Highlighting Every Starting NFL Quarterback's Signature Win
Quarterbacks do not win games alone. After all, football is a team sport, and quarterbacks do not play defense.
More often than not, however, quarterbacks are defined by their victories. Dan Marino is one of the game's greatest quarterbacks, but his failure to win a ring has cost him a lot of credit from peers and fans alike.
Each quarterback has a legacy-defining win, or will eventually get one. For some, it was a Super Bowl victory. For others whose careers have yet to be defined in the NFL, a big college victory stands out. Many will not get one.
What is each current starting quarterback's "signature" win? Click to find out.
Arizona Cardinals—John Skelton
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December 11, 2011: 21-19 vs. San Francisco 49ers
What can we call a signature win for a backup quarterback with 11 starts under his belt largely because of injuries to the starter?
Indeed, this win does technically count for Skelton, who replaced Kevin Kolb after three plays.
This was Skelton's signature win thus far in his career for two reasons: quality and redemption.
The second-year man out of Fordham had been benched after throwing three interceptions against the same 49ers defense just three weeks earlier. Kevin Kolb had come back from injury to help lead the surging Cardinals to an overtime victory against the Dallas Cowboys a week prior to their rematch with the 49ers.
One blow to the head brought Skelton right back into the fire, and he responded with guts that led to glory. At least for one regular season game.
Skelton had a good game against a great defense, throwing for 282 yards and three touchdowns.
Atlanta Falcons—Matt Ryan
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October 12, 2008: 22-20 vs. Chicago Bears
Michael Vick's ghost still hung around the franchise in 2008. Matt Ryan was brought in as the top quarterback in that year's draft class, but nobody knew what the Falcons were going to get from him as a rookie or beyond.
They certainly did not expect him to match Atlanta's win total from the previous season in just his sixth game.
Ryan took the Falcons down the field quickly as time was winding down in the game, allowing Jason Elam to kick the game-winning field goal.
The rookie had already beaten Aaron Rodgers on the road, but this come-from-behind victory at home was ever so slightly sweeter, especially considering he topped 300 yards for the first time in his career.
Baltimore Ravens—Joe Flacco
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November 6, 2011: 23-20 at Pittsburgh Steelers
It might be tempting to select Baltimore's earlier game against the Steelers as Joe Flacco's signature win—a game in which the Ravens throttled the Steelers rather unexpectedly—but this victory later in the season was far more telling.
This game was different.
The Steelers had some extra motivation after getting trounced 35-7 in Baltimore to open the season. Pittsburgh knew it had Flacco's number at home—prior to this game, Flacco's record at Heinz Field was 1-4.
Baltimore was in control until the Steelers roared back to take the lead with 14 fourth-quarter points, seemingly evening the score on the season. Flacco showed resolve, however, leading the Ravens on a game-winning touchdown drive capped with a touchdown pass to rookie Torrey Smith.
Why is this a signature win for Flacco instead of one of his playoff victories?
Aside from beating a hated rival on the road, Flacco had arguably his best game ever against Pittsburgh, throwing for 300 yards and that game-winning touchdown. After years of utter frustration in Heinz Field, Flacco and the Ravens broke through in the clutch.
Although he would wind up losing to the Patriots in the AFC Championship game, Flacco nearly repeated his heroics—he would have tossed a game-winning touchdown had Sterling Moore not knocked the ball out of Lee Evans' hands in the end zone.
Flacco has never lacked for confidence, but that victory might have boosted it into the stratosphere.
Buffalo Bills—Ryan Fitzpatrick
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September 26, 2010: 30-38 at New England Patriots
There is no such thing as a moral victory, but an exception can be made here for Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The Bills did not defeat the Patriots in Week 3 of the 2010 season, but they came close. Trent Edwards had played himself out of the starting gig in Buffalo, paving the way for the Harvard graduate to get his shot.
Fitzpatrick threw two interceptions as well, however, including one on the potential game-tying drive near the end of regulation.
This may not have been a victory on paper, but Fitzpatrick seized the starting job with his play and never looked back.
Carolina Panthers—Cam Newton
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December 18, 2011: 28-13 at Houston Texans
Statistically, this was one of Cam Newton's more meager outputs during his rookie season. The talented quarterback thew for just 149 yards and two touchdowns, rushing for 55 yards without getting into the end zone for one of his record-breaking touchdowns.
What makes this a signature win has nothing and everything to do with his statistics. Newton proved he could win without putting up gaudy statistics. It was also Carolina's only win against a quality opponent in 2011, albeit the Texans were forced to start a third-string, rookie quarterback.
The Panthers won in large part due to a handoff...to the tight end.
Newton has big-time talent, but he and the Panthers would take these kinds of wins over incredible numbers in a loss.
Chicago Bears—Jay Cutler
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January 16, 2011: 35-24 vs. Seattle Seahawks
Jay Cutler has no shortage of detractors. The mercurial quarterback had yet to make the playoffs, let alone win a game.
Then he torched the Seahawks.
Cutler ran for two touchdowns and threw for two more, becoming just the second quarterback in history with that feat under his belt—Otto Graham was the first.
The Seahawks had just beaten the vaunted Saints and seemed to be on a roll despite finishing the season with a 7-9 record. None of that mattered when Cutler sliced and diced them.
Unfortunately, controversy struck the quarterback once more as he was knocked out of the NFC Championship game against the rival Packers with a seemingly small injury. He sprained his MCL—a sprain is a tear, incidentally—forcing Caleb Hanie to finish the game, drawing an avalanche of criticism in the process.
His game against the Seahawks was masterful, however, and a sign of the possibilities for the quarterback just getting settled into his prime.
Cincinnati Bengals—Andy Dalton
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November 6, 2011: 24-17 at Tennessee Titans
Cincinnati was 5-2 and on a four-game winning streak when they visited the Titans, but were the rookie-led Bengals for real?
With a huge assist from his defense, Andy Dalton led his team back from a 17-7 halftime deficit to answer that question with a big "yes."
Dalton had arguably his best performance of the year against the Titans, throwing for 217 yards and three touchdowns. More importantly, he had zero turnovers and showed poise in leading his team back to victory.
Perhaps most importantly, this victory wound up giving Cincinnati the tiebreaker over Tennessee for the final playoff spot in the AFC.
Cleveland Browns—Brandon Weeden
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January 2, 2012: 41-38 vs. Stanford Cardinal
Nothing like getting a head start on beating Andrew Luck, right?
Weeden and the Oklahoma State Cowboys matched Luck and the Stanford Cardinal blow for blow in an epic battle for second place—OSU was briefly considered a split-champion contender until Alabama crushed LSU in the title game.
There were plenty of good candidates for a "signature win" for Weeden in his two seasons as the starter—his victories in College Station or trouncing a bitter rival in the Bedlam game were briefly penciled in here—but beating Luck on the national stage with the NFL Draft looming trumps them all.
Cleveland's shiny new quarterback ended his college career with a bang, throwing for nearly 400 yards and three touchdowns. Hopefully, for the Browns, that was a preview for his NFL career.
Dallas Cowboys—Tony Romo
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January 9, 2010: 24-14 vs. Philadelphia Eagles
Any time a victory causes Jerry Jones to exclaim, "[The] demons are gone!" is a pretty good one to call "signature."
Tony Romo, to that point, was winless in the playoffs thanks largely to his own blunders. He helped create those demons by muffing the snap on a gimme field goal attempt to win his first playoff game, then falling flat the following season.
With a victory against their divisional rivals of the avian persuasion, everything changed. Or at least it seemed to change.
Romo played well and mistake-free, tossing two touchdowns and leading the Cowboys to five straight scoring drives in the second quarter.
Of course, the Cowboys lost their next playoff game and have not been back since, so those demons were not exactly exiled on a permanent basis.
Denver Broncos—Peyton Manning
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February 4, 2006: 28-13 vs. Chicago Bears (Super Bowl XLI)
If ever a quarterback had a signature Super Bowl for himself, it was Peyton Manning.
All the gaudy statistics he had put up leading to this point meant less and less as his critics wondered if he would ever win a Super Bowl. He was not about to let the Chicago Bears and a little rain spoil his first chance at glory.
Manning led his team to victory, ending the inane conversation about his greatness being tainted without a championship once and for all.
Detroit Lions—Matthew Stafford
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December 18, 2011: 28-27 at Oakland Raiders
Matthew Stafford was in the teeth of the Black Hole, staring down the barrel of a 27-14 fourth-quarter deficit. He had just fumbled the ball into Aaron Curry's arm for a touchdown, a devastating blow with just 7:14 left on the clock.
Then, it was Tebow time.
Stafford led his Lions on a scoring drive capped by a touchdown pass to Titus Young, then got the ball back with just over two minutes left in the game and 98 yards to go.
He would ultimately throw the game-winning touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson (naturally) with 39 seconds left. Ndamokung Suh sealed the comeback victory by blocking Sebastian Janikowski's long field goal attempt as time expired.
Both teams were vying for playoff spots late in the season, and the Raiders were particularly desperate after dropping two consecutive games leading up to this one. Stafford's fourth-quarter comeback gave the Lions a two-game lead in the wild card race and all but knocked Oakland out of the playoffs, though they would nearly qualify.
This regular season victory might not seem momentous for a player of Stafford's caliber, but he is young—he will get a few more signature victories before all is said and done.
Green Bay Packers—Aaron Rodgers
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February 6, 2011: 31-25 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (Super Bowl XLV)
The specter of Brett Favre still hung over Aaron Rodgers as he attempted to beat the defending-champion Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV.
He did so in MVP fashion, capping a brilliant postseason run that saw him ascend to the ranks of the NFL's elite in a hurry. Rodgers threw for 304 yards and three touchdowns against a good Steelers defense, bringing the Lombardi Trophy back to Green Bay after 14 seasons on the lam.
Favre's ghost no longer haunts Rodgers, though it might be found bugging the equipment manager in the halls from time to time.
Houston Texans—Matt Schaub
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September 11, 2011: 34-7 vs. Indianapolis Colts
This victory was not terribly surprising for the Texans who had come into the season with high hopes while the Colts had been devastated by Peyton Manning's balky neck.
Still, Schaub helped lead Houston as it throttled Indianapolis, emphatically declaring there was a new world order in the AFC South.
Even though the Texans had beaten the Manning-led Colts in their season-opener a year before this game, they wound up just 6-10 on the season, including another loss to the Colts later in the season. Houston had been tormented for years by Manning and the Colts, and this game was a sign they would no longer be Indianapolis' whipping boys.
Of course, give Andrew Luck a year or two, and we will see how the new world order actually pans out.
Indianapolis Colts—Andrew Luck
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October 29, 2011: 56-48 at USC Trojans
Andrew Luck had already beaten the Trojans twice. The third time was just gravy, right?
Not when an undefeated season was at stake. Not when a national championship hangs in the balance. Not when it's the Trojans, really.
Luck led the Cardinal to a come-from-behind victory in overtime, rebounding from a bad interception late in the game. The Heisman candidate showed poise and maturity by responding with scoring drive after scoring drive in tying the game and going to overtime.
He wound up with 330 yards and three touchdowns, rushing for another one as the Trojans hung with the Cardinal all game long.
The Cardinal survived in overtime, keeping their national championship aspirations alive thanks to the future first-overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Jacksonville Jaguars—Blaine Gabbert
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October 23, 2010: 36-27 vs. Oklahoma Sooners (#1, BCS)
Despite starting for the Jaguars for most of the season, Gabbert does not exactly have a signature win. The Jaguars did manage to beat the favored Baltimore Ravens, but the defense should take most of the credit for that one.
In order to find a signature win for Gabbert, we must peer into his college career once more. There we find a Missouri crowd in rapture as they rush the field.
The Tigers had just defeated top-ranked Oklahoma.
Gabbert completed 30 of 42 passes for 308 yards and the game-winning touchdown, leading the Tigers from behind for a rare win against perennial powerhouse Oklahoma.
The Jaguars would love it if he could rediscover that magic.
Kansas City Chiefs—Matt Cassel
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November 23, 2008: 48-28 at Miami Dolphins
Few expected the Patriots to get anywhere after Tom Brady got Bernard Pollar'd in the season-opener. The all-world quarterback had other-worldly expectations laid on his shoulders after breaking records and a nearly undefeated season, but a dive for his legs left the star quarterback injured and the Patriots angry.
New England's season was in tatters before it really began.
Unproven backup Matt Cassel had taken over and led the Patriots to an improbable 6-4 record to this point, however. The Dolphins were up next.
Miami had sprung the wildcat on the Patriots in their first meeting of the season, shocking the Patriots in a 38-13 laugher at Gillette Stadium. They were in the midst of an unprecedented rebound after going just 1-15 the season before. They were hungry.
Cassel and New England returned the favor in Miami, trouncing the Dolphins 48-28, though it was much closer than that for much of the game.
The fourth-year quarterback threw for a whopping 415 yards and three touchdowns, and the price tag on his next contract kept climbing. Chiefs fans can attribute this game, in part, to the contract their team gave Cassel the following year.
Miami Dolphins—Matt Moore
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January 1, 2012: 19-17 at New York Jets
Indeed, David Garrard has been a bit of a surprise for the Dolphins coming off a year-long sabbatical due to back surgery. My money has been on Matt Moore winning the starting job all along, however, and I am sticking to it.
This may not have been a pretty game for Moore, who threw for just 135 yards and one touchdown, but beating the Jets on the road to knock them out of the playoffs sounds like a signature win for a guy without many wins in his career.
It also helped him end the season on a 6-3 run, a positive end to an abhorrent season for the Dolphins.
Minnesota Vikings—Christian Ponder
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October 30, 2011: 24-21 at Carolina Panthers
This was a sweet victory for Christian Ponder over fellow rookie Cam Newton on Halloween's eve.
The Minnesota rookie was making just his second start of the season after taking over for Donovan McNabb, and he out-dueled highly acclaimed Cam Newton.
Newton actually had better stats than Ponder, throwing for 290 yards and three touchdowns to Ponder's 236 and one, but the victory was more important.
Ponder proved he could win in the NFL, and this victory helped him lock down the starting gig until he got hurt late in the season.
New England Patriots—Tom Brady
January 19, 2002: 16-13 vs. Oakland Raiders
Before the Super Bowls, the MVPs, the hair, the records, the Uggs and the super model wife, there was the Tuck Rule Game.
Tom Brady had led the Patriots to a 11-5 finish that season after Drew Bledsoe went down with a nasty injury in Week 2, earning a first-round bye and a home date with the Oakland Raiders.
New England was trailing the entire game, but Brady had pulled them to within 13-10 with a six-yard touchdown run. After a few possessions with no results on either side, the Patriots got the ball back with just over two minutes left in the game.
What happened next may have defined the NFL for the next decade.
Tom Brady went back to pass only to find himself under pressure. Charles Woodson slammed into the Patriots quarterback, knocking the ball loose in the process. The Raiders recovered the ball, meaning they could have run out the clock and gotten out of the snow.
Unfortunately for them, instant replay kicked in. The play was ruled an incomplete pass thanks to an obscure rule for which the game is now infamously named: the tuck rule.
Brady went on to lead the team to game-tying and game-winning field goals thanks to Mr. Clutch, Adam Vinatieri, and he would go on to win the Super Bowl as an underdog against the high-powered Rams.
But what if the play was not reversed? What if the Raiders had recovered and moved on to the AFC Championship game?
Could Brady have been relegated to backup duty once more? Might he have followed the same path that his future backup, Matt Cassel did, and leave the Patriots for greener pastures? Could the Patriots have simply fallen off instead of stampeding their way to another championship the following season?
We will never know, but without the tuck rule, the Brady-Belichick combination may have been short-lived, and the NFL would have looked a whole lot different over the span of the past decade.
New Orleans Saints—Drew Brees
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February 7, 2010: 31-17 vs. Indianapolis Colts (Super Bowl XLIV)
This Super Bowl victory put the "S" back in "Saints," and they would not have done it without Drew Brees.
Brees led the Saints to their first Super Bowl victory after 43 years in the league. He could not have said things better after the game:
"We play for so much more than ourselves," said Saints quarterback Drew Brees with his brown hair matted to his forehead. "We played for our city. We played for the entire Gulf Coast region. We played for the entire Who Dat nation that has been behind us every step of the way."
Just a few years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the region, Brees and the Saints brought home sports' biggest prize. It is no wonder the Saints just gave him a massive contract worth $40 million guaranteed in just the first season.
If any quarterback deserves it for being the heart and soul of a team, it is Drew Brees.
New York Giants—Eli Manning
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February 8, 2008: 17-14 vs. New England Patriots (Super Bowl XLII)
The Giants were not supposed to win.
New England had just completed the NFL's first perfect regular season since the '72 Dolphins, rampaging through the league like no other team in history.
New York, meanwhile, were just a wildcard team on a bit of a roll.
It is no wonder the Patriots were nearly two-touchdown favorites going into the Super Bowl.
Tyree trapped the ball on his helmet with his hand, despite Rodney Harrison's dogged attempts to dislodge it. The catch was upheld by mere inches as it nearly hit the ground, and the rest is, as you say, history.
David had beaten Goliath, and Manning's heroics had everything to do with it.
New York Jets—Mark Sanchez
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January 16, 2011: 28-21 at New England Patriots
"It's all defense."
Mark Sanchez had heard it all. Criticism followed him like Skip Bayless follows Tim Tebow, and the handicappers and media gave him no shot to beat the Patriots on the road in the playoffs, particularly after the Patriots had throttled the Jets 45-3 just a month earlier.
Boy, did he and the Jets prove everybody wrong.
For all Mark Sanchez's failings, coming up small in the playoffs is not one of them. This victory was actually his fourth in just his second year in the league. He had just come off a victory against league MVP Peyton Manning and the Colts, but none of that mattered going into the game as the Patriots were installed as nine-point favorites.
None of that mattered in the end as Sanchez threw for 194 yards and three touchdowns, leading the Jets to the AFC Championship for the second year in a row. The bravado Rex Ryan had instilled in his quarterback and team seemed to pay off.
Oakland Raiders—Carson Palmer
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December 4, 2005: 38-31 at Pittsburgh Steelers
This was the game Cincinnati went from the Bungles to the Bengals, even if it was fleeting.
Carson Palmer marched into Pittsburgh and wrested the AFC North crown from the Steelers, at least temporarily. The victory left them with a two-game lead they would ultimately give up in a tiebreaker, but the Bengals had put themselves on the map.
The Bengals would crash back to earth after Palmer injured his knee against the same Steelers in the playoffs, but this was Palmer's best victory in his career—to this point, anyway.
Philadelphia Eagles—Michael Vick
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November 15, 2010: 59-28 at Washington Redskins
This is the fantasy game we were all waiting for from Vick.
The Eagles' quarterback put up video game numbers, throwing for 333 yards and four touchdowns while rushing for 80 yards and two more touchdowns. He lit up the Redskins, whose quarterback had been talking smack about his former team.
Donovan McNabb had just signed a ridiculous contract, but Vick made him look silly.
It was a historic night for Vick, who won a lot of fantasy matchups for his owners that night.
Pittsburgh Steelers—Ben Roethlisberger
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February 1, 2009: 27-23 vs. Arizona Cardinals (Super Bowl XLIII)
Ben Roethlisberger was already a champion, but it had been years since he led the Steelers to an improbable Super Bowl run as a sophomore.
This time, he led them to a come-from-behind victory, hitting Santonio Holmes in the end zone for the clinching score after the Cardinals had roared back with 16 points to take the lead late in the fourth quarter.
Big Ben was unfazed, leading his team on one final drive to clinch the game and his second championship with the Steelers.
San Diego Chargers—Philip Rivers
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January 13, 2007: 28-24 at Indianapolis Colts
The Colts were the defending champions. That didn't matter to Philip Rivers, who had just won his first playoff game the week before and was hungry for more.
This was perhaps San Diego's best playoff victory of the past decade, and Rivers was a big reason. He threw for 264 yards and three scores before getting knocked out of the game with a knee injury.
Unfortunately for Rivers, the high from this signature win was short-lived as they ran into a buzzsaw with the undefeated Patriots the following week.
San Francisco 49ers—Alex Smith
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January 14, 2012: 36-32 vs. New Orleans Saints
The 49ers had made an unexpected run to the playoffs in Jim Harbaugh's first season as head coach. After years of mediocrity or worse, San Francisco reeled off 13 victories en route to the division crown and a first-round bye.
Then the Saints came marching in to Candlestick Park.
Alex Smith had a fine season, throwing just five interceptions and managing the offense well. It was the 49ers' defense, however, that was key to this game.
They held Drew Brees in check for much of the game as Smith helped build a lead.
Brees could not be contained forever, though, as he exploded in the fourth quarter and the Saints scored 18 points.
New Orleans took the lead twice in that fourth quarter, only to have Alex Smith wrest it back away from them. First, Smith scored on a fantastic play call, running left on a bootleg that caught the Saints defense completely by surprise.
Hope seemed lost when Brees retook the lead with a 66-yard pass to Jimmy Graham, but Smith and the 49ers weren't done yet.
Smith won the game with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis with just nine seconds left, carving out a place in postseason lore in the process.
Seattle Seahawks—Tarvaris Jackson
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October 29, 2011: 36-25 at New York Giants
What can we call a signature win for Tarvaris Jackson? He has not had many in his career, and few can be considered "signature."
I will go with a victory over the eventual Super Bowl champions. Jackson played well against the Giants, hitting 15 of 22 passes for 166 yards and a score before leaving with an injury, but the Seahawks beat the Giants soundly and unexpectedly.
If Matt Flynn wins the starting gig, we can easily point to his 480-yard, six-touchdown performance against the Lions last year as his signature victory.
St. Louis Rams—Sam Bradford
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October 17, 2010: 20-17 vs. Chargers
The Rams were coming off a defeat against the Detroit Lions—before they were good—in which they gave up 44 points, and they were facing a Chargers team that boasted the best offense in the league despite a 2-3 record.
Bradford would go on to win another three games and create some momentum for himself and the Rams for the next season—which they failed to capitalize on—but this may have been his best victory thus far.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers—Josh Freeman
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January 2, 2011: 23-13 at New Orleans Saints
The Buccaneers were in the playoff hunt, much to the surprise of fans across the league, but they had to beat the defending champion and division rival New Orleans Saints to have a shot.
Josh Freeman completed a fantastic sophomore campaign by thoroughly outplaying Drew Brees, completing 21 of 26 passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns. The Bucs trailed briefly, but took control of the game in the second quarter and never looked back.
Though Tampa Bay eventually lost out on a playoff berth due to tiebreakers, this was a signature victory for Freeman, who could use this victory as a springboard to take the young Bucs to new heights the following season.
Sadly, he regressed in 2011 and the Bucs were a shadow of themselves.
Tennessee Titans—Jake Locker
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December 30, 2010: 19-7 vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers (#18)
If there was one quarterback with the least career-defining wins in the NFL, it would be Jake Locker. It could be Washington's 2009 victory against USC—which was ranked third in the country at that point—were it not for the fact the Trojans had Aaron Corp filling in at quarterback for that game.
So we are left with this, the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl.
This was Locker's final game in a rather lackluster college career, and he helped the Huskers avenge the 56-21 spanking Nebraska had given them earlier in the season. This was not the prettiest game on both sides, and Locker threw for just 56 yards on less than 50 percent passing.
He did have a good game running the ball, however, rushing for 83 yards and a score. This game is a microcosm of his career, at least on the statistical end. It had Locker's signature all over it.
Of course, he is not the starter just yet, but I will go out on a short limb and say he will win the job sooner than later, even if that means sometime mid-season.
Washington Redskins—Robert Griffin III
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September, 2011: 50-48 vs. TCU Horned Frogs (#14)
Prior to his senior season, Robert Griffin III was on the fringe among NFL prospects, projected by many to become a wide receiver at the next level. Those labels fueled the machine he would become during his Heisman Trophy romp through the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS).
This game was his opening salvo.
Griffin led the Bears to their first victory over a ranked opponent in years, eking out a victory over the favored Horned Frogs in a marvelous contest. Griffin was magnificent, throwing for 359 yards and five touchdowns. He rushed for just 38 yards—indicative of his preference to stay in the pocket—but he caught a 15-yard pass that set up the game-winning field goal.
He swept through the FBS like a wildfire, sweeping up the Heisman Trophy and landing at the top of the NFL draft alongside Andrew Luck.
This game was the lightning bolt that started the conflagration.