There's 30 seconds left in the game and the Detroit Lions are trailing the Chicago Bears 19-14 in Week 1 of the 2010 NFL season in Soldier Field. Detroit is on Chicago's 25-yard-line after just driving the ball nearly 65 yards, guided by their backup quarterback Shaun Hill who took over for the injured Matthew Stafford at halftime.
Hill takes the snap and is immediately met by Chicago's blitz pressure. Somehow, before getting clocked by Brian Urlacher, Hill lobs the pass down the right sideline toward Detroit's star wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Johnson, who was covered very well by Charles Tillman, turns around in the end zone, leaps and extends his arms, and grasps the ball in his hands in amazing fashion.
But while coming to the ground, "Megatron" places the ball on the Soldier Field grass before getting up and celebrating. It's a no-brainer. Touchdown. Detroit goes up 20-19 with just seconds left. However, the play is reviewed and it is determined that Johnson did not complete the reception. No touchdown. Chicago retains the 19-14 lead.
Detroit fails to convert on third and fourth down and Chicago seals the victory. The Bears go on to win the next two games, in Dallas and against Green Bay, and eventually finishes the season 11-5 and makes the playoffs. Detroit would go on to lose the next three games, by a combined total of 19 points, before finishing 6-10.
What if Johnson completed that catch in the end zone, sealing a likely 21-19 Detroit victory in Week 1?
WR Calvin Johnson
Detroit would have taken a 21-19 lead with 25 seconds on the clock. It's unlikely the Bears could have put together a 70-plus yard drive with so little time on the clock. Presuming the Bears don't go down field and get the win, they drop to 0-1 to start the season, while Detroit begins the 2010 campaign at 1-0.
Following the Bears loss, Detroit then went on to lose the next three games. I feel that if they had beaten Chicago, there's no doubt in my mind they could've won the following week against Philadelphia. Detroit is a streaky team. Just look at the end of the year when they strung together four straight victories against Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Minnesota and Miami. If Johnson makes the catch in Week 1, even in a best-possible scenario, Detroit starts off the year 3-1 with wins against Chicago, Philadelphia and Green Bay - whom they actually lost to by a combined 14 points.
If that's the case, then Philadelphia might not even make the playoffs and instead, we're talking about a Packers-Giants Wild Card match-up. Could Green Bay have beaten New York? After all, Michael Vick threw a highly questionable interception to end the game. Could Green Bay reach the same fate if it's Eli Manning looking for his receivers in the end zone with time expiring?
With a 3-1 start, Detroit then faces St. Louis, travels to New York to face the Giants, takes on the Redskins and the Jets at home, travels to Buffalo and Dallas before coming home against the Patriots and the Bears.
In this eight-game stretch, Detroit went 2-6. Quite honestly, even if Calvin's Week 1 catch sparks the team, it probably doesn't carry them much farther than the 3-1 start they already produced in our alternate universe. It's likely they would have stayed at 2-6. Detroit then probably loses one of the final four games to finish 3-1, capping their season off at 8-8. Still no playoffs, but it would have been a solid season from which to build for an upstart team.
As for Chicago, with an 0-1 start to the season and the mighty Dallas Cowboys next on the docket, things could have become very ugly very fast. Remember, when Chicago faced Dallas in Week 2, the Cowboys still had Tony Romo and weren't yet an underachieving team that would finish the year 6-10. Not to mention, Dallas strung together several great drives late in the game to pull within 3 by the fourth quarter. It wasn't until Cutler found Forte for a 3-yard score midway through the fourth, putting Chicago up 27-17, that Dallas finally faded.
Could the Bears have kept their composure with two surging drives by Dallas late in the game after losing such a heartbreaker the week before? After all, the Bears have been known to collapse in the face of adverse situations. It's possible Cutler tries to do too much and coughs up a costly pick-six, sending Chicago to an 0-2 start on the year.
In reality, Chicago went 2-3 over the next five weeks in signature "roller-coaster" fashion. The team pulled off a 20-17 victory on a late Robbie Gould field goal against the Packers in Week 3 and then Jay Cutler suffered a concussion against the Giants in Week 4, resulting in perhaps Chicago's worst loss of the season. With Todd Collins at the helm, Chicago won a sloppy 23-6 contest over Carolina in Week 5. Cutler came back and threw for 290 passing yards in Week 6 but it's not enough to hold off Seattle. And Cutler's four interceptions cost the Bears the Week 7 victory against Washington.
In my "what-if" world, I think the Bears find a way to defeat Seattle and Washington, making up for their losses in weeks one and two. With that, they remain 4-3, but Seattle's loss to Chicago would end up costing them a playoff birth. This chain reaction ends up sending the Rams to the playoffs, where New Orleans now has to travel to St. Louis in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. Maybe then, the Saints repeat as Super Bowl Champions?
As for Chicago, by that point they would have been far past the Week 1 debacle, sitting at 4-3 coming off of three straight victories and the bye week. They would go on to finish the year 7-2, capping off an 11-5 season.
So in reality, the catch, or lack thereof, reached further than just the Bears and Lions. It could have set up a New Orleans versus St. Louis playoff game, in which I have no doubts New Orleans wins. In that case, Chicago welcomes the Saints to Soldier Field in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. Could they have beaten New Orleans at home? Would we still have seen a Bears-Packers NFC Championship?
It's amazing to consider the long-term ramifications of a single play in Week 1.
Marco Scola is a member of the Columbia College Journalism program in Chicago. He is a regular contributor to Bear Report and BearReport.com.