The Detroit Lions went 9-7 in 2016, but it was a remarkable 9-7. That’s because quarterback Matthew Stafford recorded 8 fourth quarter comebacks and 8 game-winning drives! That’s right: in all but one win for the Lions (and therefore, all but one game), Detroit trailed at some point in the 4th quarter.
That makes those 4th quarter comebacks sound impressive: if not for those 4th quarter comebacks, the Lions would have gone 1-15. And they were impressive! But here’s a way to make them appear less impressive: Detroit won just a single game last season where the team trailed entering the 4th quarter.
No, really. The Lions trailed by 3 points entering the 4th quarter in a home game against Jacksonville, and won 26-19. The Lions were 1-6 when trailing after three quarters in 2016. Detroit did win two games when tied after three quarters, and went 6-1 when leading after three quarters.
This isn’t intended to diminish Stafford’s performance last year, but rather to put some perspective around the idea of 4th quarter comebacks/game-winning drives. In a lot of competitive games, there are a number of lead changes in the 4th quarter, and it makes sense to call all lead-changing drives a comeback.
That said, let’s look at a different definition of a 4th quarter comeback: one where a team won after trailing while entering the 4th quarter. By that measure, Oakland led the NFL with 5 such comebacks, and the Raiders went 5-4 when trailing after three quarters. Although maybe pump the brakes a little bit if this fact alone causes you to elevate Derek Carr in your brain: the Raiders trailed entering the final frame by 1, 1, 3, 4, and 11 (opening day against New Orleans) points in those games.
In 2016, just 39 games saw a team trail entering the 4th quarter and go on to win; another two ended in ties. For context, there were 245 games overall in 2016 where a team trailed entering the 4th quarter overall.1 That means teams won2 16.3% of games when trailing entering the 4th quarter. That’s not remarkable at all, and matches the long-term average throughout football history. The graph below shows the winning percentage, by season, among teams that trailed entering the 4th quarter:
So by this new definition, there are NOT more 4th quarter comebacks than ever before. But then again, this is also NOT the definition of 4th quarter comebacks that anyone uses. I’m not quite sure what to take of this, so I leave it to you in the comments.
Here’s something I was curious about: what’s the long-term trend on the points differential through 3 quarters among trailing teams? It’s around 11 points, and it’s been that way for awhile (in the ’60s, it was a little higher):
And what if we look just among those games where a team came back and won? As you’d suspect, those games were closer after three quarters, with the average deficit being about 5-6 points. And there isn’t much of a trend in either direction in recent history:
That’s it for part 2. Let me know what you’d like to see, if anything, in part 3.