There’s a saying in football and I think it’s true – there are more games being lost than won, meaning it’s more likely a team loses a game by some bad decisions, situational football or such as rather than one factor earning them a victory. Some prime examples would be several teams taking their foot off the gas pedal and getting scared against the Patriots after holding a lead, the Packers’ epic collapse at Seattle in the 2015 NFC Championship game when everything seemed to go wrong at the end of the game and these three games from Sunday, I want to present to you. With this article I don’t want to take anything away from their opponents, because they did what they needed to in order to walk home victorious, but rather I want to show how the losing teams could have easily turned fortunes in their favor. To do so, I will illustrate three different types of game developments and complexities – one team that gave away a big lead, one that put themselves in a hole early they couldn’t climb out of anymore and one that put up the better performance and had plenty of chances to win, but couldn’t get the job done.
Bengals – Dolphins
Heading into Sunday the Dolphins were a six-point underdog at Cincinnati after a brutal defeat to their division rival Patriots and had a chance to change the minds of a lot of people around the league with a win against a 3-1 Bengals squad, who they shared the same record with.
Miami was off to a hot start to this game thanks to a red-zone interception of Andy Dalton where the defense was in cover-four and Reshad Jones could drive on an inside post, which landed in the arms of Kiko Alonso, a touchdown pass to Kenyan Drake running a corner route out of the backfield against a linebacker off a double-post concept clearing space and a 70-yard punt return touchdown by Jakeem Grant. However, after watching the tape I thought they got lucky, as Bengals cornerback William Jackson III dropped a potential pick-six undercutting an in-route, and even more so they left big plays on the table.
One came when they motioned Drake out wide into an empty set with three receivers to the left and the right wideout basically running four verticals, while Danny Amendola ran a choice-route on the linebacker underneath. Tannehill hit Amendola for seven yards, but had he read the coverage correctly and seen the back-side safety drop down before the snap, he would have known that he now has the free safety in a bind, having to decide which of the inside receivers he follows. His receivers adjusted their routes accordingly and would Tannehill not have played it safe, this should have been a huge gain, if not a touchdown.
Another time in the second half, Miami was set up at mid-field after a short punt and a nice run by Frank Gore they already put them at Cincy’s 25. They came out in an ace right set and motioned Drake out wide once again. With both cornerbacks lining up to the left against the two receivers and the strong safety moving outside with the running back, this was a clear indication of cover-one. Even if Tannehill wasn’t 100 percent sure, he could have checked if the linebackers trailed the two tight-ends running wheel routes. There is no way that safety can stay with Drake now cutting underneath on an in-route, but the Dolphins QB just misses it and looks left the entire way where he trusts his receivers to get separation as they cross. The Bengals DBs do a good job passing on assignments and the Dolphins would have to settle for a field-goal.
Regardless of that, they were up 17-0 and with their defense playing one heck of a game and a few mistakes not even having cost them, it looked like Miami was in good position to go home victorious. However, they would not score another point and make some stupid mistakes in play-calling as well as execution, en route to giving up 27 straight points.
When the Bengals get the ball back, Dalton completes a back-shoulder fade to Green against an all-out blitz look and after that the Dolphins D start to forget the principles of how to defend the Bengals. Cincy went play-action off a wide zone and picked up almost 20 yards with the tight-end coming underneath the formation as nobody stayed home to that side and they get a nice gain on an inside zone as the defense overpursues. When you watch the Bengals on tape you can see that they love to run zone and Mixon is always a threat to cut it back, plus then they boot off that and have different levels to attack. While Dalton missed a wide open tight-end off a mesh concept and they had to settle for a field-goal, this was a sign of things to come.
When Miami takes back over they immediately go three-and-out and after a late hit out of bounds Cincinnati starts the following drive from their 29. Dalton picks up a first down to his number one receiver off a little scramble drill, but the Dolphins defense would force another punt, if an unnecessary roughness penalty didn’t bail them out on 3rd & 4. After an inside zone and zone split move the ball down inside Miami’s 20, the Phins basically give away a touchdown for free. The Bengals come out in a two-by-two set with a stack to the left and a tight-end to the right. With two linebackers in the A-gaps and T.J. McDonald threating over the tight-end the defense has seven players at the line scrimmage. From their single-high safety alignment this looks like cover-three or cover-one, so Cincinnati’s sail concept to the right with Joe Mixon as the third receiver should work either way. While Miami almost gets lucky as the left defensive end is just missed in protection, Dalton sees Kiko Alonso having to follow his RB despite just having lined up in the A-gap and he can hang in there long enough to allow him to create separation on the deep out. Despite an underthrown ball, the linebacker gets turned around and loses track of it. Touchdown Bengals – one-score game. There is no way a linebacker should be put in such a position.
However, at this point the Dolphins are still ahead and could take hold of this game. With the offensive line being shuffled around however, there is somebody messing up time and time again. There should be an easy first down for them on a switch concept with a skinny post and wheel route opening up their tight-end on a deep out, but even though the line was sliding the right way, their left guard gets whopped off the snap by Geno Atkins and it results in a sack. On 3rd & 16 Kenyan Drake converts in phenomenal fashion on a simple checkdown, where it looks like he has no chance but makes multiple defenders miss. On first down they run a lead sweep out of a two-back set, but the playside guard steps inside and doesn’t peel off quickly enough, so the linebacker can shoot the gap for no gain. The following play changed the entire game.
The Dolphins come out in ace right with twins to the left and fake zone that way with the O-line sliding right, both tight-ends staying in protection and a two-route concept by the receivers – a fade outside and a post-corner by the slot. Newly inserted left tackle Sam Young for some reason jabs outside for a second instead of stepping inside, where Michael Johnson immediately gets a step on him off an inside stunt. That puts pressure in Tannehill’s face immediately and instead of just taking the sack or trying to throw the ball past the line of scrimmage to the right (where nobody is), he basically tries to sky-hook it off his feet. The ball goes off the helmet of one of his O-linemen and Johnson, who had put on the initial pressure, takes it back for a 33-yard pick-six. I don’t like the play-call in that situation because they are already on the right hash, the protection guides Tannehill even further to that side and makes this is a very long throw across the field. Obviously the quarterback’s decision is even worse.
Now the game is tied and Miami is reeling. They try to re-establish the ground game, but a holding penalty puts them in a bad situation once again. That’s when some weird play-calls come up, like a zone fake to the wide side with Tannehill following his back, who he just used the fake for. I mean who are you trying to fool with this? They punt again and put the Bengals into position to take the lead. A couple of plays in Mixon runs inside zone once more, but jump-cuts and bounces all the way to the outside, where the cornerback loses contain and the RB goes for 25. Two snaps after that Cincinnati once again runs a double post concept, this time off play-action. The linebackers get sucked in and the single-high safety stays deep even though the Bengals had been attacking that inside receiver all game long. Even though the Dolphins would hold at the goal-line this set up a chip-shot field goal to give Marvin Lewis’ troops their first lead of the game.
With 3:30 left on the clock, Miami is now down 20:17. They lose two yards on a running back swing screen off a wing motion, committ a false start and miss Drake on a simple out-route. Now on 3rd & 17 they desperately need a big play. The Bengals disguise their pressure by bringing over a linebacker late on a five-man rush with cover-one robber behind it. Meanwhile the Dolphins have a fade route from the single receiver to the left, two deep curls by the two receivers to the left and the tight-end releasing late. Surprisingly the O-line does a solid job picking up the pressure, but Tannehill didn’t feel Carlos Dunlap coming around the corner even though he sees nothing but green grass in front of him. The QB slightly drifts left, steps up late and is stripped from behind by the D-end. The fumble is returned for TD, as he would be late on that curl to Stills anyway.
When the Dolphins come back out on the field with their final chance, Tannehill completes one out-route to his tight-end, but is almost intercepted when trying pretty much the exact same concept and throws a couple of checkdowns to his running back, before finally sealing the deal. For some reason they have both wideouts trying to split the two safeties with post routes, but the pass (deservedly so) is intercepted by rookie standout Jessie Bates
Miami would get the ball back once more after three run plays by the Bengals, but have the game end on a meaningless 25-yard run by Drake. Miami was in control of this game, despite leaving some stuff on the table. What killed were some questionable play-calls, a lack of understanding of defensive coverages by their quarterback and poor execution by their makeshift offensive line. Add a defense that seemingly forgot the principles of the opposing offense and didn’t stay true to their assignments in the second half, plus a pressure look that should have been called off and you have a team that gets outscored 27:0 over the final 24 minutes.
Packers – Lions
In our second example, the explanation is much easier. The Packers travelled to Detroit with their number two and three receivers being ruled out, an average week of preparation according to Aaron Rodgers and a tense situation between their quarterback and head coach. However, when you look at the Packers’ box score and see Mason Crosby missing four field goal attempts plus a PAT and you see that this was an eight-point game you would assume that they should have won this game if the kicker had connected on three of those FGs. With that being said, Green Bay put themselves into a hole they couldn’t climb out of anymore by what they did in the other facets of the game.
After an eight-play opening drive by the Lions that included a nullified touchdown grab by Kenny Golladay covering half the field, the Lions are forced to punt, but Kevin King comes into the picture after blocking the gunner from the opposite side and has the ball touch him off the bounce. Detroit’s Jamal Agnew recovers at the one and LeGarrette Blount punches it in for the early lead. There has to be call by return-man Tramon Williams for when the punt is too short to catch like “Peter”, signaling his teammates to get out of the way. You can see Williams wave his arms, but either his call wasn’t loud enough or King didn’t make a good enough effort to get out of the way. I think it was a little bit of both.
Ty Montgomery takes the ensuing kickoff all the way back to the Lions’ 35-yard line, but a holding penalty pushed them back to their own 12. After a pass interference call helps the Packers extend the drive on third-and-long, Green Bay fakes zone to the left out of an ace set to that side and Rodgers boots the other way. He has the two tight-ends coming across the field and both are wide open, but you can tell that the distance between them isn’t far enough. So as the ball goes slightly above Jimmy Graham’s head, he tries to reach up for it, tips it and it falls to the turf instead of into the hands of Lance Kendricks. (9:00) After a clutch scramble and completion on a deep-in route by one of the rookie receivers, something similar seems to happen when the Packers come out with a double-stack out of tight split. They have the two receiver from the right running a double post concept, which clears up space for Davante Adams coming across the field. However, running back Aaron is also running a flat route which occupies the underneath defender, but Rodgers can’t really step into the throw and Jones tries to high-point it as well even though Adams might have a touchdown if that ball lands in his hands.
That’s when Mason Crosby misses his first field goal from 41 yards out slightly to the left. When the Lions take over they run Kerryon Johnson first and then isolate Golladay on an inside fade route versus Green Bay’s DB Josh Jackson. The rookie slightly misjudges the ball and can’t get up into his jump anymore, so the receiver plucks it off his head, goes down the sideline and cuts back inside the safety Haha Clinton-Dix with a mean stiff-arm. In two attempts from the six Blount pounds it into the end-zone for his second touchdown. Even at the PAT the visiting team messes up, as they rough the kicker and push the ensuing kickoff to mid-field.
When the Packers take back over inside their own 15, they gain three yards on a Montgomery run and then on second down another rookie juggles the pass at the sideline after what would have resulted in a fresh set of downs. Now it’s 3rd & 7 and the Packers need to make a play being down 14:0 already. They once again come out in that set with four tight receivers and try something similar to defeat the Lions’ two-high safety alignment. They run a little mesh concept on the inside with one of the rookies coming over the linebacker and Adams going underneathing him, while corner routes are supposed to draw the underneath coverage once again. However, Montgomery comes out of the backfield and wants to sit down his route in front of the linebacker and Adams just runs him over on his way, leading both players land on the ground. Rodgers is now forced to his right and moves all the way outside the numbers in hope of Jimmy Graham working back towards him on the scramble drill, since he can’t find his crosser. The right defensive end Romeo Okwara chases his down, strips him from behind and the Lions are back in business just outside the opposing red-zone once again.
The Packers D does a pretty good job holding them to a field goal and the ball goes back to their offense. After a nice completion on an angled corner route off a zone-split fake, Aaron Rodgers takes the Pack down to the Lions’ 30 with several outstanding runs. They fail to connect on a deep comeback route off play-action, Rodgers slightly overshoots the 6’5” Equanimeous St. Brown on a fade in the end-zone and on third down the defensive backfield does a tremendous job bracketing all the receivers in a cover-one robber look, so Rodgers is forced to just throw it away. That’s when Crosby misses for the second time from 41 yards out, as he hits the upright.
After a nice third down conversion to a deep crosser, the Lions have a 50-yard bomb to Marvin Jones taken off the board by offsetting penalties and then the defense comes up big once more with a sack and tackle short of the sticks to force another punt. As the visitors take back over, Rodgers hooks up with Graham on a nice out-and-up route followed by a completion to Adams on a dig route over the top off the linebackers, who needed to step up because of the run-fake. On the following play the Packers almost get a huge gain to the five yard line, as they motion a receiver across into trips and see man-coverage with one high safety as a corner trails the motion man and the third receiver runs his seam route all the way across the field. However, after a three-yard run they get a big completion from a similar look to Adams as Rodgers steps up in the pocket and they are inside the Detroit 10 anyway. In three attempts, including a zone-split run on first, an overthrown back-shoulder fade to Graham out wide and no receiver getting any separation against man coverage on third, they can’t cash in and ask Crosby to trot out onto the field again. This time he curves it to the right from 38.
At this point they should be within a touchdown, but the defense doesn’t get encouraged as they hold the opposition to just one first down thanks to excellent man-coverage on the back-end and blowing up a slip screen out of a bunch set. Rodgers and company now take over from their own 15. He completes two nice out-routes, but on 2nd & 2 is when they just give the game away. They come out in a trips set to the right with Graham as the single-receiver in a short split to the left. The Lions counter with another two-high safety alignment and a four-man rush. On the trips side, the inside receivers run a post and deep-in route, but not only do the Lions line up their top two corners against those guys to signal man-coverage, once he sees the DBs trailing his guys he has to go to St. Brown on the short-in because the corner has the longest way to get to the ball, especially with how deep he is lined up, and it’s their worst cover-guy on the field. You can see how the quarterback looks left initially and I have no doubt he knows where he should go with this ball, but I think he is tired of those rookies and shifts back to the opposite side to see if he can get it to his tight-end breaking outside or running back going into the flats. Yet, a Lions rookie D-lineman DaShawn Hand is in his face at that point and as Rodgers tries to keep the ball away from the rusher instead of bringing it into his body, the ball is knocked loose and Hand recovers inside the Packers 30-yard line.
Detroit goes the rest of the way in four plays including a penalty and as safety Clinton-Dix is cleared out by the eyes of Stafford being locked in on an out-route by his tight-end, Marvin Jones breaks inside for an eight-yard score at the back-line of the end-zone with 15 seconds left in the first half.
The Packers would go on to make a run for a comeback in the second half despite another missed field goal and extra point try, but Crosby’s first make to cut the final score to 23-31 with two seconds left is not really indicative of the how the game went. And you can blame the kicker for all those misses and say that in principle those 13 points that where left on the board would have changed the outcome, but there was something fundamentally wrong with this team on Sunday. Rodgers’ overall numbers of 32/52 for 442 yards with three TDs and no picks, resulting a QB rating of 108.0 are excellent. Statistically the Packers absolutely dominated their division rivals in every major category – 30 compared to 18 first downs, 6.9 yards per play instead of 4.6 and 521 total yards over 264, but they also had three turnovers and three first downs surrendered by penalty, plus more importantly I thought their all-around execution, especially on offense was absolutely horrendous. The defense easily played well enough to win this game, but they were put in really tough spots throughout the first 30 minutes. Green Bay made mistakes on special teams, the skill-players on offense messed up some of their routes and not only did Rodgers lose two fumbles and struggle with that banged up kneww, his attitude and disinterest was infectious to the rest of the offense. The Packers didn’t deserve to win this game.
Ravens – Browns
And finally we get to one of the worst games of the week. I don’t mean that in a way that it wasn’t great to watch – it was highly entertaining, but I was cringing time and time again when I saw how many opportunities the Ravens had to win this game and they just never came through. The Browns had their two first-round picks – Baker Mayfield and Denzel Ward – come up with huge plays at crucial moments, but even then this win was to be had.
This was a defensive battle all the way through, as the Ravens sacked Baker Mayfield five times and were in the backfield constantly, while Joe Flacco struggled to defeat the Browns’ tight man-coverage for the most part. However, Baltimore got a huge gift early on as the home team was set up with 3rd & 5 and Baker threw his only interception. I solely put this on Rashard Higgins, who releases outside and then comes back underneath the cornerback on an in-cut, but even though he has a step on Tavon Young he decides to turn it upfield for some reason and the Ravens defender lunges for the pick.
After the next three drives of the game end in punts, the Ravens instigate a clever drive featuring jet sweep fakes, play-action and even some Lamar Jackson, an illegal use of the hands penalty puts the visitors into first-and-goal from their own two. A power run by Buck Allen to the left after a sweep fake to Jackson is stuffed, so on second down the Ravens come out in an ace right set with Snead coming off a short motion. They go play-action with a zone-split fake that has Nick Boyle releasing into the flats, Snead running an out-route and Crabtree coming from the opposite side on a crosser. Emmanuel Ogbah stays home on the boot-side however and is in Flacco’s face immediately who tries to squeeze in the ball to Boyle even though the corner is still down in the flats. He needed to either give Crabtree a chance at the back-line with a high pass or just throw it out of the end-zone because that right side was done. Instead Ogbah bats it up and Ward cuts underneath the tight-end for the pick. It was a great play by the rookie, but a bad mistake by a veteran to even attempt that throw.
Over the next 13 plays we see two punts from each team before the Browns finally get something going offensively. They run a trick play with Baker Mayfield faking a high snap and Duke Johnson running a sweep to the right off a direct snap and hit a beautiful seam route to David Njoku in-between the safeties out of a two-by-two set with the ball placed to his back-side to brace him from a hit. They finish the drive by coming out in a tight bunch to the right with the inside receivers running in-routes on different levels and Higging releasing outside before breaking back to the post with Marlon Humphrey getting turned around a little. Yet, they miss the PAT.
With 40 seconds left in the half the Ravens drive down to the Cleveland 30 with Crabtree dragging across the field and the opposite side being cleared out, Snead running an in-route out of the slot of a trips set with tight-end Mark Andrews clearing the underneath coverage with a seam route. That sets up Tucker for what is an easy three points for him to equal the score at six. However, the Browns rookie cornerback makes another huge play by perfectly executing four strides and a stretch of every last inch to block the field goal.
After the Ravens D forces a three-and-out to start the second half, Baltimore converts on a crucial third down, but follow that up with a Buck Allen fumble after catching an angle route. Their defense has hold again and even though a huge inside fade to Rashard Higging sets Cleveland up at the opposing six-yard line, Baltimore can hold them to a field goal following a big sack. When they take back over they move the ball all the way inside the opposing ten and they come in an empty set on third-and-three. They have trips to the right and run a levels concepts with Crabtree breaking inside deep. The safety and linebacker to that side bracket Brown underneath as the third receiver, so Flacco goes to Crabtree who is matched up against Ward and tries to fit the ball in front of the middle safety. He puts it a little high and late, Ward gets a hand in there and Baltimore now has six points on two red-zone drives.
Out of the next 22 plays we see five punts, but there is one play I want to point out to show another opportunity the Ravens had to get into the end-zone. On 3rd & 13 from their own 22-yard line the Browns come out in trips left and motion the outside receiver into a stack behind Callaway. The rookie stretches the field vertically with a fade and the tight-end runs a hook route, while Jarvis Landry comes across the field on a drag from the opposite side. They do that to open up Derrick Willies on a deep crosser. The Ravens hybrid linebacker Anthony Levine feels it happening behind him, redirects and high-points the pass, but just can’t bring it in. If he grabs that one he definitely takes it back to the house.
With that being said, Baltimore gets the ball back with four-and-a-half minutes on a punt. They originally return it past mid-field but an illegal block above the waist moves them back to their own 34. A back-shoulder fade to Crabtree isolated in the slot, angle route to Allen and once again one of those Snead in-routes underneath a tight-end going down the seams takes them to Cleveland’s 14. On third down they come out in an empty set against the Browns’ two-high safety look. They have fades on the outside, a seam and deep-in route by the number two and three on the trips side and Crabtree splitting the safeties on a post from the slot. As long as that safety doesn’t read it perfectly and undercuts it that should have been the deciding touchdown, but Crabtree drops the high pass and the Ravens are forced to settle for a field-goal to tie the game at nine.
Less than a minute left in regulation, the Browns get the ball back and get themselves into scoring range with a slant to Njoku split out wide and a crosser by Landry, who takes it to Baltimore’s 37. They can’t connect on any of their passes and miss a potential game-winning field goal.
The home team receives the ball first in overtime, but get sent off the field immediately and Baltimore has a chance to win the game with any score. After a completion to Crabtree on an out-route and a lead power run by Collins, the Ravens get to 3rd & 4, but get a 20-yard gain from Chris Moore on a slant route. The very next play they come out in ace right with a weak I-formation. They run a misdirection dive with Collins and he goes all the way to the Cleveland 36, which should basically already put them in field-goal range. However a block in the back by Moore, who just made he big play, as he is coming back inside on the cornerback negates the run. The receiver simply needed to stand in the way and let the defender run through him to allow Collins to bounce outside, but that way they are back inside their own territory and ultimately punt it back.
With that being said, the Browns take over from their own 13 and get a huge chunk play as the Ravens leave Landry wide open in the flats coming out of the backfield. A roughing the passer penalty adds 15 yards to the 41-yard catch-and-run and the one-win team is in business. Yet, a rub route slant to Callway for five yards, they go with three straight incompletions set up the Ravens from their own 39. Baltimore needs like 20 yards to put the greatest kicker in NFL history in position to win the game, but these are their three plays they call:
1st down – Once again they run that in-route by the slot with the tight-end going vertical, which the Browns have just seen to many times to still allow, so Flacco tries to check the ball down to his back, but it is knocked down by Genard Avery.
2nd down – A back-shoulder fade to John Brown versus cover-one matched up against Ward, who has been making plays on the ball all game long.
And 3rd down They want to hit Crabtree on a crosser out of a tight bunch with the other two receivers clearing space and the Hurst from the opposite side running a crosser himself out of the slot. Flacco pulls it down for some reason and they punt again.
Cleveland now starts at their own 15. They call a reverse with Duke Johnson pitching the ball to Rod Streater who is touching it for the first time all season, but Matt Judon runs it down for minus 11 yards. That’s when I thought Baltimore got screwed a little as Terrell Suggs is clearly held by David Njoku coming across on a zone-split fake, which should have resulted in a safety and ended the game. Instead Mayfield scrambles for 13 and that’s when he makes the play of the game.
The Browns motion into tight bunch and after buying some time he hits undrafted free agent Derrick Willies on an in-route, who runs it all the way to the opposing 43. Duke Johnson basically seals it with a 15-yard run and Greg Joseph converts on the ugliest kick I might have ever seen, which looks like it was tipped since it didn’t rotate whatsoever.
The Browns have a phenomenal young signal-caller and their coaches still decided to take it out of his hands on several crucial downs, like when they were pinned inside their own ten and ran it three straight times out of an I-formation. Their head coach signaled to his team that there were two seconds left on the clock after hitting the winning field goal in overtime. The Ravens had multiple opportunities to make plays in the end-zone and should have been in range for the game-hitter if it wasn’t for a stupid blocking penalty. On the other hand Cleveland was inside Baltimore’s 35 just twice all game long until that game-winner and the ferocious Ravens D made got the ball back for their offense 12(!) times. There were multiple opportunities to take this game in their hands and seal the deal, but it was Flacco missing easy passes, receivers as well as defenders dropping balls and very questionable play-calling at the end that gave the Browns just their third win over the divisional rivals in their last 21 meetings.