2012 NFL season shaped by five games, including the 'Fail Mary'


A single game is just a drop in the bucket in the NFL, what with 21 weeks for teams to decide their fate and 267 contests to satisfy the football palate.

A drop in the bucket ... that's appropriate, as any drop creates its own ripple. Take your pick of the thousands of games that have been played over the NFL's 93 seasons; no matter the outcome, that game had its own effect on the season and -- in some cases -- on history.

The New York Giants never would have won Super Bowl XLVI if Dallas Cowboys receiver Miles Austin hadn't lost a ball in the lights in Week 14. Tennessee Titans receiver Kevin Dyson wouldn't have ended up a yard short in Super Bowl XXXIV if Music City had gone Miracle-less in that 1999 wild-card game. Joe Montana-to-John Taylor never would have happened in Super Bowl XXIII if Steve Young hadn't produced the greatest scramble ever versus the Minnesota Vikings at midseason.

And so goes the NFL's ripple effect.

Two years ago, I wrote a piece about the games that shaped the 2010 season. As I started to get updates from the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine, hearing how certain collegians will make their mark on the league next season, I was reminded of that piece and began thinking about five games that forged the 2012 campaign.

Here, in chronological order, is my list.

Seahawks fans wanted everyone to quit their crying. Packers fans (as well as pretty much every other NFL fan) wanted to know the true answer to that eternal question: WTF? M.D. Jennings would like a second interception added to his football card. What the heck happened?

We know Russell Wilson's desperation heave to win this Week 3 matchup was, at a bare minimum, controversial. And of course, the sour aftertaste of a game seemingly being handed to the Seahawks (although it's important to remember that some calls went against them, too) was not the only aftertaste.

Seattle emerged as a contender, partially because of a dominant defensive display that produced eight sacks in the first half. The win provided just enough of a cushion for the Seahawks to stay a step ahead of the Chicago Bears, New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings in the NFC wild-card race. Green Bay, meanwhile, was greatly affected in terms of their hunt for home-field advantage.

More importantly, with several questionable calls delivered by replacement refs, no game better facilitated the recognition that the NFL's product is only as good as the officiating. Essentially, the game means nothing if it's not fairly played ... from Seattle to New York to Miami.

Here is yet another close Packers loss that greatly affected the 2012 season.

Green Bay fell to 2-3 after losing to an emotionally charged Colts club in Week 5, and the Packers, who went 15-1 in 2011, ultimately "stumbled" to an 11-5 finish. A win in Indy would have at least allowed the Pack to skip the wild-card round and host their divisional playoff matchup at frigid Lambeau Field. How would a Packers-49ers NFC Divisional Round game have gone down? Would San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick have run for 181 yards in Green Bay, as he did on his home turf? For that matter, would the Niners, who had lost in Minnesota once already, have even beaten the Vikings in the wild-card round?

All those musings about what could've been are small marbles compared to the story of the pesky Colts. The emotional underbelly of this past season was the little-engine-that-could in Indianapolis. A team with a rookie quarterback, a fill-in head coach and a roster full of new faces went 11-5, giving real-life meaning to the NFL's age-old mission statement of "any given Sunday."

Then there's Chuckstrong. The week before this game, Colts coach Chuck Pagano announced he was fighting leukemia. Like most of America, I couldn't believe what I was seeing as I watched this one play out from my living room. Aaron Rodgers' pocket was collapsing. The folks in the Lucas Oil crowd, refusing to buy into the notion that their Colts were a 2-14 team, were going nutso. And no one on planet Earth -- Deion Sanders included -- could have stopped Reggie Wayne on that day. Mr. Wayne finished with 212 yards.

The Colts entered this contest at 1-2. They won 10 of their next 13, finishing 11-5 and making the playoffs. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians won the Coach of the Year Award after serving on an interim basis in Pagano's stead. Most importantly, Pagano won his battle, and his players won theirs ... for him.

There are bad ties (Herb Tarlek, anyone?). There are good ties. Consider this game's inclusion on this list to be a vote for the latter.

What a crazy ballgame. Jeff Fisher's Rams gave the eventual NFC champions all they could handle -- twice -- in 2012. After the first meeting, a 24-24 Week 10 slugfest, dipped into overtime waters, Danny Amendola seemingly motored his way into scoring position for the underdogs from St. Louis, who were showing they weren't the "same old" Rams, as former 49er great Tim McDonald once labeled the franchise.

Alas, Amendola's 80-yard reception on the first play of the extra period was brought back by an illegal-formation penalty. On the next possession, 49ers kicker David Akers missed a 41-yard field-goal try, and neither team wound up taking home the prize. And we were given our first tie since Donovan McNabb learned something new.

This game ultimately resulted in an 11-4-1 record for the 49ers -- keeping them a half-game ahead of the 11-5 Packers. Colin Kaepernick then got a chance to wow the home crowd in the playoffs with seemingly five jillion yards on quarterback keepers.

Ahh, now there's the real tidal wave that resulted from this particular drop in the bucket: the fact that Kaepernick even had that memorable playoff game, or that he led the 49ers to their sixth Super Bowl appearance. None of that would have happened if Alex Smith hadn't gotten hurt in this Week 10 affair.

A few weeks after Smith went down, so did the most exciting rookie of 2012: Robert Griffin III. What if he hadn't taken a shot to the knee from the Ravens' Haloti Ngata at FedEx Field in Week 14?

Well, for starters, the Seahawks-Redskins playoff game -- which wasn't bad anyway -- might have been nothing short of awesome, perhaps the sexiest playoff game of the postseason, with the eventual Offensive Rookie of the Year -- playing at full strength this time -- facing off against the NFC's other premium rookie quarterback in Russell Wilson.

Could Seattle have muzzled Washington's Pistol offense led by a quarterback who could expose any defense? How would the Falcons have fared against RG3 in the next round? The sexiest possibility, of course, would have been Kaepernick and RG3 going head-to-head for the NFC title. Redskins-Niners ... it would have felt like 1983 again.

Ravens-Redskins also gets a vote here because of the way its tentacles have reached into 2013. Redskins coach Mike Shanahan will be answering questions about playing an injured RG3 in that game for some time. Additionally, the star quarterback's return date is up in the air -- as is the Redskins' willingness to continue running an offense that leaves him far more open to injury than most franchise players.

Surely, you had to be expecting this entry. Without the outcome of this divisional-round playoff match, the story of the 2012 season would have been slightly different. By just a hair.

Perhaps the most captivating game of the season, the Ravens' upset shocked us all. Denver had won 11 games in a row and appeared to be locked into a collision course with the New England Patriots to decide the AFC title. However, John Fox's conservative strategy near the end of regulation in this one, along with Broncos defender Rahim Moore's apparent lazy-brained approach to the longball and some clutch Joe Flacco play, ruled the day.

Consider the butterfly effect of the postseason's best contest. If the Broncos had won...

... Baltimore wouldn't have won Super Bowl XLVII, obviously.

... Bill Belichick could've become the first head coach in league history to take one franchise to six Super Bowls (assuming the Pats had been able to beat the Broncos, which they had already done earlier in the year).

... Peyton Manning would have had another crack at the Super Bowl, and we would have had a third look at Manning and Brady fighting for all the AFC marbles.

... all things Flacco could have changed. That includes his ongoing contract negotiations with the Ravens, as well as his future with the organization.

... Jacoby Jones wouldn't be doing Dancing with the Stars. Nick Mangold would. Just kidding.

... The three hours of Ray Lewis coverage we were forced to digest would have been given back to us, and presumably spent on the deification of Manning.

But alas, the Ravens won, and they DESERVED it. That's football. Denver didn't do what it needed to do, whether it came to the prevent defense or Manning preventing bad judgment from leading him to throw the ball across his body, late and over the middle. Those factors -- as well as the clutch play of Flacco and the rest of the Ravens -- set up Justin Tucker's winning field goal in Denver, as well as Baltimore's subsequent Super Bowl run.

Again, that's football. Nonetheless, there's no debating that this game, more than any other, wrote the epitaph for the 2012 season.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter _@HarrisonNFL_.

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