There are literally dozens of plays during an NFL game that could change its outcome. That appears to be especially true in today's NFL, where teams seem to be as bunched up and as competitive as ever.
Sunday afternoon's trip to Buffalo was a clear example of that competitive balance. After one drive, it appeared the Patriots precision passing attack was ready to blow the Bills off the field. Then, late in the second quarter, it looked like the home squad was ready to go into halftime.
The eventual 52-28 blowout of the Bills included 11 touchdowns, eight turnovers, 1,018 total yards, a couple missed field goals and plenty of other intriguing, game-changing plays.
It saw four Patriots top 100 yards – a pair of running backs and a pair of receivers. It saw freakishly athletic nose tackle Vince Wilfork drop into the middle of the field to lay a textbook, picture-perfect knockout blow on Bills wide receiver Donald Jones.
But arguably the biggest play of the game came from the smallest guy on the field – Danny Woodhead. And it came on just one of the change-of-pace back's two touches on the afternoon at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
The Patriots trailed 21-7 midway through the third quarter. Buffalo had just added a touchdown to its lead. New England marched from its own 20 to the Bills 17, but faced a third-and-nine with 8:18 to play in the third quarter.
Tom Brady lines up in the shotgun, with Woodhead in the backfield directly to his left. He has a trips formation to his right, with Deion Branch on the outside, Wes Welker in the slot and Rob Gronkowski in a two-point stance just off of right tackle Sebastian Vollmer's hip. Brandon Lloyd is the only receiver wide to the left.
At the snap Woodhead immediately releases to the left side. Brady's first read appears to be down the right seam, where Gronkowski is breaking out at the first-down marker but also is stumbling to the ground coming out of his break. Brady gets squeezed a bit from pressure on both edges – although both Nate Solder and Vollmer are blocking their man – and steps up in the pocket before rolling out a bit to his left. He throws on the move, with both Kyle Williams and Mark Anderson right on his tail.
Woodhead's initial route was an out at about the 10-yard line where he was covered by Bills weakside linebacker Nick Barnett. But with Brady having to step up and the timing of the play being off, Woodhead had to improvise. As Brady was rolling to the left, Woodhead slanted back toward the middle of the field, catching the ball on the ad-libbed play at about the 10. He then easily broke free of a Barnett arm-tackle attempt before shooting up the field. He broke another arm-tackle attempt by safety Delano Howell to burst into the end zone for the third-down touchdown.
Sure the Patriots could have kicked a field goal – although Stephen Gostkowski had already missed a pair on the day – and pulled the score to 21-10. But Woodhead's heady play and quick burst up the field got the Patriots to within a touchdown, a margin they would close on the next series with Brady's eight-play march to his own 4-yard touchdown run following a three-and-out by the New England defense.
Woodhead's score was only the second of New England's seven touchdowns on the day, but it just may have been the most important time in the game.
"That was a big drive for us. A bad drive there and we could have gotten knocked out at that point," Bill Belichick said afterward.
On a day when many of his teammates put up huge numbers and the PR department had a litany of postgame notes in terms of production, Woodhead's 17-yard touchdown could very easily have gotten lost in the mix. After all he only played a handful of snaps on the day and finished with just two catches for 22 yards and never had a single carry on the ground for a team that rushed for 247 yards.
But with one key scramble play and a nice athletic move up field the diminutive playmaker kept the Patriots in a game that could have easily gotten away from them. The end result was victory, snapping a two-game losing streak and pulling into a three-way tie for first place in the AFC East.
It's just the kind of play that championship teams make at key times. It's also the kind of play that makes for the perfect subject of Take Two-sday!
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