Then there were four. Following an entertaining four-game slate during the NFL Divisional Playoffs only four teams are still alive to win Super Bowl LII.
The weekend was pretty wild. First off, the home dog Philadelphia Eagles used some otherworldly grit and determination to take down last year’s NFC champs, holding the Atlanta Falcons to just 10 points in the game. Then later Saturday night, the New England Patriots shrugged off what’s been an endless stream of unwanted media attention to utterly annihilate the Tennessee Titans.
On Sunday, the Jacksonville Jaguars did the unthinkable, not only beating the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field but putting up 45 points in the process. The final game of the weekend — one that, on paper appeared to have real promise — was a lopsided blowout between the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints in the first half. Thankfully, the Saints woke up after going down 17-0 and almost did enough to win until the very end when all hell broke loose.
These were the biggest winners and losers from the NFL Divisional Playoffs.
Winner: Eagles’ front seven had an incredible game
We knew the Philadelphia defense was going to have to step up big time in order for the Eagles to defeat the Falcons. Nick Foles isn’t a great quarterback, and it was windy, which presented problems we’ll discuss a bit later. Well, mission accomplished.
Particularly up front, Philadelphia dominated in the trenches. Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Nigel Bradham, Mychal Kendricks, Vinny Curry — all these guys had outstanding games and stepped up in key moments to shut Atlanta’s offense down. Aside from Tevin Coleman, whose speed was a big difference, and Julio Jones — Mr. Cheat Code himself — Atlanta struggled to do much offensively.
Matt Ryan was under constant pressure — he was sacked three times and hit 11 total times — and wasn’t able to get into much of a rhythm. Atlanta’s offense as a whole was a sputtering mess most of the game, which is a big reason why the Falcons were sent packing. And while some of that had to do with the Falcons (more on that later) we have to give a ton of credit to Philly’s defense, which will need to stay hot to advance next week.
Loser: Steelers coaches blew it big time
The Steelers were (gasp!) out-coached by the Jaguars Sunday. And not by a little bit.
In particular, Todd Haley and Mike Tomlin deserve plenty of criticism for their decision-making on fourth downs. Sure, two of Ben Roethlisberger’s five touchdowns came on fourth down, and they converted 4-of-6 on that do-or-die down. But the two misses were awful, especially the toss play early in the game to Le’Veon Bell against Jacksonville’s insanely fast defense. Both the misses were on fourth-and-one, and both should have been quarterback sneaks with Big Ben, who’s 18-of-19 in his career from that down and distance.
Haley’s overall gameplan was akin to watching Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde battle for control. There was no middle ground with him — he was either calling a beautiful game or completely out of his mind. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler was off balance all game long and never really had a good idea about how to give his defenders a good chance at making impact plays.
The end result was obviously a stunning road win by the underdog Jaguars. So much for that highly-anticipated Steelers/Patriots rematch. And based on how badly Pittsburgh was out-coached Sunday, that’s probably a good thing.
Winner: Josh McDaniels loves his running backs, and he knows how to use them
Tom Brady was amazing, and we’ll get to him a bit later. One of the reasons Brady was able to have a brilliant night passing is that New England utilized its running backs to perfection. Josh McDaniels called a brilliant game, utilizing pace, variety and a relentless attacking mentality.
The three main running backs that New England utilized Saturday night — Dion Jones, James White and Brandon Bolden — combined for a staggering 208 total yards and three of the team’s five total touchdowns. Lewis did the heavy lifting in terms of yardage, rushing for 62 yards and catching nine passes for 79 yards. White, returning from an injury, scored two touchdowns, and Bolden scored for the first time since 2015.
The Patriots are great because they pound away at what works until it doesn’t work any longer. On Saturday night, the running backs were unstoppable, and they set the tone for the offense.
Loser: Keanu Neal will be haunted by that missed interception
The Falcons had all the momentum heading into the final minute of the first half. Up by the score of 10-6 after converting a fortuitous fumble recovery on special teams into a touchdown, they had the home team on the ropes in a big way.
Then Nick Foles presented a gift in the form of a horrible overthrow that went right to Falcons safety Keanu Neal. Had he caught it, there’s a chance he might have taken it back for six points, as he had a convoy in front of him. Instead, Neal jumped for the ball, and it banged off his knee, right into the arms of Torrey Smith, who took it 20 yards for a first down (watch here).
After another completed pass, Philly was able to convert a 53-yard field goal to cut the lead to one point, 10-9, and Atlanta’s defense never recovered. The Eagles finished the game scoring nine unanswered points to win by five, pulling off a huge upset over last year’s NFC champs.
Winner: Leonard Fournette did what Jags brought him in to do
When the Jaguars spent the No. 4 overall pick to select Leonard Fournette, there was an understanding that he’d be their ticket to any potential postseason success. Given the fact that Blake Bortles is the team’s quarterback and that Jacksonville features a dynamite defense, the biggest need was a bell-cow running back.
Well, after a very rough game against the feisty Buffalo Bills, Fournette ran wild Sunday against Pittsburgh.
Fournette’s first touchdown showed off his insane physique. He took off from about four yards out and leaped over the entire Steelers defense on fourth down from the two (watch). It was a perfect ending to an impressive first drive of the game. Later on in that first quarter, Fournette made NFL history becoming the first rookie to ever rush for two scores in the first quarter of a playoff game.
He would finish with 109 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries, even though he had to leave the game for a while in the second quarter with an ankle injury that had him hobbling in no small way.
Loser: Derrick Henry got shut down
The Titans have gotten by all season long because they could run the ball. They pounded the ball with authority last weekend against a tired Kansas City defense, and Derrick Henry was a star.
Yet when they needed the running game the most against the Patriots, they fell woefully short. Henry, in particular, was made invisible. He barely saw any action in the second half, thanks to New England taking a two-touchdown lead, and finished with just 28 yards on 12 carries.
I guess Maurice Jones-Drew was wrong, after all.
It’s not all Henry’s fault, though. As we mentioned, the Titans fell behind and had to pass the ball almost exclusively in the second half. But the key moment that cemented Henry on this list as a loser was late in the first half when he unbelievably bounced a fourth-and-two play outside and got stuffed for a five-yard loss. Yikes.
Winner: Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are really special
The Saints have an impressive defense, one which finished the regular season in the top half of the NFL in passing yardage and was a top-10 scoring defense. Yet time and time again, when Minnesota needed a play in the passing game, Diggs and Thielen came up with clutch receptions.
In particular, Diggs had a monster game. He finished with six catches for 137 yards and hauled in the game-winning touchdown with time expiring (more on that later). Thielen made another of his signature incredible, contested catches while going sky high, finishing with six catches for 74 yards.
These two receivers both had tremendous seasons and will continue to be a huge factor for the Vikings, who are now just one game away from playing the Super Bowl in their home stadium — an NFL first, should they accomplish it.
Loser: Steel Curtain, my behind
It’s pretty crazy to think about the fact that Jacksonville hung 45 points on Pittsburgh Sunday, at Heinz Field. Of course, not all those points came on offense — Telvin Smith scored on a 50-yard fumble recovery. But 38 points of offense is unreal being that it was the Jaguars that put them up and that they did it against a defense that allowed just 19.3 points per game during the season (No. 7 in the NFL).
Even more incredible is the fact that the Steelers — who finished the regular season with an NFL-leading 56 sacks — couldn’t generate a single quarterback takedown. Their inability to put pressure on Blake Bortles allowed the quarterback to get comfortable and stay comfortable in the pocket. The Steelers also didn’t force a single turnover and allowed the Jaguars to gain 378 total yards, 22 first downs and convert 8-of-14 on third downs.
A ton of credit goes to Jacksonville for executing a tremendous gameplan. But the Steelers cannot feel good about watching their defense give up the farm at home.
Winner: Case Keenum made plays when he needed to
Keenum didn’t have an incredibly sharp game, all in all. But the Minnesota Vikings continue to win games with him under center, and they’ll be competing in the NFC Championship Game, thanks in large part to what he did in critical situations Sunday.
The Vikings converted 10-of-17 third downs, and 12 of their total 24 first downs came by way of the passing game. Seven were gained on the ground, and five were due to Saints penalties. In the end, Keenum also converted the most important third down of Minnesota’s season with 10 seconds remaining on the clock, from his own 39-yard line. All the Vikings needed was to get into field-goal range, and Keenum threw the perfect pass to Diggs to get them there.
Of course, thanks to an awful play by Saints defensive back Marcus Williams, who we’ll discuss later, Diggs romped 61 yards for the game-winning touchdown instead.
Keenum finished the game with 318 yards on 25-of-40 passing with that insane touchdown washing out a pretty bad interception he’d love to have back in the third quarter.
Loser: Steve Sarkisian playcalling left a lot to be desired
As we’ve seen all season long, the Falcons weren’t nearly as explosive offensively in the playoffs this year as they were in 2016. Steve Sarkisian was a significant downgrade as Kyle Shanahan’s replacement — Atlanta averaged more than 11 points less than they did in 2016 during the season. After a semi-respectable game against the Los Angeles Rams on Wild Card Weekend, the Falcons managed just 281 yards and, even more shockingly, just 10 points Saturday against Philly.
Quite aside from the final numbers, it was Sarkisian’s playcalling on the final plays Atlanta ran.
After engineering a very successful, sustained drive that moved the Falcons into the red zone, he wilted. On second-and-goal from the nine-yard line, he called for a shovel pass to third-string running back Terron Ward (his only target of the game). Then after Julio Jones caught a seven-yard pass, Atlanta faced a fourth-and-goal from the two-yard line. Sarkisian rolled Ryan out of the pocket, where he faced pressure and ultimately threw up a prayer that came down unanswered.
Even worse? The Eagles defenders knew what play Sarkisian called as soon as Matt Ryan received the snap.
Falcons fans went nuts ripping Sarkisian to pieces on social media. And who can blame them? One of the most potent offenses in the NFL was awful in the red zone this entire year. And it came home to roost in a huge way during the biggest game of the year.
Winner: Tom Terrific was surgical
For the 13th time in his legendary career, Tom Brady passed for over 300 yards (337) in a playoff game, extending his own NFL postseason record.
But it wasn’t just the yards that make what Brady did Saturday night so ridiculous. He was ruthlessly surgical and made a few throws that were akin to Dude Perfect’s ridiculous trick shots. He also tossed three touchdowns and completed 35-of-53 passes (including a staggering 17-of-22 throwing to Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola), playing like a man who’s nowhere near the age of 40.
Brady wants to play into his mid-40s. For most guys, that seems absurd. But given what we’ve seen from Brady, its not so crazy.
Loser: Marcus Williams couldn’t have played Stefon Diggs any worse
The final play of Sunday evening’s game in Minneapolis was thrilling for Vikings fans and utterly crushing for Saints fans. It was the pinnacle of drama, as Case Keenum found Stefon Diggs down the right sideline where he somehow got through New Orleans’ defenders and sprinted to the end zone with time expiring.
We give Keenum and Diggs plenty of credit for making that timely play. But the reason it happened was that Saints defensive back Marcus Williams picked the worst possible time to ignore every bit of coaching he’s ever been given. Rather than keeping his eyes and head up so he could see what the heck he was doing, Williams dove, facemask down, in the direction of Diggs’ knees (watch here).
In the end, not only did Williams completely whiff on the would-be takedown, he ended up taking out some of his teammates, which is why Diggs was all by himself in the end zone as the clock struck zero.
Winner: Nick Foles gets lucky, then gets good
Two plays stand out that could have been the difference in Saturday’s win by the Eagles over the Falcons. And they both involve Nick Foles.
First, on the opening play of the game, Foles took a shot deep to a streaking Torrey Smith, who was wide open down the right sideline. If Foles had thrown a good ball, the Eagles would have gone up by six on that play. As it was, Foles threw the ugliest duck we’ve ever seen in the NFL. Honestly it should have been intercepted. But even the Falcons players were so caught off guard that nobody ended coming down with it.
Then, right before halftime, Foles threw another atrocious ball that should have been intercepted by Falcons safety Keanu Neal, possibly for six points. Instead, Neal booted the ball off his knee into the arms of Smith, who took the ball 20 yards to convert a first down. A few plays later, Philly pulled to within one point on a 53-yard field goal.
Those two plays kept the Eagles in it. Then in the second half, Foles actually started getting into a rhythm, and the Eagles did enough offensively to score six points on two field goals. Better to be lucky than good. In the case of Foles, he was both. He ended up finishing with 246 yards on 23-of-30 passing, outplaying Matt Ryan in the process.
Loser: Mike Mularkey was vastly out-coached
The Titans may have dug their own grave for the 2018 season by publicly committing to Mike Mularkey following their miracle win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Such decisions should never be based on one half of play like that one seemingly was. Yet here we are.
And boy, Mularkey’s deficiencies as a decision maker and leader were on full display Saturday night. It’s something we saw all year long, but many have been insulated from it due to the fact the Titans played in the AFC South and are a small-market team. He completely botched the end of the first half, calling timeouts that had Tony Romo pulling his hair out from inside the booth calling the game and then running Derrick Henry on fourth-and-two. Tennessee got lucky that the Patriots failed to capitalize with points when kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed from 53 yards out.
All throughout the game, Tennessee was exposed as a poorly coached team. The Patriots exposed every weakness with ruthless precision, and it’s especially frustrating to see Marcus Mariota continue to be failed when it comes to scheme and development. Yet Titans fans have to gear up for another season of this, which is a depressing thought.
A bit of a silver lining: Corey Davis caught his first career touchdown pass to put the Titans on the board early, and it was a one-handed beauty. Then later, he scored again in garbage time, showing he has a bright future ahead of him.
Winner: Blake Bortles actually came through in the clutch
Looking at the final stats, it’s safe to say Bortles wasn’t magnificent. In fact, there was a long stretch following the first touchdown of the game and the fourth quarter when he was pretty darn awful. However, when the Jaguars needed Bortles to show up big, he did.
Whether it was the 45-yard bomb to Keelan Cole, the cool-as-the-other-side-of-the-pillow dish to T.J. Yeldon in the fourth quarter or the touchdown pass to Tommy Bohanon that sealed the win, Bortles made plays when he needed to (much to the surprise of many watching).
In a high-scoring game that saw Jacksonville’s defense surrender 42 points and five passing touchdowns, the Jags wouldn’t have won if not for the clutch play of their quarterback.
Loser: Mark Ingram was a non-factor for the Saints
Ingram, coming off a career year, was nothing more than fodder for Minnesota’s defensive front Sunday in the biggest game of the year. The Alabama product finished the regular season with 1,540 yards and 12 touchdowns, but for the second weekend in a row he was incapable of helping his offense.
Finishing with just 28 total yards on 11 touches, Ingram’s longest play of the game was just eight yards. As a result of his inability to gain yardage on the ground, the Saints went into halftime down 17-0 and only came back to make it competitive when they abandoned Ingram and the power running game in the second half.
Given the way Alvin Kamara has shown he can dominate both on the ground and through the air, one wonders what the long-term future will hold for Ingram. He has just one year left on his current deal, and we might have already seen his best.