Welcome to the exclusive 0.1% Club, Cowboys: Ranking most improbable comebacks since 2001

  • ESPN.com national NFL writer
  • ESPN.com NFC North reporter, 2008-2013
  • Covered Vikings for Minneapolis Star Tribune, 1999-2008

It’s not often that you see a comeback like the one that the Dallas Cowboys pulled off Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons. Down 29-10 at halftime, the Cowboys scored 30 points in the second half to take a 40-39 victory. Along the way, they worked past deficits of 39-24 midway through the fourth quarter and 39-30 at the 4:57 mark with only one timeout left.

The comeback wouldn’t have been complete without a recovered onside kick with 1:48 remaining, after the Falcons inexplicably failed to fall on the ball. Greg Zuerlein’s 46-yard field goal on the final play won it.

How unusual was it? ESPN’s win probability model identifies only 10 other games in the past 20 seasons in which victor had a lower win probability during the game. Late in the second quarter, in fact, the Cowboys had a 0.1% chance to win.

Here’s a quick look at the previous instances, in order of lowest win probability. Randomly, two of the games heavily involve place-kicker Matt Prater. The model includes all games since the start of the 2001 season.

Detroit Lions 22, Minnesota Vikings 16

When: Week 9, 2016 season

Relevant deficit: Vikings took a 16-13 lead with 23 seconds left

What happened: With no timeouts, the Lions completed two passes and gained a total of 35 yards. Quarterback Matthew Stafford spiked the ball two seconds left, and Matt Prater hit a 58-yard field goal to tie the game. The Lions won in overtime on a first-possession touchdown.

Miami Dolphins 34, New England Patriots 33

When: Week 14, 2018 season

Relevant deficit: Patriots took a 33-28 lead with 16 seconds left

What happened: The Miami Miracle, of course. The Dolphins got one play from their 31-yard line. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw a 14-yard pass to receiver Kenny Stills, who lateraled to receiver Devante Parker, who lateraled to running back Kenyan Drake, who sprinted 52 yards for the winning touchdown.

Denver Broncos 13, Chicago Bears 10

When: Week 14, 2011 season

Relevant deficit: Bears took a 10-0 lead on the first play of the fourth quarter and held the lead until the 5-minute mark in the game

What happened: Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow went 7-for-7 on the Broncos’ next possession, the final throw a 10-yard touchdown pass to receiver Demaryius Thomas. The Bears went three-and-out, and Tebow led a second scoring drive that ended in Matt Prater’s 59-yard field goal with eight seconds remaining. The Broncos won it on Prater’s 51-yard field goal in overtime.

Arizona Cardinals 21, Philadelphia Eagles 20

When: Week 4, 2001 season

Relevant deficit: Eagles took a 20-14 lead with 1:13 remaining

What happened: Cardinals quarterback Jake Plummer got his team to the Eagles’ 35-yard line but faced fourth-and-10 with 17 seconds remaining. Plummer tossed a jump ball to receiver Marty Jenkins, who had posted up Eagles cornerback Troy Vincent — yes, that Troy Vincent — at the 2-yard line. Jenkins caught the ball, ran around Vincent and jumped into the end zone for the win.

Minnesota Vikings 29, New Orleans Saints 24

When: 2017 divisional playoff round

Relevant deficit: Saints took a 24-23 lead with 25 seconds left

What happened: The Minneapolis Miracle, naturally. On third-and-10 from the Vikings’ 39-yard line quarterback, Case Keenum found receiver Stefon Diggs on the right sideline. Saints safety Marcus Williams missed the tackle, and Diggs sprinted into the end zone for a walkoff touchdown.

Dallas Cowboys 27, New York Giants 26

When: Week 1, 2015 season

Relevant deficit: Giants took a 26-20 lead with 1:34 remaining

What happened: With no timeouts, the Cowboys drove 72 yards on six plays for the winning score. Facing third-and-2 at the Giants’ 11-yard line with 13 seconds left, center Travis Frederick sent a low snap to quarterback Tony Romo. But Romo grabbed the ball off the ground and and threw the winning touchdown pass to tight end Jason Witten.

New Orleans Saints 33, Washington 30

When: Week 13, 2009 season

Relevant deficit: Washington took a 30-20 lead at home with 12:51 remaining

What happened: The Saints scored 10 points in the final 6:52, including a 53-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to Robert Meachem with 1:19 left. The Saints had a chance to win in regulation after intercepting Washington quarterback Jason Campbell, but place-kicker Garrett Hartley missed a 58-yard field goal attempt. Hartley, however, won the game with an 18-yard field goal in overtime.

Denver Broncos 12, Cincinnati Bengals 7

When: Week 1, 2009 season

Relevant deficit: Bengals took a 7-6 lead with 38 seconds left

What happened: With the Broncos facing second down from their own 13-yard line, Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton targeted receiver Brandon Marshall near the sideline at about midfield. The pass was tipped, but Broncos receiver Brandon Stokely grabbed it out of the air and sprinted to the end zone for the winning score.

Green Bay Packers 27, Detroit Lions 23

When: Week 13, 2015 season

Relevant deficit: Lions took a 23-14 lead with 7:06 remaining (and still led, 27-23 with six seconds to play)

What happened: With six seconds remaining, the Packers faced a third-and-10 from their 21-yard line. They tried a multi-lateral play, and Lions defensive end Devin Taylor tackled quarterback Aaron Rodgers at the 24-yard line to end the game. Or so everyone thought. Officials called Taylor for grabbing Rodgers’ face mask, not only giving the Packers another play but also moving the ball up 15 yards and into Rodgers’ range for a Hail Mary. Rodgers then won the game on a 61-yard Hail Mary throw to tight end Richard Rodgers.

Detroit Lions 13, New Orleans Saints 12

When: Week 15, 2005 season

Relevant deficit: Chargers took a 12-10 lead with 1:52 remaining

What happened: The Lions took over at their 19-yard line with no timeouts remaining. The big play was converting a fourth-and-17 at their own 24-yard line on a 40-yard pass from quarterback Joey Harrington to receiver Roy Williams. A 15-yard pass to Williams on third-and-10 put Jason Hanson in position to kick a 39-yard winning field goal.

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