Top 20 Games of 2011

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Game 9: Cowboys at 49ers Week 2

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What is Football IQ, and why do players need it? It’s a deeper sense of football awareness, borne out of years of repetition, understanding concepts, and having an intuitive plan on the field. It’s necessary, sure, but it all kind of flies out the window when one of your ribs are cracked.

For Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo, who played most of the second half and overtime of a Week 2 game against the San Francisco 49ers while having trouble breathing, it must have required some form of autopilot. The guy couldn’t afford to think about anything other than getting the ball out of his hand before the best front seven in football cracked another rib.

Oh, by the way, the Cowboys were down 10 points late to the NFC’s best. And yet, Romo, for all of the criticism that he withers in crunch time, can’t beat the good teams, and is too happy-go-lucky to be tough or a leader, beat that killer defense with a cracked rib in tow. Throw in the fact that this was Cowboys-49ers, a match with more history than Pawn Stars, and that’s why this was the ninth best game of 2011.

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“It's about a quarterback but it's really about a football player and a competitor,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “And Tony is that. One of the best competitors I've ever been around.'

True that, Coach. Though, this game was about something else: Football IQ -- the ability to be effective in a football game without having to think, because the player sees things unfold before anyone else. For someone like 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis, it’s the ability to diagnose plays without truly concentrating on them, a mental flow that allows him to flow to the ball faster than others. Romo’s Football IQ was through the roof in this game, consistently knowing where to go with the leather before he got crushed and was out much more than a quarter. Call it a heightened sense of football awareness.

What resulted was one of the best games of the storied Cowboys-49ers rivalry, a contest that resembled those others in that one brilliant playcall settled the score, one emanating from Football IQ with a quarterback on autopilot.

In the 1981 NFC Championship, Bill Walsh’s 49ers trailed the Cowboys 27-21 with 58 seconds to go. Having used the running game time and again on that last drive, Walsh called a sprint-out pass play on third-and three (“Splint Right Option”), hoping to sneak Freddie Solomon out in the flat while giving his quarterback room to run -- options. When Solomon slipped, Montana went to his second read, ultimately lobbing the ball to Dwight Clark for a big chunk of NFL lore.

Walsh had made Montana practice throwing the ball to the back of the endzone while rolling out over and over in practice, for just this kind of event. That was repetition. But calling that play in that situation, as well as making Montana practice for that exact eventuality, came directly from the mental acumen, and Football IQ, of Walsh.

The 1992 NFC Championship Game carried its own penultimate play. Eleven years after “The Catch,” Jimmy Johnson’s Cowboys nursed a 24-20 lead, three minutes to go, ball on the 20. Run the ball … burn clock … right? No. Johnson told offensive coordinator Norv Turner, “We’ve got to get first downs.” Turner gave him 70 yards instead, instinctively calling a deep slant to Alvin Harper on first down. And Troy Aikman released the football, trusting his receiver to get in front of the defender to make the slant possible. The playcall was genius with an equally adept quarterback on autopilot. Boo-yah.

“First down is the best time. We could have run it three times and they still would have had plenty of time to score,” Turner said.

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Back to 2011, here is Dallas in San Francisco in overtime of Week 2, tied at 24, first down. Garrett, a former quarterback under Turner, gave Romo the perfect play to send him home safely and his team home winners.

On the snap, Romo moved towards Tashard Choice on what looked to be a stretch play to the right. It seemed normal to the Niners’ defenders because: A) time was not a factor with over 12 minutes to go in the extra period; and B) everyone in the stadium knew Romo was hurt badly. So what are the chances he’s dropping seven steps and holding the ball in his hand, waiting for a receiver?

Play-action. Wideout Jesse Holley -- a guy who had to audition on Michael Irvin’s reality show to get a chance in the NFL -- ran a nine-route straight down the field. Romo never even hesitated, setting up and delivering an absolutely gorgeous ball to his fourth WR, in stride, for a 77-yard completion. Autopilot.

That was a wrap for one of our best games of 2011, and until next time for these two great franchises.

Play of the Game 1: With just over two minutes to play in the second quarter, the Cowboys faced third-and-8. Niners defensive coordinator Vic Fangio dialed up a corner blitz. Romo got the ball off, but Carlos Rogers hit him square from the blind side. His rib was broken, and the complexion of this game changed greatly.

Same Ol’ Situation: All season long the Niners ran college plays, going “Power” in the ground game,and “Wheel” routes in the air attack. The 49ers ran the latter to absolute perfection in the third quarter, isolating H-back Delanie Walker on the forever-disappointing Anthony Spencer, picking up a quick six and a 24-17 lead.

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Can’t-Miss Play: Romo’s return gave the entire offense a boost, and the sense of urgency in Romo’s play seem to ratchet up considerably. The Cowboys called several plays that kept their quarterback out of harm’s way.

One such example was a simple three-step drop and lob on a go route to Miles Austin. Dallas was trailing by 10 points midway through the fourth and went for the big play on first down. It was a nice toss by Romo, but an even better adjustment by Austin to attack the football and crawl into the endzone.

Play of the Game 2: During the overtime period Romo got pretty intense with his receivers, especially second-year wideout Jesse Holley, a former reality show contestant. You could see Romo telling Holley exactly what he wanted from him on sideline isolation cameras on the FOX broadcast.

Garrett called for play-action on what looked to be a simple first-down stretch play on the opening play of the Dallas possession. When Romo set up, Holley was already several yards past the sucked-in defender, and you could hear announcer Brian Billick say, “Uh-oh,” followed by, “Oh my goodness.” All Romo had to do was make a good throw. He did. Holley never broke stride until he was tackled at the one-yard line.

Best Player on the Field: Romo. At least one cracked rib, one large monkey on his back, and missing a large portion of the game didn’t stop Romo from throwing for 345 yards and two touchdowns. And don’t forget his perfect overtime pitch-and-catch to Holley.

Why this Game is No. 9: The latest installment of the historic Cowboys-Niners could at least hold a candle to the 1981 NFC Championship and1992 NFC Championship, if not matching them in drama. This game had solid defense, spectacular plays, and a herculean effort by the most maligned player in pro football -- all in a winning effort. Because Romo was able to pull of the win, despite one of the more painful injuries you can have, this game eked past Packers-Giants for the ninth spot on our list. New York played valiantly, but in the end, didn’t win their game. Either way, each were two of the best regular season games in 2011.

Why not Higher?: As fun as it was to watch, Cowboys-Niners did take place in Week 2, so there was not as much riding on this game as our top eight. The first quarter was also a bit slow, as both teams seemed to be feeling each other out. Remember, this was only Jim Harbaugh’s second career game as an NFL head coach. The next four quarters (including overtime) were definitely worth the time invested.

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