It was the signature moment in Dwight Lowery's six-year NFL career.
Vikings quarterback Brett Favre was determined to get revenge against one of his old teams as he tried to engineer one of those magical, last-minute comebacks. His efforts went for naught when Lowery, then a third-year defensive back still trying to find his way, stepped in front of a pass and returned an interception for a 26-yard, game-clinching score in the Jets' 29-20 win.
The same night Favre became the first NFL player to throw for 500 career touchdown passes and pass for 70,000 yards, Lowery had an epiphany.
"I played against Brett for my entire rookie year, being a scout-team player when he was the Jets quarterback," said Lowery, now with the Atlanta Falcons, "so I understood his cadence, where he liked to throw the football, his mannerisms."
Lowery knew there was a certain play the Vikings ran out of a particular formation, featuring two receivers set close to the line of scrimmage on one side with the outside receiver running a vertical and the other a quick out. Lowery knew Favre liked throwing the out, so he jumped in front of tight end Visanthe Shiancoe for the pick-six.
"At that moment, I said to myself, 'Now I know how to study film. Now I know what to look for and take advantage of situations,' " Lowery said. "I used to have to sit down for a real long time because I didn't really know what I was looking at. I really didn't know what to look for. Now, I can just breeze through it and just know."
Lowery, 28, wishes he was as astute with his film study at an early age, when he was getting picked apart by Peyton Manning in an AFC Championship Game. The six-year veteran out of San Jose State was selected by the Jets in the fourth round of the 2008 draft. At least now Lowery approaches football with a more cerebral approach as he aims to bring more veteran leadership to the Falcons' secondary.
Lowery, who spent the past 2 1/2 seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars, did his homework well before signing a one-year, $760,000 contract with the Falcons. He saw an enforcer in strong safety William Moore who needed a tag-team partner on the last line of defense. He saw a trio of cornerbacks in Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford and Robert McClain capable of making impact plays. And he saw a young linebacker, Paul Worrilow, who as a rookie performed well beyond his undrafted status.
"Worrilow, he's a load, man," Lowery said. "I was sitting next to William Moore and he was like, 'That dude can go. That dude can play.' He's so young and works really hard. He's constantly in the weight room. For a young guy, he doesn't really have that young-guy presence. He seems like he's going to be a great player."
But Lowery also saw defensive flaws as he studied the NFC title game from two years ago -- when the Atlanta defense imploded against the San Francisco 49ers -- and as he dissected some of the Falcons' NFC South clashes from last season.
"Watching last year a little bit, it seemed like -- I'm not trying to single guys out -- but it seemed like sometimes they really wouldn't know what was happening or they would see something too late, or they were hesitating," Lowery said candidly.
"And I saw that tackling was an issue. I don't know if it was so much of a tackling issue or an angle/pursuit-type thing. The most encouraging thing, though, is the coaches are really emphasizing it. So, it's something that's either going to get fixed or it's not going to be tolerated. It doesn't have to be perfect and pretty. Just get him to the ground."
That's not to say Lowery views himself as the cure-all. He contends he's not about individual achievements. He just wants to be a part of the solution.
"I'm older now, and I've made enough money as a player to live comfortably," Lowery said. "I don't care about all that other crap. I just want to win. That's the bottom line. ... I just want to be a part of and contribute to a winning team."
Cleared for takeoff
Some wondered why a veteran with 41 career starts at cornerback and safety and plenty of playoff experience would be on the street.
Health concerns determined Lowery's status. Last year, he suffered his third concussion since college and second in the NFL after taking what he called a "cheap shot" from then-Seattle Seahawks receiver Golden Tate.
Lowery eventually passed the concussion test, but not before the decision about his Jaguars' future had been made. Jacksonville placed him on injured reserve, and a month later released him with no real place to go. The trade deadline had gone by. And Lowery didn't believe he was in good enough shape to respond to workout inquiries from the Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins.
It was a trying period for Lowery, as his latest concussion emphasized the reality of football.
"It should be scary, for everybody," Lowery said. "You can only play this game for so long."
Lowery never once thought about giving up. In fact, he once turned to his own family for motivation. His younger sister, Aujanae, was born with tetralogy of fallot, a rare condition caused by a combination of four heart defects present at birth. The defects affect the construction of the heart and keep the blood from carrying sufficient oxygen.
Lowery said his sister has undergone at least three corrective procedures since infancy. Now she's a 16-year-old cheerleader trying to enjoy an active life, with no other surgical procedures currently scheduled.
"I think that's a testament to her strength," Lowery said. "Every time I think about her, it inspires me."
A rejuvenated Lowery hopes to put last year's concussion setback in the past and make a statement with his third NFL team. The Falcons don't need him to do it all. They simply need a starting free safety capable of tackling and not surrendering big plays. They need consistency at the position.
"I know that he's a very athletic player," Falcons coach Mike Smith said of the 5-foot-11, 212-pound Lowery. "He's got good size and he's got good speed. He's got a lot of games in the NFL. It's going to be fun to watch him develop in our scheme."
"I don't really take anything for granted," Lowery said. "I told them when I signed, 'Look, I didn't play at all last year. I'm not looking to come into a situation and it be all about me.' I'm honestly all about the team and what's best for the team."
Maybe Lowery became a little spoiled.
During his three-year stint with the Jets, he played in two consecutive AFC Championship Games. He grew as a player in coach Rex Ryan's exotic defensive schemes. He learned from one of the best defensive backs while playing opposite Darrelle Revis.
But something was missing.
"They used to say I was the jack of all trades," Lowery said. "They would throw me into different scenarios, different situations to take advantage of those skill sets, whether it be coverage or blitzing. I would come in and teams really wouldn't know what position I'd be playing.
"But as time wore on, I think there comes a certain point in time where you don't really get to progress as a football player because I never got an opportunity to go into the offseason and say, 'OK, I can focus on this.' I was always required to do so many different things."
So despite being a part of four playoff wins and 29 regular-season victories, Lowery welcomed a change of scenery and a chance to focus solely on playing safety. He had no issue with being traded to Jacksonville before the start of the 2011 season.
Or so he thought.
During his first two seasons in Jacksonville, the Jaguars went 7-25 and had three different head coaches, counting an interim. Lowery believed his team had talent but the wrong approach.
So he complained. To coaches. To the general manager. To his teammates.
"Really, to anybody that would listen," Lowery said. "I was frustrated because I just felt like we were lying to ourselves. We'd talk about how good our practices were and then we'd go to the game and we couldn't execute."
Lowery admitted being a little immature at the time and not really knowing how to approach the situation.
"And I think it put an image on me," Lowery said. "The new regime came in [under Gus Bradley], and they kind of came in thinking I was something that I don't feel like I was, like a cancer, yes.
"For whatever reason, I think I can be misunderstood sometimes as far as my approach. Maybe it's the California in me."
Being misunderstood, in his eyes, only helped Lowery grow as a person. He believes he grew as a player long before.
Those practices with Favre and failures against Manning went a long way in defining who Lowery is today. Those Sundays opposite Revis only enhanced his knowledge of the game.
"The experience of playing across Darrelle Revis for two years was definitely something that was challenging because they weren't throwing to his side," Lowery said with a laugh. "That was a learning experience in terms of how to guard a particular opponent: what this guys does well, where he lines up, what he likes in this situation. I learned that from Darrelle Revis and picking his brain for what he looks for from a receiver."
All of the lessons learned should pay dividends for Lowery as he makes the transition to a new defense and a new environment in Atlanta.
"I think what I'm going to bring to the table is an understanding of the big picture," Lowery said. "In this defense, Mike Nolan and Rex [Ryan] have a lot of similarities. And I think that will make me more comfortable. I think I'll have a better understanding of what we're trying to do and how we're going to execute it."
The Falcons certainly need Lowery to be a quick study.