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Turning points: Six crazy plays that killed six seasons

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Philip Rivers said his fluke fumbled snap left him sick. (US Presswire)  
Philip Rivers said his fluke fumbled snap left him sick. (US Presswire)  

The Denver Broncos clinched a playoff spot when they lost. The Cincinnati Bengals clinched a playoff spot when they lost. The Detroit Lions could have clinched the NFC's fifth seed but couldn't beat Green Bay's backups.

Yep, it was a lost weekend for some, but it was a lost season for others. I can only imagine what coaches Norv Turner and Andy Reid must be thinking after they finished with a rush ... only to miss the playoffs.

Each had two of the best teams in December, but the NFL season is based on four months of play, not one. So Turner and Reid missed the playoffs, and Turner is in danger of losing his job.

But that's what happens when you don't win more than you lose, and, for some clubs, missing the playoffs could be reduced to one series or one play.

Turner and Reid know. So do others, and it's time to start sifting through this season's debris -- examining the crucial moments that sabotaged playoff hopes.

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SAN DIEGO: Philip Rivers' fumble. It's the last minute of a Monday night game in Kansas City, and the Chargers are one snap from closing out a tough victory. They're tied, but they're also set up first-and-10 at the Kansas City 15 with just over a minute left ... which means all that's missing is a Nick Novak chip shot to clinch the victory. So what happens? What happens is that quarterback Philip Rivers inexplicably fumbles the snap and loses the ball, the Charger drop the game in overtime and everyone is left to wonder what a disaster like this will mean. I'll tell you what: The season. If Rivers had just taken the snap and fallen down ... if the Chargers had done nothing ... if they just kicked the field goal right then and there ... they would've won the AFC West. That loss was the Bolts' season in microcosm -- a game they should have won, but didn't. "I'm baffled," linebacker Takeo Spikes said afterward. "What's baffling is how it went down tonight." Imagine how Rivers felt. I caught up to him a week later, and he still hadn't shaken it. "The one in Kansas City," he said, "is such a fluke it just makes you sick." I'll second that.

NEW YORK JETS: Eric Smith's bad-angle blitz. There are plenty of performances that infuriated New York Jets' fans, but none more than that last-minute loss to Denver. The Jets seemed to have a victory locked up when, in the last five minutes, Tim Tebow led the Broncos on a 12-play, 95-yard touchdown drive that ended with Tebow scrambling for a touchdown that, frankly, shouldn't have happened. It was third-and-4 at the New York 20, and virtually everyone knew Tebow would keep the ball. I mean, the guy accounted for all but 3 yards in the drive -- including 57 rushing -- so why would Denver trust anyone else? Nevertheless, the Jets launched an all-out blitz, sending eight rushers at him, with Smith attacking from Tebow's left. One problem: Eric Smith didn't seal the end. Instead, he shot straight forward, whiffed on Tebow and watched as the Denver quarterback escaped the pocket, then ran around and through the Jets' defense for the winning score. When coach Rex Ryan was asked to discuss the blitz call, he declined, saying, "No, I'd rather not." I feel your pain, Rex.

PHILADELPHIA: Ronnie Brown's backward pass. When I look at what kept Philadelphia out of the playoffs, I have a hard time overcoming that early October loss to San Francisco when the Eagles blew a 23-3 fourth-quarter lead. It was a game that defined two teams, with the victory launching the 49ers, and the defeat burying Philadelphia. Anyway, Philadelphia did what it could to blow the game, with no play more significant than Brown's aborted pass at the goal line. What makes the play incomprehensible is that it was a run into the middle of the line, with Brown stopped, panicking, then turning to pitch the ball backward to an imaginary teammate. The fumble was recovered by the 49ers, and the Eagles blew a sure score. Brown later said the third-down call was for a run/pass, but, c'mon, people. When you have LeSean McCoy in the huddle, what is anyone doing making that call with Brown? Stupid is as stupid does, and that play effectively ended Brown's usefulness to Philadelphia.

OAKLAND: Calvin Johnson's big series. You're home. You have a 13-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. And you need just one victory to move ahead of Denver in the AFC West. So what's to stop you? Calvin Johnson, that's what. For some reason, the Raiders forgot that Johnson is the game's best receiver and failed to cover him on the Lions' game-winning drive -- with Johnson responsible for 75 of Detroit's 98 yards. If there's one play that should haunt the Raiders it's a critical 48-yard catch he made to set up the winning score, with Johnson covered by Rolando McClain and Jerome Boyd. Now, if you're getting torched by Calvin Johnson, don't you put your best defensive backs on the guy, especially late and especially deep? The Raiders did not, and they suffered for it. "It isn't a scheme issue," coach Hue Jackson said afterward. "The ball's laying up in the air. You've got to make that play when you've got an opportunity." The opportunity was there, all right, and it was there the last three weeks ... only Oakland blew it.

CHICAGO: Marion Barber's clockwork. With a 10-7 lead and less than two minutes left, the Bears had a victory over Denver all but guaranteed. The Broncos were out of timeouts, the Bears had the ball and nobody could stop the clock. Except Marion Barber did. Running to his left on second down, he didn't stop until stepping out of bounds -- making sure to leave another 40 seconds on the clock. Talk about stupid. Any running back in that situation knows the two things he must not do in that situation are: 1) fumble and 2) go out of bounds. So Barber goes out of bounds, then fumbles away the game in overtime. The fumble I can excuse because, well, it happens. Plus, the game never should have gone to OT. But this? Please. It cost the Bears a victory and greased the skids for a five-game slide that kept them out of the playoffs. "It's a situation that shouldn't happen, but it did," said Bears coach Lovie Smith. "And we're all suffering the consequences." Barber wasn't available to the media after the game, nor for the next three days. Talk about weak. It's one thing to make a mistake; it's another not to own up to it.

DALLAS: Jason Garrett's brain locks. Take your pick: You can single out the last-second field goal that never was vs. Arizona, with kicker Dan Bailey missing after he was iced by his own head coach. Or you can talk about Garrett's play-calling in the second half of that loss to Detroit where the Cowboys blew a 27-3 lead. Me? I'll go for the Detroit game where the Cowboys suffered an epic collapse, the worst in franchise history and the worst by any team in league history playing at home. People wanted to pin the loss on Tony Romo's three interceptions -- two of which were returned for touchdowns -- but what are you doing throwing the ball with a 24-point lead anyway? Plus, it was the last interception that was mind-blowing. All the Cowboys had to do was run the ball, kill the clock, punt and force the Lions to beat them ... but they didn't. Instead, they threw on first down, and blame this one on the play-calling. "I think anytime you come back from twenty-something," said winning quarterback Matt Stafford, "you're doing some kind of stealing." He has that right.

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