I can’t say goodbye yet.
There were so many high-profile sporting events this weekend. There was the NBA All-Star Game in Dallas, which I believe was attended by more people than The Jay Leno Show finale had TV viewers. There was also the Daytona 500 and, of course, the Vancouver Winter Olympics. But I still found myself longing for the NFL.
I dreamed of Tony Siragusa field reports, even though they have the depth and insight of a Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial. I yearned for Faith Hill’s weekly Sunday Night Football appearance. Her performance is undoubtedly the best mix of silly and sexy on TV—she sings about Cris Collinsworth while wearing a micro dress—since Catherine O’Hara unveiled Lola Heatherton a million years ago on SCTV. I ached for sound bites from the alarmingly hilarious Mike Singletary and the alarmingly pudgy Rex Ryan.
So, while I wean myself from my Sunday and Monday (and sometimes Thursday) fix, while I try to get accustomed to hearing Mike & Mike drone endlessly about the NBA trade deadline, and while I try to figure out which of the in-studio analysts for the Big Ten Network annoy me more—right now it’s Tim Doyle—allow me one final look back.
Here, then, are my choices for the 10 Best NFL games of the 2009-2010 season.
10. Cleveland Browns at Detroit Lions, Week 11, November 22, 2009. Lions win 38-37.
On a day that featured huge match-ups (Indianapolis at Baltimore, New York Jets at New England, Philadelphia at Chicago), this game, between two teams that had so far combined for one win, was ridiculed as the biggest joke of not only the weekend, but the year.
Instead, Matthew Stafford and Brady Quinn put on the most entertaining show of the day, as the two struggling quarterbacks combined for nine touchdowns and 726 passing yards en route to a 38-37 Lions victory. Stafford sealed the win with a touchdown pass to Brandon Pettigrew with no time on the clock after injuring his shoulder on the previous play.
Though the Lions seemed to emerge from the win as the best of the NFL’s worst, they lost every one of their remaining games. Meanwhile, the Browns won four of their last six games and, with Mike Holmgren assuming the role of team president and former Eagles GM Tom Heckert now in that job in Cleveland, the "Dawg Pound" has reason to hope heading into the 2010 season.
9. New Orleans Saints at Miami Dolphins, Week 7, October 25, 2009. Saints win 46-34.
The unbeaten Saints had faced few challenges in compiling a perfect 6-0 record. Miami was looking to get back to .500 after starting its season 0-3.
On the same day that the Steelers knocked the Vikings from the ranks of the unbeaten (see below), it looked like the Saints were also heading for their first loss, as Miami was up on the Saints 34-24 heading into the fourth quarter. At home, it seemed the Dolphins’ lead was safe in the hands of Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown.
Instead, Drew Brees led the Saints on fourth-quarter scoring drives of 94, 60, and 64 yards, and corner back Tracy Porter—months before doing the same to Peyton Manning—ended the game with a pick-six of Chad Henne to seal the 46-34 Saints win.
With this victory, New Orleans learned that it could win close games, a lesson that would prove crucial en route to their first Super Bowl win.
8. New England Patriots at Denver Broncos, Week 5, October 11, 2009. Broncos win 20-17 (OT).
No team had had a worse off-season than the Denver Broncos. Even after starting the season 3-0, no one took them seriously. A victory in Week 4 over the Dallas Cowboys raised some eyebrows, but nearly everyone expected the fairy tale to end against the vaunted Patriots.
Instead, Broncos head coach and former Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels shocked his old team, his old boss Bill Belichick, and the football nation at large with a 20-17 overtime victory. Denver's win featured an outstanding 98-yard, Kyle Orton-led drive to tie the game 17-17 in the fourth quarter.
After Matt Prater won the game in overtime, McDaniels was more excited than an audience member at one of Oprah’s holiday giveaway shows, jubilantly pumping his fist several times while fans everywhere decided to finally take these upstart Broncos for real.
Unfortunately, they would go on to lose eight of their last eleven games. So much for fairy tales.
7. Minnesota Vikings at Pittsburgh Steelers, Week 7, October 25, 2009. Steelers win 27-17.
In a game eerily prescient of the NFC Championship Game (see below), the visiting Vikings dominated the Steelers yet lost 27-17 due to ball-handling issues.
The big-play fourth quarter is what made this game memorable: Up to then, both Brett Favre and Ben Roethlisberger had been contained by the opposing defense. The fourth period started with the Steelers up 13-10. The Vikings looked to go ahead, but an eight-minute, 73-yard drive ended instead with a Brett Favre fumble that Pittsburgh linebacker LaMarr Woodley recovered and returned for 77 yards.
That 20-10 Steelers lead lasted all of 14 seconds as Percy Harvin returned the ensuing kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown. After a Vikings defensive stop, Favre drove the Vikings another 55 yards only to see the comeback attempt end when Chester Taylor bobbled a pass that then fell into the arms of linebacker Keyaron Fox, who took it the other way 82 yards.
The Vikings, of course, would bounce back from this loss with a big win at Lambeau Field. The Steelers would shockingly lose five of their next six to miss the playoffs. But on this day, Pittsburgh looked very much like one of the very best teams in the NFL.
6. Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints, NFC Championship, January 24, 2010. Saints win 31-28 (OT).
The Vikings out-gained the eventual Super Bowl champions 475-257 yards, ran 27 more offensive plays, and held the ball for nearly nine more minutes.
But the Vikings could not escape their own carelessness with the football as the Saints’ aggressive defense caused Minnesota to fumble the ball a whopping six times, three of which the Vikings lost.
But the biggest mistake belonged to Favre, who, with one single careless fourth-quarter interception, regained the sloppy reputation he had successfully overcome most of the year. By making an errant pass instead of trying to pick up a few extra yards on the ground to give Ryan Longwell a chance to boot the winning field goal, Favre validated the faith that Packers fans and management had put into Aaron Rodgers and stretched the Vikings NFC Championship losing streak to five.
Of course, all may have been forgiven in Minnesota had the Vikings won the overtime coin toss. But that’s another issue...
5. New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts, Week 10, November 15, 2009. Colts win 35-34.
This thriller will forever be known as, "the day Patriots' head coach Bill Belichick lost his 'genius' tag" (except to Jets fans, to whom he was always an idiot). This was one of the best games in recent memory between two of the fiercest rivals in the league.
The Patriots dominated the Colts for most of the first half, taking a 24-7 lead midway through the second quarter. But Peyton Manning shredded the Patriots’ defense from that point on, bringing the Colts to within 34-28 with just over two minutes to go.
So badly had the Patriots’ defense played that Belichick made the inexplicable decision to try a fourth-and-2 conversion on his team’s 28-yard-line at the two-minute warning instead of punting the ball back to Indianapolis. The Patriots failed to convert, and the Colts went on an easy 29-yard touchdown drive to win the game 35-34 with nine seconds left.
Most thought that these two teams were on a collision course to meet again in the playoffs, but New England lost that opportunity when they lost to Baltimore in the Wild Card Round, and Belichick lost his shot at redemption.
4. San Diego Chargers at New York Giants, Week 9, November 8, 2009. Chargers win 21-20.
What was hyped as, "the Eli Manning versus Philip Rivers showdown" did not disappoint. Unless you were watching as a Giants fan, who, after losing this game, fell to 5-4 after beginning the season 5-0.
Statistically, this was Rivers’ worst game of the season, yet in many ways it was his most impressive. Once again, Rivers had absolutely no run game to speak of—San Diego Chargers fans are more likely to miss Lost than miss the outgoing LaDainian Tomlinson—as 209 of the Chargers’ 226 net yards and all three of the team’s touchdowns came courtesy of his arm.
Of the three, none was more crucial than the last, which came at the end of a monster 80-yard touchdown drive, as Rivers found Vincent Jackson in the end zone with just 21 seconds left. Rivers, who completed six of eight passes on that closing drive, furthered his reputation as one of the best three quarterbacks in the AFC. Meanwhile, Manning and the Giants displayed how far they had fallen since their Super Bowl run in 2007-2008.
3. Green Bay Packers at Pittsburgh Steelers, Week 15, December 20, 2009. Steelers win 37-36.
The most-entertaining game of the regular season was also the most puzzling: How could two such purportedly good defenses give up a combined 973 yards of offense?
How could Pittsburgh lose in successive weeks to Oakland and Cleveland if their offense could play like this? How could Green Bay have won five in a row with a defense that plays like this? And with no defense and almost no rushing attempts—31 compared to 94 passes—didn’t anybody tell Mike Tomlin and Mike McCarthy that the Arena Football League had folded?
At the time, the game seemed like a fluke: clearly the Packers’ defense was better than this. But given that Dom Capers’ unit put in an even worse performance just three weeks later (see below), the game was a wake-up call that perhaps shutting down the less-than-stellar offenses of Detroit and Chicago didn’t mean that Capers was the next Dick Le Beau. Although this game proved that Dick Le Beau wasn’t the next Dick Le Beau, either.
Whatever forces conspired to create this game, they should conspire more often. They created a beaut.
2. Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals, Wild Card Round, January 10, 2010. Cardinals win 51-45 (OT).
What can you say about a game in which the winning quarterback had more touchdown passes than in-completions? What can you say about a game in which the Packers scored and allowed the most points in their 41-game playoff history? What can you say about a game in which Aaron Rodgers, in essence a second-year quarterback, eclipsed franchise postseason records for yards (422) and touchdowns (4)?
What can you say about a game that saw the most-combined points in a postseason game in NFL history? What can you say about a game that ended with a defensive touchdown in overtime, the first time that happened since 2004’s infamous "we’re going to take the ball and we’re going to score” Packers-Seahawks game?
Well, you can say this: As much as anyone hates to see referees decide games, the Cardinals’ Michael Adams should have been flagged on that final play for illegal hands to the face on Rodgers.
1. Indianapolis Colts vs. New Orleans Saints, Super Bowl XLIV, February 7, 2010. Saints win 31-17.
Was this inarguably the best game of the year? Maybe not, but it was a terrific game with the highest stakes. Although I didn’t buy into all of that “America’s Team” hype with the Saints—as others have said, being host to the Super Bowl champion doesn’t miraculously rebuild houses or rebuild whole lives shattered by Hurricane Katrina. But Drew Brees and that ball-hawking defense are awfully hard to root against.
And the onside kick at the start of the second half was the most exciting special teams play in Super Bowl history since Desmond Howard ran one back in 1997. But even though it worked out, I’m still not sure if I liked the call, since if it hadn’t, the Saints might have lost the game right there.
And speaking of special teams, who would have guessed that Saints kicker Garrett Hartley—the most famous “Garrett” since original Not Ready For Prime Time Player Garrett Morris—would account for more points than Peyton Manning?
And how about Tracy Porter intercepting Peyton Manning for the game-winning pick-six two weeks after in effect ending the Minnesota Vikings’ season with an interception of Brett Favre? Officials in his home town of Port Allen, La., are changing the town’s name to Porter Allen in honor of his postseason heroics. As impressive as that seems, he may have wanted to hold out for a bigger city—I think “Shreveporter” has a nice ring.
Special kudos to Betty White, Abe Vigoda, David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Oprah Winfrey for making the game even more entertaining.
Oh, and despite what some have said: The Who (or what’s left of it) rocked.
All right, I feel better now. Bring on some college basketball. And that Olympic hockey’s not so bad either . . .