NFC North: NFC North

Walter PaytonTony Tomsic/Getty Images

This is the play voters and ESPN Bears reporter Michael C. Wright picked as the most memorable play in Chicago Bears history, narrowly beating out William “Refrigerator” Perry’s touchdown run in Super Bowl XX and Devin Hester’s 92-yard kickoff return to open Super Bowl XLI.

Score: Bears 28, Chiefs 27
Date: Nov. 13, 1977. Site: Soldier Field

Thank you, thank you, thank you, voters. We definitely agree on this one. But as time ticked away on voting for the Chicago’s most memorable play, there certainly was trepidation about how things would pan out as Walter Payton’s rather beastly run against the Chiefs in 1977 was basically neck-and-neck with William “Refrigerator” Perry’s touchdown in Super Bowl XX as the voting deadline neared.

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No knock on Perry, as his touchdown certainly was “memorable.” But for many Bears fans, that Perry play served as reminder that Payton didn’t score a TD in that Super Bowl trouncing, which from this vantage point, was a travesty.

As is the case with fellow Chicago icon Michael Jordan, it’s difficult to pull a top play from the many Payton blessed fans with throughout his 13-year NFL career. But this one embodied Payton as a runner, fully displaying all the attributes that made “Sweetness” one of the best running backs.

With the Bears down 17-0 in the third quarter, Payton took a handoff right, spun away from linebacker Willie Lanier and Tim Gray, cut back left and made three Chiefs miss, in addition to plowing over two others before being dragged down from behind at the Kansas City 4. In all, Payton broke seven tackles on a run that sparked Chicago’s eventual 28-27 comeback win.

“If you look at the video, I’m within three or four feet of him four times,” Chiefs defensive tackle John Lohmeyer said in the book, “Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton.” “I didn’t give up because it was well known that you couldn’t get him down with ease, and he was an escape artist. I tried tackling him. We all did.”

Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch might hold the “Beast Mode” nickname, but Payton’s 1977 run against the Chiefs might be true definition of that moniker. Not only was Payton’s run the best play in franchise annals, it’s arguably the top run in NFL history.
Gary AndersonAP Photo/Beth A. Keiser
This is the play voters and ESPN Vikings reporter Ben Goessling picked as the most memorable in the team's history, beating out Brett Favre's interception in the 2010 NFC Championship Game and Tommy Kramer's Hail Mary pass to Ahmad Rashad to beat the Cleveland Browns in the 1980 "Miracle at the Met."

Score: Falcons 30, Vikings 27
Date: Jan. 17, 1999. Site: Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome

Well, voters, we agreed on this one. For a team that has played in four Super Bowls and has been in five NFC title games since its most recent Super Bowl appearance, there were plenty of memorable moments. But this play, which kept the most prolific offense (and possibly the most dominant team) in Vikings history from securing a fifth Super Bowl bid, was tough to top.

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The most striking thing about Gary Anderson's 38-yard miss with 2:18 left in the 1999 NFC Championship Game was how swiftly it pulled the bottom out from under a team that had an air of inevitability about it to that point. Yes, the Vikings had some injuries going into the NFC title game, but their offense had been so explosive (607 points in 17 previous games), and they'd been so dominant at home (winning all nine of their games by an average of 23.22 points) that it didn't seem like an upstart Falcons team had any chance of coming into the Metrodome and halting the Vikings' march to the Super Bowl. It certainly didn't seem that way when Anderson -- who hadn't missed a kick of any kind all season -- lined up for an easy field goal attempt that would have put Minnesota up by 10.

But Anderson's miss gave the Falcons life, and the Vikings seemed too stunned to recover after that point, with coach Dennis Green calling for Randall Cunningham to take a knee after the Falcons' game-tying touchdown and the team punting twice in overtime before Morten Andersen's game winner. As a kid growing up in Minnesota at the time, it was stunning to watch that Vikings team -- so brash and aggressive to that point, so certain of its superiority, particularly in the raucous Metrodome -- on its heels. The Vikings probably never would have reached that point had Anderson's kick sailed through the uprights. Instead, they lost the game, they've endured two more NFC Championship Game defeats since, and their Super Bowl drought is at 37 years and counting.

The fact is it all could have been so different, if not for a miss from a heretofore perfect kicker. That's what made Anderson's miss the most memorable play in Vikings history.
Bart StarrJohn Biever/Icon SMI
We have a winner. The voters picked Bart Starr's quarterback sneak for a touchdown to win the Ice Bowl as the Packers' most memorable play, and I applaud their selection.

Score: Packers 21, Cowboys 17
Date: Dec. 31, 1967 Site: Lambeau Field

From the moment we began soliciting nominations for the Green Bay Packers' three most memorable plays, Bart Starr's quarterback sneak for a touchdown to win the Ice Bowl was mentioned more often than any other play.

So it should come as no surprise that it was the runaway winner in the voting.

Few NFL franchises have one defining play like that, but Starr's sneak ranks up there with the Immaculate Reception and The Catch.

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When the voting closed on Thursday, Starr's play finished as a landslide winner over Brett Favre's 54-yard touchdown pass to Andre Rison in Super Bowl XXXI and Aaron Rodgers' third-and-10 completion to Greg Jennings to help clinch Super Bowl XLV.

What was most interesting in researching this project was that there was no consensus on the most memorable plays from Super Bowls XXXI and XLV. There was just as much support for Desmond Howard's 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that helped him win the Super Bowl XXXI MVP. Likewise in Super Bowl XLV, strong cases could be made for Nick Collins' interception return for a touchdown in the first quarter and Clay Matthews' forced fumble that thwarted a potential go-ahead drive by the Steelers in the fourth quarter.

Unlike Starr's sneak, no one play won Super Bowls XXXI or XVL.

And that is why Starr's play was so special.

As we wrap up this project, it's also worth noting some of the other plays that were considered, thanks in part to input from readers and other longtime observers of the team.

Among the others:

  • Don Hutson's first touchdown, an 83-yarder in 1935.
  • Dave Robinson drilling Don Meredith, leading to Tom Brown's interception to beat the Cowboys in the 1966 NFL Championship.
  • Herb Adderley's interception against the Lions in a 1962 regular-season game to set up the game-winning field goal in a 9-7 victory.
  • Chester Marcol's blocked field goal that he ran in for a touchdown to beat the Bears in 1980.
  • Don Majkowski to Sterling Sharpe for a 14-yard touchdown pass in 1989 against the Bears in what is known as the Instant Replay Game.
  • Favre to Sharpe in Detroit for a 40-yard touchdown with 55 seconds remaining in a 1994 playoff game.
  • Antonio Freeman's "Monday Night Miracle" catch to beat the Vikings in 2000.
  • B.J. Raji's interception return for a touchdown against the Bears in the NFC Championship Game in 2011.
  • The "Fail Mary" play against the Seahawks in 2012.

The problem with some of those plays is they were either flukes or meaningless plays in meaningless games. Oh, and there was one other play that a longtime Packers observer was convinced would be the most important play in team history if there more details about it were available. It was a punt, said to be nearly 90 yards by Verne Lewellen in a 1929 game against the New York Giants. That punt pinned the Giants deep in their own territory and helped secure a victory that was the difference between the teams in the standings (there were no playoffs at that time). The Packers, with a 12-0-1 record, won the championship over the Giants, whose only loss was to the Packers. It gave the Packers their first championship and, because it happened in New York, helped the Packers capture the attention of the powerful New York media. However, reports from that game do not clearly describe Lewellen's punt.

In the end, Starr's sneak is the play that has been, and likely will continue to be, the most memorable.
Cutler
Former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb, who is a Chicago native, summed things up succinctly when asked about Chicago Bears QB Jay Cutler's new contract, which pays $126.7 million over seven years.

"Are you serious?" McNabb asked on 87.7 The Game's "Jarrett, Harry and Spike" show.

"Jay might be the luckiest dude in Chicago, to be honest with you, with the contract he received for what we haven't seen thus far. I think the sky's the limit for him. But for what we've seen in Chicago, when you didn't finish the NFC Championship [Game], which was due to injury. Even with that, you haven't been able to get past that hump. One game to get into the playoffs, you couldn't get it done. Caleb Hanie comes in to play. Josh McCown comes in to play, and then the contract comes up and you get paid like a top-three, top-four quarterback. Are you serious? For what we've seen? If he doesn't do it this year, it's going to end up being a mistake."

That's precisely why Cutler's performance and continued development remain the most important key to success over the next three seasons for this team. Essentially, the Bears are handcuffed to Cutler at least until 2016, which more or less makes his new contract a three-year, $54 million deal. The contract contains rolling options from now until then, with no cap repercussions if the team releases Cutler after 2016 because he didn't receive a signing bonus, meaning there's no proration to account for.

Cutler showed tremendous growth in 2013 during coach Marc Trestman's first year in Chicago. In four seasons with the Bears prior to 2013, Cutler had generated a passer rating of 81.9. Cutler produced a career-high passer rating of 89.2 in 2013, his best since 2006.

Such positive trends need to continue with Cutler for the Bears to sustain any level of success over the next few seasons.

Packers' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers are well positioned to contend in the NFC over the next several years because they have perhaps the NFL’s three most important components in place: Their quarterback, coach and general manager.

Rodgers
Rodgers
Their quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, is 30 years old and should be in the prime of his career. He is barely more than a year into a five-year, $110 million contract extension that should keep him in Green Bay through the 2019 season. Among quarterbacks who have started in the Super Bowl in the last five years, only three are younger than Rodgers.

Their coach, Mike McCarthy, is entering his ninth season. Only three NFL coaches have been with their current teams longer, giving the Packers stability and continuity in their game plans and schemes. McCarthy has two years left on a five-year deal he signed after the Packers won Super Bowl XLV and is still relatively young in coaching circles at age 50.

Their general manager, Ted Thompson, is entering his 10th season. Like McCarthy, he signed a five-year contract extension following the Super Bowl victory. Although Thompson is 11 years older than McCarthy, he said after this year’s draft that he has no intention of retiring any time soon.

Myriad other things make up a championship team, but none is more important than the quarterback-coach-GM trio. An elite quarterback automatically gives a team a chance. Combine that with an experienced, successful coach who has the trust of his players and a proven system, plus a general manager with a solid track record in the draft and free agency, and the Packers are a team that should be an annual contender.

The Packers had the same type of combination in the 1990s with Brett Favre, Mike Holmgren and Ron Wolf. They combined for two Super Bowl appearances. The Rodgers-McCarthy-Thompson trio has one so far, but should be a contender for another.

Vikings' biggest key to success

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Over the next three seasons, as the Minnesota Vikings begin the tenure of head coach Mike Zimmer, play in two home stadiums and likely wind down the days of Adrian Peterson's prime, the key to their success will be finding some stability at a position where they haven't enjoyed much of it in the last decade.

Bridgewater
Other than two seasons with Brett Favre, the Vikings' quarterback position has essentially been in a state of flux since Daunte Culpepper was traded to Miami following the 2005 season. Since then, the Vikings haven't had a quarterback start 16 games in back-to-back seasons. Even when Favre was at the helm, the Vikings knew they needed a long-term solution at quarterback. Now that they have Teddy Bridgewater on the roster, much of their future success will hinge on the rookie's development.

Bridgewater figures to start training camp behind Matt Cassel, though he'll get a shot to win the job before the season. Even if he sits on the bench for much of 2014, though, Bridgewater will likely be the starter by the time the Vikings open their new stadium in 2016. Assuming he claims the job sometime in the near future, the first-round pick will have to develop quickly if the Vikings want to make the most of Peterson's remaining years as one of the league's best running backs.

Peterson turned 29 in March and will likely see a larger role in the passing game as the Vikings seek to find more balance on offense than they had under coach Leslie Frazier and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. That means the quarterback, not Peterson, will likely be the focal point of the Vikings' offense, and eventually it will put the burden on Bridgewater's shoulders to carry the Vikings.

The rookie was impressive during OTAs and the Vikings' mandatory minicamp, though it's hard to accurately assess his progress in such a controlled setting. When he is ready to play, though, Bridgewater will have a clear charge: He'll be asked to create a foundation for the Vikings at the most important position in the game.
Walter PaytonTony Tomsic/Getty Images
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We’re chronicling the third of three plays nominated as the most memorable in Chicago Bears franchise history. We’ve looked at Devin Hester’s 92-yard kickoff return to open Super Bowl XLI, and William “Refrigerator” Perry’s 1-yard touchdown in Super Bowl XX during a 46-10 shellacking of the New England Patriots.

Make sure to vote for your choice as the Bears’ most memorable play.

Score: Bears 28, Chiefs 27
Date: Nov. 13, 1977 Site: Soldier Field

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Elusiveness, explosion, speed, and violence, Walter Payton showed it all in this 18-yard run, which is likely the greatest of a storied career that produced hundreds of breathtaking moments.

The play certainly put Hall of Famer Jim Brown on notice, and definitely should be included in the discussion of the single greatest plays in NFL history.

“I don’t know the game, but I can tell you what moment,” said Brown, who was watching Payton on television for the first time. “I didn’t know who he was, and I saw him make this one run. He fought for every inch. He must have twisted, knocked three or four guys over, spun around, accelerated. I said, ‘Oh my goodness [laughing], what kind of animal is this? What kind of guy is this?’ All those moves, and the strength and tenacity; that was it, I didn’t have to see anymore. I knew this was a great runner.”

Taking a handoff on a sweep right, Payton spun away from linebacker Willie Lanier, cut back left, made three Chiefs miss, in addition to trucking two others before being dragged down from behind at the Kansas City 4. In all, Payton broke six tackles. When he took the handoff, the Chiefs led 17-0. Surely the momentum from such an eye-popping run helped to spark Chicago’s eventual 28-27 comeback victory.

Payton rushed for three second-half TDs to lead the rally, and the victory marked the club’s first of six in a row to end the season as the Bears earned their first trip to the postseason since winning the NFL championship in 1963.

Nearly seven years later, Payton would break Brown’s record to become the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. In classic Payton fashion, he downplayed the achievement, declaring Brown still the king of all NFL runners.

“I don’t believe I ever broke Jim Brown’s record,” he’d say later. “I think it’s still standing. I don’t think the record books need to be rewritten. I didn’t do it in the amount of time that Jim Brown did. If you can’t do it in nine years and eight games, then you didn’t break his record. I had more games and I played longer, so I didn’t break it.”

Greg Jennings, Aaron RodgersJason O. Watson/USA TODAY Sports
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This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in Green Bay Packers history. The others are: Bart Starr's quarterback sneak for a touchdown to win the Ice Bowl and Brett Favre's 54-yard touchdown pass to Andre Rison on their second offensive play of Super Bowl XXXI. Please vote for your choice as the Packers' most memorable play.

Score: Packers 31, Steelers 25
Date: Feb. 6, 2011 Site: Cowboys Stadium

Just like in Super Bowl XXXI, there were several defining plays the Packers' Super Bowl XLV victory. There was Nick Collins' 37-yard interception return for a touchdown in the first quarter, and Clay Matthews' forced fumble of running back Rashard Mendenhall in the fourth quarter.

But Super Bowls often are about quarterbacks, and there's a reason Aaron Rodgers was the MVP of this game.

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One of those reasons was his throw to receiver Greg Jennings on a third-and-10 play in the fourth quarter. Leading 28-25 with 7:29 left, the Packers took over and needed to bleed the clock and keep the ball out of the Steelers' hands. They faced a third-and-10 play on their own 25-yard line.

"I remember that as I was lined up in the shotgun, I knew how important this play was," Rodgers said in a recent interview. "And I also knew that if I kept the play on, I had really only one place to go with the football that would get us the first down."

And that was to Jennings.

With the Steelers rushing only three and dropping eight into coverage, Rodgers knew he had to be precise with his throw.

"They were playing two-man with inside leverage and we had in-breaking routes, so I really knew Greg had to win against Ike Taylor and I'd have to make a really good throw," Rodgers said. "But I've made that throw a number of times and felt good about it. I was able to take a nice healthy hitch into it and put the ball where I wanted to."

Taylor appeared to get a fingertip on the ball, but Jennings caught it and went 31 yards to help set up a field goal that would force the Steelers to have to score a touchdown on their final possession.

"I didn't know until after the game that the ball had been slightly tipped," Rodgers said. "But that was one of the better throws of my career."

Kyle RudolphTimothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY SportsVikings tight end Kyle Rudolph expects his production to improve under new coordinator Norv Turner.
MINNEAPOLIS -- It generally isn't until about now, with training camp just around the corner, that Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph starts keeping a close eye on his weight. He has always worked out in the offseason, with an eye toward getting ready for the season, but Rudolph will admit he has also used his training regimen as justification to cut some nutritional corners.

(We'll pause here and let those of you who have never sneaked a couple extra cookies after a hard workout cast the first stones.)

"It was more of just a focus on my diet in February and March, versus, you are out in California, you work out every day, so you feel like you can eat whatever you want," Rudolph said. "Nothing really changes, because you make up for it with the workouts, but when I really focused on eating lean meats, eating the salads, you see the results."

Rudolph started keeping a closer leash on his diet in February, with an eye toward slimming down before the Vikings' voluntary veterans' minicamp in April. He is now about 260 pounds, he said, after playing at 275 last season, and with a more active role in the Vikings' passing game likely awaiting him this season, Rudolph has been working to refine his skills as a receiver. He is working out at Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald's training camp this week, training with the All-Pro wideout and a group of receivers for the fourth year, and has been drilling his speed in and out of his cuts with Fitzgerald's trainer, Bill Welle.

In a scheme that has traditionally rewarded tight ends, Rudolph could see the payoff this season.

"Becoming more explosive in and out of cuts, that was the big emphasis for me, going back and watching a ton of (Cleveland) Browns tape (when Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner was the coordinator there last year)," Rudolph said. "I've always watched a lot of (San Diego Chargers tight end) Antonio Gates (who played for Turner from 2007-12), and I don't know that there's anyone as good as him at getting in and out of breaks. That's been the big point of emphasis for me the whole year, and getting the weight down has helped a ton, I think. I feel like I run a lot smoother than I did at 275."

It's no secret that Turner's offense will use Rudolph differently than Bill Musgrave's scheme did, but based on what Gates and Browns tight end Jordan Cameron have done, the change figures to be stark. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Cameron ran 322 pass routes from the slot last season, which was the second-most of any tight end in the league. Gates was third at 290. Though he only played in eight games last season, Rudolph was flexed into the slot just 76 times.

He said there are also plenty of situations that call for him to be in the same spot he's always occupied, but in a two-point stance. In any case, Rudolph will get opportunities to put his route-running work into practice.

"As a bigger guy, if I'm just running, I can pretty much run with anybody," Rudolph said. "I'm very comfortable with that. But being bigger and taller, it's harder for me to get my weight down, and a lot of times, we focus on getting in and out with the fewest steps possible. I don't think I really felt comfortable running our new routes until about halfway through OTAs. We drilled it over and over again, and it just started clicking."

Rudolph has said many times, and said again on Tuesday, that he would love to sign a new contract to keep him in Minnesota beyond this season. He's clicked with Turner, whom Rudolph said is more hands-on in practices than the Vikings' previous offensive coaches, and wants to be with the team when its new stadium opens in 2016. But with training camp just 2 1/2 weeks away, Rudolph said he is not focused on a contract extension, concentrating instead on the kind of big season that could land him a lucrative deal.

"I love it here. I don't know why anyone wouldn't want to stay here," Rudolph said. "It's a very exciting time to be a Minnesota Viking. But first for me, it was learning the new offense, so I can go out there and let my ability take over. Now, at this point, I'm comfortable with the offense. It's just getting in the best shape possible, so when we report on July 24, I can have the best training camp I've ever had."
Ahmad Rashad, Bob Bruer, Brent BoydAP Photo
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This is the second of three plays nominated as the most memorable play in Minnesota Vikings history. We looked at Brett Favre’s interception in the 2010 NFC Championship Game on Monday, and we’ll feature Gary Anderson’s missed field goal in the 1999 NFC Championship Game tomorrow. Please vote for your choice as the Vikings’ most memorable play.

Score: Vikings 28, Browns 23
Date: Dec. 14, 1980 Site: Metropolitan Stadium.

Description: The Vikings' 1980 NFC Central Division championship was the last of 11 titles they'd win under coach Bud Grant, and they clinched it on one of the most dramatic finishes in team history.

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Trailing the Cleveland Browns by a point with 14 seconds left, the Vikings got the ball on their own 20 with no timeouts left. They needed just nine seconds to move to the Browns' 46, thanks to a hook-and-lateral pass that wound up in the arms of running back Ted Brown. Then, quarterback Tommy Kramer -- whose 456 passing yards are still the most by a Vikings quarterback in a non-overtime game -- lofted a pass toward the right side of the end zone as time expired. Three Browns defenders leaped for the ball, but tipped it back to receiver Ahmad Rashad, who reached out and caught the ball as he backpedaled across the goal line. Vikings players piled on top of Rashad -- who finished with nine catches for 142 yards and two scores -- in the corner of the end zone, and both teams poured off the field before the extra point could be attempted.

The victory secured the division title for the Vikings with a week to go in the season and set up a matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Vikings lost the game, 31-16, and by the time they reached the playoffs again, in the strike-shortened season of 1982, they had already moved into the Metrodome. That meant the "Miracle at the Met" was the last great moment of Grant's coaching career at Metropolitan Stadium, and with the Vikings set to move back outdoors for two seasons starting this fall, the old footage of players mobbing Rashad on a frigid day (wind chill at kickoff was 11 degrees) is particularly poignant.
Andre RisonMatthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports 
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This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in Green Bay Packers history. The others are: Bart Starr's quarterback sneak for a touchdown to win the Ice Bowl and Aaron Rodgers' third-and-10 completion to Greg Jennings in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLV that helped clinch the game. Please vote for your choice as the Packers' most memorable play.

Score: Packers 35, Patriots 21
Date: Jan. 26, 1997 Site: Louisiana Superdome

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You can argue that the most memorable play from Super Bowl XXXI was Desmond Howard's 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the third quarter -- and many of you on Twitter did. After all, Howard was the game's MVP.

Or you can make a case for Antonio Freeman's 81-yard touchdown -- which at the time was the longest touchdown catch in Super Bowl history -- although none of you did.

But the ever-lasting memory from the Packers' third Super Bowl title was quarterback Brett Favre running like a wild-man, sans helmet, after his 54-yard touchdown pass to Andre Rison on the Packers’ second play from scrimmage.

Favre, sensing a blitz from the Patriots, changed the play at the line of scrimmage. Rison, who joined the Packers midseason, ran a post route and found himself wide open down the seam.

Favre later revealed the play was rooted in something he had seen from the San Francisco 49ers when he was watching Super Bowl highlights during the week leading up to the game. He saw Joe Montana hit Jerry Rice in Super Bowl XXIV on a play the 49ers called "59 Razor." The Packers adopted it and called it "29 Razor." It was an audible to be used against a blitz that called for maximum blocking protection and only two receivers out in patters.

"Lo and behold, second play of the game, I checked to 29 Razor and hit Andre Rison for a touchdown," Favre said years after the game. "So when you see me running with my helmet off, I'm thinking, 'Can you believe I checked to this play?' It was amazing. And it worked, which was even more amazing."
 
William PerryAP Photo/Amy Sancetta
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Today, we run down the second of three plays nominated as the most memorable in Chicago Bears franchise history. We’ve chronicled Devin Hester’s 92-yard kickoff return to open Super Bowl XLI, and we’ll also break down how Walter Payton displayed his signature strength and speed in breaking tackles during a run against the Chiefs. It was the run Jim Brown said convinced him of Payton’s greatness.

Please vote for your choice as the Bears’ most memorable play.

Score: Bears 46, Patriots 10
Date: Jan. 26, 1986 Site: Louisiana Superdome

Call this play in Bears history a bittersweet one.

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On one hand, William “Refrigerator” Perry’s 1-yard touchdown in the third quarter of a 46-10 rout of the Patriots in Super Bowl XX -- otherwise known as “The Plunge” -- certainly gave fans a nice moment of entertainment. But on the other, the team’s choice to call on Perry for the score instead of Payton, the team’s heart and soul, goes down as one of the major regrets about that game still harbored by former coach Mike Ditka.

Keyed on all day by New England’s defense, Payton -- the game’s all-time leading rusher at the time -- finished without a touchdown despite the club having multiple opportunities near the goal line to get him into the end zone for a score on the game’s biggest stage.

“That was probably the most disturbing thing in my career,” Ditka later said in the book “Payton.” “That killed me. If I had one thing to do all over again, I would make sure Payton took the ball into the end zone. I loved him; I had great respect for him. The only thing that ever really hurt me was when he didn’t score in the Super Bowl.”

Perry’s TD came on a call from Ditka, but quarterback Jim McMahon had a reputation for changing plays when he wanted to. Besides, allowing a defensive lineman in Perry to score a TD instead of the game’s best player at the time seemed as if Ditka was taunting New England. After all, Perry’s run made the score 44-3. It’s a shame Perry scored a TD in the Super Bowl and Payton didn’t.

Ditka has explained that the call was an option play in which McMahon could have pitched the ball to Payton, who later said, “I knew I was going to be a decoy today.” On McMahon’s first touchdown, which came after a fake to Perry, the quarterback also could have pitched it to Payton.

“On the touchdown that I scored, it was a play designed for Walter,” McMahon later said. “But the truth is I don’t think anyone recognized it during the game. I know I didn’t.”

 
video
Here’s the second part of our interview with Brandon Marshall as part of ESPN The Magazine’s Comeback Issue, which dropped on July 7 with a story about the Chicago Bears receiver.

Marshall spent time with us at his home in Chicago discussing a variety of topics, with most focused on some of the things he’s doing to promote mental health awareness. Our entire interview didn’t make it into the magazine story or the video clip above. So I decided to pull it together in its entirety:

Michael C. Wright: You’ve called the trade from Miami to Chicago a “career-saving trade,” a “life-saving trade.” Did you really feel your life was in jeopardy?

Brandon Marshall: No, I think a lot of people took that out of context. What I meant by that was when you look at the career side, it’s like, to be honest, I think I played with five or six different quarterbacks. You see how my production dropped and people were looking at me like, "He used to be a top-five receiver. It’s him. He’s dropping all these balls. He’s the issue. He’s the problem." Those people in Miami, they wanted my head for a year or two. But then I come to Chicago and you see me continue to produce at a high level. I had Jay Cutler. I was in a system I was familiar with. So it was career-saving. Now, the life-saving thing we’re talking about, I don’t know if the cameras can see it [Marshall looks around], but look at this beautiful city. You know what I mean? I say that it wasn’t a life-or-death thing. But a lot of us go through life doing things that we don’t love. We’re doing it for the wrong reasons, and we die freaking chasing money or chasing something to pay bills or we’re not happy. But for me, every single day, I walk outside my door and I smell the city air. I look at these tall buildings. I see people wearing Bulls hats, Blackhawks hats, Bears shirts. It’s fulfilling. It’s stimulating. The love and joy that we receive on a daily basis, it sometimes is too much. So that’s what I mean when I say life-saving. It’s like a dream. It’s the perfect situation, not only doing what I love, but doing it in a place where I can say I love, that’s now home for me. I don’t think you could buy that.

[+] EnlargeDavone Bess
AP Photo/David RichardDavone Bess, who was arrested in January, is "one of those guys that's walking with me," says former teammate Brandon Marshall.
You’ve taken on somewhat of a role as a mentor. What are you doing with your former teammate Davone Bess?

Marshall: I wouldn’t say that’s a mentorship, that’s more of, I think in every man’s life they need ... the perfect illustration is you have yourself here, you have a mentor above you. Then you have men you can walk with, and then there’s a mentee. So Davone Bess is one of those guys that’s walking with me, a guy that when I fall, he can pick me up and vice versa. It’s an interesting story because when we were playing together in Miami, we used to sit on the plane and talk about the same stuff. Our situations aren’t unique. Every guy deals with it at this level. We would compare text messages from family and friends asking us for money, or cussing us out because we said no, or threats, legal issues. And what you saw is, you saw a break in me early, and then a couple of years later, you see a break in Davone Bess’ health and stability. So it’s like it was always there, but it presented itself at different times. So good thing that I’ve been through it, someone that he can trust and believes in, and now I can say, "Bro, this is what I did and it worked for me."

You said that 2013 was the first year in your career that you were not selfish. Can you explain what you meant?

Marshall: I’m a believer in Christ. That’s my Lord and savior, and when you read the Bible, one of the biggest things that jumps out to me is his ability to serve others. So I always tell guys, if you want to be Muslim, be Muslim. You know, I have my beliefs. I’m not forcing that on you. But if you say you’re a Christian, then it’s either you’re all-in or you’re all-out. One of the teachings is being a servant, and you can’t be a selfish servant. I don’t think those two relate. It’s a contradiction. Last year I grew spiritually, and that was the first time I was able to step outside myself on this spiritual journey and be able to say, "You know what, I don’t know what’s gonna happen. But I’m gonna serve Alshon Jeffery. I’m gonna serve Martellus Bennett." Because I know there’s something bigger. I’m a part of something greater. I can’t wait to see what it is. But I know if I just continue to pour into those young men’s lives, we will be great together.

How confident are you that you can continue on this track? As we’ve discussed before, you’ve got a past. Can you honestly say that none of the things that have haunted your past will creep back into your life?

Marshall: That’s interesting because I never really read my Twitter mentions, because one day it’s gonna go from a ton of mentions and a ton of retweets to nothing when I’m not relevant anymore, when I’m not catching any more touchdowns. I’m preparing for that. I don’t really read too many stories. I will look at stats, but I won’t read stories. I did read your story the other day where you said, "Let’s see if he can keep it up," or something along those lines.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Marshall
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesBrandon Marshall is confident his problems are behind him.
I didn’t write that. I wrote that you needed to keep it up.

Marshall: I found that interesting. I found that interesting that there is a thought about me reverting back. But I always tell people that’s just part of the journey, especially for a young man given so much freedom, so much fame, so much fortune. That’s part of the journey, to make mistakes. But the problem is, you make your mistakes in the public’s eye. People look at me like, "Is this an act?" I know you believe in me, but some people will say, "Is it an act?" Or "It’s only going to last for so long." But I’m actually growing, every single day. This is the new me. This is who I am. So there isn’t any reverting back. But I do make mistakes. I’m pretty much still in the same exact situation. I just look at life differently and my approach is different. There’s some things out there I still need to work on.

Last thing. Can you finish this sentence for me? I would describe my comeback as...

Marshall: Inspirational.
Bart StarrJohn Biever/Icon SMI
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This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in the Green Bay Packers' history. In the next two days we'll feature: Brett Favre's 54-yard touchdown pass to Andre Rison on their second offensive play of Super Bowl XXXI and Aaron Rodgers' third-and-10 completion to Greg Jennings in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLV that helped clinch the game. Please vote for your choice as the Packers' most memorable play.

Score: Packers 21, Cowboys 17
Date: Dec. 31, 1967 Site: Lambeau Field

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Which is the most memorable play in Packers history?

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In what is called "The Ice Bowl" because the temperature at kickoff was 13 degrees below zero (with a wind chill of minus-46), Packers quarterback Bart Starr executed a quarterback sneak behind offensive linemen Ken Bowman and Jerry Kramer with 13 seconds remaining for the game-winning score in the NFL Championship game against the Dallas Cowboys.

The play, called "31 Wedge," actually was supposed to be a handoff to fullback Chuck Mercein, who played a major role in the 12-play, 68-yard game-winning drive that began with 4:50 left in the game. Not even Mercein knew Starr would keep the ball at the 1-yard line and follow his offensive line in to the end zone. But when Starr went to the sideline to talk about the play with coach Vince Lombardi, he told his coach that he feared the frozen field would make it nearly impossible for Mercein to get any traction.

So Lombardi told Starr, "Then run it and let's get the hell out of here," Starr has recalled time and again.

Starr stepped to the line of scrimmage on third-and-inches with 16 seconds left and no timeouts remaining. Three seconds later, he was in the end zone.

Interestingly, a case could be made that the play should not have been necessary because on the previous play, Donny Anderson appeared to break the plane of the goal line, but Lee Roy Jordan knocked the ball out of his hands, and Anderson recovered it short of the end zone.  
Devin HesterJoe Rimkus Jr./Miami Herald/MCT
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We’re running down the three most memorable plays in Chicago Bears franchise history, and today marks the first of the plays nominated. Over the next two days we’ll feature: How Walter Payton displayed his signature strength and speed in breaking tackles during a run against the Kansas City Chiefs. It was the run which Jim Brown said convinced him of Payton’s greatness. And William “Refrigerator” Perry’s 1-yard touchdown in Chicago’s drubbing of New England in Super Bowl XX that robbed Payton of the opportunity to score a touchdown on the game’s biggest stage.

Please vote for your choice as the Bears’ most memorable play.

Score: Colts 29, Bears 17
Date: Feb. 4, 2007 Site: Dolphin Stadium

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If setting an NFL record as a rookie by taking six kick returns to the house for touchdowns didn’t cement Devin Hester’s nickname as the Windy City Flyer, his exploits to start off Super Bowl XLI against the Indianapolis Colts certainly did.

Seven players previously returned kickoffs for touchdowns, but Hester became the first in the game’s history to take the opening kickoff back for a score. Hester did it with a breathtaking 92-yard return that gave Chicago the start it needed. Unfortunately for the Bears, they couldn’t maintain that momentum in what would become a 29-17 loss.

“We knew we were capable of returning one,” Hester said afterward. “Once we got a chance to get our hands on it, we knew we had a great chance to get into the end zone. It was a right return and it was set up the way [former Bears special-teams coordinator] Dave Toub planned it. It was just being patient, and trusting your teammates that they’re going to be there to set up the blocks. That’s what happened.”

Hester fielded Adam Vinatieri’s kickoff near the left sideline, and worked his way back toward the middle of the field. In the process, Hester faked left to make a few Colts defenders miss in the middle of the field, and then turned on the jets down the right hash mark as he headed toward the right sideline. Near the 35-yard line, Vinatieri dove at Hester’s feet. But the return man was too far away. It was off to the races.

Interestingly, near the end of the run Hester could be seen watching himself on the stadium’s video board as he crossed the goal line.

The play took 14 seconds off the clock, and given Indianapolis’ struggles covering kickoffs that season, the Colts never should have kicked to Hester in the first place.

Hester currently is tied with Deion Sanders for the most combined return touchdowns (19), but his return TD in Super Bowl XLI isn’t included because it occurred in the postseason. The Bears decided not to bring back Hester after the 2013 season, and in March he signed with the Atlanta Falcons.

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