5) The Studebaker runs out of gas (Pittsburgh @ Kansas City - November 22)
Late in the third quarter of the Chiefs' game with Pittsburgh, the Steelers – already up 17-14 – were threatening to score again with a first and goal at the 10-yard line.
Lined up in the shotgun, Ben Roethlisberger took the snap and looked to the end zone. As he pump-faked to his right, Tamba Hali came charging into the backfield, having badly beaten right tackle Wille Colon. Roethlisberger looked to his left and threw, but Hali made contact just as the ball was released.
A fluttering pass wobbled its way to the end zone, far short of any Steelers' receiver, and right into the arms of linebacker Andy Studebaker.
Making the first start of his career in place of an injured Mike Vrabel, Studebaker had already picked off one pass earlier in the quarter. On that play, in which the ball had bounced off the usually reliable hands of Pittsburgh tight end Heath Miller, Studebaker was tackled almost immediately.
This time, he stormed out of the end zone and began charging up the field. With no one in front of him but beefy Steelers' linemen, Studebaker broke down the sideline and motored ahead for a potential 102-yard touchdown return.
Unfortunately, not all of the players on the field were as slow as the offensive line. Speedy Pittsburgh receiver Santonio Holmes was right on Studebaker's heels, only to be blocked out of the play by Brandon Flowers. But there was no one to block running back Rashard Mendenhall, who tackled Studebaker from behind as he crossed Pittsburgh's 10-yard line.
The interception return officially went for 94 yards, setting up the Chiefs with their own first and goal. They were unable to punch it into the end zone, but did tie the game at 17 with a Ryan Succop field goal.
The game eventually went into overtime, but never would have reached that point without the Chiefs coming back from the 10-point deficit they faced at halftime. Twice in the third quarter, the Steelers mounted drives that could have extended their lead, and both times it was Studebaker who turned them away empty.
4) Cassel and Bowe tie the game (Dallas @ Kansas City - October 11)
For all the valid criticisms that can be made about Matt Cassel's first year as a Chief, there's no denying that late in the fourth quarter – when games were close and the pressure was on – he often seemed to be at his best.
The Chiefs were frequently on the wrong end of the scoreboard by a substantial margin in 2009, but there were six games when they entered the fourth quarter tied or trailing by a touchdown or less. In four of those six close games, Cassel engineered late drives that either tied the game or provided a go-ahead score. A possible fifth comeback drive against Buffalo was thwarted by a dropped pass just outside the end zone.
That comeback statistic doesn't include the Chiefs' late rally against Jacksonville, which we covered in the first half of the season's Top 10 plays. It also doesn't include the Week 5 matchup with the Dallas Cowboys.
When the fourth quarter started against Dallas, the winless Chiefs were actually ahead, clinging to a three-point lead. But thanks in large part to Cowboys' receiver Miles Austin, that lead evaporated into a 20-13 deficit.
With just over two minutes left and the game on the line, Cassel and the Chiefs got the ball on their own 26-yard line. As the seconds ticked away, they moved the ball downfield – a 17-yard pass to Jamaal Charles, a 25-yard pass to Bobby Wade, a 17-yard pass to Dwayne Bowe – and ended up inside the red zone.
On their first three plays from inside the Dallas 20, they gained just three yards. That left them facing fourth and seven with only 29 seconds left to play. Standing in the shotgun, Cassel received the snap before firing a pass into the end zone. The ball split two Cowboys' defenders and ended up in the arms of Bowe, who held on for a 16-yard touchdown despite a hard shot from safety Pat Watkins.
The game went into overtime and, ultimately, the Chiefs had to wait another week before finding their first win of the season. But of all the late comeback drives we saw this season, none were capped off as impressively as this fourth-down touchdown pass.
3) Derrick Johnson does it again (Kansas City @ Denver - January 3rd)
Few players on the Chiefs' roster generated as much discussion throughout the 2009 season as Derrick Johnson. For the first time in his career, the former first-round draft pick was demoted to the second string by new head coach Todd Haley.
Few would argue that Johnson's career has been a disappointment when compared to the lofty expectations fans had when he entered the league. But when the remaining options are unheralded players like Demorrio Williams and Corey Mays, was Johnson really not worthy of cracking the starting lineup? Chiefs fans debated the issue all season.
Despite his reduced role, Johnson made numerous mistakes throughout 2009 that illustrated exactly why Haley decided to bench him. Confounding the issue, however, was the fact that Johnson – again, despite his reduced role – made some of the biggest defensive plays of anyone on the roster.
Nowhere was that more evident than in Week 17 against Denver. Near the end of the third quarter, Johnson intercepted a pass from Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton and ran it back 45 yards for a touchdown. The Chiefs only had a modest three-point lead at the time, and Johnson's pick-six gave them a 10-point cushion to work with.
With 10 minutes to go in the game, the Broncos had narrowed the gap to 30-24 when Johnson picked off his second pass of the day. Even more impressively, he returned that one for another touchdown, going 60 yards in the process.
Johnson became the 25th player in NFL history – but just the third linebacker – to return two interceptions for touchdowns in the same game. Perhaps more importantly from his perspective, he may have shown the Chiefs' coaching staff that his big-play ability is too valuable to keep on the sideline.
2) Chambers' catch-and-run (Pittsburgh @ Kansas City - November 22)
Summing up the type of season it was for the Chiefs, this is the third play on our Top 10 list that came from Kansas City's win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. That means it took three of the best plays of the year for the Chiefs to pull out the victory in that game, and we didn't even include Jamaal Charles' kickoff return, which just missed the cut on account of the Steelers allowing return touchdowns to nearly everyone they played.
It probably also says something about the Chiefs' season that the #2 play on our list was, at the time, named the "Single Worst Play of the Season – So Far" by ESPN.com's Gregg Easterbrook in his weekly Tuesday Morning Quarterback column.
With the game knotted up in overtime, the Chiefs were facing a third and six from their 35-yard line. Matt Cassel took the snap and threw a short pass to Chris Chambers, who was running parallel with the first down marker when he caught the ball.
Chambers turned and ran upfield, avoided a tackle, and then raced nearly 40 yards down the sideline before going out of bounds at the Steelers' four-yard line. All told, it was a 61-yard catch-and-run that set up the Chiefs' victory, as Ryan Succop kicked the game-winning 22-yard field goal on the next play.
But in his critique of the play, Easterbrook raised some valid points. As Chambers turned upfield with the ball, a trio of Steelers were trailing him, yet none seemed to be in much of a hurry. Then there was the Steeler who whiffed as Chambers ran past him. That was enough for Easterbrook to give Pittsburgh "worst play" honors.
But the Chiefs also shared in the award. Who can forget the bizarre reaction of Chiefs' tight end Leonard Pope, who knocked a defender to the turf and then just stood there watching – perhaps offering up a silent prayer that he wouldn't be flagged for the block he threw – while Chambers took off down the sideline?
Then there's Chambers himself. When met by the last Steeler who could have stopped him from scoring, Chambers simply ran out of bounds instead of fighting to get the touchdown. He could have stopped and cut back. He could have lowered his shoulder and rammed his way forward. Instead, he conceded the matter and drifted out.
Had something gone wrong on Succop's field goal attempt, it's safe to say that Chambers' decision at the end of that play would have become a topic of discussion.
But the field goal was true, of course, and the Chiefs pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the season. It might have been unusual, but for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2009, few plays – just one, to be exact -- meant any more.
1) Jamaal Charles enters the record books (Kansas City @ Denver - January 3)
Throughout the Top 10 list, we've highlighted the plays that clinched each of the Chiefs' four victories this season: Tamba Hali's safety against the Redskins, Mike Brown's interception against the Raiders, Chris Chambers' reception against the Steelers, and finally Jamaal Charles' big run against Denver.
One might argue that Charles' run didn't exactly clinch the game, since the Chiefs were already up 13 when it happened. But given the ability of KC's defense to surrender big plays in a hurry, victory had hardly been assured. When Charles broke a 56-yard touchdown run halfway through the fourth quarter, it officially closed the book on the Broncos.
The run itself was a thing of beauty. Charles dashed through an enormous hole, avoided a downed teammate, stumbled but kept his balance after being contacted by two Bronco defenders, then turned on the jets and outran everyone to the end zone.
Of course, this play didn't merely win the Chiefs a game. It won them a game against the hated Broncos in a city where the Chiefs hadn't won since 2000. It provided them with their first ever victory at Invesco Field. It also capped off Denver's embarrassing collapse, as they became just the third team since the AFL/NFL merger to start a season 6-0 and fail to make the playoffs.
But the play was bigger still. Even before that run, Charles had been having a phenomenal day. His final run launched him into the Chiefs' record book, giving him a single-game rushing record of 259 yards. That mark shattered the previous record of 211, set by Larry Johnson in 2005. It's also just 37 yards shy of the NFL record for rushing yards in a single game.
However, even the record-breaking fashion of Charles' run doesn't fully describe the impact of the play. Perhaps the best description of what it all meant came from Chiefs' coach Todd Haley, who – in a moment captured by NFL Films – was shown on the sideline during the game declaring, "You might be great, Jamaal!"
Above everything else, Charles' possible greatness may be the lasting impression of our #1 play. All told, he rushed for 1,120 yards on 190 carries during the 2009 season. Of all the players throughout the annals of NFL history who have rushed for 1,120 or more yards in a season, none of them ever did it with so few carries.
With his final run in Denver, Charles showed Chiefs fans everywhere that they could be watching the emergence of a truly special talent. Beyond the team's new coordinators or any free agent signings that may come, it's the possibility of Charles breaking loose into super-stardom that should provide the most hope and anticipation as we move forward in 2010.
His record-breaking run wasn't only the top play of the year, it might have been the most meaningful play the Chiefs have seen in years.
Top Ten Plays of 2009: 1-5
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