
  • 1997 Broncos at Chiefs: Steve Atwater tips away a fourth-down pass from Elvis Grbac at the goal line in Kansas City as the Broncos hang on for a 14-10 win over the No. 1 seed.
  • 2000 Ravens at Titans: Tied 10-10, the Ravens block Al Del Greco’s field goal and return it 90 yards for the game-winning touchdown. Ray Lewis also adds a pick-six off Steve McNair.
  • 2001 Patriots vs. Raiders: The Tuck Rule, followed by the greatest field goal in NFL history. Enough said.
  • 2003 Patriots vs. Titans: On a frigid night, the Patriots broke a tie with a 46-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri. The Titans had a chance to answer late, but Drew Bennett dropped a fourth-and-12 pass from co-MVP Steve McNair in a 17-14 loss.
  • 2005 Steelers at Colts: One of the most dramatic fourth quarters in NFL history, the Steelers nearly blow a 21-3 lead in Indianapolis. Jerome Bettis’ late fumble could have been returned for a touchdown by Nick Harper, who was stabbed by his wife the previous night, but Ben Roethlisberger made the all-time tackle by an offensive player, and Mike Vanderjagt cemented his legacy as an all-time choker at kicker. The Steelers went on to become the first sixth seed to win a Super Bowl after going 3-0 on the road.
  • 2007 Giants at Cowboys: Tony Romo was intercepted at the end of a 21-17 upset by the Giants, who were swept by Dallas in the regular season.
  • 2012 Ravens at Broncos: Down 35-28 with 40 seconds left, Joe Flacco’s deep ball is misplayed by safety Rahim Moore and caught for a 70-yard touchdown by Jacoby Jones. The Ravens would go on to win in overtime.
  • 2014 Patriots vs. Ravens: New England trailed by 14 twice in the game but led 35-31 late when Joe Flacco forced a deep ball (in a situation he didn’t have to) and was intercepted, because He willed it.
  • 2015 Broncos vs. Steelers: Fitzgerald Toussaint, a third-string RB for Pittsburgh, fumbles in Denver territory with the Steelers up 13-12 in the fourth quarter. Not pressed for time or relying on a liquored-up kicker, Manning makes the Steelers pay for their RB fumble this time with a game-winning touchdown drive.
  • 2017 Eagles vs. Falcons: Up 15-10, the Eagles had to hang on with a red-zone stop against Matt Ryan’s offense at the end of the game. Final play: incomplete on fourth down from the 2-yard line. 
  • 2019 Chiefs vs. Texans: A drama-free second half believe it or not, but the Chiefs were down 24-0 to start their Super Bowl run before rallying for a 51-31 rout. We might never see one like that again.
  • 2020 Buccaneers at Saints: Really the turning point of the whole postseason a year ago, Jared Cook fumbled at midfield with the Saints up 20-13 in the third quarter. It was one of three turnovers the Buccaneers used to get touchdown drives that started inside the New Orleans 40 in the final game of Drew Brees’ career – his worst game in a Saints uniform.

Do we add something from this year’s slate? Maybe Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase pull off an upset or give the surprising No. 1 seed Titans a real scare before what would be a shocking Super Bowl appearance for either team. The 49ers could move to 4-0 in the playoffs against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. The Bills are looking for revenge from last year’s AFC Championship Game and have already handed Patrick Mahomes the worst home loss of his career (38-20) earlier this season. If any second-round matchup has ever had a “winner wins the Super Bowl” vibe to it, it’s this one.

That all sounds good on paper until the young Bengals get exposed on the road, the 49ers get rocked with Jimmy Garoppolo playing injured, Matthew Stafford turns into a pick machine in Tampa Bay, and someone wins by two touchdowns in Kansas City.

But we can still dream it will be great.

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