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2018 NFL playoff bracket: Patriots and party crashers in AFC, NFC title games

January 16,2018 03:10

After a wild divisional round weekend that gave us two upsets, a miracle win in Minnesota and a Bortles-ing of the Steelers, the field is finally set for both the AFC and NFC Championship games. When Championship Sunday kicks off Jan. 21, you're going ...


Thanks to the “Minneapolis Miracle,” Sunday reminded America why you never can give up on an NFL game no matter how bleak things look.
With a little less drama, the “Jacksonville Rejuvenation” sent the same message about giving up on an NFL franchise — perhaps the most relevant takeaway in Chicago.
Start with the Vikings, who appeared within seconds of continuing decades of crushing disappointment before Stefon Diggs seized the moment — and the football — out of midair for a 61-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Case Keenum. Faster than you can say “Hail Mary,” the Vikings’ demons were exorcised and Saints rookie safety Marcus Williams’ career was changed. Numbers crunchers said the Vikings had a 2.6 percent win probability before the final snap, but longtime Minnesotans knew it was much smaller than that, dontcha know?
A tortured history told them so. Cowboys wide receiver Drew Pearson catching a 50-yard desperation touchdown pass in the final seconds of a 1975 NFC divisional playoff game. Vikings kicker Gary Anderson missing his first field goal in two years with two minutes left in the 1998 NFC championship game, a 38-yarder in a tie game his team lost in overtime. Vikings kicker Blair Walsh shanking a potential game-winning 27-yard chip shot with 26 seconds left against the Seahawks in an NFC wild-card game two postseasons ago.
All of those memories stuck in their craw early Sunday evening. None of them mattered quite as much after Diggs came down with Keenum’s perfectly placed ball and did the rest by racing into Vikings lore. Headline writers in the Twin Cities celebrated.
Nice Diggs!
U.S. Bank Robbery
It set up the unlikeliest of NFC championship games, a meeting of Ex-Rams Starting Quarterbacks Jeff Fisher Rejected, a growing support group that should have its own Facebook page. Keenum against Eagles starter Nick Foles serves as a reminder why Fisher’s name popping up in rumors about the Bears job a few weeks ago were so quickly dismissed.
What a strange, symmetrical circle this completes. The Eagles once traded Foles to the Rams for quarterback Sam Bradford. Foles struggled, ceding the job to Keenum. The Eagles drafted Carson Wentz second overall in 2016, leading them to deal Bradford to the Vikings, who signed Keenum last offseason as a cheap veteran backup. Meanwhile, Foles, who nearly retired after his Rams experience, signed a free-agent contract with his original team, the Eagles. On Saturday, he became the first NFL quarterback to record a passer rating over 100 in his first two playoff starts.
Foles, Keenum and Blake Bortles of the Jaguars will join Tom Brady of the Patriots as the starting quarterbacks still with a shot at the Super Bowl. That resembles a possible quarterback depth chart more than a list of remaining playoff starters. You wonder if, in a league that loves to copy, more teams will consider different roster-building methods if the value of the franchise quarterback keeps decreasing like bitcoin.
Look at the Vikings. Since their last playoff victory with Brett Favre at quarterback in 2010, they have used three first-round draft picks on the position: one each to select Christian Ponder and Teddy Bridgewater and one to trade for Bradford. The Vikings even gave up a second- and fourth-rounder to move up to draft Bridgewater at the end of the first round in 2014.
And here is Keenum, on a one-year, $2 million deal, on the verge of making everyone rich and leading the Vikings to the Super Bowl. Three weeks before the Vikings signed Keenum on March 31, by the way, the Bears guaranteed free-agent quarterback Mike Glennon $18 million.
The only revival story remaining that rivals Keenum’s continues to unfold in Jacksonville, which possesses the best nickname still alive: Sacksonville. The Jaguars get it done with a fierce pass rush, a dangerous running game behind Leonard Fournette and a quarterback in Bortles who threw a career-low 13 interceptions this season. A No. 3 draft pick should aspire to be better than the NFL’s 20th-ranked passer, as Bortles was in 2017, but his improved ability to manage games under coach Doug Marrone helped the Jags become the surprise of the league with a 10-6 record and two straight playoff victories.
In a remarkable nine-month span, the Jags went from drafting fourth to making the NFL’s final four. BREAKING: Playoff games often hinge on playing defense and running the football. Hiring Tom Coughlin as director of football operations immediately transformed a sleepy mindset, and making a few shrewd free-agent signings accelerated plans.
Cut and paste, Bears fans: The Jags won seven fewer games than the Bears from 2013 to 2016 (15). They indeed play in a weaker division, but beating the Steelers twice in Pittsburgh proved their 2017 success was no fluke. They leaned heavily on defense until their young quarterback and the rest of the offense caught up.
General manager Dave Caldwell, under Coughlin’s direction, took an aggressive approach to free agency and committed $153.5 million worth of contracts on three defensive players: end Calais Campbell, cornerback A.J. Bouye and safety Barry Church. Campbell registered a career-high 14½ sacks, Bouye intercepted six passes and Church stabilized the secondary. They joined former first-round cornerback Jalen Ramsey and big-ticket free-agent defensive tackle Malik Jackson to give the Jags a defense that threatens to make Brady look old and immobile.
The Patriots likely will prevail and advance to Super Bowl LII against a Vikings team that looks destined to return home with a pretty strong Case.
But in the Year of the Forgotten in the NFL, remember to take nothing for granted.
dhaugh@chicagotribune.com
Twitter @DavidHaugh
Stunner: Case Keenum-Stefon Diggs TD on last play gives Vikings a 29-24 playoff win over the Saints »
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