Week One NFL Game Changers: Big Plays you May Not See in the Highlights
Momentum is huge in football, and often effects the outcome of games. There are key plays that change momentum that are very subtle and may not make the highlight package on your favorite sports show. Sure, these shows do a great job of showing incredible catches, hits, and runs, or of showing you the scoring plays in a game, but do they really tell the whole story?
While a drive might end in a 5-yard TD pass or a 10-yard TD run, is that really the key play in a 7, 8, 9 or 10 play drive? Would the scoring play even be possible without the key completion on third and long earlier in the drive? Or that receiver who made a key block freeing up the running back to get to the outside to pick up a first down?
The purpose of this column is to highlight some key plays that greatly effected the outcome of their games, yet they might not have made highlight reels. This isn’t to take away from the importance of the scoring play, but without these plays the scoring play would not have happened.
Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants; Cowboys Defensive Stand: The Cowboys have had trouble beating the Giants in recent years, and many questioned if they had what it takes to beat the defending Super Bowl Champions in the NFL’s season opener. Tony Romo has been criticized for years for his inability to win the big games.
On Wednesday the Cowboys and Romo silenced some of those critics (for one week at least) and took an important step in getting the season off to a fast start. However it didn’t always look like that would be the case. Early in the game Romo threw an inteception to Michael Boley of the Giants. Boley returned the pick inside the 10 yard line, and with a horsecollar tackle penalty against Dallas, the Giants set up office with first and goal at the 2 yard line.
It looked like it would surely soon be 7-0 New York, but a funny thing happened. The Dallas Defence came up with a huge stop, well, three stops, and forced a Lawrence Tynes FG, and kept the score at just 3-0.
Perhaps the replacement refs missed a pass interfence call on an Eli Manning’s pass intended for Victor Cruz, but really it should never have come to that, the Giants would have been expected to punch it into the endzone with three plays from the two yard line. Romo recovered, drove the Cowboys down the field and took a 7-3 lead, and really never looked back throwing for three TDs in all. That big stop by the Dallas Defence was a huge momentum swing in the game and helped to uplift Romo’s spirits and confidence after he made an early mistake. Definitely a Game Changer.
Buffalo Bills at New York Jets; Darelle Revis Interception Four days later another game in the Meadowlands featured a similar dynamic. Mark Sanchez had spent all off-season and pre-season questionned in his role as starter for the New York Jets. Of course bringing in Tim Tebow had created a QB controversy and the inability of either QB to lead a Touchdown drive in four preseason games only added to the questions about the Jets offence.
On the game’s first offensive series Sanchez made a poor decision trying to flip the ball to his Tight End and the ball was intercepted by Byron Scott. The Bills new look defense appeared to be paying off. A couple of plays later, Darrelle Revis returned the favour, picking off a Ryan Fitzpatrick pass and the Jets had the ball back in good field position. They marched down the field and Sanchez hit Jeremy Kerley for a 12-yard touchdown.
The questions about the Jets offence were suddenly answered and the team was off to the races dominating the Bills and getting a big early season win. Revis changed the game as the Bills were poised to put up points, but instead he completely reversed the outcome.
Jacksonville Jaguars at Minnesota Vikings; 4th Down Pass Blaine Gabbert to Justin Blackmon: By now you’ve certainly seen the last minute bomb from Blaine Gabbert to Cecil Shorts that gave the Jaguars a go-ahead touchdown vs the Minnesota Vikings. It was certainly an incredible pass, and an even better reception. Perhaps you’ve also seen the two point conversion where Gabbert hooked up with Blackmon to give the team a 3-point lead. There is a good chance you’ve even seen Blair Walsh’s 55-yard field goal that forced overtime, or Walsh’s game winning kick in Overtime.
Now let’s go back and look at a fourth quarter, fourth down play that made this exciting finish possible. With 30 seconds left, the Jaguars faced a 4th and 3 with the ball at around midfield. Gabbert hooked up with Blackmon on a clutch 10-yard reception near the sideline that made all the late game drama possible.
The Jags line came up with good protection and Gabbert hit Blackmon on a short out pattern that showed perfect timing between the sophomore quarterback and rookie wideout. Without this play, the Jaguars would have turned the ball over on downs, the Vikings would have run out the clock and one of the most exciting finishes of the first week in the NFL never would have happened.
Philadelphia Eagles @ Cleveland Browns, LeSean McCoy 3 yard Run: This is the perfect play when we talk about a game changer that won’t be in the highlights. It is a simple, innocuous three-yard power run to the right, however its value in this game cannot be overstated.
The Eagles were down 6 points with under 3 minutes to play, and driving down the field for the game winning score. However, this was a drive that nearly stalled at the Cleveland 23-yard yard line as the Eagles faced a fourth down and 1-yard to go. Handing the ball off to their star Running Back, McCoy followed his blocks to the right side and gained three yards extending the drive and eventually setting up Michael Vick’s game winning touchdown pass to Clay Harbour that made all the highlight packages.
The pass wouldn’t have been possible, and the Eagles wouldn’t have won without the run. If McCoy was stuffed in the backfield, the Eagles would have turned the ball over on downs and Cleveland would have scored a major week one upset. That is the value of an all-pro Running Back, value that doesn’t always show up in the highlights. This is to take nothing away from Vick for engineering the drive that won the game however, it is to illustrate how winning a football game requires all players to do their job and how winning requires teamwork.
San Franscisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers; 18 yard run Colin Kaepernick: In the final play of the first half David Akers tied an NFL record by kicking a 63-yard field goal. His record tying kick hit the cross bar and went over for 3 points. However, this piece of NFL history wouldn’t have been possible without the bold play calling of Jim Harbaugh just two plays earlier.
With the 49ers leading 13-7, they had stopped a Green Bay drive and forced a punt. Following a nice return by Kyle Williams, they took over on their own 38-yard line with just 18 seconds on the clock. Everyone in the stadium guessed that Alex Smith would be throwing the ball in the 2-minute drill as the 49ers would try to get into field goal range. The formation suggested the same as the 49ers lined up in a spread package with four wide receivers and Smith in the shotgun. However, it wasn’t what it seemed.
Alex Smith handed the ball to Colin Kaepernick on a draw play, and he ran up the middle for 18 yards putting the team into field goal range. It was a very well designed play as it caught everyone off guard, and the situation combined with the 49ers formation had created a huge hole for Kaepernick to run through in the middle of the field. A nice offensive design and good play calling by Harbaugh gave Akers the opportunity at history, and he took full advantage with a great kick. The extra three points going into half-time would turn out to be invaluable in helping the 49ers to a week one upset over Green Bay.
There you have five plays that were game changers, yet failed to show on many highlight packages. I will see you back here next Monday as I examine some game film and find more under-appreciated plays that ultimately decided some teams’ fate.