NFL 2017-18 Divisional Weekend

Divisional Game Balls

Offense — Stefon Diggs, WR, Minnesota Vikings. If you didn't fall out of your seat on his game-winning, get-tackled-and-your-season-is-over, tightrope catch on the sideline followed by a sprint to the end zone, I don't know why you watch sports. Diggs finished with 131 yards and the most important TD of the entire season so far.

Defense — Fletcher Cox, DL, Philadelphia Eagles. Five solo tackles and a sack. He was incredibly disruptive in the Falcons' backfield.

Special Teams — Kai Forbath, K, Minnesota Vikings. Hit two field goals of at least 49 yards, including a lead-changing 53-yard kick with 1:29 remaining.

Honorable Mentions — WR Antonio Brown, ER Trey Flowers, (tie) Taysom Hill and George Johnson

Five Quick Hits

* Another round of applause to Bills fans, who have now donated over $350,000 to Andy Dalton's charity.

* Why do all the TV networks use the wrong angle on kickoff returns? They start off field-level from the opposite end zone, which is the worst seat in the house. This isn't hard to get right.

* Jags/Steelers was by far the worst game I've ever heard from Ian Eagle as an announcer. He had bad ideas from start to finish, but thinking you need to bounce an onside kick off the opponent stood out.

* So did calling Jacksonville's win "the upset of the playoffs." Does Eagle not know that the Titans beat the Chiefs in Kansas City last week? The Jags went 10-6, outscored their opponents by 149 points, and dominated the Steelers earlier in the season, winning 30-9 in Pittsburgh.

* The Saints lost four of their last eight games.

Divisional Roundups

Philadelphia Eagles 15, Atlanta Falcons 10

The media loves Carson Wentz, so after his injury, Wentz's bobble-headed cheerleaders buried the Eagles' season. The Eagles have a top-five defense, a top-five offensive line, the third-ranked ground game in the NFL, a Pro Bowl tight end, and capable rushers and receivers. Expecting them to fall apart without Wentz was always an unrealistic fantasy. Don't misunderstand: I think Wentz is a good player, and I think the Eagles would be more likely to win next week if he were playing, but the notion that he's more valuable than, say, Fletcher Cox — that has always seemed silly to me.

Against Atlanta, the Eagles overcame a slow start by Nick Foles, exacerbated by an early turnover and terrible special teams. That Philadelphia was -2 in turnovers and still won speaks very highly of the team's talent and resolve, especially on defense. The Falcons gained just 281 yards, and their only touchdown was an 18-yard drive set up by a muffed punt. Their defense was fine — you don't blame the defense when you lose 15-10 — but struggled to stop Jay Ajayi in the first half and failed to make Foles uncomfortable in the second half.

New England Patriots 35, Tennessee Titans 14

A dull game whose outcome was obvious early, the only game this weekend without a dramatic finish. The Patriots outclassed Tennessee on offense (438 yards, 31 first downs) and defense (8 sacks), and the game wasn't as close as the stats or score imply, because the Titans had a meaningless 80-yard TD drive in garbage time.

Since there's not much to analyze about the game, here's a history lesson for Tony Romo. Late in the game, Romo — a breath of fresh air whom I named the best NFL announcer of 2017 — praised Patriots owner Robert Kraft for hiring Bill Belichick when no one else wanted him. Uh, that couldn't be more wrong. The Jets not only wanted Belichick, they thought they had him, and were furious when he defected to the Patriots.

Belichick's decision even created a nasty rift between the Hoodie and his mentor, Bill Parcells, who had been certain that Belichick would succeed him in New York. Belichick was considered the most desirable head coaching hire in the NFL, and while Kraft won the sweepstakes, he was hardly trail-blazing or making a bold decision. The only really bold coaching hire of the last 20 years, apart from the obvious failures, was the Steelers' decision in 2007 to bypass Ken Whisenhunt, Russ Grimm, and Dick LeBeau, instead choosing a virtual unknown named Mike Tomlin.

Jacksonville Jaguars 45, Pittsburgh Steelers 42

An offensive coach's dream, a defensive coach's nightmare. With two of the best defensive teams in the league matching up — in 18° temperatures, no less — we got the fourth-highest scoring playoff game in NFL history. The projected total out of Vegas was 41 points; both teams scored more than that. The Steelers gained 545 yards and 28 first downs, season-highs against a defense that allowed an average of 286 yards and 16 first downs. The Jaguars scored 45, more than the Steelers had allowed in over four years. The teams combined to go 15/30 on third down conversions, and 5/7 on fourth downs. One week after the Jaguars were held to 230 yards and 10 points by Buffalo's middle-of-the-road defense, they torched Pittsburgh for 378 yards and 45 points.

Turnovers proved the difference; Jacksonville avoided any turnovers, while the Steelers had: an interception that set up an 18-yard TD drive, a fumble returned for a touchdown, and two turnovers on downs. Absent those four plays, the Steelers probably win by double-digits. Pittsburgh wasn't helped by shockingly poor clock management — do they not know that going out of bounds stops the clock? — and Chris Boswell's pathetic onside kicks. The Jaguars flashed the kind of offense they'll need to compete in New England, but also gave up nine plays of 20 yards or more, including 43-yard and 36-yard TDs on fourth down.

Minnesota Vikings 29, New Orleans Saints 24

One of the wildest, most exciting finishes in NFL history, to say nothing of postseason history. There were four lead changes in the final 3:01, and Stefon Diggs' 61-yard TD marked the first time in NFL playoff history with a game-winning touchdown as time expired in the fourth quarter. While the conclusion was 100% instant classic, I don't know if this was a great game overall. The Vikings led 17-0 with 17 minutes left in the game. Twenty years from now, if you want to watch a great playoff game and you choose this one, it might be more interesting to skip the first 43 minutes.

Last week, I wrote that the Saints' offense "has too many weapons to shut down." While that was true in the late second half, Minnesota successfully shut down the Saints' ground game, intercepted Drew Brees twice, and held New Orleans to 2/9 on third downs. Andrew Sendejo's injury at 1:28 of the third quarter was a turning point; the Saints had still been held scoreless to that point.

The Saints' comeback was facilitated by Minnesota punter Ryan Quigley's bad day, which included his only touchback of the season and his only block of the season. New Orleans was on the wrong side of some questionable officiating in the first half, including a pass interference flag that Mike Pereira called "a 34-yard mistake." I agree with Pereira that pass interference should be capped at 15 yards.

The frantic finish saw the Saints score their first points with 1:18 remaining in the third quarter, intercept Case Keenum on the next play from scrimmage, and then score again three minutes later, making it 17-14 Vikings. The next big play was Quigley's blocked punt with 5:28 remaining, which set up a go-ahead TD for the Saints four plays later: 21-20 with 3:01 remaining. Minnesota's Kai Forbath retook the lead with a 53-yard field goal with 1:34 on the clock, but the Saints converted a 4th-and-10 with :45 remaining and Wil Lutz gave them a 24-23 lead with just :25 left in the game.

The Vikings began with a false start on which center Pat Elflein failed to snap the ball. Then Keenum hit Diggs for 19 yards and Minnesota used its last timeout. Two more incomplete passes ran the clock to :10. On 3rd-and-10 from his own 39-yard line, Keenum threw from the pocket and found Diggs on the right sideline, where he kept his balance to stay in bounds, turned and saw no one in front of him, then sprinted down the sideline for the game-winning touchdown as time expired. It was a thrilling play, but I have to imagine Saints fans are livid that their defense allowed Diggs an open path to the end zone. Regardless, it was high drama, and the reason that people love football.

Conference Championship Forecasts

This year's final four features quarterbacks Tom Brady, Blake Bortles, Nick Foles, and Case Keenum. If you gave me 1,000 guesses in August, I don't think I would have come up with that combination.

Jacksonville Jaguars @ New England Patriots

The Jaguars are 9-point underdogs. While that seems excessive to me, there are good reasons to be skeptical of Jacksonville. Let's start with the weird one: the even-week curse. In Weeks 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, and 17, the Jags went 8-1 and outscored their opponents by double-digits in all eight wins. In even-numbered weeks they went 2-5 and got outscored by almost a touchdown per game. This trend continued into the playoffs: in the wild card round — which is essentially Week 18 — the Jags struggled to eke out a win over the Bills, while in Week 19, they traveled to Pittsburgh and hung a sweep on the Steelers. Next Sunday is Week 20.

Maybe there's something to that, and maybe it's mumbo-jumbo, but either way, it illustrates that the Jaguars have been incredibly inconsistent this season. This will be their second cold-weather road game in a row, while the Patriots are coming off an actual bye and a virtual bye in their walkover against Tennessee. All the intangibles favor New England. They were the better team in the regular season, the Jags are 5-4 on the road, the Pats are rested, they have experience, they have the best coaching staff in the league, and they have Tom Brady instead of Blake Bortles. The Patriots win by a touchdown, but it's more comfortable than the score implies.

Minnesota Vikings @ Philadelphia Eagles

Aargh — this one feels like a coinflip to me. I've liked the Eagles since early October. They were the top team in my power rankings for six weeks in a row, and I repeatedly defended their greatness after the injury to Carson Wentz. But Minnesota was my top-ranked team the last three weeks of the regular season and my NFC Super Bowl pick following Week 17. The Vikings are the 8th team, since the NFL switched to the current eight-division format, to lead the league in fewest points allowed and fewest yards allowed. Three of the previous seven won the Super Bowl ('02 Bucs, '08 Steelers, '13 Seahawks).

The Eagles played better this weekend than the Vikings did. Nick Foles was just as effective as Case Keenum, and Philadelphia's defense outplayed Minnesota's. Judging by that, and the game held in Philly, you'd pick the Eagles. However, the Vikings have won four in a row — three of them blowouts and the third a victory over a very good Saints team — and 12 of their last 13. The Eagles with Foles are 3-1 and all their wins were close; they lost twice in December. The Foles-led Eagles scored 19 against the Raiders, 6 against the Cowboys, and 15 against the Falcons; how will they score against the league's best defense?

Whichever team you want to pick, there are sound reasons. My gut says Philadelphia, but I'm going with my head: the Vikings win another nail-biter, 16-13, and proceed to a homefield Super Bowl.

* * *

Finally, a Sports Central tradition, our annual All-Loser Team: an all-star team made up entirely of players whose teams missed the postseason. If this team could actually be assembled, it would beat any and every team in the playoffs.

2017 NFL All-Loser Team

QB Philip Rivers, LAC
RB Melvin Gordon, LAC
WR DeAndre Hopkins, HOU
WR Keenan Allen, LAC
WR Larry Fitzgerald, ARI
TE Hunter Henry, LAC
C Travis Frederick, DAL
G Kelechi Osemele, OAK
G Zack Martin, DAL
OT David Bakhtiari, GB
OT Joe Staley, SF

DL Damon Harrison, NYG
DL Geno Atkins, CIN
DL Demarcus Lawrence, DAL
LB Von Miller, DEN
LB Bobby Wagner, SEA
LB C.J. Mosley, BAL
CB Casey Hayward, LAC
CB Darius Slay, DET
CB Patrick Peterson, ARI
S Eric Weddle, BAL
S Reshad Jones, MIA

K Justin Tucker, BAL
P Rigoberto Sanchez, IND
KR Tyler Lockett, SEA
PR Jamal Agnew, DET

Offensive Loser of the Year: DeAndre Hopkins, HOU
Defensive Loser of the Year: Bobby Wagner, SEA
Most Valuable Loser: Philip Rivers, LAC
Loser Coach: Anthony Lynn, LAC

Our actual 2017 NFL All-Pro Team was published two weeks ago, along with awards including MVP, Coach of the Year, and Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year.

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