The 12 plays that have defined the 2015 NFL season (Shutdown Corner)

The 2015 season has been interesting. To say the least. Through 14 weeks, there are only 11 teams above .500, and one of them — the Carolina Panthers — have reached unprecedented heights, standing at 14-0, led by MVP candidate Cam Newton. And yet for all the compelling storylines — and there have been many — we also have had a season that has been sullied by quarterback injuries (there have been 51 starting quarterbacks to date, with the number certain to rise) and poor officiating. [ Yahoo Daily Fantasy: $10 could win you $25K in our $250K contest for Week 16 ] As the calendar year is set to turn, we looked back at the 12 plays that helped shape and define the season to date — some more impressive than others. So, why 12? One for every day of Christmas, maybe — why not? Our gift to you … Brady to Gronk for third TD vs. Steelers — Week 1 In an NFL offseason that was dominated by one story — deflate-gate — this season-opening game was as anticipated as it was awkward, with the commissioner opting to skip out on the New England Patriots’ banner-raising ceremony. Tom Brady set out to beat Roger Goodell in court, which he did (for now), and then set his sights on the Pittsburgh Steelers. Brady was terrific in the game throwing for four touchdowns, three of them to Rob Gronkowski (whom the Steelers occasionally tried to over), in this entertaining Thursday opener. Eagles hit on Tony Romo — Week 2 In one of the biggest early-season-shifting plays, Philadelphia Eagles rookie linebacker Jordan Hicks slammed Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo to the turf, knocking him out for half the season. It came a week after Dez Bryant suffered a foot fracture that also saw his season cut in half, and with it came down the hopes for the Cowboys, who went 12-4 in 2014 and came within an eyelash of being the Green Bay Packers and advancing to the NFC championship game. Instead, the Cowboys have limped to last place in the NFC East this season, even with Romo (who later was re-injured) and Bryant returning to the field later. They’ll be starting their fourth quarterback of the season in Week 16. Kam Chancellor hit on Calvin Johnson — Week 4 This one had a lot of layers to it. The Detroit Lions had started the season 0-3, and the Seattle Seahawks 1-2. After the Seahawks lost their first two games, Kam Chancellor — who held out all training camp and preseason — rode back on his white horse, reported to the team and helped deliver a shutout in Week 3. They then were dominating the Lions for most of the game the following week, but the score was close and the Lions had a chance to win when Calvin Johnson caught a pass and appeared to be scoring a potential game-winning TD in the final 1:50. But Chancellor slammed Johnson at the goal line and caused a fumble that rolled toward the back of the end zone. Assisting the ball out of bounds was K.J. Wright, who inadvertently broke an obscure but valid rule — illegal batting — that went uncalled, setting a tone for an NFL season marred by shaky refereeing. It should have been Lions ball, but the Seahawks ran out the clock instead and were lucky to do so. Remember, the Lions’ 2014 season ended on officiating controversy in the playoff loss to the Cowboys. This one felt no better. LeVeon Bell walk-off TD vs. Chargers — Week 5 Another week, another officiating blunder. The 2-2 Steelers were down 20-17 at the San Diego Chargers (although it felt like a Steelers home game at Qualcomm) with 2:56 to go. Or make that 2:38 — the stadium’s clock operator inadvertently allowed 18 seconds to run off the clock following the touchback (the clock never should have moved). It put the Steelers, already at a disadvantage with Mike Vick in place of Ben Roethlisberger, in an even tougher position to tie or win the game. But Vick drove them down to the 1-yard line with five seconds left on the clock. You thought Mike Tomlin would go for the tie? Heh. No, he called a direct snap to Le’Veon Bell, who powered his way into the end zone for the walk-off touchdown. Bell bailed out the clock operator and the side judge, although they later were disciplined for their gaffes. Cam to Olsen TD in final minute at Seattle — Week 6 This was the turning point for the Carolina Panthers, who were opening eyes at 4-0 but hardly atop most people’s NFL power rankings. Prior to this game these teams had faced four times since the start of the 2012 season, and the Seattle Seahawks had won all four, including in the divisional round of the playoffs in Seattle in January. But the Panthers had taken leaps and bounds since then, led by their Superman, Cam Newton, in what would be the birth of his MVP-candidate campaign. Newton overcame a miserable first half and a third-quarter pick to deliver a heroic comeback from down 13 late in the third to a 27-24 win in the final 32 seconds. Newton found Greg Olsen — the Panthers’ two most irreplaceable offensive players — for a 26-yard score for the win … the fifth of 14 straight to start the season. Colts trick play fail vs. Patriots — Week 6 No play sums up the Indianapolis Colts’ miserable season like this one. Like the famous line from “This Is Spinal Tap,” there’s a fine line between clever and stupid. This one most definitely was stupid. A popular Super Bowl media pick, the Colts stumbled out of the gates at 0-2 but won two straight prior to their big matchup with their longtime tormentors, the Patriots. And after playing well to start the game against the 4-0 Patriots, the Colts imploded. Emblematic of that moment was the most bizarre play of the season: an ill-fated, mishandled fake punt that the Patriots weren’t the least bit surprised by. Griff Whalen became a national goal and meme subject by snapping the ball to Colt Anderson, resulting in a loss of downs … and of self-respect. Peyton Manning’s fourth INT vs. Chiefs — Week 10 Was this the final pass of Peyton Manning’s career? There still were high hopes this season that a healthy Manning might come back, armed with strong receivers and buoyed by a great defense, to lead the Broncos to greatness this season. But he seldom got on track, throwing interceptions in every game this season — including four in the loss to the Kansas City Chiefs that resulted in the most nightmarish Manning stat line ever: 5 of 20 passing, 35 yards, zero TDs, four picks, a fumble and two sacks before being yanked for Brock Osweiler. Manning soon was treated for a foot injury and hasn’t reemerged on the field since. His career is very much in doubt now, and what an ignominious coda that might be for one of the league’s ambassadors and finest quarterbacks ever. C.J. Anderson OT run vs. Patriots — Week 12 Two weeks after the Manning disaster, the Broncos rebounded for a massive matchup against the unbeaten Patriots with playoff seeding on the line. Osweiler started his second game and played well, rallying the Broncos from down 14 points to force overtime. Once there, Broncos running back C.J. Anderson, who had been missing for much of what was supposed to be his breakout season, ripped off a 48-yard touchdown run — the longest allowed by an improved Patriots defense — for the victory and the end of New England’s undefeated season at 10-0. Even though the Patriots dropped from the top seed to the third spot, they’ve since regained supremacy in the AFC. Ravens blocked FG vs. Browns — Week 12 A meaningless game between two teams that could earn the first two picks of the 2016 NFL draft ended in stunning fashion — unless you’re familiar with the history of the Cleveland Browns even the slightest bit. Losing games in inventive ways is their sad trademark, and this one deserves a special spot on the mantle. Botching the final three plays of what could have been a hard-earned win behind Austin Davis, the Browns had the would-be game-winning kick not only blocked but also run back for a score by the Baltimore Ravens’ Will Hill. Even in losing a game that helped their draft stock in yet another lost season, the way the Browns lost just added a new wing to the Factory of Sadness. Miracle in Motown: Rodgers to Rodgers — Week 13 What was wrong with the Green Bay Packers? That was the chorus for most of the season that hadn’t quite looked right since the start, and it appeared as if they were headed for their fifth loss in a six-game stretch after starting the season 6-0. The Detroit Lions led 23-21, and the Packers stood at their own 21-yard line with one timeout remaining. The game appeared to be over when Aaron Rodgers was taken down after getting the ball back on a lateral from Richard Rodgers. But the Lions’ Devin Taylor was guilty of a facemask, setting up an untimed down from the Green Bay 39. On the final play of the game, it was Rodgers to Rodgers — in reverse — as the quarterback hit the tight end on a stunning Hail Mary touchdown that saved the Packers’ season and highlighted the Lions’ chronic inability to close out games they should have won. Dalton hurting thumb vs. Steelers — Week 14 Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals were one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2015 season after they won their first eight games and Dalton entered the MVP discussion. After two losses, the Bengals regrouped with two blowout victories entering a key matchup against the Steelers — win and the Bengals would have swept them and ended years of inferiority. But on the Bengals’ eighth offensive play of the game, Dalton was picked at the Pittsburgh 7-yard line (a terrific, shoe-top INT by defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt) and in trying to make the tackle, Dalton suffered a broken thumb. The Bengals went onto lose the game, losing their cool at times against the Steelers, and aren’t sure when Dalton might return. Odell Beckham Jr.’s melee with Josh Norman — Week 15 The battle between the Carolina Panthers and New York Giants last week, for better or certainly for worse, might have been the game of the season. Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and Panthers cornerback Josh Norman reprised their war of words in the week leading up onto the field, where it turned ugly. The unnecessary roughness penalties racked up — three of OBJ, two for Norman — and it resulted in a one-game suspension for Beckham, upheld by appeal. The ugliness almost trumped what happened to be a great game, with the Giants erasing a 28-point second-half deficit but the Panthers hanging on for the victory. Newton calmly led the Panthers down for the game-winning kick in what might have been an MVP-clinching moment. Oh, and by the way, the Panthers took one more step toward completing only the NFL’s third unbeaten regular season since the 1970 merger, winning their 15th straight with zero losses. – – – – – – – Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Eric_Edholm

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