2018 NFL Playoffs: Will there be late-game drama after a season of very little?

The 2017 regular season had the fewest fourth-quarter comebacks in a generation. Can the playoffs revive last year’s drama?

If you’re looking for some late-game heroics this weekend, you may be disappointed. There was a precipitous decline in fourth-quarter comebacks in 2017, with just 49 all year. That represents a 33.8 percent drop from last season’s all-time record of 74.

The slowdown broke a substantial trend that has seen a greater frequency of comebacks over the past decade. As the sport has transformed into more of a passing game in recent years, it has become easier for teams to score quickly and often. Erasing late deficits, therefore, has become more commonplace.

The previous six NFL seasons averaged 71.6 fourth-quarter comebacks per year (28.0 percent of all games played). Last year alone, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford set a new league mark with eight such games, while Oakland quarterback, Derek Carr, nearly matched him with seven (tying the previous record, set by Peyton Manning in 1999 and equaled by his brother, Eli, 12 years later).

In NFL history, there have been 38 quarterback seasons with a minimum of five fourth-quarter comebacks; half of them have occurred in the 2000s. However, there were none this year. Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota was the only quarterback with as many as four; he also led the only such comeback during the Wild Card Round last week against Kansas City.

Since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970, only six seasons have featured 20 percent or fewer games that featured a fourth-quarter comeback* in a year. The low was in 1977 (17.4 percent), followed by the 1973 season (18.1 percent) and 1995 campaign (18.3 percent). That’s where this year comes in at 19.1 percent with 1970 (19.2 percent) and 1976 (19.4 percent).

 *As defined by Pro Football Reference: “Must be an offensive scoring drive in the fourth quarter, with the team trailing by one score, though not necessarily a drive to take the lead. Only games ending in a win or tie are included.”

This season had the second-lowest rate of fourth-quarter comebacks since the 1970s. Three of the years listed in the table above saw new teams entering the league; the AFL and NFL merged in 1970, while 1976 and 1995 were expansion years. As weaker teams entered the league, less potential existed for late-game drama. In 1976, for example, the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks combined to go 2-26. Opponents routinely thrashed both teams; only three of their games included a fourth-quarter comeback.

Last year, despite setting a new high with 74 regular season comebacks, the league only saw one in the postseason — Super Bowl LI, in which New England shocked the Atlanta Falcons with 19 points in the final quarter, en route to a 34-28 overtime victory. But if this playoff year is going to include more drama, it certainly has the quarterbacks who can pull it off.

The 2018 Divisional Round features four quarterbacks who are among the top 13 in career fourth-quarter comebacks (the other four QBs each have fewer than 10). Patriots quarterback, Tom Brady, has 41, which is second all-time to Peyton Manning’s 45. The Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger (32) and the Saints’ Drew Brees (30) also have provided late-game heroics numerous times throughout their careers.

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