This past weekend’s slate of games treated us to a comeback win from a legendary quarterback (no, not Blake Bortles) and a ruthless blowout in the City of Brotherly Love. There’s plenty of time to gear up for the Super Bowl on Feb. 4, so let’s recap how the conference championship games played out before we forget how these two franchises reached the promised land.
Tom Brady and the New England Patriots hosted the Jacksonville Jaguars in their seventh straight AFC Championship game, defeating the upstart Jags 24-20 in thrilling fashion. For three quarters, it looked like the Jaguars might actually upset the heavy favorites, blow up the Death Star and destroy the evil empire once and for all… But no. The bad guys won, Bill Belichick emerged with yet another AFC trophy and one of the most polarizing franchises in professional American sports history is one win away from a sixth Super Bowl victory.
Heading into the game, the Patriots faced an onslaught of controversy, uncertainty and a degree of negativity that rivaled the Deflategate scandal. On Jan. 4, ESPN published a story that suggested there was trouble in paradise. It reported that the Holy Trinity of New England owner Robert Kraft, starting quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick were engaged in a battle for power and that many inside the franchise believed the triumvirate would not survive much longer.
The conflict revolved around Belichick’s dismissal of Alex Guerrero, Brady’s personal fitness coach, from an official role with the team and Belichick’s reported anger at Kraft for compelling the legendary coach to trade away the heir to the throne, Jimmy Garoppolo, thereby effectively taking Brady’s side over Belichick. The three issued a joint statement denying the story, of course, but many fans believed in the narrative, and the media kept it in the news cycle long enough to survive past the final stretch of the regular season and a divisional victory over the Titans into the team’s meeting with Jacksonville.
Compounding the issue was an injury during Wednesday’s practice to Brady’s throwing hand, forcing him to wear gloves all week while he refused to answer questions about the nature of the injury. Poetic justice seemed to be rearing her karmic head as it looked like the Pats could’ve used that backup quarterback after all. Instead, we got the same old Pats and the same old Brady, amped up per usual and zipping the ball all over the field, completing 26 of 38 passes for 290 yards and two touchdowns.
The Jaguars came into the game well enough as the much maligned Blake Bortles made some surprisingly great throws and the NFL’s top-ranked pass defense held Brady and company to just 10 first-half points. Barry Church’s brutal hit on star tight end Rob Gronkowski knocked him out of the game with a concussion and it looked like the odds were now stacked all the more in Jacksonville’s favor.
Yet with the little things — those pesky details that separate winners from losers — the Jaguars proved tragically inexact. Toward the end of the first half, Jacksonville committed an inexcusable delay of game penalty after coming out of a timeout, which allowed New England just enough time to drive down the field and score, bringing the game to within 4 at 14-10. By the fourth quarter, the Jaguars had built their lead to 10 but had missed some crucial opportunities to put the game out of reach, including a fumble recovery by linebacker Myles Jack that could have put the Jags up by 7 more points if it hadn’t been blown dead by the referees. The Jaguars’ offense stalled out during the entire fourth and toward the end of the quarter punted it poorly to Danny Amendola, who returned it 20 yards into Jaguar territory. The exhausted front four of Jacksonville were incapable of generating a pass rush against Brady, and No. 12 led his team down the field for the game-winning touchdown pass to Amendola. Bortles and much of America shed a collective single tear after yet another comeback win for New England.
Now everyone in the AFC is left with the same slim hope that maybe next year will be different.
Eagles soar to the Super Bowl
Nearly 37 million people tuned in to watch two backup quarterbacks battle it out for the right to face Tom Brady in Super Bowl LII, with Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles dismantling Case Keenum and the Minnesota Vikings, 38-7. The Vikings simply didn’t show up on Sunday, perhaps still reeling from their miraculous win over New Orleans the previous week, and the Eagles took full advantage, embarrassing a top-10 defense to the delight of all dogs in attendance. Philadelphia partied like it had won the Super Bowl and this poor guy ran into a pole.
Things were looking up when Minnesota opened the game with an impressive drive as Keenum found tight end Kyle Rudolph for a 25-yard touchdown, but it was all downhill from there. Keenum threw a touchdown on the next drive, but unfortunately it was to the other team, as defensive back Patrick Robinson returned Keenum’s interception 50 yards to the endzone. Late in the second quarter, Foles found Alshon Jeffery on a 53-yard touchdown pass to extend the Eagles’ lead to two scores. The Vikings went three and out on the ensuing drive and the Eagles converted a field goal heading into halftime, securing a 24-7 lead. Early in the third, Foles converted on another bomb, throwing a 41-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith in a tight window between two defenders, showing off pinpoint accuracy and a degree of skill we didn’t know Foles had. The Eagles delivered the knockout punch during the start of the fourth quarter as Foles found Jeffery for the second time, this time on third and goal from the 5-yard line.
To speak to just how badly the Minnesota defense played, consider that the Eagles converted 71 percent of their third downs on a vaunted Vikings defense that had allowed only 51 third-down conversions on 202 third downs during the regular season. The team’s defensive line wasn’t able to generate an effective pass rush; linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr underperformed while their secondary played their worst game of the year. On the offensive side of the ball, Pro Bowl wideout Adam Thielen suffered a quiet night, finishing with only three catches for 28 yards, and Keenum had an underwhelming game, throwing two costly interceptions. It was a worst-case scenario outcome for the Vikings, blowing the chance to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium, embarrassing themselves in the process and suffering the indecency of watching the team that just beat them play for the championship on their home field. Minnesota also had its chant stolen.
The Eagles were the polar opposite of Minnesota. They played fast and confidently while backup Nick Foles had the game of his life, completing 26 of 33 passes for 352 yards and three touchdowns. A lot of credit has to go to head coach Doug Pederson, who has led this team to the Super Bowl despite losing the “would-be” MVP in Carson Wentz, a blow that would have ended most teams’ playoff aspirations. The backfield trio of Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement and LeGarrette Blount has proved to be a valuable addition to this season’s Eagles squad while the brilliant defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has kept quarterbacks up at night all season long. This team has all the components of a Super Bowl champion, but only time will tell whether it’s the real deal.
If the Eagles don’t actually win the title, at least Philadelphia partied like it had. Dune buggies climbed the “Rocky” steps, street cones became dancers and literal Eagles came out to join the fiesta. Godspeed, Philly.
Rory O’Toole writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected].