Sorting the Playoff Pile: How the Jags can beat Pats in AFC Championship Game
Jacksonville is getting no respect and can absolutely win this game against New England
Let's play a game. I'll name four things and you tell me which one doesn't belong. Tom Brady, Nick Foles, Blake Bortles and Case Keenum. Wait, sorry, I did that wrong. There are three things that don't belong, because Brady is the only guy who should be in this group of four, the G.O.A.T. amid a list of guys you wouldn't want to trust in a Super Bowl or a playoff game. Brady has the same number of Super Bowl rings (five) as the other three guys on this list have playoff starts ... combined.
Having said all that, it shouldn't be surprising if someone other than Brady is hoisting the Lombardi Trophy when all is said and done. The pieces around those guys are outstanding and, as we learned during the divisional round, maybe it's OK to trust Foles, Bortles and Keenum after all.
More on Keenum and Foles below (along with additional awards from the weekend that was in the NFL), but for now let's talk about Bortles. Because he was GOOD. Blake Bortles was good in a playoff setting. A week after looking lost in the wind at home against the Bills, Bortles turned into Bane and, for the second time this season, (metaphorically) blew up Heinz Field. The Jaguars followed the script perfectly, letting Bortles throw early. It built his confidence and when Jacksonville needed him in big spots, he stepped up and converted some huge third downs.
Bortles got help, for sure. Leonard Fournette looked like early-season Fournette for the first half of this game, until an ankle injury slowed him. T.J. Yeldon made some huge plays, especially in the passing game. Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett ran circles around the Steelers defensive coaches. Young defensive players for Jacksonville did what they've done all season and made plays: Myles Jack's interception on the sideline was wideout-level and the strip sack from Yannick Ngakoue that led to a Telvin Smith scoop-and-score helped to extend the Jaguars lead early when the Steelers were pressing to make a comeback.
The Jags are a brash young group of talented players and they believe they can win the Super Bowl. Just ask budding superstar Jalen Ramsey, who let a crowd gathered at Everbank Field (after the team came back from Pittsburgh!) know just how they feel.
There is zero chill with this team and it's lovely. So, um, can they win the Super Bowl? Sure! Why not? Well the answer was actually earlier, in the form of Brady. The Jaguars' next challenge comes in Foxborough, where they will be nine-point underdogs against the mighty Patriots.
A lot of people snicker at the idea of Brady playing Marcus Mariota, Bortles and either Keenum or Foles to win a Super Bowl, annoyed at the greatest dynasty in modern NFL history getting a walk in the park against some questionable quarterbacks. The Jags did the Pats a favor by upsetting the Steelers, because the Pats will steamroll the Jags, they say.
I'm not so sure. Jacksonville has the bodies and the talent to win, even if strolling into New England is just about the most difficult task in the NFL. But I am here to tell you the Jaguars can beat the Patriots. It's doable.
First of all, there's precedent. Under Bill Belichick and with Tom Brady, the Pats have lost three home playoff games in 17 years. (I said there was precedent, I didn't say it was easy.) They've fallen to the Jets once and the Ravens twice.
Def. DVOA Rank
Points/Game Allowed (Rank)
Yards/Game Allowed (Rank)
|2010 Jets||1st||19.0 (6th)||291.5 (3rd)|
Throw out the second Ravens team that went in there and beat the Pats. That was Joe Flacco turning into Joe Montana for a postseason. But look at the other two teams. They were top five in yards per game allowed and top five in points per game allowed, just like the Jaguars. They were either first or second in Football Outsiders DVOA metric, just like the Jaguars.
Pete Prisco suggested it on the Pick Six Podcast (new episode already up from the divisional round games!) but the play here for the Jaguars is to put Ramsey on Rob Gronkowski, take away Brady's best weapon without having to use a safety, slide Calais Campbell inside and rush four on Brady. Win against that offensive line, get Brady uncomfortable and lay wood on the crossing routes and you have a formula for taking the Pats down. We've seen the Seahawks and Falcons do it in the Super Bowl too, they just didn't seal the deal. These games are 60 minutes.
Offensively, the Jaguars need to try and slow Brady down early, throw on early downs with Bortles and hope Leonard Fournette is healthy. Feed him the ball, expose the Pats defense and execute in the red zone. It sounds easy and doubting this team's ability would be a simpler way out, but they also just did exactly that in Pittsburgh. Tough place to play against a seasoned opponent and they took care of business.
Do NOT underestimate the Tom Coughlin factor here either. Doug Marrone deserves more recognition for potential Coach of the Year (anyone who gave his hire a bad grade deserves an F, I'll own it) and he's got the Jaguars playing like a more mature team. He eats bologna, he is not the world's flashiest guy, but he's a good football coach. Coughlin takes it to another level, though, because he's the guy who has beaten Belichick not once, but twice in the Super Bowl. That matters. He isn't sitting in a recliner telling people what to do and when to do it. He's part of this team, an extension of the coaching staff within the front office. And he has experience taking the Patriots down.
New England is a better team. They should be favored. They are playing in their seventh consecutive AFC Championship Game. But the Jaguars can beat them. Don't be surprised if they do.
Mind-blowing Finish of the Week
There was so much to unpack from the Vikings win over the Saints. So, so, much. , of course -- unheralded Case Keenum throwing deep to underrated Stefon Diggs with 10 seconds and no timeouts left, all but guaranteed to be the last play of the game for the Vikings. The Saints were set up on defense to try and drive the Vikings into the middle of the field and keep them from getting out of bounds on the sidelines to set up a Kai Forbath field goal.
Lord knows the fine people of Minnesota already dealt with enough kicker drama in their lives, now they were going to have to go through a SECOND pearl-clutching kick to try and win the game? Forbath buried a kick earlier in the game to give the Vikings a two-point lead with 1:34 left in the game. It was too much time for the Saints, because they have Drew Brees, who naturally stormed down the field to set up a Wil Lutz field goal that gave them a one-point lead with 29 second left, an epic comeback of their own. The Vikings were probably toast. And then they weren't -- Diggs caught the pass, poor rookie safety Marcus Williams missed the tackle, and Diggs was off to the races for the first walk-off, fourth quarter touchdown catch in NFL playoff history.
It was mind-blowing to see on TV. Imagine catching it from the sideline.
Oh, while you're here, make sure and listen to Paul Allen of KFAN's call on the Vikings radio network. It does not disappoint either.
Wait one more. Listen to the play set to the Titanic music too.
The internet is a magical place, friends.
Saints-Vikings was supposed to be the premiere game of the weekend and it did NOT disappoint. When it was 17-0 Vikings at halftime, it looked like we might be catching a Sunday afternoon snoozer, but after the ups-and-downs of the Jaguars-Steelers game, there was even more waiting for an encore. Keenum's pass wasn't impossible, because it happened.
But it was close -- the Vikings had less than a three-percent chance of winning when he uncorked the throw in Diggs' direction. The win-probability chart reads like a cardiogram.
I'm pretty prone to hyperbole and I'm not afraid of indulging in some recency bias, but that was one of the greatest endings to an NFL game I've ever seen. Not that there haven't been other great playoff games in recent years -- the freaking Super Bowl went to overtime last year -- but the stakes and improbability of it all, the team in question, it all amplified the situation. The Vikings are a dominant defense powered by a passionate fanbase playing in a obscenely loud home stadium hoping to host a home team in the Super Bowl. The offense has been turbo charged by the unlikeliest of heroes, this year, with Case Keenum stepping in for an injured Sam Bradford (who stepped in for an injured Teddy Bridgewater) and leading the Vikings far enough that he's now completing the NFL's version of the Circle of Life.
"Seven Heaven," the Vikings' name for the play they called on that final snap -- the painful gambling kneel of an extra point aside -- was a byproduct of Keenum, a game manager with an extra gear, and Diggs, a great route runner with underrated athleticism, and the Saints unusual decision to play a questionable defensive alignment against the Vikings on that final play, knowing a tackle inbounds and it's over. Watch where Next Gen Stats tracked the Saints defenders on this play. The end zone is not your friend, New Orleans.
Shoutout to Adam Thielen for finishing the route as the rest of his teammates are sprinting after Diggs and losing their minds. Questioning Sean Payton for his decision making late in the game, or maybe even Dennis Allen, is a viable thing to do, although maybe this was just one of those moments that makes football the new national pastime. The unpredictability and improbability of the entire play took a stadium full of diehard Vikings fans, none of who have seen the Vikings win a Super Bowl, from hopelessness to sheer joy in the blink of an eyes.
Conversely, Saints fans had everything ripped out of their hands and smashed on the ground in front of them before even realizing it happened. (NBC executives hoping for a Brees-Brady Super Bowl probably feel the same way.) They're so shattered there are guys out there filming themselves throwing 65-inch flat screens out of their house.
Adding insult to injury was the NFL's requirement the Vikings kick the extra point after the touchdown, which meant not only did a nation full of people who wagered on the Saints +5.5 (or Vikings -5.5) have to hold their breath and wait to see what would happen (the Vikings took a knee, giving Saints bettors the win), but the Saints had to be dragged back out on the field from the locker room and stand there shellshocked as Keenum took a knee.
Payton and Brees are pros and handled it as such. They've been there, in the good moments and bad. But it sure did feel like the Saints were surging, finding their offense at the right time and about to really get hot and make a run deeper into the playoffs. And then, faster than you can say "SKOL," it was over and the Saints were headed home.
Underdog Halloween Costume of the Week
No one ever gave the Eagles a chance to win against the Falcons -- . Lane Johnson talked about it during the week, saying when Carson Wentz went down the world started treating them like the Cleveland Browns. Maybe that's a stretch, but there was definitely a pervading sentiment that the Falcons would roll into Philly and take care of business similar to how they handled things against the Rams in the Wild-Card round.
Don't think for a second this wasn't on the minds of the Eagles players either. Tight end Zach Ertz put the so-called experts on blast for picking against Philly.
The Eagles took this whole underdog thing to heart, especially the big guys on the lines. Johnson, who was particularly vocal, literally let the world know he was a live dog,.
If you want to purchase the mask, well, you're out of luck. As it turns out the masks already sold out on Amazon -- but if you're dying to support your local underdog in Philadelphia this weekend, cruise over to Breaking T and get the t-shirt version they created.
Playing up the dog angle is fun -- and the Eagles will get a chance to do it again this week, as-- but let's not pretend this isn't a good Eagles team.
Philly wasn't 10 guys standing around watching Wentz sprinkle magic quarterback dust on everyone else. This is a team built in the trenches, with a roster formula designed for January and February. The defensive line runs six deep and pressured Matt Ryan in big spots. The offensive line has some horses on it; when push came to show the Eagles ran the ball down the Falcons throat, bullying a faster and more explosive defense with Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount toting the rock. They shut Atlanta out in the second half and they knew exactly what the Falcons tried to do late.
They're about to engage in another rock fight (the over-under is 38 for the Vikings-Eagles game). It's easy to get the underdog angle, because the Vikings blanked Drew Brees for a full half. Nick Foles is a very good backup quarterback but he is not Drew Brees. Not many quarterbacks are. Doug Pederson deserves a ton of credit for his usage of run-pass option (RPO) plays during the Eagles win over Atlanta. Good luck using those against the experienced Vikings offense.
Minnesota is an easy pick because they're more complete on both sides of the ball. Counting out the Eagles after what we saw against Atlanta would be dumb. They're embracing the dog mentality and they've been given another chip this week.
Disastrous Red Zone Play-calling of the Week
The Falcons haven't been a great red-zone team this year, so when they needed a 4th-and-6 with the game on the line, there were probably some concerned football fans in the state of Georgia -- many still reeling from Bama's overtime win in the championship game against the Bulldogs -- about what Steve Sarkisian might dial up. The concern was warranted, because the Falcons ran a play that not only cut the field in half but.
Philly defenders, specifically safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod, said after the game when the Falcons broke their huddle, they knew Atlanta was going to sprint Matt Ryan out right. That's how you got the heavily unbalanced numbers that titled the field in the Eagles favor.
As the Falcons went to line up for the play, NBC announcer Cris Collinsworth pointed out this is the spot, on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line, where you dial up what is basically your "best two-point conversion play." The Falcons best play involved putting their fullback on the left side by himself and having him run a slant while cutting off half the field and compacting the space for Julio Jones to work. You won't believe this, but it didn't work. Falcons coach Dan Quinn mostly defended the playcall, although he did not it's something you see as a defensive coordinator.
"As a former defensive coordinator, I recognize that is a play people do employ. We were looking for that opportunity on that match up for that specific play," Quinn said after the game. "That's what we thought was going to be the best play called for that time. There was no stress from a time standpoint, we had our timeouts, so that's what we thought was the best play to go win the game. We didn't execute it and they did, and that's the way the story is on that play."
Basically the Falcons were looking for man-to-man with Jones -- and they got it -- but he fell down before and couldn't squeeze the ball to secure the touchdown.
Jones probably wasn't coming down in bounds anyway. And just looking at the fourth-down play ignores some other issues here.
After Tevin Coleman picked up enough yardage to make it first-and-goal, Sark decided to dial up a jump ball/fade to Julio. Fine, whatever, they got man-on-man coverage. Jones was covered and Ryan didn't make a great throw.
The second-down play is going to haunt some people. The Falcons brought in their third-string running back Terron Ward and had Ryan run a shovel pass to him that was, quite mercifully, incomplete and not a fumble, because the game would have ended there and Atlanta would have burned to the ground.
"What was ... that?" Al Michaels asked on the NBC broadcast, with a level of disgust that muffled any exclamation, speaking for every single human being not named Steve Sarkisian.
The next play was a good play! It was a slant to Julio -- after Cris Collinsworth noted Jones was being singled in the red zone again -- that nearly picked up the touchdown and got them near the goal line. That's the play the Falcons should have run on first down, to give themselves some options with goal-to-go in a short-yardage situation.
Instead they were left with the fourth down that failed and they were sent home. Sark's second season will go better than his first, but the lasting image of the Falcons season won't sit well with fans for the next nine months.
The Other Worst Fourth-Down Call of the Week
Being an offensive coordinator is hard work because you have to adjust on the fly, constantly changing your gameplan. It's a chess match, but Todd Haley Ben Roethlisberger didn't check out of the plays., assuming you believe
With the Steelers already stunned by the Jags hot start and trailing 14-0, Pittsburgh got a fourth-and-1 and eschewed letting their quarterback whose nickname is BIG BEN sneak the ball a yard and instead tried to get out on the perimeter against the fastest defense in the NFL.
Again, it was a very low percentage of human beings who thought "Wow what a great toss sweep that was! It just didn't get executed." That was a terrible play. Just awful. This is not something new for Todd Haley either! He did it in the 2010 NFL playoffs when he was head coach of the Chiefs and K.C. was hosting the Ravens (Charlie Weis was his offensive coordinator but it was reported he stripped the big guy of play-calling in the second half) and trying to really get back in the game.
It was was a bad call then, it was a bad call on Sunday and both times it snuffed out the offense's momentum.
Making all of this much worse? Roethlisberger's history in these situations.
Whether it was Haley's playcalling there or whether Ben was audibiling out of a play is irrelevant. The Steelers had a chance to stem the tide in the first half and to set themselves up for a game-tying touchdown later and decided to push the ball down the field on 4th-and-short instead of letting Ben sneak it.
Haley isn't the Steelers biggest problem -- he's got Roethlisberger playing some of the best football of his career. There were points in this game where Ben was DIALED. The touchdown pass to Antonio Brown on 4th-and-6, the dime to Le'Veon Bell on the wheel route in the end zone and the fourth down throw to Martavis Bryant. But it kept feeling like great athletes and talent were helping the the Steelers overcome something that felt like a lack of preparation.
The Jaguars came into this game as the more motivated team, the more prepared team and they whipped up on the Steelers for most of the day. It was a testament to Pittsburgh's skill-position guys they managed to stay in the game.
One more complaint: the onside kick after cutting it to 42-35. WHY? The Jaguars were going to run the ball three times, punt if they didn't get a first down and trust their defense. Going for the onside allowed the Jags to get into field goal range, which would ultimately be the difference in the game. Social media is fun for armchair guessing, but it was patently obvious the Steelers should have kicked away there and tried to get the ball back in decent field position. Instead, they went for a ho-hum touchdown pass at the end of the game that covered the second-half spread but should leave everyone unfulfilled about the potential of this team.
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