Comeback Kings: Patriots thrive at late-game playoff rallies

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BLOOMINGTON, Minn. (AP) Tom Brady is the comeback king in the playoffs.

From his past two Super Bowl wins to the AFC championship game rally against Jacksonville that got the Patriots to the NFL’s biggest stage for the third in four seasons, no quarterback has engineered more late-game playoff comebacks than Brady.

But he is not alone. Whether it was Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee Titans in the wild-card round against Kansas City earlier this postseason, or Russell Wilson against Green Bay in (2015) or Andrew Luck against the Chiefs the previous year, there have been as many playoff comebacks from at least 10 points down in the fourth quarter the past five seasons as there were the previous 26 seasons.

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“What happens is instead of playing the team, they start playing the clock. Sometimes you win and sometimes you go against a bad boy like Tom Brady and you get burned,” former Colts receiver and current NFL Network analyst Reggie Wayne said. “A lot of that falls onto the coaches. The players are going to run what the coaches call.”

Whether it’s Atlanta failing to run the ball enough late in last year’s Super Bowl that helped the Patriots rally from 28-3 down to win in overtime or Seattle’s decision to pass at the goal line instead of hand it to Marshawn Lynch back in 2015, questionable coaching decisions have contributed to some of those comebacks.

But nobody is better at exploiting those mistakes than Brady and the Patriots. He has four playoff wins in games he trailed by at least 10 points in the fourth quarter, including the “Tuck Rule” game against Oakland in 2002. No other quarterback has led more than one such comeback in playoff history.

“There’s a great belief no matter what the circumstances, that we have enough to overcome it,” Brady said. “I don’t think we want to try to overcome that again this year. That was pretty tough to do. Hopefully we can get a lead, play from ahead, play on our terms.”

The Patriots are comfortable when that happens. They are 6-6 in the playoffs when trailing after three quarters under Brady and coach Bill Belichick, while the rest of the NFL has a 27-140 record in that span with only Russell Wilson and Eli Manning having more than two fourth-quarter comebacks with four each.

Not that it is by design.

“That whole comeback thing is overrated,” said NFL Network analyst Willie McGinest, who won three Super Bowl titles as Brady’s teammate in New England. “Players can’t go in and say, `Hey, we want to win this game in dramatic fashion, be down 11 with eight minutes to go and come back and have the crowd go crazy.’ You want to be in control, play a certain way and be in front. Because that changes how you play the game.”

The biggest deficit overcome to win a Super Bowl before last season was just 10 points and the Patriots were the first team to overcome a deficit that big in the second half when they did it against the Seahawks three years ago.

The only other teams to come back from 10 points down to win a Super Bowl faced those deficits early in the second quarter with New Orleans rallying against Indianapolis in 2010 and Washington against Denver in 1988.

Brady’s postseason passer rating when trailing in fourth quarter the past four years is a staggering 121.2, compared to 75.6 for the rest of the NFL.

In last year’s Super Bowl comeback, the Falcons appeared to tire and struggled to generate pressure, sending more than four pass rushers on just two of 24 pass plays in the fourth quarter.

The Jaguars also only brought more than four rushers on two of 15 fourth-quarter pass plays in the AFC title game when New England came back from 20-10 down to win 24-20.

“What teams do wrong is they go zone,” Wayne said. “He’s going to pick zone apart all day, every day. He’s going to spread you out and they’re the best at creating mismatches.”

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Foles follows Hostetler’s path from backup to Super Bowl

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Soon after Carson Wentz went down with a season-ending knee injury and Philadelphia’s Super Bowl hopes were placed on backup Nick Foles‘ right arm, Jeff Hostetler’s phone lit up.

Out of all the quarterbacks who have gone from holding clipboards to begin the season to Super Bowl starter to end it, Hostetler’s path might have been most similar to Foles’ journey. It provides some hope to the Eagles heading into Sunday’s title game against five-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

“When it happened, all of a sudden my phone starts ringing off the hook,” Hostetler said. “When you really start to look at it, this is probably out of all the times it’s happened since I played, this may be the most similar when you get to all the nuts and bolts about it.”

Hostetler had started just two games in almost seven full seasons for the Giants when Phil Simms injured his foot in Week 14. After starting that season with 10 straight wins, the Giants lost three out of four and were mostly written off as a contender when Simms got hurt.

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There was a similar mood in Philadelphia when MVP contender Wentz got hurt in Los Angeles in a win that improved the Eagles to 11-2, but left them with a backup quarterback running the show.

“Everyone had jumped off the bandwagon,” Hostetler recalled. “We were completely shot as a team. That was the outside looking in. Inside where we were at, we just rallied the wagons. It was us versus the world. We just rallied around each other and it showed. I had a team similar to Philly. They’ve rallied around each other and nobody gives them a chance. When nobody gives you a chance and you’re a close-knit team that has been through adversity, look out, you can be dangerous.”

Hostetler said he had gained confidence by being thrown in late in a win against Dallas early in the season, and then leading a comeback against the Cardinals after Simms got injured in Game 6.

But by the time he stepped in for Simms in December, Hostetler had thrown 93 passes since entering the NFL in 1984. Hostetler managed to lead the Giants to two wins to end the regular season, a lopsided playoff opener over Chicago, then upsets over two-time defending champion San Francisco in the NFC title game (15-13 on five field goals) and Buffalo (20-19)in the Super Bowl.

“There were lots of things that were said, lots of negative things,” Hostetler said. “That fed me because none of those guys had seen me play. I never had the opportunity. It wasn’t like I had gone out there and failed and that’s why I was a backup. I was a backup because we didn’t have free agency and I was behind a guy who was playing really well who hadn’t gotten hurt.”

Foles is the 14th quarterback to start the Super Bowl after not holding that role for the season opener, including Brady (2016) and Ben Roethlisberger (2010), who were suspended to start those seasons. The others fall into a few categories.

There were those who seized the job early in the season such as Jake Delhomme did for Carolina when he replaced Rodney Peete at halftime of the 2003 season opener; Brady when he stepped in for an injured Drew Bledsoe in Week 3 in 2001; and Joe Kapp, who replaced Gary Cuozzo for Minnesota in the second game in 1969.

Then there were teams looking for a midseason jolt that turned into Super Bowl wins. Roger Staubach shared time with Craig Morton in 1971 before taking over for good midway through the year to launch a Hall of Fame career with his first Super Bowl win. Three years later, Terry Bradshaw began the season on the bench behind Joe Gilliam before taking over as starter in Week 7, then winning the first of four Super Bowl titles. Trent Dilfer then stepped in for Tony Banks midway through the 2000 season for Baltimore, lost his first start and then won 11 in a row behind a dominant defense.

There were three other cases of injuries leading to changes before the stretch run, with Vince Ferragamo replacing Pat Haden for the Rams in 1979; Jim Plunkett stepping in for Dan Pastorini the following year in Oakland; and Colin Kaepernick doing the same in San Francisco after Alex Smith had a concussion in 2012.

But of all those quarterbacks, only Hostetler, Foles and Washington’s Doug Williams made it to the Super Bowl with as few as two regular-season starts that season. Williams made his starts early in the year before stepping in for Jay Schroeder in the season finale and sparking a comeback victory over Minnesota, leading to coach Joe Gibbs’ decision to make a change for the playoffs.

“I never was a backup, so the mentality was a lot different,” said Williams, who started 67 games for Tampa Bay before heading to the USFL. “Even coming to Washington as the backup, I had a backup position with a starter’s mentality. That’s how I always looked at it.”

Williams played that way in the postseason. He helped overcome a 14-point deficit in wind chill of minus-20 degrees in Chicago against the mighty Bears defense in the division round before throwing two TDs to beat the Vikings again at home in the NFC title game.

Williams then put together an historic performance in the Super Bowl, leading five TD drives in 18 plays in the second quarter of a 42-10 win over Denver in San Diego. Williams threw for 340 yards and four TD passes on a gimpy knee to win MVP honors.

“The biggest thing was going to Chicago and being able to come back in that weather to beat the Bears,” Williams said. “That was bigger than coming back from 10 points in 80 degree weather.”

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Nick Foles goes from backup to championship game hero

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) Nick Foles stood tall in the pocket, ignored the pressure and made one big throw after another.

On the biggest stage of his life, Foles silenced the critics who thought the Eagles couldn’t get to the Super Bowl without MVP candidate Carson Wentz. Foles threw for 352 and three touchdowns to lead Philadelphia to a convincing 38-7 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game Sunday.

Now he’s headed to Minnesota to face Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.

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While Wentz watched from the sideline, using a cane to walk following surgery to repair his torn left ACL, Foles picked apart the NFL’s top-ranked defense. He tossed a perfect 53-yard touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery with the pocket collapsing around him to give Philadelphia a 21-7 lead in the second quarter.

Foles then directed a 60-yard drive in 29 seconds to set up a field goal before halftime. He fired a 49-yard TD pass to Torrey Smith off a flea flicker to start the second half and tossed a 5-yard TD to Jeffery early in the fourth to make it 38-7.

Foles was at his best on third downs, completing 10 of 11 for 159 yards and two TDs. The Eagles had been 0 for 13 on third-and-10 or longer after Wentz went down. On Sunday, Foles threw an 11-yard pass to Zach Ertz on third-and-10 on the Eagles’ first touchdown drive. His long TD pass to Jeffery came on third-and-10.

The Eagles (15-3) have been underdogs in both playoffs games, mostly because Foles is the quarterback. They were the first No. 1 seed not favored in a divisional round game, a 15-10 win over the Falcons. The Vikings (14-4) were 3-point favorites despite also being led by a backup quarterback – Case Keenum, Foles’ good friend and former teammate.

Foles put on a passing clinic, completing 78.8 percent of his passes (26 of 33). Not bad for a guy who contemplated retirement before the 2016 season.

A third-round pick by former Eagles coach Andy Reid in 2012, Foles had tremendous success as a starter under Chip Kelly his sophomore season. He threw 29 TDs and only two picks in 11 starts, including playoffs in 2013. Foles posted a passer rating of 119.2, third-highest in league history. He tied an NFL record with seven TD passes in a game at Oakland in November 2013 won an offensive MVP award at a Pro Bowl.

But Foles was traded to St. Louis for Sam Bradford in March 2015. He lost his starting job to Keenum and asked for his release after Jared Goff was drafted No. 1 overall. Foles considered hanging up his cleats before Reid persuaded him to go to Kansas City to be Alex Smith‘s backup.

After one season with the Chiefs, Foles returned to Philly to provide insurance behind Wentz.

He’ll become a folk hero if he can deliver the franchise’s first ever Super Bowl title.

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