Even as recently as a few weeks ago, the idea of the Jacksonville Jaguars going into Gillette Stadium and pushing the New England Patriots to the brink seemed incomprehensible. That it ended up happening, in different circumstances, might have made the Patriots seem vulnerable.
Instead, the Patriots got pushed around for a half, took the best shot from the competition yet again and still erased a multiple-score lead in the second half like it was nothing to win the AFC championship game 24-20. This is living dangerously for any team, but the Patriots aren't just any team.
It's doubtful this is entirely by design. Surely Bill Belichick would prefer not to trail for most of any game and be dominated in time of possession 35 to 24 minutes. That the Patriots are able to play this way and still win is a credit to Belichick's ability to adjust and his players' resilience.
The Jaguars nearly winning in Foxborough despite a middling performance from Blake Bortles should be encouraging to an Eagles team with s similarly solid defense and ground game. If Nick Foles delivers anything close to the performance he had in a 38-7 win over the Vikings in the NFC championship game, the Eagles will likely walk away with their first Super Bowl title. It was a stunning outing in a lot of ways for Foles, who had yet to impress in other starts this season. This is a quarterback who was on the verge of retirement a few years ago until being coaxed to stick around the NFL by Andy Reid.
What will it take to put away the Patriots in the Super Bowl? No one quite knows. The Falcons and Seahawks had ample opportunities and let it slip away. The Jaguars, too, were likely one or two big pass plays from their trip to Minnesota. It must be quite the luxury to know your team can get outplayed for huge chunks of an elimination game, trail by multiple scores and still have victory virtually assured.
There's no guarantee that the Eagles will be in that position in two weeks. New England could very well blow them out of the water from the opening kickoff, but that seems unlikely. Even without Carson Wentz, this is one of the most loaded rosters in the NFL. Barring unforeseen disastrous turnovers, Philly should acquit itself well in the Super Bowl.
And there's the rub. Say you get up 10, 14, even 20 points on New England in the third quarter. In theory, of course, you know what must be done. But it somehow never seems to be that easy with the Pats. The Eagles will go into Super Bowl LII confident in the notion that they can win despite being the underdogs and doubted before the game begins. That's not as psychologically impressive as being confident in the idea you can take the best the opposition can offer and laugh it off. That's the Patriots' mystique right now, and it has to be a terrifying thing for the competition to behold.
Then again, Doug Pederson did lead the Browns to victory as a player over Belichick, so maybe there's hope yet.
Doug Pederson beats Bill Belichick and the Patriots 19-10.- Andrew Siciliano (@AndrewSiciliano) January 22, 2018
Week 11, 2000. pic.twitter.com/MvDEDoBARb
The Patriots officiating conspiracies continue
There's no denying the Patriots have gotten had a few high-profile close calls go their way over the course of the season, from the reversed Jesse James touchdown in Pittsburgh to a Kelvin Benjamin touchdown being taken off the board for Buffalo against the Pats a few weeks later. On Sunday, the Patriots were penalized just once, the lowest total in a championship game since the Patriots were also called for one in another win in 2011. To be fair, the refs did uphold the close fumble recovery by Myles Jack on review. Still, that's enough for fans to point to the refs for being the difference in an unexpectedly close contest. It's one thing for bitter fans to engage in such theatrics, though it was odd to see Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson retweet one such joke about the refs siding with New England. As always, of course, retweets don't equal endorsements.
Fan of the Week
The grease didn't work. pic.twitter.com/it0XDv4Nvs- Matt Gelb (@MattGelb) January 22, 2018
In the hours before the NFC championship, news circulated that the city of Philadelphia deployed workers to cover light poles with Crisco so as to prevent celebrating fans from climbing them after the game. Knowing the history of Philly sports fans, and even the mayhem that transpired in the parking lot before the game on Sunday, this made some sense. The only problem is, it wasn't effective. It takes a little more than some grease to deter a Philly fan bent on raucousness.
So cheers to Eagles fans for partying like no tomorrow, even if their team has ensured that there is in fact a tomorrow, and this isn't the last stop on the road. Hopefully no one got hurt. If people find themselves in trouble, there are always former Eagles willing to come to their aid.
It's not that no one thought Foles was capable of leading the Eagles to victory. It's that no one figured it would be this resounding of a victory. In what was the best game of his career, Foles threw for three touchdowns and 352 yards on one of the league's best defenses. The deep ball was a huge concern coming into Sunday, and the ones he attempted into the wind the week before against the Falcons were laughable. Nevertheless, Foles was 4-for-6 for 172 yards and two scores going deep against the Vikings.
After an opening drive in which the Patriots moved into field goal range a touch too easily, the Jags clamped down for most of the rest of the first half, pressuring Brady and building a lead. Fowler had two sacks and might have had more, if Jaguars fans are to be believed about uncalled holding penalties.
The defensive play of the day came in the second half of the AFC title game, when Jack ripped the ball away from Dion Lewis on what had been a big gain by the Patriots. Had Jacksonville been able to hold onto its 10-point lead, this likely would have been seen as the turning point of the game.
Eagles pass rush
Philly may have sacked Case Keenum only once, but it had him pressured all game long. And Keenum finally wilted after consistently good protection this season. After one nice Vikings scoring drive to start the game, the Eagles pressed Keenum into throwing a pick-six and got another turnover late in the first half before the game became a laugher.
James Harrison has hogged all the attention since joining the Patriots late in the season, partially because media has been fixated on a Patriots-Steelers rematch that never arrived, and also because Harrison is the big name. And, sure, Harrison helped on a couple plays late, but he didn't have the complete game Flowers had. Should the Patriots get their sixth title of the Brady-Belichick era, it's likely Flowers will come out of it as a new name to know on defense.
Neither of the Jaguars' two breakout corners were their usually swaggering, dominating selves in the AFC championship. Bouye drew a killer pass interference penalty at the end of the first half that allowed New England to score and cut the Jacksonville lead to 14-10 at the break. Those scores right before half are basically the recipe for Pats big-game wins. At that point, just about everyone knew what was coming in the second half.
Everybody knew the Vikings' defense was the team's strength all year. And yet, with the Super Bowl on the line, they made Nick Foles look like, well, Tom Brady. Especially Trae Waynes. That's a tough pill to swallow. Things were bad enough that they were on the business end of dad jokes deployed by police department social media accounts.
We just have been contacted by the @MinneapolisPD and are assisting in the locating of the Minnesota Vikings defense. If located we will let you know. We must hurry as we have been given a 30 minute time limit to assist /802- Sioux Falls Police (@siouxfallspd) January 22, 2018
The Vikings are no longer his problem. Still, his offense putting seven points on the board against a rival of the team he's about to take over as head coach is… not ideal. One might argue that he won't have Case Keenum as his quarterback in New York next year. While true, it's not fully determined yet whether he'll have Eli Manning, either.
Tony Romo might have been getting a little too manic at times during his final broadcast of his rookie season in the booth. At least Romo didn't conclude the game by trying to sell a Super Bowl storyline that Tom Brady has extended relatives in Minnesota and that's a reason the country should find the game compelling. Not every Super Bowl has to have a "Jerome Bettis is from Detroit" type angle fashioned onto it.
Perhaps the most sympathetic story of the NFL postseason, because just about every casual fan was rooting for Bortles against the big bad Patriots. In defeat, one might expect an atrocious outing from the Jags quarterback, and this wasn't that. It wasn't particularly good, either. Once the Pats got a handle on some of the more clever play-calling tricks the Jags were using early on, they forced Bortles to make good throws to covered receivers, and he simply couldn't make it happen.
The week in celebrations
For once, the greatest celebration of the week was not one of exuberance, but of disdain. Indeed, Sunday marked the near-annual tradition of Bill Belichick being unconcerned to the point of disgust for the Lamar Hunt Trophy. Frankly, those hollow metal footballs are pretty ugly. They really need to bring back the old conference title trophies. Though I doubt aesthetics are really Belichick's beef in this situation.
Bill Belichick's utter contempt for the AFC Championship trophy remains legendary pic.twitter.com/9TDv96qxde- Jason Schwartz (@JasonSchwartz) January 21, 2018
Belichick's defensive coordinator, Matt Patricia, was certainly emotional in what was his final game in Foxborough before reportedly departing to be head coach of the Lions. He was even spotted lying in the confetti after everyone had left the field. Before that, he embraced Belichick at the moment of triumph. Trying to make Belichick feel real feelings is a pretty solid prank on your way out the door.
Bill Belichick tried to express human emotion and immediately regretted it pic.twitter.com/rtM36iwHb5- Josh Billinson (@jbillinson) January 21, 2018
As for the group celebrations, the Vikings made it count in their only trip to the end zone in Philadelphia, breaking out a curling demonstration. They have all sorts of time to learn the events schedule of the Winter Olympics before that gets started next month.
time to investigate whether the IOC bribed the Vikings to generate interest in curling before the Olympics pic.twitter.com/aYfUKyFWLF- Mike Tunison (@xmasape) January 21, 2018