With the excitement of the Eagles’ goal line stand against the Falcons, the shootout in Heinz Field and, of course, the Vikings’ walk-off touchdown against the Saints, it’s quite easy to forget we were, perhaps, as few as four plays away from a final four involving quarterbacks with 12 Super Bowl appearances — Tom Brady (seven), Ben Roethlisberger (three), Drew Brees (one) and Matt Ryan (one) — between them. Had that happened, NFL article after NFL article this week would bemoan the lack of new quarterbacks in the league given the above quartet have a combined age of 146.
Instead, in addition to Brady, we have Case Keenum, Nick Foles, and Blake Bortles who, between them, have played in as many postseason games as the former has played in Super Bowls. This scenario has prompted a steady stream of hot takes suggesting the NFL is now a post-quarterback league.
But the truth is the same as it has been for some time now, teams with exceptional quarterbacks will always stand a better chance of playing football heading into the third week of January than teams who don’t. 2018 just happens to be the exception.
Why might that be? Well look the high profile injuries that cost some of the league’s most exciting quarterbacks a large part of or even their entire season. It’s not too difficult to imagine an alternate timeline where Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz and DeShaun Watson could all be playing this weekend had the 2017/18 injury bug not bitten so hard.
Good defenses will also keep your team in the hunt — and the Eagles, Vikings and Jags all rank in the top-five — but the idea teams will forgo seeking the next Peyton Manning or Brett Favre and look instead to build their team an elite corner like Jalen Ramsey or a stud defensive end such as Everson Griffen is ludicrous. Whatever about three of the four players who’ll line up under center this weekend, a franchise quarterback is still the surest path to a Super Bowl, just ask the team with five Vince Lombardi trophies since finding theirs in 2001.
Of course, all that being said, there is the cliche that offense sells tickets, defense wins championships. The problem with Bear Bryant’s proclamation is that it’s just not true. You see, while this study of the 515 teams that have made the postseason in the Super Bowl era found that the fewer yards defenses allowed per game during the regular season, the more likely they were to lift the Vince Lombardi trophy, it also found that the more yards gained offensively during the season correlated similarly, nearly identically, with subsequent playoff success.
With that in mind, the adage really should go that very good offenses and very good defenses win championships and, while that’s nowhere near as catchy, this weekend, we’ve got one of the former and three of the latter and it’s telling that it’s the team with the elite quarterback that remain favourites to win it all.
Jacksonville Jaguars @ New England Patriots – Sunday, 8.05pm
Even the most ardent New England Patriots fan would tell you that last weekend’s win over the Tennessee Titans was the most boring of the four Divisional Round games but it wasn’t their fault they had to play the worst team left in the postseason. However, there were definitely positives for the Pats to take from the game on both offense and defense.
There were some in New England who called for Matt Patricia to be fired as defensive coordinator when the Patriots lost two of their opening four games — both at home — giving up 128 points in the first month of the season. However, that unit has visibly and statistically improved as the season went on, giving up 182 in the 13 games since, a colossal reduction of 18 points per game.
Going into last weekend, the biggest criticism of the Patriots’ defense was that they didn’t have a pass rush. They responded with eight sacks against an offensive line ranked in the top-five by PFF ahead of this season.
It was on offense, however, that the Pats were their clinical best. Tom Brady and company scored five touchdowns on five redzone visits and were an impressive 11-for-16 on third down, with the offensive line keeping a clean pocket for Brady and ensuring no sacks. However, it wasn’t on the stat sheet that New England really impressed, it was the look and feel of the offense with a lot of spread formations and a hurry-up offense that harked back to the Wes Welker and Randy Moss days.
Expect to see no huddle offense play a major role in their game plan against a Jacksonville defense that struggled with up-tempo play from the 49ers and Titans down the stretch. In an ideal world, the Jags defense can get set on every play and live up to their ‘Sacksonville’ billing. Afterall, as the Denver Broncos proved two seasons ago, Brady is at his most vulnerable when pressured in the pocket but, of his 35 completions against the Titans, 31 — you read that right — 31 went to his running backs, tight ends or his slot receiver Danny Amendola. How will Jacksonville have time to get to him?
On offense, things definitely clicked for the Jags against the Steelers — and the play design to get fullback Tommy Bohanon open on their final touchdown was a thing of beauty — but Blake Bortles was awful in the second and third quarters of that game and Leonard Fournette’s ankle injury is definitely something to keep an eye on.
The rookie running back could prove key as the Jags are 5-1 this season when he’s rushed for triple digits but have lost four of five when they haven’t passed 100 yards on the ground. It’s also worth remembering that the Patriots have given up an average of just 63 yards on the ground over their past three games — with LeSean McCoy and Derrick Henry playing in two of them.
The line opened with the Patriots as 10-point favourites but has already fallen to eight. New England are 10-0 against AFC South teams in Gillette Stadium in the Brady/Belichick era and I fully expect them to make that 11 and cover the spread this weekend. The points total is 46.5 which is a bit rich for my liking, so I’ll be taking the under.
Minnesota Vikings @ Philadelphia Eagles – Sunday, 11.40pm
I’ll be absolutely honest. As the Vikings lined up on third-and-10 from their own 39-yard line against the New Orleans Saints in the early hours of last Monday morning, I’d written off my bet on them to win the Super Bowl from and wondered how I’d face the colleagues I had convinced to follow suit, virtually guaranteeing they’d be lifting the Vince Lombardi trophy. Thankfully, all our bets are still alive as Minnesota gets set for the Jeff Fisher Back-Up Quarterback Bowl, or the NFC Championship Game, whatever you want to call it.
Stefon Diggs’ heroics were the focus of most of the attention after the game, as was the Saints’ comeback led by future Hall of Famer, Drew Brees. What wasn’t really touched upon was that the game changed on two plays, the first of which saw Minnesota free safety Andrew Sendejo — who had a spectacular pick earlier — leave the game with a head injury and not return. Soon after, All-Pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes was banged up and his performance suffered as a result. The health of both this week could prove very important.
Of the teams left in the playoffs, no quarterback was better protected than Case Keenum this season, taking a sack on just 4.87% of passing plays. Part of the reason he is able to remain upright so often is that he has so many great targets to aim at in Diggs and Adam Thielen, Jerick McKinnon out of the backfield and tight end Kyle Rudolph. Another reason was the offensive line, but the Vikings rejigged things on Sunday with Mike Remmers — a career right tackle — moving to left guard. His replacement at tackle, Rashod Hill, struggled all game giving up one sack, two hits and four hurries on 49 snaps. Against the Eagles’ pass rush, he — and the whole offensive line — will need to find their regular season form.
That pass rush, of course, is driven by Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham who totaled a sack, three hurries and a quarterback hit between them against the Falcons as Atlanta were limited to just 10 points — all of which came off two giveaways by Philly. And it’s not like they were selling out to the passing game either as the pair accounted for seven run stops in the game too.
Another player who quietly impressed for the Eagles on Saturday, but on the other side of the football, was Jay Ajayi. Since his move from Miami in week eight, the London-born running back has averaged over six yards per carry. Yes, he fumbled on his first run against Atlanta, but his 32-yard reception was one of the game’s defining plays and he finished just short of 100 total yards. He plays a crucial role in drawing in defenders to make the Eagles’ Run Pass Option offense work, helping to create separation for the likes of Alshon Jeffery who had 61 yards on four receptions last week.
These teams are incredibly close but the Vikings are three-point favourites despite having to leave the comforts of their dome to travel to the City of Brotherly Love.
However, I’m still backing Minnesota to win the Super Bowl so I think they’ll get the job done here and cover. Even at 38.5, however, I’m taking the under given the quality of defense on show.