One of the conference championship games on Sunday absolutely lived up to its billing. It just wasn’t the one we were expecting.
Dealing with a hand injury that limited him in practice this week, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady saw his team down 10 points in the final stanza to the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars.
That’s when Tom Brady went all Tom Brady on us, leading New England to a 24-20 victory and the franchise’s 10th Super Bowl appearance. But we still have to give credit to Blake Bortles for one heck of a performance in defeat
Then, in Philadelphia, the Eagles absolutely laid the hammer down on the Minnesota Vikings. Riding a brilliant performance from quarterback Nick Foles, Philadelphia gave its home crowd something to cheer about en route to defeating Minnesota by the score of 38-7
These are among the top takeaways from NFL Championship Sunday
1. Vikings’ offseason got a lot more interesting
By virtue of Sunday’s humiliating 38-7 loss to Philadelphia, these Vikings head into the offseason on one heck of a sour note. A 31-point loss in the NFC Championship Game is bad enough. It’s also pretty darn unfortunate after the stellar season these Vikings put up.
The issues here are widespread in nature. All three Vikings quarterbacks are slated to become free agents in March. Yes, that, includes a signal caller in Case Keenum who put up a tremendous season before turning the ball over three times in the NFC Championship Game. In fact, his first quarter pick-six seemed to change the game early on.
What are the Vikings’ plans at quarterback this offseason? Did Keenum’s pedestrian performance on Sunday change those plans? What about offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur? If he does indeed take the New York Giants head coaching job, where does that leave the quarterback position in the Twin Cities? Just some food for thought here.
2. The legend of Tom Terrific grows
It might not be the bloody ankle game. No one will conclude that this was as impressive as New England’s comeback win over Atlanta in last year’s Super Bowl. Though, what an injured Brady did on Sunday against the league’s No. 1 defense was nothing short of amazing.
Playing with 10 stitches on his throwing hand and some ligament damage, Brady started the game out slowly. He led his Patriots to just three points on their first four drives. And a dumb pass interference penalty against Jags Pro Bowl corner A.J. Bouye late in the second quarter gifted Brady and the Pats their only touchdown of the first half.
It’s what Brady himself did in the final stanza that adds to his legend. Down by 10 points, the eight-time AFC champion quarterback completed nine passes for 138 yards en route to leading New England to two touchdowns in its final four possessions.
Now, with five Lombardi Trophies and heading into his eighth Super Bowl appearance, Brady has etched his name in stone as the greatest quarterback of all-time. On Sunday, the backdrop of an injured hand played into this increasingly obvious narrative even more.
3. Vikings defense fails on grandest of stages
Fall for a flea flicker. Check. Give up your longest passing touchdown of the season in the first half. Check. Forget how to actually tackle. Check. Heading into Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, the Minnesota Vikings boasted the NFL’s best defense. It came out of the conference championship on the wrong end of a butt-whooping.
When all was said and done in Philadelphia Sunday night, the Vikings’ defense had yielded 456 total yards and 38 points to an Eagles team that was relying on Nick Foles to replace MVP candidate Carson Wentz under center.
Harrison Smith struggled tackling in the secondary. Anthony Barr couldn’t wrap up on multiple plays that should have resulted in Eagles punts. And the end result was yet another heartbreaking NFC Championship Game loss for a Vikings franchise that just can’t seem to get over the hump.
4. Blake Bortles comes up absolutely huge
There weren’t many objective observers out there who believed Bortles could lead his Jaguars to a win over the defending champion Patriots at Gillette on Sunday. Sure he played well against Pittsburgh in the divisional round last week. But Bortles’ reputation as a mistake-prone quarterback wasn’t about to go quietly into the night.
Then, Sunday afternoon in New England came. Bortles picked up where he left off in the fourth quarter last week, completing 23-of-36 passes for 293 yards without a turnover in a 24-20 loss to the heavily favored Patriots.
It wasn’t enough for the Jaguars to pull off an improbable upset. A conservative offensive game plan in the second half played into this. Tom Brady doing what Tom Brady does also played a vital role here. But this doesn’t mean that Mr. Bortles didn’t prove his naysayers wrong on Sunday. He did. Unfortunately for the much-maligned quarterback, it came in defeat.
5. Nick Foles just made himself a lot of cash
For just the third time in franchise history, the Philadelphia Eagles have advanced to the Super Bowl. Only this time, it came against all odds. After MVP candidate Carson Wentz went down with a torn ACL back in Week 14, most people wrote these Eagles off.
Despite earning the No. 1 seed in the NFC, Philadelphia found itself in an underdog role against the then defending conference champion Atlanta Falcons last week. It responded by holding Matt Ryan and Co. to 10 points in an impressive win. That game saw stop-gap quarterback Nick Foles complete 23-of-30 passes for 246 yards without an interception. A good story? Sure. But no one in their right mind thought he would be able to dominate the league’s best defense come Sunday against Minnesota.
That’s exactly what happened here. Foles completed 26-of-33 passes for 352 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions. He vastly outplayed Case Keenum in the 38-7 win and will now be taking on Mr. Tom Brady in the Super Bowl.
Foles might have one year remaining on his current contract, but he’s going to get paid this offseason. It will likely come in the form of a trade to a quarterback-needy team. And should Philadelphia somehow upset New England in Super Bowl Super Bowl LII next month, that will be taken to an entirely new level.
6. Undisciplined Jaguars defense fails team big time
Whether it was the helmet-to-helmet hit by Jaguars safety Barry Church or the pass interference penalty on A.J. Bouye to conclude the first half, Jacksonville’s defense made dumb play after dumb play.
That was magnified in the fourth quarter when Pro Bowl corner Jalen Ramsey legitimately put his hand around Brandin Cooks’ neck to draw yet another pass interference penalty. This led directly to a Tom Brady touchdown less than one minute later to pull New England within three.
It’s these types of undisciplined mistakes that impacted Jacksonville’s defense at times during the regular season. The team’s 44-33 loss to San Francisco was another example of this.
We fully understand that a majority of those players starring on defense for the Jaguars are young. They are among the most-talented groups in the game. This play by Myles Jack in the fourth quarter on Sunday is an example of that. But they simply need to be more disciplined in big-game situations like we saw during the AFC Championship Game on Sunday. This lack of discipline came back to roost big time here.
7. Doug Pederson called a brilliant game
We tend to focus on when head coaches make major mistakes during a game. Last week’s Pittsburgh Steelers game was a prime example of this. Maybe we can give a positive spin on one specific head coach this time around.
That comes in the form of Philadelphia’s head man Doug Pederson. Boy, did he call one heck of a game against what was a league-best Vikings defense on Sunday. Pederson’s play-calling kept the Vikings and defensive coordinator George Edwards guessing at all times.
Whether it was this flea flicker in the third quarter or calling for a slant on the outside in single coverage, Pederson put his players in the best possible situation to succeed Sunday night. It really was a thing of beauty. Now set to take on Bill Belichick, Matt Patricia and the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, Pederson will be put to the test big time.
8. About that drama?
Prior to Handgate, the only thing we heard about in New England for the past several weeks was an ESPN report focusing on a potential rift between Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft. We have no idea how much of that story might be true. And while the Patriots have denied it at every turn, there was an extra focus on drama surrounding this franchise heading into the AFC Championship Game Sunday.
None of this had an impact on the Patriots’ performance Sunday. Sure the team came out a tad flat after an opening drive field goal. But when New England needed a play, the team made it. Tom Brady was his normal self in the fourth quarter, James Harrison provided pressure on defense and even cornerback Stephon Gilmore came through big time in the final stanza.
It all equates to an eighth Super Bowl appearance of the Brady-Belichick era. If this is our definition of drama, why the heck are the league’s 31 other teams drama-free? That’s an important question heading into Super Bowl Sunday.