Breaking Down the Pivotal Moments of NFL Week 1

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Breaking Down the Pivotal Moments of NFL Week 1
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As always, Week 1 of the NFL season provided a lot of captivating moments, but not all of them were necessarily pivotal in the outcome of the game.  

New England’s Rob Gronkowski dropping the ball before his infamous spike was kind of funny, but not worth reporting unless you strive to be the Perez Hilton of NFL writers.

Consider "Pivotal Moments" as your review of the weekend’s action, including the most interesting stats, records, plays and moments that defined the NFL week.

Every Thursday, the companion piece "The Thinking Man’s Guide" will preview the upcoming week in a similar manner. We start this week with one of the items previewed last Thursday.

 

Moment of the Week: Peyton Manning’s Historic Comeback

What else did you expect? It was the game of the week in the Sunday prime-time slot, and it actually lived up to the hype.

In Peyton Manning’s comeback to the NFL, he made more history: he tied Dan Marino with his 36th fourth-quarter comeback win for the most in NFL history.

Despite running just two plays in the third quarter, the Broncos led 14-13 heading into the fourth. After the Steelers took a 19-14 lead, Manning answered back with the no-huddle and led an 80-yard touchdown drive.

Manning threw the go-ahead touchdown to Jacob Tamme with 9:23 left. Tracy Porter, denying Manning in his comeback bid in Super Bowl XLIV, now helped his new teammate with a game-clinching pick-six from Ben Roethlisberger with 1:58 left.

Tracy Porter has returned three interceptions for touchdowns in his career, and they have all come in the fourth quarter to close out comebacks for his teams (twice in 2009 with New Orleans):

The only other players in NFL history with three interception returns for touchdowns in a one-score game in the fourth quarter/overtime are Ronnie Lott, Kenny Graham and Terrell Buckley. You can say Porter knows how to make the game-changing INT.

It was the second time in Roethlisberger’s career he had a turnover for a touchdown in a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity, and the first since October 2006 at Oakland, when Roethlisberger’s interception was returned 100 yards by Chris Carr.

Manning performed with the type of ruthless efficiency he made famous in Indianapolis with his mastery of the no-huddle offense.

After Denver’s first three drives were stalled by two sacks and a Willis McGahee fumble in between, Manning took over in the last three quarters with the no-huddle attack. Denver scored 25 points on four consecutive drives to finish the game.

Despite this being his 15th season in the AFC, it was only the fifth time Manning faced the Steelers. He improved to 3-2 and 7-1 against defensive guru Dick LeBeau in his career.

You can see LeBeau has had few answers for Manning in his career, and Sunday night’s performance was as good as any for Denver’s new quarterback.

Manning also threw his 400th career touchdown pass in his 209th game, becoming the fastest to do so. It was that kind of history-making night in Denver.

Rich Schultz/Getty Images
New York Jets: We don't need no stinkin' preseason!

 

Worthless Moment: The Preseason

One of the greatest things about the start of the regular season is that 95 percent of rational fans completely forget everything that happened in the meaningless preseason.

The 2012 season has provided more gold for how it does not matter what your record is, what your stats are, or even how you look in the preseason. Just consider what happened on Sunday.

The New York Jets were dead last offensively in the preseason with just 31 points and 195.8 yards per game. Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow equally failed to get the Jets into the end zone on 30 drives.

Go to Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, and the Jets pile on 48 points to lead the league in scoring in Week 1. It was 21-0 early into the second quarter. The Jets would find the end zone six times, and in four different ways (passing, rushing, punt return and interception return).  

Meanwhile the Seattle Seahawks led the league this preseason with 122 points scored, most of which came with rookie Russell Wilson playing against backups.

Go to Sunday at the Arizona Cardinals, a team that looked just dreadful offensively behind John Skelton and Kevin Kolb, and it was again a much different story in the game that counts.

The Seahawks trailed 10-3 at halftime and were victims of a fourth-quarter comeback by Kolb, in for the injured Skelton.

Will it be like this every week for the Jets and Seahawks? Not likely. But at least we know what happened in August had zero bearing on Week 1 when it counts. Preseason football is nothing like real, regular-season football. It is well past time we stop treating it as such.

Dave Reginek/Getty Images
Interceptions were trendy on Sunday. Cortland Finnegan returns one.

 

Pick Parade: Interceptions are the Stat of the Week

Did it feel like there were a lot of interceptions in Week 1?

That's because there were. Through 14 games, this week’s quarterbacks managed to throw 34 interceptions. And that was with Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco, Carson Palmer and Philip Rivers yet to play.

Note: the Monday Night Football games only produced one more interception, ending the week with 35.

This could be the biggest opening-week pick parade the NFL has seen in years.

Quarterbacks threw 39 interceptions in Week 1 of the 2003 season, but that was based on all 32 teams. The interception percentage for 2012 is 3.48 percent, which is the highest in Week 1 since 2005 (3.53 percent).

In 2011, passers threw just 24 Week 1 interceptions on 1,117 attempts (2.15 percent).

The picks were coming from all different types—from rookie mistakes to bad days by veterans, to even gaffes by Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks.

The five rookies combined for 11 interceptions (but none for Robert Griffin III), while Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger suffered big interceptions in critical situations.

Six different quarterbacks threw at least three picks, which has only happened three times since 2002. The other two instances were Week 11 of 2011 and Week 7 of 2009.

Michael Vick (four) and Matthew Stafford (three) each won games despite the interceptions. Two quarterbacks have not won games with at least three interceptions on the same day since Jake Delhomme (four) and Gus Frerotte (three) did so on November 9, 2008.

Is it a sign of things to come for the defense this season, or just some bad rookie performances and unusually bad games by Vick, Stafford and Ryan Fitzpatrick?

We will be keeping an eye on this one.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

 

Rookie Quarterbacks

A big story heading in was the debut of a record five rookie quarterbacks in Week 1. Four of them really struggled, but Robert Griffin III was very impressive in New Orleans.

Last week we looked at the expectations of the No. 1 overall picks in their first start, and historically, things have been very pitiful. That would continue for the Indianapolis Colts and Andrew Luck, who was responsible for four turnovers in a 41-21 loss at Chicago.

Luck’s line was very similar to Peyton Manning’s in 1998. Luck was 23 of 45 for 309 yards, TD, three INTs and a 52.9 passer rating. His accuracy shown in the preseason was not on display in this real game, but do not write him off after one game. As we have often seen, this was almost to be expected. The Bears do have one of the better defenses in the league.

Houston had a great defense last season, and they showed it again Sunday against Ryan Tannehill and the Miami Dolphins. In the second quarter, Tannehill had interceptions on three consecutive drives, leading to three touchdowns for Houston and a 24-3 halftime deficit for Miami.

Tannehill finished 20 of 36 for 219 yards, three INTs and a 39.0 passer rating. He was only able to get the offense on the board with one field goal in a 30-10 loss. Miami’s lone touchdown was a 72-yard punt return by Marcus Thigpen.

Brandon Weeden, the “senior rookie” at 28 years old, had the worst outing of the day for Cleveland at home against Philadelphia in what became a very winnable game. Weeden completed just 12 of 35 passes for 118 yards, four INTs and a 5.1 passer rating that could make Derek Anderson laugh (if anything was funny).

With the defense keeping Cleveland alive all game long, Weeden’s final pass was another poor interception with 1:05 left that ended any hopes of a comeback win.

Russell Wilson had an explosive and productive preseason, but in the first half of his regular-season debut, the Seattle rookie had only 59 yards passing on 11 attempts with a 10-3 deficit.

The Seahawks would take a 16-13 lead in the fourth quarter, but Wilson only contributed an intentional grounding penalty and loss of 12 yards to the drive. With 4:58 left and trailing 20-16, Wilson embarked on a long drive that would feature a serious error by the replacement referees in regards to timeouts and the clock.

Even with all of these chances, Wilson was unable to throw a game-winning touchdown. He finished 18 of 34 for 153 yards, TD, INT and a 62.5 passer rating. Wilson rushed eight times, but for only 20 yards.

The star rookie quarterback of the day was Washington’s Robert Griffin III. After completing six easy passes behind the line on his opening drive, the training wheels came off on the next possession, and Griffin found Pierre Garcon for a 16-yard pass that turned into an 88-yard touchdown after the run.

Griffin would follow it up with 10 more points, and the Redskins had a shocking 20-7 lead in New Orleans. In the third quarter, Griffin took advantage of a bad pass interference penalty on 4th-and-1, and the Redskins added to their lead with a touchdown run to go up 27-14.

After the Saints pulled to within a score, Griffin threw a good pass on a second down for 13 yards and a big first down to help run some clock. That last pass completed his day at 19 of 26 for 320 yards, two TDs and a 139.9 passer rating. He also had 10 rushes for 42 yards.

Before Sunday, Peyton Manning (1998) and Cam Newton (2011) were the only true rookies to throw for over 300 yards in a season-opening debut. Now Griffin and Luck have joined them, albeit with much different outcomes this time.

The list of most passing yards by a rookie in Week 1 is dominated by recent players, including Sam Bradford (2010) and Mark Sanchez (2009), which speaks to the change in expectations for rookie quarterbacks.

But as Sunday showed, even if you expect to play them right away, it is hard to expect them to play well. Only Washington fans feel like they have the next great hope right now, but it is one game.

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
Blair Walsh came up clutch in his NFL debut for Minnesota.

 

Most Improbable Win of the Week

Of the five comeback wins on Sunday, none were more improbable than Minnesota’s win over Jacksonville. Of course, had the Vikings not won, this would have still likely been the chosen game, but for Jacksonville’s win instead.

What looked like the schedule’s worst game on paper provided the best finish in Week 1. It was also a historic finish at that.

The return of Maurice Jones-Drew and the healed Adrian Peterson were big stories, but they were not the focus of the offense this time.

In a battle of second-year quarterbacks, Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert and Minnesota’s Christian Ponder actually played one of the very best games of the week in terms of quarterback consistency.

Trailing 20-15 with 1:18 left, Gabbert had to go 76 yards with no timeouts. After going 0-5 at fourth quarter comebacks last year, this was a tough task for Gabbert. He would find rookie Justin Blackmon to convert a 4th-and-3. On the next play at the MIN 39 with 0:27 left, Gabbert threw a perfect pass down the right sideline to Cecil Shorts for the touchdown.

This was no Hail Mary—just a perfect pass that should have been the game-winner with 20 seconds left. Add the two-point conversion to Blackmon, and the Jaguars led 23-20.

But Ponder and the Vikings still had a little bit of time. They had 0:14 left at their own 31. A 26-yard completion, which has often been a key number in some of these late one-minute drills, gave them hope. That was followed by a six-yard gain to Kyle Rudolph.

Now the Vikings could try the field goal, and it was up to rookie kicker Blair Walsh to extend the game. Walsh made the 55-yard field goal as time expired to force overtime.

Minnesota’s 32-yard drive is just the seventh drive since 1981 started in the final 0:14 of a game to either tie or take the lead.

Minnesota won the coin toss and received the ball first. They would add another field goal for a 26-23 lead, but the game was not over. We entered a new territory with the new overtime rules.

Jacksonville became the first team in NFL history to have an overtime comeback opportunity. With everything being four-down territory, the Jaguars were unable to get a first down. Gabbert’s fourth-down pass sailed incomplete, and the game was over.

From an improbable defensive letdown to a 14-second drive that was validated by a rookie kicker on a 55-yard field goal, to finally one last stand in overtime, the Vikings earned the league’s most improbable win on Sunday.

Al Bello/Getty Images

 

Best Closer of the Week

Remember the Dallas Cowboys beating the New York Giants? It seems so long ago, because it was the NFL’s first Wednesday game since the Los Angeles Rams opened with the Detroit Lions in 1948.

But it was Dallas finishing the game in the fourth quarter that was most impressive in Week 1. With such struggles to close 2011, mixed with the Giants’ incredible run of close wins, it made for Wednesday night’s outcome to be even more impressive than it looks.

Just when it looked like Dallas was starting to implode, Tony Romo snuck a pass into Miles Austin down the sideline on a 1st-and-30, and Austin scored a huge 34-yard touchdown.

From 2006-2011, no quarterback had more completions of at least 30 yards in the fourth quarter or overtime than Romo’s 43. He had 20 touchdowns, and Drew Brees (37 completions, 13 touchdowns) ranked second in each category.

Dallas led 24-10 with 5:57 left, but we have seen the Giants erase this kind of lead last year on their rivals. Sure enough, the Giants went 79 yards for a touchdown with 2:36 left. Romo would have to finish this one off.

With the Cowboys in the league’s historically run-heavy four-minute offense, they called two runs. After appearing to convert the third down on the ground, Jason Witten was called for holding. This set up a huge 3rd-and-10 play at the Dallas 26 with 2:11 left.

If Romo converted, the game was over. If not, the Giants may have pulled off another comeback.

But as he has done before in this situation, Romo came through and converted with a 13-yard slant to a star of the night in Kevin Ogletree. Game over. The Cowboys managed to close, and the Giants finally lost a close one.

In his career, Romo is six of eight at converting on third downs in the final 3:00 of the fourth quarter with a one- to eight-point lead. Last season, all NFL quarterbacks were just 5/25 (20 percent) in that situation. Only Matt Ryan (twice) closed a game out with a third-down completion the way Romo did on Wednesday night.

While people like to remember the 3rd-and-5 play Miles Austin “lost in the lights” when he and Romo could not connect last season against the Giants, that is only one of two misses Romo has had in this rare, but critical, situation.

Eli Manning cannot lead any more comebacks if he does not touch the ball. The Giants had only three possessions in the second half, and scored two touchdowns, but it was Dallas’ scoring and ball-control offense that salted the game away.

It was only one game, but for that moment, the Cowboys and Romo showed they could close a tough opponent out the right way.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

 

What Does Washington Have on Drew Brees?

Should New Orleans look to get back on track to Super Bowl form, they better hope they do not run into the Washington Redskins again. In five career meetings with the Redskins (all since 2005), Drew Brees has really struggled with their defense, going 2-3 in the process.

Brees’ 68.8 passer rating against Washington is his third lowest mark against any team. The Redskins are also one of only three teams (St. Louis Rams and Denver Broncos) that Brees has a losing record against (minimum five starts).

While Brees may have set the NFL record with his 50th consecutive game with a touchdown pass (including the playoffs), for more than the game’s first 50 minutes it appeared Brees would only come up with one offensive touchdown.

He still put up some numbers by game’s end, but it was not the efficient performance you've come expect, and not the performance the Saints are going to need from Brees in the absence of coach Sean Payton.

However, we have seen this before with Brees and the Redskins. In 2005, as a member of the San Diego Chargers, Brees had his worst game of the season, but managed an overtime win because of LaDainian Tomlinson’s dominance on the ground. That Washington defense at least made the playoffs.

A year later, Brees again had his worst game of the season against Washington, this time at home with New Orleans playing for a first-round bye in December. That Redskins defense allowed 30 touchdowns to the other 15 quarterbacks they faced that season.

The only strong performance Brees had was in 2009, and even that was a very fortunate overtime win. Washington’s Shaun Suisham missed a 23-yard field goal with 1:53 left that would have given the team a 33-23 lead. Instead, Brees went 80 yards in five plays for the touchdown to force overtime, where the Saints won 33-30.

Brees threw interceptions in the fourth quarter against Washington in 2006 and 2008 when trailing by just one score. He did that twice again on Sunday.

First, when it was 33-25 with 3:39 left Brees badly overthrew Lance Moore. The pass was intercepted, returned to the 3-yard line, and one play later the Saints trailed 40-25. The final dagger was a Hail Mary attempt on the game’s final play.

Five games spread out over eight different seasons and three different head coaches. Yet for some reason, the Redskins give the Saints fits.

Forcing a one-dimensional attack has been key. In the four games, Brees has handed the ball off 75 times for 201 yards (2.68 yards per carry). In the San Diego game in 2005, Brees handed off 27 times for 200 yards (7.41 yards per carry), but still struggled.

Whatever the case, armed with a young quarterback in Robert Griffin III, the Redskins could keep giving Brees and the Saints trouble in the NFC should they meet again in the future.

Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

 

“Special” Finish

San Francisco’s David Akers became the fourth kicker to tie the NFL record with a 63-yard field goal in Green Bay. He became the third straight kicker to do it just before halftime.

Oakland’s Sebastian Janikowski did it last year against Denver, and Denver’s Jason Elam did it in 1998 against Jacksonville. Each did it in a win.

The original record-holder is Tom Dempsey, who is the only one to do it as a game-winning field goal for the New Orleans Saints in 1970 against Detroit.

 

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.

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