By Robert Weintraub
Next week promises to be all about the immense buildup to Super Bowl XLVIII, aka the "Most Confusing Set of Roman Numerals Ever" Bowl. So while we still have time to reflect, let's look back on the season that was. We can honor the monstrous matchup in the Meadowlands by picking the 48 most significant moments since September, all the better to honor our 48th Super Bowl.
And because all those letters look cooler than just a single capital 'i', this list counts up, with XLVIII being the moment that will best define the 2013 season when we look back in future years.
I. Sherman's March to Madness
I'm ranking Sherman's televised imitation of a dissed rap MC way down here because it's a story that is way overblown, eventually to be a mere remnant of Super Bowl preamble history, shoved in a drawer alongside deer antler spray, Tim Tebow's pro-life ad, and Jim McMahon mooning a helicopter. But it's still hot right now, so it slips onto the list.
II. Lavonte Lament
Way, way back in week one (remember, kids?), the Jets were assumed to be embarking on an 0-16 season, while hopes were high in Tampa. The Bucs were seconds from victory when Lavonte David (otherwise one of the NFL's ten best defensive players) had a moment of madness and hit a scrambling Geno Smith out of bounds, setting up an unlikely Jets win. The respective scripts were flipped in that instant -- the Jets would reach eight wins thanks in part to such providence, while the Bucs were sent skidding over the falls, soon to drown in locker room controversy and anti-bacterial foam.
III. Rex Rehired
Meanwhile, the Jets may have been lucky, but they were also good, especially on defense. The prospect of Rex coaching the Jets in 2014 seemed as likely as an eclipse back when he threw Mark Sanchez to the preseason wolves, but to his immense credit, he kept the love of his players.
Which, of course, led to this.
IV. My Eyes! It Burns!
There is little argument over what was the worst game of the season. On October 21, the 0-6 Giants hosted the 1-4 Vikings on Monday Night Football. Josh Freeman, recently dumped by the imploding Buccaneers, was curiously signed and hastily named starter by a Vikings team desperate not to waste another year of Adrian Peterson's career. Freeman was about as good as you'd expect under those conditions, going 20-53 for 190 yards and an interception, a stat line that woefully underrepresents how terrible he was. The Giants weren't great, either, as these highlights show, but managed a 23-7 win.
Freeman wasn't to be seen again all season; indeed, the Vikings reportedly locked him inside the Metrodome as it was deflated for the final time over the weekend.
V. Hail Mary
A.J. Green's grab to miraculously tie the Ravens was about as easy a Hail Mary grab that has ever been. Alas, the Bengals still fell in overtime, sending this play far further down the list.
VI. Fail Mary
In Washington's second encounter with Philly, RG3 and friends fell behind by a large margin, as they did in the opener (see below), and once again made a game of it. The Skins were driving for a potential game-tying touchdown when Griffin made an awful decision that encapsulated his bitter sophomore season. With 20 seconds left, on third down, and under heavy pressure, Griffin threw a blind heave into the end zone, where it was picked off to seal defeat.
VII. Let It Snow
With all the talk about the weather potentially marring the Super Bowl, a blizzard considerably livened the Eagles-Lions game in snowy Philadelphia in mid-December. LeSean McCoy was somehow even more dangerous and elusive in the wet stuff, romping for 217 yards and two spectacular touchdowns in a 34-20 Eagles win.
VIII. Seeing Things
Exactly what Jeff Triplette watches when he goes under the replay hood is anyone's guess -- reruns of The Big Bang Theory, perhaps. Surely he wasn't watching shots of BenJarvus Green-Ellis' fourth down run that clearly came up short in a game against the Colts in December. Law Firm was awarded the score in a victory for astigmatism. Fortunately, the Bengals routed Indy, so the score wasn't crucial, but given Triplette's long history of screw-ups (including a fourth down botch in Washington one week earlier), questions about his future as a referee are worth asking.
IX. Push Came To Shove
Of all the dodgy roughing and unsportsmanlike conduct calls in 2013, it was an innocuous push on a field goal that didn't affect the play one iota that will be remembered most. The Jets were mostly better than New England when the teams met at MetLife Stadium, and had a chance to win in overtime. Nick Folk missed a 56-yard attempt, but got a second chance from much closer when New England's Chris Jones was flagged for pushing a teammate from the "second level" into the line of scrimmage in order to... something. Get an advantage somehow. The rule was new, and caused heads to be scratched across the league. Folk naturally made his reboot, and the Jets got the win. Pundits agreed that the rule was properly applied, was utterly ridiculous, and will never be called again.
X. Two Mad Minutes
Baltimore and Minnesota played a pretty drab game on a frozen Maryland field for 57:55, with the Vikes leading 12-7. Then the two teams exploded for five touchdowns in the final 125 seconds, culminating in a Joe Flacco pass to Marlon Brown that gave the Ravens an improbable and exhilarating 29-26 victory.
XI. Schaub Says Sayonara
The Texans lost season was exemplified by Matt Schaub's meltdown at quarterback, especially when he threw pick-sixes in a record four straight games. The third of those was particularly crushing. Houston was leading Seattle by a touchdown late in the game, and driving to finish the Seahawks off. Instead, Schaub threw a foolish pass to Owen Daniels, who had it wrestled away by Richard "Daniels is even sorrier than Crabtree!" Sherman. Sherman took it back for the game-tying score, and Seattle won in OT. The play pretty much guaranteed Schaub's benching and probable off-season release.
XII. Inches Away
Those multiple-lateral plays at the end of games often reek of desperation and lack of practice time. But Pittsburgh came this close to pulling off the greatest ending of a game since the Music City Miracle. Alas, Antonio Brown stepped out of bounds, barely, en route to the game-winning score, giving Miami both a deserved win and a defibrillation.
XIII. 12th Man Quieted
By season's end, Arizona had unexpectedly thrust itself into the discussion of the league's best team. Exhibit A in the case for the Cards was their thrilling win in Seattle, ending the Seahawks' 14-game home winning streak. Carson Palmer threw four picks, but he also completed a rainbow to Michael Floyd for the winning points, and the Cardinals defense was as excellent as Seattle's.
XIV. Stain on a Masterpiece
Leave it to Tony Romo to mar a 500-yard passing day with the vital interception. That's just what happened in Dallas' defense-free loss to Denver, 51-48. Romo was outstanding all day, but his late pick (on a brilliant diving play by Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan) had everyone screaming "Choke!" despite the previous 58 minutes.
XV. The Great Spread
The vagaries of the NFL schedule conspired to bring Jacksonville to Denver in mid-October, when the Jags were at their most futile and the Broncos at their most fearsome. Ergo, Vegas made Denver enormous favorites, the line settling at 27 points, the highest ever recorded in the long, illustrious history of football and gambling. The spread was too great a chasm for Denver to cover, as Jacksonville made them earn a 35-19 victory.
XVI. Pick After Pick
Eli Manning had typically enjoyed great success at JerryWorld, but on the opening Sunday night game of the year, he threw three interceptions, including a pick-six by Brandon Carr that sealed victory for the Cowboys. The G-Men also fumbled the ball away three times. The performance was prophetic for Eli, who would throw a league high 27 interceptions on the year.
XVII. Wait, Who Did That?!
Nick Foles matched Peyton Manning's seven touchdown passes from earlier in the year, hitting the number in an extended seven-on-seven drill against Oakland. Many fans weren't especially aware that Foles had supplanted Michael Vick as Eagles starter, much less was capable of such a performance, even against a Triple-A franchise like the Raiders.
XVIII. Smash Debut
There were plenty of questions about whether Chip Kelly could make an effective transition from college to pro football. The answers came quickly -- a blitzkreig of a first half in Washington, during which Philadelphia put up 26 points (and 53 plays) in thirty minutes, running the Skins ragged at the same time and ruining Robert Griffin's comeback from injury. Kelly and the Eagles would win the division, while Griffin's dig-me introduction was basically the high point of his season.
XIX. That's A Shame
Few fans outside New England were crying when the Patriots were jobbed on the season's most egregious non-call. Carolina hosted the Pats in a key test of strength, and led most of the way. But Tom Brady did what Tom Brady does, driving his team toward a potential game-winning touchdown as the final seconds dribbled away. On the game's final play, Brady threw for Rob Gronkowski, making a cameo appearance in uniform in his injury-plagued season. Carolina's nonpareil linebacker Luke Kuechly did everything but suplex Gronk, but the thrown flag for interference was picked up, and the Panthers had a signature win. Brady was unthrilled.
XX. Wow Factor
The Red Zone Channel player of the year was Cordarelle Patterson, who made fans edge forward on the couch every time he touched the ball. The rookie sensation scored on kick returns, screen passes, even handoffs. The longevity of ultra-explosive players historically isn't great (that's why Devin Hester is a Canton candidate), so we need to enjoy CP while he's at his athletic peak.
XXI. Nat Gio
The Bengals drafted Giovani Bernard to supply some speed and elusiveness out of the backfield. He did that in spades, turning several electrifying plays over the season. None was as special as this Thursday night beauty against the Dolphins, when Gio swiveled, shuffled, and sped past pretty much every Miami defender, including Nick Buoniconti and both Blackwood Brothers.
XXII. Stunning the Saints
New Orleans' reputation as a poor road team might have been ameliorated early on but for the botching of the end game in New England. The then-unbeaten Saints controlled play throughout and led 27-23 late. Twice, they appeared to ice the game, first with a fourth down stop, then with an interception. Yet clumsy clock management allowed Tom Brady yet another crack at a miracle, and of course he turned water into wine. With no timeouts and a minute on the clock, he drove the Pats 70 yards, culminating in a perfectly thrown touchdown to rookie Kenbrell Thompkins.
XXIII. It's Just a Job
The season was marred by a pair of serious incidents involving the health of head coaches. Denver's John Fox suffered a heart attack that required surgery, and Houston's Gary Kubiak had a stroke as he left the Reliant Stadium field at halftime. The scary moments once again highlighted the crushing pressure, stress, and workload on NFL coaches. Fortunately, both men returned to the sideline, although there was no sympathy for Kubiak, who was fired before season's end.
XXIV. Off The Field!
Mike Tomlin's aimless wandering in the midst of a typically hard-hitting Steelers-Ravens tilt almost led to a reincarnation of the infamous Tommy Lewis-Dicky Maegle incident. Fortunately, Jacoby Jones didn't actually collide with Pittsburgh's coach, but Tomlin's walkabout almost cost the Steelers draft choices.
XXV. Cam Comes of Age
For all of Carolina's defensive prowess this season, doubts remained about the Panthers ability to win a game from behind -- in other words, could Cam mount a comeback? The question was answered in a driving Charlotte rain, when Newton led a winning drive that started with under a minute to play, capping it with a 14-yard touchdown to Dominek Hixon, to beat the Saints 17-13. In so doing, the Panthers essentially won the NFC South and a first-round bye, and Newton proved he could make a big play at the big moment.
XXVI. Schwarz's Shonda
Detroit led Pittsburgh by four points early in the fourth quarter when head coach Jim Schwarz got too cute by half. He called for a fake field goal deep in Steelers territory, one that was snuffed out short of the end zone. Pittsburgh rallied for a win against Detroit's horrid defense, but the fake was blamed for the loss, and Schwarz slammed as an idiot afterwards. In a related story, Schwarz lost his job at season's end.
XXVII. Megatron, Unbound
Any number of Calvin Johnson's highlight plays could make this list, but I'll go with his insane catch despite triple coverage for a touchdown against the Bengals.
XXVIII. The Fleecing
The league was stunned when Cleveland gave up on Trent Richardson and dealt him to Indy after only one season and change. Even more shocking, especially to everyone who actually had seen Trent play (which may or may not have included Colts GM Ryan Grigson), was that the Browns snookered the Colts out of a first round draft choice for Richardson and his 2.9 yards per carry. Now that the postseason buzz has worn off, and the draft looms on the horizon, the anger over the deal in Indy is burgeoning.
XXIX. Record Kick
Three men had made a 63-yard field goal, but Denver's Matt Prater went them one yard better by connecting on a 64-yarder against Tennessee in December for a new NFL record. Sure, the altitude was a factor, but it was still one hell of a boot.
Rob Gronkowski's Homeric journey back from wrist and back surgery at last was over, and he was right back to dominating games from the tight end position for New England. But Gronk was sent back to the OR by Cleveland's T.J. Ward, a once-notorious headhunter who was driven to hit low by the league's safety consciousness. Unfortunately for Gronkowski, the hit resulted in torn knee ligaments that once again threatens an otherwise brilliant career. The Patriots still made the final four, but any realistic hopes of a championship died when Gronk was carried off the field.
XXXI. On Point Onside Kick
New England had no business beating Cleveland. The Browns mostly dominated the lifeless Pats. But a late score got them within reach, and then Stephen Gostkowski pulled off a nifty onside kick, amazingly the first one recovered by New England in the Belichick Era. As though by fait accompli, Tom Brady was gifted a pass interference call that set the Patriots up on the Browns doorstep, and he then threw the game-winning touchdown pass. The tonnage of remote controls hurled by Patriots haters after this one needed to be hauled by freighter.
XXXII. The New Normal
The only proper reaction to a roughing the quarterback penalty being called on Ahmad Brooks in a key situation against New Orleans, when Brooks didn't actually rough Drew Brees, was to shrug your shoulders. That's just how the game is called now. Sure, Ray Lewis was outraged, offering to pay Brooks' fine. And, yes, the penalty might have changed the outcome of the game, which ended with the Saints narrowly beating the 49ers. But when the story of 2013 is fully written, one of the key themes will be that anything resembling violence inflicted upon a quarterback draws a flag. Brooks won't be the last to learn that lesson.
XXXIII. Oh No, Romo
Not again! That's what Dallas fans groaned when once again Tony Romo's mistakes late in a game cost the team. In this case the 'Boys blew a huge lead against the Pack, helped mightily by a crucial interception thrown in what seemed to be a running situation. The fact Romo made a spectacular play to avoid a blitzing Clay Matthews just made the pick that much more aggravating.
Don't worry -- Tony will redeem himself, promise.
XXXIV. The Big Ouch
There were plenty of key injuries in 2013. Gronk, Geno Atkins, Von Miller, Vince Wilfork -- even Brian Hoyer. But none was as consequential as Aaron Rodgers' broken collarbone. The seemingly innocuous hit by Chicago's Shea McClellin knocked Green Bay's star from the game and all but one remaining game (see below). Rodgers' re-appearance after an X-ray in the Green Bay locker room led to a moving tribute from the home crowd. The Packers were caught flat-footed by the injury, and barely managed to tread water until prodigal son Matt Flynn arrived to save the Pack from drowning.
XXXV. Don't Look (But We Have To)
NaVorro Bowman's gruesome knee injury coming during a play that necessitated endless replays, even though it couldn't actually be reviewed, could have turned out worse for the NFL. Doubling down on the blown call didn't blow up in the league's face because Seattle fumbled on the next play. And instead of a leg injury, it could have been a nasty blow to the head or neck. Otherwise, it was a nightmare. We won't link to it here. Godspeed, NaVorro.
XXXVI. Pick at the Stick
Bowman had a far happier moment a few weeks earlier. While everyone was celebrating the closing of Candlestick Park, no one actually believed the Falcons would ruin the fun by beating San Francisco in the final game there. But after recovering an onside kick that went right through Bowman, Atlanta was on the doorstep of victory. Then Bowman redeemed himself by turning in one last memorable moment on the Candlestick green.
XXXVII. You Can't Go Home Again
While the two Brady-Manning showdowns are what we remember best today, perhaps the most anticipated quarterback showdown of the season was Manning-Luck. Peyton returned to Indianapolis in October with his ears burning, having been kinda-sorta dissed by Colts owner Jim Irsay, who was riding high with another franchise quarterback in place. Luck threw for three scores and ran for another, a bravura performance that was still barely enough to defeat the old master. Manning rallied from a 33-14 deficit to make a game of it, but heavy pressure by Robert Mathis and his mates was enough to hold Denver off in a 39-33 win.
It's a sign of progress for Cincinnati that the entire season revolved around the Bengals' playoff performance. However, in a game that was more reckoning than contest, Andy Dalton flushed all his achievements during 2013 down the toilet. After a decent first half, the Red Rifle turned into Aaron Altman. Dalton turned the ball over three times in the second half, directly leading to San Diego's win. The epitomizing moment was fumbling without being touched, the very definition of an unforced error.
XXXIX. The Wind Cries Bill
A frosty, windswept evening in Foxborough will usually elicit wins by the home team. But even by New England's lofty standards, this win over Peyton Manning and Denver was historic. Capitalizing on numerous Pats flubs, the Broncos raced out to a 24-0 lead, only to slip on butterfingers of their own at halftime, and give it all back. The game went into overtime tied at 31.
Astounding even his own captains, Belichick ordered his team to take the wind after winning the toss. Neither team could move the ball, but the swirling wind caused a punt to carom off Denver upback Tony Carter. The seventh turnover of the game gifted the win to New England, yet another of a series of improbable victories the team eked out in 2013.
XL. Manning's Record Start
Peyton served notice that this season was going to be special all the way back on the opening Thursday night of the season, when he shrugged off a weather delay to throw for a record seven touchdown passes. Denver demolished the Super Bowl champion Ravens, who never fully recovered from the beating. Meanwhile, Denver is one win away from succeeding Baltimore as champs.
XLI. Manning's Record Finish
Sure, the Broncos ran up the score a bit on Houston in order to ensure Manning broke Tom Brady's record for TD passes in a season. His 51st to Julius Thomas came at the end of a rout of the league's worst team. Manning kept on chuckin', and wound up breaking the passing yards record as well. All that's left to cap the greatest season in quarterbacking history is a Super Bowl victory.
XLII. Unlikely Hero
Just when everyone was ready to write off Tony Romo and Dallas, the beleaguered quarterback led an all-or-nothing drive to defeat Washington and keep the team alive for the playoffs. The clutch drive and touchdown pass on fourth down became even more legendary when Romo was revealed to have a serious back injury, one that would cruelly keep him from playing in the following game against Philly, a match that would decide the division title.
XLIII. Kyle Romo
Romo's injury meant journeyman backup Kyle Orton would lead the Cowboys in the win-or-else game against the Eagles. Orton was surprisingly competent, until he channeled his inner Tony and threw an dispiriting interception that sealed a 24-22 win for Philadelphia. Once again, Dallas finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs, thus guaranteeing the return of Jason Garrett and his entire staff.
XLIV. Fire Me, Please!
Mike Shanahan never officially went the full Costanza and said he wanted to be canned from the Washington sideline (there was a $7 million buyout at stake, after all), but his actions, including the benching of RG3 and endless leaks attributed to him, did the job well enough. It was like the old Sam Kinison routine about getting out of a bad relationship -- just act terribly and do a lot of bad things, and she'll leave you! Indeed, Shanny and Son were fired at season's end, leading to one last pathetic moment at Redskins Park.
XLV. "Lucky" Luck
For all his brilliance in his two seasons, Andrew Luck lacked a defining moment. Until the astonishing comeback against Kansas City in the playoffs, that is. The most memorable play in the surmounting of a 28-point deficit was Luck corralling a fumble and lunging into the end zone for a touchdown. Sure, it was a fortuitous bounce, but that's the kind of good fortune that the greats always seem to receive. And there was nothing providential about Luck's instant and bold reaction.
XLVI. Rodgers' Return
Bears fans spent the second half of the season with the uneasy certainty that Aaron Rodgers would come back to haunt them. Sure enough, in the final week of the season, in his first game since Chicago broke his collarbone, Rodgers broke the Windy City's hearts with this incredible play. The touchdown pass to Randall Cobb won the NFC North for Green Bay, ensured a home playoff game, and sent the Bears into the offseason, mumbling about driving a stake through Rodgers' heart next time.
XLVII. Aren't Dolphins Friendly?
As happens far too often for Roger Goodell's digestive tract, the NFL made the leap to mainstream coverage for all the wrong reasons thanks to a bizarre bullying incident in Miami. When offensive tackle Jonathan Martin got fed up with fellow lineman Richie Incognito's bullying and walked off the team, the players, the Fish, and the league were subjected to withering criticism from talking heads across the full spectrum of the cable menu. Incognito, apparently missing his calling as a prison guard, subjected Martin to constant abuse, yet for the most part the team sided with the attacker and not the victim. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the aftermath was that the Dolphins pulled it together and played decent football, threatening to actually make the playoffs and set records for hand-wringing features on pre-game shows. Fortunately for all concerned, they scored just seven points in their final two games and were left out of the postseason. Neither Martin nor Incognito seem likely to play again.
XLVIII. The Immaculate Deflection
The aftermath of Richard Sherman's epic pass breakup in the waning moments of the NFC Championship Game against the 49ers started this list. But the play itself, lost amid the "He's A Thug/No He Went To Stanford!" circular arguments, will be remembered far longer. Rightfully, Sherman's spectacular twist-and-slap, which resulted in an easy pick by Malcolm Smith, will become the Pacific Northwest's version of "The Catch." The game was gripping, a violent, barbed encounter that will go down in pigskin lore once distance allows us the proper perspective (and Sherman is busy taunting fellow seniors at the retirement home buffet line).
Simply put, it was the moment of the season. Here's hoping the Super Bowl offers one to top it.
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Robert Weintraub is the author of the books The Victory Season and The House That Ruth Built. He writes regularly for the New York Times, ESPN.com, Football Outsiders, CJR, Slate and many others. Follow him on Twitter @robwein.