If coffee is for closers, who deserves a cup?

Welcome to Crunch Time, a study of the end-of-half situations that are so fascinating -- and often so pivotal -- in the NFL.

I’ve long believed that the final 5 minutes of each half play an outsized role in determining the outcome of an NFL game.

This is not a particularly bold statement given the frequency with which NFL games are decided in the final minutes. Eight of the 16 games played in Week 1 were decided by six points or fewer.

The question of whether a team will score is only half the reason these end-of-half situations are so important, though. Time is just as significant. In fact, there are plenty of situations in which clock consumption is more important than scoring. This is what makes end-of-half situations strategically unique in football. At all other points in the game, your opponent is reasonably assured of getting the ball back at some point. That’s not true at the end of the second and fourth quarter where a team can literally prevent its opponent from having another possession.

Now scoring points and consuming time are not mutually exclusive goals. A team can score while consuming most of or even all the time left on the clock, but it’s also possible for a team to fail to score while consuming almost none of the time, thereby giving the opponent they chance to score with as little time remaining as possible.

How well a team manages these two 5-minute stretches often goes a long way in determining who wins in today’s NFL. Tampa Bay’s Week 1 victory at Minnesota is an absolutely great example.

The Vikings had the ball three times in end-of-half situations and failed to score. The Bucs had two end-of-half possessions and got nearly perfect results, scoring a touchdown in the second quarter and running out the clock in the fourth quarter.

Were those end-of-half situations the only reason the Bucs won? No. The Vikings committed three turnovers, the Bucs none. However, the fact that Tampa Bay’s offense was at its best in its final possession of each half goes a long way to explaining why the Bucs were able to win despite being outgained 369 yards to 242. If you’re interested in a more granular look at the end-of-half situations in this game, I’ve broken it out drive by drive here.

I’ve decided that this season, I’m going to pay specific attention to these end-of-half situations in an effort to not only see how often they wind up deciding NFL games, but to see how consistently specifics teams either strive or struggle in these end-of-half situations. In other words: Is this a skill that can be developed by an offense (or a defense)? If so, whose most responsible for this skill, the players or the coaches? Welcome to Crunch Time where we will put a microscope on what is one of the most fascinating parts of football. At least for me. If you’re new here, I covered the Seattle Seahawks for 15 years first as a newspaper beat reporter and later as a radio host. This newsletter is split between sports coverage and my own personal essays. I’m starting Crunch Time as an experiment to see if how much interest there is in the subject. If you’ve got questions or comments, I’ve opened that up to everyone and not just subscribers.

‘Coffee is for closers only’

That’s a line from Alec Baldwin’s character in a particularly memorable (and profane) scene from “Glengarry Glenross.”

“You think I’m (messing) with you?” he asks, holding his stare on the man holding the coffee. “I am not (messing) with you.”

So who gets coffee this week?

The Miami Dolphins get coffee this week. The Dolphins closed.

Miami had the ball twice in the final 5 minutes of the first half at the Chargers, twice in the final 5 minutes of the second half. Miami scored a total of 17 points on those four drives, two go-ahead touchdowns and a field goal and the one drive in which the Dolphins didn’t score, they didn’t want to. They just needed to run the clock out to seal their two-point win in what was the most exciting game of Week 1. Here’s a microscope on those end-of-half possessions with the final column indicating what the Chargers did on their ensuing possession:

The Cincinnati Bengals do not get coffee this week. The Bengals did not close.

It’s not just that Joe Burrow and the Bengals didn’t score in end-of-half situations against Cleveland, they didn’t gain a first down which is especially pathetic when you consider they had the ball twice late in the second quarter, trailing by three with plenty of time to mount a scoring drive. Now I suppose it’s possible that Myles Garrett makes Cleveland’s defense especially difficult when the Browns expect the opponent to pass, but it’s certainly fair to expect more from Burrow given the contract he just signed.

Chargers DB J.C. Jackson most decidedly does not get coffee.

Perhaps that’s a little unfair because Jackson did intercept a pass in the end zone in the fourth quarter of the Chargers’ loss to the Dolphins. However, he committed one of the dumbest penalties you’re going to see this year, costing his team three points in a game they lost by two. Here’s what happened: Two seconds left in the second quarter, Dolphins had the ball at their own 47 and Tua Tagovailoa threw downfield to some guy named Erik Ekuzanma in the area of the Chargers 20. There were four Chargers in the area. Time had expired so even if Ekuzanma caught the ball, all the Chargers needed to do was prevent they Ekuzanma from reaching the end zone. Instead, Jackson pushed Ekuzanma in the back before the ball arrived, knocking him over and drawing a penalty for pass-interference, which is a spot foul in the NFL. Because the half can’t end on a penalty, Miami was awarded an untimed down from the Miami 23, and Jason Sanders a field goal to give the Dolphins a 20-17 lead at halftime.

Excellence in last-minute scoring drive of Week 1: Kansas City vs. Detroit, second quarter. Chiefs drove 82 yards in six plays, taking a 14-7 lead on Patrick Mahomes’s TD pass to tight end Blake Bell with 34 seconds left.

After Detroit went three-and-out, the Chiefs got the ball back at their own 18 with 2:02 remaining. Patrick Mahomes completed three passes of more than 20 yards to three different receivers on the drive, and not only did Kansas City need just 88 seconds to score a touchdown, they overcome a penalty for offensive holding to do it.

Excellence in time consumption, Week 1: The Las Vegas at Denver, fourth quarter. The Raiders got the ball back with 5:08 remaining, leading the Broncos by one point. The Broncos had two timeouts remaining, and the 2-minute warning would also stop the clock. Las Vegas never gave the ball back, the Raiders gaining three first downs. Jimmy Garoppolo completed both passes he attempted on the drive, but his biggest play was a scramble on third-and-7 on the first play inside the 2-minute warning.

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