Tuesday October 4th, 2011

At the quarter pole of the 2011 season, the NFL has seen an interesting twist surface on the familiar length-of-game issue. If you've been paying attention through the first four weeks of the schedule, by now you know that games are never over, even when they seem over. You could say that the art of the comeback is making a comeback in the NFL, except for the fact we've never seen historic comebacks like this before. To wit:

• The Lions on Sunday rallied from a 24-point third-quarter deficit to beat the mistake-prone Dallas Cowboys 34-30, just a week after climbing out of a 20-0 halftime hole to upend the Minnesota Vikings in overtime. Detroit's comeback at Dallas tied for the largest ever by a visiting team in NFL history, and it made the Lions the first team to win consecutive games in which it trailed by at least 20 points. Both Detroit wins came on the road, no less.

• The Buffalo Bills had held the previous league record for the largest back-to-back comeback wins -- for all of a week. Buffalo was down by 18 points at halftime against visiting Oakland in Week 2 and won, and then topped itself in Week 3 at home against New England, mounting a 21-point rally to defeat the Patriots and end a 15-game losing streak against its bitter AFC East rival.

• With the 49ers winning at Philadelphia on Sunday despite trailing 23-3 in the third quarter, the NFL featured two teams overcoming 20-plus point deficits to win for the second week in a row (Detroit being the other in Week 4, with the Lions and Bills turning the trick in Week 3). That's never happened before, and the NFL is a month into its 92nd season.

• Those four games that teams have won in which they trailed by at least 20 points already ties the league's one-year record for such comebacks, with 13 weeks remaining in the 2011 regular season. It seems entirely fitting that the resurgent first-place Lions (4-0), Bills (3-1) and 49ers (3-1) have combined to produce these historic rallies, since all three downtrodden franchises are doing the comeback thing in the larger sense this season after a decade or so of irrelevance.

• With just 64 of the league's 256 regular-season games played so far, there already have been 15 games (23.4 percent) in which a team rallied from a 10-point-plus deficit to win. Just look at what transpired in Week 4 alone:

Besides the comeback feats pulled off by Detroit and San Francisco on the road in Dallas and Philadelphia, we saw Cincinnati rally from a 14-point halftime deficit at home to upset undefeated Buffalo, the Giants stun Arizona with two late touchdowns to overcome a 10-point Cardinals lead in the game's final four minutes, and in the honorable mention category, Seattle nearly pull off its own 20-point rally, losing 30-28 to visiting Atlanta after trailing 27-7 early in the third quarter.

No one team has ridden the rollercoaster that is this year's comeback craze quite like the Cowboys (2-2). In their two losses, they've led the visiting Jets 24-10 in the fourth quarter of Week 1, but wound up falling 27-24, and then out-did themselves with that 24-point Tony Romo-fueled collapse at home against Detroit on Sunday. It was the largest blown lead in the 52-season history of the franchise. But in Week 2 at San Francisco, Dallas found out what life was like on the other side of the comeback, with Romo heroically leading his team back from an early 14-0 deficit, and a 10-point fourth-quarter hole, to win 27-24 in overtime. The Cowboys other victory came via a modest seven-point comeback against Washington, with Dallas prevailing 18-16 after trailing 16-9 in the third quarter.

And we'd be remiss if we didn't mention how the Year of the Comeback has almost single-handedly wrecked the 2011 season in Minnesota and Philadelphia. The Vikings are 0-4 for the first time since 2002, largely because they can't hold a lead against anyone. Minnesota lost a 17-7 halftime lead to lose Week 1 at San Diego, let a 17-0 halftime advantage slip away against visiting Tampa Bay in Week 2, and completed a cycle of sorts with that Week 3 loss at home to Detroit, which trailed 20-0 at halftime.

As for the self-anointed "Dream Team" (Vince Young-anointed?), the struggling Eagles (1-3) have lost three consecutive games in which they surrendered fourth-quarter leads, including a 10-point advantage at Atlanta in Week 2 and that 20-point second-half meltdown on Sunday against the opportunistic 49ers. In between, Philly lost to the Giants 29-16 at home in Week 3, giving up 15 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. And we thought the Eagles owned the comeback genre when it came to the Giants (see Miracle, of the Meadowlands, part I and II).

It just goes to show you that everybody short of Tiki Barber seems capable of a comeback this season, and who knows exactly why that is? Maybe it's all the shoddy defense, a natural outgrowth of the record-breaking passing totals we've seen thus far, or a combination of both. If all else fails, we can always blame it on the lockout and file it under that handy, catch-all category.

After all, the comeback theme just seems to fit in 2011. After the long and messy labor stand-off of spring and summer, the whole NFL season so far feels like a well-executed comeback for the game of football.

• What you did last year routinely means little in the NFL, but this is ridiculous. Seven of the eight division champions from 2010 are currently at .500 or below through four weeks, with only AFC East co-leading New England bucking that trend at 3-1 (and the Patriots lost to the Bills, so Buffalo at the moment holds a tiebreaking advantage).

In the NFC, Philadelphia is in last place in the East at 1-3, Atlanta is in third in the South at 2-2, Chicago's in third in the North at 2-2, and Seattle's tied with Arizona for second at 1-3.

The AFC has Indianapolis dead last at 0-4 in the South, Pittsburgh tied for second (or last) with Cleveland and Cincinnati at 2-2, and Kansas City tied for last with Denver at 1-3. Of that entire seven-team group, only the Steelers and Falcons are within one game of first place in their divisions.

• The inverse of the trend detailed just above is that nine teams that missed the playoffs last season currently own or are tied for first place in their division. So it has the makings of a huge year on the turnaround team front.

Tampa Bay (3-1), Washington (3-1), the Giants (3-1), Detroit (4-0) and San Francisco (3-1) are all at least tied for first place in NFC divisions, despite missing the postseason a year ago. In the AFC, Buffalo (3-1), Houston (3-1), Tennessee (3-1), and San Diego (3-1) all fit the same bill.

Of those nine teams, the Bills, Lions, Texans, Titans and Redskins have worst-to-first potential, given that they finished at least tied for last place in their division in 2010.

All told, 13 teams currently hold at least a share of a divisional lead. That's the second most through four weeks of the season in the 10 years of the NFL's current eight-division alignment (from 2002 on). Last year, a whopping 16 teams held at least a slice of first place through four weeks, or half the league's 32 teams.

• We seemingly can't get enough of those wacky and colorful Ryan brothers, with their quips, taunts and bravado, but maybe we're barking up the wrong family coaching tree. The Jets and Cowboys are just 4-4 with Rex calling the shots in New York and Rob running the defense in Dallas. If you're looking for winners, the 6-2 Harbaughs are the real story.

Rookie NFL head coach Jim Harbaugh has his plucky Youngstown 49ers sitting 3-1 and in first place in the NFC West after completing that sweep of their two-game road trip through Cincinnati and Philadelphia. San Francisco has a two-game lead on the Seahawks and Cardinals, and a three-game bulge over the Rams, who were the consensus favorite to win the division.

Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh has his Ravens at 3-1 as well, a game up on Pittsburgh, Cincy and Cleveland in the AFC North. Even better, Baltimore has already beaten the hated Steelers once this season, which just might pave the way for the Ravens to finally win the division and play host to a playoff game or two, rather than go the wild-card route for a fourth consecutive season under Harbaugh.

Alas, the NFL's most famous two sets of brothers are 1-1 against each other this season, with Dallas out-lasting the 49ers in overtime in Week 2, but the Ravens pounding the Jets Sunday night in Baltimore.

• Anybody else notice that Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, like his team, isn't exactly living up to the hype so far in Philadelphia? 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree became the latest pass-catcher to victimize him on Sunday, joining the ranks of the Giants' Victor Cruz and the Rams' Brandon Gibson.

I'm beginning to think Nnamdi's big reputation in Oakland wasn't all that deserved. Is it possible that the Raiders were so bad for most of Asomugha's eight years in Oakland that he looked better than he really was by comparison? Maybe teams didn't throw at him all that much because once the Raiders got behind early, they didn't have to pass too often in the second half against Oakland.

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