Not all of them made good statements.
With contending teams going head-to-head, and several division tiles on the line, there was plenty to play for in the week's biggest games. While there were some blowouts and snoozers, too, for the most part "Statement Sunday" delivered the postseason-shaking goods.
In each of these big games, there were big plays. Some set the winning team on the path to victory; others took the losers to their final destination. Some plays just dropped jaws; others changed the course of entire seasons.
For better or worse, for teams playoff-bound or golf-course-bound, these are the biggest plays of NFL Week 15.
Casey Hayward's Huge Interception
The Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears squared off with the NFC North division crown at stake. A Bears win would draw the two teams level at 9-5; a Packers win would clinch the division. Tied at seven with just 1:36 left in the first half, the Bears started near midfield with a great chance to take a lead into halftime.
Packers cornerback Casey Hayward had other ideas.
The Bears lined up in a shotgun-based formation: a single tailback, a tight end lined up to the right with a receiver flanking him; a split end and slot receiver Devin Hester on the left.
The Packers are lined up in dime, with four cornerbacks and a middle linebacker matching up against the four receivers and a tailback, respectively. Two safeties are parked deep in Cover-2 zones behind them:
The play design is simple, but effective. Hester has a quick double-move to trick Hayward, the slot corner, in an attempt to get open up the seam. A player with Hester's speed and explosion splitting a Cover-2 shell could be lethal. Cutler knows this.
As Hester makes his move, Hayward gets a solid jam on him. This re-routes Hester enough that he can't get inside of Hayward like he's supposed to. We see Cutler pump, expecting Hester to be breaking for wide open space—and stop when he sees Hayward still has position:
But even if Hester isn't ahead of Hayward laterally, Hester's behind Hayward, five yards downfield. If Cutler leads Hester deep, this could go for six. Instead...
Cutler, possibly trying to hit Hester's back shoulder, throws behind Hester and well short. Maybe the angle made it impossible for Cutler to see Hester wasn't just a step or two downfield of Hayward, he was well past him. Maybe the ball just came out of Cutler's hand wrong.
Whatever went wrong, the Packers got the ball back quickly enough to score a go-ahead touchdown before halftime—turning a potential 14-7 Bears lead into a 14-7 Packers lead, which led to a potentially playoff-crushing loss for the Bears.
Adrian Peterson's 82-yard Touchdown Run
Few thought the Minnesota Vikings would still be fighting for a playoff spot this late in the season. Few thought the Vikings would ever break out of the NFC North cellar, for that matter. But Adrian Peterson's taken up the yoke, and he's dragging the Vikings toward the postseason, 82 yards at a time if need be:
This play is the result of what Brian Cook of MGoBlog calls "Rock, Paper, Scissors." It's when an offensive play matches up perfectly—or perfectly wrong—with a defensive play, and the results are way out of proportion with the execution of the play. Rock always beats scissors, no matter how strong the scissors are.
Put another way, it's like the Rams called the worst possible defensive play in Tecmo Super Bowl.
The Vikings lined up in a classic I-formation, with a receiver split to either side, and a tight end motioning to the right. The Rams were in a base 4-3, but they snuck a safety up into the box, run-blitzing him along with an outside linebacker:
Both the safety and linebacker are blitzing up the "B" gap between the left tackle and guard. But the play is a dive to the other "B" gap:
Vikings center John Sullivan (No. 65) and tackle Phil Loadholt (No. 71) do an excellent job of maintaining their blocks here. But something goofy's going on with Rams defensive tackle Kendall Langford (No. 98):
Langford suddenly backpedals, as if going back into coverage. This may have been his responsibility, given the blitz package, but at this point in the play he's either expecting a play-action pass or simply not looking in the backfield.
Fullback Jerome Felton picks up the other safety, and Peterson is five yards downfield without being touched by a defender:
Peterson first runs up Felton's back, then cuts back past a thoroughly confused Langford:
With the linebacker and safety that might stop him 12 yards back upfield, Peterson is off to the races. These 82 yards would add to a massive 212-yard total on the day, leaving Peterson just 293 yards short of Eric Dickerson's single-season NFL rushing record.
Brandon Carr's Overtime Interception
What's the biggest play a cornerback could possibly make? Snagging an interception, in overtime, and running it back to the end zone to seal a sudden-death victory.
In Week 15, then, Dallas Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr fell one yard short of making the biggest play a cornerback could make:
The Pittsburgh Steelers lined up in a shotgun, three-receiver formation. Two receivers bunched up tight in the slot to the left, while receiver Mike Wallace flanked the tight end wide to the right. The Cowboys lined up in a 3-3-5 nickel, with the linebackers shifted over so outside linebacker Anthony Spencer could blitz:
The coverage at the top of the screen is very interesting. Between the two cornerbacks and the safety, it appears they're playing matchup zone, but with the outside corner dropping back to provide deep help.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took one look:
...and seemed to think, "forget that." He turned and fired the out route to Wallace, matched up one-on-one with Carr:
Throwing an out route from the hash marks is tricky; there isn't much margin for error. Roethlisberger needs to put the ball where only Wallace can get it—as far to the outside as possible—but not so far outside Wallace can't catch it in bounds.
Roethlisberger errs a little too far to the inside, and Carr makes a great individual play:
Carr falls down, rolls, pops up and has the presence of mind to realize he hasn't been touched. He hits the jets and gets it to the doorstep.
From there, the Cowboys kicked the winning chip shot to bolster their playoff hopes.
Kaepernick to Crabtree Go-Ahead Touchdown
The Sunday Night Football matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and the New England Patriots was one of the most incredible games in recent memory. Not only was this a national prime-time game, and not only did it feature Super Bowl contenders from opposite conferences trying to lock up a playoff bye, it was a white-knuckle roller coaster of a barnburner.
The 49ers jumped out to a shocking 31-3 lead, only to see the Patriots roar back and tie it with 28 straight points. On the ensuing kickoff, 49ers returner LaMichael James took it back 62 yards, putting Colin Kaepernick and the offense on the Patriots' 38-yard line.
Kaepernick only needed one play to retake the lead:
NFL fans often complain their defense needs to be "more aggressive." Here's why "more aggressive" isn't the same as "better."
The 49ers line up in a shotgun-based, three-receiver set. Tight end Vernon Davis is on the left, flanked by receiver Michael Crabtree. The single tailback stays in to pass block. The Patriots, meanwhile, are in a base 4-3, with all three linebackers cheating up to the line to blitz:
There's no disguise here. All three linebackers will blitz. The New England secondary is lined up very deep, just in case something goes wrong. Note the huge cushion given to split end Randy Moss at the bottom of the screen!
At the snap, the linebackers fire off. Davis (No. 85) chips one of them before releasing into the middle of the field. Safety Patrick Chung (No. 25) bites down on Davis, leaving cornerback Kyle Arrington, who is guarding Crabtree, as the only Patriot defender on that side of the field:
Kaepernick wastes no time delivering the ball. It's not a perfect throw, but Crabtree has no problem adjusting. Crabtree spins inside, shakes a trying-to-close-the-gap Arrington and takes it to the house. The Patriots wouldn't score another touchdown, making this the biggest play of one of the biggest games of the season.
Now You Decide
Which was the biggest play of NFL Week 15? Vote, and make your voice heard! Don't forget, if you choose "Other" to write your nominee in the comments!
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