There is nothing more exciting in football than a game-winning drive on the road. It is especially sweet when it is against a team with an elite quarterback who has to stand on the sidelines and watch the other signal-caller pull off the feat. Two quarterbacks who take a lot of criticism every time they look human had game-winning drives in the toughest of circumstances this past weekend, and it just might be time to give them not only a break, but also some credit for a stellar performance.
Darlington: Turning point for Flacco
» The Ravens' Joe Flacco was awesome in Pittsburgh on Sunday night against the great Steelers defense, completing the eighth game-winning drive of his young career. It was also his third game-winning drive against the Steelers. The 92-yard drive included 13 plays from shotgun and three plays from no huddle. Flacco converted two third downs and a fourth down, did not have one penalty against the Steelers to help him, avoided a sack on every play despite constant pressure, and hit four different receivers while going seven for 13 (including two drops) and connecting with a rookie wideout, Torrey Smith, for the winning touchdown.
Let's all stop looking at body language as signs that Flacco and Manning aren't great quarterbacks and instead look at the results in big games. Both of these guys are quiet leaders who got the job done in their own way -- and made Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger, with their combined 60 game-winning drives, stand and watch the underdog QBs get it done.
The fourth-down question
Watching the winless Dolphins handle the Chiefs in Arrowhead was certainly an eye-opener. Seeing the Chiefs go for it six times on fourth down made me wonder how teams are converting in those situations. In Week 9, teams went for it on fourth down 25 times. Sixteen of those attempts were in the fourth quarter of games, which are usually risks taken out of necessity, but that did leave nine attempts for earlier in games. When trying to evaluate fourth-down performance, I like to look at three yards or less because situations longer than that are usually made out of desperation.
The accompanying chart (right) shows conversion rates for fourth-and-3 or less over the past three years, as well as where we are after nine weeks in the 2011 season. As you can see, conversions via the run are down from years past, while the passing conversion rate is about the same. For the past three years on any given NFL weekend, we have seen an average of 18 attempts to convert a fourth-and-short situation. Run plays move the chains 69 percent of the time. Passes get the job done 48 percent of the time. So what do we learn from this? Right now, the expectations for fourth-down conversions rates have to be lowered.
The home-field advantage question
Nine road teams were winners in Week 9 out of 14 games. I was asked if that was unusual in the NFL and if the idea of home-field advantage was eroding away. This particular week it certainly didn't look like home-field advantage was all it's cracked up to be, but looking back on the first half of the season home teams are actually doing slightly better than they have been over the past three seasons.
From 2008-10, road teams won 43.3 percent of the time. The numbers were amazingly consistent with 111 road wins in 2010, 110 wins in 2009 and 109 wins in 2008. Heading into the Week 9 games this season, road teams were winning just 38 percent of the time. That number jumped to 41 percent with the Week 9 results. That's slightly lower than the three-year average. So as interesting as it was to see so many road winners last week, I'm willing to bet that by the end of the season things will even out.