In week 16, the Denver Broncos were playing at Houston. They had just lost their only home game of the season, against San Diego, and they were mired in an unexpectedly close game against the Texans. Houston scored a touchdown at the start of the second half to pull within 16-13, and as the fourth quarter started, the score was the same. The Texans had the ball, the home field, and arguably the momentum in the game. More than a few Denver fans had to wonder if other teams had figured out how to beat the Broncos, based on San Diego’s success. Denver had been outscored 41-36 over the previous seven quarters, and they were now having trouble with possibly the worst team in the league.
On the second play of the fourth quarter, on a first-and-10 pass play, the Broncos’ Mike Adams stepped in front of the Houston receiver and made an incredibly acrobatic interception along the sideline. Two plays later, the Broncos scored a touchdown to take a 23-13 lead and pulled away from the Texans. Peyton Manning went on to finish the game with a new NFL record for touchdown passes, and the Broncos clinched their third consecutive AFC West title.
Later that day, Manning and others called Adams’ interception the play of the game. I believe strongly that it was The Play of the Year. Take a look at the team's performance since that moment and tell me whether you agree.
Following that interception:
- Denver has played a total of thirteen quarters, during which they've outscored their opponents 105 to 47, an average full-game score of 32-14.
- The Broncos have never trailed in a game; in fact, other than 0-0, the score has never even been tied.
- Of those 47 points by the opponent, the defense has allowed only six points when a game was competitive, i.e., when it brought the other team within a touchdown of Denver. The remaining scores took place when the Broncos were ahead by at least 16, and their average lead was 22 when the other team scored.
- The Denver defense has achieved its objective of holding its opponent to 17 points in every game, including the playoffs. Up to that point in the season, the team had only accomplished this once.
- Peyton Manning, who had thrown only three touchdown passes in the previous seven quarters, passed for three touchdowns in the next ten minutes to set the NFL record. He followed up with four touchdowns in the Oakland game—in the first half—and shattered the record.
- Denver's first team offense (with Manning) has played for eleven quarters and had the ball for a total of 24 drives. Every single drive reached the opponent’s side of the field.
- In those 24 drives, the Broncos have punted only once—from the other team's 48-yard line, after a 5-yard loss took them out of field goal range.
- Other than the punt, the only times the Manning-led offense has NOT scored when it had the ball are: a fumble (bad call by the officials) at the opponent’s 43; an interception in the end zone; a missed FG from the opponent’s 36; and two victory formations in the other team’s territory to end the game.
In many ways, the third quarter of the Houston game was the low point of the season, even lower than the loss to San Diego. The interception by Mike Adams at the start of the fourth quarter in that game dramatically revived the Broncos, both offense and defense, and they haven’t looked back since. That interception was the spark that fired the team back up, and it’s my candidate for The Play of the Year.
(Update: Corrected the information about offensive drives. The one drive that I thought was stopped in Bronco territory was actually after PFM left the Houston game.)