Sometimes an entire season boils down to one play -- literally and/or figuratively. With that in mind, I was tasked with finding one season-defining play for all 32 NFL teams. This was a labor of love that included way too many hours on NFL Game Pass, but I feel like it was a more fruitful endeavor than streaming episodes of "The Office" I've seen 35 times.
I did enact one rule in this grand undertaking: NO POSTSEASON PLAYS.
Why? Well, the playoffs are still quite fresh in everyone's minds right now. And we already commit so much time poring over those 11 spotlight games, so what's the fun in revisiting such well-trodden ground? Let's go back to the 2018 portion of this season! You know, those 256 other games?
You'll find my selections below. I'm sure we won't be in agreement about everything. I mean, we should be, because I feel like I nailed it. But I'll happily accept your criticisms across various social media platforms. Mostly because I'm lonely now that that the season is over and people aren't asking me if they should start Cole Beasley this week.
Without further ado, here is one play that summed up the entire season for each NFL team.
NOTE: You can click on each subhead for a video clip of the play. Well, except for the three plays marked by injury. While these were undoubtedly impactful moments meriting mention, there's no need for the accompanying visuals.
Most Cardinals fans (and fantasy enthusiasts) wondered why Johnson wasn't being utilized more as a receiver. And on this first-quarter touchdown reception against the Bears, I remember thinking, Oh, nuts -- DJ is going to have 350 receiving yards today. And then Arizona pretty much avoided Johnson in the aerial attack for the rest of the game. It's almost like it was a happy accident or something. This was essentially the last highlight of the year. (Well, until the Green Bay game.) Sam Bradford was ultimately benched. Rosen would throw a pick later in the game to end the season, and that was that.
The Falcons weren't too shabby offensively this year. Matt Ryan flirted with 5,000 yards passing while posting a sparkling 35:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Julio Jones led the league in receiving yards (1,677) -- he even got in the end zone more than a few times! But damn, that defense. Beset by injuries, the secondary had trouble keeping teams out of the end zone. That was evident in this game, as the Falcons held a five-point lead with just over four minutes remaining. Dalton drove the Bengals down the field and capped off the winning drive with a 13-yard strike to Green with just seven ticks left on the clock.
John Harbaugh has a job in Baltimore today because of Jackson and the way he rallied the club. Now, a lot of people claimed (ignorantly) that the rookie could only run the ball, that he wasn't a real quarterback or whatnot. And then he comes out and throws a perfect 68-yard touchdown pass to silence the haters (at least until the playoffs, when they clamored for Joe Flacco). And yes, Andrews did have some impressive YAC on that touchdown, but that was a seed from Jackson, and you can't deny that.
In a game that undoubtedly blew up many survivor leagues (for those people whom the Bucs hadn't got in Week 1), the Bills blew out the host Vikings in one of the biggest regular-season stunners in quite some time. But the play everyone talked about was when Allen jumped over Barr like he was on "American Ninja Warrior" or something. Allen experienced many highs and lows during his rookie season. This was a literal high. LITERAL.
It's hard to fathom now, but the Panthers were 6-2 at one point during the 2018 season. Carolina was no Rembrandt of a team, but Ron Rivera's group was in command of a playoff spot entering its Week 10 visit to Heinz Field. Then things started to unravel against the Steelers. Carolina took an early 7-0 lead, but it was short-lived, as JuJu scored on Pittsburgh's first offensive play from scrimmage. The Panthers would lose 52-21 and commence a seven-game losing skid to knock themselves out of the playoffs.
Don't be the jerk who wants to talk about Cody Parkey's multiple boinks against the Lionsin Week 10. This is a safe space for Bears fans. So back off. But here's the real gist. A bunch of you laughed at me when I said the Bears were going to make the playoffs back in June. But they made it, didn't they, haters?! The season's final conclusion was awful -- again, beat it with the Parkey stuff -- but the season as a whole was pretty positive. The Bears knocked out the Packers and Vikings, so that's not bad. And it all started with Mack owning Green Bay in the first game of the year. Even if Chicago lost the game, it set the tone for the entire campaign.
The Bengals scored with 1:18 remaining to take a 21-20 lead on the hated Steelers. The Bengals would have improved to 5-1 with a win, while the Steelers would have dropped to 2-3-1. So, you know what happens: Pittsburgh scores on a touchdown pass to Brown, who weaves through what seems like 50 Bengals on the way to the end zone for the winning score with just 10 seconds to spare. Of course, it should be noted Cincy called a blitz on the play -- despite Ben Roethlisberger being one of the league's best passers against the blitz -- because, well, Bengals. This about summed up the entire coaching tenure of the recently deposed Marvin Lewis.
I wasn't sure why, at the beginning of the season, Hue Jackson absolutely refused to start Baker Mayfield. But who was I to question the wisdom of a coach who had amassed a 1-31 record over the previous two seasons? Sure, that's not great, but it's still one more win than I've ever had as an NFL coach, so respect. Hue was finally forced to do the right thing after Tyrod was sidelined in the first half of this game against the Jets, and Mayfield went on to energize the Browns in ways we haven't seen since Otto Graham. (I'd imagine. Wasn't alive for that.) I don't want to celebrate an injury, but it's not like we don't cite Drew Bledsoe's injury as one of the things that launched Tom Brady's career. Did I just compare Baker to Brady? You're damn right I did. Deal with it. (Hey, they did a cameo together in that NFL 100 ad, so you have to give me that.)
You ever have a friend who will take reckless gambles? Like, "Dude, why are you splitting 10s against a 10?" And then he gets two blackjacks and you're all, "Yeah, never listen to me again." That's what it was like for the Cowboys when they traded for Amari Cooper, a move lampooned all over the internet (yes, I took part). But it paid off for the Cowboys, who would go on to win the NFC East. No play defined Cooper's career about-face more than the overtime winner that should have been a pick-six but ended up in Cooper's hands for the touchdown. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.
The Broncos seemingly had the Raiders pinned on their 1-yard line following a brilliant punt. But Denver had failed to down the ball, and Harris, knowing the rules, scooped it up and took it to the house. Raiders fans, in the team's Oakland farewell, went ballistic. The house was nuts. And the Broncos, who scuffled through injuries and disappointments, fell in this game. The Broncos entered December in playoff contention, but four straight losses to end the season buried those hopes and gave the franchise consecutive losing campaigns for the first time since the '70s.
Detroit hired Matt Patricia last offseason and you thought (briefly, as it turns out) that maybe this was going to be the dawn of a new era for the Lions. And then here, in the third quarter of the season opener, Matthew Stafford faces some pressure and throws an ill-advised pass over the middle that Lee steps in front of and takes to the house. And then you're like, Oh, yeah -- things are going to be just about the same this year. Just watch the replay: That Lions fan speaks for all of Detroit.
Green Bay struggled through most of the season, but Rodgers had convinced the world that he was going to rally the Packers to make the playoffs. The only problem? The mighty Arizona Cardinals stood in their way. Even though the Pack were heavy favorites, they couldn't muster anything offensively against a team that would end up "earning" the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. The most telling play came late in the second half, when Rodgers overthrew Adams on what could have been a 59-yard touchdown pass. And I mean really overthrew him. It's a throw you've seen Rodgers make dozens of time. But this was like Rex Grossman-level bad. The Packers would, of course, lose and ultimately be eliminated by the Bears.
Hopkins made this one-handed, through-the-legs circus grab -- something that should be talked about for years. Unfortunately, it didn't count. Which kind of sums up the entire year for the Texans. No matter how great Hopkins is (and he's the best wideout in the game right now), it ultimately doesn't matter. This season ended with another early exit from the playoffs.
The Colts were locked up with the Texans at 34 apiece with 27 seconds left in overtime. It was fourth-and-4, with Indy on its own 43-yard line. A punt likely would've ended the game in a tie. The Colts went for it. Failed. And Houston ended up winning the game after Deshaun Watson hit DeAndre Hopkins to set up the winning field goal. Many thought the play would hurt Indianapolis long term -- and it kind of did, because, in hindsight, a tie in this game would have given Indy the AFC South -- but that kind of moxie from Frank Reich inspired the Colts to overcome a 1-5 start and make the playoffs as a wild card.
I hate to do this to my friends down in Duval County, but you know this to be true. The Jaguars were one of the biggest disappointments in 2018. Stemming from their trip to the 2017 AFC Championship Game -- Hey, Saints fans, where was your support when Myles Jack wasn't down? -- hopes were high at the outset of the season in Jacksonville. And then the team exacted revenge against the Patriots in Week 2! But that was about the last time things went correctly. In the Jags' seemingly annual "Thursday Night Football" game against the Titans, with faint playoff hopes alive, Jacksonville pinned the Titans deep. But then Derrick Henry, who had been dormant for most of the football season (just ask my fantasy team), ran down the Jags and physically stole their heart like Mola Ram did to that dude in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."
Could select just about any Mahomes pass from the entire year ... but let's go with the no-look. Sometimes, the most obvious pick is the right one. Like Becky Lynch was the obvious choice to win the Royal Rumble, but that didn't make the payoff any less satisfying. So we will go with this mind-bending delivery, as Mahomes set the league on fire during his MVP campaign.
The Chargers struggled against the Ravens for much of this (sort of) must-win home game, but down by six late in the fourth quarter, L.A. had the ball at midfield. Then, as Gates was going down at the Ravens' 38-yard line, Patrick Onwuasor Peanut Tillman'd the ball out of Gates' hands and took it 62 yards for the touchdown to put the game away. L.A. ended up finishing second in the AFC West, thanks to tiebreakers. A win over the Ravens would have likely given the Bolts the No. 1 seed. They would have played host to the Patriots. And now, let the debate rage as to whether the Chargers would have won the AFC. (They would have.)
I know, not everything needs to be about the Bears. And I don't want to pile on the Rams, but those fans aren't reading anything football-related anyway, as they turn their attention to the Lakers and Angels. But Chicago simply overwhelmed the Rams on "Sunday Night Football." The most telling play came early in the third quarter, when the Bears' defense smothered Jared Goff for a safety, and the offense never recovered. It was shocking to see the high-flying Rams (who put up 54 on the Chiefs just a few weeks prior) score just six points. Coach Sean McVay shouldered the blame, but this loss really set (bad) things in motion, as the Eagles and Patriots and the other good teams the Rams faced down the stretch really limited them offensively.
The Dolphins, in recent years, are like a golfer who shoots in the 100s. You're never going to be good, but there is always one moment in each round that keeps you coming back for more, allowing you to endure the hardships and constant frustration. The Miami Miracle was like landing a 7-iron from 160 yards out, in the rough, to score an eagle. It didn't ultimately help the final tally, but it's something you'll continue to talk about for years to come. (And yes, this golf hypothetical comes from experience.)
Minnesota paid all this money to Cousins to push the team over the top, after coming a game short of the Super Bowl the previous year. The Vikings won in Week 1. Tied Green Bay in Week 2. And with a Thursday nighter against the Rams looming in Week 4, it was reasonable to predict they might overlook the lowly Bills a bit in Week 3. Well, more than a bit -- they were down 27-0 late in the fourth quarter. Cousins found Rudolph for a meaningless score late to avoid the shutout, which was emblematic for this fraudulent team. Of course, the Vikes missed the two-point conversion. Just like they missed the playoffs.
The Patriots blew a huge lead against the Chiefs, and then had to rally to win. No, I'm not talking about the AFC Championship Game -- this was at Foxborough, back in Week 6 of the regular season. But in the second quarter, Tom Brady hit Edelman on a 17-yard touchdown pass. The first TD pass to Edelman in more than 600 days. And during that time, Brady had thrown a TD to 54 different players. Sorry, 54 touchdown passes to 11 different players. And Edelman wears No. 11. So you just knew they were going to win the Super Bowl again, and Edelman was going to be MVP.
Yep, I'm breaking the one rule I set for this file (NO POSTSEASON PLAYS). Sorry, just can't avoid talking about this. Still, while it was a horrible no-call by the referee, there was plenty of blame to go around in New Orleans' season-ending defeat, Saints fans. Your team had two early trips to the red zone and came away with just six points. A pair of touchdowns (or at least one), and the tenor of the game is changed. Maybe you don't fall for a fake punt. Maybe you don't throw on first down after the long-gainer to Ted Ginn (seeing how you have Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara). Maybe you score when you win the toss in overtime. There were a lot of missed chances. Look, it was a gut-wrenching missed call. And I feel for you. I really do. But we can't pretend like you didn't have your chances.
Barkley was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. He amassed more than 2,000 scrimmage yards in an amazing debut season. But there was this play that stood out to me in Week 17. What went down on the stat sheet as a 1-yard, first-quarter gain was the Barkley run that reminded me most of what I grew up watching Barry Sanders do on the regular. It's remarkable. Amazing, even. And while the play didn't mean anything in the grand scheme of things, it was cool to watch. Kind of like the Giants' midseason surge.
The Browns went 635 days without a win. Guess who they would finally beat to end the skid? The Jets, of course. New York entered the game at 1-1, and things were looking great when Gang Green jumped out to a 14-0 lead. With the Jets being the Jets, though, they found themselves down late in the fourth quarter -- but with a chance to rally! Then rookie Sam Darnold (who is going to be great, haters) was pressured and forced one into double-coverage with just over a minute remaining. Pick. The Jets dropped below .500 and never recovered, finishing 4-12.
The Raiders were trailing the Chargers 20-6 with just over four minutes left. Oakland understandably elected to go for it on fourth-and-5. The play was blown up from the get-go -- which kind of defines the Raiders season -- but Carr grounded the ball instead of at least throwing it up for grabs. Not like an interception was going to mean much of anything. I don't want to beat up Derek, because I love him, but it was kind of a weird decision -- and thus, it summed up Jon Gruden's first year back on the sidelines.
The Eagles were walking the high wire in a bid to make it back to the playoffs, as Foles was once again asked to rally the Birds after Carson Wentz went down. But then, just after Foles released a downfield strike to Alshon Jeffery (that went for a 19-yard gain), Clowney knocked the QB down and he laid on the turf for what seemed like an eternity for Eagles fans. It looked like that could be it. But Foles missed just one play, went back on the field and drove Philly down for Jake Elliott's 35-yard, game-winning field goal. And with that, the Eagles kept winning and whatnot.
The Steelers had a number of inexplicable losses this year (looking at you, Raiders), but this one against the Broncos was the worst. And it was totally avoidable. Grimble caught a pass early in the second quarter at the Denver 20 and looked like he could have cruised into the end zone. Instead, he had to be a hardass and try to run over Broncos safety Will Parks at the 1-yard line. Grimble got stuck and fumbled the ball through the end zone for a touchback. The upshot is, because it happened to the Steelers, they will probably change that rule. So there is one bright spot!
I mean, what else could it be? You don't always want to point to injuries, but this one was certainly huge. This was the second ACL tear to rattle the 49ers during the 2018 season, as free-agent acquisition Jerick McKinnon was lost before the season even started. But Jimmy ran for a first down against the Chiefs and was awkwardly tackled out of bounds. When he didn't immediately get it up, it was pretty clear what was happening. Not only in the game, but in the lost season for the 49ers.
With passing offenses dominating the NFL in 2018, the Seahawks took it old-school as the most-run happy team in the league. Of course, with Brian Schottenheimer as your OC, how could you not? I remember this touchdown from Carson because he had to fight through multiple tacklers to finally reach paydirt. That kind of stubbornness to stick with the run largely illustrated Seattle's offensive philosophy last season.
Do you remember where you were the moment the Fitzmagic died? It was a crazy first couple of weeks for Fitzpatrick, who captivated the NFL world with upsets of the Saintsand Eagles to open the season. He was a bigger story than Patrick Mahomes through the first two games. And then came the Steelers on "Monday Night Football." Fitzpatrick would throw three first-half interceptions. The third was the dagger, as it was returned all the way to the house for a touchdown. The Buccaneers would bravely rally but could not get over the hump. The following week, Tampa lost huge in Chicago and Dirk Koetter began the QB musical chairs that kind of cost him his job.
This play deserves to be mentioned twice. The Titans barely missed the playoffs this past season. You think that maybe having Henry run like he was the second coming of Marion Motley would have helped a little in the first three months of the season, when the Titans went 5-6? MAYBE. I mean, I really feel this particular run, as a fantasy guy who drafted Henry, but this had to be maddening. Henry was like the guy who ducks out to the restroom when everyone is divvying up the check at a dinner party and then walks in with a $100 bill asking how much he owes. You're too late, Derrick! We already paid the bill!
If you ever want to make an older sports fan cringe, just say the words "Joe Theismann's broken leg," and his eyes will well up with tears. And then, 33 years to the day, Theismann was in the house when Smith suffered his own horrific broken leg -- the kind of injury you wish you could get out of your mind, but can't. Lost in this was the fact that, before Smith's injury, the Redskins were 6-3 and in first place of the NFC East. They would never recover from this, as they lost the game to the Texans and eventually missed the playoffs altogether.