NFL Clutch Time

NFL Clutch Time
By David A. Lane

In baseball, there is nothing that most fans at their home ballparks find more enjoyable than a clutch walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth with the bases juiced hit by the team’s favorite slugger who ends the game sending the visitors to the showers as losers. Whether we are talking about an Albert Pujols, Chipper Jones, David Ortiz, or anyone else like them who comes up with timely hits at the biggest times, some athletes seem to excel more than others when all the pressure is on them and their team’s whole season is on the line. If last weekends pro football performances are an indication of things yet to come in these 2008 NFL playoffs, then we certainly should be in for some entertaining games played and won by key players- some more well known than others- whose clutch plays as well can carry their teams to the ultimate success of a Super Bowl trophy.

This past weekend the underdogs went 13-3 overall meaning more than a few ‘favorites’ who were heading towards the playoffs stumbled. Among them, the Dallas Cowboys (9-6), the Philadelphia Eagles (8-6-1), the Minnesota Vikings (9-6), the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-6), the New York Jets (9-6), and the Denver Broncos (8-7), all lost big important games that would have given them the right to control their own destiny in regard to making the post season. Because of this, a lot of teams that looked as though they might not have had a chance before now do remain in the run to make the NFL playoffs- largely thanks to some clutch play by individuals and teams alike.


Although the Pittsburgh Steelers (11-4) will still be in the playoffs, their 31-14 loss to the Tennessee Titans (13-2) was huge. The Titans won home field advantage throughout the playoffs against a very good football team without having either one of their most key contributors on defense- Kyle Vanden Bosh and Albert Haynesworth- yet came up with a clutch game from rookie DE Jason Jones who got 3.5 sacks on QB Ben Roethlisberger which also resulted in three fumbles. Add two interceptions to that total and the Titans did something successful playoff teams do- effectively exchange turnovers into points to win games- which will keep them playing well into January.

Going into the weekend, the San Diego Chargers chances to go anywhere but home after the regular season completes this Sunday looked quite improbable. Traveling cross the country to play in a tough environment against the playoff hungry Bucs seemed to be too much of a challenge for them- especially given the way the season had been going already for them. However, the Chargers like Peter Frampton ‘came alive’ winning the turnover battle 3-0 while stud QB Philip Rivers threw 21 of 31 for 287 yards and 4 touchdowns- certainly a clutch performance by a quarterback who has to be peeved about being snubbed for the Pro Bowl in what has been a breakout season by him. Their timely performance in Tampa combined with the Broncos loss has earned them the right to play Denver at home this weekend for the AFC west title.

The Atlanta Falcons (10-5) knew going into this past Sunday’s game that they’d be involved in a tough battle against the Minnesota Vikings (9-6) because for one, both teams needed the win in the worst way to close in on qualifying for playoff berths of their own. Though they were both out-rushed (98-155 yards) and out-passed (134-233 yards) by the Vikings, the Falcons did win the all-important turnover margin 4-0- all of them fumble recoveries- which was enough to propel them to a 24-17 win. After looking at the post-game stats on paper, one would never guess that Atlanta would have ever won this game, but the mark of a good team is to win these types of games, even when perhaps they have no business doing so. Michael ‘the burner’ Turner is the heartbeat that drives this squad which is also amazingly quarterbacked by unflappable rookie Matt Ryan. It is absolutely true that they can actually end up with the number two seed in the NFC- a far cry from their 4-12 finish last season.

Another team led by a rookie quarterback who often plays with the poise of a veteran- the Baltimore Ravens and Joe Flacco- won what was a key game that they desperately needed at Dallas against the Cowboys 33-24. What’s more impressive is that they did so by rushing for more than they passed- 265 yards on the ground to 149 through the air- and had both RB’s Willis McGahee (8 ATT, 108 YDS, 1 TD) and Le’Ron McClain (22 ATT, 139 YDS, 1 TD) break long touchdown runs at pivotal junctures of the game. What is most gratifying for the Ravens is that their defense didn’t even play nearly close to the way it usually does, yet the team still won by nine points. This game should send a crystal clear warning message to others in the NFL that this team that was for the longest time reliant on its defense only for wins, now has a lot more to offer because strong defense and the ability to run the ball thus the ability to control the clock has ALWAYS been a winning recipe in the NFL.

In the game of the day on Sunday, the New York Giants (12-3) beat down the Carolina Panthers (11-4) in overtime 34-28 insuring that the home field advantage in the NFC will reside in New York. Behind an amazing 302 yards rushing by both Derrick Ward (15 ATT, 215 YDS) and Brandon Jacobs (24ATT, 87YDS, 3 TD) the Giants looked like the defending champs that they are- their offensive line looking beyond impressive. With their tough defense, playoff experience, home-field advantage, and ability to run the ball, it will be very difficult for any team out there to beat them at home, thus this game was perhaps one of the most pivotal. They had been struggling previously, having lost their number one receiver Plaxico Buress to a self-inflicted gun shot wound and running back Brandon Jacobs to injury so this win was in an incredibly clutch spot for them, proving once again how well the Giants can play as a team when their backs are against the wall (had they lost the Panthers would have had home field advantage throughout).

Other games that featured teams that needed wins to sustain their respective drives toward the playoffs that could be perceived as being somewhat clutch would be Miami Dolphins (10-5) 38-31 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs (2-13) in a game they were supposed to win, the New England Patriots (10-5) outright slaughter in the snow 47-7 over ‘playoff team’ Arizona Cardinals (8-7) who never did show up for the game even while being on the field, the Indianapolis Colts (11-4) 31-24 win over the disappointing Jacksonville Jaguars (5-10) that keeps them on pace for playoff play despite some ugly wins, and the Chicago Bears (9-6) overtime victory over the (5-10) Green Bay Packers that keeps them alive for a playoff berth as well still pending the final week’s outcomes.

What’s true about most NFL teams is that their success rate is much like Major League Baseball in that very few hitters prove to truly be clutch hitters. Most guys averages drop when they’re hitting with runners in scoring position (RISP) for some reason, whether it be that they’re trying too hard too succeed, they’re shortening up their swings, or they just plain hit better when less is at stake, and the same can be said about some of these aforementioned NFL teams that gave up the ghost and most likely their seasons. With so much on the line for them over the weekend, many flat out fell on their collective faces failing to come up with clutch performances and thus losing the opportunity to make the cut for this post season.

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