Remember how the NFC elite closed out the 2012 season?
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson hushed the Georgia Dome crowd by leading a drive that put the Seahawks ahead in the final seconds of an NFC divisional game. Matt Ryan countered with the game-winning drive.
Colin Kaepernick put the San Francisco 49ers ahead in the final minutes of the NFC title game, but Ryan was in the red zone for the final few plays. He couldn't finish the game-winning drive, so the 49ers advanced to the Super Bowl.
In the Super Bowl, the 49ers were at the Ravens' 5-yard line with less than two minutes left and a chance to win. The 49ers had recovered from a 22-point deficit. Three incompletions later, the Ravens won the Super Bowl.
But the 49ers had proven a point: This is a four-quarter game in the NFL. No matter what happens in the first three quarters, quarterbacks are getting better and better at directing game-winning fourth-quarter drives. The season opened with a record dozen games decided by seven points or fewer. Eight of those involved fourth-quarter comeback wins.
All you have to do is look at some of the young quarterbacks who entered the league in the last two years and you can see the trend will only escalate. Andrew Luck had seven game-winning drives and four fourth-quarter comeback wins for the Indianapolis Colts in his rookie year. Wilson had four game-winning drives and three fourth-quarter comeback wins last year, and he opened with one Sunday against the Carolina Panthers.
Critics might talk about parity, but the reality is that offenses are geared to work better in fourth quarters because of the way the game is changing. Spread offenses, shotgun formations, hurry-up attacks and tired defenses are making most starting quarterbacks more efficient in fourth quarters.
A dozen quarterbacks in Week 1 had fourth-quarter ratings above 100, led by Wilson, who was 7-for-8 for 114 yards and a game-winning touchdown. And the successful quarterbacks are only improving. Luck, Wilson, Kaepernick, a healthy Robert Griffin III and others are now able to compete in fourth quarters with Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning and other experienced veterans.
To survive as a winner in this league, quarterbacks have to do better in the fourth quarter. Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton started a nice drive in the fourth quarter to counter Wilson's touchdown drive, but DeAngelo Williams had the ball stripped from his hand for a fumble. Game over. Philip Rivers, once a great fourth-quarter thrower, is in a funk. He was 1-for-7 for only 8 yards and an interception in the fourth quarter of Monday night's loss to the Houston Texans. In 2011 and 2012 combined, Rivers had only one fourth-quarter win, which is one of the reasons why the Chargers have lost their winning ways.
As important as it is for the quarterback to be the general who can lead the fourth-quarter assault, it's equally important to have the running game to help close out victories. That's why teams such as San Francisco and Seattle can win those fourth-quarter games. They have the runners and physical presence to accomplish that.
While Drew Brees is a master of the fourth-quarter comeback himself, the Saints will have to strengthen their running game to close out wins. Ryan drove the Falcons down the field and was within one completion of winning the game Sunday at New Orleans.
The lack of a closing back was one of the reasons the Falcons signed Steve Jackson. Michael Turner lost his fourth-quarter touch of closing out games on the ground. Saints coach Sean Payton has always emphasized running the ball. In the first game back from a season-long suspension, his team pulled out a great victory.
All I know is there are so many good fourth-quarter quarterbacks, games should be extra exciting this year.
From the inbox
Q: Seeing he has two All-Pro receivers, an extra 1,000-yard receiver, an all-world O-line and the 2012 second-ranked defense that will return two Pro Bowlers by Week 7, how has Peyton Manning not completely and utterly disqualified himself from MVP consideration?
Cal in Los Angeles
A: He didn't disqualify himself when he had two Hall of Fame-caliber wide receivers (Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne) along with Dallas Clark and others with the Colts. It can be said that Manning makes these pass-catchers better. He's won four MVPs because he deserves them. From his start, he has a great chance of winning it again. Of course, he'd trade two MVPs for one additional Super Bowl ring.
Q: What is the answer to the no-huddle offense? Platooning defenses? Do you think it will last, or is it just a passing fad?
George in Puyallup, Wash.
A: Regardless of the offensive game plan, great quarterbacks are going to move the football. Crowd noise affects the no-huddle on road games. Good cornerback play and occasional blitzes slow it down. This is no passing fad; this is the present and the future of the NFL. With receivers having more freedom to go in the middle of the field and quarterbacks' accuracy being better, the NFL game is going more like the college game. A no-huddle offense limits defensive substitutions, and defenders tend to tire out after about five or six quick plays. The good defenses will find a way to adjust. This just makes for exciting football.
Q: Why don't throws always count as intentional grounding when the QB is outside the tackles? It shouldn't matter at all. Either way, they're just chickening out to avoid a sack regardless of where they are on the field.
J in San Francisco
A: Running outside the pocket to throw the ball away gives the quarterback an option of protecting himself from a hit. It's a safety issue. Coaches preach to quarterbacks to throw it away if the pass play isn't going to work -- but you need an area to reach to be able to do it without a penalty. Think about the alternative. If a team loses a starting quarterback to an unnecessary hit, its season could be over. There aren't enough backup quarterbacks to fill the void. Go from a good starter to a good backup, and a team loses about six to eight points a game.
Q: Right now, the salary cap is pretty stagnant, in the $120 million range for a few years. The high-priced picks of the last CBA, such as Sam Bradford, Matthew Stafford and Jake Long, are still young enough to eat up huge amounts of cap space. Is there going to be some kind of breaking point in four or five years, when the cap increases and the expensive picks leave the game, that gives general managers a lot of breathing room?
Shaggy in Shreveport, La.
A: Great question. The breaking point is already happening. My studies of the cap show how difficult it is for any team with a $20 million quarterback to have more than seven other players making $6 million a year. Let's say you are the San Francisco 49ers. You have about a dozen Pro Bowl-quality starters. When Kaepernick gets his big deal, you have to start thinking about letting players go. You saw that happen in Baltimore when they did the Joe Flacco deal. The Falcons had to say goodbye to Tyson Clabo and a lot of the middle-class salaried players to do Ryan's contract. There might be a spike in the cap in 2016 or 2017. To survive, good teams need to draft well and let some high-priced players go. That's cap reality.
Q: Defensive players faking injuries to slow down up-tempo offenses are becoming a real problem in football, and I'm tired of it. It is bad sportsmanship at the very least, if not cheating. The refs can't do anything about it currently because they have to treat each injury as if it's real for obvious reasons. I think the league may be able to alleviate this problem by adding a new rule that says an injured player has to sit out the rest of the possession (if the possession lasts for less than five plays after the injury occurs, then the player sits out the next possession also). It could be good for player safety also (which the NFL is currently very big on) because the training staff and medical staff will have more time to examine injured players more thoroughly without the coaches trying to rush the injured players back into the game for the very next play. What do you think?
Johnny in Bloomington, Ind.
A: I think sitting out a play would work. Sitting out the rest of the possession would be too stiff a rule. What if a defense is short a few players because of injuries? But you are completely correct about the idea of having some deterrents or you are going to have the flopping problems that drag down soccer and basketball.
Q: The main reason John Harbaugh agreed to play on the road Thursday night to open the season rather than a Sunday night home game was to have 10 days to prepare for the Week 2 game. However, the NFL didn't do the Ravens any favors by scheduling a home game against the Cleveland Browns in Week 2 (a game which the Ravens should win and don't need extra days to prepare for). Interestingly, the Ravens also play the Browns in Cleveland after their bye week this year. The Ravens played the Browns in Cleveland after their bye week last season as well. In 2011, the Ravens played in Cleveland the week after their Thanksgiving day game. This means that the Ravens have had extra time to prepare for the Browns in four of their last six meetings, including each of the last three meetings in Cleveland. This does not seem fair to the Browns, who lose some of their home-field advantage each season because of this, and it also seems unfair to the Ravens, who always seem to get an easy opponent on extended rest. Does the NFL ever consider opponents after extended rest when coming up with the schedule?
Josh in Baltimore
A: Sounds as though you found a glitch in the schedule that needs to be fixed. The league recently started using a computer program to fix bugs in the schedule. It's cleaned up problems with teams having to go on the road for three consecutive games. If the Browns were to make a complaint, the league would probably look at it.
Q: With the big concern over concussions and research and development of better equipment, why isn't the NFL implementing the rule that the NCAA has that if your helmet comes off during a play, you sit out a play? Otherwise, you're penalized for continuing to play, such as in the Ohio State game recently. I see these players have chin straps hanging down unbuckled, which loosens the proper fit of the helmet. It's about time to force them to buckle up their chin straps and use the equipment properly.
Scott L. in Everett, Wash.
A: That would be a consideration, but in some ways, that's almost like a double penalty for the player who loses his helmet. First, a player might take a hit that knocks off a helmet and then he's a little groggy. Then he has to go to the sideline for a play even though he might be healthy enough to stay on the field. Such a change might encourage defenders to level hits that knock off helmets to get the player off the field for a play. That is what the league is trying to stop.