It’s only fitting for a blog I named “Captain Comeback” that I would give proper respect to the largest comeback in NFL history. For a league that has been around since 1920, this is only the second time ever that a team trailed by more than 28 points and came back to win the game. That’s it. Twice in over 100 years.
Growing up in the 90s, I only heard about Frank Reich, Buffalo’s backup quarterback, leading a 32-point rally in a playoff game for the biggest comeback in NFL history. I got to watch it years later thanks to NFL Films. Then you read about how Reich also once held the NCAA record for a 31-point comeback with Maryland against Miami in 1984.
Truthfully, Reich may have been what piqued my interest in comebacks as a research project. This backup quarterback being the only person to lead a 31-point comeback in college and 32-point comeback in the NFL can’t just be a coincidence, right? There has to be something more to this stuff.
Speaking of eerie coincidences…
Oddly enough, Reich was fired this year as the head coach of the team (Colts) who ended up blowing the 33-0 lead to beat his old record. That 33-0 lead was also on the heels of a game in Dallas where the Colts were outscored 33-0 in the fourth quarter, the first team to do that since 1925. Oh, and the Colts had Matt Ryan at quarterback on Saturday, the only quarterback to blow a 25-point lead in a championship game in NFL history. Now he has the all-time blown lead in an NFL game. Unbelievable.
Am I little annoyed that the biggest comeback ever now belongs to a Kirk Cousins-led team I have called the worst 11-3 team in NFL history instead of it being a playoff game with a backup QB? Yeah, I am. But I got to watch this one live, and it was quite the experience.
As a holiday treat, and the nicest things I’ll probably say about the 2022 Vikings all year, here is my definitive recap of what happened on Saturday in Minnesota.
Colts at Vikings: The Biggest Comeback/Collapse in NFL History
It is not surprising to see the Colts and Vikings involved in an all-time comeback. They are two franchises who have been involved in several of the biggest comebacks ever, including famous and not so famous ones. I even wrote in 2014 about a preseason game where the Colts blew a 26-0 fourth-quarter lead to the Giants, which would be an NFL record for biggest blown lead in the fourth quarter.
Last December, I did a timely Twitter thread about big comeback attempts when these Vikings nearly blew a 29-0 lead in the second half against the Steelers. Pittsburgh got it to 36-28 (same score as Saturday at one point), but Pat Freiermuth was unable to hold onto Ben Roethlisberger’s pass in the end zone to end it.
Only a few teams have been able to come close to erasing a 30+ point deficit. Other than the 1992 Bills coming back from 35-3 down to beat the Oilers in overtime, the only other 30+ point comeback attempt before Saturday that didn’t end in a loss was when the 1960 Broncos were able to tie the Bills at 38 after trailing 38-7 in the third quarter. There was no overtime then.
Here is the updated chart for all comeback wins of at least 23 points in NFL history. Colts-Vikings is fittingly the 33rd game on this list, which highlights road games in yellow and playoff games in blue.
Minnesota’s comeback and Indy’s collapse puts each team in a tie for the most such wins or losses in franchise history:
- The Vikings (3) join the Broncos, Eagles, and Patriots as the only franchises with three such comeback wins in their history.
- The Colts (3) join the Patriots and Buccaneers as the only franchises with three such blown leads in their history.
The game also makes for some interesting history for Cousins and Ryan:
- The last two teams to come back from at least 24 points down and win a regular-season game were both quarterbacked by Kirk Cousins, including a 2015 win over Tampa with Washington (the “You like that?” game).
- Kirk Cousins joins Dan Pastorini, Neil Lomax, and Tom Brady as the only quarterbacks with multiple wins when trailing by at least 23 points.
- Cousins and Brady are the only quarterbacks in NFL history with multiple 24-point comeback wins in their careers.
- This is only the eighth comeback from 25-plus points in NFL history, and Matt Ryan has been the losing quarterback for the last two instances (only quarterback with multiple losses).
- Matt Ryan, Tony Romo, and Jim Plunkett are the only quarterbacks to lose multiple games with at least a 23-point lead.
With the Vikings down 33-0 at halftime, this is also a historic comeback for halftime deficits:
- Minnesota has the largest comeback win from a halftime deficit (33 points) in NFL history.
- The only other team with a comeback win from a halftime deficit of greater than 25 points was when the 1980 49ers came back from 28 down to beat the Saints.
- Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs are the only team on this list of 33 games that led at halftime despite trailing by at least 23 points in the game. They were down 24-0 in the 2019 playoffs to Houston before storming back for a 51-31 win.
Down 33-0, the Vikings got their comeback going with a drive that started with 11:16 left in the third quarter. This was less time than the 1992 Bills, who trailed 35-3 when they got the ball with 13:15 left in the third quarter before they scored their first touchdown.
The Colts added a field goal to make it 36-7 with 4:53 left in the third. That means the Vikings made a 29-point comeback, which by itself would be the second largest in history, with just under 20 minutes left to play in regulation – a new gold standard. Near the 5:00 mark of the third in Bills-Oilers, the Bills were already driving at midfield down 35-17. They made it a very doable 35-24 game with 4:21 left in the third. By the 2:00 mark of the third quarter, Buffalo made it 35-32, so their record comeback happened very fast with four touchdowns scored in just over 11 minutes of action in the third.
The Vikings still had plenty of work to do at the start of the fourth quarter, trailing 36-14 after Cousins took a sack to end the third.
By my records, the Vikings are the fifth team to come back to win from a fourth-quarter deficit of 22-plus points, joining these teams:
- 1952 Rams vs. Packers (22 points, trailed 28-6, won 30-28)
- 1985 Vikings vs. Eagles (23 points, trailed 23-0, won 28-23)
- 1987 Cardinals vs. Buccaneers (25 points, trailed 28-3, won 31-28)
- 2000 Jets vs. Dolphins (23 points, trailed 30-7, won 40-37 OT)
- 2022 Vikings vs. Colts (22 points, trailed 36-14, won 39-36 OT)
No matter how you slice it, this was a historic comeback and collapse. If you’ve been following the Vikings and Colts this year, you could start to see it coming too around the time Justin Jefferson caught a touchdown with 12:53 left and the Vikings now down 36-21.
Colts-Vikings: Perfect Storm for a Record-Setting Comeback
In many ways, the ingredients for a record-setting comeback were present in this one:
- The 2022 Vikings already had six fourth-quarter comeback wins (three from double digits) to lead the NFL as they have been living on the edge all season.
- Colts were coming off a 33-0 fourth quarter in Dallas and we know they turn the ball over often.
- Colts lost star running back Jonathan Taylor after his first touch, and his presence was missed on a few critical plays.
- Colts have an interim coach (Jeff Saturday) who just doesn’t have much experience at this job.
- Vikings were at home.
- Matt Ryan is cursed.
On that last point, part of why I wanted to do a deeper dive on this game is to contrast it with Ryan’s other big blown lead with Atlanta against the Patriots in Super Bowl LI.
The truth is Super Bowl LI and 33-0 couldn’t be any more different as games.
In that Super Bowl, Ryan was playing an incredible game with the offense moving up and down the field, the defense jumped a Tom Brady pass for a pick-six, and the Falcons were rolling along at 28-3 in the third quarter. Then time after time, the Falcons failed to make the one last play they needed to put the game away.
When I wrote my 2017 NFL predictions, I highlighted eight breaking points where the Falcons just needed to do one good thing and the game was over. They were 0-for-8.
Obviously, you can take every play in a game like this and say “well, they should have forced a fumble and returned it for a touchdown.” But that is just silly talk ignoring the physics and reality of all these snaps. I’m just talking about things like don’t try to throw the ball on third-and-1 deep in your own end where your RB is going to miss the pass rusher and your quarterback fumbles. Or don’t drop a game-ending interception and help keep the ball alive in the air for Julian Edelman to catch it for a 23-yard gain. Stuff like that.
What breaking points did the Colts have that failed? We’ll get to that list soon, but the other important distinction I want to make for this game compared to Super Bowl LI is that the Colts didn’t actually play that well to earn such a big lead here.
Atlanta went from a dominant performance to playing dumb football with the lead and helping the Patriots get back into it. By the end of the game, the defense was tired, the Patriots won the coin toss, and the end was inevitable.
In this game, it’s not like Ryan had a great day with 19-of-33 for 182 yards and a touchdown. He took three sacks. The Colts averaged 4.0 yards per carry without Jonathan Taylor. They were 6-of-19 (31.6%) on third down, which is lousy. The Vikings ended up outgaining them 518-341 in yards.
While SB LI was Atlanta going from a beatdown to a meltdown, this game was more about the Colts trying to hang on to something they didn’t really deserve in the first place:
- Minnesota started the game with a three-and-out, which led to a blocked punt return touchdown and 10-0 lead for the Colts. There’s always a lot of randomness to a blocked punt return TD (unless you’re the 2021 Packers).
- On the next two drives, Dalvin Cook fumbled after a 40-yard run and was stuffed on a fourth-and-1 with horrible spacing and design at his own 31. The Colts settled for a FG and 20-0 lead on a 21-yard drive.
- After another three-and-out, the Vikings ran the most expected fake punt ever and botched it at their own 31. The Colts again failed to move the sticks (or even gain a yard) and kicked a field goal for a 23-0 lead.
- (7:03 left in 2Q) The officials hosed Minnesota by calling forward progress for Michael Pittman on a third-down catch when he was still fighting to get upfield, had the ball knocked out, and there was a clear scoop and score for the Vikings. But it didn’t count and the Colts got to punt.
- (5:57 left in 2Q) On the very next drive, Cousins threw a pick-six intended for Jalen Reagor, who came in to replace an injured Justin Jefferson, who would return later. That made it 30-0 in a sequence where the Vikings defense should have made it 23-7.
- (4:55 left in 2Q) K.J. Osborn appeared to make a 40-yard catch downfield, but only when you slow the replay down to a snail pace can you see the ball move out of his one hand, making it incomplete. The call was correct, but it’s just another example of how the Vikings were shooting themselves in the foot far more than anything Indy was doing to them.
After the Osborn drop, the Colts would have their last offensive drive of the game that gained more than 31 yards and two first downs. It led to a field goal and 33-0 lead at halftime, an incredible coincidence for a team that was outscored 33-0 in the last quarter we watched them play.
Into the second half, now I’m going to look at the breaking points for the Colts. The moments where if they just did one thing better that was in their control, they likely win the game. I had eight for Atlanta in SB 51, but that was just going by memory of a game that ended seven months before I wrote that. This one is a bit fresher in mind.
- 10:41 left, 3Q (IND leads 33-0): Every comeback needs a starting point and Minnesota’s was when Dayo Odeyingbo was penalized 15 yards for taunting after he tackled Reagor on a run that lost 5 yards. Not only did it give the Vikings a first down, but it negated a 2nd-and-15 situation. It looked like a lame call, but just make the tackle and don’t stare down the opponent, and maybe that drive ends in another three-and-out. Two plays later, Osborn burned them for a 63-yard gain and finished the drive with a touchdown. Game on.
- 0:25 left, 3Q (IND leads 36-14): This is at least the third time I’m criticizing Matt Ryan for throwing incompletions in a game with a big lead he went on to lose. Just burn some clock, my guy. Ryan threw an incompletion on second-and-7 with 25 seconds left. Run the ball there, get a couple yards, and take this thing into the fourth quarter. Ryan then threw another incompletion on third down, so the Vikings got the ball back and ran a play in the third quarter. It’s bad clock management, though this is probably more on Saturday’s inexperience than Ryan.
- 8:09 left, 4Q (IND leads 36-21): After another minor injury knocks Jefferson out of the game, Cousins goes deep for Reagor, who stopped on the route and it was intercepted, though the Colts went out of bounds at their own 2 to give them poor field position. This is another case of the Vikings (namely Reagor) shooting themselves in the foot and the Colts catching a break with a Jefferson injury. But after the pick, Ryan again throws two incompletions on first and third down. The drive burns 56 seconds and the Vikings are already back at the 50 with the ball. This is probably where not having Taylor at RB hurt, but again, I hate the way Ryan continuously throws multiple interceptions on drives like this. He did it against the 2020 Bears too for another blown 16-point 4Q lead.
- 3:28 left, 4Q (IND leads 36-28): Here is where the Colts definitely missed JT in a one-score game where you need first downs to end it. Deon Jackson got a first-down carry and he fumbled, which should have been returned for yet another Minnesota touchdown, but for the second time (and this was more egregious) the refs blew it and whistled the play dead. So, the Colts actually got lucky here that it wasn’t a fumble return touchdown, but just hang onto the ball and put this game away. Awful job by Jackson.
- 2:52 left, 4Q (IND leads 36-28): After the Colts tackled Cousins on a 4th-and-15 scramble (ha), they needed to make the Vikings burn their four clock stoppages. But on the very first play, they run a toss which is more likely to get the runner out of bounds, which is bad. Zack Moss tried to slide down after picking up 11 yards and a first, but they ruled him out of bounds. He got a meaningless first down and only burned 7 seconds. Bad play.
- 2:31 left, 4Q (IND leads 36-28): You knew it was coming, the biggest breaking point in the game. After three more Moss runs, it was 4th-and-1 at the Minnesota 36. One yard and the game is over with the Vikings out of timeouts. Do you go for a 54-yard field goal with a suspect kicker to make it 39-28 and likely wrap it up? Do you just go for the 1 yard on a QB sneak? Again, not having Taylor here didn’t help, but I can’t argue with the call for a QB sneak. Unfortunately, Ryan just couldn’t get any push and he failed to convert it, the most unstoppable play in the book.
- 2:15 left, 4Q (IND leads 36-34): After Dalvin Cook embarrassed the defense on a screen that went 64 yards for a touchdown on a one-play drive, the Colts could essentially end it by stopping the two-point conversion. But Cousins remained calm in the pocket and found tight end T.J. Hockenson with a mismatch in the end zone to tie the game.
So, those are seven breaking points, but several are just me complaining that the Colts didn’t burn clock more efficiently, and they even got lucky with another Reagor-aided pick and the refs hosing the Vikings on a fumble touchdown.
Minnesota was the better team, and we saw it the rest of the way as Ryan took a sack on the very next play after the tie, and that short-circuited that drive. The Colts were so shook they even looked like they were going to go for a fourth-and-1 at their own 34 with 1:22 left, but a false start killed that idea. I feel like that was a game saver because I don’t see them converting there. That would have been super ballsy.
You would think the Vikings would march right down the field in overtime, but Cousins took a sack inside the Indy 40 and that killed that idea. More pressure on Ryan nearly led him into a devastating fumble, but the Colts were able to recover the ball as the clock moved under 3:00. The Colts were unable to get the ball deeper than their own 44 before punting.
Cousins had 1:41 left, and after already leading six game-winning drives this season, a seventh was not an issue. All three wide receivers had a big catch as Osborn completed his career day (157 yards), Adam Thielen had a good game (earlier touchdown), and of course Jefferson came up with the dagger for 13 yards to get into field goal range. The Colts were so blatant and aggressive at keeping Jefferson on the ground after his catch that they were penalized for delay of game, making the kick 5 yards easier. Thanks, guys. Minnesota kickers need all the help they can get.
But kicker Greg Joseph has been almost perfect from 40 yards and under in his career, and he was good from 40 here to put the official bow on the largest comeback in NFL history. That concluded a Saturday afternoon game that took four hours to play.
Almost took me four hours to recap as my ass has been slacking with some of the comeback data, but I got it all together for this rarest of games.
Love them or hate them, these 2022 Vikings are already a memorable, historic team. Their scoring differential may only be +2, but they have already given us the modern day equivalent to The Miracle at the Meadowlands by turning Josh Allen on a QB sneak into Joe Pisarcik. Now they have given us the largest comeback in any NFL game ever played. We still have at least four more games (playoffs included) to watch what this team does next.
Cousins only needs one more game-winning drive to tie 2016 Matthew Stafford for the single-season record:
Monty Python voice: And now for something completely different (the following is mostly satire and fiction. Mostly).
Did Kevin O’Connell Pull Tom Brady’s Lucky Horseshoe Out of His Ass?
Don’t blame Gisele taking her witch powers with her in the divorce for Tom Brady struggling with a 6-8 record and the worst offense of his career.
I think I know what’s really going on here.
When I wrote my Buccaneers-Bengals recap, I mentioned Joe Burrow pulled the remaining piece of lucky horseshoe out of Brady’s anal cavity at halftime. But without writing about this Vikings-Colts game first, that may not have made sense.
My new working theory is that Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell is actually the person who got to Brady last January and stole the LOAT’s source of incredible luck. But O’Connell has been trying to get to Brady’s luck for almost 15 years now.
For those who do not know, O’Connell was a quarterback and third-round pick by the Patriots in the 2008 draft. You know what happened in 2008, right? O’Connell shows up, and suddenly Brady tears his ACL in Week 1 for the only major injury of his 23-year career. Suspicious to say the least.
But the Patriots bypassed O’Connell and went with high school QB Matt Cassel to replace Brady and earn a huge contract from Kansas City. After struggling in a preseason game in 2009, the Patriots unexpectedly cut O’Connell and his quarterback career fizzled from there.
But as the Rams’ offensive coordinator, O’Connell had success in Tampa Bay’s building in 2020 and returned there in 2021 for the divisional round game this past January. If O’Connell stole Brady’s lucky horseshoe that day, he must have only gotten the offensive half of it, explaining this pathetic offense we have seen for 15 games now from the Buccaneers.
We still see Brady with a top 10 defense and one that forced four Rams turnovers to almost steal back in that game.
But going back to that divisional round game, O’Connell as the Rams coordinator and Vikings head coach has done this:
- 13-0 in close games
- 10-0 at game-winning drive opportunities
- 9 fourth-quarter comebacks (five when trailing by 10+ points)
- First team in NFL history to win three straight playoff games by 3 points
- The most improbable fumble return TD since Joe Pisarcik and the Miracle at the Meadowlands
- Largest comeback in NFL history (33 points)
The NFL hasn’t seen a run of luck like this in close games since, well since the 2003-04 Patriots won 21 straight games with a 17-0 record in close games.
Meanwhile, since that January playoff loss, Brady has botched a 40-day retirement, lost his marriage, has been outscored 35-0 and 34-0 in the last two weeks, and he’s stuck at 6-8 in the worst division in the NFL with the worst offensive performance of his career.
Yeah, O’Connell stole that shit, and we’ll see if Burrow grabbed the D/ST piece at halftime on Sunday, because that Gio Bernard fake punt got everything rolling for the Bengals.
Kevin O’Connell: LOAT Slayer.
Conclusion: Pouring One Out for Matt Ryan
Guess we’ll end on the sad note, but I really do feel bad that Matt Ryan has secured this legacy of being the guy who blew the biggest lead in NFL history and the biggest lead in Super Bowl history.
When people talk about Warren Moon the last three decades, they talk about him being a prolific passer and a pioneer for the Black quarterback. No one really talks about him blowing a 32-point lead, which wasn’t the only lead those Oilers blew in the postseason during that run. But when it comes to Ryan, that is going to be the focus barring a miracle.
As I led off with Frank Reich, Ryan holding this distinction may not be a coincidence, but it is hard for me to say he was ever the leading cause of either loss. He was barely a supporting actor in Saturday’s game, and he should have been a hero in LI if Kyle Shanahan had any common sense and ran the ball. Or Robert Alford wins Super Bowl MVP with his second pick. Fuck Edelman.
But if Ryan’s career only bombs from here or if he retires after this season, I think this season may have seriously damaged his chances at the Hall of Fame. We’ll see how things go with Eli Manning and Philip Rivers in the upcoming years, but it’s going to be hard for people to overlook these blown leads and a quarterback who hasn’t been to the postseason or had a winning record in any season since 2017.
To paraphrase my football friend Vinny Lospinuso, Ryan may go down as the Ken Anderson of his era.
Someone who won an MVP and took an unsuccessful franchise to a Super Bowl only to lose to a dynasty, but he isn’t in the Hall of Fame, and only stat nerds really appreciate him.
Ever since the Falcons blew that 2012 NFC Championship Game lead, Ryan has spent the last decade as Sisyphus, the character in Greek mythology whose punishment was to roll a heavy boulder up a hill, only to see it roll back down every time he got near the top.
After Saturday’s game, I’m not sure how Sisyphus still finds the joy to continue working towards inevitable failure. Ryan is too old to be like these Vikings. Look at them. Young, dumb, and full of comebacks.
But their day is coming soon too. That inevitable playoff loss where the boulder flattens their run of close-game success. Enjoy it while it lasts, Minnesota. You already got a few for the lifetime highlight reels and record books this year.
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