Now would not be a good time to go back and read my NFL previews from September. Like every year, there’s misfires and hits. It happens to everyone. So many variables come into play and change over the course of a season that it is nearly impossible to hit on a majority. Stuff happens and we can’t do anything about that.
But you at least want to try to hit in a general direction. There might be one certain thing that holds you back or powers your pick through, or there might be a unit that’s extremely underrated.
Out of the NFL’s conference championship contenders, I hit on two of them. The Patriots didn’t end up at 15-1, thanks to a terrible defense and a slow start, but are the best team left and figured it out as the season went along, putting distractions aside and going about their business. Classic.
The other hit was one I’m extremely proud of. I had Philadelphia at 11-5, though expected them to lose the division to Dallas (at that time, it was very unclear what Ezekiel Elliot’s status was). I had them sneaking in the playoffs, and warned of a possible renaissance from this team.
It happened, and then it all came crashing down. The team was awesome. Carson Wentz was freaking amazing. The defense was stifling. They were the favorites.
Now we’re here. The Eagles are still here too, just in a different breed. A breed that could land us Nick Foles instead of Wentz in the Super Bowl.
So how in the world did we get here? It’s simpler than you think.
I always go back to that crappy Broncos-Panthers Super Bowl in 2016. Do you remember that dumpster fire game? In the new 49ers stadium that’s located in a marsh? It was terrible. The Denver defense (Yeah, that Denver defense) dominated, and Peyton Manning did just enough.
The mistake we keep making is ignoring that formula right there. We get so caught up in “You have to have a quarterback this, you have to have a QB that.” It’s true, but not to the extent we think. Check out this list:
- 2015-2016 Broncos
- 2002-2003 Buccaneers
- 2007-2008 Giants
- 2006-2007 Bears
(OK, the stats don’t back up that Giants team, but that defense was a menace and killed Tom Brady during that Super Bowl.)
All of these teams made it to the Super Bowl. Now check out this list of the starting QBs for those teams:
- Old and creaky Peyton Manning
- Brad Johnson (Wait, who?)
- Eli Manning (He threw 29 TDs and 16 picks that year!)
- Rex Grossman (C’mon now..)
Two of those dudes won! They had insanely talented defenses that carried them the whole season, and did exactly what was needed (Basically: Don’t screw anything up) to get their team there.
That, to an extent, is exactly what’s gone on all season or over the course of the past few weeks for the Vikings, Eagles and Jaguars. With the help of the weekend’s games, let’s figure out how exactly each team has handled their peculiar situations.
The Vikings defense is the real hero
A tenacious group, Minnesota’s defense, though expectedly strugglingly Sunday against New Orleans, has been the real reason the Vikings have gotten this far. Ranked 2nd by DVOA and No.1 by my measure, you can’t find a weak spot. They swarm to the ball. They stifle running backs. They make fantastic pass breakups. Everything. They do it all.
It was evident in the first half Sunday that this would be a struggle for New Orleans. I felt like the crowd, the pressure and constant threat of that defense got to them. Drew Brees was missing throws. Mark Ingram was nowhere to be found. Alvin Kamara was getting nowhere on the ground or in the flat, where Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr were flying up to make open-field tackles. Andrew Sendejo made an amazing interception on a ball that was a tad underthrown. It was a perfect storm, but for this Vikings unit, it was just another day.
It wasn’t all cheers though. Before the game, one of my keys to the game for New Orleans was that they had to trust their weapons to make a play for them, even against this defense. A break had to come, and in the second half, New Orleans found success. Sure, the turnovers and special teams helped. But Brees got the offense moving, and that’s what led to the comeback.
There’s multiple reasons why we shouldn’t be worried about the Vikings defense after the second half against New Orleans: 1) That’s the scariest offense from a top-to-bottom roster they will face the rest of the way. 2) Michael Thomas is just too good. What receiver will Xavier Rhodes have to cover next? Alshon Jeffrey? He was a big part of the Atlanta game alright. (By the way, Rhodes got cooked Sunday.) 3) The offense put them in two horrible spots. Really, they were at fault for one possession after being up 17-0.
But (I can’t believe I’m about to write this) Case Keenum had their back. That’s right. This time, it was the opposite of what we’d been saying all along.
The Vikings have made it work with Keenum. You have to give credit to offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who’s probably taking a head coaching job (Please let it be Arizona) and could be brining Keenum with him (Please don’t let it be Arizona). He’s gotten a career backup who was never good at anything being called a hero. I mean, the Stefon Diggs touchdown is already being called “The Minneapolis Miracle” (What a great nickname). Case Keenum has a freaking play nicknamed!
It also helps that the Vikings have two of the top 12 receivers in the league in Diggs and Adam Thielen. Those two guys know how to get open; Diggs is one of the best route runners I’ve seen (Him and Julio Jones are right up there) and Thielen is open even when he’s not. There were three throws Sunday that Keenum should have never made, which included the one on the field goal drive where Thielen was fouled twice and still came down with it. He’s reminiscent of Larry Fitzgerald catching passes from John Skelton or someone.
Minnesota has also made up for Dalvin Cook’s injury. Though he wasn’t very prominent Sunday, people have forgot that Latavius Murray was a pretty good running back in Oakland; Minnesota didn’t sign him at $5 million a year for nothing. He’s been extremely effective when needed this year, and has taken some pressure off of Keenum. Jerick McKinnon has also been revived, and has turned into a specialist/jet-sweep guy for the Vikings. Man, remember when everyone used to hate him?
Shurmur deserves all the credit in the world. If this was the Keenum from past years, this team would be wasting a whole roster.
Carson Wentz left the Eagles in the best spot possible
Essentially, the only thing Philly had to get through was the matchup vs. the Falcons Saturday night. Wentz had left them in perfect position for the No.1 seed after the Rams game; they clinched it two weeks after the injury. The wins that were needed to get it: @Giants, vs. Oakland. Congrats.
I probably tuned out the Giants game because it felt meaningless at the time, and that Oakland game was one of the worst primetime games of the year, filled with bonehead coaches and refs (That was the index card game!).
The point: Those were very winnable games. And they won them. Nick Foles had nothing to do with it.
Foles didn’t have anything to do with the win against Atlanta either. You could make a case no one on the Eagles roster did given some of the play calls by the Falcons coaching staff, but that’s a different story.
Where Philly won the game was in the trenches. The Atlanta defense has been hit or miss all year, giving up dumb plays during their bad spurts and locking down during their good ones. But the Eagles offensive line dominated, opening up massive holes for Jay Ajayi and giving Foles plenty of time to dump the ball off. It was the boys up front and the specialists that “upset” Atlanta. Oh, and the Falcons coaching staff. Can’t forget about them.
I don’t think the Eagles can go like this for much longer though. Foles has been bad when they’ve needed him to make a play, and they’ve done a good job of adjusting to his weaknesses. Minnesota’s defenses doesn’t allow adjustments though. That’s…. a problem.
Jacksonville took the Minnesota formula, and still barely got by
Unlike the Eagles beating Atlanta, Jacksonville coming into Pittsburgh for a second time and whooping butt was an upset. Nobody saw that one coming.
But there was an ever so slight chance that the Jaguars could make it a game, and it was gonna come down to their gameplan. Turns out, the Jags sideline put together the perfect one.
Jacksonville, while not a powerful or efficient offense, had the right tools to throw off the Steelers. Leonard Fournette is a smash-mouth, 30 carry running back who could pound you right up the middle. Without Ryan Shazier, the Pittsburgh linebacking core was a mess. They’d struggle to defend the run since his injury, and couldn’t contain the flats. Jacksonville flawlessly attacked those weaknesses. Fournette was unstoppable, and TJ Yeldon was extremely productive out of the backfield on screens. It’s not a terrifying offense, but it got yards, and when Blake Bortles is your quarterback, that’s all you can ask for.
Offensively, the Steelers did what they’re best at: Starting slow and being unproductive. The game-plan was horrendous; Le’Veon Bell hardly touched the ball in the first half, and the Steelers kept running terrible screen and flare passes. Guys like Telvin Smith, who had 16 tackles, are too fast for that. Pittsburgh learned that the hard way.
When you’re the most dangerous offense in the league, you have to let your playmakers make plays. Being matched up with dudes like Jalen Ramsey shouldn’t matter; even if it’s lockdown coverage the whole game, the one time it’s not it’s a touchdown. That’s what playmakers do.
It took the Steelers a whole half to figure it out, but by then they were already down three possessions. Ben Rothlisberger made some incredible throws, and his receivers made some incredible catches, but it was too late. Coaching didn’t help down the stretch either; that onside kick call and its execution was egregious.
For the Steelers, the season ended in a way that was consistent with their play all year: Late starts and poor execution, coupled with a shoddy defense.
For the Falcons, it followed the same trend as well: Dumb mistakes and poorly timed miscues, as well as poor coaching.
And for the Eagles and Jaguars, it was situation and matchups that powered them to where they are, not necessarily talent.
For the Vikings, it was a imperfect yet perfect roster and a miracle of the ages that got them here. And the scariest part is that they’re on their way to having the greatest advantage of them all.
That is, unless they have to face Tom Brady in the Super Bowl. He must be licking his chops.