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The Most Shocking In-Game Moments in NFL History

Plus: the Tom Brady thumb anxiety, the feeling of Vikings Super Bowl inevitability, and your championship-round NFL picks

A collage of NFL players including Malcolm Butler, Stefon Diggs, and David Tyree and Rodney Harrison Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As always, these are actual emails from actual readers. If you want to send me something for the next mailbag, send it to themailbag@theringer.com.

Q: I never thought I’d see a reaction as badass as José Bautista’s bat flip, but Stefon Diggs’s helmet toss was at least its equal. As for the most shocking development in an NFL playoff game, the Tyree play is still no. 1 in my book; Malcolm Butler is second (also taking the stakes into account); Diggs is third.
—Eddie

BS: I like the “most shocking development” angle. The formula looks like this …

(WTF) + (Nobody Saw It Coming) + (Will You Remember Exactly Where You Watched It 20 Years Later?) X (The Stakes) / (Did Any Mitigating Factors Over the Next Few Years Lessen the Shock?)

For instance, if the Browns had won a Super Bowl within a few years of Earnest Byner’s famous fumble that blew the 1987 AFC title game, that fumble would have transformed into a football nightmare with a “But …” That’s what happened to Aaron Boone’s home run that murdered the 2003 Red Sox season (and, nearly, me); 12 months later, Boone’s homer went from “One of the Eight Worst Moments of My Life” to “An Absolutely Traumatic Moment, But …”

My NFL memory starts kicking in around the 1974-75 range. I can remember only eight truly shocking NFL playoff moments that didn’t involve a missed field goal, blocked field goal or botched snap. None of those moments can ever be truly shocking, since we’re always expecting the worst, right? Sorry, Gary Anderson and Tony Romo. You missed the cut.

1. Malcolm Butler’s Interception

A staggeringly unexpected play that single-handedly swung a Super Bowl, flipped the Brady-Belichick historical narrative (and Seattle’s, too), became Belichick’s single greatest moment (I laid out the case in this 2015 Grantland piece) and immediately turned into one of the most-discussed/most-dissected “What the F were they thinking????” play calls in football history. And it happened within a couple of minutes of Jermaine Kearse’s Tyree 2.0 catch, which made every Patriots fan look like a grown-up Jamie Lee Curtis during this Halloween H20 scene.

Wait, my worst nightmare is back? I have to relive this again??? I still can’t believe the Butler play happened. It happened, right? I didn’t imagine that? We’d better watch it again.

Bonus points because (a) it happened during the Twitter-GIF era (so strangers everywhere could immediately enjoy it together), and (b) every time Butler gets torched in a Pats game, my sarcastic buddy Hench makes some variation of the “I think the last good play Butler made was his Super Bowl pick” joke.

2. Earnest Byner’s Fumble in the 1987 AFC Title Game

After John Elway’s 98-yard drive in Cleveland sent Denver to the Super Bowl, we didn’t even nickname it “Elway’s Drive” or “The 98-Yard Drive.” It just became “The Drive.” That’s how ridiculous it was. The AFC title rematch happened in Denver; with Cleveland poised to make it 38-38 in the final 90 seconds of a phenomenal game, we were preparing mentally for The Drive 2.0 when Byner got stripped OUT OF NOWHERE. We didn’t have HD back then, so it seemed like a blurry Byner was running in for the tying score when suddenly … “Ohhhhhhh myyyyyyyyyy!” The Drive combined with the Byner Fumble was like watching a pedestrian get pancaked by a car, stay down for 25 minutes, wobble to his feet, then get pancaked by an 18-wheeler. It’s also the first of 239,875 times that I remember thinking, “I’m so glad that I’m not a Cleveland fan.”

3. The “Three Hilariously Uncalled Holding Penalties Keep a Third-and-5 Alive Long Enough So the QB Can Chuck a Ball Into Triple Coverage and Have His Receiver Catch It Off His Helmet While Almost Doing a Backflip in What Ended Up Being His Last NFL Catch Ever” Play

(That’s my new name for that Tyree FML Helmet Catch.)

4. The Diggs Catch, a.k.a. the Whiff Mary

Climbs to no. 2 if it leads to a Vikings Super Bowl. It also accomplished the following things …

A. Saved Vikings fans from an emotional abyss that, combined with Drew Pearson, Darrin Nelson, Gary Anderson, Brett Favre’s pick, Blair Walsh, the four Super Bowl losses and every other horrible thing that’s happened to them, absolutely would have vaulted them over the Bills and Browns for the no. 1 Most Tortured NFL Fan Base spot. If they blew that game, the Super Bowl halftime show in Minnesota would have been R.E.M. singing “Everybody Hurts” for 20 straight minutes. Instead … nirvana. As my buddy Geoff Gallo (lifelong Vikes fan) texted me afterward, “I really can’t handle it. This must be how other fans must get to feel.”

B. I can’t imagine there’s ever been a LOUDER football moment. When your team pulls a miracle out of thin air, everyone just jumps up and down and screams at the top of their lungs and loses their freaking minds. For that to happen in a dome, with an extended WTF tail (Diggs somehow catching the ball, keeping his balance, then sprinting down the sideline), was an unprecedented “Hrrraaaaaaah …… HRAHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!” moment.

It’s a true football miracle. Even better, if you laid down the blueprint for that exact play to happen in that situation, without knowing the teams, Minnesota would have been the no. 1 overall pick in the I Hope This Happens There Draft.

C. Went down as the single biggest fuck-up I’ve ever seen in a football game. The Vikes need 20-25 yards and can only throw to either sideline … so the Saints give up a 30-yard pass to one of their two best receivers on the sideline? And their safety whiffs on the tackle and takes out the only other potential tackler? And they have nobody else behind him? What’s the NBA equivalent of that screwup … leading by four points with two seconds left, then flagrant-fouling someone on a 3? There’s never been a dumber football loss. It’s the dumbest one ever. THE dumbest. Even more shocking, the Minnesota Vikings were the ones BENEFITING. Good lord. I still can’t believe it.

5. The Jacoby Jones Catch, a.k.a. the Mile High Clubbing

Or as I remembered it until five days ago, “The single biggest fuck-up I’ve ever seen in a football game.”

6. The Music City Miracle

The biggest WTF kick return of all time, the greatest random gambling moment of all time (Tennessee was favored by 5 and won by 6), the first truly important instant-replay moment and the last relevant Bills playoff moment.

7. Drew Pearson’s Semi–Hail Mary

My first Holy Shit moment memory was Carlton Fisk’s Game 6 home run. My second Holy Shit moment was this Pearson catch. It also caused millions of kids without a favorite NFL team to either jump on the Cowboys bandwagon and admit they were front-runners, or jump on the Vikings bandwagon and admit they hated themselves.

8. The Catch 2.0 (Steve Young to Terrell Owens)

I wrote about this catch three-plus years ago; other than the Tyree FML Helmet catch, it’s the greatest IMPORTANT catch I’ve ever seen, as well as the most hellacious hit anyone’s ever taken while pulling off a miracle. Bonus points for Candlestick Park, the last gasp of the Montana-Young era, T.O.’s Tidwell-like resurrection after it seemed like he might be dead, peak Madden and Summerall on the call, the Brett Favre WTF Just Happened Face and the shocking sight of Brett Favre’s head and neck (at the 7:24 mark) being so much larger in 1998 that I can’t imagine he’s ever getting into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Just an incredible clip.

Q: Did you see this video of the Saints-Vikings finish mashed up with Vin Scully’s call of Buckner’s error? It’s eerie how much they line up: how Vin says “three and two to Mookie Wilson” just a beat before Minny snaps the ball, how the crowd goes silent while Keenum’s pass is in the air, how Scully shouts “behind the bag!” right after Marcus Williams whiffs the hit, and how he starts to say “here comes Knight …” as Stefon Diggs reaches the 10. If we’re living in a computer simulation, the coders are programming some highbrow trolling.
—Chris Deaton, Atlanta

BS: I never thought I’d have fun hearing the audio of the Buckner play and … oh, wait, I still didn’t have fun.

Q: It’s one thing to lose a blowout or a close one. I can handle that. But what we Saints fans just experienced was torture. It was like if I had a young son, and he was stricken with an illness and given days to live. Then that beautiful boy fights the illness, overcomes it all and becomes a strapping man with undeniable talent, talent that gets him an athletic scholarship to anywhere he chooses. He’s nimble, good looking, intelligent. Truly a prodigy. Then the day he leaves to go to his chosen college … he falls down the stairs and breaks his neck.
—Nick Casteel

BS: Jeez, who invited Fun Nick to the mailbag party? Can I cheer the Saints fans up for a second? You finally bounced back from Bountygate. You have Drew Brees going as a marquee guy again. You’re loaded with electric, fun-to-watch fantasy guys. Your defense isn’t a disaster anymore. Everyone’s going to be rooting for the Marcus Williams Redemption. And you clinched the Super Bowl eight years ago in the best possible way … with a pick-six on Peyton Manning! Pandemonium! Here, look! You’re gonna be the NFC favorites next season. You’re fine.

(Something tells me that didn’t work. I tried.)

Q: Come on, Simmons—you already know how this season ends. Brady faces the league’s most feared D … MINNESOTA … in their HOME for a ring. Just go through all of his SB wins—what’s left for him to accomplish?
—Matt Hatcher, Fort Wayne, Ind.

BS: You mean, other than winning a Super Bowl with a broken right thumb? Hold on, I have to stop sobbing. Give me one more minute. OK, here’s what Brady has accomplished already …

SB 36: Puts himself on the map by winning the title on the final drive as the second-biggest Super Bowl underdog ever.

SB 38: Wins the Super Bowl that causes the biggest FCC scandal ever and causes all future live events to run on a seven-second delay.

SB 39: Becomes the seventh quarterback to win back-to-back Super Bowls, wins the most games by anyone in back-to-back years (34), becomes Montana 2.0.

SB 49: Comes back from 10 down to tie the “Most Super Bowls by a QB” record, avenges Deflategate and the Tyree Catch, does it on a miracle ending.

SB 51: Comes back from 28-3, avenges the Deflategate suspension, clinches GOAT QB status.

What’s left? Either (a) becoming the first QB to win a Super Bowl against a team playing in its own stadium, (b) beating Eli Manning and/or the Giants, (c) beating Jimmy Garoppolo and the Niners, (d) winning a Super Bowl on a Hail Mary, or (e) hoping that Drew Bledsoe’s son, John, starts in the Super Bowl within the next five years.

Unless …

(Big gulp.)

… the last achievement is actually “Winning a Super Bowl without Bill Belichick.”

(I’m not discussing this.)

Q: Can you imagine if we never traded Jimmy and he won these past two playoff games as Brady stood there stoically on the sidelines with his right hand in a cast?
—Bill, L.A.

BS: Fine, you caught me—I emailed that question to the guys on one of my Pats fan email threads yesterday. It’s the same thread in which Hench wrote, “I cannot wait for Hoyer to win a Super Bowl so the rest of the country will collectively lose their minds.” By the way, those were the two sanest sentences on this thread.

Q: The biggest reason the Patriots couldn’t afford to keep Jimmy G-sus? Because he played so well during Brady’s four-game suspension. Garoppolo was just a sexy theory until he torched Arizona and Miami while Brady was in line at the Apple store getting a warranty repair on a few smashed iPhones. If Deflategate never happens, Brady plays those games and Jimmy’s stock doesn’t rise. You shouldn’t have had to trade away your franchise QB for the next decade for peanuts. Thanks, Roger.
—Logan, Washington, D.C.

BS: Dammit. He’s right. If not for Deflategate, Belichick hides Jimmy from everyone, bumps his pay last summer to keep him around and basically locks Jimmy in the basement like it’s a Lifetime Movie until Brady breaks down. Instead, the Patriots lost a first-round pick and had to deal their future QB thanks to a witch hunt that ignored basic rules of science, was orchestrated by Belichick’s two biggest competitors (the Ravens and Colts, both of whom are still paying karmically for it) and only held up in court because the idiotic Players Association agreed to give the commissioner omnipotent disciplinary powers even if he couldn’t come up with basic standards of proof for his decisions.

(Just when you thought I had run out of ways to despise Roger Goodell.)

Q: My favorite Favre memory as a Bears fan is the look on his face in his last game as a Packer against the Bears, as the hard, frozen turf was beating up his 38-year-old body on a VERY cold December day in 2007. He just wanted to go home. If it’s cold in Foxboro, and the Jags hit the old man early … it may be time to check out. Living with an old quarterback is like living with a 16-year-old dog (as I am now). You don’t think about it, and you enjoy the ride every day … but you know it’s going to end soon … and it’s going to be bad. Good luck, but the end is near, and it might be this week.
—Jon, near Chicago

BS: I like that he threw in the “Good luck” like he was one of the terrorists from Taken. Look, the Belichick-Brady era is the bottle of Half and Half that expired 3½ weeks ago. Every extra January is a miracle. We get it. We know the White Walkers are coming. It’s fine.

Q: Since we didn’t have a lock MVP candidate this season, wasn’t this the perfect year for the NFL MVP award to carry over to next season? Jimmy G could win two trophies.
—Anthony Falco

BS: That last line was way funnier when both of Tom Brady’s hands were working.

Q: My hot take: Michelle divorces Barack and Jimmy G gets the first lady of football, Michelle Obama-Garoppolo. The First Lady of Football.
—Rob, Sioux Falls, S.D.

Q: This Decade for San Francisco:
—2010 Giants WS Champs
—2012 Giants WS Champs
—2014 Giants WS Champs
—2015 Warriors Won Finals
—2016 Warriors 73-9/Lost Finals in 7
—2017 Warriors Won Finals, Jimmy G trade
—2018 Warriors Heavy Favorites, Giants All In, Jimmy G

Is San Francisco now the best sports city?
—Drew, the Bay Area (obviously)

BS: That’s it, I’m throwing some water on these dickwipes.

Q: What if Belichick’s master plan is to bring Jimmy back after Brady’s contract ends in 2019? Belichick would then have gotten a second-round pick for doing nothing. This might just be the cynical Niners fan in me who feels like I’m dating above my level and am terrified that I will lose my hot girlfriend any day now.
—Shaun, Utah

BS: Much better.

Q: How can Raiders fans not be pissed about them leaving Oakland because the city won’t build/fund a stadium, yet the Bowl Cut gives a cool $100,000,000 to a coach? Also I’d love to know how much money different people at The Ringer would need in order to cut their hair like Mark Davis.
—Tom, NorCal

BS: I threw this out on our Ringer Slack. Intern Shaker Samman answered, “If I’m really being honest with myself, like $200.” What a win for Mark Davis! I thought the number would be four figures, minimum. I decided to save $200 and just have The Ringer’s David Shoemaker Photoshop the Davis haircut on Shaker. It’s magnificent.

Q: If you were a Jags fan, would you take a Super Bowl this year if it meant you had to sign and keep Bortles on an expensive contract for the next 10-15 years?
—Marc, Madison, Wis.

BS: Only one person can answer this: lifelong Ravens fan Mallory Rubin, who spent the decade living out this question with Joe Flacco and the Ravens. Here’s how she answers:

“Nothing in life provides the same transcendent bliss as watching your chosen team hoist a trophy into the air. Joe Flacco quarterbacked a team that gave me that high. That doesn’t mean I’m capable of containing my rage when he throws a game-torpedoing pick; or that I have the willpower and respect to resist making ‘Joe Flaccid’ jokes when he looks like he’s taking a nap on the sideline; or that I don’t chastise my colleagues when they remind me, time and again, what his cap hit is this year. But those painful daily realities are worth it. My misery is the sideshow; the title-fueled euphoria was the main event. Is Bortles an elite NFL quarterback? God no. Will his albatross of a new contract be worth it if the guy who’s more meme than man helped Jacksonville claim a championship? Even Bad Janet would smile, fart, and say undoubtedly yes.”

Q: Is Jon Gruden the Doc Rivers of the NFL? When did either of those guys pull off such amazing heists to become considered amongst the greatest coaches ever?
—Tyler, San Diego

BS: I can’t believe I’m saying this, but that’s actually an insult to Doc Rivers.

Q: Longtime Jets fan here who cannot help but see the similarities between the Jags team that just made the AFC championship game with the first of two straight Mark Sanchez–led Jets teams to do the same in 2009-2010. Trust me, this is their best shot. Short runs are possible with good teams and bad quarterbacks, but long-term success is unsustainable. Just like the Jets in 2012 and the Ravens these past few years, eventually this Jags defense is going to take a step back, and when they do, all that stands between them and these past six seasons of Jets ineptitude will be Blake Bortles.
—Justin, Northfield, Minn.

BS: Even Jets fans shit on Blake Bortles. And he’d be the fourth- or fifth-greatest QB in Jets history! Here, look.

1. Joe Namath (last seven Jets seasons: 23-38 record, 73 TDs, 111 picks)
2. Ken O’Brien (50-55-1 as a starter, 0-2 in playoffs)
3. Vinny Testaverde (was Vinny Testaverde)
4. Mark Sanchez (4-2 in the playoffs, tainted by the Butt Fumble)
5. Chad Pennington (most successful dead-arm QB ever)
6. Josh McCown (went 5-8 in his only Jets season)
7. Richard Todd (was somehow worse than all of these guys)

Bortles, this season: 12-6, two playoff wins, 23 TDs, 13 picks, 85 QB rating. Only seven Jets QBs ever won FIFTEEN starts. He’s the best-ever version of every Jets QB you never believed in. Give me $20 on a 75-1 parlay of Bortles winning the Super Bowl, then signing for $120 million with the Jets, followed by Sean Fennessey and Ryan O’Hanlon immediately resigning from The Ringer to become bearded serial killers.

Q: I challenge you to answer this mailbag question in one paragraph that’s not too long. The question: Is there a rational football explanation for a conference championship weekend that includes Nick Foles, Blake Bortles and Case Keenum?
—Edward, Sacramento

BS: There is! We came within one injury and one miracle away from Brady, Carson Wentz, Drew Brees, and Blake Bortles. But it’s not that crazy when random QBs end up in the Final Four. As reader Ruben Silva points out, in the past 25 years, Stan Humphries, Neil O’Donnell, Drew Bledsoe, Chris Chandler, Steve McNair, Trent Dilfer, Kerry Collins, Brad Johnson, Rich Gannon, Jake Delhomme, Matt Hasselbeck, Rex Grossman, Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick started Super Bowls; Jay Cutler, Vinny Testaverde, Kordell Stewart, Shaun King, Alex Smith, Mark Sanchez and Carson Palmer made Final Fours.

Do Foles, Keenum and Bortles seem THAT out of place? Keenum looks like the next Gannon (a late-bloomer star). Foles might be Grossman (overqualified backup, right place, right time). And Bortles might be Dilfer 2.0 crossed with Sanchez 2.0 (the maligned top-10 draft pick who unexpectedly puts it together). The point is: We’ve seen these types of January QBs before. We just never wanted to wager on them.

Q: Everyone wants a HOT TAKE, right? Well I have two. Get Out and Tony Romo were the two most overrated things of 2017. Get Out was slow and predictable and Romo is way too talkative and excitable. I want movies to evoke emotion or some sort of reaction and Get Out does neither, while I want my announcers to blend in and do their best not to say too much and get in the way of the game and Romo does the opposite in spades. I felt like I had to say it … regardless of how much you might get butt hurt over it.
—Joe, Chicago

BS:

Q: Can we start referring to Mike Tomlin as what he is ... a great college coach? Great college coaches are excellent recruiters, terrific motivators but the vast majority of them (I would argue 90 percent) are terrible in-game coaches.
—Nick Ewertz

BS: Except Tomlin won a Super Bowl, has a career record of 124-67 (including playoffs) and never finished below .500 in any season. If you could have any active coach lead your playoff-ready team for one season, you’re choosing from this list: Bill Belichick, Mike Zimmer, Sean Payton, Mike Tomlin, Doug Marrone, Sean McVay, Pete Carroll, John Harbaugh and Andy Reid if you absolutely hate yourself. NFL coaches are like the new-release section of on-demand movies—we keep scrolling through the options thinking we’re going to find the perfect one, but we never do, and within 20 minutes we’re settling for The Foreigner or The Mountain Between Us and hoping they don’t suck.

Q: As a 24-year-old Minnesota sports fan, that Stefon Diggs touchdown is easily the greatest moment of my sports fandom life. Being a fan of all the Minnesota teams has conditioned me to expect the worst to always happen (Vikings in 2009 and 2015, Twins always losing to the Yankees, Timberwolves dumpster fire) but this Vikings team just feels like a team of destiny. I truly believe that this year is our year. Greatest play in Vikes history, right?
—Tom, Minnesota

BS: Tom just made the case that scares me the most … what if the Whiff Mary was Minnesota’s version of the Roberts Steal, a.k.a. the latest example of my “Sometimes Tortured Teams Have to Hit Rock Bottom and Lower Everyone’s Guard, Then Flip the Script With a Miracle” theory—like the 2016 Cavs (Draymond’s nut punch), 1994 Rangers (Matteau! Matteau!), 2004 Red Sox (Roberts steal), 2001 Pats (the Tuck Rule), 2016 Cubs (the Rain Delay), etc.

Q: After the Saints field goal, I fell to the floor and my 4-year-old daughter asked my wife, “Is Daddy dead?” And then on the last play of the game, we come up with a miracle. I’ve seen that go against us dozens of times, since the Darrin Nelson game. Now we have the horseshoe! Look the fuck out!
—Steve, Minneapolis

BS: (I’m concerned.)

Q: Al Michaels called the 1987 World Series, which broke a 26-year title drought for Minnesota. Now, 27 years after the last Minnesota World Series title, Al Michaels is calling the Super Bowl on the site of the former Metrodome. Am I crazy for being excited?
—Austin, South Dakota

BS: (I’m very, very concerned.)

Q: If the Pats play Minny in the SB, we’d be the home team and get the home locker room. You KNOW Belichick will make the Vikings go to the road locker room in their own place!
—James, L.A.

BS: (He would totally do this. I feel better.)

Q: Is it a bad sign that, as a Pats fan, I’m not even remotely scared of Bortles coming to Foxboro? Get the welcome wagon out! BORTLE SERVICE!
—Dan, Glasgow, Scotland

BS: My best-case scenario for Sunday’s game? A second-half pick-six from Bortles to put the Pats up by 17, followed by the Pats cranking “Your Love” from the Outfield and some drunk, red-faced Masshole deliriously waving his “BORTLE SERVICE” sign.

My worst-case scenario? Brady with his right hand in an air cast going in and out of the VicoDen; Brian Hoyer playing from behind, sailing rushed passes over the middle and leading Gronk to slaughter; Tony Romo fighting it off for 45 minutes before finally starting a sentence, “You know, Jim, maybe this is why you shouldn’t trade a backup as good as Jimmy Garoppolo until after the season”; and my dad texting me, “Nobody else is here, can you please keep texting me every 10 minutes to make sure I didn’t keel over?”

Q: In your column you mentioned Simms-Brunell as the Worst Playoff QB matchup of the 21st century, but wasn’t it last year’s wild-card matchup? Connor Cook and the Raiders against Brock “The Heist” Osweiler and the Texans! I’ll take Mark Brunell parlayed with his next investment idea over either one of those QBs, and I’m a Jets fan.
—Daniel, Orlando

BS: Just wait until you have Bortles next year! BORTLE SERVICE!

Q: Please tell me you’re not excited about playing against a Tom Coughlin team with a fast defense and a mediocre quarterback in a championship game. Yes, it’s Blake Bortles, but ’07 Eli may have been even worse than current Bortles. He threw 20 interceptions the same year he beat the undefeated Pats!
—Isaiah, Kentucky

BS: Now they’re a “Tom Coughlin team?” Doesn’t he just sit in the Jags press box, spit coffee all over the place and tell everyone to quiet down? I’m tired of everyone pumping up the Jags. Tom Coughlin is going to be 50 yards above the field. As for their “awesome” defense, they gave up only 28 fewer points all season than the decrepit Patriots defense did. In the past four weeks, they gave up 44 points to Jimmy Geezus and 42 points (and 500-plus yards) to the Steelers last weekend. They finished only fourth in weighted defensive DVOA despite playing the 31st-toughest schedule of offenses and a slew of below-average QBs. And as this Sharp Football piece points out, their pass defense has a legitimate Achilles’ heel (and finished 26th in defensive rush DVOA).

There’s one pro-Jags story line that matters right now …

Q: Can you think of a scarier headline three days before our seventh straight AFC title game than “Brian Hoyer ‘Ready To Go’ As Tom Brady Deals With Injured Throwing Hand?’”
—Patrick, Burlington

BS: And there it is.

Q: Who will retire first, Tom Brady or Markelle Fultz?
—Jaxon, Logan, Utah

BS: That made me laugh for just long enough that I forgot my QB probably can’t feel his throwing hand. Let’s just make the Round 3 picks and get this over with …

PATRIOTS (-7.5) vs. Jaguars

Zipping through the worst-case scenarios for each side.

If You Pick the Jags: Brady’s right hand seems fine after four days of cramming it in a big bowl of avocados, electrolytes, chia seeds, bee pollen and the hemoglobin of 25 young Foxboro boys … CBS starts showing the “PATRIOTS ARE 14-0 IN PLAYOFF GAMES AGAINST OPPONENTS THEY DIDN’T PLAY IN THE REGULAR SEASON” stat … Brady no-huddles the shit out of that secretly not-so-stellar Jags defense, throws 50-plus times and keeps them on the field … Gronk does Gronk stuff … Blake Bortles remembers that 35 million people are watching, and that he’s Blake Bortles … Belichick takes away what the Jags do best (mixing Leonard Fournette’s power run game with play-action passes), puts a spy on Blake Bortles and figures out how to get pressure as Tony Romo delightedly says, “Bill Belichick loves taking away what you do best!” … Bortles forces three bad throws and the Pats pick off two of them … as the Pats fans sing “Your Love” up 17 in the fourth, everyone who panic-picked Blake Bortles against the Pats dynasty at home just because Brady MIGHT be hurt feels really, really dumb. Sing it, Pats fans!

If You Pick the Pats: Brady’s hand is clearly NOT fine … the Jags morph into a nasty ball-control-and-defense hybrid of the 2009 Ravens, 2010 Jets and 2015 Broncos … Playoff Bortles looks like London Bortles … Fournette runs amok as everyone realizes he’s roughly the same size as everyone on the Pats’ front seven … CBS shows close-ups of Coughlin every 7.5 minutes and Brady flexing his damaged hand every 3.5 minutes … within an hour, it becomes clear that the Jags are covering (and maybe even winning) … Boomer Esiason gleefully throws around Jimmy G’s name at halftime and makes that trade seem like the Babe Ruth Sale 2.0 … we see Brian Hoyer warming up early in the third quarter to “get loose” … I have to stop typing before I hurt myself.

(Thinking.)

This isn’t in the Playoff Manifesto, but maybe it should be: “Never lay more than a touchdown with a favorite whose most essential star is legitimately hurt.” (And I think he is.)

The Pick: Patriots 20, Jaguars 19 (Jags cover)

Vikings (-3) vs. EAGLES

Philly’s Worst-Case Pie Chart looks like this: the Jags winning the early game, then everyone realizing a Bortles-Foles Super Bowl could never happen unless it was accompanied by a hurricane and locusts (5 percent); Foles falling apart against a good Vikings D (50 percent); Minnesota’s excellent receivers doing damage (8 percent); Mike Zimmer vs. Doug Pederson (2 percent); the Philly crowd’s Debbie Downer DNA kicking in as soon as the Vikes go up seven (10 percent); the Vikings officially turning into a Team of Destiny (25 percent).

Minnesota’s worst-case scenario is more complicated. Variables include …

  • Four Playoff Manifesto rules are in play, and guess what? All four rules favor the Eagles: “Beware of the ‘Everybody Believed in Us’ team”; “Beware of all dome teams outdoors (especially in cold weather)”; “Beware of any head coach named Mike”; and most important, “Beware of any team who celebrated the previous weekend’s victory like they just won the Super Bowl.” (Gulp.)
  • Kai Forbath, outdoors. (Gulp.)
  • Our second straight weekend of saying, “Wait a second … maybe on a very good team, if he’s practicing with the first string every week, Nick Foles isn’t that bad!”
  • Minnesota might be a Team of Destiny … or, it’s the team that blew a 17-point second-half lead at home in a playoff game, played scared and WAY too conservative (and settled for a 53-yard field goal) on what seemed to be the game-deciding drive, couldn’t close out New Orleans’s defense on back-to-back clinching drives and needed one of the biggest miracles in football history to advance. You tell me.
  • I just want to point out that the Vikings pulling off one of the biggest miracle victories in NFL playoff history, then blowing the next weekend as road favorites, would be one of the Vikingiest moments in Vikings history.
  • Philly’s defense hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher all year and looked fantastic against the Falcons last weekend. If you believe Philly had the best defense this season (and I’m in that camp), here’s a fun stat: On Sunday, Keenum had a 116.5 QB rating when the Saints didn’t pressure him … and a 5.1 rating when they did.

Put it this way: Beating this superb Eagles defense, on the road, would easily settle the “Is Case Keenum this generation’s Rich Gannon?” debate. I am not convinced. This feels like an old-school defense–ball control–special teams–home-field advantage playoff game. You know, kind of like last week in Philly. Who’s up for a rematch of Super Bowl 39????

The Pick: Eagles 19, Vikings 16 (Eagles cover)

Last Week: 2-1-1
Playoffs: 2-5-1