April 20, 2021

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Conference Championship Quick Reads | Football Outsiders

10 min read


The Green Bay Packers went out with a whimper. Down by eight points to Tampa Bay late in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game, the Pack had a fourth-and-goal from the 8-yard line. When Matt LaFleur called for a field goal, he didn’t just disappoint his quarterback, he disappointed all NFL fans (except, perhaps, those cheering for Tampa Bay). By pulling Aaron Rodgers off the field, LaFleur robbed his team of a chance to do something fans have been waiting to see all postseason: score a touchdown in the fourth quarter or overtime that tied the game or put one team ahead. That was still more dramatic than what we got in the AFC Championship Game, when Buffalo got a touchdown, an onside kick recovery, and a field goal … and still lost to Kansas City by two touchdowns.

There has been plenty of great storytelling in this postseason — playoff wins for Buffalo and Cleveland for the first time since the Clinton administration, the last game in the career of Philip Rivers, the possible last game in the career of Drew Brees, the unlikely heroics of Taylor Heinicke, slime cannons, and the build to a Tom Brady-Patrick Mahomes Super Bowl that will give us a battle of generations like we have never seen before. But late lead changes have been hard to find. In 12 playoff games now — six in the wild-card round, four in the divisional, and two championship contests — we have not seen a single blown lead in the fourth quarter. The only fourth-quarter lead change has been a field goal: Ryan Succop’s 36-yarder that broke a 20-20 tie against New Orleans in a game the Bucs would go on to win by a 30-20 margin.

This is not to say teams haven’t had the opportunity for late-game heroics. Before settling for that field goal, the Packers had 14 plays (13 passes, one run) while down by eight points. That brings the league total to 193 plays this postseason where the offense had a chance to tie or take the lead (referred to in this article as “clutch plays”), an average of 16.1 per game. That seems like a decent amount of close finishes, at least.

We went back over every postseason game this century and counted every offensive touchdown scored in the fourth quarter/overtime trailing by eight points or less or tied, and every field goal in the fourth quarter/overtime trailing by three points or less or tied. We also counted all offensive plays in the final frame with a chance to tie or take the lead. Here are the results:

Year-by-Year Fourth-Quarter Excitement, Playoff Games, 2000-2020
Year Clutch
Plays*
CP/G TD** FG** Scores**
2000 93 8.5 3 0 3
2001 186 16.9 2 4 6
2002 182 16.5 3 3 6
2003 324 29.5 9 7 16
2004 221 20.1 5 3 8
2005 111 10.1 0 0 0
2006 316 28.7 5 7 12
2007 300 27.3 9 3 12
2008 219 19.9 5 4 9
2009 195 17.7 7 1 8
2010 170 15.5 2 4 6
2011 295 26.8 9 2 11
2012 236 21.5 6 2 8
2013 169 15.4 5 3 8
2014 197 17.9 6 2 8
2015 244 22.2 6 2 8
2016 112 10.2 4 3 7
2017 216 19.6 6 2 8
2018 249 22.6 9 5 14
2019 181 16.5 3 3 6
2020 193 16.1 0 1 1
* Runs and passes with a chance to tie or take the lead.
** Go-ahead or game-tying offensive touchdowns and field goals in the fourth quarter and overtime.

The 2020 mark of 16.1 clutch plays per game is below average, but right in line with the 16.5 we saw last season, and way more than the 10.2 we saw as recently as 2016. That year is most remembered for New England’s 34-28 overtime win over Atlanta in the Super Bowl, but even that game included only 23 clutch plays. Only two other games that postseason were decided by less than 13 points.

There have been five years with fewer clutch plays per game than we have seen this year. The low-water mark was actually the first year of the century — the 2000 postseason produced only 8.5 clutch plays per game. That was the year that Trent Dilfer won a Super Bowl with the Ravens; other quarterbacks who won starts that postseason include Kerry Collins, Aaron Brooks, and Jay Fiedler. It was a dark age for NFL offenses, so it’s no surprise there were no clutch field goals scored, and only three clutch touchdowns. The average margin of victory in those playoffs was 17.7; only two games were decided by less than 10 points.

The most exciting postseason this century was in 2003, when seven of 11 playoff games were decided by seven points or less. There were 16 late ties or lead changes that year, and nearly 30 clutch plays per game. Notable games that season include Green Bay’s 33-27 overtime win over Seattle (“We want the ball and we’re gonna score“); Philadelphia’s 20-17 overtime win against Green Bay (fourth-and-26); Carolina’s 29-23 double-overtime win against the Rams in St. Louis (53 clutch plays in that game alone); and New England’s 32-29 Super Bowl win over Carolina (four lead changes or ties in the last seven minutes).

We saw the opposite of that in 2005, when a dozen NFL teams somehow produced zero late lead changes in 11 playoff games. If you’ll forgive a bullet point storm, I feel the need to cover these games one at a time:

  • The Patriots beat Jacksonville 28-3.
  • Washington opens up a 14-point lead and hangs on for a 17-10 win over Tampa Bay in a Mark Brunell-Chris Simms quarterback duel.
  • In his first playoff game, Eli Manning leads the Giants to a 23-0 home loss against Carolina.
  • The Steelers finish off Jon Kitna’s Bengals with 24 unanswered points to win 31-17.
  • In Denver, the Broncos take a 24-6 lead over New England and go on to win 27-13.
  • Brunell and Washington fall behind Seattle 17-3 in the fourth quarter before losing 20-10.
  • In Chicago, the Bears and Panthers play a game as nutty as you’d expect considering the quarterbacks were Rex Grossman and Jake Delhomme. The Panthers go up 13-0, then the teams trade scores the rest of the day. The Bears have three drives in the fourth quarter down 29-21; those three drives produce a punt, an interception, and an incomplete pass on fourth-and-1.
  • The Steelers go into Indianapolis and open a 21-3 lead in the second half. The Colts rally to pull within 21-18, but their last two drives result in a fourth-down sack and a missed field goal. The game is best remembered for Jerome Bettis’ goal-line fumble in between those two drives, which was nearly returned for a game-winning defensive touchdown.
  • In the NFC Championship Game, Seattle goes up 17-0 in the first minute of the second quarter; that lead grows to 34-7 before a garbage-time Carolina touchdown makes the final 34-14.
  • In the AFC Championship Game, the Steelers lead 24-3 at halftime and go on to defeat Denver 34-17.
  • In a fitting end for this wretched tournament, the Steelers defeat Seattle 21-10 in the Super Bowl in a game remembered more for the officials than the players.

Now that was a terrible offseason. The 2020 postseason has already been better than that, and there’s still one game left. And with the best young quarterback in playoff history on one side and the best old quarterback in playoff history on the other, we could still be in store for plenty of fireworks.

 


 

Quarterbacks

Rk

Player

Team

CP/AT

Yds

TD

INT

Sacks

Total
DYAR

Pass
DYAR

Rush
DYAR

Opp

1.

Patrick Mahomes KC

29/38

325

3

0

1

184

181

3

BUF

The Bills played a lot of soft zone coverage to take away deep passes, and they succeeded at that — Mahomes only threw two deep balls, completing one for 16 yards. But in the process, they left themselves very vulnerable to YAC plays. Mahomes completed all nine of his passes to receivers at or behind the line of scrimmage, and though they only gained a total of 35 yards, six of them picked up first downs, including two scores. Mahomes was also excellent in the red zone, going 6-of-8 for 37 yards and three touchdowns.

2.

Aaron Rodgers GB

33/48

346

3

1

5

90

90

0

TB

Rodgers gains 57 DYAR due to opponent adjustments. His 2-yard touchdown to Davante Adams pulled the Packers to within five points of Tampa Bay, trailing 28-23. From that point forward, however, he went 4-of-11 for 54 yards with two sacks. He was also 4-of-11 in the red zone, gaining 28 yards and two touchdowns. He completed all seven of his throws to tight ends for a total of 50 yards and a touchdown. He was at his best on third downs, going 8-of-11 for 129 yards with seven conversions (including two touchdowns) and two sacks.

3.

Tom Brady TB

20/36

280

3

3

1

42

42

0

GB

Speaking of quarterbacks who were best on third/fourth downs, Brady went 8-of-12 for 163 yards with eight conversions, including a touchdown, plus a 15-yard DPI, with one sack and one interception. He had a very uncharacteristic cold streak in the second half — in seven passes, he completed as many throws to his teammates (three, for a total of 21 yards, including a 1-yard loss) as he did to Packers defenders.

4.

Josh Allen BUF

29/48

287

2

1

4

-76

-99

22

KC

We’ll start with the good news: each of Allen’s seven runs gained at least 8 yards, four gained first downs, and they gained a total of 88 yards, including two third-down conversions. And he was outstanding when throwing down the middle, going 7-of-8 for 109 yards and a touchdown. The bad news is how badly Allen struggled when throwing the ball to his left (7-of-13 for only 35 yards with one touchdown and one interception) and when inside the Kansas City 40-yard line (8-of-19 for 49 yards with two touchdowns, two sacks, and interception). Allen’s biggest problem was taking megasacks — four sacks is not an especially high number, but those four sacks lost a combined 53 yards, and he lost 16 more on an intentional grounding call. That’s a total of 69 yards lost, most by any quarterback in a game this year. (Carson Wentz lost 62 yards on eight sacks against Washington way back in Week 1.)

 

Five Best Running Backs by DYAR (Total)

Rk

Player

Team

Runs

Rush
Yds

Rush
TD

Rec

Rec
Yds

Rec
TD

Total
DYAR

Rush
DYAR

Rec
DYAR

Opp

1.

T.J. Yeldon BUF

3

15

0

4/5

41

0

12

3

9

KC

Yeldon loses 14 DYAR due to opponent adjustments. His three carries, all in the second quarter: 7-yard gain on second-and-10; 4-yard gain on third-and-3; 4-yard gain on first-and-goal from the 8. All four of his catches came on first-and-10 and each gained at least 6 yards and counted as a successful play, though only one (a 20-yarder) picked up a first down. It, um, wasn’t a big day for running backs.

2.

Darrel Williams KC

13

52

1

1/1

9

0

11

5

7

BUF

Williams was stuffed twice while running for five first downs, the longest a 13-yard gain on third-and-11. His one catch was a 9-yard gain on fourth-and-1.

3.

Jamaal Williams GB

7

23

0

4/4

22

0

2

-2

4

TB

Williams gains 12 DYAR due to opponent adjustments. He only ran for one first down (a 12-yard gain on second-and-6) and one other successful carry (a 6-yard gain on first-and-10). Two of his runs were stuffed for no gain, and two others gained 1 yard apiece on first-and-10 and second-and-4. Only one of his catches — an 11-yard gain on third-and-2 — produced a first down or counted as a successful play.

4.

Leonard Fournette TB

12

55

1

5/7

19

0

-11

4

-15

GB

Fournette loses 11 DYAR due to opponent adjustments. He was stuffed just once, but only two of his carries gained first downs (the longest a 20-yard touchdown) and just two more counted as successful plays. He added just one more first down (a 6-yard gain on fourth-and-4) as a receiver.

5.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire KC

6

7

1

1/2

0

0

-14

-4

-10

BUF

Though he did convert a pair of carries with 1 yard to go for a first down, Edwards-Helaire’s longest carry gained only 5 yards, and he was stuffed twice. His one catch resulted in no gain on third-and-3.

 

Five Best Running Backs by DYAR (Rushing)

Rk

Player

Team

Runs

Rush
Yds

Rush
TD

Rec

Rec
Yds

Rec
TD

Total
DYAR

Rush
DYAR

Rec
DYAR

Opp

1.

Aaron Jones GB

6

27

0

4/6

7

0

-36

13

-48

TB

All of Jones’ carries gained at least 1 yard, the longest gained 12, and two gained first downs. I mean, really, it wasn’t a big day for running backs.

2.

Darrel Williams KC

13

52

1

1/1

9

0

11

5

7

BUF

3.

Leonard Fournette TB

12

55

1

5/7

19

0

-11

4

-15

GB

4.

T.J. Yeldon BUF

3

15

0

4/5

41

0

12

3

9

KC

5.

Jamaal Williams GB

7

23

0

4/4

22

0

2

-2

4

TB

 

Worst Running Back by DYAR (Total)

Rk

Player

Team

Runs

Rush
Yds

Rush
TD

Rec

Rec
Yds

Rec
TD

Total
DYAR

Rush
DYAR

Rec
DYAR

Opp

1.

Aaron Jones GB

6

27

0

4/6

7

0

-36

13

-48

TB

This was the worst receiving DYAR for a running back this season, surpassing Washington’s J.D. McKissic’s day against Detroit in Week 10. As noted in Audibles, Jones is only the third player this year, and the first running back, to fumble on two receptions in the same game. That’s how he accumulated -48 receiving DYAR in only a half-dozen targets; the record is -59 DYAR by Seattle’s John L. Williams in 1992, and it took him 15 targets to get there. Jones’ two completions that he didn’t fumble went for no gain on second-and-9 and 5 yards on first-and-10.

 

Worst Running Back by DYAR (Rushing)

Rk

Player

Team

Runs

Rush
Yds

Rush
TD

Rec

Rec
Yds

Rec
TD

Total
DYAR

Rush
DYAR

Rec
DYAR

Opp

1.

Ronald Jones TB

10

16

0

0/0

0

0

-21

-21

0

GB

How does an NFL running back get 10 carries in a game and fail to gain 5 yards even one time? Only one of Jones’ carries — a 2-yard gain on third-and-1 — gained a first down or counted as a successful play. He was stuffed twice and also failed to convert on a second-and-3. It cannot be stated enough how bad this day was for running backs.

 

Five Best Wide Receivers and Tight Ends by DYAR

Rk

Player

Team

Rec

Att

Yds

Avg

TD

Total
DYAR

Opp

1.

Tyreek Hill KC

9

11

172

19.1

0

56

BUF

Six of Hill’s catches produced first downs, including gains of 33 and 71 yards. The other three gained 5, 7, and 8 yards on first-and-10, each counting as a successful play.

2.

Marquez Valdes-Scantling GB

4

6

115

28.8

1

50

TB

Four catches: 50-yard touchdown; 12-yard gain on second-and-10; 24-yard gain on first-and-10; 29-yard gain on second-and-1.

3.

Travis Kelce KC

13

15

118

9.1

2

44

BUF

Kelce’s 13 catches were a postseason record for tight ends, but he didn’t come close to his on regular- or postseason record for DYAR in a game set last year against Houston. His longest reception gained only 17 yards, four of them failed to pick up first downs, and one counted as a failed completion.

4.

Chris Godwin TB

5

9

110

22.0

0

37

GB

Godwin’s totals include 5 rushing DYAR for his one carry, a 6-yard gain. All five of his receptions gained at least 11 yards and a first down; his longest was a 52-yard gain on third-and-9.

5.

Mecole Hardman KC

2

3

4

2.0

1

32

BUF

Well here’s a statline you don’t see every day, especially not in the “Five Best Wide Receivers and Tight Ends by DYAR” section. Hardman’s two catches were a 1-yard gain on second-and-1 and a 3-yard touchdown. His totals include 23 rushing DYAR for his one carry, a 50-yard gain. They do not include his fumble on a punt return that led to an early Buffalo touchdown — this column looks only at offensive plays, not special teams.

 

Worst Wide Receiver or Tight End by DYAR

Rk

Player

Team

Rec

Att

Yds

Avg

TD

Total
DYAR

Opp

1.

Gabriel Davis BUF

0

3

0

0.0

0

-21

KC

Two incompletions on first-and-10, another on second-and-10, all with Buffalo down by at least 17 points in the fourth quarter.

https://www.footballoutsiders.com/quick-reads/2021/conference-championship-quick-reads

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