The biggest lie we tell all the time in sports is “99.9 percent.” It’s fun to say, but generally, when we say something has a “99.9 percent chance” of happening, it’s probably a lot less. A quick Google search reveals that Brett Favre said there was a “99.9 chance” he’d retire a Packer (he didn’t); in 2012, a rookie Giants running back, David Wilson, said he was as effective as birth control, and “99.9 percent of the time I’m going to come through for you” (his career ended after 21 games because of a neck injury); more recently, Steelers rookie WR George Pickens said he’s open 99 percent of the time (he’s not), and so on and so forth. But there was one thing that actually did happen 99.9 percent of the time: When NFL teams took 30-point leads, they were 1,548-1-1. That’s a 99.903 winning percentage.
That is, until Saturday, when the Colts took a 33-0 halftime lead over the Vikings, then lost, 39-36, in overtime:
It was the biggest comeback victory in NFL history, breaking the record set when the Buffalo Bills erased a 32-point deficit in the playoffs after the 1992 season. Minnesota’s win sealed an NFC North title for the Vikings—and probably cemented the legacy of Colts interim coach Jeff Saturday, whose strange tenure has featured multiple massive late-game breakdowns.
The win probability charts summarize the story—but don’t quite explain the ludicrous plays and baffling decisions made by the Vikings, Colts, and of course, the referees, over the course of four brain-breaking hours. We broke down the seven most ridiculous things that happened in Saturday’s stunning classic:
No. 7: Kirk’s Big Fall
I cannot stress enough that at the start of this football game, literally everything was going wrong for the Vikings. They had a punt blocked for a touchdown. They missed on a fake punt. Justin Jefferson got hurt at one point. Dalvin Cook fumbled. They got stopped on a 4th-and-inches conversion attempt. Kirk Cousins threw a pick-six.
But it could really all be defined by one play: The one where Cousins tripped on his right guard’s foot and flopped backwards to the ground for a self-inflicted sack.
Ed Ingram stepped on Kirk Cousins' foot again. pic.twitter.com/oEIsdK33gH— Will Ragatz (@WillRagatz) December 17, 2022
To be fair, this happens roughly twice per every Vikings game. It’s their most commonly called play, behind “throw it to Justin Jefferson.” But it really summed up the first half.
No. 6: Reagor Interceptions
Cousins threw two interceptions on Sunday. The first pick was returned for a touchdown:
The second was on a deep shot that killed a promising drive:
As my colleague Benjamin Solak pointed out on Twitter, both plays had a common theme. On both throws, Jalen Reagor was the target—and on both throws, Reagor had come into the game because of an injury on the prior play to Jefferson. (Jefferson ended up returning both times.) The first pick was either a massive miss by Cousins or a poorly run route by Reagor; on the second interception, Reagor stopped running after Cousins threw the ball, making for an easy pick.
Reagor was famously drafted one spot ahead of Jefferson by the Eagles. Saturday showed why that was a bad choice for Philadelphia, in case you hadn’t figured it out yet.
No. 5: A Bad Backup
The Colts would’ve had a better chance of holding onto a 33-point lead if they had their best player. Star running back Jonathan Taylor suffered an ankle injury on his very first touch of the game, and was ruled out. That meant the Colts went with Zack Moss, who had a total of seven carries with Indianapolis since being traded by Buffalo at the deadline.
On the very first drive of the game, the Colts got down to the goal line, and handed Moss the ball on 3rd-and-1 from the 1. He somehow lost seven yards, making him the first player to go backwards five or more yards on a carry from the 1-yard line this season. They had to settle for a field goal. Would Minnesota have been able to come back from 37-0? Maybe not.
Later, in the fourth quarter, the Colts simply needed to run out the clock. They didn’t need Moss to make big plays—they needed him to not fumble and not go out of bounds. Miraculously, he did both. He lost a fumble that set up a Vikings touchdown. On the next drive, he gained 11 yards, then forgot to stay inbounds, stopping the clock and helping the Vikings get the ball back just seconds later. Moss ended the day with a respectable 81 yards on 24 carries, but the Colts might have won if not for his handful of massive mistakes.
No. 4: Another QB Sneak Fail
Poor Matt Ryan, the NFL’s poster boy for huge blown leads. He lost the Super Bowl after taking a 28-3 lead on the Patriots, and now he’s the QB in a 33-point come-from-ahead loss. Ryan went 7-for-13 for passing 32 yards in the second half, an all-around poor performance as he couldn’t move the ball while regularly stopping the clock.
But his big failure was on a quarterback sneak that could’ve helped Indianapolis ice the game in the fourth quarter. The offensive line got a bad push, but replay reviews showed that Ryan didn’t play the sneak well: He got turned around and carried the ball behind his body, meaning that while he reached the line-to-gain, the ball didn’t.
You might think, “well, Matt Ryan, not good on his feet, why sneak it with him”—but Ryan has historically been a great sneaker! He’d converted on nearly 90 percent of his sneaks over the last five seasons, and was 6-for-7 on the year. The odds were on the Colts’ side here—and unfortunately, so was the ball.
No. 3: Every Shot of Jeff Saturday “Coaching”
The Colts hired Jeff Saturday just over a month ago. He’s already responsible for two record-setting losses, each equally humiliating. Two weeks ago against the Cowboys, his team allowed 33 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, tying a century-old record for the worst fourth-quarter scoring margin in NFL history. And today, this: A 33-point blown lead, the largest in NFL history.
We can question how much Saturday’s coaching strategy is truly responsible for. We don’t really know how much of the game plan falls on him, how much of the offensive strategy falls on him, and so on. But of course, Saturday wasn’t hired for his coaching strategy or decision-making. He was hired because owner Jim Irsay believed the team needed to get fired up. “I’m glad he doesn’t have any NFL experience,” Irsay said when announcing the hire. “I’m glad he hasn’t learned the fear that’s in this league.”
Hopefully, by now Saturday’s learned some fear. Because whatever Saturday was supposed to bring to this team, he’s not doing it. When the game is on the line, Saturday’s team is nowhere to be found—they’re fumbling the ball away; missing big tackles, running out of bounds when they shouldn’t. It would be one thing if he simply sucked at calling plays—but we’d expect that. It’s a failure of the whole concept of Jeff Saturday that he sucks at keeping his team motivated, leading to massive meltdowns in critical moments.
Hopefully, the biggest comeback in NFL history can put an end to one of the dumbest coaching situations in league history. The Colts seemingly asked “what’s the worst that can happen if we hire someone with no coaching experience,” and now they’re finding out.
No. 2: The Worst Ref Blunder of the NFL Season
There were actually two Vikings fumble return touchdowns wiped out by premature whistles. The first came on a play where Colts returner Michael Pittman lost the ball an instant after officials ruled his forward progress was stopped.
Vikings fans are booing after this wasn't ruled a fumble pic.twitter.com/80jDrTGF5T— (@sportingnews) December 17, 2022
But at least you get what happened on that call. Pittman was still battling for extra yardage, but he didn’t seem to be gaining any, so the refs blew the play dead to prevent unnecessary hits. Probably the wrong call, but understandable.
The second one … not so much.
Embarrassing miss here by the officials on an obvious fumble. It would've been a touchdown for the Vikings if called correctly. pic.twitter.com/DE6BQtp8jc— The Comeback (@thecomeback) December 17, 2022
It’s absurd that the refs thought Moss was down before he fumbled here—he was fully upright when he lost control, and the ball was punched out of his hands. It’s even more absurd that the refs blew the whistle to stop the play, considering the general officiating policy has been to let things play out, allowing for an instant replay review in case of referee error. A video review did give the ball to the Vikings, but a potential game-tying touchdown was wiped off the board.
On top of that, the officials handed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to Minnesota’s Chandon Sullivan—the guy who returned both fumbles-that-never-happened into the end zone for non-touchdowns. I’d say getting pissed off about two bad calls which wiped off touchdowns is actually kinda sportsmanlike! Luckily, the ball didn’t lie.
Many bad calls are a result of bad rules. Not here! It’s stunning to see calls this bad in a moment this big.
No. 1: The Vikings Won
The Vikings are 11-3, champions of the NFC North. Let’s run down some of the games they’ve won:
- A 10-point, fourth quarter comeback against the Lions in Week 3, finishing on a K.J. Osborn touchdown with 45 seconds left;
- A game-winning field goal with 24 seconds left against the Saints in Week 4;
- A come-from-behind strip-fumble to literally steal victory out of the Bears’ hands after a go-ahead Kirk Cousins rushing touchdown in Week 5;
- Another 10-point fourth quarter comeback, this one against the Commanders in Week 9, finishing with another game-winning field goal with 12 seconds left;
- The miracle OT win against the Bills in Week 10, featuring Justin Jefferson making the catch of the century on 4th-and-18, plus a Josh Allen fumble at the goal line for a Vikings touchdown while attempting to run out the clock;
- A game in Week 13 where the Jets appeared to complete a go-ahead fourth quarter touchdown pass, only for Braxton Berrios to drop a ball that hit him in the hands;
- And now, the largest comeback in NFL history.
They’re past improbable and on to preposterous. They are 10-0 in one-score games.