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The Late Show


ESPN The Magazine

Monday, November 24


In the NFL's new era of parity, more games than ever are coming down to the clock's last ticks. Here's a guide to what works and who gets stronger.


-- Steve Hirdt

Does a week go by in which we don't witness some fabulous finish to an NFL game? Consider some of what we've seen already this season:

When the Giants lost to the Cowboys in overtime, 35-32, on Monday Night Football in Week 2, they became only the second NFL team in the past 50 years to lose a regular-season game in which they had taken the lead with as few as 11 seconds remaining. (The other game came in 1970, when the Lions fell victim to a game-winning 63-yard field goal by the Saints' Tom Dempsey.)

The Colts' 38-35 overtime win at Tampa in Week 5, also on Monday night, is the only game in NFL history in which a team won by overcoming a deficit of at least 21 points with four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.

When the Chiefs came back after trailing the Packers 31-14 in the fourth quarter to win in OT at Lambeau Field in Week 6, it marked the largest fourth-quarter deficit overcome in (a) any Chiefs victory ever; and (B) any victory in Dick Vermeil's 13-year NFL coaching career. It also did to the Packers' streak of winning home games when holding double-digit leads in the fourth quarter what Indians third baseman Ken Keltner did to DiMaggio's hitting streak back in 1941: ended it at 56 games.

Donovan McNabb's TD pass to Todd Pinkston, capping Philadelphia's 17-14 comeback win at Green Bay on Monday night of Week 10, gave the Eagles four straight wins in which they overcame a second-half deficit of at least three points. That tied the longest such streak in NFL history.

Okay, we're out of bullets. Through the first 11 weeks of this season, at least two wins every week were by teams that trailed sometime during the fourth quarter. The Panthers won the most games of that type (four) while the 49ers lost the most (three). Now, the surprising news: the percentage of games won by a team that had trailed during the fourth quarter is lower this season than in any of the past seven years. Check it out:

1996: 22.9%

1997: 22.5%

1998: 22.9%

1999: 25.8%

2000: 23.0%

2001: 27.0%

2002: 25.4%

2003: 21.3%

The new, improved Chiefs are partly responsible for the falloff from 2002; last year, they blew four double-digit leads, two in the fourth quarter. And keep in mind the 2003 figures do not include the final six weeks. Remember the crescendo of finishes to the early games on the final Sunday of last season that determined so many playoff berths? Seven teams overcame a fourth-quarter deficit to win.

You never know what'll happen in the fourth quarter-of a game, or a season.


-- Eddie Matz

A happy Late Show ending usually comes down to at least one, if not all, of the following: a last-second, game-winning field goal; a last-second, long-range, game-winning field goal; or an onside kick. So we asked more than a dozen NFL special teams coaches who'd they choose to perform each task. And the winners:

ADAM VINATIERI, PATRIOTS: Our respondents value experience. That's why 40% chose Vinatieri as their last-second go-to guy. The sixth-most-accurate kicker in league history (81.3%), Vinatieri has 13 GWs in his eight-year career, including the 48-yarder that won Super Bowl XXXVI. "I've played for eight years in snow, wind and crappy conditions," Vinatieri says. "That helps you focus."

DAVID AKERS, EAGLES: Hitting it long means hitting it low, which is why Philly's two-time Pro Bowler gets our panel's long-distance call. While most kickers boot the ball 1.3 to 1.4 seconds after it's snapped, Akers consistently gets it off in under 1.2. Says Falcons special teams coach Joe DeCamillis, "That 10th of a second makes a huge difference." Sure does. Since 2000, Akers has had just one field goal blocked, tied for second-fewest among kickers with at least 100 attempts.

OLINDO MARE, DOLPHINS: Most teams, our respondents tell us, hope to recover 25% of their onside kicks. But the Dolphins have recovered 39% of Mare's chip shots since 1997, giving him seven successful career onsiders, more than any other active kicker. His secret? A soft touch, which leads to longer hang time and a better chance for his fellow Fish to get under the ball. Says Bengals special teams chief Darrin Simmons, "His ball just hangs up there forever."


-- David Flemming

Panthers offensive coordinator Dan Henning likes to compare the last five minutes of the fourth quarter to the final round of a heavyweight title fight: one guy's going for a knockout, the other's just hanging on. It's an apt metaphor, given his team's turnaround. Carolina has gone from league punching bag in 2002, when the team was 1-4 in games decided by three points or less, to title contender in 2003, with a 6-0 record in those games through the first 12 weeks of the season. Two of those wins came against the Bucs, who are 0-4 in close contests. "Every year it's the same thing," says Panthers head coach John Fox. "It comes down to whoever wins the close games."

Being in position to pull out tight contests takes some luck. But certain teams seem to get lucky a lot. "You have to be built exactly the right way to play games close and consistently win," says wideout Ricky Proehl. "If not, playing to win close can turn into playing not to lose, and that'll bite you in the butt." The Panthers worry less about that than most because they're loaded in four areas that get magnified late in games.

Instigators: Thanks to contracts totaling $127.55 million, the Panthers front four-defensive ends Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker and defensive tackles Brentson Buckner and Kris Jenkins-is loaded with playmakers who will be together until 2007. They've already made good on the investment: in the second week of the season, Jenkins blocked a potential game-winning extra point in Tampa, which led to an OT win. And in a Week 8 win against the Saints, Peppers forced a Deuce McAllister fumble in OT as the Saints neared field goal range. The Panthers front four is so good, Henning says, that punting can be a positive play for the Panthers offense. "Late in games we're at our best," says Peppers. "Everyone's thinking one thing: I gotta make a play."

Backfield options: Two more reasons the Panthers are so good at closing the deal? Fox and GM Marty Hurney were smart enough to sign Stephen Davis (left, No. 48) and Jake Delhomme as free agents. At 6'0'', 230 pounds, Davis wears down opponents and stays strong when his carries climb. The NFL's fourth-leading rusher with 1,143 yards, his yards-per-carry average is 4.6 on carries 1-20 and 4.6 for carries 21 and higher; the number jumps to 7.3 yards during OT. No wonder the Panthers lean on Davis late in games: he can gobble up clock, pound out tough yards to get into field goal range and occupy the safeties to open up the passing game for Delhomme. A first-year starter, the signal-caller from Louisiana has a Cajun cool about him during crunch time. Against the Redskins in Week 11, Delhomme winked at his teammates during the huddle before completing a 25-yard pass to Davis on fourth-and-one. "Shoot," Delhomme says. "I'm no Drew Bledsoe." Correct. This season, he's better.

Finishing kicks: Former Pro Bowl kicker John Kasay played in the first game last year, the only one the Panthers won by three points or less. After a hernia ended Kasay's season, Carolina went 0-4 in close games the rest of the year. His replacement, second-year vet Shayne Graham, made just 72.2% of his field goals. So when Kasay was pushed by younger alternatives in training camp, Fox didn't panic. He stuck with the 13-year vet, convinced he would excel under pressure. Smart bet. Kasay has converted 22 of 24 field goals (91.7%), including three game-winners.

Experience. By learning from those close losses last season, the Panthers laid the foundation for this year's success. "The line between belief and doubt is so small," says Proehl, who has won one of the two Super Bowls he's played in. "I've been on teams like the Cardinals, where we could be up by 15 with four minutes left and we're all wondering how we'll blow the game. But no matter how late, no matter how many points we're down, this team believes. Our mantra is, 'It ain't over.'"

At least not until they say it is.


-- Seth Wickersham

1 Zone-to-man switch: The Tampa Two is the D to play against two-minute drills, because with both safeties back, it keeps the action in front of the deep cover guys. But defenses will often show the scheme, then sneak an SS to the line and switch to man coverage. This is especially true against immobile QBs, who are less likely to audible when time is at a premium. But defending a guy like Michael Vick is different. "Then they'll give the Tampa Two look," says Packers O-coordinator Tom Rossley, "but play man on the intermediate routes, with a defender watching the quarterback."

2 Zone blitz: A safety sneaking down doesn't always mean man coverage. To defend against short routes and to surprise QBs, teams will blitz both a strong safety and a Will (weakside) linebacker-attacking the passer from both sides-while dropping a DE or DT into coverage. But if you've done your homework, disguises won't fool you. "If the clock is stopped and the defense can huddle, a blitz will usually follow," says Chiefs offensive coordinator Al Saunders. "If you know it's coming, you can beat it. In two-minute situations, it's not the receivers trying to beat corners. It's receivers running downfield trying to beat the defensive linemen going upfield. Do that, and you've got a big play."

3 Stay in the zone: Raiders vs. Chiefs, Week 7. Oakland's down 17-10 with 1:47 to go, 94 yards from paydirt. How did the Chiefs defend? Kansas City lined up in the Tampa Two but kept moving its corners up to the line before having them back off. When corners are up, it's a sure zone look; if they're back, it's a sure man key. But no matter where the corners were, the Chiefs played zone. Problem is, it didn't work. At least not until the final play. From the Kansas City 14, a confused Tim Brown read man and cut his end zone route off at the 1-yard line, where DBs Jerome Woods and Greg Wesley tackled him. "Same call all the way down the field," says Holliday. "And we stopped them."


-- Keenan McCardell, Bucs WR

Fans think playing wide receiver is all hands-hands-hands. But late in the game it becomes a 50-50 combo of feet and hands.

Working the sidelines is all about balance. Balancing your feet to stay in bounds. Balancing the decision between getting yards and giving time away. When you break the huddle late in the game, guys are yelling "Clock-clock-clock" to remind you that time is as important as yards.

We work on staying in bounds and walking the tightrope in practice. Some guys tap their feet. But I drag them because it leaves no doubt. Of course, it's not easy to get to the sideline when DBs know you have to go there. If a defender can push you out of bounds, you can't come back

in and catch it. Guys will also cheat way outside to try and funnel everything toward the middle. So, late in the game, it's even more important to drive cornerbacks deep. That way, when you come back to the ball you have space to get to the outside and make a play. But the pass has to be perfect: far enough outside so only you can catch it, but close enough so you can still get two feet in bounds.

And if you make the catch, your work isn't over. You can't jump up, flip the ball down and run away. The best thing to do is run it back to the ref and put it in his hands so he can set the ball down quickly. If you leave it on the ground, guys on defense will kick it, move it, hide it, make the ref chase it down. Then they'll just sit there and laugh while the clock is ticking down to zero.


-- Michael Irvin

Great receivers dream about performing in the clutch. When they're training, it's with the idea that the game is on the line. Two minutes left, big drive, I make a 14-yard grab. Done. First and 10. Let's go. Fifteen-yard catch. Done. Nobody dreams about the blowout, okay? You dream about the big moment. But every great receiver has his play, the one he wants called when it's make or break. Here are the three best today, and their best plays.

TERRELL OWENS, 49ers: He is so fast and so strong. If the Niners are behind, the defense will be playing soft. You want to throw Terrell a hitch when he's running across the middle. After he catches it, the defenders come up to make the tackle but Terrell's just too big to tackle once he gets going. He'll break the first tackle, make an open-field move on the next guy and then he's in the end zone. I call it CIX: see you later. I got six.

MARVIN HARRISON, Colts: He's got more than one play. He'll go across the middle, get that slant, then run by you. Against a Cover Two, which almost everyone uses, he has the ability to find the hole and sit down. He'll find the hole in any zone. It's like he just starts floating. Unless he's against man coverage. Then he'll sprint and no one can catch him. He's not that big, so some of the things he does shock me. He's just dangerous.

RANDY MOSS, Vikings: The call for Randy is obvious: Throw it high and let him catch it. But Randy's biggest edge is mental. He visualizes. That's why he catches that alley-oop, as much as his size or speed. He doesn't talk about the goat. He says, "I'll be the one. I'll be the hero. I'll be the man." And he is.

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Originally posted by bubba9497

When the Giants lost to the Cowboys in overtime, 35-32, on Monday Night Football in Week 2, they became only the second NFL team in the past 50 years to lose a regular-season game in which they had taken the lead with as few as 11 seconds remaining. (The other game came in 1970, when the Lions fell victim to a game-winning 63-yard field goal by the Saints' Tom Dempsey.)

WOW! I hadn't thought of it that way. I thought the Redskins were the only team that held those ugly little obscure records. The article says the last 50 years, but I wonder if that is the record for the latest taken-lead lost.

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