THE BIGGEST play of an NFL game can happen at any time—in the fourth quarter (David Tyree's against-the-helmet catch in last year's Super Bowl) or in the first (the shot that blew out Tom Brady's knee in Week 1). Or in the third, which was the case on Nov. 16 in Tampa, when the Vikings lined up for a fourth-and-one at their 49-yard line with 5:58 left and the score tied at 13. Ninety plays had preceded this one, and 47 would come after it. On the 91st, the two main characters in this NFL minidrama, playing against each other for the first and possibly only time, would determine the outcome. ¶ On one side: Minnesota's second-year phenom Adrian Peterson, 6'1" and 217 pounds, lined up in a power-run formation behind quarterback Gus Frerotte and alongside fellow running back Chester Taylor, with seven horses poised up front, presumably to clear a path for Peterson, the NFL's leading rusher.
And on the other: the Buccaneers' 14-year veteran outside linebacker Derrick Brooks, 6 feet and 235, set up just behind the defensive line in the A gap across from the Vikings' center and left guard, eager to make the 2,131st tackle of his illustrious career. He was sure the electrifying Peterson would get the ball. But where? Up the gut? Pitched wide? Brooks, at once one of the game's most instinctive and most studious players, couldn't know that.
After the snap Brooks saw Frerotte fake a handoff to Taylor, who plowed into the line. Peterson sprinted to his right, into the flat, with linebacker Barrett Ruud in pursuit. Over and over in the days before the game, Brooks had recited a mantra to his teammates and to himself: He runs from color. Peterson, he meant, prefers to run from—rather than through—players in opposite-colored jerseys. He hates crowds, and no back since Barry Sanders has been better at avoiding them. Once Peterson does get into space, he's gone.
But Brooks couldn't leave his gap just yet, because he had to be sure Frerotte wouldn't roll out or dump a screen to Taylor. On the fourth step of Frerotte's drop, Brooks saw Peterson make his burst upfield, with Ruud facing him. Brooks knew that spelled trouble. Peterson covers the 40 in 4.36 seconds, Ruud in 4.7, and Ruud still hadn't turned to run with him.
"I had the angle," Peterson said later. "I cut under [Ruud] real quick, and I exploded upfield. There was nobody in front of me."
In a flash Peterson had opened a two-yard lead on Ruud, and there was no corner or safety over the top. With an accurate pass this was a touchdown. A lock touchdown for a seven-point lead.
On Frerotte's fifth step back he set up to throw and was nearly sacked by cornerback Ronde Barber, who blitzed from Frerotte's right. Brooks had taken off by then, in full angled sprint toward a spot 15 yards downfield in hopes of catching Peterson.
The running back's lead on Ruud was three yards. Then four.
Go! Go! Go! Brooks told himself. Peterson's getting the ball!
Brooks never saw the pass from Frerotte. He didn't have to. Four yards shy of intersecting with Peterson, he looked at the running back's eyes. Brooks's former linebackers coach Lovie Smith (now running the Bears) taught him never to turn to find the ball; that wasted energy and precious movement. Seeing the receiver's eyes was sufficient, and Peterson's were getting big. Very big, as they followed the arc of this potentially game-turning pass.