Observations and analysis from the NFL’s two conference-title games via Redskins glasses
1. So much for unpredictability in the NFL playoffs. Nine of the last 10 no. 1 seeds now have made Super Bowls. The lone exception was the 2016 Dallas Cowboys. But all other no. 1 seeds since the start of the 2013 season have made Super Bowls.
2. It is getting harder and harder to come up with new ways of singing the praises of the New England Patriots. They now have won eight AFC championships over the last 17 seasons. The Pats will be gunning for their sixth Super Bowl title in 17 seasons. It’s not just that the Pats have made postseasons with incredible frequency (15 of the last 17 seasons, including 15 AFC East titles). It’s that this team basically never flops in the playoffs. What happened to the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday night, getting ripped 38-7, doesn’t happen to the Pats.
And the ability of Tom Brady and the Pats to author come-from-behind wins is remarkable. The Pats overcame a 20-10 fourth-quarter deficit with two Tom Brady touchdown passes to Danny Amendola against the no. 1 defense in the NFL this season per the Football Outsiders DVOA metric, and I feel like nobody is surprised. Brady now has 10 career postseason game-winning drives in fourth quarters and overtimes. That is double the next-highest total since 2000 (Eli Manning’s five). Also, New England over the last 10 seasons now is 3-4 in playoff games in which it trailed by 10 or more points in the fourth quarter; the rest of the NFL during that span is 3-70.
What impressed me most about the Pats’ win over the Jags was that it happened despite so many reasons not to happen.
You had Brady with his much-talked-about injured throwing hand, and yet he went 26-of-38 for 290 yards, two fourth-quarter touchdowns and no turnovers. He had seven completions traveling 15 or more air yards, his second-highest total in a game this season.
You had the Pats winning despite losing probably their second-best player, Rob Gronkowski, for the rest of the game to a concussion on a late-second-quarter helmet-to-helmet hit by Barry Church.
You had the Pats holding Leonard Fournette to 13 carries for just 36 yards in the second half despite a defense that started castoffs like former Redskin Ricky Jean Francois and former Pittsburgh Steeler James Harrison.
And then there is the Pats’ situational mastery. No head coach does attention to detail like Bill Belichick. The best example of this came in the fourth quarter. The Jags, in lining up for a punt on a fourth-and-one at their 42, had two players lined up to the right who could potentially be thrown to on a fake punt. The Pats appeared confused, and a player had to hustle over to cover one of the players. But the Pats figured it out, got set and then the Jags appeared to signal into something different and punt. Who knows if an actual fake-punt play was on, but the point is that the Pats weren’t properly lined up but then got properly lined up. The players figured it out themselves, and Belichick wasn’t compelled to burn an oh-so-precious second half timeout in a game in which his team was trailing, 20-10, with more than 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter. That is quality preparation and quality coaching.
Compare that with some of the disasters that we saw on Redskins special teams this season. Heck, just examine back-to-back games in late November:
Additionally, how about the James White one-yard touchdown run with 55 seconds left in the first half? That capped a six-play 85-yard drive that took just 1:07. The Pats are so good at end-of-first-half offensive drives. New England has scored in the last two minutes of a first half in 14 of 18 games this season (six touchdowns and eight field goals). Again, compare that with the Redskins, who have had a bunch of issues on late-first-half offensive drives under Jay Gruden. And how about Doug Marrone? He opted to have Blake Bortles kneel-down twice despite having 55 seconds left and two timeouts left in the first half. Boy was that ultra-conservative, and boy was that sending a message that you didn’t trust your offense and/or quarterback. No team had taken a knee with over 50 seconds remaining in a first half this NFL season.
3. A massive issue for Redskins running games in recent seasons has been bad blocking by tight ends. Jordan Reed, Vernon Davis, Logan Paulsen – all have struggled securing edges. Cooley made a good point about a Dion Lewis late-fourth-quarter third-and-nine 18-yard I-formation-handoff run that essentially sealed New England’s win. Go back and watch this play if you can. Patriots tight end Dwayne Allen does a tremendous job of blocking Jags linebacker Telvin Smith and then pushing him into linebacker Paul Posluszny for second-level yardage. A lot went right for the Pats on that play, including perhaps getting away with a holding penalty. But the blocking on display by Allen has been maybe the biggest thing missing from Redskins running games under Jay Gruden.
4. As for the whining and complaining by some that the Jags got jobbed in this game – enough! Was there a penalty discrepancy on Sunday? You bet there was: the Pats had one accepted penalty for 10 yards; the Jags had six accepted penalties for 98 yards. But if you think that that was the result of some NFL conspiracy to have the Pats and not Jags in Super Bowl 52, you’re off your rocker. Why would the same league that initiated and carried out the absurd DeflateGate scandal on the Pats now all of a sudden do everything possible to put them back in a Super Bowl? What sense does that make? Do you really think that Roger Goodell is pumped about potentially handing another Lombardi Trophy to Bill Belichick and Tom Brady? Yes, the late-second-quarter 32-yard pass-interference penalty on A.J. Bouye seemed like a bad call, but guess what? Bad calls happen. This hasn’t exactly been a banner postseason for NFL officiating.
5. I said on Friday’s installment of The Morning Blitz with Al Galdi that I trusted the Vikings’ defense more than I trusted the Eagles’. Boy was I wrong on that. The Eagles had their way with that vaunted Vikings defense to the tune of 456 total net yards of offense, 7.1 yards per play and 10-for-14 on third downs. And by far no player was more impressive than Nick Foles. I give him a ton of credit; he played the game of his life. Foles went 26-of-33 for 352 yards, three touchdowns and no turnovers. He took just one sack. Foles on passes of 20 or more yards downfield in the NFC Championship Game went 3-of-5 with two touchdowns; he entered the game 1-for-12 on such passes this season. The absolutely perfect pass that Foles through to the Dirty Terp, Torrey Smith, on the third-quarter 41-yard touchdown pass on an under-center flea flicker epitomized Foles’ night. His third-and-10 53-yard shotgun touchdown bomb to Alshon Jeffery with 1:18 left in the second quarter while under duress thanks to Everson Griffen was so impressive. Foles’ 97.0 Total QBR was the fourth-highest QBR playoff game since 2006, as far back as the metric goes.
Foles has had such an odd career. He was part of that vaunted 2012 quarterback draft class, being taken by the Eagles in the third round at pick no. 88 overall (the Redskins took Kirk Cousins in the fourth round at pick no. 102). Foles came in for an injured Michael Vick in 2013 and went on to have one of the great seasons in recent quarterbacking history, including posting 27 touchdown passes versus two picks (which at the time was the best single-season touchdown passes-to-interceptions ratio in NFL history) and leading the league with 9.12 yards per pass attempt. He came crashing down to earth in 2014, was traded to the Rams in March 2015 in the trade that brought Sam Bradford to the Eagles, was released in July 2016, signed with Kansas City the following month and was allowed by the Chiefs to become a free agent in March 2017, when he signed back with the Eagles. It is of course only because of Carson Wentz’s season-ending torn left ACL suffered in December that Foles is the Eagles’ starting quarterback right now. And yet he is a win away from a Super Bowl title.
As I discussed last week, Foles being the Eagles’ starting quarterback in this playoff run is not an example of how you don’t need very good quarterbacks to do very good things. The no. 1 reason the Eagles are where they are remains Wentz, who was arguably the NFL’s MVP this season prior to his injury. But what Foles is an example of is the value of having a competent backup quarterback. Few things are as bad as having your season ruined due to your starting quarterback going down to injury. The 2011 Chicago Bears went 7-3 with Jay Cutler as their starting quarterback but went 1-5 after he suffered a season-ending thumb injury in a win over the Chargers (remember Caleb Hanie?). The Eagles’ 2017 season was anything but derailed by Wentz’s injury, and Foles deserves a lot of credit for that. He’s not great, but he’s been good enough. And in the NFC Championship Game, he was great.
As for the Vikings’ defense, perhaps I should have taken to heart more what the Redskins did against the Eagles and Vikings this season. The Redskins were bad offensively in their loss to the Eagles at FedEx Field in Week 1 and then still not very good in the loss at the Eagles in Week 7. But the Redskins scored 30 points in the loss to the Vikings at FedEx Field in Week 10. The Redskins’ weren’t great offensively in that game, but their 30 points ended up being the second-most scored on the Vikings during the regular season.
6. LeGarrette Blount’s early-second-quarter 11-yard touchdown run for Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game was his 10th career postseason touchdown run, putting him seventh on the career postseason rushing touchdowns list. Emmit Smith is first at 19. John Riggins is tied for fourth with Terrell Davis at 12. Blount’s first eight career postseason rushing touchdowns came with New England in the 2013, 2014 and 2016 seasons. Watching Blount run over Andrew Sendejo on that touchdown was so impressive. Scot McCloughan actually tweeted, “It’s a big man’s game and @LG_Blount just proved it!” Of course, that kind of thinking is part of what led to Scot drafting Matt Jones with the Redskins’ 2015 third-round pick.
The truth is that effective running backs come big and small. The Pats’ Dion Lewis is listed as being 5-8 and 195 pounds and yet was no. 1 among running backs with at least 100 rushes this season in the Football Outsiders DYAR metric (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement). The Jags’ Corey Grant is listed as being 5-11 and 203 pounds and yet had three receptions for 59 yards in the first half of the AFC Championship Game. Heck, Chris Thompson, who is listed as being 5-8 and 191 pounds, was arguably the Redskins’ MVP until he suffered his season-ending fractured fibula in the overtime loss at New Orleans in Week 11. The NFL isn’t always a “big man’s game.”
7. So what now with Minnesota quarterback Case Keenum? The Vikings have maybe the most unique quarterback situation any team has ever had in an offseason with three starting-caliber guys in Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford all set to be unrestricted free agents.
Keenum was not good in that NFC Championship Game. He completed just 28 of his 48 pass attempts. He averaged just 5.65 yards per pass attempt. He threw two picks, including a 50-yard pick-six to Patrick Robinson to begin a run of 38 unanswered points by the Eagles.
But that, of course, doesn’t detract from the 2017 season that Keenum had. He finished second in the NFL in Total QBR at 69.5. He finished second in the NFL in completion percentage at 67.6. He was third among quarterbacks in the league in Total EPA at 85.3. He had 22 touchdown passes versus seven picks. He had the best Total QBR (88) against the blitz in the NFL during the regular season.
And don’t forget how good Keenum was in the Redskins’ 38-30 loss to the Vikings at FedEx Field in Week 10. The Redskins allowed Keenum to go 21-of-29 for 304 yards, four touchdowns and two picks. He registered what ended up being the second-best single-game Total QBR in an NFL game this past regular season: 99.1. He averaged 10.48 yards per pass attempt; he entered the game averaging 6.91 yards per pass attempt. Keenum had three touchdown passes in the second quarter, making him the first Vikings quarterback with three touchdown passes in a quarter since Brett Favre in 2009.
Now Keenum may not even make it to free agency. NFL insider Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports had the following in a report posted on Sunday (Jan. 21): “There is a growing sense among NFL general managers who are in need of a quarterback and among agents who represent potential free agent and trade-candidate quarterbacks that the Vikings are going to place the franchise tag on Case Keenum. In fact, the more people I speak to the more that seems a fait acompli. It pretty much has to happen.” La Canfora’s sentiment especially makes sense when you consider that the Vikings’ offensive coordinator this season, Pat Shurmur, about to become the Giants’ head coach. They would seem to be prime candidates to sign Keenum this offseason were he to make it to unrestricted free agency.
Additionally, there also was this from La Canfora: “There have been no negotiations between the sides all season, and I’m on record back during the Vikings’ bye week as noting that was the last remaining window to buy low on the former journeyman. This is no fluke, and the stakes are too high now. Minnesota will regret not pushing hard for a three-year, $45 million deal — or something like it — several months ago. But that ship has sailed now, and with his playoff success Keenum’s value is secure, with a 2018 QB franchise tag.”
But what if the Vikings don’t tag Keenum? ESPN NFL writer and former Redskins safety Matt Bowen wrote the following in a piece posted on Sunday (Jan. 21), “I expect the Vikings to let Keenum test free agency. Look for the veteran to earn starting money on the market and for Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer to re-sign Bridgewater as the front-runner to land the starting job in ’18 after a full offseason of work.”
Let’s assume that the Vikings allow Keenum to become an unrestricted free agent. And let’s assume that Kirk Cousins is gone from the Redskins this offseason in some form or fashion. Should the Redskins go after Keenum?
I say yes. But I would not pay big money for him or get into a bidding war with, say, the Shurmur-coached Giants for Keenum. Here would be the factors in play: