What are the odds?
At the start of the NFL season, it would have been inconceivable to think that these would be the four quarterbacks heading into the conference championships. Tom Brady, yes, but Case Keenum, Nick Foles and Blake Bortles?
Minnesota’s Keenum and Philadelphia’s Foles stepped in for injured starters during the regular season, and Jacksonville’s Bortles has come on strong lately and emerged as a rallying point for the Jaguars, who are back in the AFC title game for the first time since 1999.
“Before some of us guys got here, Blake Bortles had always been getting criticized,” rookie running back Leonard Fournette said. “It’s different now. He has guys that have his back, especially me. I don’t care what anyone says. They aren’t out there with us. I defend my brother, no matter what.”
The Jaguars advanced to the conference championship game by winning at Pittsburgh 45-42 and will play at New England on Sunday. The previous two times Jacksonville got to this point, in 1996 and ‘99, it suffered blowouts at Foxborough and at home. But here the Jaguars are again, at the doorstep of what could be their first Super Bowl, and they’re fueled by the disrespect they’ve felt.
“We use it all,” defensive back Barry Church said, responding to slights from the Steelers in the days leading up to the game. “I mean, you go out there and you talk stuff. That’s what you’re going to do, you poke the bear and the bear is going to come after you. That is all we did. We sent them home. I hope they’re happy for that one.”
The toughest challenge lies ahead. The defending Super Bowl champions, led by Brady, who two years ago beat Bortles and the Jaguars 51-17 at Gillette Stadium. The Hall of Fame-bound Patriots quarterback is 7-0 against the Jaguars.
But there’s a twist for Jacksonville this season. Tom Coughlin, once their head coach, now oversees their football operations. He has some valuable experience against the Patriots, having beaten them in Super Bowls twice as coach of the New York Giants.
The Patriots are experts at speaking in one voice and sending out a singular message. Coach Bill Belichick sets the tone, and the players follow. So it’s instructive to hear what offensive lineman Nate Solder said Monday when asked if the Patriots can draw on their experience in these games when they host Jacksonville. It’s a theme we’ll hear all week.
“It’s a mistake if you take anything we’ve ever done in the past and translate it to what we’re doing now,” Solder said. “I think it’s a different story. We’re writing our own story this year, so what we’re doing is preparing to see the Jacksonville team of this year and how we’re going to beat them.”
Three of the surviving teams had top-five defenses in the regular season: Minnesota (first), Jacksonville (second) and Philadelphia (fourth).
The Patriots finished 29th but allowed the fifth-fewest points (18.5), and they surrendered just 14 in their playoff opener against Tennessee.
Defense figures to be the overriding theme in the NFC championship, as the Vikings visit the Eagles. But the football world still was buzzing Monday about the wild ending of Minnesota’s win over New Orleans, with Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs scoring a walk-off, 61-yard touchdown from Keenum as the clock expired. As spectacular as it was for the Vikings, the play was an excruciating defensive breakdown by the Saints, who were seconds away from advancing.
“I went home and watched it on ESPN and I kept rewinding it about a thousand times,” Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes told reporters. “It was crazy.”
Now, it’s back to reality for the Vikings, who heard Monday from coach Mike Zimmer about how the game should not have been that close in the first place. The focus has shifted to preparing for Philadelphia.
“We had a meeting this morning, we did our lift and our run, and I kind of told them we can’t make these mistakes in playoff games, or we’re going home,” Zimmer told reporters, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “There’s always good and always bad in some of the games, but we made some critical errors in that game that could have got us beat.”
The Eagles and Vikings last played in 2016, and the Eagles won, but that game tape doesn’t mean much because the quarterbacks were Carson Wentz and Sam Bradford.
The night before the Vikings edged the Saints, Foles and the Eagles advanced with a 15-10, down-to-the-wire win over Atlanta.
“Listen, we all understand what’s at stake with this weekend,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Monday. “It’s a great opportunity, again, for our team and for the Philadelphia Eagles. That’s the challenge, in probably our case, and in the Vikings’ case (it) is coming off these emotional, close victories, and then having to turn around and do it again.”
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