Russell Wilson, Kareem Hunt among NFL's best closers in 2017

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Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:

-- One Pro Bowl snub that just doesn't make any sense.

-- The AFC team that's peaking at just the right time.

But first, a look at the games best closers on both sides of the football ...

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I don't care if you're a Patriots fan or not -- you knew New England was in excellent shape last week in Pittsburgh when Tom Brady got the ball back facing a five-point deficit with just over two minutes remaining.

We've seen the five-time Super Bowl champ pull this stunt too many times to think that he wouldn't be able to orchestrate another magical feat. Sure enough, Brady combined with Rob Gronkowski to march New England down the field, with Dion Lewis eventually scoring what would ultimately be the game-winning touchdown (though not before a little controversy, but I digress). The G.O.A.T. has now directed 52 game-winning drives and 41 fourth-quarter comebacks over his 18-year career. He has a proven track record for getting it done in the clutch and his team can count on him to act as the "closer" in critical moments.

When you look at the common denominator on most championship squads, they all have a handful of guys who can handle the biggest spots in the biggest games. Just like an MLB manager signaling to the bullpen for his fireballing closer to shut the door in the ninth inning, NFL head coaches tend to call on their stars to close out games when they're hanging in the balance. While most observers believe the quarterback acts alone in this role, most coaches and executives would tell you that you need a full bullpen of gamers to win at a championship level. Under that premise, you lean on different "pitchers" to close out games, depending on the situation and game clock. When I look at today's NFL, every team needs a player with "closer" abilities at quarterback, running back, pass catcher and pass rusher.

Why did I spotlight those positions and not others? Because each of those positions directly impacts the outcome of the game when it's a one-score differential. Quarterbacks and pass catchers are responsible for moving the chains through the air in two-minute drills, while elite pass rushers are expected to close out games with critical sacks. And a top running back can finish the job in four-minute situations by picking up hard-earned first downs -- and keeping the clock running -- when his team's nursing a lead.

Sounds simple, right?

It is pretty simple when you get down to it. Your best players must be able to perform in the clutch or you don't really have a shot at winning the crown. Whether it's a thrower, catcher, pass rusher or runner, your five-star playmakers must make plays when everything's on the line. That's why I pay close attention to how collegiate players perform in those moments -- especially in rival games, conference title tilts and bowl games -- because it takes a special combination of skill, confidence and poise to be at your best on the biggest and brightest stages.

Looking at the pro game, I believe you have to take a similar approach to see which guys can be counted on in the clutch. How do they perform down the stretch of tight games? Do they step up and make the play or fall apart under the pressure? The great ones have a way of delivering time after time -- those are the guys teams build around.

With that in mind, I had the NFL Media Research team compile some data to help us determine which players have been the best "closers" in 2017. So, yes, all of the stats below are from this season alone.

First, let's take a look at the quarterbacks ...

Best passer rating in the fourth quarter:

1) Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks: 133.1
2) Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints: 116.7
3) Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons: 102.8
4) Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 101.8
5) Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions: 96.6

Best passer rating in last five minutes of the fourth quarter in a one-possession game:

1) Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers: 127.2
2) Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders: 114.6
3) Tom Brady, New England Patriots: 114.4
4) Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints: 111.9
5) Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers: 110.9

Most passing touchdowns in fourth quarter:

1) Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks: 17
2) Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions: 9
T-3) Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders: 8
T-3) Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys: 8
T-3) Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers: 8
T-3) Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons: 8
T-3) Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 8

As you can see, many of the usual suspects dominate the list. Brady, Brees and Rodgers are well known for their clutch play. Wilson has played like a superhero this season. The QB has been a one-man show for Seattle, exhibiting outstanding improvisational playmaking ability inside and outside the pocket. Most importantly, Wilson has found a way to score touchdowns when good defenses force most quarterbacks to settle for three in the red zone. Interestingly, Winston pops up on this list as a clutch performer. He has been criticized for having a disappointing season, but his production in critical moments still suggests he is a big-time player in big spots.

So, how about the pass catchers?

It is hard being a No. 1 receiver in a league where defensive coordinators will do whatever it takes to limit a top dog's targets. Whether that requires rolling coverage to the WR1 or sprinkling in some bracket/double-coverage to neutralize a playmaker's impact, defensive play callers will make life difficult on elite pass catchers in the clutch. That's why I'm really impressed when someone finds a way to make his mark in the fourth quarter. Let's take a look at some of the best pass catchers in the clutch:

Most receiving yards in the fourth quarter:

1) Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers: 550
2) DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans: 426
T-3) Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers: 325
T-3) Golden Tate,Detroit Lions: 325
5) Paul Richardson, Seattle Seahawks: 320

Most receiving yards in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter:

1) Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers: 224
2) Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots: 118
3) Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers: 104
4) Paul Richardson, Seattle Seahawks: 97
5) Eric Ebron, Detroit Lions: 93

Most receptions in the fourth quarter:

T-1) Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers: 28
T-1) Jarvis Landry, Miami Dolphins: 28
3) Adam Humphries, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 27
4) Golden Tate,Detroit Lions: 26
5) Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers: 25

Most receptions in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter in a one-possession game:

1) Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers: 9
T-2) Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers: 8
T-2) Golden Tate,Detroit Lions: 8
T-4) Cameron Brate, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 7
T-4) Delanie Walker, Tennessee Titans: 7

Most receiving touchdowns in the fourth quarter:

1) Jimmy Graham, Seattle Seahawks: 5
T-2) Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers: 4
T-2) Nelson Agholor, Philadelphia Eagles: 4
T-2) Cameron Brate, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 4
T-2) Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers: 4
T-2) DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans: 4
T-2) Paul Richardson, Seattle Seahawks: 4
T-2) Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota Vikings: 4
T-2) Kenny Stills, Miami Dolphins: 4

After looking at this list, I came away with a greater appreciation for Brown's game and impact as a No. 1 wideout. He crushes the competition in critical moments despite being the focal point of every defensive coordinator's game plan. As the NFL's late-game leader in receptions and receiving yards -- while also ranking No. 2 in touchdowns -- Brown sets the standard as the top receiver in the game. And that's why Pittsburgh needs Brown to return to good health ASAP. Fortunately, though, the wideout isn't the only Steeler who balls in crunch time.

Running backs are frequently discussed as devalued players in the modern NFL, but I contend that the RB1 remains a critical piece to a championship puzzle. Teams must be able to pound the rock with a rugged late-game workhorse to close out games. For some coaches, the four-minute drill is like lighting up a victory cigar in the fourth quarter, which is why teams covet sledgehammers in the closing role.

Most rushing yards in the fourth quarter:

1) Kareem Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs: 460
2) Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans: 375
3) Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers: 333
4) Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams: 291
5) Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars: 284

Most rushing yards in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter in a one-possession game:

1) Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans: 214
2) Kareem Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs: 177
3) Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers: 65
4) Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers: 64
5) Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams: 56

Most rushing touchdowns in the fourth quarter:

1) Kareem Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs: 4
T-2) Alex Collins, Baltimore Ravens: 3
T-2) Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars: 3
T-2) Rod Smith, Dallas Cowboys: 3
T-2) Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo Bills: 3
T-2) Jamaal Williams, Green Bay Packers: 3

I don't think it's a surprise to see many of the names on these lists. Guys like Hunt and Bell have been A+ performers for most of the season, and their ability to gobble up yards in key moments has been a big part of their respective teams' success. However, I find it interesting that Henry sits near the top of the list as a late-game closer, given his part-time status in Tennessee. He hasn't completely wrestled the RB1 job away from DeMarco Murray, but it is apparent that he is the back Mike Mularkey leans on to salt away games down the stretch. Also, Newton remains the Panthers' top close-out runner despite being the team's QB1. After all the offseason chatter about reducing Cam's role in the running game, the Panthers continue to lean on the 2015 MVP's running skills when necessary.

Most sacks in the fourth quarter:

T-1) Von Miller, Denver Broncos: 6.5
T-1) Terrell Suggs, Baltimore Ravens: 6.5
3) Cameron Wake, Miami Dolphins: 5.5
T-4) Everson Griffen, Minnesota Vikings: 5.0
T-4) Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs: 5.0

Most sacks in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter in a one-possession game:

T-1) Frank Clark, Seattle Seahawks: 2.0
T-1) Elvis Dumervil, San Francisco 49ers: 2.0
T-1) Bud Dupree, Pittsburgh Steelers: 2.0
T-1) Melvin Ingram, Los Angeles Chargers: 2.0
T-1) Kawann Short, Carolina Panthers: 2.0
T-1) T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers: 2.0

Most total pressures (sacks + hurries + knockdowns) in the fourth quarter:

1) Terrell Suggs, Baltimore Ravens: 24
2) Michael Bennett, Seattle Seahawks: 22
T-3) Adrian Clayborn, Atlanta Falcons: 17
T-3) Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs: 17
T-3) Chandler Jones, Arizona Cardinals: 17
6) Everson Griffen, Minnesota Vikings: 16

Most total pressures in last five minutes of the fourth quarter in a one-possession game:

1) Adrian Clayborn, Atlanta Falcons: 8
2) Melvin Ingram, Los Angeles Chargers: 6
T-3) Michael Bennett, Seattle Seahawks: 5
T-3) Joey Bosa, Los Angeles Chargers: 5
T-3) Jatavis Brown, Los Angeles Chargers: 5
T-3) Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans: 5
T-3) Chandler Jones, Arizona Cardinals: 5
T-3) Ryan Kerrigan, Washington Redskins: 5
T-3) Jabaal Sheard, Indianapolis Colts: 5

Defensive coordinators repeatedly put the onus on their best pass rushers to put games on ice. Sack artists are expected to deliver the knockout blow in late-game situations to preserve wins against quarterbacks attempting to engineer game-winning drives. With that in mind, I found it interesting that the Chargers, Steelers and Seahawks have multiple guys dotting these lists. Those splash plays are critical to winning games, particularly in the playoffs when a persistent pass rush is essential to disrupting the play of elite quarterbacks.

Now, that I've had a chance to look at all the data to see which playmakers make their mark in the clutch, I believe teams should set up their bullpens in this order of importance: quarterback, pass rusher, running back and pass catcher.

In a league where most games come down to fourth-quarter execution, proper bullpen staffing's routinely the difference between winning and losing.

THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league

1) A big setback for the Rams' explosive offense. It is uncommon for a kicker injury to register more than a blip on the NFL radar, but few specialists impact the game like Greg Zuerlein. Los Angeles Rams placekicker, who was just selected for his first Pro Bowl, hit injured reserve this week with a herniated disc. Zuerlein is the league's leading scorer (158 points) and he's nearly automatic from every distance. Zuerlein connected on 38 of his 40 field-goal attempts this season, going 18-for-19 from 40-plus yards out. He also nailed 44 of 46 extra points for a prolific offense that scores 31.3 points per game -- tied with the Eagles at No. 1. With Zuerlein accounting for more than a third of the team's weekly production -- he averages 11.3 points per game -- the Rams will enter the postseason without a key piece to their offensive puzzle. That's why observers should pay close attention to how the Rams play with a newbie, Sam Ficken, making his NFL regular-season debut in Sunday's game at Tennessee.

The former Penn State Nittany Lion has never attempted a kick in a regular-season game and he almost certainly isn't the long-distance scorer Zuerlein has been for Los Angeles. With that in mind, the Rams will have to alter their offensive approach without a boomer to lean on. Instead of playing it safe between the 30- to the 35-yard line, the Rams will need to put the ball inside the 25-yard line to be in the best position for points. That 10-yard difference doesn't seem like a huge deal on paper, but it will force Sean McVay to tweak his game plan and approach.

"Just like anything else," McVay told reporters on Thursday, per the Los Angeles Times, "all we can do is, hopefully, put him in the good spots to deliver."

Based on Ficken's efficiency throughout his collegiate career at Penn State (72.0 percent), the Rams will need to be more aggressive hunting "7s" in the red zone, as opposed to settling for field goal attempts. Although most play callers will push the envelope to score touchdowns in the red area, McVay could always dial back the play calls when the team reached the 35-yard line because he knew he had three points in his back pocket. Remember, Zuerlein nailed seven field goals in a Week 4 win at Dallas, and hit three-plus field goals in six other games. With points coveted at a premium, particularly in the postseason, McVay will need to spend the next two weeks refining his offensive approach in opponent territory, or the Rams' high-powered offense could be undone by the loss of an unheralded scoring machine.

2) The truth about Bill O'Brien's coaching stock. If Houston Texans head coach Bill O'Brien finds himself back on the open market at the end of the season, I wonder how the football world is going to view his reputation as an offensive guru/quarterback whisperer. Despite winning a pair of AFC South titles over a four-year span, he will be remembered in Houston for cycling through quarterbacks like a laundromat runs through washing machines. Since 2014, the Texans have used more quarterbacks (nine) than any other squad in the NFL -- and the revolving door at the QB1 spot speaks volumes about O'Brien's eye for the position. As a so-called expert at the signal-caller spot, he should be able to identify a starting quarterback from afar and create an offense around the player's talents that help the unit flourish on the big stage. Most importantly, O'Brien must be capable of elevating a QB's play through clever scheming and personnel deployment.

For most of his tenure with the Texans, O'Brien has been unable to transform an average quarterback into a credible starter, and the team's offense has suffered as a result. The Texans have never finished a season ranked higher than 17th in total offense under O'Brien -- though they're currently ranked 16th -- and the team has only averaged more than 23 points one time (23.2 in 2014) during the coach's tenure.

Although those numbers certainly don't reflect the work of an offensive genius, the Texans were obviously rolling this season with rookie Deshaun Watson -- before he suffered a torn ACL in an early-November practice. With the rookie guiding the offense, Houston averaged 34 points per game -- and 39 over his last five starts. From an individual standpoint, Watson tossed for nearly 1,700 yards in six-and-a-half games and compiled an impressive 19:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio while adding two more scores on the ground. With the rookie flourishing in an offense that looked like a modified version of the collegiate attack that he directed at Clemson, O'Brien earned glowing marks from executives and observers for his schematic adaptability. And the young QB recently showered praise on his coach.

"We have a great relationship," Watson said to the Houston Chronicle on Tuesday. "Coach OB is fun to play for. He's very tough on you. He wants you to be successful. I would love to have coach OB back and I'm ready to have him with me for my whole career."

I get it. This young quarterback loves his coach and respects his wizardry as a play caller.

But what would Ryan Mallett and Brock Osweiler say about O'Brien's scheming if they were pressed on the issue? That's a valid question, based on their struggles as the Texans' QB1 despite being handpicked by the head coach. O'Brien didn't tweak the offense enough to help either thrive as a starter. And, if the Texans chose to move on from O'Brien this offseason, that should be a concern for potential suitors. Considering how much the play of the quarterback impacts the outcome of games, O'Brien's suspect track record as a QB whisperer could cloud his future candidacy.

3) One inexplicable Pro Bowl snub. I know the Pro Bowl is supposed to recognize the league's best players, but the selection process has become a glorified popularity contest. How else do you explain Kansas City Chiefs QB Alex Smith being left off the AFC roster? The 13th-year pro leads the NFL in passer rating (105.4) in a pass-first league that's supposedly governed by quarterback play. If that's not enough to justify his presence on the squad, Smith is tied for third in the league in completions of 40-plus yards (12) and yards per attempt (8.0). With the veteran also sporting sparkling figures in completion percentage (67.8) and a TD-to-INT ratio (25:5) for a team leading its division, Smith should've checked enough boxes to be an automatic qualifier for the all-star game.

Now, I certainly understand why Smith would rank behind Tom Brady, but he has clearly outplayed Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers this season. He's been more accurate and efficient than the duo while producing just as many explosive plays in the passing game. In a league where QB play is scrutinized at every turn, Smith's stellar season would've resulted in a Pro Bowl berth if the NFL were truly a meritocracy.

EXTRA POINT: With the offense clicking, Baltimore has scary potential

Don't look now, but the Baltimore Ravens are quietly becoming an offensive juggernaut down the stretch. After averaging just 18.6 points per game during the first seven games of the season, the Ravens have been hanging 30.7 points per game on opponents since Week 8. That's the third-best average in the league in that span, and it's a huge reason why the team has won five of its last seven games.

While the competition certainly hasn't been stellar during this recent run -- the Ravens have faced four defenses ranked in the bottom half of the league, including three ranked 25th or worse -- the offense has certainly found an identity with Alex Collins seizing the RB1 role and the offensive line developing some continuity (the same unit has started six of Baltimore's last seven games). Collins, a Seahawks castoff, has produced a pair of 100-yard games and scored all five of his rushing touchdowns during this seven-game stretch while giving the Ravens' an "attitude" runner to feature prominently in the game plan. Opponents suddenly have to respect the Ravens' running game, creating big-play chances for Mike Wallace. The veteran pass catcher is averaging 19.8 yards per catch over the past three games (14 receptions for 277 yards) primarily due to teams having to employ more run-heavy looks on early downs. This is exactly what offensive coordinators and quarterbacks want, which is why the Ravens' offense suddenly looks more explosive in recent weeks.

"I don't know if anyone will admit this, but I think we have a better feel for who we are and what we do well," quarterback Joe Flacco told reporters, per ESPN.com. "I think the last handful of weeks we have been definitely pinpointing that and doing some good things with it."

With the offense beginning to click down the stretch -- complementing a defense that gives up the fourth-fewest points in the league -- Baltimore could be a sleeping giant no one wants to face in the playoffs. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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