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.

NFL 2021: Close Game Summary

With three overtime games on Sunday, the NFL had 21 overtime games this season, tied with 1995 and 2015 for the fourth most in NFL history. With so many walk-off scores in those games – Detroit-Pittsburgh tie aside – it beefed up the total for a stat that NFL media adopted this year that became a pet peeve of mine.

Between that stat and the lack of dominant teams quickly locking up playoff spots, it gave the impression that the 2021 NFL season was historically competitive and games were closer than ever.

Having studied this stuff for a living, I can say that this was not the case. There were 136 games that saw at least one team have a fourth-quarter comeback or game-winning drive opportunity, which is a possession by the team tied or down 1-to-8 points in the fourth quarter or overtime. While a lower number, that is in line with recent years: 143 in 2020, 142 in 2019, 147 in 2018, and 139 in 2017.

But this season introduced a 17th game for the first time, so we had 272 games instead of the usual 256. So, when it’s 136 out of 272, that means exactly half of the games this season had a comeback opportunity. That rate is usually in the 55-60% range.

We also had 48 games in 2021 where a team was favored by at least 10 points. Only the 2009 season (62) has had more games with a double-digit favorite out of all the seasons since the salary cap in 1994.

The spread is about expectations. What about results? There were 137 wins by double digits this season, second to only the 2014 season (141). The 78 wins by 17-plus points are the most since 2014 had the same amount. There were 62 wins by 1-3 points, but that’s a number that was hit five other times since 2001.

This season had 35 comeback wins from a double-digit deficit at any point in the game. That is more in line with the totals from 2019 (33) and 2018 (34) than 2020’s outlier of 43 such wins.

The 2021 season featured 63 fourth-quarter comeback (4QC) wins and 81 game-winning drives (GWD). In 2020, those numbers were 58 4QC wins and 76 GWD. Through Week 17 this year, there were 58 4QC wins, which tied the numbers for 2019 and 2020 (including playoffs those years).

In the game Ben Roethlisberger missed with COVID, Mason Rudolph got credit for a 4QC tie against the Lions. There were also two games won with a non-offensive score. The Patriots came back to beat the Chargers (of course) after a Justin Herbert pick-six. Then on Saturday, the Chiefs came back to beat the Broncos with a fumble return touchdown.

Success rate for 4QC attempts was 32.4%, or just about average. GWD success rate was in the usual ballpark of 37.7% (2020 was 35.0% and 2019 was 35.9%).

The following table shows a summary of each team’s success in close games this season. First, the offense’s record in games with a 4QC opportunity is shown. Next is the overall 4QC/GWD record, which also includes the games where the score was tied in the fourth quarter or overtime. For the defense, holds are games where the defense was successful in defending a one-score lead in the fourth quarter or overtime.

The number of games lost in which the team had a fourth-quarter lead is also shown. The last section shows the team’s overall record in close games, which are defined as games involving a 4QC/GWD opportunity on either side of the ball. Playoff teams are highlighted in gray. The table is in descending order of close game win percentage.

This information can be very useful for previewing the playoffs (which teams haven’t blown a lead and which struggle to hold them) or thinking about regression in 2022 for teams that won or lost a lot of close games.

Oddly enough, the last Sunday of the regular season saw the Rams lose their first close game of the year to the 49ers, and the Bills technically won their first “close game” of the year against the Jets. For starters, both teams are in these positions because of how one-sided their outcomes have been this season. The Rams didn’t have close losses before Sunday because they were too busy getting their ass kicked in the other losses this year. The Bills never had a close win because all of their wins this year have been by double digits and they couldn’t buy a win in an actual one-score game where they had to come from behind.

But even Sunday’s win over the Jets was a 27-10 final. However, the Jets had the ball down 13-10 to start the fourth quarter. That’s why the game qualifies. The Bills stopped them cold the rest of the way and added two touchdowns for good measure.

If you’re thinking about the postseason, it’s quite possible the Rams shit their pants in any game. They’ve already lost 37-20 at home to the Cardinals, their Monday night playoff opponent. That is not much of a home-field advantage in Los Angeles yet, and the Cardinals have played better on the road this year.

As for the Bills, I’d love to see them play another close game in Tennessee to see if they can avenge that MNF loss earlier this year. But it’s looking like we won’t see that matchup until the AFC Championship Game. Up first, the Bills get New England, the only other playoff team this year with a losing record in close games.

Miami, Atlanta, New Orleans, and even the Chargers all had winning records in close games despite still missing the playoffs. The Falcons and Chargers won more close games than they lost? Sounds like a miracle.

Last year, I spent a whole paragraph on Baltimore, which had only played a league-low five close games in both 2019 and 2020. Well, you can say (thanks to injury) regression hit, because the Ravens played an NFL-high 13 close games this year and went 6-7 in them on their way to missing the playoffs at 8-9. The six-game losing streak to end the year was a masterclass in losing (five) close games, but I don’t think people acknowledged enough how fortunate this team was to ever get to 8-3 in the first place. The Ravens needed a Clyde Edwards-Helaire fumble (first of his career) against the Chiefs in field goal range, a record 66-yard field goal (via bounce) in Detroit, and a missed 47-yard field goal by the Colts to get those three wins. Never mind Lamar Jackson beating the Browns despite throwing four picks. It was a wild season for the Ravens.

The Steelers, Chargers, and Vikings all played 12 close games as well, including two of the games against each other. Incredibly enough, the Chargers and Vikings were the only two close games the Steelers lost this year, producing a 9-2-1 record in such games. Ben Roethlisberger led some incredible comeback attempts in those games, including from 29-0 in Minnesota, before the Steelers came up short at the end. Yet, it took a close Chargers loss (and not a tie) in the final game of the season to send the Steelers to the playoffs while the Chargers missed out and the Vikings fired Mike Zimmer on Monday. Roethlisberger finished with a career-high six 4QC and seven GWD to lead the league and help the Steelers play at least one more game.

Arizona was the lone team to not blow a fourth quarter/overtime lead this season. In 2020, the Chiefs, Saints, and Titans were the only teams to not blow a lead, but they all had multiple losses this season. A third one by the Chiefs in Cincinnati in Week 16 helped the Titans get the No. 1 seed in the AFC. We’ll see how costly that might turn out to be.

We have a six-way tie for the most blown leads at four each by the Bears, Lions, Ravens, Colts, Vikings, and Browns. Naturally, they all missed the playoffs. The Colts especially had some daggers in there with the Ravens and Titans games. Carson Wentz was unable to lead a single game-winning drive or comeback for the Colts, but what did you expect?

With the Steelers winning so many close games, it is no surprise they led the league with seven defensive holds of a one-score lead. Sunday’s win in Baltimore does not count as one given the overtime drive, but the first Baltimore matchup was a classic example of a stop of a game-deciding two-point conversion play. T.J. Watt got just enough pressure on Lamar Jackson to force an errant pass to Mark Andrews. The Rams, Dolphins, and Chargers all had six holds.

Seattle was a team I cautioned about close-game regression with after the Seahawks were 16-4 in close games in 2019-20. Well, it hit hard in 2021. Seattle finished 3-7 in close games, 0-6 at 4QC opportunities, and 1-7 at GWD opportunities. The only GWD came Sunday in Arizona on a 10-yard touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter. The first Russell Wilson injury led way to the first losing season in the Wilson era, but these close-game failures obviously contributed too.

The Eagles (9-8) have had an odd playoff season. One year after playing the most close games (15) in the league, Philadelphia played in a league-low four close games and are 0-6 against playoff teams. One of their close wins was against Carolina, a game I’m still regretting on betting on Sam Darnold.

How are Matt Rhule’s Panthers so bad in close games? In 2020, the Panthers were 0-9 at GWD opportunities. Throw in 0-4 this year and that’s 0-13 under Rhule.

The Bills (0-5), Colts (0-5), and Texans (0-5) were also winless at GWDs, but the worst team this year was Cleveland at 0-7. Not every loss was Baker Mayfield’s fault, but he needs to start coming through as 2022 should be his last chance in Cleveland. Maybe with some better close-game fortune, health, and desperation to hold onto a job, Cleveland could be a sleeper playoff pick in 2022.

Let’s hope we get a legitimately close playoff game this year. Last season, there was not a single fourth-quarter lead change in any of the 13 playoff games. The only game-winning drive went to the LOAT in New Orleans. Throw in a sorry ass Super Bowl and it was the worst postseason I’ve ever experienced.

But if the season trends tell us anything, it’s to not expect a lot of close finishes.

Quarterbacks: Most Fourth-Quarter Comebacks and Game-Winning Drives by NFL Team

Lost even on me in Sunday afternoon’s chaos was the fact that Tony Romo moved past Roger Staubach for the most game-winning drives in Dallas Cowboys history. He has 24 now. Last season Romo took the lead in fourth-quarter comeback wins (21 now) in Cowboys history as well.

That’s newsworthy by itself, but what about the other 31 NFL teams? Who are their all-time leaders in fourth-quarter comeback wins and game-winning drives? I compiled the table, which will be added to the NFL STAT TABLES section I plan to do much more with in the near future.

TM4QCGWD

As usual, playoffs are included. How typical of the Jets to feature three different quarterbacks here. Not much else surprised me, but I’ve been working with this data for years so that’s to be expected. Let’s just say the bar is really low in Tampa Bay, but I doubt Mike Glennon will ever step his big ass over it.

Matt Ryan needs two more 4QC wins to move past Bartkowski for the outright Atlanta lead. He would be the 9th active quarterback to hold the lead in 4QC and GWD for his team, which just goes to show how impressive this current crop of quarterbacks really is.

All nine of the active leaders have been with their team since at least 2009. That’s when Jay Cutler was traded to Chicago and Matthew Stafford was the No. 1 pick in the draft.  If we think about that season some more, Marc Bulger (STL), Jake Delhomme (CAR), Donovan McNabb (PHI) and David Garrard (JAC) were still on their teams, so that’s 13 quarterbacks who went on to become their team’s GWD leader all active in 2009. Peyton Manning (IND) and Matt Schaub (HOU) were still on their teams too, so that’s 15. Brett Favre was in Minnesota, but he was already Green Bay’s all-time leader, so that kind of makes it 16, which is half the league.

So in 2009, there were 16 active starting quarterbacks who have eventually led an NFL franchise in career game-winning drives.

Some people disagree that this is a really special era of quarterbacks, but I keep finding evidence to support that it is. When teams like Cleveland, Oakland, Tampa Bay and St. Louis keep going through quarterbacks, I gain more respect for the players who keep starting year after year.

Even Flacco and Eli.

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NFL: Elite QB 4th Quarter Comeback Records

After writing the Green Bay Packers equivalent of “You Can’t Handle The Truth” yesterday, there is nothing else to say now about the topic. That was my definitive take on that team until the season starts. (Note: even 300 kind words towards Joe Flacco made it into that lengthy piece).

Here is an exclusive table of career data on 4th quarter comeback opportunities broken down by season for Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, and Peyton Manning.

The 1’s at the end of the record for Brees and the Manning brothers are not ties. They are “no decisions”, or games where the QB had a 4QC opportunity, but the team still won the game on a return touchdown. It’s not a comeback win, not a game they lost, so it’s a no decision. They were not included in calculating the win percentage.

  • Rodgers has a losing record in each season.
  • Everyone else has multiple winning seasons except for Brees, who has one.
  • Only the Manning brothers have had consecutive winning seasons; Eli in 2007-08; Peyton in MVP years of 2008-09.

This was only for comebacks. Adding game-winning drives would help boost everyone, but Rodgers would still be well behind.

QB SUCCESSION PLANS

Finally, here is today’s article on the draft failure the Denver Broncos exhibited in taking Brock Osweiler with the No. 57 pick. Lots of history of franchise quarterbacks and their often failed successors in this one.

http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1262751-nfl-draft-futility-brock-osweiler-and-qb-succession-plans

Rest of week: Enough Rodgers, time to put Brett Favre on blast. It wouldn’t be July without Favre.