In the NFL, incredibly thin margins separate victory from defeat. As the season wears on and teams patch their threadbare rosters, it frays to almost nothing.
In NFL Week 13, game after game came down to the last drive, the last play, the last second. The average margin of victory was only 6.67 points; no team beat any other by more than two scores.
In all of these hard-fought games, the smallest advantage could mean a season-saving win—or a season-ending defeat. Every block, every throw, every tackle took on extra significance. Even the smallest plays became big.
And the biggest plays? They became gigantic.
Let's go to the tape and break down the biggest plays from NFL Week 13.
Brady Quinn and Tony Moeaki Extend Kansas City's Game-Winning Drive
The 1-10 Kansas City Chiefs hosted the 3-8 Carolina Panthers in a game that could hardly have meant less in football terms. But as Bleacher Report's own Michael Schottey wrote, the shocking tragedy that preceded it made it the biggest win of the week.
As the Chiefs drove for the go-ahead touchdown, they had to convert two crucial fourth downs. But the play that put the game-winning drive in scoring range was this throw:
The Chiefs lined up in an offset I formation. Moeaki initially lined up to the right of the offensive line, along with a second tight end. Just before the snap, Moeaki motioned to the left. The Panthers were in a base 4-3; cornerback Captain Munnerlyn mirrored Moeaki's motion, implying man-to-man coverage. Outside linebacker Thomas Davis sneaked up to the line on the offense's weak side, showing run blitz.
At the snap, Davis indeed blitzes and is picked up by fullback Patrick DiMarco. Moeaki is briefly chipped by Munnerlyn, while Quinn fakes a handoff:
Munnerlyn passes Moeaki off to middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, then seems to sit down waiting for DiMarco to release. Meanwhile, Kuechly has no idea how to handle Moeaki. Kuechly actually spins a full 360 degrees trying to cover Moeaki's simple out route:
Safety Haruki Nakamura makes the open-field tackle, but the Chiefs would eventually hit paydirt—and secure the most emotional of victories.
Jay Cutler Does the Impossible, Keeps the Bears Alive
The Seattle Seahawks had just won the game. Hadn't they? Of course: They'd just scored a touchdown with less than half a minute on the clock, and the Bears hadn't returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown. In fact, the Bears were backed up to their own 14-yard line, needing to cover at least 50 yards in only 20 seconds.
Impossible? With Jay Cutler's arm and Brandon Marshall's size, nothing is truly impossible:
How could the Bears convert this? With some of Jay Cutler's escape artistry and a little help from the Seahawks secondary.
The Bears lined up in a pure passing formation: a five-wide, empty-backfield shotgun set. Marshall is lined up in the right slot, with tailback Matt Forte split wide of him. On the left side, three more receivers (the inside-most may be a tight end). The routes? Run downfield and try to get open.
The Seahawks lined up in a conventional 4-2-5 nickel, with the safeties parked back 20 yards deep. The outside linebacker and slot corner are 10 yards deep, with middle linebacker Bobby Wagner backed off 15 yards:
This would be a soft alignment on a first-half third down—but with the Bears needing to cover half the field in less than half a minute, this formation is crazy aggressive.
At the snap, the Seahawks back seven backpedals furiously, while rookie defensive end Bruce Irvin gets immediate pressure on Cutler:
Cutler deftly hop-steps around Irvin and up past the rush, keeping his eyes downfield. Defensive end Jason Jones, who'd oddly dropped back into coverage, sees a free shot at Cutler and moves the umpire out of the way to get there:
Jones leaps up to bat the ball down, but Cutler sidesteps him, too:
Finally, Cutler sets his feet and launches. Downfield, there are two Seahawks in the vicinity of Marshall and Forte...
...but this is a jump ball, and Marshall doesn't lose those often.
Russell Wilson Fires the Kill Shot to Sidney Rice
Once Cutler and the Bears had un-won the game for the Seahawks, rookie Russell Wilson had an overtime drive to win it back. That he did:
The Seahawks lined up in a shotgun set, with receiver Sidney Rice in the right slot and fellow wideout Golden Tate flanking him. Tight end Anthony McCoy is split wide to the left, and tailback Marshawn Lynch is parked next to Wilson.
The Bears played typically aggressive coverage: base 4-3 personnel, with the linebackers shifted over so outside linebacker Lance Briggs could line up on the line, showing blitz:
The Seahawks offensive line all but makes this play. At the snap, they all fire off and block down to the right, selling the run very hard. Wilson and Lynch execute a beautiful play action, drawing Bears linebackers Nick Roach and Geno Hayes toward the play side:
Then, the treachery is revealed: Wilson rolls out on a naked bootleg. Tight end Zach Miller leaks out the back side as the "low," or shallow option. Behind him, though, Rice has run a drag route across the middle of the field, giving Wilson a "high," or deep option:
Miller is blanketed, but both of the linebackers who might have been able to pick up Rice are marooned back on the other side of the field, sucked up by the excellent play fake. Bears safety Major Wright might have been able to make a play, but McCoy's clear-out route drew him all the way into the end zone.
Wilson leads Rice with an excellent on-the-run pass, and Rice makes the catch just in front of Wright. Wright compensates by lowering his helmet and nearly taking Rice's block off:
But the Bears are the ones who get hurt. Rice takes the hit but breaks the plane, sealing an enormous road victory for the contending Seahawks.
Tony Romo and Jason Witten Knock on Victory's Door
With less than 10 minutes left in their Sunday Night Football game, the imploding Philadelphia Eagles led the contending Dallas Cowboys by three points. Desperately needing a win to keep up in the packed NFC Wild Card race, the Cowboys aired it out.
After a 35-yard completion to Dez Bryant put the Cowboys across midfield, Tony Romo topped himself. He found Jason Witten down the seam for a 36-yard completion that set up the go-ahead touchdown:
The Cowboys used an interesting formation here. They lined up Witten in-line to the right, with a second tight end next to him. On the left side, Bryant lined up with fellow receiver Miles Austin. Tailback DeMarco Murray is in next to Romo.
Defensively, the Eagles are in a 4-2-5 nickel, with safeties Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman providing deep help:
At the snap, the Eagles' four-man rush is easily repelled. Initially, the secondary does a good job of closing down on everyone:
But Witten gets open deep with a nasty double move. First, he cuts outside, getting separation from middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans:
Then, Witten cuts back up the seam, getting wide open deep as Allen is nowhere near able to make a play:
Romo sees the wide-open tight end and hits him in stride, delivering the Cowboys to the doorstep of a season-saving divisional win.
Andrew Luck and Donnie Avery Complete an Impossible Comeback
With 3:16 left in the Detroit Lions' game against the visiting Indianapolis Colts, they had a 12-point lead and the Colts facing a 3rd-and-5 at midfield. Per Advanced NFL Stats' Win Probability Calculator, at that point the Lions had a 99 percent chance of winning.
They did not win.
Thanks to some superb play from Andrew Luck—and the now-routine fourth-quarter collapse of the Lions defense—the Colts found themselves on the Lions' 14-yard line, down by just five points. Luck took three shots at winning the game. With only four seconds and no downs left, Luck had just one bullet left.
He didn't miss:
The Colts seem to have taken notes from one of the Biggest Plays of NFL Week 12, the Baltimore Ravens' conversion of a 4th-and-29 situation.
Like the San Diego Chargers did against the Ravens, the Lions did an excellent job lining up their coverage. The field is blanketed horizontally and vertically; there are three Lions along the first-down conversion mark and four along the goal line.
These seven Lions have one job: to keep all the Colts in front of them. The Colts, like the Ravens, exploited this.
At the snap, four of the five Colts receivers sprint downfield, pushing the Lions' coverage as far back as possible. Just as the Chargers did, the Lions defenders backpedal well past the point on the field they're supposed to be defending.
Then, just as the Ravens did with Ray Rice, the Colts had Donnie Avery sneak in underneath the coverage:
The Lions defensive ends put the squeeze on Luck. He steps up to get away from them, just as tackle Ndamukong Suh spins away from a double team, opening up a gap. Luck breaks down and flushes through that gap, then hits the wide-open Avery:
Again, the strong push of four receivers into the back of the end zone means there's nothing but green turf and white stripes between Avery and paydirt:
Unlike the Chargers, whose entire defense directly attacked Rice and allowed a massive cutback lane, the Lions collectively sprinted down the goal line, hoping beat Avery to the punch. None of them did.
VOTE: Which Was the Biggest Play of NFL Week 13?
Now's your turn: Which was the biggest play of NFL Week 13? Remember, if you choose "other," name it in the comments!