Welcome to the latest edition of The Sunday Recap, a weekly column dedicated to thoughts on the previous day’s NFL action! Let’s dive right into the big storylines to come out of a wild Divisional Round weekend…
A miraculous touchdown for the ages finally saves Vikings, sends Saints into pit of misery
The Minnesota Vikings’ history is steeped in agonizing playoff losses. Younger people like myself can easily recall moments like Blair Walsh’s missed field goal against Seattle two years ago as well as Brett Favre’s costly interception late in the 2009 NFC Championship. But their misery really started in 1969 when the famed “Purple People Eaters” lost Super Bowl IV to the Kansas City Chiefs despite being favored by 12 points. Success continued to elude Minnesota throughout the next decade as Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton and company appeared in three more Super Bowls during the 1970’s only to lose them all. Those great Vikings teams in the ’70’s also had another one of their potential Super Bowl runs famously end due to a game-winning Roger Staubach touchdown pass now hailed as the NFL’s first “Hail Mary.”
Based on this track record of playoff failure, I couldn’t help but think that yesterday’s Divisional Round game at US Bank Stadium was destined to become another one of those games that Vikings fans would wish to forget. After all, Minnesota first relinquished a 17-0 lead due to a series of mistakes by the likes of Case Keenum and the Vikings’ punt blocking unit. And then after wrestling control of the lead once again with under two minutes to play, Mike Zimmer’s terrific defense surprisingly allowed Drew Brees to efficiently drive down field and retake the lead with only 25 seconds remaining. These things only happen to teams like Minnesota, I thought to myself.
Then, of course…well you know what happened. Or, maybe you’re like one of the many people I’ve talked to that is still trying to process what happened as time expired in one of the most thrilling games in NFL history. But I’ll tell you what happened: the Vikings finally caught a break from the football Gods. I mean, that’s the only possible explanation for Case Keenum’s 61-yard miracle pass to Stefon Diggs to send Minnesota to the NFC Championship, right?
Yet as joyous as Sunday’s miraculous win was for Vikings fans, it was even more heartbreaking for Who Dat Nation. The Saints wasted another signature performance from their Hall of Fame-bound quarterback, who was particularly terrific in the 4th quarter (11-15, 103 yards, 2 touchdowns) as New Orleans rebounded from two separate deficits, all because of one horrible defensive mistake in a situation where a Minnesota touchdown seemed to be impossible.
Opportunities like yesterday simply don’t come around too often. The Vikings will now travel to Philadelphia, favored to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LII. The Saints, meanwhile, will watch from home. New Orleans may have a plethora of talented young players on both sides of the ball to complement the terrific (but aging) Drew Brees, but the NFC may never be as open for the taking as it was this season due to Aaron Rodgers and Carson Wentz’s injuries.
In short, we may never see Sean Payton and Drew Brees on such a stage again.
Steelers suffer a disappointing defeat of their own: Should Tomlin be fired?
I was wondering as the clock approached zero during Pittsburgh’s surprising 45-42 loss to Blake Bortles and the Jaguars if this was it. Was this the last we would see of Ben Roethlisberger, who contemplated retirement last offseason? Apparently this question has already been answered, though, as Roethlisberger declared after the game that he looks forward to coming back for what I’m assuming will be his last season in 2018.
So the Steelers’ championship window remains open for at least one more year. Nonetheless, the pending departure of their Hall of Fame quarterback makes Pittsburgh’s future beyond next season hazy at best; and that also doesn’t mean that further shakeups shouldn’t take place after another premature playoff exit.
This brings me to Mike Tomlin, who, along with losing control of his locker room, has squandered too many opportunities over the past seven years to continue being the Steelers’ head coach. Let’s start by looking at his resume of late. For starters, it should be noted that Tomlin has never had a shortage of talent. In fact, I can’t think of another coach off the top of my head who has had a Hall of Fame quarterback along with arguably the best running back (Le’Veon Bell) and best wide receiver (Antonio Brown) in football on the same team for at least five seasons. Perhaps Jimmie Johnson on those Cowboys teams in the ’90’s with Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin is the only one (and look how much success he had).
Tomlin’s Steelers, however, have gone seven years without making the Super Bowl. No surprise, therefore, that each of these conference title-less seasons have ended in bitter disappointment. Of course, yesterday’s loss was arguably the most frustrating of them all, as the Steelers allowed Blake Bortles and company to march up and down Heinz Field at will in a game that was supposed to merely serve as a preamble for their “inevitable” rematch against the Patriots. But let’s not forget about their other recent letdowns:
- 2011: Lost to Tim Tebow and the Broncos despite being heavy favorites
- 2012 & 2013: Missed the postseason
- 2014: Home playoff loss to the Ravens in Wild Card round
- 2015: Lost to Denver in Divisional Round (admittedly, I give them a pass here because Pittsburgh was without A. Brown)
- 2016: Blown out by Patriots in AFC Championship
So despite all of that talent, every year in recent memory has ended in disappointment for Pittsburgh. And on top of that, clearly Tomlin has little control of the Steelers’ locker room. As many Jaguars players noted following their upset victory, what other top contender would openly discuss how they’re already looking ahead to their next opponent?
Plus, Tomlin is also culpable for many of the questionable in-game coaching decisions that have doomed the Steelers. Look no further than Pittsburgh’s two biggest defeats this season. What were the Steelers thinking on those two fourth-and-one play calls yesterday? How could an onside kick fail that miserably? And has anyone made sense yet of how Pittsburgh blew the New England game in Week 15?
Taken together, the case for Tomlin to be fired is stronger than the case for him to stay.
Leonard Fournette reminds everyone that there is another great rookie back worthy of your attention
Even though Pittsburgh clearly didn’t come to play on Sunday, credit must be given to the feisty Jaguars, who withstood countless charges from the Steelers in order to advance to their first AFC Championship since 1999.
The player I want to highlight in particular is Leonard Fournette, who led the charge for Jacksonville offensively by rushing for 109 yards and three touchdowns. Have you heard all the talk recently about whether Alvin Kamara or Kareem Hunt should win Offensive Rookie of the Year? Well, Fournette may not be deserving of that award simply because injuries derailed the second half of his season, but Sunday served as a reminder that we shouldn’t forget about last year’s fourth overall pick.
After finishing 5th in the NFL in yards per game (80.0), Fournette is already one of the better power backs in football. And another thing that separates the former LSU star is that he essentially carries the Jacksonville offense. Think about it: as great as backs like Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, Kareem Hunt, and Alvin Kamara are, none of them have a quarterback as limited as Bortles. Fournette, meanwhile, must compensate for how he is his team’s only offensive threat.
As Jacksonville prepares to travel to New England next Sunday, it will once again need another big game from its rookie back. The Patriots (on paper, at least) don’t possess a great run defense; but one of the keys to their success last Saturday night against Tennessee was their ability to shut down Derrick Henry, holding him to 28 yards on 12 carries. It will be vital for the Jaguars to not follow in the Titans’ footsteps, so they’ll need Fournette to take another step closer to stardom.
Falcons’ season ends in miserable fashion once again
Like I said after the Falcons blew a 28-3 lead in last year’s Super Bowl (and like I said earlier regarding the Saints), opportunities to seriously compete for a Super Bowl title don’t come around too often. For that reason, along with the fact that teams coming off Super Bowl losses have historically had trouble returning the following year, I said Atlanta wouldn’t return to such a stage for at least another year or two; but little did I know that they would be in a relatively favorable position again this postseason — a win over Nick Foles away from a second consecutive NFC Championship appearance.
Another Falcons’ season, however, ended with owner Arthur Blank standing sadly on the sideline observing his team come up just short once again. Obviously this loss pales in comparison to Super Bowl LI, but it’s upsetting to think that Atlanta’s supposedly high-powered offense couldn’t manage more than 15 points to beat Foles and company despite being road favorites.
The Falcons undoubtedly have enough playmakers on both sides of the ball to remain competitive moving forward, but Dan Quinn needs to remove offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. It was fitting that Atlanta’s year — one in which its offense was nowhere near as prolific as it was during Matt Ryan’s MVP-winning 2016 season — would end with such an uncreative play call on the game’s final play. Sarkisian clearly isn’t the person to guide the Falcons’ offense to greater heights, so as long as Atlanta makes this personnel change, its 2018 prospects look promising.
Not done yet: Patriots march on to 7th consecutive AFC title game
Last week, I wrote to one of my friends in a long-winded text exchange about what I thought of the “drama” in the Patriots’ clubhouse. One of my main conclusion’s was this: despite all the reported animosity between Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, nothing seemed to be effecting things on the field. After all, New England went 7-1 following the Jimmy Garoppolo trade and finished the regular season with the top seed in the AFC.
Clearly Saturday’s victory over the Titans helped further my case. You could even argue it was the Patriots’ most dominant performance since early November, particularly from a defensive standpoint. Get this: after Tennessee’s 11 play, 95-yard touchdown drive to take a 7-0 lead, its offense gained a total of 49 yards over its seven subsequent possessions. The Titans literally didn’t move the ball for three entire quarters!
Of course, it was also great to see Brady deliver another outstanding playoff performance (337 yards, 82.9 Total QBR), while role players like Danny Amendola (11 catches, 112 yards) and Brandon Bolden (4 carries, 27 yards, 1 touchdown) came through to punctuate another prototypical Patriots victory. Considering the quality of last Saturday’s opponent, however, advancing to a 7th consecutive conference title game unfortunately proves little to those who have angrily declared that the end is finally near for Brady, Belichick and Co.
We’re on to Jacksonville.