In a typical NFL season there are 267 games. Of those, 256 come in the regular season with another 11 in the playoffs. It's always cool to look back at which of those games made the year what it was.
So which contests caused a butterfly effect, i.e., altered the way in which 2010 played out to the point that the results we know now would be completely different … like, for instance, the Packers winning the Super Bowl? Or who made the playoffs? Even something smaller, like Bill Belichick winning Coach of the Year.
Those philosophical quandaries left me to wonder what were the games that unexpectedly altered the course of the season. You might disagree with my list -- it's tough only picking five. Here they are in chronological order.
First, Matthew Stafford was lost for the majority of the season with a separated shoulder. This greatly impacted the Lions' ability to complete in the NFC North, a tighter division than the standings suggest. First, Detroit outscored (and outplayed) Green Bay in their two meetings. Secondly, this game showed right off the bat how acquiring an impact player in free agency doesn't always go all Haynesworth. Julius Peppers confirmed his press clippings by delivering the blow that hurt Stafford.
And then … the catch that wasn't. In the RedZone control room, we were going bonkers when Megatron caught that back shoulder lob from Shaun Hill -- until the ruling came down that he had not finished the act of catching the pass, only because he laid the ball on the ground in one motion. We were all introduced to rulebook obscurity, as well as a season-long documentary on the greatness of Mike Pereira.
The Bears? They would build off this lucky win to become one of the weaker No. 2 seeds in recent memory.
The Baby Bucs blew a home game against the Falcons that could've changed everything … including taking bad angles on Eric Weems' ridiculous 102-yard kick return in the fourth quarter. If Tampa holds that 10-point lead one of two scenarios could have played out. First, Tampa finishes 11-5 and Green Bay misses the playoffs -- kind of a big deal. Or second, Tampa Bay beats Atlanta and now New Orleans has its fate in its own hands when the Saints and Bucs squared off in Week 17. In that situation, Atlanta and New Orleans would've been tied for the NFC South lead. However, the Saints would have had the inside track with the tiebreakers … win the season finale and the road to the Super Bowl would've gone through the Big Easy, again.
Putting those eventualities aside … Raheem Morris gets this team in the playoffs and he wins Coach of the Year in a landslide.
The unexpected part of the story here is an injury that took place in practice the Friday before the game. Rarely does an unathletic-looking, 5-foot-8 white guy have an impact on a season, unless it's Tweeder in "Varsity Blues." But make no mistake, Jets safety Jim Leonhard's broken leg the week leading up to the New England game made a big difference. Both teams came in at 9-2, with the Jets having the upper hand by virtue of their win over the Patriots in September. Then came the 45-3 thrashing at the hands of Tom Brady on Monday night.
Leonhard's absence might have made the difference in the AFC title game, where the Steelers managed to go 6-for-11 on third down in a game decided by five points. Just sayin'.
This game made Chargers fans want to do shots of Milk of Magnesia and vodka more than any other. How San Diego -- with everything on the line -- lost to a Cincinnati team featuring Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell on offense goes beyond explanation. The top-ranked defense gave up 34 points to a team playing without Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens.
The effort gave some hope that Carson Palmer was still a franchise quarterback, but far more importantly, this game knocked San Diego out of the playoffs. Had the Chargers won, the Chiefs would've only stunk on Madden, not on Wild Card weekend. While there's a chance Kansas City still would've claimed the division title with a Week 17 win over Oakland, the Raiders won the earlier matchup between the two and Kansas City struggled against AFC West foes.
Could Baltimore have won in San Diego, as opposed to Kansas City? You bet. But playing against Philip Rivers instead of Matt Cassel is like facing Dan Fouts rather than Steve DeBerg. It would've been interesting to see if the Bolts could've finally put their talent together and made a run. Then again, this is the Chargers we're talking about.
Our last game that unexpectedly changed the season isn't Rams at Seahawks (thankfully). So why this old rivalry? Well, it's not because a win here allowed the eventual Super Bowl champions to sneak their way into the playoffs. No, the underlying story to this game is something often forgotten in modern professional sports, the spirit of competition.
Instead of pulling a Curtis Painter on everyone, the Bears played hard despite having nothing to play for, leaving their starters on the field the whole game. Because of this, Green Bay was forced to earn its way into the postseason in a physical game. What's a better warmup to a Super Bowl run than pulling out a hard-fought division game, 10-3?
Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.