The 20 Most Important Plays of the NFL Season

By Jason Lisk

We are now in the final throes of the NFL season. Positions have solidified. There have been a lot of key moments that have gotten us to this point. Maybe there are some bigger or splashier plays not on the list, but these are some big moments from this season that now seem really important when you look back at how things have turned out.

#20 Nathan Peterman throws late Pick Six against Texans

After an 0-3 start, the Houston Texans had a run of games where things went very right for them in key moments (you may see a few others below). Against the Bills at home, the Texans found themselves in a surprisingly nervy affair. Josh Allen got hurt, though, and Nathan Peterman was in the game late, with the score tied, when he did that thing he does. Without this survival, the Texans would not be in position for a bye.

#19 Patrick Mahomes to Tyreek Hill for a very quick score against New England

Patrick Mahomes to Tyreek Hill has been a lightning combination all year. In a key game against the Patriots they scored quickly … too quickly … in tying a game with three minutes left in just one play.

The Patriots then methodically moved down the field and Kansas City never touched the ball, and that has been a theme in key moments all year.

#18 Dan Bailey nails risky 52-yarder to seal win over Eagles

Minnesota had a six-point lead over the Eagles on the road when Mike Zimmer faced a decision. Try a long field goal to seal the game, or punt it and make the Eagles go the full field to win. A miss and the Eagles would have been starting near mid-field, and Bailey had already missed two kicks that day.

But Bailey nailed it. The Eagles went down and scored, too, but could not recover the onside kick. Bailey’s long kick is the difference between the Vikings having the advantage now in the wildcard race, or being behind the Eagles in the standings.

#17 Drew Brees turns into a Running Back to force overtime

It’s easy to forget that this season started slowly for the Saints. They lost to the Buccaneers in the opener, then survived at home against the Browns thanks to several Zane Gonzalez missed kicks (two extra points and two field goals). In week 3, they traveled to Atlanta and found themselves trailing in a shootout.

That’s when Drew Brees found a bit of magic near the goal line, bouncing off two defenders and turning it up for a dramatic touchdown to force overtime.

#16 Alex Smith breaks his leg

Washington is still mathematically alive for a playoff spot, but their season went off the rails when Alex Smith suffered a tragic injury that could threaten his career. Washington has gone through three quarterbacks in the last four games, going 1-3, and with several other NFC contenders also collapsing, this season could have turned out very differently but for this moment.

#15 Titans go for two in London against the Chargers

Two-point conversions have played a big role in the Chargers’ season. Earlier this year, the Titans had an opportunity to kick for the tie, but instead Mike Vrabel went aggressive and tried for the win against the Chargers. Both attempts failed (the first was negated by a defensive penalty). If that play is converted, Tennessee is squarely in much better shape for a wildcard and has a very good chance of winning the AFC South. Meanwhile, the Chargers’ chances to get the #1 seed and win the AFC West would be minimal.

#14 Rams go for win on 4th and 1 versus Seahawks

The Rams won two close games against Seattle this year, and had those gone differently, the NFC West could still be wide open, and the Rams would have more difficulty getting a bye.

The key moment in the first meeting came when the Rams faced a 4th and 1, and rather than punt the ball back to Russell Wilson with the game on the line, Sean McVay went to win the game. It worked, and the Rams ran out the clock.

#13 Orlando Scandrick drops interception versus Rams

The Rams-Chiefs game came down to so many big moments and huge plays, as the game with the highest score by a losing team ever. One of them, though, literally slipped through the Chiefs’ hands when they had a chance to secure the victory.

Orlando Scandrick dropped into perfect position, and Jared Goff threw the ball right to his hands.

If Scandrick secures that catch, the Chiefs have a stranglehold on the AFC #1 spot, and the Rams are behind the Bears in the NFC.

#12 Khalil Mack sacks, injures Aaron Rodgers

When Khalil Mack sacked and injured Aaron Rodgers on opening night, it looked to foretell doom for Green Bay, and announce the coming of Chicago. Well, except Aaron Rodgers came limping back in the second half, led a massive comeback, and seemed to right things.

Not so fast. Rodgers never seemed right after that, Green Bay struggled, and the Bears surged despite that loss. Who knows how things would have turned out for Green Bay with a healthier Aaron Rodgers?

#11 Bobby Wagner blocked kick versus Vikings

Bobby Wagner timed his jump over the line and blocked the field goal attempt in the fourth quarter against the Vikings. The problem was he used leverage by pushing off his own players, and a penalty should have been called.

That kick would have made it a 6-3 game with 5:46 left. Instead, the Seahawks went down and scored, then got a defensive touchdown, and the game was over.

Seattle is in great shape right now to claim the wildcard. Minnesota still has work to do. Those roles could be swapped if Minnesota had prevailed.

#10 Albert Wilson turns short pass into long TD versus Bears

The Bears defense has been stout almost all year. But for one brief moment, they ran into Brock-Tober. Leading by seven points, the Bears allowed Albert Wilson of the Dolphins to take a short pass and turn it into a game-tying effort, and the Dolphins would win in overtime.

Little did we know that such a play wouldn’t even come close to registering as the biggest for Miami this year, and if Chicago doesn’t surrender that big chunk, they might be in position for a bye right now.

#9 Zane Gonzalez gets blocked, Browns and Steelers tie

You want to know how long the season is? Flashback to this one in week 1. Zane Gonzalez was blocked by T.J. Watt, to give the Steelers a tie. You can see the befuddled look on Hue Jackson’s face in the highlight.

If the Browns can win that game in overtime, the Steelers are in much worse shape, and Cleveland is very much alive for a playoff spot, sitting just one game behind both the Steelers and Ravens.

#8 Jason Garrett turtles up and punts in overtime versus Texans

On 4th and 1 from the Houston 42 in overtime, Jason Garrett did not play for the win. He punted the ball away, and a few plays later Deshaun Watson hit DeAndre Hopkins for a 49-yard play that set up the winning field goal for Houston. That decision drew the ire of his owner the next day with public comments.

If Dallas wins that game, they are already NFC East Champs and Houston is in a dogfight for the AFC South.

#7 Mike Vrabel gets aggressive vs. Eagles in overtime

Tennessee was down by 3 in overtime at the defending Super Bowl champions. They had already converted a 4th-and-4 on the drive, and then facing 4th-and-2 with the possibility of a long field goal to tie, Vrabel went for it. The Titans converted on a pass to Dion Lewis, and Marcus Mariota hit Corey Davis for the game winner a few plays later.

If Tennessee loses that game, they are basically eliminated from the playoffs right now, with no chance to win the AFC South and needing multiple losses from Baltimore. The Eagles, meanwhile, would be in much better shape to get back to the playoffs

#6 Clay Matthews roughing versus the Vikings

I want you to imagine how this year is different if the league didn’t start by using Clay Matthews as the poster boy for enforcing a roughing the passer rule that magically disappeared a few weeks later.

The Packers got what should have been a game-sealing interception up by 8 late against the Vikings. Instead, it was called back because of a terrible roughing call against Matthews.

Green Bay is still mathematically alive with a win there, and the Vikings are in a flat-footed tie with the Eagles and Redskins for a playoff spot.

#5 Colts don’t play for tie versus Texans, lose

Frank Reich wasn’t playing for the tie versus Houston. He went for it on 4th and 4 at their own 43. It failed, and the Texans kicked a field goal to win the game a few plays later.

At the time, the Texans were 0-3. But now with the benefit of hindsight, that decision appears extra costly. A tie would still have the Colts just one game back of the Texans, with the tiebreaker because of the later win at Houston.

Of course, if the Colts had converted and gone on to win, they would be leading the AFC South right now on the tiebreaker with both teams at 9-5.

#4 Philip Rivers to Mike Williams for TD and 2 Point Play versus Chiefs

The AFC West was on the line. The Chiefs had led all game. But Philip Rivers and Mike Williams combined for a controversial touchdown at the end of the game in Arrowhead (it looked like Williams got away with a clear push off) and then Williams was wide open on a blown coverage on the two-point play to win it.

The Chargers still have a chance to win the division and get the #1 seed as a result.

#3 Amari Cooper catches deflected OT TD to knock out Eagles

A singular “ecstasy to agony” moment could end up deciding the NFC East and who gets in the playoffs. Philadelphia went to Dallas knowing they needed to win. They had their chance. In overtime, the third down pass for Amari Cooper was deflected, but found its way into his arms. If it is intercepted, the Eagles have a chance to win. Even if it falls incomplete, Dallas settles for a field goal and Philadelphia still has hope.

Now, the Eagles must win out and Dallas lose both to alter that fate.

#2 Patrick Mahomes comes up with insane fourth down conversion versus Ravens

What is there to say about Patrick Mahomes? Sometimes you need to just re-watch and be amazed all over again. Mahomes had been getting pummeled all game by the Ravens’ fierce defense, and on 4th and 9 was chased from the pocket again. That heave and that catch snatched away defeat, and the Chiefs would tie it and eventually win in overtime. MVP-worthy moment.

#1 Dolphins Miracle versus Patriots

Savor it. You’ll be seeing this one for a long time, and it could be decisive in how the playoffs look this year in the AFC.