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Nine Plays That Defined the 2022 NFL Season

Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson makes a one-handed catch against Bills Cam Lewis to keep a late drive alive.

Judging the most impactful among the thousands of plays in an NFL season is as challenging as, well, the Philadelphia Eagles trying to sack Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl.

That never happened.

But luckily, we did manage to key in on the nine most crucial plays that defined the 2022 NFL season. Here they are in no particular order:

Mahomes' 26-Yard Scramble in Super Bowl

Naturally, we should start with a play that led to the Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl victory. There were so many, including countless plays in which the Chiefs' offensive line dominated the Philadelphia Eagles' pass rush. A unit that had 70 sacks heading into the big game. They got zero of Mahomes.

Mahomes Magic was on display in spectacular fashion in the second half when the Chiefs scored 24 points. The biggest of all their QB's contributions was a 26-yard scramble – on a bum ankle he aggravated in the first half – taking the Chiefs down to the Philadelphia 17-yard line and setting up Harrison Butker’s chip-shot field goal for their second championship in four seasons.

"It's been an amazing run these last five, six years," Mahomes said, "and let's keep it rolling."

Hubbard's 98-Yard TD Return in Wild Card

The undermanned Baltimore Ravens never backed off in their wild-card matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals, an AFC North rival. The game was tied, 17-17, in the fourth quarter, and the Ravens had the ball at the Bengals' 1-yard line. Backup quarterback Tyler Huntley opted to leap high and extend the ball over the goal line. 

He never got there.

Linebacker Logan Wilson knocked the ball loose and defensive end Sam Hubbard grabbed it with no Baltimore player between him and the opposite goal line. Usually, defensive linemen get caught during such a return. Not Hubbard. Though, tight end Mark Andrews came close. Instead, Hubbard rumbled 98 yards for the deciding touchdown. Onward the Bengals went, eventually falling in the AFC title game at Kansas City.

"Yeah, I was watching on the big screen," Hubbard said. "I was like, 'He's coming, somebody block.' I'm like, please, please don't get caught. That's all I was thinking about."

Hines' Two Kick Return TDs in Buffalo

In the aftermath of Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest during Buffalo’s game at Cincinnati, and the subsequent cancelation, the Buffalo Bills were a team filled with worry, angst and shock. Yet, six days later, they were scheduled to play host to the New England Patriots in a significant matchup. A Buffalo win would secure the second seed in the AFC, while a Patriots' victory lifted New England into the playoffs. 

Would the Bills be reeling and unable to respond, an understandable reaction? 

Nyheim Hines answered emphatically in the season finale with not one but two kickoff runbacks for touchdowns. Hines took back a 96-yarder to open the contest and a 101-yarder after Buffalo had fallen behind in the second half. The explosion of sound in the stadium after each was as much out of relief that the resourceful Bills could respond as it was for the six points each return put on the scoreboard. 

"I'm speechless," said Hines, the 11th player with two kickoff return touchdowns in the same game and the first since Seattle’s Leon Washington in 2010. "I'm so thankful it was me to bring that juice, but it's way bigger than me. That's what I always thought about, and that's what I thought all day. It's just bigger than me and bigger than those 10 guys who did a great job of blocking for me."

Chandler Jones' Game-Winning Touchdown

If we seem to be picking on the Patriots, read on. This abomination in Week 15 was not only the most ludicrous lateral in recent memory, but in the long run, it might have kept New England out of the postseason.

Regardless, for former Patriots defender Chandler Jones and the rest of the Las Vegas Raiders, his 48-yard jaunt after catching Jakobi Meyers’ ill-advised and lengthy lateral – it was ruled a fumble return – ranks high in team lore. The game was headed for overtime before Meyers temporarily lost his mind and flung the ball toward quarterback Mac Jones. The other Jones caught it, put a classic, Jim Brown-style stiff-arm on Mac Jones, and scooted home to win it.

“At first, I thought, ‘Who’s around me?’” Jones said. “I felt myself stumble a little backward, and then I was thinking, ‘Who do I pitch it to?’”

No need. The only thing between him and the end zone was air.

Marcus Jones' Walk-Off Punt Return TD

OK, some love for the Patriots. At least for Marcus Jones, who turned a potentially bleak day into a sunny outcome with his 84-yard punt return with five seconds remaining for a 10-3 victory in Week 11. 

While the Jets must be questioned for punting in bounds so late in a tie game, as well as for their poor coverage, Jones’ runback seemed somewhat ordained. After all, the Patriots have won 14 straight against their division patsy.

Jones caught the ball at his 16, immediately sped toward the right sideline and down it, untouched. His brilliant return overshadowed a poor performance by New England’s offense. 

 “Marcus is always in the right spot at the right time, and he makes the correct plays,” Patriots linebacker Matt Judon said of the rookie. “I don’t think you can ask more from a guy, but every week we do, and he delivers.”

Justin Jefferson's Incredible Leaping Catch

In easily the season’s wildest game, All-Pro receiver Justin Jefferson might have clinched the Offensive Player of the Year award with his sensational leaping 32-yard reception at Buffalo.

The Minnesota Vikings were in a desperate spot in Week 10, trailing 27-23 and facing a fourth-and-18 at their 27 with 2:00 remaining. Kirk Cousins basically threw the ball into tight coverage, expecting Jefferson to make a play. Did he ever.

Jefferson and cornerback Cam Lewis stretched high for the ball as they fell backward. Somehow, Jefferson snared the pass away from Lewis as he fell, fully extended, to the turf. It was a worthy Play of the Year.

According to Next Gen Stats, the Vikings had a 13 percent chance to win before that play and a 34 percent chance after the play. A lot went on afterward, but Minnesota did squeeze past the Bills 33-30 in overtime.

"Just the way my body went up, him catching the ball in his hands and me taking it from him, the whole play was crazy," Jefferson said. 

Josh Allen's Playoff-Clinching Fumble Return

For all of you – make that all of us – who laughed at the prospect of the Jacksonville Jaguars winning the AFC South when they were in their usual doldrums at 3-7, shame on us. The Jaguars, 2021’s worst NFL team, not only rallied by winning six of their final seven games for a 9-8 record, but they also won a wild-card game with a spectacular rally against the Los Angeles Chargers.

To get into the postseason, though, they needed to beat the Tennessee Titans in Week 18. Edge rusher Josh Allen took care of that.

Trailing 16-13, Jacksonville safety Rayshawn Jenkins blitzed and sacked third-string quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who fumbled. Allen was right there to scoop up the ball and race 37 yards for the winning score with 2:51 to go.

"This game tonight kind of symbolizes our season," Jacksonville coach Doug Pederson said. "There were some struggles, there were some highs and lows, but in the end, we had the victory. I'm so proud of the guys for the way they have just all season long just hung together through the face of adversity."

Kayvon Thibodeaux's Strip-Sack TD

After a surprising 7-2 start, the New York Giants slipped to 7-5-1 by the time they visited the Washington Commanders, who also were contending for a wild-card berth. New York got the victory it needed to serve as a catalyst toward the playoffs, and it was first-round draft pick Kayvon Thibodeaux who provided the key play in Week 15.

With the ball at the Washington 10-yard line, Thibodeaux mercilessly beat left tackle Charles Leno Jr., leaving him a clear path to quarterback Taylor Heinicke. Thibodeaux got the sack and knocked loose the football. Then he recovered the ball and ran into the end zone for a momentum-inducing touchdown.

Thibodeaux’s brilliance came in the second quarter, but there’s no arguing it was New York’s key play that night – and, basically, all season. 

“I just felt the fire — I felt the passion,” he said. “I had a talk with my mom before the game, and she said it was on her heart to tell me that you can do anything that you put your mind to. For me, I had to say it and believe it, and I was able to go do it.”

Damar Hamlin's Recovery

We admit this doesn’t really apply to a specific play, though Damar Hamlin suffered his cardiac arrest after tackling Bengals receiver Tee Higgins in Week 17. Still, there’s no way we can ignore the uplifting recovery that Hamlin has made, even being able to make three appearances at the Super Bowl. 

From the life-saving work by doctors and first responders to the outpouring of support and love not only throughout the NFL but across the nation to the possibility, perhaps, that Hamlin might have a chance to get on the field again – there’s no storyline that comes close in sports.

Hamlin was in Phoenix to accept the Alan Page Community Award for raising more than $9 million for his Chasing M's Foundation.

"One of my favorite quotes: It's a blessing to be a blessing," Hamlin said. "With that being said, I plan to never take this position for granted and always have an urgent approach in making a difference in the community where I come from and also communities across the world."

Barry Wilner was been a sportswriter for the Associated Press for 40 years. He has covered virtually every major sporting event, including 13 Olympics, nine World Cups, 30 Super Bowls, the World Series, and the Stanley Cup finals, and has written 52 books. Follow him on Twitter @Wilner88.