Remember: You can stream the AFC Championship Game between the Patriots and Jaguars live right here on CBSSports.com.
More than four months after the journey began for 32 teams we're now down to four. You could have been in a coma pretty much at any point this century and come out guessing that Tom Brady was a game away from the Super Bowl. What nobody saw coming -- the three other quarterbacks taking part in the championship games: Blake Bortles, Case Keenum and Nick Foles.
But hey, that's parity for you.
Or, more precisely, the importance of building a roster of 52 other players capable of dominating for long stretches. That has been the unofficial playbook for the Jaguars, Vikings and Eagles' defenses for much of the season though the respective quarterbacks, in varying degrees, have been integral to their success. If Bortles' progress has been a pleasant development, Keenum's productivity has been the biggest surprise of the season. And Foles, who struggled as Carson Wentz's replacement late in the season, found his form against the Falcons last week.
Now the question becomes: Which of these quarterbacks show up for conference championship weekend?
For the Jaguars, it all starts with Bortles, who as a rookie in 2014 ranked dead last in total value among all quarterbacks, according to Football Outsiders' metrics. He improved to 25th in total value in 2015, when he threw 35 touchdowns along with 18 interceptions and five lost fumbles. And if last season was among his most disappointing -- Bortles had 23 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and six fumbles and there were constant calls to bench him for Chad Henne -- this season has instilled confidence in not only the embattled quarterback but his teammates and coaches too.
After Jacksonville throttled Seattle in Week 14, skeptics suddenly skipped right over questions about whether the Jags could play winning football -- that had been made crystal clear -- and now folks were left wondering if Bortles, the running game and this defense could play winning football in the postseason. Those questions have been answered too; the Jaguars eked out a win over the Bills in the wild-card matchup, and dropped 45 points on the Steelers last week -- in Pittsburgh, no less.
Shortly after beating the Seahawks, Jaguars cornerback A.J. Bouye, who intercepted Russell Wilson twice, said this: "Everybody wants to joke about it but we've been talking about that since we played Pittsburgh [in Week 5]: We don't get respect. They say Roethlisberger was retiring, Flacco didn't have it, usually a lot of stuff like that and we just went up against a player who all week they said was an MVP candidate so I just can't wait to see what they say about that."
Here's what they said, A.J.: It's time to take the Jaguars seriously. And you can bet that Bill Belichick won't overlook this group.
In the NFC matchup, it all starts with Keenum, who signed a one-year deal with the Vikings in the offseason for one reason: to be Sam Bradford's backup while Teddy Bridgewater continued his recovery from knee surgery. But Bradford was injured in Week 1, Keenum took over in Week 2, and now, four months later, he has emerged as one of the NFL's best players. This isn't hyperbole; in 15 regular-season starts, Keenum completed 67.6 percent of his throws with 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He was first in value per play among all quarterbacks, according to Football Outsiders' metrics, and fourth in total value, behind only Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Drew Brees.
A week ago, the Eagles' defense held Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and the Falcons' offense to 10 points. Keenum has Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, who were collectively more efficient, according to Football Outsiders (Jones and Sanu ranked seventh and 18th in total value; Thielen and Diggs were 11th and ninth).
Thielen is a legit No. 1 wide receiver who has a knack for the big play. And Diggs, who led all receivers with six catches for 137 yards Sunday, also has a flair for the dramatic. But there's also tight end Kyle Rudolph, who ranks eighth in total value, along with running back Jerick McKinnon, who had 421 receiving yards to go along with 520 rushing yards. The point: For as well rounded as the Eagles are on defense -- they're seventh against the pass, third against the run -- the Vikings' offense is loaded with weapons.
On the other side of the ball, the Eagles will again rely on Nick Foles, who as recently as six weeks ago was happy to hold a clipboard as Wentz was busy fashioning Philly into one of the NFL's best teams while also making a run at the MVP award. Here's the good news: In Foles' first start for Wentz, in Week 15, he completed 24 of 38 passes for 237 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions in a 34-29 victory over the Giants. Before that, during Foles' first stint with the Eagles, he started 10 games in 2013 and completed 64 percent of his throws with 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions, and a passer rating of 119.2.
The bad news, before last weekend, anyway: In Foles' final two regular-season starts he was 23 of 49 for 202 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions and a passer rating of 48.2. For the season, Foles appeared in seven games and threw five touchdowns and two picks but his 79.5 passer rating probably better reflected who he was, which is confirmed by Football Outsiders' value-per-play metric. Among quarterbacks attempting fewer than 200 passes during the regular season, Foles ranked 15th out of 26 -- just ahead of Kevin Hogan and Mike Glennon but just behind Bryce Petty and Blaine Gabbert. Performing well below replacement level went a long way in explaining why the Eagles were three-point underdogs at home last week.
But against Atlanta, Foles finished 23 of 30 for 246 yards with no turnovers and he took just one sack. And while the Eagles' only touchdown came on a LeGarrette Blount 1-yard run, that was the cherry on top of a 14-play, 86 yard first-quarter drive that relied mostly on the running game, and in the process allowed Foles to get comfortable. And once he did, he was the best quarterback on the field for the final 30 minutes.
Despite coming into the game as three-point underdogs, SportsLine's Stephen Oh explained that Philadelphia was still clinging to a win probability of 51 percent, which was contingent on one thing: Foles playing like a replacement-level quarterback. Foles did that and then some, though even after his impressive outing Saturday, trepidation about his ability to replicate that success this week goes a long way in explaining why the Eagles are again three-point underdogs at home.
Sunday, Jan. 21
AFC: Jacksonville Jaguars (3) at New England Patriots (1), 3:05 p.m. ET on CBS
NFC: Minnesota Vikings (2) at Philadelphia Eagles (1), 6:40 p.m. ET on Fox
Wednesday's odds update
Jaguars at Patriots (-9.0)
- The Patriots were nine-point favorites on Monday
- The Patriots are 12-5 against the spread. They've been favored in every single game this season.
- The Jaguars are 10-8 against the spread and 4-2 as the underdog.
Vikings at Eagles (+3.0)
- The Eagles were 3.5-point underdogs on Monday
- The Vikings are 11-6 against the spread and 8-5 as the favorite.
- The Eagles are also 11-6 against the spread and 4-2 as the underdog.
In the simplest terms, Bortles' growth as a quarterback will play a role in the outcome. He won't be the primary reason the Jaguars not only cover, but win, but the the fourth-year quarterback is playing with more confidence now than at any other point in his career. And for good reason; he has Leonard Fournette behind him in the backfield and the league's best defense to clean up any mistakes he might make. That defense, by the way, forced the Steelers' high-powered offense into seven turnovers (including two pick-sixes and a fumble returned for a touchdown) in two meetings.
So what side do you need to be all over in the AFC Championship Game? Visit SportsLine now to get a strong pick for Patriots vs. Jaguars from stats guru Galin Dragiev, who's on a red-hot 16-4 run in against the spread picks.
For as good as Minnesota's offense is, its defense has been better. It's the NFC's best unit, and second in the NFL only to the Jaguars. But unlike Jacksonville, which is first against the pass but just 26th against the run, Minnesota is incredibly balanced -- it's fourth in pass defense and fifth in run defense. Detractors might point out that this group blew a 17-0 lead against the Saints on Sunday and should have lost that game. But here's the glass-half-full perspective: The Vikings shut out Drew Brees and that offense for 30 minutes. And not only did they shut them out, they force Brees into two interceptions, including one in the red zone. Foles will never be mistaken for Brees and should the Eagles fall behind early there won't be any 17-0-style comebacks.
So what side do you need to be all over in the NFC Championship Game? Visit SportsLine now to get a strong pick for Vikings vs. Eagles from Vegas legend Micah Roberts, who's on a red-hot 8-3 run in against the spread picks on Eagles' games.