And then there were four.
The Divisional weekend saw a slate of three thrillers, one of which may have been the best game of the season, as well as one blowout. Each remaining team is just one win away from Super Bowl 52 and will have a chance to seize glory this Sunday.
The Saints and Vikings game in Minnesota appeared to be one of the biggest letdowns throughout the first three quarters. The Vikings were having their way with Drew Brees and the New Orleans offense, keeping them off the scoreboard until the final minutes of the third.
Minnesota was in control, like they have been all season. Quarterback Case Keenum capitalized with three scores in the opening half to put the Vikings on top 17-0. Brees finally answered to culminate a long drive with a touchdown to Michael Thomas.
Up 17-7 in the fourth, Keenum finally made a dire mistake. New Orleans safety Marcus Williams watched the quarterback loft a ball right to him for an interception. Just like that, the Saints were in business.
Brees would find Thomas again down near the goal line for a touchdown, his second in five minutes, and the Vikings’ lead was cut to 3. Keenum and the offense could’ve faltered, but went right back to work and extended the lead to 6 with a field goal.
The Saints and Vikings would essentially take turns winning and losing the game for the remainder of the fourth. Brees led another tremendous drive that culminated in a touchdown pass to star rookie Alvin Kamara. New Orleans had their first lead of the night, 21-20.
With plenty of time left, it was time for Keenum to put up or shut up. He got the Vikings in long field goal range thanks in large part to a miraculous catch by Minnesota native Adam Thielen. Kicker Kai Forbath then nailed a 53-yard field goal to put the Vikings back on top, but there was still a minute and a half left.
Like clockwork or perhaps deja vu, Brees put the Saints right back in field goal range to win the game … or so he thought.
There were 25 seconds left in regulation when Keenum and the Vikings took the field again. This time, all hope was essentially lost. Minnesota was frantically trying to get in range to try another long field goal and win the game. They had to burn through their last timeouts, so the only hope was a big play along the sidelines.
On third and 10 with 10 ticks left on the clock, Keenum lofted a pass towards Stefon Diggs along the sidelines about 25 yards down the field. Marcus Williams, the same safety who provided New Orleans with a key turnover, came up behind Diggs as he tried to reel in the catch.
He was cautious, perhaps trying to avoid a killer pass interference call. Instead, he was too timid. Williams went low and Diggs went up high, and he ended up ducking below the receiver. Untouched, Diggs managed to catch the ball, stay in bounds, and run the remaining 30 yards to the end zone as time expired for one of the most improbable wins of all time.
One can’t help but admire Minnesota’s epic victory, but as much blame needs to be placed on the Saints. All they had to do was make one tackle in bounds and they’d advance to the NFC Championship. Instead, the Vikings are one step closer to hosting a Super Bowl on Feb. 4.
The Vikings will match up with the Eagles in Philadelphia for the NFL title game next week. The Eagles just held on to defeat the Atlanta Falcons 15-10 at home. All of Atlanta’s 10 points came in the first half.
The second half was a story of defense. Philadelphia’s Jake Elliot hit his second field goal in the fourth quarter, but they couldn’t seal the game with a touchdown. Matt Ryan had one more chance to keep his hopes at a second Super Bowl appearance alive.
Without star quarterback Carson Wentz, hardly anyone gave the Eagles a chance to beat the Falcons. They seemed to forget that, while it’s the most important, quarterback is not the only position on a football field. Philadelphia’s vaunted defense came up with a key stand in the final minutes of the game to hold on and advance. We will now have a chance to see two of the best defenses in the league go head-to-head in the conference championship.
No one gave the Jacksonville Jaguars a chance either. Despite dismantling the Steelers in week 5, the Steelers were favored by 8 points in the Divisional Round. The Steelers also seemed to be more focused on a potential rematch with New England next week than they were with the Divisional Round.
Remarkably, the Jaguars and their defensive oriented team would win the game 45-42. The Steelers boasted big plays from superstars Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant to keep them in the game.
Unsurprisingly, Jacksonville’s defense came up with a couple of big turnovers and a touchdown. However, it was their offense that turned heads. Blake Bortles led the way for the Jaguars and led two huge scoring drives in the fourth to keep Pittsburgh at bay. Rookie running back Leonard Fournette from LSU ran for more than 100 yards and scored three touchdowns.
While the Steelers are flashy on offense, their defense just wasn’t good enough to compete at the postseason level without star linebacker Ryan Shazier. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger already said this won’t be his last game, but it’s apparent that they have some work to do if they expect to contend for a championship next year.
So it will be Jacksonville, not Pittsburgh, who will try and give the New England Patriots a run for their money in next week’s AFC Championship.
The Patriots made it very clear that the Tennessee Titans didn’t belong on the field with them in the Divisional Round. The Titans led 7-0 after the first quarter, but Tom Brady and the Patriots posted 35 unanswered points to turn it into the laugher we all knew it would be. Brady will now compete in his NFL-record twelfth conference championship and his seventh straight.
New England stands alone as the only team most experts would have picked to make it to Championship Sunday at the beginning of the season. A Super Bowl win for New England would be their sixth as a franchise (all under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady), while a championship for any of the other three remaining teams would be their first in franchise history.
The AFC Championship will take place on Sunday at 2:05 in New England followed by the NFC Championship in Philadelphia at 5:40 (both central time).