The final minutes of the fourth quarter provide a launchpad for NFL lore. It is when Joe Montana squats in the San Francisco 49ers’ huddle and spots John Candy, when Tom Brady makes John Madden eat his play-for-overtime words, when Stefon Diggs catches a prayer and flings his helmet. The two-minute drill can make careers and break hearts. Its inherent drama lies in both simplicity — hero, villain, time-sensitive objective — and, for most of NFL history, the demands of the challenge.

In the opening game of this NFL season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers started a drive at their 25-yard line with 1:24 left in the fourth quarter, trailing 29-28 to the Dallas Cowboys. Tom Brady marched them 57 yards with surgical passes, and kicker Ryan Succop booted a 36-yard field that turned a possible loss into a 31-29 victory. “There was no doubt we were going to win that game, with him,” Coach Bruce Arians said afterward.

In 2021, there is rarely a doubt any quarterback can win that kind of game. The season has quietly, if thrillingly, redefined the odds offenses face in football’s most cinematic moment: first and 10, clock ticking toward zero, down a score. When they need points at the end of a game, teams are scoring with unprecedented frequency. The improbable has turned into the expected.

Over the past two decades, NFL teams scored a little more than 13 percent of the time when they got the ball with less than two minutes left in a one-score game. This season, in those circumstances, offenses have scored on almost 30 percent of drives, the first success rate above 18 percent in at least 20 years.

The spike has come despite those drives beginning, on average, 67 yards from the end zone, one of the highest numbers in 20 years. And those last-ditch drives are yielding, on average, almost five yards more than in any previous year.

Those numbers will probably fall throughout the season, as weather worsens and quarterback and offensive line injuries mount. But through more than a quarter of the season, 2021 stands as a staggering outlier for how often teams have scored late in close games. Nineteen games in the first five weeks were decided by a game-winning score in the final minute or overtime, the most to that point in a season. Four more arrived in Week 6.

The endgame scoring environment has fundamentally changed NFL games, a process that was underway even before this year’s spike. Eric Eager, vice president of research and development at Pro Football Focus, helped create the win probability figure used on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” broadcast. Last season, the Seattle Seahawks took over on their 6-yard line with one timeout left, trailing the Minnesota Vikings by five. On the broadcast, the model gave the Seahawks a 13 percent chance to win.

“The next day, I got a call from an analytics staffer in the league saying that was way too high based on leaguewide averages,” Eager said. “I was like, yeah, but you have to understand quarterbacks now are better. We had this argument about this. It seems like even that number is short now. If you have less than a touchdown lead and the other team gets the ball, you’re almost an underdog to win at that point, no matter what the field position.”

(Seattle, it goes without saying, drove 94 yards to win in the final seconds.)

How did scoring on a two-minute drill become almost a better proposition than calling the opening coin toss? The NFL’s success at close-and-late drives is a distillation of trends, compressed into one sliver of the game.

The first big reason is the sport’s tilt toward passing, which has always been the two-minute staple. Quarterbacks and receivers are incredibly efficient at what they do no matter the game situation. Wide receivers have never been better or more plentiful, owing to training and schematic trends at lower levels. According to data from Pro Football Focus, teams with at least three wideouts on the field are averaging more than 1.3 yards per route run this season, the most since 2011. The average passer rating in formations with three or more wide receivers is 94.9, the highest level since 2006, the first year such data is available. When desperate offenses play their third wide receiver late in games, he tends to be better than the defensive back assigned to cover him.

Offenses are also more comfortable in two-minute style attacks because pass-heavy, up-tempo schemes have proliferated and they gain key advantages late in games. As teams run more pass plays, pass rushers can tire by the final minutes. And kickers have grown more proficient at longer field goals — most offenses can give their kicker a decent chance by advancing to the opponent’s 40, which sets up a 57-yard field goal — “a lower bar for these offenses sometimes,” Eager said.

Indeed, between 2010 and 2016, NFL kickers averaged about 13 field goals of 55 yards or longer per season. From 2017 to 2020, the average was 23. Already this season, kickers have booted 10 field goals of at least 55 yards.

The second big reason involves shifting gameplay. Ryan Paganetti, a former Philadelphia Eagles assistant coach who specialized in game management, points out that analytics have pushed coaches to go for two more often earlier in games. Those tries, whether made or missed, create less uniform point totals, altering late-game propositions.

Offenses down by a point in the final minutes, of course, will call plays aggressively and use all four downs to score, which in turn helps their chances of scoring. Teams may not realize how valuable that forced aggression can be.

Eager recalled a “Sunday Night Football” production meeting with a head coach who, in his previous game, had kicked an extra point to tie rather than going for two and the lead. The coach, typically an aggressive strategist, preferred to play for overtime rather than protect a one-point lead against a team that needed to score — and thus would have fewer inhibitions.

He may have had a point. In Week 5 this year, the Detroit Lions went for two with 37 seconds remaining and took a 17-16 lead over the Vikings. Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins has one of the lowest average depths of target in the NFL. But when the Vikings need points late, “he turns into John Elway,” Eager said. “The Vikings apparently need necessity to elicit their quarterback to play like he can.” Cousins completed passes of 21, six and 19 yards against the Lions, and Greg Joseph booted a game-winning 54-yard field goal, one of at least seven made in the final seconds of regulation this season.

Tampa Bay vs. Dallas, Week 1
Game-winning FG, :02 left
Washington vs. Giants, Week 2
Game-winning FG, :00 left
Green Bay at San Fran., Week 3
Game-winning FG, :00 left
Baltimore at Detroit, Week 3
Game-winning FG, :00 left
Chargers at Kansas City, Week 3
Game-winning TD, :32 left
Atlanta at Giants, Week 3
Game-winning FG, :00 left
Washington at Atlanta, Week 4
Game-winning TD, :33 left
Cleveland at Chargers, Week 5
Game-winning TD, 1:31 left
Minnesota vs. Detroit, Week 5
Game-winning FG, :00 left
Miami vs. Jacksonville, Week 6
Game-winning FG, :00 left

Perhaps seeing those results, some teams now seem more apt to try to score late in tie games rather than playing conservatively for overtime.

“Now teams are saying, ‘Screw it, let’s go for this’ in those tie-type scenarios,” Paganetti said. “The data is supportive of playing for the win rather than going to overtime.” On Monday night, the Buffalo Bills went for it on fourth and one with 22 seconds left on the Tennessee 3-yard line when a chip-shot field goal would have forced overtime. Josh Allen’s sneak failed, but the logic was clear: The Bills had a better chance to score a touchdown than to win in overtime, essentially a 50-50 proposition.

Paganetti surmises that as increased data has illuminated the value of timeouts, especially in the second half, coaches have improved at not burning them earlier in the game (even though enough coaches waste them often enough to make you throw your remote at the television — looking at you, Sean McVay). Those timeouts make last-minute scoring more feasible — and sometimes leave enough time for opponents to answer. Over the past five seasons, teams with no timeouts remaining as they began a two-minute drill trailing by one score have managed, on average, a touchdown on 10 percent of drives. That increased to nearly 13 percent if they started the drive with two or more timeouts.

All those factors have amplified offensive success at the end of games. Defenses now must adjust. Paganetti predicted defenses may grow more aggressive, sending an extra rusher to mitigate the lack of pass rush from fatigued defensive linemen. For years, coordinators have been loath to blitz in two-minute situations so as not to risk giving up a big play. This year’s offensive success shows there may be just as much risk in playing traditionally.

“If I was a defensive coordinator in the NFL today and I had a competent quarterback, I would stop playing prevent defenses,” Eager said. “The worst thing that could happen to you is the other team scores. And the other team is going to score on you anyway. I would play aggressively and try to force a turnover or force a long-yardage situation.

“Having possession of the ball has never been more valuable in the NFL. If you’re going to give up a score, the upside is to have possession of the ball. The upside is to lean on the bad intuition of teams that will score too early.”

In Week 5, the Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Chargers may have provided a glimpse into how teams will operate late in games in this new world. Chargers running back Austin Ekeler slid down before the goal line even with his team trailing, knowing they had to drain the clock to prevent the Browns from getting the ball back. On the next play, Browns defenders dragged Ekeler into the end zone for a touchdown, which gave the Chargers the lead — but also gave Cleveland’s offense another possession.

The two-minute drill remains an indelible part of NFL football. But the way teams approach it, both on offense and defense, has started to shift. This season, so routinely thrilling, could change it forever.