Thanksgiving is a holiday of big. Big birds, big families, big tables, big plates, big bellies—all celebrating the bounty of blessings we've received over the past year. Thanksgiving is also a holiday of football: a national timeout to watch professional pigskin from noon to midnight.
So what happens when you put more teams in more national games than any other week on the schedule? What happens when you have more eyeballs watching fewer games at a time than any other week in the season?
What happens when seasons are on the line, division races are at stake, all hands are on deck and all the stops have been pulled out?
The Biggest Plays of NFL Week 12—maybe of the entire NFL 2012 season.
Let's dig in.
Pierre Garcon 59-yard Touchdown Catch
With the nation slipping deep into its annual food coma, the team of the nation's capital was about to put America's Team down for the count. With a 14-3 lead, it would have been easy for the Washington Redskins to slowly grind their way downfield, playing to get to halftime with their advantage over the Dallas Cowboys intact.
Instead, the Redskins pressed their advantage:
The Redskins lined up in a three-receiver offset I-formation. Receiver Pierre Garçon lined up in the left slot while Santana Moss and Leonard Hankerson were slotted and split wide right, respectively. The tailback stayed in to block, while fullback/H-back Logan Paulsen released into the flat.
The Cowboys lined up in a 2-4-5 nickel, with linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Ernie Sims lined up to blitz. Safety Charlie Peprah shows blitz from the offense's far right edge, along with inside linebacker Bruce Carter:
At the snap, Peprah joins Ware and Sims in blitzing, while Carter drops back into a shallow zone. In the secondary, the three corners and remaining safety play "quarters" coverage, splitting up the field into four vertical slices for which they're each responsible.
You can tell there's something amiss by the way cornerback Morris Claiborne covers Garcon: tightly.
Claiborne sneaks right up to the line, then immediately flips his hips and runs side by side with Garcon. The other three defensive backs aren't even present onscreen; they're all giving plenty of cushion. Let's take a look at the other angle:
We can clearly see the four verticals here. Claiborne is tight on Garcon, and the other three Cowboys are hanging back ready to cover their section of the field. But what happens when Moss cuts in?
Claiborne continues to run backward, getting to his assigned depth, but Garcon is about to leave Claiborne's zone, cutting towards the middle of the field. Garcon's route will be too shallow for the deep safeties to pick up, and Carter has not dropped deep enough.
Quarterback Robert Griffin III sees this during his dropback, and at the end of his dropback, he simply plants and throws. The ball is just outside of Carter's reach and hits Garcon in stride:
Garcon takes care of the rest with his deep speed, but this score is the result of excellent quarterback play, from pre-snap vision to decision-making to footwork to mechanics. The result is a timely, accurate pass that gives a playmaker a chance to make a big play.
Ray Rice's Miracle 4th-and-29 Conversion
This play has been the talk of the NFL world, and with good reason. The Baltimore Ravens were down by three points, with less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter...facing 4th-and-29. They absolutely had to convert an impossible conversion, and somehow they converted it:
The first thought any football fan should have after watching this play is: "Why on Earth did quarterback Joe Flacco throw it short to the running back on 4th-and-29?!" Possibly, he was supposed to.
The Ravens lined up in a shotgun, four-wide formation, with trips to the left and a split end out wide. Rice is next to Flacco:
For years, NFL fans and analysts have cried out for access to All-22 coaches' film. This is why. From the broadcast angle, Flacco waits around forever, then finally gives up and dumps it hopefully to Rice. But from the All-22, something far more interesting is at work. Look at the Chargers coverage at the snap:
The Chargers have covered the field vertically and horizontally, with one high safety waiting just behind the sticks, just in case. Then, the Ravens send four receivers on fly routes downfield, as in a Hail Mary.
All of the Chargers backpedal, receding to keep the advancing Ravens from getting past them. At the point Flacco dumps off the pass, nearly every Charger has backtracked past the first-down marker:
When Rice got the ball, there was nothing but green turf and white stripes between him and the markers.
Of course, it wouldn't have worked if every Charger hadn't taken a horrible angle, losing containment and allowing Rice to make the play. It also wouldn't have worked if Rice didn't pick up a monster block from receiver Anquan Boldin.
But still, there's a clear method to Flacco's—and possibly offensive coordinator Rick Neuheisel's—madness.
Ahmad Brooks's Pick-Six
No Week 12 play changed its game more dramatically than Ahmad Brooks's pick-six of Drew Brees.
With just over half a minute left before halftime and fresh off an interception of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the host Saints were a play or two away from extending their seven-point lead to 10 or even 14 points.
Instead, Brooks snagged a Brees pass and took it back to the house, sending the Saints back to the locker room with a zero-point lead:
The Saints lined up in a typical shotgun, "doubles" set, with two receivers split to either side of the offensive line. In lieu of a tailback, tight end Jimmy Graham is lined up to the left:
Defensively, the 49ers are lined up in a 3-3-5 nickel, with Brooks sniffing around the line of scrimmage. At the snap, Brooks drops back into coverage, apparently without Brees noticing:
Brees initially looks to the receiver pair on the left, then pulls it down and throws for Graham, who has completely spun linebacker NaVorro Bowman around with a double move:
Unfortunately, Brees delivers still thinking Brooks is attacking the pocket. Instead, Brooks, closes on the ball and picks it off.
Julio Jones's 80-yard Touchdown
With less than nine minutes left in the third quarter, the 9-1 Atlanta Falcons found themselves down by three to their hosts and division rivals, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If the Falcons couldn't get back in the lead, they risked letting the Bucs claw back to within two games in the NFC South.
Then, Julio Jones:
It's fantastic when offenses can beat people vertically without stretching the field horizontally. Being able to execute a power running game and score from anywhere on the field, all from the same formation, is scary indeed.
The Falcons lined up in a vanilla I-formation, with the tight end to the left. The Bucs were in their base 4-3, with the linebackers shaded over so strong-side linebacker Adam Hayward could... well, I'm not actually sure what he was supposed to do.
At the snap, Jones, Hayward and receiver Roddy White all push downfield. The strong safety bites down on the tight end, leaving free safety Ronde Barber alone in a Cover-1 zone. The Buccaneers linebackers, uh:
Yeah, I don't know. All three linebackers drop back into "coverage," but none actually cover the tight end. With Barber hustling to get over to the middle of the field, Jones and White are both essentially facing single coverage. Ryan lets fly, and Barber can't reverse course fast enough to get the necessary angle:
The Bucs linebackers and safeties failing to work together well put their corners in the worst possible position. Julio Jones in man coverage against nearly any cornerback is a mismatch; Ryan just had to deliver the ball and let Jones make the game-changing play.
Now YOU Decide!
Which was the biggest play of NFL Week 12?