The NFL Divisional Playoff round was jam-packed with drama, except in New England.
The NFL just cooked up a wild weekend of divisional playoff action, setting the stage for two conference championship games nobody could have predicted before the start of the season. The only team anyone would have logically placed in the final four is the New England Patriots, and Tom Brady and the gang made sure they got there with few reasons to be nervous. But their opponent will be a team coming off a second win in the city of Pittsburgh this season.
Meanwhile, the NFC championship will be decided by two backup quarterbacks who were on the same team just two seasons ago. And each saved the late-game heroics for the final minutes this weekend.
Let’s start with a play that will live in the memories of Vikings fans for as long as they live.
Vikings win first walk-off playoff game in NFL history to advance to NFC Championship
The Minnesota Vikings looked to be in full control of the New Orleans Saints after leading 17-0 at halftime and heading to the fourth quarter with a sizable lead for one of the league’s top defenses to protect at home. But Drew Brees and the Saints hit a flurry and took a 24-23 lead late in the game, giving Case Keenum and the Vikings little time to work their way into position for a field goal. The Saints nearly pulled it off, but a horrible missed tackle by rookie Marcus Williams on Stefon Diggs allowed the receiver to run uncontested for a miraculous 61-yard touchdown as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
Here’s Joe Buck on the call for FOX (or if you prefer the Vikings radio call):
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) January 15, 2018
The Vikings also captured this sideline view of the final play and the pandemonium that ensued beyond the end zone afterward:
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) January 15, 2018
If it seemed unprecedented, it’s because it was: Case Keenum to Stefon Diggs to end game was first ever “walk-off” touchdown in the 4th quarter of a postseason game, per Elias.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 15, 2018
This was one of those plays that will be shown on the NFL playoff highlight reels for years to come. After nearly blowing the game in the fourth quarter, the Vikings found a way to win using a quarterback who has been defying the odds all season long and against a team with proven success and Super Bowl experience on the other sideline. The Vikings nearly collapsed with a chance to play a Super Bowl in their own stadium, becoming the first team in NFL history to do so. And yet, just when it seemed a win was virtually impossible, Minnesota celebrated a wild playoff win.
Not to disparage the Vikings on one of the most incredible wins we have seen in postseason history, but the Saints really did cough one up on that final play. As the replays showed, Williams was ducking and going for a big hit when all he had to do was keep his eye on the ball, wrap up Diggs and bring him down. The Vikings were out of timeouts and the seconds were nearly evaporated. Just a quick tussle with arms wrapped around Diggs would have run the clock out on Minnesota. Instead, the safety made the deadliest of rookie mistakes at the most pivotal point of the season.
I have no words pic.twitter.com/RB5ERgM6bn
— 『Rathalos』 (@LordBalvin) January 15, 2018
After the game, Williams needed some consoling.
#saints Rookie safety Marcus Williams feel to his knees on his way to locker room after his missed tackle cost saints the game and then inside the locker cried with his head in his hands.
— Alex Flanagan (@Alex_Flanagan) January 15, 2018
Marcus Williams has been through adversity before and handled it like a warrior! He will do the same with this. Great rookie season with 6 Interceptions and has shown that he will be special in that league. One play will not define this young man, and he will come back stronger!!
— Morgan Scalley (@SafetyPride) January 15, 2018
Love @drewbrees quote about Safety Marcus Williams missed tackle, which can be applied to all of us, “Experience is a tough teacher. “
— Alex Flanagan (@Alex_Flanagan) January 15, 2018
Manti Te'o gave a heartfelt message of support for Marcus Williams after the game. pic.twitter.com/4Z8dSwkBxH
— Josh Katzenstein (@jkatzenstein) January 15, 2018
Sean Payton on Marcus Williams on final play: He's played well for us all year. It was a timing decision obviously. You'd like to have that one back, but he's played well for us all year.
— Doug Mouton (@DMoutonWWL) January 15, 2018
Somewhere, Texans DB Marcus Williams’ phone is blowing up right now, and he’s probably like in Cabo or something.
— Sean Pendergast (@SeanTPendergast) January 15, 2018
Obviously, the Saints didn’t lose this game to the Vikings just because of this one missed play. If this had happened in the first quarter instead of the final play of the game, the result may have still been the same in the end. The Saints lost this game for a number of reasons, including getting off to a rough start on both sides of the football. But the last play will ultimately become the one unforgettable moment from this game. Incredibly painful for the Saints, but a cherished memory for the Vikings.
Now, the Vikings prepare for the NFC Championship Game and a Super Bowl at home now just one win away. To do that, the Vikings will have to win on the road next Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. So get your quarterback narratives in order now, because you are going to be hearing a bunch about this one in the coming week.
Eagles traded N. Foles to Rams for S. Bradford. Foles lost his job in St. Louis, C. Keenum takes over. Eagles draft C. Wentz and trade Bradford to Minn. Vikings sign Keenum, who replaces injured Bradford. Foles returns to Philly, replaces injured Wentz. Now, Foles vs. Keenum.
— Zach Berman (@ZBerm) January 15, 2018
“What if I told you…” pic.twitter.com/gQc0GX4k8h
— Luke Rodgers (@thelukerodgers) January 15, 2018
The Vikings are already being labeled as a road favorite, which doesn’t seem to bother the Eagles too much. After shutting down the Atlanta Falcons, 15-10, on Saturday, Eagles offensive lineman Lane Johnson did his postgame routine wearing a dog mask showing the team embraced being a home underdog without Carson Wentz.
— Lane Johnson (@Lanejohnson65) January 14, 2018
Those dog masks are reportedly selling quickly as Eagles fans get their hands on them.
The Eagles defense came up with their own late-game heroics to hand the defending NFC champion Falcons a playoff loss this weekend, leading to some questions about Atlanta offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to ponder moving forward…
Two tortured fan bases in the NFC are about to collide, with just one spot open for the Super Bowl. One thing is for sure, the Georgia Bulldog fans who also root for the Atlanta Falcons had an incredibly rough week, with Georgia blowing the national championship game on Monday and the Falcons being upset by the Eagles five days later.
— Jacob Ortiz (@jacobryanortiz) January 9, 2018
Jags beat up Steelers to clinch first trip to AFC title game since 2000
A day after the Patriots took care of Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee Titans, the Jacksonville Jaguars were expected to be on the wrong end of a revenge game in Pittsburgh. The Jags dismantled and embarrassed the Steelers on their home field during the regular season, but this time was supposed to be different. A week after winning the ugliest game of the wild-card weekend, the Jags were supposed to be sent home to setup an eagerly anticipated Patriots-Steelers AFC championship game, one that Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has been looking forward to for a while now.
Yeah, about that… pic.twitter.com/PQ5HlG8ndX
— Kevin McGuire (@KevinOnCFB) January 15, 2018
The Jacksonville Jaguars didn’t get the memo.
Leonard Fournette scored two touchdowns in the first quarter to lift Jacksonville to a 14-0 lead that was extended to a surprising 21-0 advantage before Pittsburgh could put a number on the scoreboard. That helped Jacksonville keep the Steelers at a good enough distance for the remainder of the game.
Pittsburgh never got closer than seven points until the final two seconds of the game, and the Jags owned a 42-28 lead well into the fourth quarter. Fournette had three rushing touchdowns and 109 rushing yards, and even though Blake Bortles completed just 14 of his 26 pass attempts for 214 yards, the Jaguars were in great shape. Jacksonville’s defense even got in on the scoring, with Telvin Smith returning a fumble 50 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter.
Who could have predicted this final score? How about the Jaguars’ Calais Campbell after Jacksonville defeated the Bills last week?
— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) January 14, 2018
Not bad, but this dude nailed the Eagles-Falcons score.
This dude @loctastic w/ the ultimate ???
— Freezing Cold Takes (@OldTakesExposed) January 14, 2018
Back to the Jaguars, they earned the right to do some trash talking about Pittsburgh after the game and enjoyed every minute of it.
Jags CB Jalen Ramsey: “I was wondering why they were so confident. We stung their ass last time.” …Were they mad about the disrespect? “We don’t give a f***. We really don’t care.”
— Jeff Darlington (@JeffDarlington) January 14, 2018
— z-#Sacksonville (@Jaguars) January 14, 2018
Jalen Ramsey had some words for Jags fans who welcomed the team at their home stadium after the big win too.
"We goin' to the Super Bowl. AND we gon' win that b—h"
— Jalen Ramsey to the crowd of Jaguars fans at EverBank Field pic.twitter.com/fE2jSx3Pj1
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) January 15, 2018
At least Jason Mendoza continues to be living life in a good place.
The Jaguars will be making their third appearance in the AFC Championship Game since coming into the NFL in 1994. Back in 1996, the Jaguars reached the conference championship in just their second season in the league, where they lost to the Bill Parcells-coached Patriots with Drew Bledsoe at quarterback. Tom Brady was just a freshman at Michigan at the time, having completed three of his five pass attempts for 26 yards with no touchdowns and one interception. Things have changed significantly since then, of course.
What appears to be an easy path to a second straight Super Bowl championship for New England is hard to ignore. If you were told at the beginning of the season that the Patriots would have to win home games against Tennessee and Jacksonville before taking on an NFC team playing with a backup quarterback, you’d think they would be rolling to another Super Bowl championship. But the defenses left standing have what it takes to keep things interesting, even though the Patriots have a quarterback with more Super Bowl rings than the remaining starting quarterbacks have in combined playoff victories.
Is it too good to be true for New England? We shall see.
Bill O’Brien wins the power struggle in Houston
Of course he did. The Houston Texans have suffered through a couple of rough years with Bill O’Brien, but they finally got him a franchise quarterback to work with that actually has some upside potential. (Unfortunately, Deshaun Watson suffered a season-ending injury along the way in his rookie season.) When rumblings popped up about the future of O’Brien in Houston, we all should have known how this was going to end.
OFFICIAL: The #Texans have hired Brian Gaine as general manager and extended the contract of Head Coach Bill O’Brien.
— Houston Texans (@HoustonTexans) January 13, 2018
Early this morning, Texans handed out matching 5-year contracts to their new GM hire Brian Gaine and HC Bill O'Brien, per source.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 13, 2018
Keeping Bill O'Brien and Deshaun Watson together for the long haul = massive win for the Texans.
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) January 13, 2018
O’Brien workingwith Watson should lead to some fun times in Houston, and now those pieces will be in place for another few years for sure.
Elsewhere in the division, it appears the Tennessee Titans have decided that one playoff win was enough Mike Mularkey’s job even after getting ousted from the playoffs on Saturday.
Sources: The #Titans have offered coach Mike Mularkey an extension in the wake of their playoff run. He’s staying.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) January 15, 2018
UPDATE [10 a.m.]: Or maybe not. The situation in Nashville is fluid, to use a popular term. Mularkey and the Titans have reportedly agreed to move in a different direction.
Filed to ESPN: the Titans and head coach Mike Mularkey have mutually agreed to part ways, according to a league source.
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) January 15, 2018
And outgoing Colts coach Chuck Pagano took out a full-page ad in the Indy Star to share some parting words with Colts fans.
— Gregg Doyel (@GreggDoyelStar) January 14, 2018
As the NFL coaching carousel continues to spin, the Detroit Lions are expected to hire Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia as their next head coach. Patricia had been mentioned as an option for the New York Giants as well, but seems to have chosen the Lions instead.
Patriots’ defensive coordinator Matt Patricia is likely to become the Detroit Lions’ next head coach, league sources told ESPN. More on Sunday NFL Countdown.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 14, 2018
Matt Patricia picking a team with a franchise QB, limited history of success, and a GM he worked with for years over a team with none of those things is a no brainer.
— Ross Tucker (@RossTuckerNFL) January 14, 2018
So the Giants job is still vacant. Could Patriots’ offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels be the guy there? Regardless of what happens, it would appear New England head coach Bill Belichick will have to find two new coordinators this offseason. These could be the ingredients of a fascinating offseason with the Patriots, regardless of what happens in the conference championship, and potentially in the Super Bowl.
We have hired Brian Daboll as our Offensive Coordinator.
— Buffalo Bills (@buffalobills) January 14, 2018
College football’s best equivalent to Belichick, Alabama’s Nick Saban, is in a similar situation as he needs to replace both his offensive and defensive coordinator before the 2018 season. Saban is losing defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who is now the head coach at Tennessee. And over the weekend, Alabama offensive coordinator Brian Daboll went back to the NFL to take on the same role with the Buffalo Bills. (Alabama got Daboll from the Patriots staff after losing Steve Sarkisian to the Atlanta Falcons, and letting Lane Kiffin go before he became the head coach at Florida Atlantic.) Saban and Belichick each needing new offensive and defensive coordinators in the same year is intriguing.
Here are the times you need to know for next Sunday. The AFC Championship Game will be played first at 3:05 p.m. ET on CBS, followed by the NFC Championship Game on Fox at 6:40.
We practiced together in August.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) January 14, 2018
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) January 15, 2018
Enjoy your conference championship week buildup.