Second in a series... see here for the BAD plays.
As many of you know, I've analyzed every game this season in terms of WPA. WPA stands for "Win Percentage Added", and it's a stat that was derived over at AdvancedNFLStats, by Brian Burke. WPA is the likelihood of winning the game, for any situation that is described by down, distance, score difference, and time remaining. You can calculate a team's WPA before every play, and the play's outcome impacts the team's likelihood of winning.
Using this approach, we can look at the "biggest plays" of each game. In other words, these plays are the plays that most impacted the team's chances of winning or losing.
Well, the season is over now, so now we can look at the team's biggest plays of the year! This is the second part of a two part series, and we're looking at the good, no, GREAT plays. In order of increasing awesomeness, these are the plays that helped our chances of winning the most. And so, the Top Ten Biggest GOOD plays of 2011... can I have a drum roll please!
Number Eleven! (Sorry - I crammed an extra play in, for reasons that will become clear later).
Denver @ Oakland, week 9.
Midway through the 4th quarter and tied at 24, Eddie Royal fields at a punt at the 15-yard-line and busts free for a long, 85-yard punt return for a touchdown. This punt return (+0.27) finally busted the game open, and Oakland would never recover from it. Check out the sorry excuse for a tackle attempt from Shane Lechler. It's also funny to hear someone (Chris Kuper, I believe) scream out, "F*%$, YEAH!" in the end zone after Royal scores.
Chicago @ Denver, Week 14.
After a highly unlikely sequence of events spanning the final minutes of regulation and overtime, and several examples of stammering, mind-boggled announcers (more on this later), Denver kicks the game-winning 51-yard field goal. The kick (+0.29) would prove to be the final magical moment in Denver's six-game winning streak.
Denver @ Oakland, Week 9.
On the final play of the third quarter, and just after a Chris Harris interception, Willis McGahee busts free through the middle of the line and runs for a 60-yard touchdown. This long run (+0.30) was the longest of several long runs from scrimmage in this game. The zone read was a perfect game plan for Oakland, because a defense needs to be disciplined to shut it down, and Oakland was far from disciplined.
Chicago @ Denver, Week 14.
The second play in this list from the Chicago game. Marion Barber looks like he is about to break free for a touchdown in overtime, and Wesley Woodyard reaches out in desperation and grabs Barber's wrist, causing a fumble, recovered by Elvis Dumervil. This fumble (+0.30) caused another occurrence of shocked silence and helpless laughter by the announcers.
"I don't know, Daryl!"
"The chain of events that have happened in the last few minutes... have been unbelievable."
Denver @ Miami, Week 7.
After experiencing all the drama of the games that come afterward, when I came back to this game and watched the ending, it struck me how shocked the team seemed. Some of the players seemed stunned that they actually won. (In the words of a fan sitting across the table from me at the bar, "What just happened? What is this 'win' feeling? This feels weird.") After an extremely unlikely comeback (given that Denver actually had only 0.01 WPA at a few points in this game), this game-winning field goal (+0.31) set a storyline in motion that the media milked for the rest of the season.
NY Jets @ Denver, Week 11.
Tim Tebow scores the go-ahead touchdown, late in the game against the NY Jets. What struck me about this is that this wasn't an example of Tim scrambling around off of instinct. While it was improvised, it was also a calculated, decisive, and completely ballsy move. Tebow reads the outside linebacker pre-snap, and makes him pay for it. This touchdown run (+0.32) showed a killer instinct that we've been lacking at quarterback for a long time, and it was during Denver's first big national-coverage game since Tebow started. The announcer could only laugh when Tebow crossed the goal line, because football just doesn't get much better than at moments like that.
Denver @ San Diego, Week 12.
Nick Novak and the San Diego Chargers miss a 51-yard field goal attempt against us in overtime. This miss (+0.34) is the reason I'm making this a top-eleven list instead of a top-ten list. This is not a result of us making a good play, or anything that we did. Novak just flat-out missed it. Like almost every other play on this list, if it hadn't have happened, we would have had one less win, and would not have made the playoffs. Sometimes fortune just smiled on us.
Denver @ Miami, Week 7.
In overtime, Miami is approaching midfield, and Matt Moore looks like he's about to go downfield to get Miami close to field goal range. But then, D.J. Williams swoops, swats the ball from Moore's hesitating hands, and ends up recovering the fumble at the bottom of the pile. This strip-sack-recovery (+0.44) immediately put Denver in field goal range, and four plays later, Prater would kick the game-winner.
Denver @ Minnesota, Week 13.
Just a beautiful, cagey play by a veteran. If you imagine the above shot zoomed out a little bit, you'll see that Andre' Goodman is the only player running backwards while all the other players are following the motion of the play forward. Goodman actually deliberately abandoned his man to sink back into a space that he knew another Viking was running towards. This interception (+0.46) was in overtime, in Minnesota territory, and immediately put us in easy field-goal range at the 15-yard line. Christian Ponder just looked punched in the gut immediately afterward.
Chicago @ Denver, Week 14.
The third play on this list from the Chicago game. After it looks like the drive has stalled from too far out, Matt Prater nails a 59-yard field goal attempt to tie the game. Denver had scored ten points in the final four minutes, all with zero time outs, and it was after this field goal (+0.47) when the announcers were most flummoxed. Below are more excerpts - interspersed with nervous laughter - from Johnston and Albert, including probably my favorite line of the season, marked in italics.
"I tell you what, Goose - "
"It's - it's a non-winnable situation that we just watched this team come back and tie this game."
"I don't know what to say. I don't know what to say! It can't continue to happen. How does it continue to happen?"
"This was an unwinnable game. We're watching the game, and the magic is finally coming to an end, it *can't* do it again..."
It's that line in italics that really gets me. I just crack up every time. That cry came from a deep place in that man's soul.
All right, we're ready for our drum roll.
And now... The Number One Biggest AWESOME Play of 2011 (as if there were any doubt):
Pittsburgh @ Denver, Wildcard Round
Demaryius Thomas unleashes a stiff-arm from hell (+0.53) to give 61 minutes worth of humiliation to Ike Taylor. Beyond the strength, the speed, and the talent that finally emerged from DT in one glorious afternoon, the even bigger surprise was the attitude. I thought DT was a nice boy, but after his first long reception, you could see him standing over Taylor and... well, he may not have been taunting him, but he was sure as hell posing. And then, later in the game, when Taylor got called for pass interference against him... did DT really bust out the Dikembe Mutombo finger wag?? ...Demaryius!
Yep, this amazing play is the top play in the list, and was the biggest swing of win likelihood of any play from our entire season.
So there you have it! The top ten (eleven) biggest good plays of our entire season. I hope you enjoyed this series - it ended up being more work than I anticipated when I started, and I'm not sure I'll do it next season, but it sure was fun to look at all the plays using an objective system. I think it highlighted some moments that I might not have appreciated otherwise. I might post one more "administrative" article that will pull together the links and some reference on how I did the project, but it'll likely be a boring one.
One observation that really struck me though, and that I'd like to highlight here, is the difference between our bad plays and our good plays.
Our #1 worst play of the season was worth -0.29 WPA. But +0.29 WPA was our tenth biggest good play. That's just amazing to me. Consider what that means. This wasn't a bipolar team. If you look at the ten *biggest* plays of our 2011 season, good or bad - they were all good. And great, and amazing, and awesome. And we needed every single one of them to make the playoffs.
As for what that means? How to explain it? I wonder what you guys think. It might just mean that it was highly unlikely, like flipping heads ten times in a row. Or maybe it's actually the clearest evidence yet of what the Tim Tebow mystique actually brings to the team - especially given that every single one of those big (good) plays happened after Tebow became the starter.
As for me, I'm just summing it up simply - the 2011 Denver Broncos were crazy, entertaining, and above all, a Big Play Team. It's also going to be one of the most memorable regular seasons for me in Denver Broncos history. At least... unless it gets surpassed by next season! What else can I say?
Oh yes. Go Broncos!