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The Packers' Two Big Comebacks: A Stunning Achievement

I examine every big comeback opportunity of McCarthy's career and find that successful comebacks are hugely rare.

On Sunday night, the Green Bay Packers rallied from a 14-0 deficit to eventually beat the Atlanta Falcons on the road, 25-14. Three weeks before that, they came back from a 13-0 deficit to beat Carolina on the road, 30-23. This kind of comeback is stunningly difficult and therefore extremely rare. To see just how rare, I went back and looked at every game of Mike McCarthy's tenure.

I looked at comebacks from a deficit that would take more than one touchdown and two-point conversion to erase; that is, comebacks from a deficit of nine points or greater. McCarthy's teams have had 21 such games in his five-years-and-change tenure. I found that of those 21 games, the Packers have come back to tie or take the lead in nine* of them, winning just three. Two of those have come in the last month (the other was vs. Seattle in the 2007 playoffs). In four other games, the Packers cut the opponent's lead to within one score, but never managed to tie or take the lead.**

2006
Down 31-9 to the Eagles, no comeback (final). (road)
Down 10-0 to the Bills; tied at 10, then down 24-10 (final).  (road)
Killed 35-0 by the Patriots; final. (home)
Down 34-24 on the road, Seahawks (final).
Down 31-10, 38-10 (home, Jets, final).

2007
Down 13-3, recovered to 13-10. Down 27-10, recovered to 27-24 but lost eventually, 37-27. (Road, Dallas.)
Down 35-7 (final, Bears, road.)
Down 14-0 (Seahawks, home, playoffs); recover to win 42-20.

2008
Down 20-9, 27-9. Recover marginally to 27-16. Loss, Dallas, at home.
Down 20-7, Packers respond to 21-20, but end up losing 30-21. Bucs, road.
Down 17-7, they tie at 17, get down 27-17 and rally to 27-24, but lose. Falcons, road. (This has two comebacks from 10+ deficits, which is weird.)
Down just 24-21 at the half, the Packers lost to the Saints as the Falcons rattled off three straight TDs. Down 45-21, the Packers got to 45-29, but New Orleans put it away with a TD (run failed); 51-29. Road.
Down 14-3 and 21-10, the Packers rallied to take the lead at 28-21, but lost 35-31. Panthers, home.

2009
Bengals led 31-21; Packers got a field goal but lost at home, 31-24.
Vikings led 30-14; the Packers recovered to 30-23 but lost with that score. (road).
Vikings led 24-3; Packers recovered to 24-20, fell behind 31-20, recovered 31-26, but then lost 38-26 (home).
Bucs led 38-28. No comeback. Road. Loss.
Down 24-14 (Pittsburgh, road). Rallied eventually to lead, 28-27, but lost after several lead changes, 37-36.
Arizona, playoffs, whoa. Down 17-0, 24-7, 31-10. The Packers rallied to 31-24, got down 38-24, then tied 38-38 and again at 45-45. Loss, Cardinals, road, 51-45.

2011
Down 13-0 at Carolina, rallied to 14-13 and never lost the lead, winning 30-23.
Down 14-0 at Atlanta, rallied to 15-14 and never lost that lead, winning 25-14.

The Upshot

What I’m trying to say is that McCarthy isn’t some kind of comeback wizard. Coming back from a deficit of 9+ points is not an easy thing to do, especially on the road, and I’d be surprised if even football’s best coaches have a much better record than he does in this extremely difficult task. But two of his teams’ biggest comebacks came in playoff games. And entering this season, no McCarthy team had ever staged two 13+-point comebacks in a single season. Not to mention on the road. Not to mention winning both games. That’s unprecedented in modern Packers history.

As if you needed any further proof, ladies and gentlemen: This team is really, really good.

Caveats

(Of course there are hundreds of variables at work here. The Packers came back to take the lead twice in 2008, after being down by 11 and 13 points, but lost both times because of late-game defensive collapses. For any two-score comeback to work, the offense has to score a bunch and the defense has to at least limit the damage while the comeback is in progress. That makes it an entire-team effort, and as such, it's hard to ascribe success to any one factor. That said, the professionalism, discipline and experience of a Super Bowl-winning team have clearly helped A LOT in the two "big" comebacks to date this season.)

*I listed the Atlanta '08 game under this category because it was a comeback to tie, 17-7 to 17-17, and again under the "strong comebacks" thing below because there was another comeback from 27-17 to 27-24. Apologies for any confusion.

**This is the part where things start getting subjective. For the "strong comebacks" that didn't result in a lead or tie game, I listed four games: at Dallas ('07), Atlanta ('08), at Minnesota and Minnesota (both '09). I didn't list, say, vs. Cincinnati ('09) because even though the Packers technically cut the deficit to one score, they weren't really in that game at the end and the 'comeback' was one lousy field goal. This is, again, subjective on my part and totally open to argument.

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Mark Seghers October 11, 2011 at 12:40 PM
Good article and research. Quoting Al Davis, "Just Win", one might also say that it's not so good to fall behind to begin with. Is it better to go ahead 35-0, then let the other team score 31 unanswered points to squeak by with a victory than it is to be down 31-0 and score 5 TDs? The former is treated like a "thank god we held out... wow, we really need to learn how to put teams away!" and the latter is like "wow this team is amazing, we are Gods of the Gridiron, etc." What the 2 comebacks show to me, as you pointed out in the article, is just how CONFIDENT this team is. Atlanta throws a bunch of misdirection at us, and the bowling ball that is Michael Turner, and we shrug and say "ok, that was cool... now it's OUR turn." It all comes down to our QB. Rodgers' confidence is incredible, and contagious. With him behind Center, right now any deficit just seems like a temporary anomaly. As Lombardi once said, "we never lost, we just ran out of time." With these Packers, I can't see that even happening.
Andy Tisdel October 11, 2011 at 03:39 PM
Thanks! The thing that struck me about the three early field goals was that the team never seemed to lose control. It didn't look like anybody panicked. It was like you said: "OK, we took their best shot. Now it's our turn."
Matt Schroeder October 11, 2011 at 05:47 PM
The last few years, the difference has been defense. The team comes back pretty often, but look at the scores of those games they lose. Especially 2009. The NFL is a video game now, and if you can get even 2 or 3 stops, and a turnover along the way, you can make up 14 points quickly.
Andy Tisdel October 11, 2011 at 06:59 PM
Also, please disregard the "Down just 24-21 at the half, the Packers lost to the Saints as the Falcons rattled off three straight TDs.", which makes no sense. That game is covered under the Saints line right below it.

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