Divisional Judgements: Finally, Vikes have their own Hail Mary
It took over four decades, but finally ... mercifully ... the Minnesota Vikings have their own Hail Mary. And you know what? It was worth the wait.
Yes, 42 years and three weeks after Drew Pearson and the Dallas Cowboys victimized the Vikes in the divisional round of the 1975 playoffs, the Hail Mary somehow ... some way ... worked its way back to Minneapolis to send Minnesota -- yes, Minnesota -- to the NFC championship game in the most improbable of endings.
But that's how it goes with the Vikings. Nothing is ever easy.
There was Pearson beating them on a 50-yard catch with 24 seconds left -- the original "Hail Mary" -- in December, 1975. There was Gary Anderson missing his only field goal of the season in the 1998 conference championship heartbreaker. And Brett Favre throwing what he later called "the worst pass of my career" in the 2009 conference championship loss to New Orleans. And the Blair Walsh shank in the 2015 playoff loss to Seattle.
I think you get the idea. Heartbreak is a way of life for Minnesota in the playoffs.
Until Sunday, that is. Because nothing ... absolutely nothing ... in Vikings' history compares to Stefon Diggs' 61-yard touchdown catch on the last play of Minnesota's 29-24 defeat of New Orleans -- the first-ever walk-off fourth-quarter TD in NFL playoff history. And all I can say is ... it's about time. With what those fans have gone through .... and with all coach Mike Zimmer had been through (10 straight playoff losses as a head coach and assistant) ... the Vikings were due.
Or overdue. Hail Mary? No, Hail, Stefon!
MORRALL VS. HOSTETLER?
So whom do you trust: Earl Morrall or Jeff Hostetler?
Excuse me ... what? You heard me: Morrall or Hostetler? And let me explain.
Earl Morrall was a backup quarterback who led the 1968 Colts and 1972 Dolphins to Super Bowls, and Hostetler was a backup who led the 1990 Giants to a Super Bowl. So what? So Minnesota's Case Keenum is Morrall, taking over for the injured Sam Bradford and winning 12 of 15 starts -- including Sunday's NFC divisional round game vs. New Orleans. And Philadelphia's Nick Foles? He's Jeff Hostetler, who, like Foles, had to step in for an injured starter (Phil Simms) in December.
Now it's Keenum vs. Foles, and whom do you have? Oddsmakers like Keenum because they like defense, and, yep, defense travels. But they also like momentum, and after what happened Sunday, nobody has more than the Vikings.
But there are a couple of speed bumps for Minnesota to conquer in Philadelphia, and both have to do with history: 1) No team playing in a city hosting a Super Bowl has ever played that game in its stadium and 2) no indoor team has won a conference championship game outdoors.
So whom do you trust? The clock is ticking.
LAST OF THE SUPER QBS: IT'S BRADY, OF COURSE
So much for playoff experience.
There were disparities at quarterback in every playoff game this weekend -- with Super Bowl stars vs. guys with a combined one start of postseason experience. So what happened? Only one Super Bowl quarterback won ... and for all those who guessed it was Tom Brady, let me introduce you to Capt. Obvious.
The inescapable conclusion, then, is that maybe, just maybe, experience is ... overrated? Not so fast, people. The one veteran QB left has Blake Bortles, Nick Foles and Case Keenum standing between him and a sixth Lombardi Trophy. Sorry, but I've seen this movie too often not to know how it ends.
THE PATRIOTS' WAY ... AGAIN
I give up. I guess this is just how New England drew it up.
No Baltimore. No Kansas City. No Pittsburgh. And now ... Jacksonville? You can't make this stuff up.
I know, the Jags were the NFL's only defense to rank in the top three in scoring (second), total yardage (second) and takeaways (second), and I know they set a franchise record with an NFL-best seven defensive touchdowns, too.
I don't care.
They're going to New England where Tom Brady is 18-3 in the playoffs and where he's not only never lost to the Jaguars but has 14 touchdowns and zero interceptions in five games vs. the Jags, including two in the playoffs. Plus, he's never lost ... period ... to Jacksonville, with 17 TDs and two picks.
But there's more. Since 2001 ... or since Brady took over ... the Patriots played five conference championship games in Gillette Stadium as the No. 1 seed. They never lost. Their only defeat as a No. 1 seed was a 2010 divisional round game to the Jets. Plus, dating back to 2001, they're 106-2 in all games at home when leading at the half.
Then, of course, there's this: Twice in the past four weeks, Jacksonville has been shredded for 42 or more points -- including a 44-33 loss last month to Brady's former understudy, Jimmy Garoppolo, and the San Francisco 49ers.
But, in the end, it may just be this simple: It's Tom Brady vs. Blake Bortles, and stop there. Check, please.
- You know why they say defenses win championships? Because they do. Three of this season's top four defensive teams (Minnesota, Jacksonville and Philadelphia) and four of its top five in scoring defense are in conference championship games.
- How fitting: The quarterbacks for the 2015 St. Louis Rams play for the NFC championship.
- How fitting, Take II: Drew Brees done in ... again ... by the Saints' defense. For the record, the last two go-ahead touchdown passes in the final minute of a playoff game? Uh-huh, both at the expense of the Saints.
- Tell me that Marcus Williams gaffe didn't remind you of Rahim Moore vs. Baltimore in the 2012 playoffs. All Williams had to do was make the play, and the game was over. Troy Aikman is right: This isn't going to haunt him merely all offseason; it will haunt him the rest of his career.
- If/when New England reaches Super Bowl LII, these are the QBs it will have conquered the past month: Tyrod Taylor, Bryce Petty, Marcus Mariota and Blake Bortles.
- In case you were wondering ... Brady is a combined 15-1 vs. Philadelphia, Minnesota and Jacksonville, including the playoffs, with 38 TDs and 5 interceptions. His lone loss was to the Eagles. in 2015.
- History and the oddsmakers are on New England's side (Pats are a 9-point favorite), and here's why: The No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs went to the last four Super Bowls. Better yet, it also won them.
- Three of the NFC's last four No. 1 playoff seeds went, too, but only the 2013 Seahawks won.
- Attention, Doug Pederson: Don't let your team get down by 10 next week. Reason: Since 2015, Minnesota has had leads of 10 or more points in 29 games. They won all 29, though it took divine intervention Sunday.
- You gotta hand it to Case Keenum. He completed one pass of 20 or more yards downfield in the fourth quarter during the regular season. He completed three Sunday, including the game-winner.
- Just a suggestion, but the Steelers should add the quarterback sneak to their playbook next season. Maybe then they convert a fourth-and-1.
- And here's what I don't get about that: Ben Roethlisberger is 18 of 19 on fourth-and-1 runs in his career, which is astounding. But he hasn't tried one since 2014. One question: Why?
- One thing I'm sure of: When it's fourth-and-1, Tom Brady will know what a quarterback sneak looks like.
- Yeah, Blake Bortles made some big second half-throws, but let's not get carried away. This is the guy who only a week earlier threw for 87 yards -- including 33 in the first half -- and put up 10 points at home vs. Buffalo. He doesn't get a pass on his career because of one game.
- ICYMI: Jacksonville won as many playoff games the past two weeks as Dallas has the past two decades.
- Just a hunch, but if Coach-of-the-Year voting were held today, Doug Marrone would be the landslide winner.
- New England 1, ESPN 0.
- Titans' safety Kevin Byard was right. Tom Brady didn't try him over the middle. He tried him everywhere else. When will guys learn that talking trash about Brady is never a good idea?
- Memo to Mike Mitchell: You won't play the Patriots in hell ... you won't play them in Haiti ... and you won't play them in New England. I guess what I'm saying is: Before you guarantee a win over the Patriots you first have to play them.
- Not long after Jacksonville players rightly criticized the Steelers for looking ahead to New England and not taking them seriously, cornerback Jalen Ramsey guaranteed a Super Bowl win. I'm serious. You can't make this stuff up. Hey, Jalen, talk to Mike Mitchell. You can't win if you're not there.
- Biggest number put up by Bortles: Zero, as in turnovers. When that happens, the Jaguars are 10-0.
- Don't tell me coaching doesn't matter in the NFL. Anyone who followed the play-calling for Atlanta and Pittsburgh knows better.
- First offseason move by New Orleans: Firing the guy who tells Sean Payton to challenge calls.
- I can't wait for the next talking head to call Sunday's New Orleans-Minnesota "the greatest ever." Because that's the age we live in. Yes, it was one of them, I'll grant you that. But how do you beat the Immaculate Reception? Answer: You don't.
- Yes, as a matter of fact, I do think the Patriots' reaching seven straight conference championship games trumps Buffalo's four straight Super Bowls ... especially in a salary-cap era.
NFL. Three of the weekend's four playoff games were decided by five or fewer points -- including one of the best finishes ever. Going to be a tough week for NFL doomsayers to get an audience.
JACKSONVILLE QB BLAKE BORTLES. By quarterbacking the Jags to the conference championship game, he all but guarantees the Jags pick up his $19 million option.
MINNESOTA QB CASE KEENUM. There's a big payday ahead for him, too, and it should be with the Vikings. How can you not keep him after what he's done?
MINNESOTA OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR PAT SHURMUR. He's going to be a head coach somewhere next year -- Arizona, the Giants? -- and his price just went up.
JAGS' RB LEONARD FOURNETTE. Six players have scored five touchdowns rushing at Heinz Field in one season, including the playoffs. Fournette is the only non-Steeler ... one reason Jon Gruden called him "Leonard Score-nette."
NEW ENGLAND LB JAMES HARRISON. Suddenly, it's a lot better here than Pittsburgh.
SCREEN PASSES. Ben Roethlisberger threw 16 of them, the most in one game since ESPN started tracking them in 2009.
GRANDMA MILLIE. Happy 100th! You got your wish.
PHILADELPHIA QB NICK FOLES. He can get in line behind Bortles in the No Respect line. Guaranteed, you're going to hear a lot of that this week. Unfortunately.
STEELERS' DEFENSE. Once upon a time, they were the Steel Curtain, but on Sunday they looked more like a Shower Curtain -- surrendering four touchdown drives of 61 or more yards each, eight of 14 third-down conversions and five Red Zone touchdowns ... to Jacksonville. People questioned why Mike Tomlin tried that onside kick with two minutes and two TOs left. This is why. He didn't trust his defense, and can you blame him? The Jags ran 61 plays, and only one went for a loss.
CBS. Instead of Pittsburgh and New England again, it gets Jacksonville.
THE FADE. I just wish coordinators would forget this call. Period.
FALCONS' OWNER ARTHUR BLANK. Maybe it's not such a good idea to be on the field in the fourth quarter of a playoff game.
NEW ORLEANS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR DENNIS ALLEN. He's a candidate for Assistant Coach of the Year, and for good reason: He returned respectability to the Saints' defense. But what was with that last call? How do you allow someone to get behind your DBs? And how long do you think that's going to haunt him and the franchise?
FALCONS' OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR STEVE SARKISIAN. He took the league's highest-scoring offense in 2016 and just put up 10 points. Horrible.