The playoff field has whittled itself down from 12 teams to four: the Patriots, Jaguars, Eagles, and Vikings. Each squad has proved it’s among the best of the best of the 2017 season. These final four have all gotten to this point through varied strengths, styles, and philosophies, and we’ll find out soon enough which team ends up as the Super Bowl champs. For now, let’s take a look at how the remaining squads stack up in a few important categories—the Best of the Best of the Best, if you will.
Best Non-GOAT Quarterback
As The Ringer’s Robert Mays wrote on Tuesday, this year’s postseason is weird as hell from a quarterback perspective, with future Hall of Famer Tom Brady joined by, as Mays put it, “a 29-year-old journeyman who was recently benched by Jeff Fisher, a longtime backup who had a flash-in-the-pan run of success four years ago, and a top-three draft pick whose name has become a running punch line.” (In case you’re not tracking: The Vikings’ Case Keenum, the Eagles’ Nick Foles, and the Jaguars’ Blake Bortles, respectively.)
Keenum is easily the winner here. He’s been a revelation as an afterthought backup who signed with the Vikings on a one-year, $2 million deal back in March. He took over as starter for an injured Sam Bradford in Week 2, and Keenum (who’d amassed a career passer rating of 78.4 to that point) threw 22 touchdowns and just nine interceptions, led the Vikings to an 11-3 record in his 14 starts, and bumped his passer rating up to 98.7. He posted a career-best 67.6 completion percentage and efficiently distributed the ball to his playmakers. Meanwhile Bortles is a Jekyll and Hyde passer for the Jags, and the Eagles have had to drastically limit their offense under Foles, their Carson Wentz replacement.
Had Wentz not torn his ACL in Week 14, Philly’s formerly balanced offensive attack would’ve been in the running for the top spot in this category, but under Foles, they’ve reverted to a run-game-dependent, check-down scheme. As for where to rank Jacksonville and Minnesota relative to one another, it depends on how you look at it: The Jaguars finished fifth in scoring this year (26.1 points per game), and the Vikings finished 10th (23.9). But eliminate defensive scores and kick/punt return touchdowns (plus ensuing extra points) from both teams (the Jaguars scored seven defensive touchdowns and one punt return score, while the Vikings had just one non-offensive touchdown all year), and Minnesota comes out with a slight edge in offensive points scored (375 to 361, or 23.4 points per game to 22.6). The Vikings (fourth) finished well ahead of the Jags (16th) in offensive DVOA, but both teams averaged 5.4 yards per play (tied for 11th) and Jacksonville averaged more total yards (365.9 per game) than Minnesota (356.9).
To simplify it, the Vikings have a better passing game but the Jags are better on the ground. When Bortles isn’t actively Bortles-ing the Jags, these two squads are closer than you might think on offense, but Bortles Bortles’d it far too often, and Keenum was remarkably consistent—so Minnesota comes out in front.
It’s really no contest, though. New England ranked first on offense per Football Outsiders’ DVOA this year, and finished second in points per game (28.6), third in yards per play (5.9), third in yards per pass attempt (7.9), and had the second-fewest turnovers (12). The Patriots have far and away the best offense in this group.
With three of the NFL’s elite defenses still in play, this might be the most difficult category of all to judge. An underdog Eagles squad dispatched Atlanta in the divisional round with a dominant defensive performance. Philly held Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and the Falcons’ talent-packed offense to 10 points, including a decisive game-saving goal-line stand. It all starts up front for the Eagles, who boast an incredibly deep front seven; Fletcher Cox might be the best full-time defensive tackle not named Aaron Donald, and Timmy Jernigan’s no slouch at the nose tackle spot. With Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Derek Barnett, and Chris Long, this is a group that can get after the passer, and there’s plenty of talent at linebacker and in the secondary, too. Philadelphia finished the year fourth in points allowed (18.4) and fifth in defensive DVOA, but ranked second in weighted defensive DVOA, which accounts for how they played later in the season. Of course, they’re about to go up against a Vikings squad that finished first in the same category.
Minnesota’s defense quietly led the NFL in points allowed (15.8), tied for first in yards per play (4.6), was third in opponent passer rating (73.0), and finished second in defensive DVOA. Like the Eagles, they deploy a deep and talented front line, featuring pass rushers Everson Griffen (13 sacks), Danielle Hunter (seven sacks), and Brian Robison (four sacks), and Linval Joseph and Tom Johnson plugging up the middle. The Vikings feature playmakers at linebacker in Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, and a deep group of ballhawks in the secondary, including one of the best safeties in the game in Harrison Smith and a premier cover corner in Xavier Rhodes. In a word, this defense is dominant.
Then there’s the Jaguars, who field an aggressive, suffocating pass-defending unit. That group combines a terrifying array of pass rushers (Calais Campbell, Malik Jackson, Yannick Ngakoue, and Dante Fowler), sideline-to-sideline linebackers (Myles Jack and Telvin Smith), two quality safeties (Tashaun Gipson and Barry Church), and two of the stickiest shutdown cornerbacks (Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye) in the league. The team’s run defense has been average, and they did just surrender 42 points to Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers in their divisional-round shootout win. But Jacksonville has talent at every level of its defense, and more than just about any other group, the defense can take over a game with its ability to take the ball away. The Jags finished first in defensive DVOA, first in opponent passer rating (68.5), second in points allowed (16.8), second in takeaways (33), second in sacks (55), tied for first in yards per play allowed (4.6), and first, by a long shot, in adjusted yards per pass attempt (3.7).
Edge: Jaguars ... but just barely
Biggest Mismatch Problem
All four conference championship competitors have versatile offensive weapons at their disposal. The Jags have some talent in the passing game and Leonard Fournette’s a load to take down whenever he’s carrying the ball. The Eagles have a varied and multifaceted pass-catching crew, too, with an outside threat in Alshon Jeffery, a playmaker in the slot in Nelson Agholor, a trio of starter-quality tight ends in Zach Ertz, Brent Celek, and Trey Burton, and a pair of running backs in Corey Clement and Jay Ajayi, who both feature in the team’s passing game. The Vikings essentially have two no. 1 receivers in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, and Kyle Rudolph (eight touchdowns) is a big, reliable target up the seam and in the red zone. But none of those teams have a player like Rob Gronkowski.
Gronk is simultaneously the most dominant run-blocking tight end in the NFL and the best pass-catching tight end the game’s ever seen. There’s just about no answer for how to defend him: He’s too big for cornerbacks and safeties to match him in coverage, he’s too athletic for most linebackers, and he’s strong enough to set the edge in the run game against a defensive end. With the 6-foot-6, 265-pound mismatch nightmare out on the field, the Patriots can throw downfield or run the ball with equal aplomb, and he’s just as liable to go up in traffic and pull down a touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone as he is to seal off a defender at the point of attack and spring a long touchdown run.
Most Singular Defender
With so many top-tier defenders taking the field this weekend, this one isn’t easy, but there’s really no player in the entire league that looks and plays like Jaguars defensive end Calais Campbell. At 6-foot-8, he’s taller than most edge defenders, and at 300 pounds, heavier than a good amount of modern sub-package interior linemen. He’s stout against the run, and uses his long arms to keep offensive linemen at bay, and he’s damn near unstoppable as a pass rusher. He can play all across the line, and he’s too strong for offensive tackles and too quick for guards and centers, a combination that helped him rack up 14.5 sacks (tied for second in the league), 14 tackles for a loss (17th), 73 pressures (ninth), and three forced fumbles this year. Because of his unique size and skill set, Campbell’s one of the most disruptive players in the league.
I mean, it’s obviously Bill Belichick. But Doug Pederson, Mike Zimmer, and Doug Marrone all deserve plenty of credit for what they’ve done with their respective teams this season. Pederson’s innovative offense, which combines college-style run-pass option plays and pro-style elements, helped Wentz take a huge jump in his second year in the league, and a dumbed-down version of that scheme helped him keep the offense afloat under Foles. Meanwhile, not only has Zimmer turned the Vikings defense into an elite group, he helped guide the offense to a top-10 finish in scoring under the team’s backup quarterback this year (and really, you could consider Keenum a third-stringer if you’re counting Teddy Bridgewater). Then there’s Marrone, who’s helped change the identity and culture in Jacksonville. In his second year at the helm, he turned the Jags into a run-based, smashmouth team and finally managed to get the most out of the hundreds of millions of dollars the franchise invested into the defense.
Still, none can match the strategic cunning that Belichick has demonstrated for nearly two decades.
This is easily the stupidest category on here and yet, it’s probably the most hotly contested.
There’s no uniform more polarizing than that of the Jaguars, who … shall we say, took a unique approach in 2013 when they unveiled a two-tone helmet design, with matte black in the front fading to gold in the back. I actually kind of like the boldness there, but the fact the “gold” on the team’s official color palette looks closer to the worst uniform color in the world (mustard) eliminates them from this contest just on principal.
As for New England, if we were counting their throwback “Pat the Patriot” era uniforms, they might have come out on top here, especially the red jersey alternates the team sometimes wears. (The logo depicting a Revolutionary soldier lining up to hike the football is weird and awesome; second in absurdity to only Miami’s old, way-too-literal logo featuring a Dolphin wearing a football helmet.) But the team’s standard, everyday garb featuring the new Flying Elvis logo is just too boring. The Vikings get a slight edge over the Patriots because they’re the only team in the league whose helmet is actually modeled after a real-life helmet (it’d be cooler if they were allowed to wear real Viking horns, though apparently there’s no historical proof Vikings ever wore horns on their helmets). But overall, Minnesota’s uniforms are nothing to write home about either. That leaves the Eagles, and green is my favorite color. So, they win.
The Patriots unveiled their “#NotDone” slogan for the playoffs at the start of January, and, well, it’s just hard to imagine anyone really chanting that, or saying that ... or using that in any meaningful way. The Eagles are going with the old reliable #FlyEaglesFly, a motto born from the team’s fight song, which is fun and cool and people generally know about it. I’m a fan of the Jaguars’ #Sacksonville hashtag, a play on words that conjures up civic pride and captures the identity of the team quite well. But it’s hard to beat the Vikings’ #Skol slogan, or, as it’s commonly used, Skol Vikings. There’s a song. There’s a hand motion. It pays homage to the region’s Scandinavian heritage. It carries the metaphysical power to influence the outcome of games against those who mock it, apparently. And it makes me want to drink beer.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Keenum had improved his career passer rating to 98.7; that is his passer rating for the 2017 season.