Over 30,000 plays have been run this NFL season. Teams can train all offseason, practice all week, watch film to get ready for all those plays, but they never know which ones in retrospect will be decisive. The most impactful plays of 2010 are not only those that had an effect on the outcome of a game at the end of the contest, but also those that had an effect on both team’s chances to win a title, by qualifying for the playoffs, or getting home field advantage, or getting a bye and automatic advancement to the final eight teams.
When I sat down to come up with the most impactful plays in 2010, I focused on a couple of things. First, it had to be important within the context of that particular game. Second, it had to be important for the teams in regard to the overall season. Third, I tried to find plays where if we reversed the outcome the playoff picture for the teams changed.
For example, Tim Tebow’s run against Houston to win the game may have been exciting and decisive in that game, but had no greater impact on the NFL playoff picture. The Jets’ series of miracle finishes involving Sanchez to Holmes are the most impactful series of plays in different games, but individually, none of them was decisive. In retrospect, you could remove anyone of them and have the Jets lose, and they would still be in prime position for a wildcard (so it would have some impact), but none of the opponents would be in the playoff hunt even with a win.
Without further ado, then, here are my starting 11 of single plays that were most impactful in getting us where we are today. Alter the outcome of these plays, and the season looks different heading to the playoffs.
11. Josh Scobee’s 59-yard field goal to win against Indianapolis, October 3. The Jaguars were 1-2 coming into this game after consecutive drubbings by the Chargers and Eagles. The Colts had rebounded with two wins in a row after an opening day loss. This long kick won the game, though it would have gone to overtime. It’s at the bottom of the list because the Colts will still likely win the division, though they could have clinched the division already and eliminated Jacksonville if Scobee missed and they won in overtime, and also be alive for an outside chance at a bye.
10. Rashard Mendenhall’s 50-yard touchdown run in overtime against Atlanta, September 12. With Roethlisberger suspended, the Steelers were underdogs at home against the Falcons. In retrospect, the Falcons would have already clinched a #1 seed, while Pittsburgh would be on the outside looking in for a division title, and likely sitting in the #6 seed and having to win three road games.
9. Josh Freeman’s 1-yard touchdown pass to Cadillac Williams with 17 seconds left against St. Louis, October 24. St. Louis had a 17-6 halftime lead on the road, but Tampa pulled within 5 points when they got the ball for a final drive. Freeman completed a third down pass to Mike Williams down to the 1 and the Bucs used their last timeout, then Freeman hit Williams with a pass to the flat. If the Rams hold, they are already the NFC West champs, and the Bucs are eliminated.
8. Brent Grimes’ diving interception of Josh Freeman at the Atlanta 27 with 2 minutes left, December 5. Tampa Bay had a 24-14 fourth quarter lead before a Eric Weems’ kickoff return and a long Atlanta drive game them a 28-24 advantage. Freeman had just converted a fourth down and had the ball at the Atlanta 27 with a first down with 2 minutes left. Grimes made a diving interception in front of Mike Williams, and the replay assistant challenged to see if Grimes maintained control. The play stood. If Tampa keeps possession and scores to win it, then Tampa would be in playoff position now, and Atlanta would be trailing New Orleans for the division title.
7. Joe Flacco incomplete pass to Todd Heap on third and six in overtime at New England, October 17. It may not be the most exciting play on the list, but it was fairly important. The Ravens had a 20-10 lead in the 4th quarter at New England that was erased. They still had the ball just inside Patriots territory when Flacco missed Heap on a pass that would have given the Ravens a first down and put them in scoring range. New England later won on a Gostkowski field goal. If Baltimore had won that game, they would be in position for the #1 seed, not New England, and instead, they are likely going to be on the road in round one.
6. Matt Ryan to Roddy White for game winning touchdown vs. Baltimore, November 11. Baltimore had just taken a lead 21-20 in the final minutes, and Matt Ryan led a drive down the field. Facing a blitz, he hit Roddy White for a 33-yard touchdown that was not without controversy, as the Ravens wanted offensive pass interference for a push off by White. If Baltimore holds, Atlanta would be trailing in its division, and Baltimore would be leading the AFC North.
5. Philip Rivers throws incomplete pass on fourth and goal vs. Kansas City, September 13. The Chargers fell behind 21-7, but came back within a touchdown and went on a drive to the Kansas City 6. On fourth and goal, Rivers scrambled away from pressure, but threw just behind an open Malcolm Floyd in the back of the end zone. If San Diego wins that game, they would be leading the AFC West, despite all of their other troubles and bad losses, and Kansas City would be on the outside looking in.
4. Garrett Hartley’s chip shot miss in overtime vs. Atlanta, September 26. Hartley missed a kick that is made over 95% of the time, and the Falcons took their second life and drove the field to beat the Saints. If New Orleans wins that game, they have already clinched the division and home field advantage for the second year in a row, instead of likely having to play three road games to get back to the Super Bowl.
3. Troy Polamalu sack and forced fumble of Joe Flacco vs. Baltimore, December 5. With just over three minutes left, the Steelers were in trouble, trailing by a score of 10-6 and with the offense doing nothing. Polamalu came on a blitz off the edge of Flacco’s blindside and tomahawked his arm as he brought it back to throw, and Lamar Woodley picked it up and returned it to the Baltimore 9. Pittsburgh scored to take the lead a few plays later on a pass to Isaac Redman. If Baltimore doesn’t turn it over there, they likely win, and would have already clinched the #2 seed, while Pittsburgh would likely be the #6.
2. James Jones’ fumble vs. Chicago, September 27. Rodgers completed a pass to Jones at midfield with just under two and half minutes left, when he fumbled and Urlacher recovered. If Jones doesn’t fumble there, the Packers are likely to score. Instead, we debated whether Mike McCarthy should have let the Bears score once they got close to preserve time. He didn’t, the Bears made the chip shot, and instead of already having a playoff spot clinched and playing for the division title and a first round bye, the Packers need to win just to get in.
1. DeSean Jackson’ punt return vs. New York, December 19. Do I even need to describe it? One of the most dramatic game endings in NFL history, and then add in that the Eagles make the playoffs and the Giants likely don’t, when the roles would likely have been reversed if the Giants hold on and win, and this one is just about as big as it gets.