2015 was a unique NFL season that had its fair share of ups, downs, twists, and turns. I will take a look back at 15 of the moments that defined and created the NFL season that will wrap up Feb. 7th at Levi's Stadium when the Panthers play the Broncos.
15. Giants vs. Saints, Week 8 — Offense, Offense, Offense
This game makes the list simply for its offensive fire power. Eli Manning threw for six touchdowns and three landed in Odell Beckham's hands in a homecoming for both of them. However, Brees' seven touchdowns and game-winning field goal from Kai Forbath got the win for the Saints at home, 52-49. This game didn't mean much in the grand scheme of things because both teams had very mediocre seasons, but the combination of strong offense and weak defense made this game one of the more exciting ones in 2015.
14. Panthers vs. Giants, Week 15 — Norman vs. OBJ
This game makes the list because it featured one of the uglier scenes of the season. It was an intense game featuring the undefeated Panthers and the Giants, who still had slim hopes of winning the lackluster NFC East. The Panthers took the lead early, which fired up Odell Beckham Jr. and he expressed his frustration in the wrong way against Panthers CB Josh Norman. However, the Giants came back with 28 unanswered points to tie the game inside the two-minute warning. Cam Newton led his team down field to get into Graham Gano's range to hit a game-winning field goal.
This game wasn't only a great display of football from both teams but it was arguably the most physical game of the season and raised some questions as to what crosses the line. The Giants accused some of the Panthers of using gay slurs against Beckham but the matter was quickly dropped.
13. The Collapse of Dallas
The Cowboys came into the season coming off a 12-4 campaign and the best season since the days of the Dallas dynasty of the 1990s. They had high expectations and started off 2-0 with both wins in the division. However, Tony Romo was hurt for most of the season and he was the starter in three of Dallas' four wins. Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel, and Kellen Moore did a below-average job quarterbacking the Cowboys, and they took several steps back this season, finishing 4-12. It also didn't help that Dez Bryant was out for most of the year and the defense did not perform as well as they did in 2014. However, Dallas fans should keep their heads up because turnarounds can be quick in the NFL, and with a last-place schedule in the NFC's worst division, plus a Top 5 pick, the Cowboys could find themselves going from worst to first.
12. Chargers vs. Raiders, Week 16 — Woodson Says Goodbye
On Christmas Eve, the Raiders were definitely saying goodbye to Charles Woodson, an 18-year surefire Hall of Fame defensive back. Fans were also wondering if this was the last game the Raiders would play in Oakland.The stadium was packed and the emotions were high for the Raiders, who won four more games than they did in 2014. The Chargers took a seven-point lead into halftime, but the Raiders came back in the fourth quarter with a fumble recovery that led to a Michael Crabtree touchdown. On the ensuing drive, Josh Lambo kicked a game-tying field goal that sent the game to overtime. In overtime, Sebastian Janikowski made the game-winner and sent Woodson out in style. It was the mirror image of a solid season from the Raiders, who have a young core that could take the league by storm and become one of the league's better teams in the next few years.
11. Ravens vs. Browns, Week 11 — Will Hill Kick-Six
This was the craziest end to a game this season. A Matt Schaub game wouldn't be complete without him throwing a pick-six, but a kick-six is what defined this game. Travis Coons was set up to kick a 51-yard field goal to win the game for the Browns, but it was blocked by the Ravens and Will Hill returned it 64 yards to win the game. It was a bright spot for the Ravens, who didn't have many throughout the season, but for the Browns, it was a metaphor for the season they had: a series of unfortunate events. Hopefully they can turn it around after they revamp their team (again).
10. Panthers vs. Falcons, Week 16 — Panthers' Undefeated Season Gone
After their hard-fought Week 15 win against the Giants, Carolina was looking to go 15-0 against a Falcons team they had shut out 38-0 just two weeks ago. Had this game not happened, the Panthers would be playing for a perfect season in the Super Bowl. However, the Falcons did their job and temporarily held on to any slim playoff hopes they still had.
It was a surprise that they were hanging on by a thread given the position they were in after starting 5-0. The other five teams that started 5-0 — Carolina, Denver, Cincinnati, New England and Green Bay — all made the playoffs. On the contrary, the Chiefs and Texans both started 2-5, and the Redskins and Seahawks were 2-4, but all four of them made the postseason. This game proved that the season is long, and it doesn't matter how one starts, but how one finishes.
9. Seahawks blow five fourth-quarter leads
After going 12-4 last season, the team experienced a two-win drop and ended up with only a Wild Card berth. However, in five of their six losses, they went into the fourth quarter with a lead. Four of their five losses were also against playoff teams. Had they held those five fourth-quarter leads, they would have been 15-1 because one of those games was at home against Carolina and the NFC Playoffs would have once again gone through Seattle.
8. Seahawks vs. Vikings, NFC Wild Card — Blair Walsh Misses Chip Shot
The Seahawks' postseason ended up playing out in directly the opposite fashion as their regular season did. The Vikings were leading 9-0 in one of the coldest games ever played in NFL history. The Seahawks managed to come back with a Doug Baldwin touchdown and a Steven Hauschka field goal with eight minutes to go put them up one. An exchange of punting drives set the Vikings up with less than two minutes to go to drive down the field to win. Teddy Bridgewater brought his team down to the 10-yard line set up Blair Walsh to try and make his fourth field goal of the game, but he hooked it left. The Vikings were left stunned at home, while the Seahawks advanced to play Carolina.
7. Chiefs vs. Broncos, Week 11 — Peyton Picked Off Four Times
This game is widely known for Peyton Manning's four interceptions, which ultimately led to him being replaced by Brock Osweiler. The media found out after the game that Manning had been dealing with plantar fasciitis, and it kept him out until Week 17, when Osweiler was the one turning the ball over and Manning came in to replace the struggling quarterback. They overcame their deficit, and the Broncos clinched home-field. This game was the height of the Broncos' quarterback struggles throughout the year, which is why they have been underestimated. In the playoffs, they have seen a little more consistency, which is why they are playing for Super Bowl 50.
6. Aaron Rodgers Throws Two Hail Mary's
For someone to throw one Hail Mary in the NFL is crazy in itself, but for the same quarterback to throw two in the same season is something we may never see again. The first Hail Mary was against the Lions on a Thursday night game in early December. Aaron Rodgers' 50-yard pass to Richard Rodgers won the game for the Packers started a three-game win streak that was imperative for the team to reach the postseason. It was only their second win after a 6-0 start, and 8-4 looked a lot better than 7-5.
The second Hail Mary was even more improbable, and occurred in the Wild Card game at Arizona. It would never have been set up if Rodgers hadn't completed a 60-yard pass to Jeff Janis on 4th-and-20 from his own 4-yard line. A few plays later, Rodgers completed his second Hail Mary of the season, this time landing in Janis' hands. The joy didn't last long after the Cardinals threw a 76-yard pass to Larry Fitzgerald and set him up for the 4-yard score in overtime. It was definitely one of the league's crazier games of the year, and Rodgers completed a feat that will likely never be achieved again.
5. Steelers vs. Bengals, AFC Wild Card — Burfict goes rogue
Steelers vs. Bengals became one of the premium rivalries in the NFL this season, and the rivalry escalated in the playoffs. The Steelers took a 15-0 lead going into the fourth quarter, but 16 unanswered points from the Bengals put them in the lead. The Steelers tried to score on a go-ahead drive, but Landry Jones, who had entered the game after a Ben Roethlisberger injury, threw an interception on the first play of the drive. On the ensuing play, Jeremy Hill fumbled the ball inside the two-minute warning.
The Steelers were still very far from scoring range, and Ben Roethlisberger rallied his team back, but the biggest gain of yards didn't come from a big offensive play. The Bengals gave up two 15-yard penalties, and the first one concussed Antonio Brown on a big hit from linebacker Vontaze Burfict, and the second was called on Adam Jones. The two big penalties set Steelers kicker Chris Boswell for a 35-yard field goal and it won the game for the Steelers. However, they would pay the price for Burfict's big hit. Antonio Brown's concussion held him out for their AFC Divisional Game against the Broncos, and they would end up losing to Denver.
4. Patriots vs. Jets, Week 16 — Patriots elect to kick
In one of the most bizarre moments of the season, the Patriots played the Jets in a big game for both teams. The Patriots were looking to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, while the Jets were looking to get into the playoffs. The Patriots were favored, but the Jets took a 17-3 lead early in the third quarter after Brandon Marshall's second touchdown of the game. The Patriots managed to storm back to tie it at 20 with less than two minutes to go. Then, in overtime, the Patriots won the coin toss, and they elected to kick, which surprised the entire league.
Many thought at first that Matthew Slater, the Patriots' special teams captain, made a mistake, but after the game, it was revealed that Bill Belichick had wanted to kick. The decision backfired as Ryan Fitzpatrick led the Jets down the field in five plays to win the game for New York's fifth straight win. This gave New York a chance to clinch a playoff berth the following week with a win, but they lost to their former coach's team, Rex Ryan's Buffalo Bills. On the other hand, the Patriots needed to win one of their final two games to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. They lost to the Jets, and the following week, they would surprisingly be upset by a mediocre Dolphins team. The two losses to end the regular season slotted them into the second seed, which meant they would have to travel for the AFC Championship Game, which affected the playoffs immensely.
3. Bengals vs. Broncos, Week 16 — Battle of the Backups
At the beginning of the season, nobody would have predicted that one of the most important matchups of the season would feature A.J. McCarron facing off against Brock Osweiler in a game that would significantly alter the playoffs. McCarron had the Bengals up 14-3 on the road in Denver in his second career start, but Osweiler threw for a touchdown and C.J. Anderson ran for another to level the score. As time was expiring, Brandon McManus lined up to kick a game-winning field goal, but he missed and sent the game to overtime.
McManus got the chance to redeem himself as he kicked a 37-yard field goal to win the game for the Broncos. The win allowed the Broncos a chance a.t the top seed, and with help from the Patriots, they were able to do that the following week against the Chargers. The Bengals dropped to the third seed, which forced them to play the Steelers in the playoffs - a game they ended up losing.
2. Patriots vs. Broncos, Week 12 — Osweiler Stuns the Pats
I regarded this as the Game of the Year in my 2015 Awards Ceremony, and I'm sticking by that in this countdown. What more could you ask for in a game? It had an underdog story. Brock Osweiler was getting his second career start against Tom Brady. Bill Belichick had never lost a game in which the opposing quarterback was in his first or second start. It had a comeback. The Broncos scored 17 points in the fourth quarter, and Stephen Gostkowski hit a game-tying field goal to send the game into overtime, where C.J. Anderson ran for his second touchdown of the game and won it for the Broncos, giving the Patriots their first loss of the season
This game was a ball of drama and ultimately meant so much in the grand scheme of things. It also was the game that gave the head-to-head tiebreaker for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
1. Patriots vs. Broncos, AFC Championship — Gostkowski's Miss
A major rule change in the NFL this season sent extra points back 15 yards. Kickers were forced to attempt the not-so-automatic 33-yard field goal rather than an 18-yard chip shot. The NFL's plan was to add more value and importance to the extra point and make things a little more difficult. The plan worked, as extra-point percentage decreased from 99.3% in 2014 to 94.1 in 2015.
The biggest extra-point miss came in the biggest game of the season so far from one of the league's most consistent kickers, Stephen Gostkowski. Gostkowski made all 52 of his regular season PAT's and only missed three field goals. The Broncos' 20-18 win was surprising because very few gave them a chance, even though they had won the regular season meeting.
The defense showed up for the Broncos, and it was too much of a hassle for the dilapidated New England offensive line. Denver's stellar defense, coupled with two touchdowns from Owen Daniels, punched Denver's tickets to Santa Clara. It ended any possibility of a repeat from New England, and Denver has the chance to possibly send Peyton Manning into the sunset with one more win. Can they do it? We'll know in about a week.
Jeremy Brener lives in Houston. He can be reached via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Twitter (@BrenerJeremy).