Most pivotal plays of the 2013 NFL season (so far)

Thursday December 26th, 2013

NaVorro Bowman intercepted Matt Ryan in the 49ers' final game at Candlestick Park, securing the 49ers playoff spot.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Rather than delve deeply into a single snap, I've opted to compose a list of the Top 10 plays of this nearly complete season. Some are freakish feats of athleticism; more are excellent efforts that also served as turning points in the season, crossroads for clubs en route to ignominy, or the playoffs. The third category, which merits two entries and kicks off this list, shall be entitled:

10. The grotesque interceptions thrown by Tony Romo.

The star-crossed Cowboys quarterback spoils the game of his life in Week 6 (506 passing yards and five touchdowns) by throwing a late-game pick to Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan deep in Dallas territory. That gift set up Matt Prater's game-winning, chip-shot field goal, yet was less bitter than ...

9. Romo's interception against Green Bay.

His heinous throw in the direction of Cole Beasley on Dec. 15, which was snagged instead by Green Bay cornerback Tramon Williams. That interception -- Romo's second of the fourth quarter -- seals a 37-36 Packers victory, coming back from trailing 26-3.

8. Wes Who?

Typifying how the Patriots survived -- even thrived --without five of their most productive receivers from 2012, undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins makes a leaping, spinning touchdown grab of a 17-yard pass from Tom Brady in Week 6. That catch, with five seconds to play, handed the Saints their first loss of the season, and leads to this postgame gem from Brady: "Winning helps galvanize everything. Losing sucks."

7. Ships passing in the night.

With the Texans driving for a field goal in Week 4 that would've iced the game (and possibly altered the trajectory of a lost season), Seahawks corner Richard Sherman wrests Matt Schaub's pass from Texans tight end Owen Daniels, who can't tackle Sherman but does manage to peel off his left shoe. That fails to slow Sherman during his 58-yard, game-tying return. Seattle wins in OT, en route to a probable No. 1 seed in the NFC. A week later, Schaub went on to throw his NFL-record-fourth pick-six in four games, resulting in a 13-loss season and his all-but-certain release by the club.

6. Tiger, burning bright.

Should he happen to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year, this Week 9 gem will stand as Giovani Bernard's moment. On a toss sweep to the right, Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert whiffs on his block; yet Bernard -- after pivoting on a dime -- runs through three Dolphins arm tackles, turns the left corner and then executes a sublime cutback that foils another half dozen fish on his way to 35-yard touchdown that covered 70 yards.

5. Reversal of fortune.

After executing a nice play fake, Cam Newton finds wideout Brandon LaFell for a 79-yard touchdown at Minnesota, assisted by a sterling downfield block from Ted Ginn. Going into that mid-October game, Carolina was 1-3. Since then, Ron Rivera has gone from the hot seat to a very hot property, the Panthers have won 10 of 11, and will enter the playoffs as a team nobody wants to play.

4. So many to choose from.

Yes, Calvin Johnson amassed 14 receptions for 329 yards in Week 8 against the Cowboys -- the most ever by an NFL receiver in regulation. No, his best grab of the night was not his longest, an 87-yard catch-and-run. It was a 54-yard, fourth-quarter rainbow flung by Matt Stafford into double coverage. Utilizing his 45-inch vertical leap, Megatron elevates above Brandon Carr and Jeff Heath to make a balletic, Lynn Swann-like reception. As Fox's Brian Billick put it during the slow-motion replay: "Oh. My. God."

3. Springboard.

Before Peyton Manning made history last Sunday, the Broncos were in what No. 18 himself called a "rut." Early in the fourth quarter at Houston, Denver barely led the lowly Texans, 16-13. That's when safety Mike Adams jumped in front of DeAndre Hopkins, snagging Schaub's pass and making a supremely athletic play to get both feet in bounds (He attributed that grace to moments spent watching his daughter, Maya, in ballet class). That takeaway seemed to defeat the will of the Texans: Manning threw touchdown passes on each of Denver's next three possessions. The third, his 51st of 2013, broke Tom Brady's record for most touchdown passes in a season. Afterward, Manning thanked Adams for making "the play of the game."

2. Great games.

It wasn't Nick Foles' fault that none of his seven touchdown passes in 49-20 blowout of the Raiders on Nov. 3 was especially electrifying. Blame the Raiders for allowing the Eagles' receivers to run wide open all afternoon. Still, Foles gets a shout-out on this list, as does middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who on Dec. 22 piled up a ridiculous 26 tackles, and added a clutch late-game interception of Drew Brees, in Carolina's 13-7 win over the Saints.

1. The pick at the 'stick.

In what will likely be the last game played in this drafty old bowl, with the 49ers' playoff berth on the line, middle linebacker NaVorro Bowman channels Bill Buckner while attempting to field an on-side kick. The ball goes right though him, and is recovered by the Falcons, who are driving for the game-winning touchdown when cornerback Tramaine Brock deflects a Matt Ryan pass into Bowman's arms. His redemptive, 89-yard interception return -- accompanied with haunting beats here, by Journey -- immediately enters 49ers lore, prompting Jim Harbaugh to say that he's "never been involved in a football game where something that good happened."

And the season's not over yet.

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