There are just two teams left standing after NFL Championship Sunday. The stage is now set for an epic clash in Minneapolis two weeks from now when the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles will battle for the Lombardi Trophy.
The AFC Championship Game between New England and the Jacksonville Jaguars was highly entertaining. But it ended in predictable fashion, with Tom Brady coming through in the clutch for yet another fourth-quarter, come-from-behind victory, 24-20.
The NFC Championship Game between the Eagles and Minnesota Vikings was billed as a defensive battle, but it turned into a one-sided blowout. The home dog Eagles and their backup quarterback, Nick Foles, utterly humiliated their opponent in front of a rabid home crowd, winning 38-7.
These were the biggest winners and losers from both huge games on Championship Sunday.
Winner: Tom Brady’s hand is fine, thanks for asking
All the hubbub surrounding Tom Brady’s throwing hand prior to Sunday’s game was seriously overblown. While there were a few times where you could tell his cut bothered him — some balls did sail, for instance — for the most part, Brady was as dangerous as ever. In particular, he got the game started off with a red-hot streak to put the Patriots on the board on their first offensive possession.
Then later, in the fourth quarter, he reminded everyone why he’s the GOAT. Through three quarters, Brady had completed 17-of-24 passes for 152 yards. Nothing too dramatic. But when the Patriots were down by 10 points in the fourth quarter, he turned his game up to that Hall of Fame level we’re so used to seeing. Brady completed 9-of-14 passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns in the final stanza, pushing the Pats to their second-straight Super Bowl, third in four years and 10th in franchise history.
What’s even more remarkable about all this is that Brady did it without his top offensive weapon, Rob Gronkowski. The talented tight end was knocked out of the game late in the second quarter and would not return after being diagnosed with a concussion. When his team needed him to step up, Brady proved he’s still as clutch as ever, even at the age of 40.
Loser: Case Keenum’s luck ran out
Keenum had a tremendous 2017 campaign. It was a career year for him in so many ways, and the Vikings got to the NFC Championship because he was able to successfully lead their offense when Sam Bradford was injured early in the season. Then last weekend he threw a pass to Stefon Diggs that will go down as one of the greatest playoff moments in NFL history.
Unfortunately, his luck ran out on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field. Keenum looked sharp early but got rattled under pressure after the opening drive.
He ended up turning the ball over three times and never was able to get into a rhythm after engineering that opening scoring drive. In the end, he finished with 271 yards on 28-of-48 passing with one touchdown and two interceptions.
What’s particularly painful about this performance is that it will likely have a big impact on how much he commands on the open market this spring. It’s probably not fair, but if Keenum had played well and the Vikings advanced to the Super Bowl, he’d have been in line to land a more lucrative contract in free agency.
Winner: Eagles advanced because of Nick Foles, not in spite of him
Who was wearing the No. 9 Eagles jersey Sunday, and what the heck did he do to Nick Foles? Was it Joe Montana? Did Tom Brady feel the need to play an extra game? We ask, because the Nick Foles that showed up to the NFC Championship Game was playing at a Hall of Fame level in the biggest game of his career.
Going up against one of the NFL’s most dominating pass defenses, Foles was fearless. He was sharp. He almost couldn’t miss. He shredded Minnesota’s defense, especially on third downs, and deep down the field. In the end, he came darn close to posting a perfect passer rating (141.4) en route to 352 yards on 26-of-33 passing with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Along the way, Foles threw a couple of touchdowns that have to be seen to be believed. His 53-yard bomb to Alshon Jeffery in the second quarter, under pressure no less, was outstanding. His drop-in-the-bucket toss to Torrey Smith on a flea flicker was even more impressive, if we’re being honest (watch here).
So, Philly’s defense was awesome on Sunday and had a lot to do with the win. But if Foles hadn’t played the way he did, the game would have been much closer, and who knows what would have happened? They won because of the career journeyman, not in spite of him.
Loser: Poor clock management, penalties doom Jacksonville
Jacksonville had all the momentum, up by the score of 14-3 near the end of the first half. Then they had an offensive drive stall around midfield. Rather than wait for the two-minute warning to come and go before punting to the Patriots, the Jags punted prior to the break, giving New England an extra play in the process. It really made no sense and was a huge mistake in clock management by head coach Doug Marrone.
Then on the next Patriots drive Barry Church launched into Rob Gronkowski, hitting him with a helmet-to-helmet blow, which cost the Jaguars 15 yards. One play later, A.J. Bouye was hit with a 32-yard pass interference penalty (it was a questionable call, we know) that set New England up in the red zone. Two plays later, the Patriots punched in their first touchdown of the game.
After receiving the kickoff for a touchback, the Jaguars had 55 seconds to do something from the 25-yard line. Rather than try to extend the lead with a field goal, Marrone opted to take a knee instead, capping off a miserable two-minute stretch by his team. When you consider how the game ended, these mistakes proved to be the critical turning point that helped the Patriots pull out a win.
Winner: Danny Amendola is a magician
Just like he did in the Super Bowl last season, Danny Amendola produced some magic Sunday to help the Patriots win their biggest game of the year (so far).
In particular, Amendola’s two magnificent catches on the final scoring drive of the game to put the Patriots up by four points deserve praise. The first one was reminiscent of the juggling catch he made in the Super Bowl. It sure looked like he didn’t come down with the ball, but upon review it was clear he somehow did manage to make the unbelievable catch. Then a few plays later, Amendola displayed insane body control to get both feet in bounds hauling in the game-winning touchdown.
The slot specialist finished with seven catches for 84 yards and both of Brady’s fourth-quarter touchdowns. He also set up the game-winning touchdown with a tremendous punt return, and he threw a 20-yard pass. That’s what we call making an impact in every conceivable way.
Loser: Minnesota’s offensive line was eaten alive
After watching the Vikings march down the field on their first drive of the game, Philadelphia’s defensive front stiffened up in a major way and flipped the script on the outcome. Chris Long, Fletcher Cox and rookie Derek Barnett started to dominate up front, forcing two turnovers that turned into 14 points in the first half and three total in the game. The first was the pick-six by Patrick Robinson (more on that momentarily). The second came on a sack-strip by Barnett, which turned into Philadelphia’s third touchdown of the game. The final one was an interception by Corey Graham late in the fourth quarter.
Minnesota’s offensive line has been suspect all year but has done enough to get by. However, the front seven Philadelphia features — a unit that’s been utterly dominant this postseason — was too much for the Vikings to handle. All told, the Eagles tallied just the one sack but racked up eight quarterback hits, allowed just 70 rushing yards and forced the three turnovers. That’s an impressive day’s work.
Winner: Patrick Robinson picks Keenum’s pocket, steals precious momentum from Vikings
Early on in the first quarter, it sure looked like the Vikings were poised to dominate the Eagles. Case Keenum led a very impressive touchdown-scoring drive to open the game and had the Vikings near midfield on their second drive of the game. He was dealing strikes in the passing game, and the Minnesota running backs were grinding down Philly’s front seven.
Then, in the blink of an eye all the momentum the Vikings had been building collapsed. Chris Long hit Keenum as he threw the ball. Robinson was in the right place at the right time to haul in the interception. Then, once he had the ball, he knew what to do with it, going 50 yards to the house to tie the game up (watch here).
Not only did the Eagles score on this drive, they seized all the momentum and went on to score a second touchdown on their next offensive possession — a 12-play drive that went 75 yards and chewed up over six minutes off the clock. Because they were tied up instead of in a hole, Doug Pederson was able to get Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount going on the ground. Just like that, Philly had full control of the game, and the Vikings would not score again.
Loser: Minnesota’s talented defense had nothing left in the tank
One of the things many wondered about was how the Vikings would respond to winning such an emotional game last weekend at home against New Orleans. Well, after some early success, it became readily apparent that Minnesota, particularly on defense, was running on fumes.
All year long it’s been Minnesota’s defense that has driven this team to success. Sure, Keenum has been impressive. The likes of Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs and Latavius Murray have all had a lot to do with the wins. But this team’s identity revolves around head coach Mike Zimmer and his defense. On Sunday, that unit crumbled.
The Eagles racked up 456 total yards. Nick Foles looked like Peyton Manning out there shredding the formidable Vikings defensive secondary. LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi both had an impact on the ground. It was a total one-sided affair in which an Eagles team that was excoriated for having issues on offense absolutely took one of the NFL’s best defenses behind the woodshed.
Winner: Stephon Gilmore saves his best for last
On fourth-and-14 with under two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore made his best play of the entire season. Bortles threw a very good ball to Dede Westbrook, deep down the middle of the field. Gilmore timed his jump perfectly, seemingly levitated in mid-air for a few seconds and got a hand on the ball, knocking it down and crushing the Jaguars’ postseason dreams in the process (watch here).
The margin for error on this play was razor thin. Had Gilmore mistimed his jump or failed to get a hand on the ball, there’s a really good chance Westbrook would have scored to put Jacksonville on top. Instead, the Patriots were able to gain one first down on their next possession and are on their way to their 10th Super Bowl in franchise history.
Loser: Todd Walsh outclassed by Josh McDaniels in second half
This may be a bit harsh considering Tom Brady and Danny Amendola went ham late. Still, it’s pretty stunning how thoroughly one-sided the game got in the second half. As we’ve seen all too often in the past, the Patriots made necessary adjustments while their opponent fell by the wayside.
McDaniels got into a playcalling groove late in the game. He utilized the screen game to perfection, and if not for an incredible forced fumble by Myles Jack in the third quarter the Patriots might have run away with the game instead of winning it on a late touchdown.
Jaguars defensive coordinator Todd Walsh was just a step behind McDaniels in the game of chess the two coaches were playing. Regardless of all the talent on Jacksonville’s defense, that’s what mattered in the end. Well, that, and Tom Brady.
Winner: Bill Belichick’s legacy continues to grow
The New England Patriots are about to compete in their eighth Super Bowl since Bill Belichick began coaching the club back in 2000. They’re looking to win their sixth since that time. Both of those stats are mind-boggling. Add in the fact that Belichick himself is going to coach in his 11th Super Bowl — that’s 21 percent of every Super Bowl in the history of the league, folks — and you start to get a sense of this man’s greatness.
What’s even more remarkable is that Belichick has guided the Patriots to two-straight Super Bowls, despite dealing with some seriously difficult circumstances in both of the past two seasons. In 2016 Tom Brady was suspended four games in the wake of the ridiculous witch hunt known as Deflategate. This past season the Patriots came under fire in a big way when some reports emerged that Brady, Belichick and Kraft have some serious differences they need to resolve.
None of this stuff has hindered the Patriots from continuing to play at the very highest level on the game’s biggest stage. And it all comes down to the grand master, Belichick, working his magic.
Loser: Vikings missed chance to play Super Bowl in home stadium
To this day, no team has been able to compete in a Super Bowl that was being hosted in their home stadium. Even though technically the Vikings would have been the road team had they won Sunday in Philly, it would have been unprecedented for them to play in front of their home fans for the Lombardi Trophy.
Alas, it was not meant to be. We’ll have to see if the Atlanta Falcons can get back to the big dance next season when Super Bowl LIII is hosted at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Don’t hold your breath.