As 2012 comes to a close, Athlon will count down the top individual performances in each major sport from the year, culminating with a full list of the top 50 performances of the year.
It is important to remember that for the NFL, 2012 started with the end of the 2011 regular season and the playoffs, in addition to the first 15 weeks of the current season. That’s why Tom Brady’s record-tying performance against Denver in last season’s AFC Divisional Round comes in at No. 1 on this list, even though the game was played back in January.
A few other players also make this Top 10 for work they did last year, but that doesn’t mean that the current season isn’t well represented. In a year that’s been defined by the rise of the rookie quarterbacks, not to mention some incredible comeback performances, there have been numerous record-setting, jaw-dropping efforts. In fact, the problem wasn’t finding 10 to fill out this list, it was deciding which 10 made the cut.
So without further ado, here is our list for the year’s most impressive single-game efforts.
1. Jan. 14: Tom Brady truly Terrific against Denver in AFC playoffs
Denver came into this AFC Divisional playoff matchup with New England riding a bunch of momentum after shocking Pittsburgh at home in its overtime win the previous Sunday. Brady and the Patriots’ offense made sure the Broncos knew who the best team was in this one, however, as No. 12 tossed five touchdown passes in the first half and added one more in the third quarter to tie the postseason single-game record. Brady broke his own franchise record for most passing yards (363) in a playoff game and climbed up the all-time postseason passing charts with arguably his best playoff performance yet.
2. Oct. 14: Aaron Rodgers torches undefeated Texans in primetime
Green Bay entered the Week 6 Sunday night showdown with Houston at just 2-3, having blown a 21-3 halftime lead to Indianapolis Colts the previous week. The Texans were undefeated, boasted one of the league’s best defenses, and seemingly ready to make a statement on national television by taking down the mighty Packers. The reigning NFL MVP had something else in mind, however, throwing two touchdown passes in the first quarter to help his team jump out to a 14-0 lead. He would add four more in the next three quarters, tying the Green Bay single-game record with six touchdown passes, as the Packers would cruise to a convincing 42-24 victory. Rodgers finished with 338 yards and no turnovers, becoming just the fourth quarterback in NFL history to throw for more than 300 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions in a game.
3. Nov. 4: Rookie Doug Martin breaks out in Oakland
Martin, the No. 31 overall pick in April’s draft out of Boise State, entered the game in Oakland coming off of his best performance of his rookie season. He piled up 214 total yards and two touchdowns in Tampa Bay’s win in Minnesota the previous Thursday. Little did anyone know he would make that game seem minor, but that’s what happened as he piled up 251 yards on 25 rushing attempts in the Buccaneers’ Week 9 win against the Raiders. Besides posting the third-most rushing yards by a rookie in a game, Martin joined Mike Anderson as the only backs in NFL history with at least 250 rushing yards and four touchdowns in a single contest. Martin scored on runs of 70, 67, 45 and 1, making him the first back since 1940 to score on three runs of at least 45 yards in one game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Nicely done rook.
4. Nov. 18: Matt Schaub’s record-setting day helps Texans outlast Jaguars
Known for its running game, Houston relied on Schaub and the passing attack in Week 11 against AFC South rival Jacksonville. Thanks to Chad Henne’s impressive performance (354-4-0) off of the bench, the Texans found themselves in a closer-than-expected battle with the Jaguars. Schaub saved the day with his franchise-record 43 completions, 527 passing yards and career-high five touchdown passes. The yards tied Warren Moon for the second-most in a game in NFL history, second only to Norm Van Brocklin’s 554 (set back in 1951). Schaub threw two scoring strikes with less than six minutes left in the fourth quarter to tie the game, and finally won it with a 48-yarder to wide receiver Andre Johnson (see No. 8) with just 2:10 left in overtime.
5. Dec. 16: Adrian Peterson continues his run for history with season-best effort in St. Louis
At this rate, you could make one impressive list of performances just using Peterson’s 2012 season, but for our purposes, we’ll go with his most recent gem. Less than a year removed from a devastating knee injury, Peterson is redefining the term Comeback Player of the Year, and that’s with all due respect to what Peyton Manning is doing in his first season in Denver. Look no further than Sunday’s 212-yard effort in Minnesota’s win in St. Louis, highlighted by a 82-yard touchdown run. Not only was it All Day’s second 200-yard game of the season, it was the fourth of his career. Only O.J. Simpson (six) and Tiki Barber (five) have more such games in the Super Bowl era (since 1966). What’s more, it was Peterson’s sixth game with at least 150 yards rushing, leaving him one shy of Earl Campbell’s single-season record of seven (set in 1980). Peterson himself has already set a personal-best for yards in a single season with 1,812, which is more rushing yards than 24 teams have. With two games remaining and needing less than 300 yards, no one would be surprised if he made good on his goal of breaking Eric Dickerson’s all-time record of 2,105 rushing yards.
6. Jan. 1: Matt Flynn makes most of only start of 2011 season
With the top seed and home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs already secure, Green Bay decided to rest eventual MVP Aaron Rodgers in the season finale against Detroit on New Year’s Day. Enter Flynn, making his first start of the season and only second of his NFL career. Turns out Flynn can do a pretty decent Rodgers impression, as he torched the Lions for 480 yards and six touchdowns, both Packers’ single-game records, in the 45-41 win. Flynn teamed with Lions’ quarterback Matthew Stafford (see. No. 7) to set some NFL history of their own, as it was the first time opposing quarterbacks each threw for more than 400 yards and at least five touchdowns in a game. It also set the mark for most net passing yards (971) in a single game. Flynn parlayed this big game into a big payday, as the soon-to-be free agent would end up signing a three-year contract with Seattle that could be worth up to $26 million and included $10 million guaranteed. Ironically, an elbow injury in the preseason resulted in Russell Wilson replacing him as the Seahawks’ starter. Wilson, who just missed making this list (see Honorable mention below) , doesn’t appear ready to give the job back to Flynn anytime soon either.
7. Jan. 1: Matthew Stafford caps breakout 2011 season with record-setting day
Prior to the 2011 season, Stafford, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2009 draft, had trouble simply staying on the field. In his first two seasons he missed more games (19) than he played in (13), raising all sorts of questions about his long-term future. He put many of these to rest after passing for more than 5,000 yards and 41 touchdowns last season, helping the Lions end a 12-year playoff drought in the process. Stafford saved his best for last, throwing for 520 yards and five touchdowns against Green Bay in a 45-41 loss on New Year’s Day to close out the ’11 regular season. Even though he shared the Lambeau Field spotlight that day with Packers backup quarterback Matt Flynn (see No. 6), it was Stafford who finished with the fifth-most yards passing in a single game and the most by a losing quarterback since Dan Marino had 521 back in 1988.
8. Nov. 18: Andre Johnson first declaws Jacksonville’s secondary then breaks Jaguars’ hearts in overtime
While Matt Schaub (see No. 4) rewrote the Houston passing records in the Texans’ Week 11 win over Jacksonville, he would not have done so without a huge assist from Johnson. Schaub found his favorite target 14 times for 273 yards against the Jaguars, including a 48-yard game-winning touchdown with just 2:01 remaining in overtime. It was a career day for Johnson, as the All-Pro wideout set a franchise record for receiving yards and posted the seventh-highest single-game total in NFL history.
9. Jan. 14: Rob Gronkowski sets a new postseason standard for tight ends
Half of Tom Brady’s record-tying six touchdown passes (see No. 1) in last season’s AFC Divisional round victory over Denver went to Rob Gronkowski, his favorite tight end. Gronkowksi finished the game against the Broncos with 10 receptions for 145 yards and the three scores. Not only did the man affectionately known as “Gronk” tie the postseason single-game record for touchdown catches, he posted the most productive game by a tight end in the playoffs in 25 seasons. In fact, Jan. 14 was a big day for tight ends in general as New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham and San Francisco’s Vernon Davis also had more than 100 yards receiving and caught two touchdowns in their respective games.
10. Nov. 19: Aldon Smith dominates Bears on “Monday Night Football”
Week 11 was set up to finish with a bang, as San Francisco was hosting Chicago in a matchup of two of the top teams in the NFC and toughest defenses in the NFL. Alas, the “Monday Night Football” showdown never materialized as the 49ers’ defense manhandled the Bears’ offense from the opening snap, highlighted by Smith’s 5.5 sacks. Even though it was backup Jason Campbell under center for the Bears in place of a concussed Jay Cutler, it didn’t matter to Smith and the rest of the 49ers, as the linebacker also chipped in seven total tackles and two forced fumbles in the convincing 32-7 whitewashing. The Bears may be the Monsters of the Midway, but Smith was an absolute beast that night.
Oct. 14: Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III helps the Redskins beat Minnesota 38-26 by doing it with both his arm and his legs. The rookie throws for 182 yards with a touchdown and an interception on 17-of-22 passing, while also running for 138 yards and two scores on 13 carries in the Week 6 home win. His day’s work includes a 76-yard scoring run, the longest touchdown run by a quarterback in 16 years, and he finishes with the fifth-most rushing yards by a signal caller in NFL history.
Dec. 2: Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck saves his best for last, capping the Colts’ 14-point fourth-quarter comeback in Detroit by throwing the game-winning touchdown with no time left on the clock. The rookie ends the game with 391 yards passing, four touchdowns, three interceptions and, most importantly, the Week 13 victory.
Dec. 9: Carolina quarterback Cam Newton has not been near as productive this season compared to his 2011 rookie campaign, but tell that to NFC South rival Atlanta. Newton threw for 287 yards and two touchdowns and posted the first 100-yard rushing game of his career with 116 and a score (72 yards) in leading the Panthers to a 30-20 upset win in Week 14 over the division-leading Falcons.
Dec. 9: New York Giants running back David Wilson set a franchise-record for all-purpose yards when he piled up 327 against New Orleans in Week 14. The rookie first-round pick rushed for 100 yards on 13 carries, including a 52- yard touchdown run, and also returned four kickoffs for 227 yards, one of them 97 for a score, in the Giants’ 52-27 rout of the Saints.Dec. 16: Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson rushed for three touchdowns and threw for another in the Seahawks’ 50-17 dismantling of Buffalo in Toronto in Week 15. Wilson became the first quarterback with three rushing touchdowns since Daunte Culpepper did it against Chicago on Dec. 3, 2000. The touchdown pass was his 21st of the season, tying him with Cam Newton (2011) for the second-most by a rookie quarterback.