Sunday was one of the craziest game days in recent memory, with a healthy mix of wild comebacks, cool weather scenes and more dubious officiating.
We’ll look at the unheralded Marlon Brown lifting the Ravens to a last-second victory over the Vikings, and the threat of the read-option still viable on the Eagles’ final score against the Lions. But let’s start with the biggest play in the most improbable victory of Week 14: the Patriots’ onside kick that didn’t quite go as planned.
Cleveland at New England
Score: Browns 26, Patriots 21
Time: 1:01 remaining in the game
Situation: Patriots kicking off to Browns
Result: Fozzy Whittaker of the Browns touched the ball before 10 yards, and it was recovered by Kyle Arrington of the Patriots.
What happened: When you’re going good, sometimes plays go your way even if you don’t execute them exactly how you draw them up. That appeared to be the case here, as the Patriots were in desperation mode and needed to recover the onside kick to have a chance at victory.
With Browns leaving a huge, 15-yard hole in the middle of the kick return formation, Patriots special teams coordinator Scotty O’Brien elected to have Stephen Gostkowski try a middle “bunt.” The play was drawn up for Gostkowski to recover his own kick.
That would happen because two loopers from Gostkowski’s right—Jamie Collins (91) and Nate Ebner (43)—and one from the left—Matthew Slater (18)—would go in motion and then sprint to block the first threats in their target area. Additional loopers Kyle Arrington (25) and Devin McCourty (32) would trail Gostkowski in case there was a loose ball.
As it would happen, Collins (on Tashaun Gipson, 39) and Slater (on Chris Ogbonnaya, 25) executed their blocks perfectly. Ebner, however, never got to Whittaker (35). If Ebner did, Gostkowski, who executed his kick and pursuit to perfection, might have recovered the ball on his own, as planned.
Instead, Whittaker crossed the face of Ebner and went for the ball before the 10-yard zone. If Whittaker had recovered the ball cleanly, we’d be talking about the block Ebner missed or never had a chance to make because of Whittaker’s aggressiveness. Instead, it worked out for the Patriots. Whittaker couldn’t corral the ball and it squirted free to Arrington, who was in the right spot at the right time.
It was the first time the Patriots had recovered an onside kick in a win since Sept. 27, 1964.
“I slid and I saw that the ball was just about to be 10 [yards] and I kind of waited,” Gostkowski said. “That’s the thing: I kick it and I try to get in front of it and I slide and it’s supposed to fall right to me. Before the ball got to 10, the guy came and hit me. I had the thing. Luckily the ball bounced off him and right into Kyle’s hands.”
Minnesota at Baltimore
Score: Vikings 26, Ravens 22
Time: 9 seconds remaining in the game
Situation: Ravens ball, 1st-and-goal at the Minnesota 9-yard line
Result: Joe Flacco 9-yard touchdown pass to Marlon Brown
Ravens personnel: “11” or posse (one back, one tight end, three receivers)
Vikings personnel: Nickel (five defensive backs)
What happened: The Ravens were out of timeouts, making a throw before the goal line very risky. So the Vikings knew they had to defend the end zone. Baltimore was in a three-by-one set with receivers Jacoby Jones (12), Marlon Brown (14) and Dennis Pitta (88) to Joe Flacco’s left. The Vikings were going to play their usual Cover 2, with two deep safeties and linebacker Audie Cole (57) dropping deep to be, in effect, a third safety.
To attack the Cover 2, the Ravens ran double posts with Jones and Brown, and Flacco knew Brown would have the better matchup against the linebacker. The Vikings did everything right, including Cole opening up to the passing strength of the formation (where the three options were) and turning to carry Brown up the seam. Safety Andrew Sendejo (34) could have been a little better on the play—he was a little slow diagnosing the routes and basically was standing still when Brown broke to the slant. That meant Sendejo’s only play was to undercut the route and he was never in the play.
But in Cover 2, this play is on the middle linebacker, Cole. Instead of turning with Brown and doing a speed turn by whipping his head around to make a play on the ball, Cole pivoted inside to make a play. It took too long. That split-second delay gave Brown the 3 yards of cushion he needed to make a spectacular grab along the end line on the tough throw from Flacco.
“I thought that we were in the right defense, we’ve got a guy there, they go up and make a play, our guy comes up just a little bit short and we’re in position,” said Vikings coach Leslie Frazier. “It’s been like that a number of times this year. We’ve been in position, just haven’t been able to make that game-closing play. No, I don’t second-guess what defense we were playing on that last call.”
Detroit at Philadelphia
Score: Eagles 28, Lions 20
Time: 3:09 left in the fourth quarter
Situation: Eagles ball, 1st-and-10 at the Detroit 38-yard line
Result: 38-yard touchdown run by Chris Polk
Eagles personnel: “12” or Ace (one back, two tight ends, two receviers)
Lions personnel: Base 4-3
What happened: Desperate to stop the run and get the ball back, the Lions put nine defenders in the box against the Eagles, who had nine as well since quarterback Nick Foles couldn’t be discounted from running the read option. Even though Foles appeared to read, there really wasn’t an option on this play: it was a straight inside zone run because the player that would normally be read (crashing safety Louis Delmas, 26) was blocked on the play. Tight end James Casey (85) came across the formation to execute a “wham” block (just when the defender thinks he’s unblocked and about to make a play, wham, he gets blocked from the side).
At the snap, Lions defensive linemen Israel Idonije (77) and Nick Fairley (98) crash toward the middle, and Fairley is helped across by a double team block from left guard Evan Mathis (69) and center Jason Kelce, while right guard Todd Herremans (79) turned Ndamukong Suh (90). Additionally, right tackle Lane Johnson gets to the second level and shoves linebacker Stephen Tulloch (55) into Idonije.
Even with all that, the Lions are still in good position to defend this play as linebacker DeAndre Levy (54) and safety Glover Quin (27) are in the gap where Polk is looking to cut back. However, both get a glimpse of Foles handing off and going through his fake that ends with a run around the Eagles’ left end. Both Levy and Quin take a few steps to the right and towards Foles. That gave Polk the area needed to squeeze through the hole, breaking the tackle attempt by Levy and then run untouched for the game-sealing touchdown.
“You saw he’s got a burst,” Eagles offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said of Polk. “James Casey did a good job of sealing one defender. There were two (defenders) there, he broke a tackle, and then once he broke a tackle and got to the third level, he was able to score with it.”