4th-Quarter Comebacks Are a Two-Way Street

Perhaps the only knock on Aaron Rodgers a season ago was that he didn't lead the Packers to a comeback victory in the fourth quarter. Our Matt Tevsh says that may have been a bit overstated, because like last Sunday's win over the Bears, Rodgers has done plenty to help the Packers win. It appears that only now he's getting the help to make him a late-game hero.

When Brett Favre hit Kitrick Taylor for a 35-yard touchdown pass 17 years ago this Sunday, the legend of No. 4 began. In his first extending playing time, filling in for an injured Don Majkowski, Favre led the Packers 92 yards in less than a minute against the Bengals to put the Packers ahead (with an extra point), 24-23.

Cincinnati returns to Green Bay this weekend to face the Packers and Aaron Rodgers, who, like his predecessor at quarterback, is coming off a landmark comeback victory. Against the Chicago Bears on Sunday night, Rodgers hit Greg Jennings for a 50-yard touchdown pass to give the Packers (with a two-point conversion) a 21-15 victory.

While the 1992 Packers needed their special teams and defense to hold off the Bengals for just the final 13 seconds to preserve Favre's first victory, the 2009 Packers needed to keep the Bears out of the end zone for the final 1:11 to preserve Rodgers' first victory of this season. Cornerback Al Harris secured the game by intercepting Jay Cutler and allowing the Packers' offense to run out the clock.

Though the situation in each of the above-mentioned games was different, there is at least one common point to be made. Quarterbacks, and how they are judged by comeback wins, are only as good as their defense.

The dramatic nature of the Packers' season-opening win over the Bears led media outlets to conclude that Rodgers "finally got the monkey off his back." He finally led his team to a comeback in the fourth quarter.

While that was an understandable angle, it was, in a way, unfair.

Rodgers was anything but a fourth-quarter failure a season ago, even if many would say that was the knock against him in his otherwise strong first season as a starter. Last year, seven of the Packers' 10 losses came by four or less points. Here is a summary of Rodgers' fourth-quarter performance in those seven games:

Game 5 vs. Falcons (L, 24-27) – Rodgers hits Greg Jennings for a 25-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 17. He also throws an interception late in the fourth quarter, which leads to a 27-17 Falcons lead, but then leads a late touchdown drive to pull the Packers within three points. Needing just one first down to run out the clock with less than 2 minutes left, the Falcons succeed, denying Rodgers a final chance.

Game 8 at Tennessee (L, 16-19, OT) – Facing the 7-0 Titans, Rodgers leads the Packers on a drive midway through the fourth quarter that leads to a Mason Crosby field goal and a 16-16 tie. The Titans put together a 63-yard drive with less than 2 minutes left, but Rob Bironas misses a 47-yard field goal and the game goes to overtime. The Titans win the toss, and on their first drive, Bironas makes amends with a 41-yarder to win the game. Rodgers can only watch on the sideline in the extra period.

Game 9 at Minnesota (L, 27-28) – The Packers hold a lead in the fourth quarter before Adrian Peterson runs 29 yards for a go-ahead touchdown with 2:22 remaining. On the Packers' next series, Rodgers completes two passes to Donald Driver, and the Packers mix in two Ryan Grant runs, before the drive stalls at the Vikings' 35-yard line. With 31 seconds left, Crosby misses a 52-yard field goal and the Packers lose.

Game 12 vs. Panthers (L, 31-35) – Rodgers throws a 21-yard touchdown pass to Jennings early in the fourth quarter to give the Packers a 28-21 lead. After the Panthers tie the game with a touchdown on the next drive, Rodgers leads the Packers 79 yards in 16 plays. After three runs inside the 10-yard line fail to get the Packers in the end zone, Crosby's 19-yard field goal gives the Packers a 31-28 lead with 1:57 remaining. The Panthers need just two plays on the next series to score another touchdown to take a four-point lead. On the Packers' last drive, Rodgers throws an interception at the 1:09 mark with the Packers backed up on their 17-yard line.

Game 13 vs. Texans (L, 21-24) – Twice in the fourth quarter, Rodgers leads touchdown drives to bring the Packers back (once to take the lead, once to tie). The Texans, however, use a nine-play, 75-yard drive over the final 1:49 to win the game. Kris Brown makes a 40-yarder as time expires.

Game 14 at Jacksonville (L, 16-20) – Rodgers and the Packers put together a nine-play, 54-yard drive midway through the fourth quarter. Crosby hits a 38-yarder with 5:35 remaining to put the Packers ahead 16-14. The Jaguars go 80 yards in six plays, scoring a touchdown to take a 20-16 lead. Starting his final drive with 1:50 remaining, Rodgers gets the Packers to midfield before throwing an interception at the Jacksonville 27-yard line with 40 seconds left.

Game 15 at Chicago (L, 17-20, OT) – On a bone-chilling, 2-degree night, the Bears tie the game at 17 with 3:11 remaining when Matt Forte runs 3 yards for a touchdown. After a good kickoff return by Will Blackmon and an unnecessary-roughness penalty, the Packers are in Bears' territory. Rodgers completes a key third-down pass to James Jones to move the Packers into field-goal range. After three consecutive runs fail to net a first down, Crosby lines up for a 38-yard field goal that is blocked with 18 seconds remaining. In overtime, the Bears win the toss and Robbie Gould connects on a 38-yard field goal to win the game. Like the Tennessee game, Rodgers can only stand and watch.

Aaron Rodgers walks triumphantly off the field.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
So what can be deduced from last season's late-game disappointments that effectively led to the Packers' 6-10 season?

Well, Rodgers did throw three costly interceptions in those games that end the Packers' hopes, but he was denied a final comeback chance in four games (Falcons, Titans, Texans, Bears) because the defense could not get a key stop.

All told, Rodgers led game-tying or go-ahead drives in the fourth quarter in five of the seven games. In the other two close games, special-teams failures doomed what would have been two wins. Rodgers at least put his team in good position to win all of those games.

Furthermore, Rodgers' fourth-quarter passing numbers were much better than his win-loss percentage would indicate. He completed 60.8 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and five interceptions over the final quarter, good for an 87.8 quarterback rating. Those numbers were only slightly below his overall season totals (63.6 percent completions, 93.8 rating).

The Packers' defense, on the other hand, failed in the fourth quarter and overtime in all seven games. Ten times in those seven games they gave up a tie or a lead, putting the Packers' offense in some tough situations. To the defense of the defense, the late-game special-teams blunders did not help, making the unit look even worse.

Sunday night's come-from-behind win for the Packers proved that fourth-quarter comebacks are often a two-way street. Had Harris not made the late interception and had the Bears had moved down the field for a winning score, no one would have been talking about Rodgers' pass to Jennings. There would be no fourth-quarter comeback talk, even though Rodgers did, in fact, lead a comeback.

Technically, Rodgers posted a fourth-quarter comeback win last season, even if many consider Sunday night to be his first. In 2008, the Packers trailed the Lions in Detroit in the fourth quarter, 25-24, before Rodgers led drives the netted a field goal and a touchdown to put Green Bay ahead 34-25. The defense slammed the door shut with two interception returns for scores over the final 3:09 to make the final score of 48-25 look much worse than the competitive nature of the game.

Favre posted 40 game-winning comebacks with the Packers (according to the Packers media guide) in which he rallied the team to victory facing a fourth-quarter deficit or tie. Only 11 of those comebacks over 16 years, however, came with less than 2 minutes remaining in the game – including the 1992 Bengals game.

Rodgers has all the tools to win the close games at the end. He is not only accurate, strong-armed, and smart, but he has become cool under fire and can extend a play with his feet when he needs to. Just as important, it looks like he has the defense, like Favre did for much of his Packers career, to help him complete the comeback.

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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com

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