For the most part, we bore witness to another slate of NFL Playoff action that lacked drama we have seen in previous years.
That came to a crashing halt on Sunday, with the Jacksonville Jaguars pulling off an upset win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Then, on Sunday evening, the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints played one of the greatest postseason games in recent history. It was capped off by a walk-off touchdown from Case Keenum to Stefon Diggs, marking a dramatic conclusion to the game.
These are among the top takeaways from the NFL Divisional Playoffs.
Vikings exercise major demons in thrilling win
For a while there, it looked like this was going to be a story we’ve seen written over and over again for the Vikings during their history. Up 17-0 at the half, Minnesota was on the verge of blowing yet another playoff game. Down 24-23 with 10 seconds left, Case Keenum threw a desperation heave to Stefon Diggs down the field.
In what was one of the worst mistakes we’ve seen in recent NFL history, Saints rookie defensive back Marcus Williams lost vision of the ball and the receiver. It resulted in a 61-yard walk-off touchdown for the Vikings. It’s one of the most-thrilling endings in playoff history.
It also came with Vikings fans fearing that the ghosts of Fran Tarkenton, Gary Anderson and Blair Walsh would show their faces in Minnesota. It came with all odds stacked against this team. And it came with the Vikings going up against a future Hall of Famer in Drew Brees. But none of that mattered. Maybe, this is the season a team hosts the Super Bowl. If Sunday’s thrilling win was any indication, we’re not going to bet against this version of the Purple People Eaters.
Mike Tomlin exposed
One of the underrated stories heading into Sunday’s AFC Divisional Playoff game between Pittsburgh and Jacksonville was coaching. No one really focused on this. Instead, it was all about revenge for Ben Roethlisberger after he threw five interceptions in a blowout Week 5 loss to the Jaguars.
Despite turning the ball over twice, Big Ben was his usually good self on Sunday. These two touchdown passes to Antonio Brown were prime examples of this. The issue here for Pittsburgh was coaching. Period.
With his Steelers having pulled to within seven points and north of two minutes remaining — with two timeouts remaining nonetheless — Tomlin called for an onside kick. Predictably, it didn’t go too swimmingly for the Steelers. And within four plays after Pittsburgh held the Jags without a first down, Josh Lambo nailed a 45-year field goal to put Jacksonville up 45-35. There’s absolutely no rhyme or reason for Tomlin’s decision not to kick the ball deep. None at all.
Interestingly enough, Pittsburgh would then drive down the length of the field for a touchdown, ultimately losing by the score of 45-42. That field goal was the difference.
More than this, the playcalling on offense by coordinator Todd Haley left a lot to be desired. Play-action on fourth and one when you have a huge quarterback in Big Ben under center? Heck, All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell was at Pittsburgh’s disposal. It just made no real sense. And in the end, Pittsburgh’s coaching staff was completely outclassed by Doug Marrone and the Jags’ staff. It’s that simple
Patriots in a class of their own
Any hope that Tennessee might pull off the greatest upset in playoff history ended relatively quickly Saturday night at Gillette Stadium. Sure the Titans opened the scoring on this amazing touchdown catch by Corey Davis in the first quarter, but it was all Patriots from that point on.
New England ended up scoring 35 consecutive points before a garbage-time touchdown by the Titans late in the fourth quarter. It was utter domination in every possible way. Tom Brady completed 35-of-53 passes for 337 yards with three scores and zero picks. The combination of Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski and Dion Lewis caught 26-of-32 targets for 272 yards. Meanwhile, New England put up a whopping 31 first downs and 438 yards of offense in the win.
We get that Tennessee was outmatched here. This team likely didn’t belong in the playoffs in the first place. But the Pats took care of business in a big way. It’s what was expected. But that doesn’t make the complete domination we saw under the lights Saturday night any less impressive.
Steve Sarkisian is a problem for Atlanta
Rarely do we see a coordinater in so far over his head in the playoffs as we saw from this Falcons offensive mind Saturday against the Jim Schwartz-led Eagles defense. It really was something to behold.
The play most will point to was Sark splitting a fullback out wide on a fourth to go opportunity with the game on the line late in the final stanza. It was bad. Really bad. But it goes much further than that.
How do you give the ball to Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman a combined 20 times in a game that was ripe for the taking and under conditions that were not indicative of success through the air? What about a shovel pass earlier on that final drive that looked to be something out of Tecmo Bowl?
At this point, it’s readily apparent Sark is in over his head as an offensive coordinator in the NFL. It’s not entirely fair to compare him to what Kyle Shanahan did as the Falcons’ offensive coordinator last season. But the disparity in terms of overall performance from one to the other was stark. And in reality, it cost Atlanta an opportunity to repeat as NFC champs with a 15-10 loss to Philadelphia on Saturday.
This Jag still has a bite
It’s not that Jacksonville went into Pittsburgh and upset the Steelers in Sunday’s AFC Divisional Playoff game that should shock us. Instead, it’s how the team did it. After struggling through the first three quarters of action, Blake Bortles came through big time in the final stanza.
With his Jaguars facing an valiant comeback attempt from Pittsburgh, the much-maligned signal caller shocked the social media world to the tune of completing his final seven passes for 118 yards — leading the Jags to two touchdown scoring drives in the process.
That’s a clutch performance. And it came in the same game that saw Jacksonville’s league-best defense give up 545 yards of offense and 42 points. Needless to say, Jacksonville needed all the points it ended up getting. And Bortles was one of the primary reasons for this. Yes, this Jag still does have some bite.
Titans, between a rock and a hard place
We all read the reports that head coach Mike Mularkey might be fired if Tennessee didn’t win its wildcard round matchup against Kansas City. That pretty much came to an end after Marcus Mariota led a dramatic second-half comeback, clinching a spot in the divisional round and saving Mularkey’s job in the process.
But then, Saturday night at Gillette Stadium came calling. Not only was Tennessee facing the greatest quarterback in modern NFL history, it had to scheme against two coordinators in Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia who might soon find themselves as head coaches. Add in Bill Belichick staring down Mularkey on the sideline, and the Titans were facing a major uphill climb.
In no real surprise to anyone, Tennessee fell by the score of 35-14 against the defending champs. They were outclassed and out coached in every possible way, begging one major question. Did the Titans’ first-round playoff win hinder their long-term ability to contend in the AFC? Mularkey is not a good coach. Mariota himself regressed under the tutelage of the head coach. And the Titans themselves were seemingly never a playoff-caliber team. Where to go from here?
Nick Foles was…good
He started out really shaky Saturday against the Falcons. But when all was said and done, this stop-gap starter completely outplayed reigning NFL MVP Matt Ryan at every possible turn.
Foles put up a workmanlike effort in this one, completing 23-of-30 passes for 246 yards without an interception. He did so in less-than-stellar passing conditions at the Lincoln Financial Field. It was a tremendous performance, one that helped the underdog Eagles surprise the masses by defeating the defending conference champs.
We have no idea if this will continue in the NFC Championship Game against the Vikings. What we do know is that Foles proved naysayers wrong in the most shocking of ways. He’s now one win away from leading the Eagles to the Super Bowl — something that seemed to be all but impossible when then MVP candidate Carson Wentz went down with a season-ending torn ACL back in December.
For Foles, this potential run to the Super Bowl could have wide-ranging individual consequences. In an NFL where quarterback play has proven to be dreadful for the most part, he could be setting himself up for a starting job with another team next season. In turn, the Eagles might receive a nice bounty in return. It’s something to pay attention to moving forward.
Drew Brees is still a legend
Sure Sunday’s heartbreaking loss to Minnesota hurts big time here. It’s something Brees and the Saints will have to live with for the rest of their lives. But this future Hall Fame quarterback did everything possible to lead his team back from a 17-point deficit late in the third quarter. If it weren’t for a miracle ending for the Vikings, New Orleans would have pulled off the second greatest comeback in playoff history.
In the end, Brees completed 24-of-40 passes for nearly 300 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. Those three scores came in the second half with both picks coming before halftime. Brees led the Saints to 17 fourth quarter points and tallied north of 200 yards after intermission.
The Saints’ 2017 seasons was defined by an improved defense and a stellar rushing attack. In all of that, Brees took a back seat. But with the team’s season on the line, he came up absolutely huge — proving that Brees remains one of the game’s best. Period.
Big Ben’s swan song?
Ben Roethlisberger did everything possible to lead Pittsburgh to a win over Jacksonville on Sunday. Here’s a dude that completed 37-of-58 passes for 469 yards with five touchdowns against the best pass defense in the NFL. In doing so, Big Ben almost led Pittsburgh back from a 28-7 first half deficit.
He just couldn’t overcome some disastrous tackling on defense and a coaching staff that was completely worked over by Jacksonville.
Roethlisberger now heads into an uncertain offseason. He had in the past talked about the possibility of retirement. And it’s something he addressed after Sunday’s loss. At 35 years old and after taking a pounding over the past 14 seasons, no one can blame Big Ben if he decided to hang them up here soon.
Even if Roethlisberger does return in 2018, as currently planned, Pittsburgh will have to look at this year’s draft for a potential long-term replacement. With the entire Le’Veon Bell situation up in the air, that leads to a lot of questions for a team that made a disappointing postseason exit on Sunday.