NFL Quarterbacks: Franchise Records for Most Fourth-Quarter Comebacks and Game-Winning Drives

Nearly six years ago I posted a table of the franchise records for fourth-quarter comeback (4QC) wins and game-winning drives (GWD) for the 32 NFL teams. Here is the update to that through the 2019 season, and remember this includes playoff games.

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Among the changes since 2014:

  • Bengals: Andy Dalton surpassed Boomer Esiason in both categories
  • Raiders: Derek Carr surpassed Ken Stabler in 4QC, but he still trails The Snake by one GWD
  • Chargers: Philip Rivers surpassed Dan Fouts in both categories
  • Seahawks: Russell Wilson surpassed Dave Krieg in both categories
  • Eli Manning (Giants), Jay Cutler (Bears) and Tony Romo (Cowboys) all retired, but still hold their franchise records

The 2020 season could be a massive changing of the guard with Eli’s retirement and the Chargers parting ways with Rivers. We also don’t know if Cam Newton will return to Carolina, so Jake Delhomme may still hang onto these records. We don’t know if Andy Dalton will ever start another game in Cincinnati, clearing way for the Joe Burrow era to begin. We don’t know if Tom Brady will add to his record amounts in New England. We don’t know if Brees will do the same in New Orleans. We don’t even know if Carr is truly safe in what will now be the Las Vegas Raiders to break that Stabler record.

Deshaun Watson beating those low bars set by Matt Schaub in Houston is likely to happen in 2020 or 2021. Other than that, don’t expect many changes to this table in the coming years. Patrick Mahomes will be expected to have all the Kansas City records, but these two could take a few more years. The Chiefs, Jets, Raiders and Eagles are the only teams that have different players holding sole possession of the 4QC and GWD records.

The bottom four teams (SF/TB/TEN/WAS) have records held by quarterbacks who haven’t played for those teams since the salary cap era began (1994). That’s not likely to change any time soon either.

NFL 2019: Close Game Summary

Before moving onto the playoffs, let’s review how teams fared in close games in the 2019 NFL season. Unless you watched the Lions every week, this wasn’t a season filled with close games. A total of 142 games (55.5%) 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. That’s down a hair from 147 games in 2018 and just above the 139 games from an offensively-limited 2017.

The 2019 season featured 56 fourth-quarter comeback (4QC) wins and 77 game-winning drives (GWD). In 2018, there were 69 4QC and 88 GWD in the regular season. So things were down this year and more in line with 2017 than the rest of the decade when there were always 68 to 73 4QC. We also had a Week 1 tie with Arizona and Detroit each having to come back late, and Tennessee’s Ryan Tannehill added another unique win in Indianapolis on a blocked FG return for a touchdown to break a tie. There were also 33 comeback wins from a double-digit deficit at any point in the game, down one from 2018 (34).

Success rate for 4QC attempts was 29.7%, or a little below average. GWD success rate was in the usual ballpark of 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.

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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 2020 for teams that won or lost a lot of close games.

Most playoff teams had an excellent record in close games, but the Vikings (2-5) had another rough year and the Chiefs and Titans were just 4-4 each. The Titans are 4-2 with Tannehill and 0-2 with Marcus Mariota at QB.

The Ravens, Packers and Seahawks are three playoff teams that did not blow a 4Q/OT lead this year, but Seattle was fortunate to have the Rams and 49ers both miss game-winning field goals against them in prime time. Baltimore actually has a league-best 5-0 record in close games, but that’s because the 33-28 loss at Kansas City and shocking 40-25 loss to Cleveland weren’t opportunities with the ball in Lamar Jackson’s hands late. In fact, the Ravens haven’t trailed in the 4Q in 11 straight games, which is one of the best streaks in NFL history.

The 2010-11 Packers still hold the greatest front-runner streak in NFL history: 19 consecutive wins without trailing in the fourth quarter. This year the Packers have been cutting it close by not scoring as much as those 2010-11 teams did, but they lead the league with eight defensive holds of a one-score lead with no blown leads yet. Maybe Drew Brees will get a chance to bust that in the second round. Green Bay’s 10 close wins are three more than any other 2019 team.

The Packers have twice broken the hearts of Detroit fans this year, but it’s been that kind of season decade half-century for Detroit. The Lions finished 3-12-1 with a staggering 3-11-1 record in close games. That’s right, a year after playing in a league-low six close games, the Lions played in a league-high 15 close games in 2019 and nearly lost them all. Detroit blew six 4Q leads, or two more than any other team. Using three quarterbacks, Matt Patricia’s teams finished 1-10 at 4QC/GWD opportunities. They are 2-15-1 (.139) in such games since 2018 under Patricia so it’s not just a matter of not having Matthew Stafford. Maybe things finally get back on track in 2020, but the Lions have struggled mightily in close games since setting that record with eight 4QC wins in 2016.

Cincinnati was the only team to go winless in close games on the way to 2-14, finishing 0-8 at 4QC opportunities and blowing three 4Q leads. The Chargers (1-8), Giants (1-7) and Colts (2-8) were also atrocious at a high volume of 4QC attempts. Philip Rivers now has the most failed 4QC//GWD attempts in NFL history (78), but Jacoby Brissett (3-14, .176) has the worst success rate at them among active quarterbacks. Colts fans can accept mediocrity at the position in different ways, but blowing so many winnable games is hard to stomach when you know Andrew Luck would have pulled out enough of these games for the playoffs this year.

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Seattle, Houston and Buffalo led the way with five 4QC/GWD wins this year. Houston also had six in 2018 so that could be a team to watch for regression in 2020. Remember, Dallas had four or five GWD in each of Dak Prescott’s first three seasons, but in 2019 he didn’t lead a single go-ahead drive in 4Q/OT for the disappointing 8-8 Cowboys.

The Broncos and Buccaneers each blew four 4Q leads and finished 7-9. They could be teams to watch on the upswing in 2020, but Jameis Winston will have to cut down on the interceptions first. His pick-six against the Falcons in overtime on Sunday was the only game-winning interception touchdown in 2019.

Ryan Tannehill and the Most Unique Wins Ever

Can Ryan Tannehill actually be having the breakout year we’ve joked about forever in his eighth season? On Sunday, the Titans finally won a big game against the Colts thanks in large part to a blocked field goal that was returned 63 yards for a touchdown to break a 17-17 tie with 5:02 remaining. Tannehill added a touchdown pass for Tennessee’s 31-17 win to improve to 7-5.

It was just three weeks ago when the 4-5 Titans turned their season around after a Tannehill-led comeback held up against the Chiefs. The Titans blocked Harrison Butker’s 52-yard field goal attempt at the end of that one. Tennessee is 5-1 with Tannehill starting and has scored the game-winning points in the fourth quarter in four of those games.

Having tracked every close game of Tannehill’s career, I know success in these moments hasn’t always been there for him. But after this recent spurt he has improved to 19-27 (.413) in game-winning drive opportunities, a winning percentage good for 12th among his peers.

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One thing that I’ve always thought stood out in Tannehill’s clutch history is an unusual number of games that were won with a non-offensive score — let’s call that a NOS — such as a safety or return score by the defense or special teams. I’ve been working on organizing such games better in my database and looked into some of the unique wins in the file I maintain for Pro Football Reference, which currently has 4,715 games credited to quarterbacks for close wins.

This is already the seventh time a Tannehill-led team has won a game with an unique score in his career. I charted the games in chronological order below. Four times he was credited with a fourth-quarter comeback, but no game-winning drive because of the NOS that ultimately won the game. Two other times in Miami he got a win with a game-winning kickoff return touchdown, so the offense never even had a GWD opportunity. Then in Sunday’s game, the Titans punted on their only possession in a tied game before the blocked FG return TD ultimately put the Titans ahead for good. So that would go down as a no decision (ND) in his record, which is something I plan to add soon.

TannehillUnique

This is some fortunate/fluky/wild stuff. Sunday’s return is the only NOS to win a game in 2019 so far, but it gets weirder than that.

Since Tannehill has been in the league (2012), his teams have produced:

  • One of the two games won by a blocked FG return TD
  • Two of the four games won by a kickoff return TD
  • One of the three games won by a punt return TD
  • Both of the games won by a safety

If this was Tom Brady, the joke would be that he willed his teammates to do these things, but this is just Ryan Tannehill. The fact that it’s not someone like Brady is surprising just from the sheer number of games won by that team. Even the likes of Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Brett Favre only had three unique wins in their careers.

I found a few other quarterbacks in my database with seven unique entries before I realized they were credited for comebacks in games that ended in ties prior to an overtime system. Roman Gabriel and Charley Johnson each had seven such games. So after weeding that out, I could only find two quarterbacks to come close to Tannehill’s seven unique wins and they combine for eight between them with four a piece.

Phil Simms (4 for NYG) – His unique wins for the Giants included a pair of pick-6 winners, a fumble return TD by Harry Carson, and a blocked punt returned for a TD against the 1988 Redskins. A blocked punt touchdown is one of the few things Tannehill is missing.

Trent Dilfer (1 for BAL, 2 for SEA, 1 for SF) – Does it surprise you that none of Dilfer’s happened in Tampa Bay? The Baltimore one is infamous since it was a 2000 AFC divisional playoff game in Tennessee. With the score tied 10-10, Al Del Greco’s FG was blocked and returned for a TD. In Seattle, Dilfer had a non-offensive game-winning field goal win a game against San Diego (2001) after a 64-yard kick return put the team in great field position late. In 2004 against the Dolphins, Seattle won the game on a pick 6 thrown by A.J. Feeley with just under a minute left. Finally, with the 2007 49ers, Dilfer picked up an overtime win in Arizona after Kurt Warner fumbled in the end zone for a game-ending touchdown. It’s also surprising that Tannehill doesn’t have a win with a simple fumble return TD, but he’s still just 31 years old so we’ll see…

I have no idea why the football gods have chosen such an unremarkable QB to give this many gifts to over the years, but I know it is one of the few things I’ll remember him for. And who knows, if the Titans continue this run and make the playoffs with a potential No. 6 at No. 3 rematch in Kansas City, we might just see another unique score win the game at Cursed Arrowhead.