The clock ticks down and the game is on the line. Who will rise to the occasion?
The NFL is filled with memorable highlight plays and thrilling finishes. I’m here to highlight those who have produced the most in the 2021 season, ranging from clutch quarterbacks to receivers, defensive backs and yes, even kickers.
Who was the best when the lights shined brightest?
Unlike the others on this list, Kupp doesn’t exactly have a trademark play where he caught a touchdown pass and the Rams immediately walked away victorious. That doesn’t matter. Kupp’s steady and prolific performance through 16 games has him in line to take home the receiving triple crown (catches, yards, TDs) and more than deserving of this place. The 28-year-old has been incredibly reliable for Matthew Stafford in the quarterback’s first season with the Rams, and when Los Angeles has needed a completion to keep drives moving, Kupp has risen to the occasion nearly every time. Kupp owns a +13.8 percent catch rate over expected in the fourth quarter this season, the second-best mark in the NFL, and he’s third in yards after catch over expected in the fourth quarter with +74. He’s also shown up big in division matchups, going over 100 yards receiving in the Rams’ last three bouts against NFC West opponents. He caught a touchdown pass to push Los Angeles’ lead to 14 in a pivotal Week 14 win over the Cardinals, and followed that up by catching two touchdowns in a 20-10 win over Seattle the week after. His play hasn’t exactly made for the memorable highlight, but Kupp has been as consistent as they come this season in every moment, big and small.
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How could I make a list of top clutch players without including the greatest final-drive maestro of our time? Off the top of my head, I can immediately think of three clutch possessions in which Brady led his team to a game-winning score this season, with the most recent coming just last weekend in a comeback win over the New York Jets. There was also the Week 1 win over Dallas, the Week 4 triumph over New England, the Week 12 victory over Indianapolis — oh, and how about that overtime strike to Breshad Perriman for a walk-off touchdown and win over the Bills? Brady is now 44 years old, yet he’s as good as he’s ever been with the game on the line. He’s picked up 500 yards on quick passes in the fourth quarter this season, the second-highest total on such attempts in the NFL. He’s also thrown six touchdown passes of 10-plus air yards in the fourth quarter, tying for second in the league behind only Burrow, per NGS. And as we all know, there’s one scenario in which no opposing coach would like to find himself: Watching Brady with the ball in the final minutes with the game on the line. He’s already lifted the Buccaneers to five wins in that scenario this season alone. You likely wouldn’t want to test him a sixth time.
Burrow’s rapid ascension toward the top of the quarterback power rankings hasn’t just happened by chance. Consider last Sunday, when the Bengals faced third-and-27 late in a tie game with the powerhouse Chiefs, with a division title on the line. Burrow dropped back, faced immense pressure from Steve Spagnuolo’s blitz call, and fired a sideline shot to Ja’Marr Chase, who hauled in the pass over Charvarius Ward for a massive first down. That completion ended up leading the Bengals to their first AFC North crown since 2015, a throne they reached with much credit due to the arm of Burrow. The second-year passer has thrown the most touchdown passes of 10-plus air yards in the fourth quarter this season (eight), owns a +7.9 completion percentage over expected on third and fourth down this season (second-best in the NFL), and is even good under pressure, posting a +10.5 completion percentage over expected against the blitz in the fourth quarter, the third-best mark in the league. Even in defeat, Burrow has been stellar in key moments, helping the Bengals erase a two-score deficit by tossing deep strikes to Chase and Tyler Boyd in an eventual overtime loss to San Francisco. He didn’t have to swallow the bitter taste of defeat last weekend, nor did he in Week 15, with his 56-yard touchdown pass to Boyd serving as the difference in a 15-10 win over Denver. Further down in this list, we’ll discuss Bengals kicker Evan McPherson, who has been able to finish off nearly every crucial Burrow-led drive this season. And he wouldn’t be in those key moments without the efforts of Burrow, a future member of the NFL’s class of elite quarterbacks.
Four game-winning kicks in one season (technically five, if we’re counting his win in Cleveland that required two kicks thanks to a last-second timeout) have the Raiders in line to win their way into the postseason this weekend. Do I need to say more? Carlson has enjoyed a remarkable career turnaround in a relatively short amount of time, going from a kicker who couldn’t handle the big moment with the Vikings and getting cut as a result, to blossoming into a clutch boot with the Raiders. He’s used his right foot to send Las Vegas to four victories in 2021, with his most recent — a 33-yarder as time expired in Indianapolis — keeping the Raiders alive in the playoff race entering Week 18. Should Las Vegas find itself needing a field goal to finish off the Chargers, the Raiders can find solace in knowing Carlson is ready. After all, he beat the Cowboys on Thanksgiving with his foot. A game-winner at SoFi Stadium will be worth a whole lot more than a turkey leg.
Let’s see … Who is the current owner of the NFL record for the longest made field goal? Ah, yes, it’s Tucker, the future Pro Football Hall of Famer, who is the most feared and respected kicker in the NFL. If the Ravens need 3 points or less and have the ball, the most an opposing defense can hope to do is keep Baltimore out of field-goal range. Once they enter that window, Tucker is all but guaranteed to send the Ravens home with a victory. That field-goal window became frighteningly large earlier this year, when Tucker’s crow-hop-fueled 66-yarder lifted Baltimore to a stunning win over Detroit at Ford Field. Tucker did it again against Minnesota, though he didn’t need a crow hop to send the game-winning 36-yard shot through the uprights. Oh, he’s also a perfect 6 for 6 from 50-plus yards this season, and owns the second-best field-goal percentage above expected at +11 percent. Just another year of greatness from the NFL’s best kicker.
Douglas is one of the highest-performing in-season pickups in some time. After injuries depleted Green Bay’s secondary (Jaire Alexander, shoulder; Kevin King, concussion), the Packers turned to Douglas, signing the castoff in early October from the Cardinals’ practice squad. The move has since paid off in droves. In just 11 appearances, Douglas has become the clutch-play king of Green Bay’s defense, icing multiple games with interceptions. He did so against Arizona, Cleveland and the L.A. Rams this season alone. His clutch play shows up in the Next Gen Stats, of course, posting a 27.3 percent ballhawk rate as the nearest defender targeted in the fourth quarter this season, the third-best rate in the NFL (min. 20 targets). Though he’s not a household name, Douglas has played a huge role in the Packers clinching the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
Chase’s latest 200-plus-yard game sent him speeding past Justin Jefferson for the record for the most receiving yards by a rookie in NFL history, seemingly putting him in line to win Offensive Rookie of the Year. But the yardage total alone doesn’t earn him a place on this list. It’s how Chase has reached that total that gets him here. Chase has come through time and time again in big-play moments, setting a Next Gen Stats record for the most receiving touchdowns on deep passes (7) in the history of the NGS era (dating back to 2016). No rookie has led the NFL in such receptions over a season, but Chase enters the final week with a three-score lead on Seattle’s Tyler Lockett. And how about the biggest moments? Well, Chase shines there, too. His performance in Cincinnati’s win over Kansas City stands as proof, and that’s not all. Chase has recorded +102 yards after catch over expected on third and fourth downs this season, the second-best mark in the NFL, per NGS. He’s also gained 3 yards per route run on third and fourth down, the fourth-best average in the league. So it’s not just deep touchdown passes or timely scores — Chase is consistently proving to be a reliable target in the most important situations. And, again, he’s only a rookie.
Taylor’s stellar second NFL season has propelled the Colts to the verge of the postseason, a place they likely wouldn’t be without his contributions. Much of his impact, beyond his impressive overall production, has been felt late in games and in key moments. Taylor leads the NFL in rushing yards over expected (+94) and in yards after contact (+299) in the fourth quarter this season, per NGS, making a habit of running through tacklers to daylight to help close out games. The NFL’s best runner this year, Taylor is fully capable of giving the Colts an early lead, and constantly a threat to put away a game, too.
Koo’s appearance on this list might surprise some, considering how his NFL career began back in 2017. Cut by the Chargers just four games into his rookie season after missing three of his first six attempts (including two clutch late-game kicks), Koo was out of the league entirely in 2018, before authoring what’s become quite the comeback tale. Following up on his league-leading 37 made field goals last year, Koo has drilled three game-winning field goals this season, helping the Falcons to nearly half of their seven total wins. He’s also been largely consistent, making 25 of 27 field-goal attempts and all 28 of his extra-point attempts. So much for being a kicker who couldn’t handle the big moment.
The Bengals are in the playoffs! The kicker who sent them there, McPherson, is a rookie who hasn’t been perfect on his attempts this season — and even failed to lift the Bengals to a win over the Packers despite getting two attempts to do so — but has made the majority of his kicks, and nearly all of them in the most important situations. The Green Bay loss aside, McPherson has otherwise answered the call, hitting his first game-winner in a Week 1 triumph over Minnesota, nailing his second on a Thursday night win over Jacksonville, and capping his debut season with a chip shot to take down the Chiefs and secure the AFC North title. McPherson also deserves credit for making an overtime attempt against San Francisco, even if the Bengals lost soon after on a walk-off touchdown. He can’t play defense, too.
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