Super Bowl LII is set and for the fourth time in five seasons, both top seeds have advanced, but Sunday’s conference championship still managed to bring us some surprises despite the chalk advancing. Here’s a look at the action from Sunday along with some other NFL news from the weekend.
New England- 24
Yes, the favored Patriots won their eighth AFC Championship in the tenure of HC Bill Belichick and QB Tom Brady and hope to win their sixth Super Bowl in two weeks, but it wasn’t as easy as many expected. Although much of the conversation in the week leading up to the game was about Brady’s hand injury and his status, there was never a real doubt he would play and play well. The Patriots got off to a slow start though and had very little offensive flow throughout the first half. After the Patriots took an early 3-0 lead on a field goal, the Jaguars responded. QB Blake Bortles was in full game-manager mode, handing the ball off to RB Leonard Fournette and connecting on short passes to keep drives alive. In back to back drives, the Jags found the end zone to take a 14-3 lead. Bortles connected with veteran TE Marcedes Lewis for a four-yard score and then Fournette ran it in, also from four yards out, for the second touchdown. Late in the first half, Bortles was leading another solid drive, but a third-down delay of game cost the team a potential first down. Eventually, Jacksonville had to punt the ball back to Brady and the Pats with just over two minutes remaining. He didn’t need nearly that long, orchestrating a scoring drive capped off by a one-yard run from RB James White to cut the lead to 14-10 at the half. While this seemed like a great way to end the half for the Patriots, it came at the expense of superstar TE Rob Gronkowski, who was at the wrong end of a huge blow from S Barry Church. Gronk exited the game to be checked for a concussion and would not return.
The third quarter was quiet as the Jags added a field goal to extend their lead. They also began the final quarter with another field goal, putting them ahead by ten points. The underdog Jaguars were in control, but their failure to get the ball into the end zone would cost them. Also, the Jags began to lean on their running game even more as they tried to run down the clock. Nearly every second-half drive began with a short run from Fournette, repeatedly putting the Jags in a tough spot at second and long.
With Gronkowski out for the game, Brady turned to veteran WR Danny Amendola, who delivered over and over. Amendola hauled in a nine-yard score in the middle of the quarter to cut the lead to just three points, but then both teams struggled to move the ball. With just under three minutes remaining, penalties were the undoing of the Jags as Brady found Amendola again in the back of the end zone, putting the Patriots ahead to stay. Although the Jaguars had plenty of time, Bortles overthrew his target on fourth down and the Patriots were able to run out the clock.
For the Jaguars, Bortles finished with 293 yards and a score, but will now face an offseason of uncertainty as the team must decide if Bortles is good enough to lead this team or whether they should search for an upgrade. Fournette looked fast and powerful in the early going, but failed to make a difference in the second-half, ending with 76 rushing yards on 24 carries. Bortles spread the ball around to his receivers as WR Allen Hurns led the way with 80 yards on six receptions. Backup RB Corey Grant was electric in the first-half, but rarely used later in the game, as he finished with 59 yards, catching all three of his targets.
Brady threw for 290 yards and two touchdowns, often looking to WR Brandin Cooks (6/100) and Amendola (7/84/2). Although the New England running game was not really a factor, RB Dion Lewis did catch seven passes and totaled 66 yards for the game.
The NFC Championship game pitted a pair of teams, the top two seeds in the conference, both led by backup quarterbacks. Of course, the confidence level in those two signal caller was worlds apart. For the second seed Minnesota, QB Case Keenum has been under center since early in the season when QB Sam Bradford went down with a serious injury. Keenum has played the best football of his career and is now even rumored to be an option for the Vikings Franchise Tag. It is a completely different scenario for the top-seeded Eagles, quarterbacked by backup Nick Foles after the season-ending torn ACL for QB Carson Wentz. Since Foles took over, the Eagles limped to the finish line, struggling to score points. There were even some concerns if a bum elbow would allow Foles to play the entire game Sunday. These events all led to the visiting Vikings actually being favored over the Eagles.
The game began as many might have expected. Keenum led a scoring drive that culminated with a 25-yard touchdown strike to TE Kyle Rudolph and the Vikes were off and running…or so we thought. That score, coming less than five minutes into the game, would prove to be the only points of the day for Minnesota, who had the ultimate let-down after last week’s amazing come from behind win. There would be no miracle for Minnesota this week.
The Eagles' scoring was jump-started by the defense as CB Patrick Robinson intercepted a Keenum pass and wove through the Vikings tacklers for a 50-yard return, tying the game in the first quarter. Philadelphia poured it on in the second quarter when the offense and Foles finally got going. The Eagles scored on a touchdown run from RB LeGarrette Blount and a 53-yard bomb to WR Alshon Jeffery. A field goal as the first-half expired put a bow on the Eagles half, giving them a 24-7 lead at the break. Things weren’t any better in the second-half as the Vikings could never get anything going offensively. Foles hit WR Torrey Smith for another long score, this one from 41 yards out and a second touchdown from Jeffery early in the final quarter sealed the deal. The remainder of the quarter was all about keeping the Eagles healthy as they looked toward a Super Bowl matchup with the Patriots.
Keenum finished with 271 yards and a touchdown, but also threw a pair of interceptions. As they’ve done all year, the Eagles defense shut down the run game. RB Latavius Murray ran for just 18 yards on six carries and Jerick McKinnon had ten rushes for 40 yards. McKinnon also led the way as a receiver, catching 11 of 12 targets for 86 scoreless yards. Last week’s hero WR Stefon Diggs caught eight passes for 70 yards, while WR Adam Thielen, who dealt with a back injury all week, managed just three receptions on nine targets for 28 yards.
Foles played the game of his life, throwing for 352 yards and three touchdowns as the Eagles offense was clicking for much of the day. RB jay Ajay led the running game with 73 yards on 18 carries and TE Zach Ertz caught all eight of his targets for 93 yards. Jeffery (5/85/2), Smith (5/69/1) and WR Nelson Agholor (3/59) all had over 50 yards. Following the game, Foles required x-rays on his ribs, but assured that those were precautionary.
The Tennessee Titans hired former Texans DC Mike Vrabel as the head coach. ... There are reports that Vrabel will target Ohio State co-offensive coordinator Ryan Day, who once coached under Chip Kelly, to be their new OC. ... The Browns interviewed former Steelers OC Todd Haley for their same position on their staff. ... Patriots LB coach Brian Flores is reportedly the favorite to take over as the team’s DC once Matt Patricia officially leaves, but the Cardinals are also seeking a second interview for Flores for their head coach opening. ... The Giants are expected to hire Vikings OC Pat Shurmur as their head coach and he could potentially add former Raiders HC Jack Del Rio as defensive coordinator. ... The Falcons hired Greg Knapp as QBs coach. ... With Vrabel now in Tennessee, the Texans are expected to move Romeo Crennel back to their defensive coordinator position, a position he previously held.
Jets WR Robby Anderson was arrested late last week and there is at least some concern the team could part ways with their top receiver because of his off-field issues, though a beat writer thinks the team will stick with him. ... Giants GM Dave Gettleman once against suggested he wants veteran QB Eli Manning back as the starter in 2018. ... Titans TE Jonnu Smith suffered a torn MCL in the team’s playoff loss to New England, but is expected to be ready for offseason workouts. ... The Falcons will move Vic Beasley from linebacker back to defensive end in 2018.