NFL Nation: Decisive Moment

NFC West Week 16 decisive moment

December, 28, 2010
12/28/10
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The Arizona Cardinals were dangerously close to blowing another fourth-quarter lead.

They had done so spectacularly during narrow defeats to Minnesota (27-24) and Tampa Bay (38-35) earlier in the season, and it was happening again in Week 16.

The Dallas Cowboys had turned a 21-3 deficit into a 26-24 lead at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals faced fourth-and-15 from their 19-yard line with 1:17 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Larry Fitzgerald's 100-game streak with a reception was in danger of ending. Rookie quarterback John Skelton had completed only 8 of 20 passes for 132 yards.

Moments don't get much more decisive. Either the Cardinals would improbably complete a pass for at least 15 yards or they would lose the game.

Skelton's 26-yard strike to Fitzgerald gave the Cardinals a chance. Skelton followed up with a 6-yard pass to Tim Hightower and a 19-yarder to Max Komar. Two clock-stopping spike passes stood as Skelton's only incompletions after the fourth-down play.

Jay Feely's 48-yard field goal with 10 seconds remaining won the game for Arizona.

"On that last drive, it got pretty shaky there for a while on fourth-and-long," Skelton told reporters after the game, "but Larry ran a great route, found a soft spot in the defense and I was able to hit him. That one play got the momentum going for the rest of the drive."

NFC South Week 16 decisive moment

December, 28, 2010
12/28/10
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

On a night when he was passing the ball a lot like John Stockton at various times, Drew Brees got back to being a quarterback and let the basketball player on his team make the biggest catch of the night.

Brees rifled a 6-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Jimmy Graham with 3 minutes, 24 seconds remaining to give the New Orleans Saints a 17-14 victory against the Atlanta Falcons. The pass capped a 90-yard drive in which Brees got back to top form after having a relatively rough start.

With Atlanta bringing all sorts of defensive pressure earlier, Brees resorted to some desperate measures. Like Stockton in his NBA days, Brees threw a behind-the-back pass that resulted in a completion, but not much else, and a shovel pass that ended up being picked off and returned for a touchdown by Atlanta defensive lineman Chauncey Davis.

But when it mattered most, Brees abandoned the basketball tricks and found a basketball player. That was Graham, whom the Saints took a gamble on when they drafted him in the third round this year. Graham spent three years playing college basketball at Miami before switching to football in his final season. He displayed enough athletic ability to get himself drafted.

With backup tight end David Thomas injured, Graham has been getting more playing time and the touchdown catch showed that he already has earned the trust of Brees in key situations.

NFC South Week 15 decisive moment

December, 21, 2010
12/21/10
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

If people could just ignore his spot as the No. 8 overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft, Atlanta defensive lineman Jamaal Anderson would be a decent player.

But it’s tough for fans and media to forget the lofty expectations that came with Anderson. The current Atlanta coaching staff and front office, however, deserve a lot of credit for quietly adjusting their expectations of Anderson and salvaging something out of his career.

Sometime before or early in the 2009 season, the Falcons came to the conclusion Anderson never was going to be a dominant pass-rusher. That’s when Mike Smith and his staff turned Anderson into a situational player and started shuffling him between defensive end and defensive tackle.

Anderson’s main strength is against the run, but he also has showed the ability to generate a little bit of a pass rush from the inside. On Sunday, for one of the few times in his career, Anderson generated a pass rush from the outside.

With the Falcons leading 17-10, punter Michael Koenen pinned the Seattle Seahawks at their 4-yard line with a 56-yard punt early in the third quarter. On the first play after that, Anderson lined up at left defensive end and beat his blocker. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, rolling to his right, was on a collision course with Anderson, who stripped the ball loose.

Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux fell on the fumble in the end zone for a touchdown and the Falcons were firmly in control of the game, in which they recorded their eighth consecutive victory and improved their record to an NFC-best 12-2.

AFC North Week 14 decisive moment

December, 14, 2010
12/14/10
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

For the past month, the most memorable play in Baltimore Ravens cornerback Josh Wilson's season was a controversial touchdown he allowed to receiver Roddy White in a loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

But Wilson made up for that play Monday night with a game-winning pick-six to lead the Ravens to a 34-28 overtime win over the Houston Texans. He read Houston quarterback Matt Schaub, caught the interception in stride and returned it 12 yards for a touchdown. The play propelled Baltimore to a 9-4 record and negated an embarrassing second-half collapse where the Ravens blew a 21-point lead.

Wilson was acquired in a trade with the Seattle Seahawks and the move has paid dividends. He began as a backup, then eventually replaced Fabian Washington in the starting lineup. Wilson has 37 tackles and three interceptions for Baltimore this season.

The Ravens have some concerns, particularly with their recent play in the fourth quarter. But Wilson's big interception allows Baltimore to search for answers while coming off a victory.

The Ravens will play host to the pass-heavy New Orleans Saints (10-3) on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

NFC West Week 13 decisive moment

December, 7, 2010
12/07/10
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The St. Louis Rams were plodding through their game against the Arizona Cardinals, leading only 9-6 midway through the third quarter, until Steven Jackson's 27-yard touchdown run finished a 10-play, 85-yard touchdown drive.

The big run over the right side stood out as a decisive moment in Week 13.

Quarterback Sam Bradford had scrambled to convert a third-and-1 on the previous play, opening up the playbook on first down.

The Rams lined up on the right hash with Brit Miller at fullback, Daniel Fells at tight end and two receivers on the weak side. Fells pushed Cardinals defensive end Darnell Dockett past the play. Right tackle Jason Smith erased outside linebacker Clark Haggans with a dominating kick-out block toward the right sideline. Jackson narrowly avoided diving defensive end Calais Campbell near the line of scrimmage. Center Jason Brown walled off inside linebacker Gerald Hayes, who broke free but could not catch Jackson despite having a favorable angle. Strong safety Adrian Wilson drifted inside, getting lost in traffic.

The touchdown gave the Rams a 16-6 lead and plenty of breathing room against an Arizona offense with one touchdown in its last three games.

NFC South Week 13 decisive moment

December, 7, 2010
12/07/10
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

There are certain general rules in football that always seem to hold true: Defense wins championships. Win the turnover battle and you’ll win. And, when playing the Cincinnati Bengals, just be patient -- they’ll find a way to lose.

Rule No. 3 came in very handy for the New Orleans Saints on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. Trailing the Bengals 30-27, the Saints faced a fourth-and-2 deep inside Cincinnati territory. The easy decision would have been to kick the field goal, tie the game and take your chances in overtime.

But, remember, it’s the Bengals. Sean Payton kept his offense on the field and quarterback Drew Brees began directing guys in motion and barking out snap counts. It should have been obvious to anyone in the stadium or watching on television that the Saints were trying to draw the Bengals offside.

And, of course, the Bengals fell for it. Defensive tackle Pat Sims jumped into the neutral zone and drew a flag. That gave the Saints a first down.

On the very next play, Brees threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Marques Colston to give the Saints the win.

NFC South Week 12 decisive moment

November, 30, 2010
11/30/10
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

If the season ended today, what New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins did in the final minutes of the Thanksgiving game at Dallas would have to be considered one of the top plays in the NFC South this year.

No matter how the rest of the season plays out, Jenkins' play is going to end up very near the top. He prevented the Saints from enduring what would have been an embarrassing and disastrous loss and kept their hopes of winning the NFC South and repeating as Super Bowl champions very much alive.

It was a play that coach Sean Payton used the terms "heart'' and "effort'' to describe. No argument on those descriptions, but let's add "smart,'' maybe even "brilliant."

As Jenkins chased down Cowboys receiver Roy Williams in the waning minutes, the second-year safety knew he needed more than a tackle. Simply bringing down Williams after a long reception would have just allowed the Cowboys to run out the clock. Jenkins needed a turnover.

He got it. After taking a bad angle on coverage to help allow Williams to catch a slant pass, Jenkins was left to try to run down the Dallas receiver as he went deep into New Orleans territory. With Williams trying to protect the ball, Jenkins still managed to pop it loose as he caught the receiver at the 11-yard line. The ball fell right into Jenkins' stomach.

Trailing 27-23, the Saints were given new life. Thanks to Jenkins, Drew Brees and the offense came onto the field. They moved the ball quickly downfield and Brees hit Lance Moore with a touchdown pass that gave the Saints a 30-27 victory.

NFC West Week 11 decisive moment

November, 23, 2010
11/23/10
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Sam Bradford proved a week earlier he could lead the St. Louis Rams to the tying field goal in the final minutes.

The rookie quarterback was leading another potential fourth-quarter rally in Week 11 when the Rams called a seemingly safe play for third-and-goal from the Atlanta Falcons' 2-yard line. More than three minutes remained in a game the Rams trailed 26-17. A touchdown would have made the Falcons work to close out the game.

Instead, everything that could go wrong for the Rams did go wrong. The Falcons picked off the pass, added a late touchdown and coasted to a 34-17 victory.

"I thought it was a good call," Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo told reporters Monday. "I’m standing there saying, 'We’ve got a touchdown here.'"

Bradford hadn't thrown an interception in an NFL rookie-record 169 pass attempts. His passer rating on third down ranked among the best in the league. The Falcons later admitted they had no idea a shovel pass was coming. The Rams never could have anticipated the Falcons intercepting such a quick pass.

"The play was developing," Spagnuolo said. "Just the way Sam got it all set, I thought we had the right guy getting the ball, people were going to concentrate on Steven [Jackson] and the whole thing."

The play began to go awry when Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux beat Rams guard Adam Goldberg off the ball. The unexpected disruption prevented tight end Mike Hoomanawanui from releasing as a receiver out of the backfield. Hoomanawanui, a rookie, also might have tipped off his route a little early. The man assigned to cover him, Falcons safety William Moore, ran to the spot where Hoomanawanui had intended to run.

Bradford delivered the ball on schedule.

"They penetrated a little bit, knocked Mike off the ball," Spagnuolo said. "I don’t know that I’ve seen that happen. It’s usually incomplete, or even if it’s a tackle you kick the field goal, but it’s unfortunate the way that happened."

NFC South Week 11 decisive moment

November, 23, 2010
11/23/10
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The St. Louis Rams and rookie quarterback Sam Bradford were driving late in Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons. Bradford, who already had thrown two touchdown passes, had been on a hot streak.

He had not thrown an interception in his previous 169 pass attempts. But that streak ended when Atlanta safety William Moore intercepted Bradford's shovel pass at the Falcons’ 2-yard line with 3:34 left in the game. It was Moore’s fourth interception of the season and his first since Week 6.

That ended a St. Louis comeback attempt and Atlanta’s offense iced the game when Michael Turner broke off a 39-yard touchdown run with 1:52 left to put the Falcons ahead 34-17 as they improved to 8-2.

NFC West Week 10 decisive moment

November, 16, 2010
11/16/10
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Fourth down, 18 yards to go.

San Francisco 49ers trailing the St. Louis Rams, 17-13, with 2:23 remaining in regulation at Candlestick Park.

Troy Smith at quarterback for San Francisco from the Rams' 39-yard-line.

"Kind of an ad-lib situation," Smith said after finding Frank Gore uncovered near the left sideline for a 23-yard gain.

The improbable play set up the 49ers' go-ahead touchdown, helping them to a 23-20 overtime victory.

"Frank being the player that he is, the year-in, year-out, vet leader that he is, definitely just let me know, putting a bug in my ear as far as when we were breaking the huddle, some of the things that he would ad-lib if it happened," Smith said. "It just so happened that it happened that way, and we were going up the sideline."

Smith had found Gore for a 14-yard gain on third-and-32, so it's not as though the Rams should have been surprised when Smith targeted Gore again on the next play.

The 49ers should have been reeling after left tackle Joe Staley, playing on a badly injured leg that was either broken or about to break, committed penalties on back-to-back plays -- the latter infraction wiping out a 43-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis. Gore's receptions, followed one play later by Smith's 16-yard scoring pass to Michael Crabtree, gave the 49ers life.

"There is nothing more frustrating," Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said. "You never relax and all that. Again, a good quarterback got it to a really good back twice. I’m sure the defensive guys would say the same thing. There is no excuse. That can’t happen."

NFC South Week 10 decisive moment

November, 16, 2010
11/16/10
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

For the last year or two, there's been a lot of debate about whether Atlanta's Matt Ryan is an “elite'' quarterback.

I'm not sure what the exact qualifications are for that term, but there's a chance history might point back at Thursday night as the moment Ryan officially joined the club.

With 65 seconds remaining in the game, the Ravens took the lead for the first time. That didn't seem to bother Ryan a bit. He took his team straight down the field.

He had the Falcons very close to where they needed to be for a game-winning field goal, but they didn't have to settle for a field goal. With the ball at Baltimore's 33-yard line, Ryan first looked for tight end Tony Gonzalez. When he saw Gonzalez was covered, Ryan turned to secondary receiver Roddy White.

Although there was some contact with defensive back Josh Wilson, no penalty was called and White was wide open. Ryan hit him with a touchdown pass with 20 seconds left.

That made the 7-2 Falcons the first NFC team to get to seven wins.

NFC South Week 9 decisive moment

November, 9, 2010
11/09/10
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

If you really want to know how far the Atlanta defense has come, look no further than defensive lineman Jamaal Anderson. Once considered a draft bust because he never developed into a pass-rushing defensive end, Anderson helped make one of the biggest plays of Atlanta’s season in Sunday’s 27-21 victory against Tampa Bay.

It came with the Buccaneers making a late-game drive and they could have tied the game with a touchdown and won it with an extra point. Facing a fourth and 1 at the Atlanta 2-yard line, the Bucs gave the ball to running back LeGarrette Blount, who has shown a lot of power in his young career.

But the Falcons, who haven’t always been known for having a hard-nosed defense, didn’t give an inch. That’s largely because Anderson, who has been getting a lot of playing time as a defensive tackle, got good penetration. Linebacker Stephen Nicholas came up behind him and closed a potential hole for Blount.

The work of Nicholas and Anderson allowed safety Thomas DeCoud to come up and tackle Blount for no gain. The ball went over to the Falcons and they ran out the clock.

NFC South Week 8 decisive moment

November, 2, 2010
11/02/10
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Early in the second quarter of Sunday night’s game in the Superdome, the Pittsburgh Steelers looked like they were about to take control. In fact, officials said Antwaan Randle El had caught a 12-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger.

But New Orleans coach Sean Payton challenged the call and replays showed cornerback Leigh Torrence, playing because of a slew of injuries in the defensive backfield, had brought Randle El down before the goal line.

The Steelers were given possession just inches from the end zone. The Saints, who previously weren’t known as a shutdown defense, made a goal-line stand. The Steelers ran three plays, but couldn’t get into the end zone as Sedrick Ellis, Jeff Charleston, Scott Shanle and Roman Harper each made plays to stop the three runs.

The Steelers were forced to kick a field goal and didn’t score a touchdown until the fourth quarter, when the Saints already had the lead.

AFC West Week 8 decisive moment

November, 2, 2010
11/02/10
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Winning teams make the big plays when needed.

Sunday, it just took the Kansas City Chiefs a little longer than usual to come up with the decisive plays. How long? As long as possible.

After scoring only 10 points in nearly 74 minutes against the winless Buffalo Bills, the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense awakened, perhaps alarmed by the thought of tying the visiting Bills. After Kansas City’s defense made yet another stop, the Chiefs took over at their 31-yard line with 1:13 remaining in overtime of a 10-10 tie.

Matt Cassel, Jamaal Charles and Tony Moeaki took over. Cassel hit Charles for a 16-yard catch and then found Moeaki, a rookie tight end, on back-to-back plays for 18 and 11 yards, respectively. After Charles gained the final eight of his 177 yards on the ground, the Chiefs set up kicker Ryan Succop perfectly for a 35-yard field goal. However, Succop had missed a 39-yarder earlier in overtime because of a wind gust.

No such problem this time. The kick was good and so are the Chiefs, sitting atop the AFC West at 5-2. Why did the Chiefs win? They made enough plays. Just in time.

NFC West Week 6 decisive moment

October, 19, 2010
10/19/10
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The scoreboard hardly reflected the Seattle Seahawks' relative dominance against the Chicago Bears deep into the third quarter Sunday.

Seattle had the ball at its 8-yard line and the Bears, trailing 16-13, had held the Seahawks to three-and-out drives on their previous two possessions.

What to do?

An 11-play, 92-yard touchdown drive gave Seattle a 23-13 lead and the breathing room it needed while finally breaking through on the road under new coach Pete Carroll. The drive was critical in helping Seattle claim a share of first place in the NFC West and a rare road victory in the 10 a.m. PT time slot.

Recently acquired running back Marshawn Lynch punctuated the drive with a tough 1-yard scoring run, shrugging off three defenders on his way to the end zone. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck completed passes of 21 and 18 yards to receiver Mike Williams early in the drive. His 15-yarder to Deon Butler on third-and-4 moved Seattle into field goal range. Justin Forsett carried for gains of 13 and 4 yards, and Williams made a tough catch on the ground for a 6-yard gain to the 1.

The drive showcased Seattle's new one-two backfield punch, with Forsett playing on passing downs and Lynch adding a physical presence when tough yards were needed.

"It balanced out quite well and I thought Justin played really, really good," Carroll told reporters Monday. "Probably the best part of his game was pass protection. He had some really good one-on-one matchups with a lot of space where he really had to win and own his guy and he did it. Marshawn showed us all of the toughness that we really wanted to see on our team coming out of his spot. He had the harder challenges and Justin had the better opportunities and he took advantage of it.”

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