To hear casual NFL fans describe it, the Super Bowl has already been decided now that the four remaining starting quarterbacks are Tom Brady, Nick Foles, Case Keenum and Blake Bortles.
With Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan dispatched on divisional weekend, it seems like the path to a Patriots repeat couldn't be easier. All the quarterbacks with championship experience who might be able to stand toe-to-toe with Brady are out of the way. In their place are two quarterbacks who weren't even their team's starter at the beginning of the season. Then there's Bortles, who's been a target for replacement going on more than a year now.
New England might very well capture its sixth Lombardi Trophy in the weeks to come. Few would doubt that likelihood, especially after last year's Super Bowl, when three quarters of a dominant performance against the Pats wasn't enough to win. Does that mean this is a foregone conclusion? It's not that quarterbacks aren't still the most important member of the team, because they are. But NFL offenses have done quite a bit to rein in their influence. The short passing game is more prevalent than ever. Few quarterbacks are slinging it down the field on a consistent basis.
Of the teams remaining beyond New England, all three place in the top five in total defense. If you don't think a defense-first team can quash New England, you only need to think back two years ago to when the Broncos defense laid waste to the Patriots in the AFC championship game. That might have been presented as a marquee quarterback matchup, since it was the latest installment of the Brady-Peyton Manning rivalry, but Manning was by that point a shell of himself and was counted on to do little beyond not screw things up for the Denver offense.
The problem is that the Jags have also given up 40-plus points in two of their past four games. Though Bortles didn't make the killer mistake in Pittsburgh, he was playing with the lead the entire game. What's he going to look like chasing points trailing Brady in Gillette Stadium? Presumably far less composed.
The Vikings have the best chance to hold off Brady and the Patriots from yet another title. Minnesota, of course, would benefit from being the first Super Bowl team to be playing on its home field, though it's fair to question whether that advantage would be as significant as other home games since so much of a Super Bowl crowd is not hardcore NFL fans. Keenum is also the most unfairly maligned of the remaining quarterbacks who aren't Brady. Sure, he languished in poor situations with the Texans and Rams, but his 2017 statistics aren't a significant drop-off from Brady's. Keenum did need a miracle play to send Brees packing, but he did enough to get his team in position to win, and he's supported by the best receiver tandem in the league.
A much improved second playoff weekend
As unremarkable as the opening weekend of the NFL playoffs was, the follow-up was as dazzling. Sunday's two games were as exciting as any this season, and both flirted with historic comeback bids by the more accomplished franchise. The last-second touchdown catch and run by Minnesota's Stefon Diggs is already being hailed as an instant classic postseason play. It might not be Dwight Clark's "The Catch," but it's certainly the equal of Terrell Owens' "The Catch II."
The Vikings haven't quite reached the promised land. They did do the opposite of their usual playoff M.O., which involves losing in the most excruciating way possible. When the Saints blocked a punt and took the lead in the fourth, few could blame Vikings fans for being pessimistic. Yet by the end, there was Keenum leading the crowd in a moving Skol chant with victory wrapped up.
Roethlisberger 2018 Retirement Watch called off
After the Steelers quarterback spent large portions of the last offseason hinting at his impending retirement, Ben Roethlisberger swiftly put that speculation to rest despite finishing this season short of where the 2016 season ended. In the immediate aftermath of the loss to the Jaguars, Roethlisberger stated that he will be back for the 2018 season. That means Pittsburgh will be secure at quarterback for at least one more season. Now, the Steelers just have to get comfortable using him in short-yardage sneak situations again.
Fans of the Week
The Eagles survived the Falcons and will host the NFC championship game next Sunday against the Vikings. Once again, the opponent will be favored: The Eagles opened up as three-and-a-half-point underdogs. Inspired by Eagles players Lane Johnson and Chris Long wearing dog masks during the team's victory on Saturday, Philly fans have been swooping up similar models online. Will Lincoln Financial Field have more dog masks than the Dawg Pound next Sunday? It seems like a reasonable expectation. And hopefully, once football season is over, Philly fans can find a way to recycle the masks for another sports use. Last year, Sixers fans raised cats following victories. Perhaps dog-people hoisting cats is the next evolution of that.
The Jaguars' running back ended up posting more rushing touchdowns in two games in Heinz Field than any Steelers running back did in nine games there this season. Fournette was the key on a day when the Jags put up an astounding 45 points on the Steelers defense. He was the only back to eclipse 100 yards rushing this weekend. In fact, it was his absence late in the first half that allowed Pittsburgh to make it something of a game.
Had the Saints held on to win and not been the victims of one of the most incredible plays in NFL postseason history, Thomas would have been hailed as one of the stars of the game. He scored two touchdowns, one of which while being guarded by Vikings shutdown corner Xavier Rhodes. In his second season, Thomas has established himself as the go-to option in the Saints passing game. Hopefully he gets at least another season or two to work with Brees before the Saints have to figure out what to do to replace the best passer in franchise history.
Nick Foles was adequate enough in not very amenable conditions for passing on Saturday afternoon. Still, if the Eagles are going to advance to their first Super Bowl in over a decade, their defense will have to do some heavy lifting. Cox had a sack against the Falcons to go along with two more QB pressures, and he was dynamite against the run. Matt Ryan is certainly a better quarterback overall than Case Keenum, though the protection the Vikings' line has provided this year closes the gap a bit. The Eagles' front seven will need to get consistent pressure. Unlike the Saints, they don't have the luxury of being able to come back from down multiple scores.
Even before the play that will be remembered as long as the Vikings exist, Diggs was having a fine day with five catches for 76 yards. He may have benefitted from an extremely unfortunate tackling decision by Saints safety Marcus Williams, but Diggs still put himself in position to make a contested grab and had the wherewithal to take it the rest of the way in the biggest moment of his career.
Pittsburgh's defense was busy being outclassed on Sunday. The Steelers still very nearly completed a comeback from down 28-7 in large part because the team's offensive stars were going to finesse their way to New England. AB came into the game at less than 100 percent, but it would be hard to tell from the stat sheet. He finished with 132 yards and two scores, including a gem of a catch to get Pittsburgh within one touchdown on fourth down with nine minutes remaining in the game.
The rookie safety is bound to be the scapegoat for the Saints' loss and will have his missed tackle on Diggs replayed ad nauseam for years to come. In retrospect, it was a tougher decision in the moment than the whiff on the tackle would make it seem. Williams had to avoid initiating early contact so as not to risk drawing a pass interference penalty, which would have given the Vikings a chance at a game-winning field goal. Obviously, that's preferable to a walk-off touchdown, but it's a lot easier to be smug about that after the fact than trying to make a difficult play in the moment. Still, there's no denying that he failed to make one of many potential moves that could have won the game for the Saints, and that will surely be difficult to process.
#saints Rookie safety Marcus Williams feel to his knees on his way to locker room after his missed tackle cost saints the game and then inside the locker cried with his head in his hands.- Alex Flanagan (@Alex_Flanagan) January 15, 2018
The way Super Bowl LI ended, Falcons fans weren't too distraught about Kyle Shanahan skipping town to take over as head coach of the 49ers. Now, those fans would do just about anything to have him back after the season of decline under Sarkisian. The ill-fated fourth-down attempt in Philly is likely to be the final nail, as Atlanta will presumably have to go looking for a new offensive coordinator for 2018.
Indeed, for as exciting as divisional weekend was, it was also a slate of games rife with questionable coaching decisions. Few were as head-scratching as Pittsburgh's decision to twice attempt to convert fourth down and less than a yard by not sneaking Roethlisberger, who, aside from maybe Cam Newton, is best suited for that sort of play and has been quite successful at it throughout his career. Instead, Pittsburgh failed twice with a slow developing pitch play and a pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster. The Steelers scored 42 points, and yet they still managed to leave points on the field.
Refs in the Titans-Pats game
Conspiracy-minded sports fans need little evidence to stoke their theories. The referees working the Titans-Patriots game gave them plenty. Building on several questionable calls that went the Pats' way late in the regular season, there were a few on Saturday that had fans wondering whether visiting teams will get a fair shake in Foxborough. Ultimately, the Titans were so outclassed that it mattered little to the outcome. Should it happen again in a close contest, fans of all stripes will be wondering how the NFL went from supposedly beefing with the Patriots to helping them out.
Steelers pass rush
The breakdowns in coverage were rampant for Pittsburgh on Sunday and those issues were exacerbated by a complete inability to put any pressure on Bortles. Even though Roethlisberger put up some gaudy numbers, the Jags defense was still able to get a couple turnovers. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, just sat back and let a conservative offense move the chains time and again.
The week in celebrations
After a relatively sedate wild card weekend, celebrations were back in a big way in the second round of the NFL playoffs. The most clever of the efforts was the Vikings simulating a game of freeze tag after scoring a touchdown. If they really wanted to finish the game, they would have someone crawl through the frozen players legs to revive them, though I can see how that might be a little too protracted to fit into the allotted time before the extra point.
The Vikings Super Bowl hopes are scuttled when no one remembers to unfreeze Case Keenum pic.twitter.com/I335YbGvNi- Mike Tunison (@xmasape) January 14, 2018
Under normal circumstances, fans wouldn't have too much fun hanging out with an NFL owner, however unlikely that scenario might be. Nevertheless, it's somehow a little charming to see the boss unwind and try to connect with the players after a big win. If the Eagles have another excuse to break out the Electric Slide, they'll have to have Jeffrey Lurie out there shimmying with them.
Finally, it may not be acting out playground favorites or dancing, but there's no denying that trash talk is a form of celebration, and that the Jaguars are masters of the form. Unsurprisingly, the Jags had plenty to say after pulling off the upset win in Pittsburgh. That's certainly their prerogative. To the winners go the roast lines. And it's hard to say the Jags didn't get in some impressive ones.
Calais Campbell on The Steelers: "Hey look, they're a great team and.." Marcell Dareus jumps in..."Stop saying they are a great team. They just got their ass whooped"- Tim Benz (@TimBenzPGH) January 14, 2018
Jalen Ramsey the goat still pic.twitter.com/541dpLUfkt- moscato papi 🌺 (@jdcismee) January 14, 2018