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Why 37 seconds is a lot of time ... in the NFL

How many times have we seen it? A team scores late — sometimes very late — to pull ahead, only to lose the game on a late score as time expires

Green Bay Packers’ Mason Crosby converts game-winning field goal in the fourth quarter against the San Francisco 49ers.
Green Bay Packers’ Mason Crosby converts game-winning field goal against the San Francisco 49ers, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, in Santa Clara, Calif.
Scot Tucker, Associated Press

There’s not a lot you can do in 37 seconds. You can’t toast a slice of bread or cook instant oatmeal in 37 seconds. Can’t get dressed in 37 seconds. Can’t make a grocery list or pay a bill, even online, in 37 seconds. You can’t shower in 37 seconds unless you skip some parts and don’t wait for the warm water to show up.

But you can drive 42 yards on a football field in 37 seconds against an NFL defense and win the game, no timeouts necessary.

That’s what Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers did Sunday night against the San Francisco 49ers. Six plays, 37 seconds, no timeouts — a pass completion for 25 yards, a spiked ball, an incompletion, another pass completion for 17 yards, another spike, field goal, game over. Packers 30, 49ers 28. Thanks for playing.

The 49ers were celebrating before all that happened, but they should’ve known better. They had driven 75 yards in eight plays and scored on a 12-yard pass to fullback Kyle Juszczyk to take a 28-27 lead with 37 seconds left in the game. All over America fans were saying or thinking the same thing: “They left too much time on the clock.”

Only in football is 37 seconds considered a lot of time.

Some wondered if Juszczyk, who caught the TD pass at the 7-yard line before running it into the end zone, should have intentionally taken a knee at the one-yard line to kill more time before scoring a play or two later. That’s certainly counterintuitive, if not risky, but now it seems like a good idea.

We see it all the time. Teams that struggle all night to score and then suddenly they’re able to score in the final two minutes of the half and the game, when they’re running out of time. On Sunday night, the Packers and 49ers scored 27 of their 58 points in the final 1:02 of the first half and final 2:39 of the second half.

Earlier in the day …

… the Chargers beat the Chiefs 30-24 by driving 59 yards in a little over a minute to score the game-winning TD with 32 seconds left. Somehow the Chiefs couldn’t answer that, even with all that time remaining. ...

… the Raiders beat the Dolphins 31-28 in overtime, with both teams combining to score 24 points in the final two minutes of both halves and overtime. The Dolphins tied the game with two seconds left in regulation by driving 82 yards in 13 plays. ...

… the Lions took a 17-16 lead over the Ravens with 1:04 left in the game. Of course that was too much time. The Ravens won the game on an NFL-record, 66-yard field goal by Justin Tucker. ...

… the Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens scored 10 of their 31 combined points in the final 1:40 of each half. The Falcons drove 58 yards to kick the game-winning field goal with no time remaining.

There is more than anecdotal evidence to support what any football aficionado knows. Stat guru Hugh Crews studied 145 NFL games during the first 10 weeks of the 2015 season and found that 14% of touchdowns and 19% of field goals are scored in the final two minutes of both halves — that’s four minutes out of a total of 60.

This is not a big enough sample to pass a scientific sniff test, but every football coach, player and fan would tell you it looks right, and there are plenty of reasons to account for it.

For one thing, a lot of coaches just plain choke when the game’s on the line. They play not to lose, rather than play to win, and there’s a big difference. Coaches who played an entire game using a certain, more aggressive defensive strategy, suddenly play soft coverage in the final minutes to protect a lead, and then the offense marches down the field with passes underneath that coverage. Where have we seen this before? Everywhere. The 49ers did it against Aaron Rodgers Sunday night. The lesson for coaches: Dance with the horse what brung ya.

Football also is designed for comebacks, same as basketball. The clock stops in the final two minutes of the first half and final five minutes of the second half when a ball carrier steps out of bounds, and the clock does not start again until the next snap (during the rest of the game, the clock starts again when referees place the ball on the field for the next play).

The clock is stopped following an incomplete pass throughout the game, but there are more passes (and therefore more time stoppages) when teams are playing from behind late in the game and half. Teams also tend to save their timeouts for that part of the game, plus there is also a clock stoppage for the two-minute warning, giving teams a bonus timeout; teams also spend less time or no time in the huddle on offense while running hurry-up offenses. All of the above means more plays and more chances to score.

Crews writes, “The spike in field goals at the end of the first half can also be attributed to willingness to try long field goals. At the end of the half, the team with the ball no longer needs to worry about giving up field position so it’s easier to take a risk on a long field goal. Although kickers may not be as accurate from these longer distances, they are given many more opportunities than in other times of the game.”

Maybe you can’t run to the end of your street in 37 seconds, but it’s plenty of time for a good quarterback who’s behind on points.