Breaking Down the Pivotal Moments of NFL Week 2

Scott Kacsmar@CaptainComebackContributor ISeptember 18, 2012

A rare sight in New England after Stephen Gostkowski misses.
A rare sight in New England after Stephen Gostkowski misses.Jim Rogash/Getty Images

The Week 2 games saw big comebacks make a comeback, while special teams’ errors crept up in Dallas once again and, shockingly, New England choked on a field goal against Arizona. 

We also have a new section called “Dolt of the Week” for the player who hurt his team the most through sheer stupidity rather than his athleticism.

Also, discover if the Philadelphia Eagles are the worst 2-0 team in NFL history and which pair of feet Rex Ryan does not like.


Giant Comeback

If the 2012 New York Giants do anything to make their title defense relevant, this could be the season-saving moment we look back on.

The second quarter alone just about made us reconfigure what the Giants are expected to do this season. Remember, they have to go to Carolina for a tough Thursday night game this week.

Eli Manning’s third interception of the quarter saw an incredible return by Eric Wright for 60 yards and the touchdown with just eight seconds left.

Tampa Bay led 24-13 at halftime, which led me to post this damning Tweet:

#Giants are 14-158 (.081) when trailing by 11+ at halftime since 1940.

— Scott Kacsmar (@CaptainComeback) September 16, 2012

Even if you change the differential to a more manageable range of 11-14 points, the Giants were still just 10-73 (.120) since 1940. That is no shot at them, as all teams have a winning percentage under 20 percent in this difficult situation.

While things looked bleak, the Giants are a team that tied NFL records with seven fourth-quarter comebacks and eight game-winning drives in 2011. If anyone can pull this off, it would be them.

Tampa Bay increased their lead to 27-13, but the Giants got on the board with a field goal late in the third quarter. Josh Freeman threw a costly interception, and the stage was set for an epic fourth quarter.

In the fourth quarter alone, Manning passed for 243 yards, which just so happens to be the exact total Freeman finished with for the game.

The Giants piled up 25 points in the quarter, including two touchdown passes by Manning. After the Buccaneers tied the game at 34, the Giants went 80 yards in just four plays with Andre Brown scoring the game-winning touchdown.

Freeman almost gave his team a great shot on the last drive, but the officials ruled that his pass to Mike Williams was incomplete on the sideline, and Freeman threw a desperation interception on the next play to end the rally.

The Giants avoided going 0-2 in historic fashion. Their 604 yards of offense were the second most in team history. Eli Manning passed for 510 yards, or just three short of Phil Simms’ record 513 yards against Cincinnati in 1985.

NFL quarterbacks are now 7-6 when passing for at least 500 yards. Manning joins Boomer Esiason (1996) and Ben Roethlisberger (2009) as the only quarterbacks to throw for 500 yards and lead a game-winning drive.

The latest postgame coaching scuffle for the way Tampa Bay rushed the kneel down took away some of the spotlight for an incredible finish. But Giants fans will be sure to remember the comeback.


Are the Philadelphia Eagles the Worst 2-0 Team Ever?

It would be an understatement to say the Eagles are a fortunate 2-0 after becoming the first team in NFL history to start a season with back-to-back one-point victories.

But are they the worst 2-0 team ever? Whether or not you like the question, understand that subjectively there must be an answer, as not all 2-0 starts are created equally. We can use objective methods to answer it.

The Eagles became the 77th team since 1940 to start 2-0 with each victory by no more than seven points. But we need to break it down better than that. Arizona has done the same this season.

The Eagles became the 15th team since 1940 to start 2-0 with a scoring differential of no more than five points. Here are the 2-0 teams with the smallest scoring differentials:

Five of the previous 14 teams made the playoffs, with the 1988 San Francisco 49ers going all the way to a Super Bowl victory. But the Eagles having the lowest scoring differential does not reveal the full story of how they have played.

What about the nine turnovers that have forced these difficult wins? Last season the Eagles had 38 turnovers (31st in the league), and so far it has been a problem again with five at Cleveland and four more against Baltimore. Michael Vick has six interceptions and a lost fumble.

The Eagles are just the 22nd team since 1940 to have at least nine turnovers in their first two games while still maintaining a positive scoring differential. The most recent team to do so was the 1991 Eagles, but they started 1-1. It is the fifth time the Eagles as a franchise have accomplished it.

The 1983 Los Angeles Rams are the last team to start 2-0 after turning the ball over at least four times in each game. They had five turnovers in each game, but at least had eight takeaways for a -2 turnover differential.

The Eagles have a -3 turnover differential, which is tied for the third worst by a 2-0 team. Only 13 teams have started 2-0 with a -3 turnover differential or worse.

Once again, the 2005 Washington Redskins appear in the table, as does another San Francisco team that won the Super Bowl. Bill Walsh’s 1984 squad had three giveaways and no takeaways to start the season in which they finished 18-1.

At least the Eagles have outgained their opponents by 408 yards, which is the second highest behind Buffalo’s 458-yard margin in 1991. Philadelphia actually leads the league in offensive yards (942) and first downs (51), but they have only scored 41 points because of their struggles with turnovers.

Finally, you have the close wins. Last week it was a 91-yard game-winning drive where Vick narrowly avoided a game-ending interception with a touchdown pass on the next play with 1:18 left.

This week it was a 10-point deficit at halftime against Baltimore that eventually turned into a six-point deficit late in the fourth quarter. Vick drove the offense 80 yards, just barely got away with intentional grounding and then ran in the winning touchdown a play later with 1:55 left.

In both cases, the defense held the lead as Brandon Weeden threw an interception and Joe Flacco threw bad passes to turn the ball over on downs, securing the one-point victories.

The drives have been great (disastrous mistakes aside) after the Eagles struggled so badly to win such games last season. But a lot of the damage has been self-inflicted because of the turnovers.

Vick is the 14th quarterback since 1960 to start the season with a pair of fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. Some of the same names show up from the previous tables, including the most recent examples of Jay Cutler (2007 Broncos), Alex Smith (2007 49ers) and Jake Delhomme (2008 Panthers).

Cutler finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs. The 49ers would go on to lose their next eight games after starting 2-0. Delhomme had a 12-4 record, but turned the ball over six times at home in that shocking playoff defeat to Arizona.

Right now, the Eagles look to be a team most similar to the 2005 Washington Redskins or 1979 Cleveland Browns. For the Browns that year, Brian Sipe led seven game-winning drives, but threw a league-worst 26 interceptions in a 9-7 season.

With the weakest scoring differential, the third worst turnover differential and the late game-winning drives that averted disaster a play before the touchdown, you can confidently say the Eagles are the worst 2-0 team in NFL history.

Statistically, they have the makings of a team that could finish 9-7 at best. However, 9-7 was good enough for the New York Giants to win the NFC East and then Super Bowl last season, and we know the Giants, based on scoring differential (among other things), had the worst regular season ever for a champion. They needed a record number of late wins too.

Maybe the Eagles are just following that model. Either way, winning ugly sure beats last year’s disappointment.


Arizona at New England: Comedy of Errors

We already have a strong candidate for upset of the year that will be hard to top. With Kevin Kolb at quarterback, an early start time, Patriots at home, how could they possibly lose this game?

Well, Arizona showed up to play on defense, Tom Brady had one of his annual stinkers and the special teams were huge for Ken Whisenhunt’s team. Kolb did enough to not lose the game.

It looked like the Patriots were going to pull off another classic win that was equal parts clutch and luck in the end. Fans of 31 other teams know the feeling. How do they always pull these games out? Why do teams make such enormous mistakes against them?

Down 20-9, the Patriots started their fourth-quarter rally with a field goal. Stephen Gostkowski was 4/4 on the day to this point.

On the next drive they constantly attacked the left and middle sides of the field, easily working their way down to the red zone. Brady threw a five-yard touchdown to Rob Gronkowski, with a two-point conversion being the only thing stopping this from being tied. Soon you’d expect Kolb to throw a pick or fumble the ball, and the Patriots would win with a field goal. Just like clockwork, right?

But what would follow would be an unbelievable series of errors by both teams.

Error No. 1 (Patriots): New England is usually great at two-point conversions. Since 2001, the Patriots are 7/9 on their two-point conversion attempts in the fourth quarter after scoring a touchdown while trailing by 1-8 points.

One of those misses was Matt Cassel likely intentionally missing to avoid overtime as the Patriots were locked in to play Jacksonville in the 2005 playoffs.

The Patriots often have smart plays here, such as their direct snap that has been very successful. But this time, it was Brady forcing a difficult pass to Gronkowski, and it was incomplete with 2:06 left. New England trailed 20-18 and needed the ball back.

Error No. 2 (Cardinals): With field position irrelevant, LaRod Stephens-Howling decided to take a knee in the end zone for a touchback instead of running it out to try to use enough clock to negate the clock stoppage for the two-minute warning. This essentially bought the Patriots an extra timeout.

Error No. 3 (Cardinals): After Ryan Williams gained 13 yards, the Patriots were down to one timeout with 1:53 left. The game was not over, but it felt like it was, and fans began to leave.

After Bill Belichick used his last timeout, Arizona had a 3rd-and-13 with 1:10 left. At this point, Ken Whisenhunt needs to take a knee. Why risk a fumble for a first down you are not going to convert with the defense lined up to stop the run?

Take a knee, the 40-second clock will run down to about 28 seconds, and then you punt. Brady will have about 20 seconds at his own 25-30 to try to get into field goal range without a timeout.

The Patriots are not a great outside passing team, so it would be very difficult for them. This is the smart thing to do.

Instead, Williams gets the ball and does the only thing you cannot do in this situation: fumble the ball. Incredible. Now the Patriots have it at the 30 with 1:01 left and a win looks like a given.

Since 2000, teams have run the ball 1,946 times on 3rd-and-13 or longer. Even including penalties, they have only gotten a first down or touchdown 128 times (6.6 percent). They have fumbled 65 times. That percentage would only go down in these situations where everyone knows what’s coming.

So why the risk, Whiz? Bad coaching. Bad execution.

Error No. 4 (Patriots): Now just needing a field goal, the Patriots came out passing. On the second play, Danny Woodhead scored a 30-yard touchdown, which would not have been the smartest play either.

But it did not count. Gronkowski was called for holding, as he did turn his defender on the play. Bring the ball back to the 30.

Just when you thought the winning touchdown was scored, a penalty by your best skill player wiped it out. Gronkowski would also lose the team five more yards on a false start penalty two plays later.

Error No. 5 (Patriots): Instead of trying to get closer once they hit the 18, the Patriots went into a shell. Brady took a dive to center the ball, then waited until there were seven seconds left to spike it.

Hint: the shorter the field-goal try, the more likely it is to go in. The Patriots run a great no-huddle, so they should have tried a real play or two to get closer.

Error No. 6 (Patriots): Gostkowski was perfect on his previous four kicks on the day, and this 42-yard attempt was the second shortest he had to make. But we have not seen a lot of Gostkowski in the clutch like his predecessor Adam Vinatieri*, and this was going to be a very big kick for the Pro Bowl kicker.

Gostkowski all but shanked it wide left with one second left. The Patriots, barring one more Pisarcik-like error from Arizona, were done. No shocking comeback. Just shock.

*Vinatieri just so happened to make a 53-yard game-winning field goal for the Colts around the same time the Patriots blew it. That has to make things sting a little bit more.

It was the first time since December 26, 1999 against Buffalo that the Patriots lost a game after a missed field goal in the clutch. That day Vinatieri missed twice. Since then it has been an incredible run of clutch kicking for the Patriots.

But that streak ended on Sunday, and now fans will be very nervous the next time Gostkowski has to step up again.


“Special” Teams of the Week: Dallas Does It Again

Watching the Dallas Cowboys return from their big win to start the season and fall flat on their faces in Seattle was not the most surprising outcome of Week 2.

Seattle is historically a tough place to play, and the Cowboys have a recent history that shows they are anything but a consistent team you can rely on.

What’s shocking is the way they once again failed on special teams, putting them in a 10-0 hole early that they never crawled out of behind Tony Romo and the offense.

After Felix Jones fumbled the opening kickoff, the Cowboys went three and out, and had a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown. Amazingly, this is the fourth time since 2008 that the Cowboys have had a punt block returned for a touchdown against them.

Four of the last 18 times it has happened, Dallas has been the team making the error. Even worse, the first three all came in the fourth quarter or overtime of close games.

The only game-tying blocked punt return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter since 1940? It happened against Dallas in New York last season.

The only game-winning blocked punt return for a touchdown in overtime in NFL history? It happened to Dallas in 2008 at Arizona.

Notice all four have come on the road. This time it was only a first-quarter play, but it was a big one and another case where the special teams made it very hard on the Cowboys.

Dallas has not been known as a team to stage big comebacks, and the defense, led by DeMarcus Ware, is not the same at rushing the passer when they play from behind like Dallas had to in Seattle.

Seattle controlled the entire game, and it started with special teams.


Is C.J. Spiller the New Jamaal Charles?

Though hardly a pivotal game this week, something interesting actually did happen in the Kansas City at Buffalo game.

Kansas City’s prolific running back Jamaal Charles was shut down: just three yards on six carries (0.50 yards per carry). It was the first time in 51 career games that Charles averaged worse than 1.50 yards per carry.

Meanwhile third-year back C.J. Spiller broke out another huge game for Buffalo: 15 carries for 123 yards and two scores. On the season Spiller has 29 carries for 292 yards (10.1 yards per carry).

For his career, Spiller averages 5.41 yards per carry (210 carries for 1,136 yards). Charles averages 5.98 yards per carry (521 carries for 3,117 yards). Before these six carries, Charles was averaging 6.05 yards per carry, which is the highest average in NFL history (min. 200 rushes).

Having some fun with numbers, if each back had the same performance they had in Week 2 in their next game, then Spiller’s average would increase to 5.60, and Charles would go down to 5.92.

The sample sizes are small. Both backs have obviously been explosive, but you have to wonder how well they can sustain it over a long period of time, and with a higher number of carries. The injury to Fred Jackson is giving Spiller the opportunity to shine, and he is making the most of it.

Right now, Spiller is closer to Skeet Quinlan than he is Bo Jackson. But in terms of being an explosive player, Spiller and Charles are probably the cream of the crop in today’s game.

However, Charles may have reinjured his knee Sunday, and just never got things going. Spiller is currently leading the league in rushing.


Dolts of the Week

There are plenty of good candidates for the player who made the dumbest play of the week to hurt his team.

Jared Allen hit Andrew Luck late out of bounds on a 3rd-and-16 play that would have forced a punt. Instead the Colts got the automatic first down and added a field goal to their lead.

Ryan Williams of the Arizona Cardinals probably deserves it on merit of fumbling the ball in the situation where the worst thing you can do is fumble the ball. Not to mention his awful performance of 10 carries for 13 yards. But at least things worked out for his team in the end.

The replacement officials had a field day in Pittsburgh. In the fourth quarter alone they managed to call pass interference on Ike Taylor on a play where Taylor did not even contact the receiver with the ball in the air. Later they botched a fumble review that was indeed not a fumble, but they spotted the ball incorrectly as Isaac Redman’s knee was down several yards behind the spot.

Jay Cutler’s performance in Green Bay last Thursday night is in the conversation too. He became the first quarterback since Patrick Ramsey in 2002 to be sacked seven times and throw four interceptions in the same game.

Ultimately, you have to give the award of shame to Josh Morgan for the Washington Redskins. Cortland Finnegan is an irritant, but you do not throw the ball at an opponent, and that is what Morgan did.

Instead of a 46-yard field goal to tie the game and possibly force overtime, the 15-yard flag turned it into a 62-yard attempt for poor Billy Cundiff, who is trying to regain his confidence after last year’s difficult miss. The kick was short, and the Rams had a rare win.

A fifth-year receiver who has never hit the 700-yard receiving mark, Morgan signed a contract worth $7.5 million in guarantees. What should have already looked like a questionable investment looks even worse after two games.

Receivers usually love to catch the ball. Stop throwing it and hurting your team in the process, dolt.


Rex Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger’s Feet: A Mid-September Afternoon’s Sex Comedy

While Rex Ryan may have affection for feet, he must really hate the mobility of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Once again Roethlisberger shook off several sacks and contact by the New York Jets on his way to a very efficient 24 of 31 for 275-yard performance in the Steelers’ 27-10 victory.

As a defensive coordinator with Baltimore and head coach of the Jets, Ryan is just 3-7 against Roethlisberger.

In a game with defensive stars Darrelle Revis, James Harrison and Troy Polamalu sidelined by injury, Roethlisberger shined despite a running game that produced just 66 yards on 28 carries (2.4 yards per carry).

While Roethlisberger made things happen, Mark Sanchez struggled. After a 4-of-5 start for 80 yards and a touchdown, Sanchez finished completing just six of 22 for 58 yards.

If Jets fans were looking for Sanchez to finish a game like Tim Tebow, well, those are Tim Tebow numbers.

The game’s pivotal moment came in the third quarter with Pittsburgh leading 13-10 and facing a 3rd-and-16. Too long for a field goal at Heinz Field, the stop would have been big. Instead, Roethlisberger was able to avoid the pressure and find Mike Wallace in the end zone.

Wallace made an incredible catch by keeping his feet in bounds, and the touchdown was good. Wallace may not be fully integrated into the offense after his holdout, but backyard-style football does not need practiced in Pittsburgh.

Roethlisberger now has 32 straight games with a completion of at least 25 yards, which ties the longest streak in the league since Aaron Brooks in 2005.

For Rex Ryan, it was something he has seen all too often in his career: those big feet making back-breaking plays against his defense.


Same Old Lions…and Same Old (OLD) 49ers?

I’ll take a quiet life, a handshake of carbon monoxide. No alarms and no surprises. – Radiohead

With all the focus on last year's handshake incident between the coaches leading up to the game, the matchup itself was largely a predictable outcome.

When faced with a quality opponent, the Lions again failed to step up to the competition, trailing for nearly the final 57 minutes of the game. They could not find the end zone until the final 90 seconds, and their onside kick attempt was recovered by Kyle Williams of all people.

San Francisco held up against the run as usual, and Matthew Stafford was very off on several of his passes. For the second straight week, Alex Smith outplayed one of last season’s prolific passers, and the 49ers picked up another eight-point win.

Stafford is 0-12 against teams with a winning record, and the 49ers look every bit the team who will win a lot of games this season. They actually have balance, and their passing game looks to be improved from last year.

For Detroit, the outcome of this game was nothing to be surprised over. For the 49ers, this could be the foundation towards another great season under Jim Harbaugh and the late-blooming Alex Smith as they restore a winning tradition in San Francisco.

If the 49ers can return to a winning tradition, so can Detroit. The only problem is they have been waiting since the late 1950s.


Monday Night Meltdown

Last week I previewed the Denver at Atlanta game and laid out the obvious narratives. The first ended up being right, with the game showcasing the Falcons and making the Broncos look like a far from finished product.

Peyton Manning threw three interceptions to the same area of the field (middle-right) on Denver’s first three drives. If that was not enough, the Broncos fumbled, giving them four turnovers in the opening quarter. It was only the second time Manning has had a first quarter with three interceptions.

The first was in 2007 when he did the same in San Diego on a night he threw six interceptions. Still, the Colts should have won that game, but Adam Vinatieri missed a critical short field goal. Tonight, Denver just never had a chance at the end.

The first half was riddled by horrific officiating and took nearly two hours to complete. The Broncos trailed 20-0, and 27-7 to start the fourth quarter, but still made a game of it late.

Atlanta, one of the best four-minute offenses in the league, came through in that situation again with Matt Ryan’s third-down conversion to Julio Jones, and Manning was denied the opportunity for a record-setting comeback.

It was a rare loss for Manning in that he failed to have his team in the lead or at least within one score and possession of the ball in the fourth quarter.

In his last 146 games (that’s since the start of 2003), Manning has only had nine games where he has failed to do so.

He would have had a chance again tonight, but the Falcons were masterful on third down when they needed to be and ran out the clock. Finally, the game was over and Mike Tirico could shut up about the referees. 

The rest of the football media can also slow the talks of Denver being a Super Bowl contender, as there is much work to be done at this point.


On Thursday, The Thinking Man's Guide will be breaking down the polar opposites in close games (Giants/Panthers), a big bounce-back game for Patriots/Ravens, the "awful 2-0" matchup between Philadelphia and Arizona, Manning vs. Texans, Seattle's home-field advantage and old-school Steelers vs. Raiders.

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.