The 10 Most Memorable Moments and Performances from the 2012 NFL Season
The beauty of the NFL is that every week holds countless memorable moments—memorable right up until the next week, when a new spate of games brings a new group of moments flooding into our consciousness.
If you're a social media maven, one of the best ways to measure "memorability" is how little Twitter works after a big moment. If you can barely operate because the stream is moving faster than you can keep up, it's probably a big moment. If you see the "Fail Whale," you can be sure that even casual fans will be talking about it at the water cooler.
So, in a season with so many gigantic and drama-filled moments, how does one whittle it down to a Top 10?
It was tough, but here are the 10 most memorable moments of the 2012 NFL regular season.
Note: Not all of them will be good memories. Some of these will be remembered because they have become punch lines or nightmares; others will be remembered because they were the start of something big. Some moments made it into the list because they had a significant impact on the NFL record books.
New England Patriots vs. San Francisco 49ers (Week 15)
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Just a week after the Patriots had crushed the Houston Texans on national TV (a game that made this list as well), they hosted the San Francisco 49ers and were were nearly blown out of their own stadium.
In front of a huge TV audience, the Pats were down 31-3 with about six minutes left in the third quarter. The game was over; people had left the stadium and given up hope.
What followed was one of the craziest minutes of NFL history, as the Patriots stormed back to tie the game at 31-31 with about six minutes left in the fourth quarter. Danny Woodhead scored two rushing touchdowns, and Tom Brady scored two through through the air.
At that point, it looked like the Niners didn't stand a chance. Tom Brady and company were too much; they couldn't be stopped. People were flooding back into the stadium, calling their relatives and rousing them out of bed to see the marvelous victory.
Then Colin Kaepernick happened.
After a fantastic return by LaMichael James, Kaepernick hit Michael Crabtree for a 38-yard touchdown. At that point, the door slammed, and then it was barred shut by a David Akers field goal.
...or maybe not.
Brady led the Pats down the field on the next drive for for a field goal of their own, setting up an onside kick, which the 49ers recovered.
Finally, now the game was over.
When that much action happens between two great teams in just a quarter's time and the momentum swings so wildly in the span of just six minutes, that game becomes an instant classic.
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On July 18, Michael Vick said that he believed the Philadelphia Eagles had all the pieces they needed to put together an NFL dynasty.
Apparently July 18 was opposite day in 2012.
Vick's performance this season was one for the ages. It would be eminently forgettable if it wasn't so horrible. It exceeded even the lowest expectations one could've had for the Eagles. It was a complete breakdown of composure, ball security and any semblance of quality quarterbacking.
The excuses for Vick are numerous, but the bottom line is this: When protection broke down, Vick got sloppy.
His 10 interceptions wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for his seven fumbles and 28 sacks. Those numbers wouldn't be so bad if one forgets that he only played in 10 games!
Now Andy Reid is gone, and Vick may be bringing his memorable play to another NFL city in 2013. The Eagles, for their part, will look to start putting that dynasty together.
Aldon Smith vs. the Chicago Bears (Week 11)
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This game wasn't "the beginning of the end" for the Chicago Bears—that moment was likely the week before against the Houston Texans. However, Aldon Smith almost single-handedly showed the Bears how little of a chance they had against the elite teams of the NFL.
During this contest, Smith inserted himself clearly into the discussion as one of the league's best young pass-rushers and shut the door on any talk of Jason Campbell being a capable backup quarterback.
Five-and-a-half sacks doesn't even begin to measure the impact that Smith had on this game. Every Bears snap seemed like an alternation between Smith creating pressure and Campbell feeling pressure that wasn't there.
Campbell will likely remember this game for years as he rolls out of bed and feels the remnants of Smith's hits in every single one of his joints. Fans will remember this game as one of the most dominant defensive performances of the year.
Houston Texans vs. New England Patriots (Week 14)
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This game was billed as a heavyweight fight and ended up as a heavyweight beatdown.
Seriously, as the Houston Texans prepared for this game, it was like they were getting ready for their senior-year homecoming game. They even had letterman jackets made. Resplendent in all of their glory, the Texans strutted into Gillette Stadium.
They left with their tails between their legs.
At one point in the third quarter, the Patriots were up 28-0. This wasn't due to a bunch of fluke turnovers. In fact, the game actually ended with both teams committing only one turnover apiece. No, this was defensive dominance by a young Patriots team against an offense that was supposedly among the elite.
The game ended 42-14, and the Houston Texans have looked incredibly beatable ever since—losing two of their last three and falling from the No. 1 to the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs.
Eli Manning vs. RGIII (Week 7)
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This game was tied 13-13 heading into the fourth quarter.
What followed was some of the best "clutch" quarterbacking you will ever see, as Robert Griffin III threw a 30-yard pass to Santana Moss with a minute-and-a-half left. It put the Washington Redskins up three and it looked like the end of the game.
But Eli Manning can do a lot in a minute-and-a-half.
Specifically, he can throw a 77-yard strike to Victor Cruz, and it was all over but the Salsa.
While the Giants won that game, the late-game heroics by RGIII proved that there were many good things ahead.
J.J.'s First S-Watt
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Week 1, Texans vs. Dolphins: Ryan Tannehill dropped back, scanned the field, found his receiver and let loose...BAM! Right back in his face.
The moment itself would be entirely forgettable if not for what followed, which was one of the greatest performances ever for a 3-4 defensive end. As Watt continued his block party, it become more and more clear that this season would be something special.
After the Dolphins game, though, everyone wanted to talk about Tannehill's arm slot and if his problem with batted passes would be corrected.
Instead, as the year went on, Tannehill's "problem" become the problem of every other quarterback Watt faced. He is revolutionizing the way the position is played, and it all started with one big (s)Watt.
The Butt Fumble (Week 12)
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The Patriots had already scored 14 unanswered points to start the game. It was starting to look like a rout, but who knew? This was a divisional rivalry game! Anything could happen!
"Anything" did happen...and it was hilarious.
Mark Sanchez ran right into the backside of Brandon Moore and fumbled the ball. Steve Gregory immediately ran it back for a touchdown to put the Pats up 21-0.
Then, on the ensuing kickoff, the Jets fumbled again, and the Patriots returned another fumble for another touchdown, now leading 27-0.
The game would end 49-19, and "butt fumble" became part of the sports lexicon.
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When one takes a record from Jerry Rice, one gets remembered.
The only thing keeping Johnson lower on this list (and might take him off of it completely in some people's minds) is that the Lions stunk this year. Johnson's 1,964 receiving yards didn't get the Lions to the playoffs. Instead, it was just a footnote in a season that led to the Lions getting the fifth overall pick in next April's draft.
Still, it's hard not to remember Johnson's superb play in 2012. The Lions force-fed him the ball as receiver after receiver went down around him. He made fantastic plays on errant passes from the erratic Matt Stafford. He caught screens, slants, posts, fades, go routes and more. He caught passes while being held and he caught passes while being pushed.
The Lions were atrocious this season, but Johnson was entirely unforgettable.
Replacement Refs (Green Bay vs. Seattle Week 3)
This was one of the most surreal moments of NFL history. Period.
In a game that was already marred by poor officiating and in a season where officiating had become the topic du jour thanks to a referee lockout, the end of this Packers-Seahawks contest was punctuated by a Hail Mary pass that defied any immediate explanation.
First, a blatant and uncalled offensive pass interference penalty. Then, one ref rushed in to signal touchdown as the other signaled touchback. Finally, after a conference, the referees would rule simultaneous possession and award the touchdown—and the game—to the Seahawks.
ESPN's Sport Science would do an entire segment on what exactly happened on that play. Frame-by-frame breakdowns would try to show one side or the other, and everybody had an opinion. Reverse angles started popping out of the woodwork like Abraham Zapruder had taken a job as a sports photographer.
It was chaos—glorious, glorious chaos.
Days later, after months of stalemate and constant posturing, the referee lockout was over.
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In the same way people from a generation ago talk about Barry Sanders and in the same manner which people use to talk about Jim Brown or Walter Payton, this generation will speak about Adrian Peterson.
I'm not saying he's as good as either of the aforementioned players (yet) or that his bust should be enshrined in Canton, Ohio, next to them (though, it probably will be). Yet, he has given NFL fans an extended glimpse of what true greatness looks like.
Rather than immediately ranking the exploits of Peterson among the greatest in history, just take a second to remember them—every jump-cut, every ultra-fast acceleration followed by a sudden stop and 90-degree angle. Remember every time he looked like he was down and found a lane that no other running back would hit.
Then, remember that this season sits as the second-greatest season by an NFL running back, ever. Nine yards separated Peterson and Eric Dickerson—nine yards that Peterson could care less about because hit team made it into the playoffs on a last-second Blair Walsh field goal that Peterson set up.
Then, remember that a year ago, he was recovering from major knee surgery.
Peterson's 2012 was as improbable as it was magical. For that reason, his performance will be spoken about in hushed tones for years to come.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.