Fourth-Quarter Closers: Week 13's Ed Thompson points out the players who dug a little bit deeper during the final 15 minutes of Sunday's games to shut the door on their opponents.

While players from both teams make big plays during the fourth quarter of a game, the ones who help their team shut the door on their opponents during those final 15 minutes are even more noteworthy. Last Sunday, eleven games were still very much up in the air during the fourth quarter of play, with the teams separated by fourteen points or less. Here are the players from the winning teams who dug a bit deeper during that final period of play to make sure their team walked off the field with the win.

Oakland Raiders: Bruce Gradkowski

Although the Raiders trailed by four to the Steelers as the fourth quarter opened, Gradkowski converted a fourth-down situation with a run, scrambled for an 8-yard gain on a third down and then completed a 17-yard pass for a touchdown to snatch the lead. Pittsburgh responded two plays later and restored their lead, testing Gradkowski's fortitude. It took him just three plays, including a 75-yard pass play to Louis Murphy to show that he wasn't going to wither under the pressure. 

Then Gradkowski was handed another four-point deficit when the Steelers scored again. He trotted onto the field with less than two minutes remaining and the ball sitting on the Raiders 12-yard line. The fourth-year player completed ten of 15 passes for 82 yards, including an 11-yard strike to Murphy on a second-down play with just 15 seconds remaining for the win.

Honorable Mention: WR Louis Murphy, who grabbed three of Gradkowski's throws during the winning drive for 53 yards and the score.

New York Giants: Domenik Hixon

The Giants led by four points with just under 11 minutes to play and tacked on a field goal roughly three minutes later. But the game was really over when Hixon returned a punt 79 yards for a touchdown with just under six minutes remaining.

Honorable Mention: WR Steve Smith caught a 25-yard pass with 9:47 remaining to help set up the field goal. RB Ahmad Bradshaw also contributed to those points with a 29-yard scamper to the Dallas 9-yard line. CB Terrell Thomas made a key stop on a third-and-17 at the Dallas 11 to force a punt. CB Aaron Ross made a terrific tackle on RB Marion Barber for no gain on another third-down play in the final minutes.

Miami Dolphins: Vontae Davis

Vontae Davis robbed Patriots WR Randy Moss of a touchdown catch.
Doug Benc/Getty Images

The Patriots held a two-point lead over the Dolphins heading into the fourth quarter and New England was threatening to make it a nine-point lead with the ball at the Miami 5-yard line. But the Dolphins rookie cornerback intercepted a Tom Brady pass that was intended for Randy Moss in the end zone with 9:39 left, putting himself in perfect position to make the big play. That kept the door open for the Dolphins to win the game with just a field goal instead of two scores.

Honorable Mention: DE Randy Starks, who stuffed Patriots RB Kevin Faulk for no gain on a third-down play at the New England 40-yard line, forcing a punt with 7:35 left in the game. QB Chad Henne completed three of five passes for 40 yards and three first downs--including a fourth-and-six situation--to move the Dolphins into field goal position for the winning score. Kicker Dan Carpenter booted the 41-yard game-winner. LB Cameron Wake hit Tom Brady as he tried a desperation throw that fell into the hands of LB Channing Crowder with 42 seconds left in the game to shut the door on New England.

Indianapolis Colts: Peyton Manning

With just over ten minutes remaining, Manning engineered a 15-play, 69-yard drive that ate up all but three minutes of the final period. He completed five out of six passes for 46 yards and mixed in running plays using three different running backs to set up a 36-yard field goal to put the game out of reach.

Honorable Mention: WR Reggie Wayne, who caught a pair of third-down passes on that drive for 34 yards. 

Cincinnati Bengals: Cedric Benson

Cincinnati held a 13-point lead as the final 15 minutes of the game began to tick away. The Bengals turned to their top running back to chew up some of that clock and he delivered. Benson carried the ball seven times during a 13-play drive for 29 yards, moving the chains three times--including a fourth-and-one that he converted with a seven-yard gain. By the time the Bengals kicked the 23-yard field goal to increase their lead to 16, the Lions only had eight minutes left to play catch up.

Honorable Mention: Rookie safety Tom Nelson snagged an interception at the Bengals 32-yard line with seven minutes remaining. Rookie DE Michael Johnson sacked QB Matthew Stafford on a second-down play with just over four minutes left in the game. Detroit couldn't recover and turned the ball over on downs.

New Orleans Saints:  Robert Meachem

Robert Meachem had a big day against the Redskins.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

With just under 13 minutes remaining and the Redskins clinging to a 10-point lead, Meachem pulled in a pair of passes from Drew Brees for 38 yards to set up a field goal that cut the lead to a single score.  And then with just 1:27 left on the clock, Meachem caught a deep pass for a 53-yard touchdown that sent the game into overtime, giving his team the chance to win it in overtime with a field goal.

Honorable Mention: QB Drew Brees for helping the offense tally 13 points on three of their last four possessions. DT Sedrick Ellis made three consecutive stops of Saints running backs for a net gain of 2 yards when the Redskins had the ball at the New Orleans 7-yard line with 3:32 left in the game. The Redskins then missed a field goal on fourth down after another run for just one yard that was stopped by DE Charles Grant. LB Jonathan Vilma picked-off Redskins QB Jason Campbell with just 35 seconds left in regulation to send the game into overtime. CB Chris McAlister forced and recovered a fumble in overtime to set up the Saints for the winning score.

Chicago Bears: Hunter Hillenmeyer

With the Bears leading by eight points and 3:35 remaining in the game, the seventh-year linebacker intercepted a pass thrown by Rams quarterback Kyle Boller at the Chicago 40-yard line. Chicago ran the clock down to 1:50 and the Rams weren't able to move the ball past the Chicago 41 on their final possession of the game.

Seattle Seahawks: Matt Hasselbeck

With the 49ers and Seahawks tied heading into fourth quarter, Hasselbeck sparked two drives that set up a pair of field goals to give the Seahawks a narrow victory. On the first drive, Hasselbeck not only tossed three passes for 33 yards, he also scrambled for a two-yard gain to set the first field goal attempt. Then he hit rookie WR Deon Butler for a 32-yard gain to the 49ers 15-yard line prior to the game-winning field goal by Olindo Mare.

Honorable Mention: Safety Jordan Babineaux forced a fumble at the Seattle 26-yard line that was recovered by CB Josh Wilson and returned 43 yards with 9:11 left and the game tied. WR Nate Burleson's 21-yard punt return set Seattle up at their own 48 with just 21 seconds left in the game.

San Diego Chargers: Philip Rivers

San Diego held a 13-point lead over the Browns with 9:15 remaining in the game. Rivers tossed two big passes on the Chargers' next possession to help set up a field goal that put the game out of reach with just over four minutes remaining. Rivers connected with Vincent Jackson for a 41-yard strike to the Cleveland 24-yard line and then again a few plays later for 11 more. 

Honorable Mention: WR Vincent Jackson for his two catches on the clinching drive. 

Jacksonville Jaguars: Maurice Jones-Drew

The Houston Texans had trailed by 11 when the fourth quarter began, but closed that gap to five with 4:01 left in the game. The Texans kicked the ball deep, counting on their defense to get the ball back, but Jones-Drew decided to play keep-away instead. The Jaguars running back carried the ball seven consecutive times for 38 yards, earning three first downs, forcing the Texans to burn all three of their timeouts before the two-minute warning. QB David Garrard was able to take a knee three times to run out the clock.

Honorable Mention: Safety Gerald Alexander intercepted a pass thrown by RB Chris Brown from the Jaguars' 5-yard line to end a scoring threat with just over eight minutes left in the game.

Carolina Panthers: Chris Harris

The Panthers held a 13-6 edge over the Buccaneers heading into the fourth quarter, but the Buccaneers drove to the Carolina 3-yard line, threatening to tie the game. Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman threw a short pass intended for Maurice Stovall, but the Panthers safety stepped up and picked-off the pass. The play resulted in a touchback, giving the Panthers offense the ball at their 20-yard line. They took advantage of the opportunity, driving for a field goal that put the game out of reach for good.

Honorable Mention: QB Matt Moore and WR Steve Smith hooked up for a 66-yard pass play that set up the field goal that gave Carolina a ten-point lead with seven minutes remaining. CB Richard Marshall stopped a third-down pass play short of the chains, forcing a field goal that was missed by the Bucs. CB Chris Gamble made a diving interception at the Carolina 8-yard line with 28 seconds left.

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A member of the Pro Football Writers of America, Ed Thompson's player interviews and NFL features are published across the network and at Top Stories