Even by Tom Brady’s lofty standards, the rally he directed Monday night in guiding the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a 17-16 victory over the New Orleans Saints was special.
The 44th fourth-quarter comeback of Brady’s career set an NFL record, breaking a tie with Peyton Manning, and happened to be the largest deficit he has rallied from in the fourth quarter in the regular season.
The Saints led 16-3 with 5 minutes, 21 seconds remaining when Brady began a touchdown drive that ended on a pass to Cade Otton. The game-winning drive — after the Saints proved inept at clock management — culminated on a throw to Rachaad White, lifting the Bucs to a victory that put it in firm control of the NFC South.
It was the fourth time in Brady’s career he has guided a rally from a deficit greater than 10 points in the fourth quarter, including a 33-30 victory for the New England Patriots over the Chicago Bears on Nov. 10, 2002, at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. Brady threw two touchdown passes in the final 2:46, and a 20-yard strike to David Patten with 21 seconds remaining was the difference. It was a stunning end to a game the Bears led 27-6 with a little more than 18 minutes to play.
“That was a wild one,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “I can’t remember too many games like that I’ve been part of. It was a situation where, really, we had to do so many things right in the last 20 minutes for the game to end up like it did.”
Close games have been a storyline across the league this season. Through 13 weeks, the NFL set records for:
- 63 games in which a team rallied to win or tie after trailing in the fourth quarter
- 86 games decided by six points or less
- 149 games within one score (eight points) in the fourth quarter, including 12 of 15 in Week 13
Competitive games into the fourth quarter are what the NFL wants. Offense drives television ratings, and while scoring has been down, close games keep viewers engaged and add to the unpredictability of the season. Week 14 kicked off Thursday night with another game matching all above criteria. The Los Angeles Rams trailed 16-3 in the fourth quarter before quarterback Baker Mayfield, claimed off waivers from the Carolina Panthers on Tuesday, led two touchdown drives. The winning drive went 98 yards with no timeouts in the final two minutes to shock the Las Vegas Raiders.
One reason for the uptick in close games: Scoring is down. Teams are averaging 21.9 points per game, the second-lowest total in the last 13 seasons (21.7 in 2017). Teams are scoring less for a handful of reasons.
- Offenses are running the ball more, which means they are being more deliberate. Teams are averaging 120.9 rushing yards per game, the most since 1988 (121.4). Passing volume is down as the average attempts per team is 33.5 — the fewest since 2009 (33.3).
- Defenses are scheming to take away explosive passing plays, which has led to more two-deep coverage. That removes defenders from the box and leads to lighter fronts. Offenses have responded by running more and attempting more passes underneath.
No team has led the shift in statistical trends more than the Bears in terms of success running the ball and a reduced pass volume. They rank No. 1 averaging 35 rushes per game and are the runaway leader in rushing yardage, averaging 189.2 yards, more than 30 more than the second-ranked Atlanta Falcons.
Conversely, the Bears are averaging only 21.5 pass attempts, the lowest total in the league and 7.6 fewer than the 32nd-ranked Philadelphia Eagles of 2021. The Bears have averaged 27.8 points in the last six starts by Justin Fields, a testament to the quarterback’s playmaking ability and the job offensive coordinator Luke Getsy has done maximizing the potential of the roster.
The Bears’ spiral to 3-10 heading into their bye has included six losses by eight points or less, so they have been in plenty of seesaw games in the fourth quarter. What they haven’t done is discover a way to close out close games with the exception of the Week 3 matchup against the Houston Texans, when Roquan Smith intercepted Davis Mills and returned it to the 12-yard line with 1:05 remaining, setting up a chip-shot 30-yard Cairo Santos field goal for the winning margin.
The Bears have had the ball with six minutes or less to play with the chance to take the lead or tie the game, and the only time they delivered was in the aforementioned Texans game. The offense didn’t gain a yard on the final possession before the field goal as there were two kneel-downs.
Fields continues to make improvements and has added a big-play and quick-strike ability to the offense that was sorely lacking in recent years. He has rushed for a touchdown in six consecutive games, the first quarterback to do so in the Super Bowl era, and his 55-yard scoring run in the first quarter of the 28-19 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday at Soldier Field was his third TD run of 50-plus yards.
It was his best passing game of the season, too, as he completed 20 of 25 passes for 254 yards. But he has yet to pull through in crunchtime. His passer rating in fourth quarters is 53.8, and his interception rate is an unsightly 9.2% as the offense has struggled when forced into obvious passing situations.
The next step for the second-year quarterback is to begin making plays when the game is on the line. Jay Cutler has the most fourth-quarter comebacks of any quarterback in franchise history with 16. Others with five or more since the Mike Ditka era include Jim McMahon (six), Jim Harbaugh (seven), Jim Miller (five), Kyle Orton (five) and Mitch Trubisky (five).
Improving the offense around Fields will help, which is a project for general manager Ryan Poles in the offseason. But look at Brady, whose critical touchdowns Monday were thrown to Otton and White and who threw his final TD passes in the 2002 game at the University of Illinois to Kevin Faulk and Patten.
If a lesson is to be learned from Brady, it’s that sometimes you have to take what the defense offers. He put on a master class Monday on the final two drives by rallying the Bucs almost exclusively with passes thrown underneath. If the defense is going to take away something — deep throws down the middle and vertical boundary routes — it’s going to open up something else.
That is where the Bears ran into trouble against the Packers with a deep dig route to Equanimeous St. Brown that Jaire Alexander intercepted at the Packers 28-yard line with 2:52 remaining and the Packers leading 20-19.
St. Brown struggled to get in and out of his route, and coach Matt Eberflus, Fields and just about everyone else — including Alexander — pointed that out afterward. Alexander was sitting on routes all day. Fields and the Bears should have recognized that would be a problem on the timing or trust throw, as Eberflus described it. Alexander’s aggressive style is precisely why Fields was able to hit deep passes to St. Brown and N’Keal Harry earlier in the game. Fields gambled with his eyes in the backfield.
Instead, Fields could have hit running back David Montgomery as a check-down target, picked up 5 yards and moved to second down in a situation in which a field goal at the end of the game would have won it.
The second Fields interception by nickel cornerback Keisean Nixon was an ill-advised throw across the field in a situation in which the Bears needed two scores. Montgomery and tight end Cole Kmet were both open on delayed crossing routes on third-and-1. If Fields would have hit one of them, maybe the Bears would have attempted a field goal and then an onside kick.
Ultimately, quarterbacks have to make big-time throws to pull out rallies in the fourth quarter, but the way defenses are playing, patience often is required to make decisions to live another down. Fields continues to gain experience, and these are all plays that he can file away for the next time he encounters a similar situation.
Who knows what kind of position the Bears will find themselves in during the closing minutes of the final four games. It’s one of the next areas Fields can display growth in a season in which he has made remarkable gains.