The NFL Championship Weekend is complete and the New England Patriots will face the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis. I will be previewing the matchup next week, but before we do that, let’s take a look at the action from this weekend, what went right for the winning teams and where the losing teams go from here.
1) Jacksonville Jaguars 20 at New England Patriots 24 – I feel like I do not need to write anything new about the New England Patriots, I can just dust off last year’s recap, change the opponent name and update the new history the Patriots just made in Championship Weekend. So much for the schism in the New England locker room, QB Tom Brady having a strained relationship with head coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots nearing the end of a dynasty. The dynasty is still strong as the Patriots are now appearing in their eighth Super Bowl since 2001. No head coach and quarterback have won more Conference Championships or appeared in more Super Bowls than Brady and Belichick.
The Patriots are going for all kinds of history in this Super Bowl. If they win, Brady will have his sixth ring as a starting quarterback. His five rings are already a Super Bowl record, but he is currently tied with former Green Bay Packers QB Bart Starr for the most titles won by a starting quarterback. He would become the most decorated quarterback of any era, which is amazing given that Starr played in an era where he only needed to win one playoff game to capture his first two titles and there were only about 15 teams in the NFL in those days.
There is only one head coach and quarterback combo that have had this type of success. From 1946 to 1955 Cleveland Browns head coach Paul Brown and QB Otto Graham appeared in every title game. They won all four championships in the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) from 1946 to 1949. They appeared in all five of the NFL Championships from 1950 to 1955, winning three of them and losing three of them. For his career, Graham was (7-3) in league championship games.
However, that was in a time where there were only eight teams in the AAFC and only a dozen teams in the NFL. There was only one playoff game, the NFL Championship Game. There was no salary cap, no free agency and no schedule designed to make it tougher for good teams to repeat and to encourage parity in the NFL.
When the Patriots won their first three Super Bowls from 2001 to 2004, they became only the second team in NFL history to win three Super Bowls in four years. The other team was the 1992 to 1995 Dallas Cowboys. If they can win Super Bowl LLII, they will have done something twice in 18 years that only one other franchise has been able to do in 52 years. It is absolutely amazing that they have had this type of sustained success.
It is becoming surreal what they have done. Brady is (196-55) over his NFL career, which is 141 games over .500. The only quarterbacks in NFL history with more 141 or more regular season games are QB Brett Favre (186), QB Peyton Manning (186), John Elway (148), Dan Marino (147) and Drew Brees (142). Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger is a first ballot Hall of Famer and he has won two Super Bowls and appeared in three. He has 135 wins, which is less than the number of games Brady is above .500.
The only recent dynasty that we have seen with similar results is if you take the 1981 to 1998 San Francisco 49ers and combine the success of QB Joe Montana and Steve Young into one career. Montana won 100 games and lost 39 games in his 13 years in San Francisco. Young won 91 games and lost 33 games in his 13 years in San Francisco. If you add up those records, they combined to go (191-63) and win five Super Bowls. Brady is slightly better at (196-55) and he has won five Super Bowls, but he still has a chance to win his sixth Super Bowl and he appeared in two more. Think about that, Brady has done what Montana and Young combined to do in their careers with the 49ers and that was arguably the best dynasty in NFL history prior to the New England Patriots.
The Playoffs are the same story. Brady is (27-9) in the postseason, which is 18 games above .500 in the playoffs. Joe Montana is second in playoff wins with a record of (16-7). Brady’s differential between his playoff wins and losses is more than the second most victorious quarterback in postseason history. Brady has as many postseason wins (27) as Peyton Manning and Favre combined. I feel like it sometimes becomes cache to say that something is unprecedented and that a player has lapped the field. Brady is an exception to that praise, what he has done is unprecedented and he has lapped the field of even the best quarterbacks in NFL history.
The same goes for his coach, Bill Belichick. Think about this, Belichick is going to be coaching in his 11th Super Bowl. He coached in two Super Bowls for the New York Giants (1986 and 1990), one with the New England Patriots as an assistant head coach / defensive backs coach (1996) and eight with the New England Patriots as their head coach (2001, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2011, 2014, 2016 and 2017). There have been only 52 Super Bowls if you count the one in two weeks and Belichick will have coached in 11 of them, which is 21.12 percent of all Super Bowls ever played.
They did not steam roll their way to this Super Bowl. They trailed the game 14-3 early in the first half, but managed to score a touchdown at the end of the first half to cut the deficit to 14-10. They trailed 20-10 entering the fourth quarter against one of the nastiest defenses in the NFL. However, that is what makes the Patriots so dangerous. The Patriots are not the best team in the league, because they blow everyone out of the building. They are the best team in the league, because when the chips are down, they consistently find ways to win games that other teams routinely lose.
Brady finished that game 26 for 38 with 290 yards passing, two passing touchdowns, no picks and a QB rating of 108.4. He had very little help in the running game, as they ran the ball only 19 times for 46 yards and one touchdown. The defense let him down at times, as they gave up 293 yards passing and one passing touchdown to QB Blake Bortles. It looked like the game was not going to go there way in the fourth quarter with the Jaguars up 10 points.
Where the experience level showed was in the fourth quarter, where one team had been in this situation for seven straight seasons and one team was playing in their first AFC Championship Game since 1999. The first touchdown drive went eight plays for 85 yards and took only 3:19 off the clock. The Jaguars ran five plays and punted, the Patriots ran three plays and punted and the Jaguars ran three plays and punted. WR Danny Amendola had a 20-yard return to the Jaguars 30-yard line and the rest was history.
The Jaguars had a chance to pull off the upset, but it was not meant to be. They ran six plays and gained 32 yards, but the drive stalled and they turned it over on downs. They had the New England Patriots in third and nine and RB Dion Lewis found the corner and gained 18 yards to seal the game. The Jaguars have nothing to hang their head about; they gave a very tough team a good game on the road. I had thought all week that the Patriots were too heavily favored in this game. The Jaguars D showed up and gave Brady trouble at times in this game and the Patriots struggled on defense at times. The Jaguars just could not make the plays they needed to make at the most important points of the game and that was enough for a battle tested Patriots team to escape with a victory.
The Patriots will now go for a sixth Super Bowl win against a team they have already beat in the Super Bowl. Super Bowl LII will be a rematch of Super Bowl XXXIX between the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles. Andy Reid was in his sixth year as the head coach, QB Donovan McNabb was a 28-year old QB in the prime of his career and the Eagles were hoping that WR Terrell Owens would be healthy enough to play in that game. The Patriots had Belichick at head coach and Brady at quarterback going for their third Super Bowl in four years. The more things change, the more things remain the same in New England. That seems like a lifetime ago in Philadelphia Eagles history, while nothing seems to change in New England.
As for the Jaguars, they did a lot of great things in this game. They kept the ball out of Brady’s hands, controlling the clock 35:08 to 24:52. They gained 377 yards of offensive in the game and they had no turnovers. They stayed committed to the running game, even when it was not working for them. They ran the ball 32 times for 101 yards and one touchdown. It would have been tempting to abandon the running game with Bortles throwing the ball well, but they stayed with their game plan and almost won the game against the best dynasty in NFL history.
The Jaguars found out what the Falcons found out last year in Super Bowl LI. Teams that want to beat the New England Patriots cannot leave any plays on the field and hope to win the game. The margin for error in the playoffs is very small and against the Patriots, it is razor thin. I thought there were a couple huge plays they left on the field. The first was on a third and seven with 2:23 left in the second half. Bortles converted a first down on a 12-yard pass, but the play was called back due to delay of game. They did not convert the third and 12 and New England promptly went six plays for 85 yards in 1:07 and scored a touchdown. If Jacksonville converts on that series, they may have gone into the half up 17-3 or 21-3. Even if they don’t score points, a 14-3 lead is better than a 14-10 lead. That sequence took a great half of football for Jacksonville and ruined it. They had played much better than New England, but had only a four-point lead to show for it.
Then they recovered from that mistake and took a 20-10 lead into the fourth quarter. It would have been much better if they took a 24-10 lead, but Bortles was not able to connect on third and eight with WR Marqise Lee. They had to settle for a field goal and their defense came up big on the next possession, when they recovered a fumble by Lewis. They needed to go on a long drive to seal the game; instead they went three plays for nine yards and punted. New England would score a touchdown on the next drive.
Against some teams, that still wins the game, but against New England that will be a team’s undoing. They did enough to win against most opponents, but a delay of game and bad defensive drive at the end of the half and too many drives that ended up in punts in the fourth quarter gave New England enough time to complete the comeback.
Jacksonville does not need to blow their team up next year. This team’s window just opened. They were fifth in points scored and sixth in yards gained. They were second in points allowed and second in yards allowed. They had the best rushing offense in the league. There are a lot of things to like about this team.
The big question is Bortles and it is a tough question. There was a lot not to like in the regular season. They were the 17th ranked passing offense in the NFL and he had just 21 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions and he had a QB rating of 84.7. They scored only 10 points in their first playoff game and they gained 75 net passing yards in that Wild Card win over the Buffalo Bills.
However, he showed some good things the last two weeks against the two best teams in the AFC, the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England. They scored 45 points against the Pittsburgh Steelers and he had a QB rating of 94.1. In this game, he had a QB rating of 98.5. He had no interceptions in three playoff games and he was a play or two away from beating the best quarterback in NFL history on the road. He turns 26 years old in April and he could still be improving.
Bortles is headed into the final year of his rookie contract. The good news is that it is a club option and it is guaranteed for injury only. The Jaguars do not need to worry about a huge cap penalty by moving on from Bortles, they could move on without any cap penalty. Imagine if this team added New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees and had him handing the ball off to RB Leonard Fournette and playing with that defense. Imagine if they traded for QB Eli Manning, who has won two Super Bowls and could be an even more effective game manager at this point in his career than Bortles. They could also go with Washington QB Kirk Cousins in free agency, if Washington does not tag him. Cousins is not as old as Brees or Manning, but also has not won a playoff game. He has shown to be a better passer than Bortles and he could be a big upgrade for this offense.
That is the big question for Jacksonville. Can they make a change at quarterback that will benefit them in 2018. It would be a shame to bail on Bortles when he is 26 years old and that decision could backfire. He could go sign with Denver and with continued development, evolve into a franchise quarterback. Bortles could have over a decade of NFL football left and be competing for Super Bowls years after Brees and Manning retire. He could also be out of the league or a backup quarterback, because other than these last two playoff games, he has not shown enough to justify keeping him around. Had they lost that Wild Card Round game to Buffalo where they passed for only 75 yards, moving on from Bortles would have been a certainty.
I do not think the Jags should start over in the NFL Draft, but if they have a realistic chance to add Brees, Manning or Cousins, I think they have to take a look at that option. This defense is nasty and it is primed to win now and if they wait to find out what they have in Bortles and give him a monster contract, they could lose pieces of that defense in free agency, waste seasons with a great defense that should be able to win a championship and they may never make it over the hump.
This team reminds me of Denver with QB Tim Tebow back in 2012. Tebow had just won a playoff game and shown a lot in the fourth quarter of some regular season games and in the Wild Card Round, but he also had a lot to be desired as a passer. They took the risk and added Peyton Manning, a guy with nerve damage in his neck and who had missed an entire season.
They ended up winning a Super Bowl in 2015 behind a very strong defense. Jacksonville does not even need three years to build the defense; they have that ready to go now. I think they need to realize that even though Bortles played well at times, he is nowhere near where he should be after his fourth year as the third pick in the NFL Draft. They need to go after a Super Bowl, which means convincing an established quarterback to relocate to Jacksonville, Florida. You don’t want to bail on a quarterback that had two pretty good postseason games, but he showed his limitations in New England and two good games in the postseason should not erase a lot of bad football since 2014.
2) Minnesota Vikings 7 at Philadelphia Eagles 38 – Sometimes the most important signings are ones that fly under the radar in the off-season. I am pretty sure on March 13, 2017, when QB Nick Foles signed a two-year deal worth $11 million to return to Philadelphia, most people were not jumping for joy or yelling in disgust. They simply did not care, because they already had QB Carson Wentz and the backup quarterback does not mean much for a team hoping to make the playoffs. However, this signing ended up being a very big deal, because it appeared the Eagles would have their dream season ruined when Wentz tore his ACL in Week 14 against the Los Angeles Rams. Suddenly, that quarterback that was an afterthought on March 13, 2017 became the most important player on the roster. He was taking over at quarterback for a team winning by an average of 14.5 points per game.
He needed to keep the team atop the NFC and he needed to be ready for the playoffs. Foles was more than ready on Sunday. The highest QB rating in the NFC or AFC Championship Game was a QB rating of 145.7, set by Arizona Cardinals QB Kurt Warner in the 2008 NFC Championship Game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Foles had a QB rating of 141.4. He was 26 of 33 for 352 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. He was sacked only one time for -6 yards. Furthermore, the Eagles ground game tallied 30 attempts for 110 rushing yards.
The defense was equally as dominant. QB Case Keenum was 28 for 48 with 271 yards passing, one touchdown, two picks and a QB rating of 63.8. One of the interceptions was returned for a touchdown and started the Eagles domination of the game. He also had a lost fumble. The running attack generated only 18 carries for 70 yards. The Eagles possessed the ball 34:04 to 25:56. They out gained the Vikings 456 yards to 333 yards and the only lead they had in the game was when they took the opening drive for a touchdown. After that first drive, the game belonged to the Eagles.
That was as dominant of a NFC Championship Game as you will ever see, which is surprising with the Eagles starting quarterback on the bench. The biggest blowout in either conference was a 51-3 win by the Buffalo Bills over the Los Angeles Raiders in the 1990 AFC Championship Game. The only other Conference Championship Games that saw the winning team win by 30 or more points are the 2015 NFC Championship Game (Carolina Panthers 49 vs. Arizona Cardinals 15), 2014 AFC Championship Game (New England Patriots 45 vs. Indianapolis Colts 7), 2000 NFC Championship Game (New York Giants 41 vs. Minnesota 0), 1991 NFC Championship Game (Washington 41 vs. Detroit Lions 10) and the 1975 NFC Championship Game (Dallas Cowboys 37 vs. Los Angeles Rams 7).
You can now add the 2017 NFC Championship Game to the list, tied for the fifth biggest blowout in a Conference Championship Game in NFL History. None of the other teams accomplished the feat with their backup starting quarterback in the game. The Eagles not only did that with their backup quarterback, they did it against the best yardage and scoring defense in the NFL.
The one thing to be careful about is carrying this result over to the Super Bowl in two weeks. 2014 New England and 1991 Washington were able to turnaround and win the Super Bowl after playing nearly flawless football in the Conference Championship Game. 2015 Carolina, 2000 New York, 1990 Buffalo and 1975 Dallas all lost in the Super Bowl. There is no guarantee that the Eagles continue playing at this level in two weeks against the best Super Bowl Era head coach and quarterback duo.
However, even if their season ends in defeat, they should be proud of what they accomplished. Everyone assumed they would bow out to Atlanta in the Divisional Round and when Minnesota advanced to the NFC Championship Game, most people thought they would lose that game too. If they are able to win the Super Bowl, they will join the 1990 New York Giants as the only teams to advance in the postseason with a backup quarterback.
Head coach Doug Pederson is showing himself to be a great head coach. He is only in his second year and is already trying to join Bill Parcells as the only head coach to win a Super Bowl with a backup quarterback. He is doing it with a defense that is playing lights out football, but an offense that just dismantled the best defense in the NFL. He is making NFL history and showing that the Eagles should be in good hands for a longtime, no matter what happens against New England in two weeks.
As for the Vikings, before we talk about this game, let’s remember the great season that they had up until Sunday. This was a team that won a franchise record 13 games, earned a first round bye and had one of the greatest comeback wins in NFL history when they won on the Minneapolis Miracle last week against the New Orleans Saints. They did this in a year where they lost QB Sam Bradford to injury early in the year and QB Case Keenum, who was another afterthought signing that saved a season. All he did was give them their best single season win total in franchise history, lead them to an epic playoff comeback against a future Hall of Fame quarterback, Drew Brees and bring them within a game of the Super Bowl. The Vikings were not a team of destiny to open the season, they were a very good defense with a lot of questions on offense and they had an incredible season.
Now that the niceties are out of the way, that was about as awful of a performance as you will see by a team in a big spot. The Vikings had something special on defense in the regular season. They led the league in points allowed and yards allowed. They were second against the pass and second against the run. They allowed the fewest touchdown passes in the NFL (13). They allowed 5.2 net yards per pass, which was second lowest in the league and 3.7 rushing yards per attempt, which was fifth lowest. Quarterbacks had only a 73.0 QB rating against them and the Vikings allowed just a 25.2 conversion rate on third down, which was the best by a NFL Defense since the 1975 Minnesota Vikings, which was a totally different era of football. Had they won the Super Bowl this year, this would have gone down as one of the best single season defenses in NFL history, joining the likes of the 2015 Denver Broncos, 2013 Seattle Seahawks, 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers, 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2000 Baltimore Ravens and 1985 Chicago Bears.
That defense that was in the conversation with those great defenses just did not show up in this game. There is a lot of blame to go toward the offense. The Vikings lost momentum in the game when Keenum threw a Pick-6 to CB Patrick Robinson, which tied the game at 7-7. He also had a costly fumble in the first half and an interception late in the game when everything was out of hand. They were 6 for 13 on 3rd down and 0 for 2 on fourth down. The Eagles offense was always on the field and the Vikings were always on their heals. Had the offense showed up an ran the ball effectively without the turnovers, it would have helped their defense considerably.
The Vikings D does not escape blame for this loss. Here is how bad the Vikings D played in this game compared to what they did in the regular season. Their season high in yards allowed was 394 yards allowed at Washington. They gave up 456 yards in this game. Their season high for points allowed was 31 points at the Carolina Panthers. They gave up 38 points to the Eagles. Their season high in passing yards allowed was 316 yards against Washington. They gave up 346 yards in this game. Their season high in rushing yards allowed was 216 yards rushing against Carolina. They gave up 110 yards rushing, which would have been their fifth highest total of the regular season. They allowed only a 25.2 conversion rate on third down in the regular season. They allowed Philadelphia to convert 10 of their 14 third downs, which is over 70 percent.
I do not think I have seen a team that led the league in points scored and yards allowed that was such a disaster in a playoff loss. I have watched teams lose games in the postseason that were the best defense in the NFL. The 2014 Seattle Seahawks lost in the Super Bowl to the New England Patriots 28-24 with the top ranked scoring and yardage defense. They gave up two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter. That was to Patriots QB Tom Brady. The 2009 Jets were first in points allowed and first in yards allowed and they lost to the Indianapolis Colts 30-17. That loss came at the hands of Indianapolis Colts QB Peyton Manning. The same thing happened to the 2006 Baltimore Ravens, who lost 15-6 in the Divisional Round to Manning.
I have seen really good defenses give up less than 20 points and lose in the playoffs, because the offense did not show up. I have seen them give up a lot of points in the postseason and lose games to a MVP quarterback or a future Hall of Famer. The Eagles did not have a MVP quarterback behind center, they did not even have a starting quarterback behind center. This is an opponent that they should have held to 10 points or less. Instead, they allowed him to look like the best quarterback in the history of the league and to have his first 300 yard passing game since 2014.
The Vikings are in a very unique situation, because Bradford, Teddy Bridgewater and Keenum are all free agents. They could let those guys walk and try to find a better option at quarterback in free agency or the NFL Draft. However, they are in a bad situation, because they cannot really hold onto to just one of them. They really cannot franchise tag any of them, because that would result in a guaranteed salary of $25 million per season. Therefore, they will have to let each quarterback hit free agency and if the price goes too high, they may have to decide to let all three of them walk. It is not ideal to lose the three best quarterbacks on a roster, even if none of them are a franchise player.
They will be an attractive destination for some veteran quarterbacks and they could always draft a quarterback and hope that they can find a bridge quarterback like they found in Keenum last year. They will have promising rookie RB Dalvin Cook back from injury next year and they can address their offensive line in free agency or the NFL Draft. This should be a very good team next year. Their defense is young and they have only a few holes on offense. If they can figure anything out at quarterback, they will be on the short list of favorites to compete for Super Bowl LIII.
That does not change the disappointment of this season; this seemed like their year. They won a franchise record 13 games and had a first round bye. They looked like they were toast at home last week and then won on the Minneapolis Miracle. It seemed like a team of destiny. They had one of the best defenses the league had seen in the last 25 years and all they had to do was frustrate a backup quarterback in the NFC Championship Game to advance to a Super Bowl in their building.
Their defense played their worst game of the season in a game that set up for them to have a monster day. That is inexcusable. It would have been one thing to lose this game 17-13, because Foles made no mistakes and the Vikings offense did not show up. They made Foles look like Tom Brady. They did nothing to slow that offense down and they just wilted under the pressure of the moment. There is losing a game and there is the best unit on the team just not showing up.
You have to give credit to the Eagles for being up to the challenge and making the plays they needed to win the game. Foles played the game of his life. The Vikings were too good to let that happen, whether it be a bad game plan or bad execution, they did not come through on Sunday. They do not need to blow up their defense for next year, but that unit needs to have a chip on their shoulder and make sure something like that never happens again. Jacksonville lost this weekend, but has to feel their time is coming and they have a lot to build on for 2018. Minnesota has to feel like this was their year and they just did not seize the moment. Both teams had the same result, but both teams have to feel differently about how they handled the moment and where they go from here in 2018.
That is life in the NFL Playoffs. Teams do not stay the same from year to year, they either grow from the experience or they never make it over the mountaintop. Minnesota has to hope that their best chance did not slip through their fingers. This defense has been very good since Mike Zimmer arrived in 2014. They have to hope it will be great again next year, especially in the most important game of the season.