Every week this NFL season, we will celebrate the electric plays, admonish the colossal blunders, and explain the inexplicable moments of the most recent slate. Welcome to the conference-championships edition of Winners and Losers. Which one are you?
Winner: Postseason Hero Nick Foles
Nick Foles status: IT, BABY.
Foles was supposed to be a weakness for the Eagles, a pebble attempting to fill a Carson Wentz–size hole. Instead, he was a dominant force for Philadelphia on Sunday as the team coasted to a Super Bowl appearance with a 38-7 win over the Vikings. There are Foles highlight reels:
Here’s Foles staying alive in the pocket for an eon, escaping the grasp of a Vikings defender, and uncorking a bomb to a wide-open Alshon Jeffery:
Foles was literally perfect in the second half:
Nick Foles in the second half: 11-of-11, 159 yards, 2 TD, perfect passer rating (158.3), perfect QBR (99.9)— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) January 22, 2018
Foles went 26-for-33 for 352 yards with three touchdowns. In terms of passer rating, that ties the best postseason performance of Tom Brady’s career. It was the best passing game the Eagles had this year—Carson Wentz never had more than 348 passing yards this season—and the worst defensive game the Vikings had this season—they hadn’t allowed more than 328 passing yards in a game.
What the hell got into Foles? He threw more interceptions than touchdowns in 2015! He was cut by Jeff Fisher! And he’ll be starting in the Super Bowl. Never believe the people who tell you what you can’t do, even if the haters provide a lengthy list of accurate reasons it would be unlikely for you to be able to do the thing you’re trying to do.
Foles winning the Super Bowl would be perhaps the second-best story in NFL history. I say that because the best story would be Nick Foles winning the Super Bowl and then coming to training camp as the Eagles’ backup next year.
Loser: Anything New Happening
We were so close. We were so close to something new or interesting happening. The Jacksonville Jaguars had a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter of the AFC championship game against the New England Patriots. They had the ball. Blake Bortles was playing great. The Jaguars were a few minutes from making the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history.
Another touchdown, they win the game, and we get a team besides the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Another defensive stop, they win the game, and we get a team besides the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Maybe they could have gotten the job done without scoring, if they’d just managed to eat some clock. Instead, their three drives after getting the ball up 10 in the fourth quarter went a combined 30 yards and took less than five minutes off the clock. The Patriots scored two touchdowns. The Patriots won.
It was an incredible comeback win by the Patriots, the greatest dynasty in football history, coached by the greatest coach in football history, led by the greatest quarterback in football history. We will lump it in with all the other incredible comeback wins in critical games the Patriots have played. A win here would have been the greatest moment in Jaguars history. Meanwhile, here’s Bill Belichick accepting the AFC championship trophy yet again:
Bill Belichick’s utter contempt for the AFC Championship trophy remains legendary pic.twitter.com/9TDv96qxde— Jason Schwartz (@JasonSchwartz) January 21, 2018
He’d rather be watching film.
I truly believed that something new might happen. It never will. We must all accept the spectacular tedium of the Patriots’ permanent greatness.
Winner: Patriots Conspiracy Theorists
There are two types of NFL fans: ones who believe the NFL is rigged to prevent the New England Patriots from succeeding, because of stuff like this—note, all of these people are New England Patriots fans—and those who believe the NFL rigs things to ensure the success of the New England Patriots, because of stuff like this.
Sunday was a great day for both parties: the first group because the Patriots won, the second group because the Patriots seemed to get the benefit of questionable officiating.
The Patriots’ first touchdown came as a result of officials calling a pass interference penalty on A.J. Bouye essentially for playing good defense:
This coverage was so dominant that they basically threw a pity flag for Cooks. Crushed off the field pic.twitter.com/SC3PbW3hco— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) January 21, 2018
In total, the Jaguars received six penalties for 98 yards. The Patriots got just one.
The Patriots were called for 1 penalty against the Jaguars— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) January 21, 2018
It is the fewest penalties called on one team in a playoff game since the 2011 AFC Championship... when the Patriots were called for 1 penalty in a win over the Ravens
Shout-out to whichever NFL social media person pulled the trigger on this tweet, fueling already widespread distrust in NFL officiating.
Somewhere in a Philadelphia city office this past week, public officials had a discussion about how to deal with the potential fan reaction to the Eagles’ appearance in the NFC championship game. Streets would have to be closed; overtime pay would have to be approved for cops; stuff like that. And at some point in this conversation, one official said to another, “Hey, we should lube up the streetlamps.”
Good morning from Philly where crews from the city are greasing the light poles with Crisco to prevent #Eagles fans from climbing after the #NFCChampionshipGame tonight. #Vikings pregame coverage starts at 3 on FOX9. They call themselves the #CriscoCops pic.twitter.com/w1ZkYWZhYG— FOX 9 Sports (@Fox9Sports) January 21, 2018
I don’t know if this was meant for an Eagles victory or an Eagles loss. But they have done this before, even though Philadelphia is home to a greased-pole climbing competition and therefore this was completely futile. And after Philly won, fans got up on those poles.
A grease pole was conquered, if only for a few seconds. pic.twitter.com/MNnK7VXaCj— Dan McQuade (@dhm) January 22, 2018
Fast-forward a week and a half. Somewhere in a Philadelphia city office, public officials will be discussing how to deal with the potential fan reaction to the Eagles’ appearance in the Super Bowl. One official will have to say to another, “Hey, we need to find a more effective streetlamp lube.”
Four teams played in Sunday’s conference championship games, and three successfully executed flea-flickers. Here’s Jacksonville’s, a screwed-up mess that led to Blake Bortles finding Allen Hurns for a 15-yard gain:
Here’s New England’s, a 31-yard strike to Phillip Dorsett:
And here’s Philadelphia’s, a 41-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith:
All in all, flea-flickers were 3-for-3 for 87 yards, a solid 29 yards per attempt. We think of a flea-flicker as a trick play, but clearly it’s a critical component of a championship-level offense. (Never mind that these three completions featured two tightly contested catches and one Blake Bortles scramble.) What is a flea-flicker if not the original run-pass option?
Loser: The Jaguars’ Coaching Staff
There is no good way for a team’s season to end, but the best way is to feel your team did everything it could to win, exhausting every possibility. The Jaguars almost did that, playing their hearts out as underdogs to give the greatest dynasty in NFL history a serious scare. But there was one opportunity they left on the field.
With 55 seconds left in the first half, the Patriots scored their first touchdown of the game to cut Jacksonville’s lead to 14-10, leaving the Jaguars 55 seconds to try to score. But Jacksonville opted to not try: The Jaguars chose not to return the kick, took the touchback, then kneeled twice to allow the clock to run out on the first half.
It was the first time any team had done that in the first half with so much time remaining all season:
The Jaguars decided to kneel with 55 seconds remaining in the first half and 2 timeouts.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 21, 2018
No team had taken a knee with over 50 seconds remaining in the first half this season.
Jacksonville seemed to be operating under the assumption that running its offense would have given the Patriots a better chance of scoring than the Jaguars. This isn’t true. Here are the results of every drive this season in which a team got the ball with a minute or less remaining in the first half inside its own 25-yard line. In this scenario, teams were significantly more likely to score or attempt a field goal (23 drives) than they were to commit a turnover (five drives), and those numbers include teams that started with less time and worse field position than the Jaguars.
You’re the Jaguars. They’re the Patriots. When a team is a touchdown underdog in the biggest game of the year, it needs to take risks, and to be honest, this wasn’t even a risk. It was just the simple belief that a team that made it to within a game of the Super Bowl might be able to run its offense without giving the opposition points. Not even attempting to score in this situation was coaching cowardice, and the many courageous players on the Jaguars deserved better.
Loser: Everybody Who Tried to Film Tom Brady’s Hand
Because Tom Brady didn’t want to tell anybody whether his hand was injured or not all week—spoiler alert: It was fine—the AFC championship pregame mainly consisted of attempts to discern whether or not his hand was horribly mangled. We even got analysis of his stadium entrance—he broke from his usual habit of carrying a briefcase:
As we got closer to kickoff, bold journalists attempted to get a glimpse of the quarterback’s hand. He did not appreciate this, cussing out a cameraman trying to film him as he took the field:
Tom Brady: "Get the fuck out the way!" pic.twitter.com/1Hv61zM1tO— Clay Wendler (@ClayWendler) January 21, 2018
And before kickoff, Brady cussed out another cameraman trying to film him:
I imagine that at some point in his two decades of playing professional football, Brady would have gotten used to the premise of people filming him before games, and perhaps even during them. But the key to greatness is remaining permanently aggrieved with everybody who crosses your path, including the poor cameramen trying to find answers to the questions Brady wouldn’t answer himself.
Winner: Tom Brady’s Hand
The upside of the Brady hand mystery? Since nobody has really seen his injury, it becomes the stuff of legend.
Earlier this week, some reported that Brady had had three stitches.
Said it at 6:10 this morning, two sources told me Brady needed three stitches on his right hand. X-Rays were negative, however.— Kirk Minihane (@kirkmin) January 19, 2018
Wait: four stitches.
Felger on Brady injury:— James Stewart (@IAmJamesStewart) January 19, 2018
“No fracture. No ligament. Just a cut from hitting the buckle on someone’s helmet. Four stitches around the knuckle, should not affect him.
Before the game: 10 stitches.
First confirmation of what the worry always was: an inside out cut where thumb was bent extremely out of place.— David J. Chao, MD (@ProFootballDoc) January 21, 2018
The laceration (even with report of 10 stitches was never the big deal.
Thumb ligament sprain could be as that could affect grip. https://t.co/OnF8ff7TyX
And after Tom Brady pulled off the win? TWELVE STITCHES.
To add to the Tom Brady legacy: Four days before leading the Patriots to their eighth Super Bowl in 16 seasons, No. 12 got 12 stitches beneath his right thumb, per league sources.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 22, 2018
THAT’S HIS NUMBER!
Brady refused to reveal the number of stitches, so this will be the stuff of legend. Tom Brady won the AFC championship game at age 40 with 40 stitches keeping his thumb from falling off.