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Stats 101: Fourth quarter comebacks and game winning drives

In the NFL, few things are more remembered and more exciting than the fourth quarter comeback as few events in an NFL game provide such captivating moments as the comeback against all odds.

Ron Schwane-USA TODAY Sports

Fourth quarter comebacks are the essence of what makes the game of football special. They capture the imagination and create a sense of heroism that only sports can inspire. This is particularly true when it is the underdog overcoming all odds.

How memorable would the 2012 Ravens playoff run be without the Mile High Miracle, a play that will be talked about for eternity? Certainly it would very memorable, but not to the same extent perhaps without its signature play.

However, comebacks are not always well-understood as a statistic. Until recently for instance,many believed that John Elway was the NFL's comeback king with 47 comebacks.

Now, we know that happens to be untrue -- he actually has 35. Still a very respectable number, and good for third place all-time, but you can see that humongous problem it creates when the statistic is misrepresented, as it constantly is on NFL Network in their annoying Top Ten shows. Even the Denver Broncos stubbornly continue to cite 47 probably for fear of admitting to being wrong for decades.

What is a fourth quarter comeback (4QC) and what is a game-winning drive (GWD)?

A fourth quarter comeback is when the team is down 1-8 points in the fourth quarter or overtime, scores on offense, and ultimately wins the game. You can't earn one by running an interception back for the winning score.

A recent example of this is the Ravens' victory over Cleveland last Sunday.  Trailing by one point, the Ravens offense took the field in the final two minutes. Flacco delivered a strike to Steve Smith for a gain of 32 yards to set up the game-winning field goal.

Game-winning Drives are a slightly different animal even though most 4QCs are also GWDs.  GWDs are when the offense takes the field in the fourth quarter/OT, tied or down 1-8 points, and delivers the points that put the team ahead for good.

An example of this would be the Ravens' victory over the Bengals in 2013 in Week 10.  The Ravens never trailed in the fourth quarter but Cincinnati managed to tie the game up on an improbable Hail Mary to AJ Green. As a result, when the Ravens got the ball in overtime and kicked the winning field goal, the offense (meaning Flacco) is credited with a game-winning drive - but not a fourth quarter comeback as there was no deficit to overcome.

League-wide, Peyton Manning is the NFL's leader in fourth quarter comebacks and is tied with Dan Marino in game-winning drives.

Failed 4QC and Lost Comebacks

Now, obviously not all fourth quarter opportunities end successfully.  Sometimes you do have the ball, the opportunity for the win, and still fail, as the Ravens did in Week 1 against the Bengals. Since the team's odds of winning while trailing in the fourth quarter are obviously lower than the team with the lead, the vast majority of quarterbacks have more failed 4QCs than they do successful 4QCs (and the ones who don't have been unusually lucky or have a small sample size).

More tragic still are lost comebacks. A lost comeback is when the quarterback and offense satisfy every condition for a fourth quarter comeback and still lose the game.

The Week 1 loss to Cincinnati is again our most recent example of that, too.  Flacco hooked up with Steve Smith for a huge 80-yard touchdown with just six minutes left in the game, putting the team ahead in the fourth quarter. Had the defense held, he would receive credit for a 4QC and GWD.

Two plays later, the Bengals answer with a 77-yard touchdown.  At least in this game, the offense had their chance afterwards to answer but simply was unable to.  Other times the quarterback is not so lucky and never gets to touch the ball again, such as what occurred to the Broncos against Seattle in Week 3.

For instance, in 2009, Flacco delivered one of his finest performances in the clutch, bringing the Ravens back from a 27-10 deficit against the Minnesota Vikings.


He eventually put the Ravens back in the game at 31-24 with two fourth quarter touchdowns, and Ray Rice delivered the go-ahead points on a touchdown run to make it 31-30.  The Vikings answered with a huge bomb to Sidney Rice and then a field goal to take a 33-31 lead. Flacco led Baltimore back into field goal range to win the game but Steven Hauschka shanked it, immediately ending the game. Another lost comeback and another "L" in the fourth quarter opportunity column that simply wasn't the quarterback's fault. Thus, it is important to remember that not all losses are created equally. That goes for wins, too.

Joe Flacco's Career Comeback and Game-Winning Drive Statistics

This data is a matter of public record but here is a useful graphic from one of the leaders in studying this subject:

One of the key numbers you'll note is the abnormally high number of lost comebacks that Flacco has.

Despite seven fewer seasons played, Flacco has two more lost comebacks than Tom Brady, who began his playing career as a starter in 2001.  Matt Ryan has half as many lost comebacks than Flacco as well in the same amount of time.

When Kacsmar adjusted each QB's record for lost comebacks, Flacco sees one of the larger jumps. Alas, a quarterback can only control what he can control - and he can't control the defense's ability in the clutch. The Ravens defense, despite its sterling reputation, unfortunately has had more than its share of blown stands (though they got it done when it mattered most).

Flacco's best fourth quarter comeback

While the Mile High Miracle to ultimately defeat Denver in the 2012 playoffs has been Flacco's most memorable, and certainly important comeback to date, it is not necessarily his best fourth quarter comeback performance.

No, that would be, for my money, his Week 9 comeback over the Steelers in 2011. Starting at just his own 8-yard line, facing an elite defense, Flacco led his team down the field on the road in a hostile atmosphere. His receivers dropped multiple passes, including Torrey Smith in the back of the end zone.  Despite all that, Flacco converted huge third downs, including the game-winner, to deliver the victory, and with it, the AFC North. I can't find a comeback where so much of the effort was completely on Flacco to put his team ahead for the win.


Of course, in that same year, Flacco should have had an even more memorable and impressive fourth quarter comeback with even bigger implications, but we won't go there.