This has been one of the stranger NFL seasons, with a slew of injuries to marquee players and eight brand new playoff teams compared to 2016. Here we are, though, 266 games of NFL football in the books, with only the biggest one remaining, and when the dust settled, it was the No. 1 seeds in the AFC and NFC, the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles, still left standing.
The Patriots used two fourth quarter touchdowns and some small but crucial mistakes by the Jags to eke out a 24-20 win in the early game. Danny Amendola was the star of the game with seven catches, all of which felt important, totaling 84 yards and scoring both of those fourth quarter touchdowns. Meanwhile, the Eagles scored 38 unanswered points and forced three Case Keenum turnovers to earn a trip to the team's third ever Super Bowl.
So in a rematch of the Super Bowl following the 2004 season — a Super Bowl after which, like this season, Bill Belichick lost both of his coordinators to head coaching jobs — the Eagles will open as a seven point underdog to the defending world champions Patriots, just like in 2004. The more things change, the more the Patriots keep winning.
Let's get to the recap of the weekend....
4. Nathaniel Hackett
If I am going to remember one thing from this Jaguars playoff run, it's not their defense, which had been their calling card all season long. That Jags defense gave up 42 and 24 points in the final two games of the season, and was worse in the second half of each of those games. I will remember how somehow the Jaguars were able to get within just a few minutes of the Super Bowl with Blake F-ing Bortles as their quarterback. Bortles was solid enough for most of the postseason, but he played the entire Pittsburgh game and most of the New England game with big leads. Once he HAD to make plays late in the Patriots game, he wilted. Hackett, Jacksonville's offensive coordinator, did an incredible job throughout the playoffs using the running game and play action to keep Bortles efficient and putting short throws on Bortles' plate that he knew the fourth year QB could complete. I'm very anxious to see what Hackett does with someone like Alex Smith or Kirk Cousins next season, as I am fairly confident that the Jags will try to go in a different direction at quarterback. As a Texans fan, I hope I'm wrong. Bring back, Bortles!
3. J.J. Watt
I have no idea if you can wager on the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award — if you can't, you should be able to! — but if anyone wants to take my action on a friendly wager of J.J. Watt beating Greg Olsen and Benjamin Watson for the award, you know where to find me. Watt's fundraising efforts for Hurricane Harvey victims, which exceeded $37 million, along with the donation of his actual time to help unload supplies and ensure the funds are properly disbursed, will add up to a win for the Texans' defensive end. The award will be handed out at the NFL awards show next week in Minneapolis during the week leading up to the Super Bowl.
2. Danny Amendola
When Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski went out of the game with a concussion late in the second quarter, things offensively were already looking grim for the Pats, given how Jacksonville's defense looked throughout the first half. It was fair to wonder where New England would go for offense without their tight end. (Side bar — we forget that New England has functioned all season without Julian Edelman, as well.) Who knew that it would be the Woodlands' own Danny Amendola who would step up and fill the void? Amendola had maybe the four biggest plays of the second half — both Patriot touchdowns, a 3rd and 18 catch for 21 yards when they were down 20-10, and a punt return which set them up at the Jacksonville 30 yard line, down 20-17 late in the game. Amendola was awesome.
1. Nick Foles
Since the Eagles lost Carson Wentz in Week 14 to an ACL tear, Foles has been generally viewed as an albatross that would need to be carried by the team's solid running game and vicious defense. There's a reason why the Eagles were underdogs in two home playoff games as the No. 1 seed in the NFC, and that reason's name is Nicholas Edward Foles. Well, Foles silenced the doubters in putting up one of the most unlikely box score lines in NFL postseason history, riddling one of the NFL's best defenses with downfield bombs, going 26 of 33 for 352 yards and three touchdown passes. It's hard to get wrapped up in one performance, but Sunday's game at least sent the message that Foles has enough clubs in his bag to give the Patriots' defense, which on paper isn't in the same league as Minnesota's, some trouble in a couple weeks.
4. Jags' end of half
The Jaguars had a chance to really put some daylight in between themselves and the Pats right before halftime, in a first half that Jacksonville had played almost perfectly. However, on a 3rd and 7 at the New England 44, the Jags had a first down catch called back because they didn't get the snap off in time... COMING OUT OF A TIMEOUT. On 3rd and 12, Bortles was sacked, and instead of going into the half up 17-3 or 21-3, the Jags had to punt, Brady went the length of the field for a touchdown, and the Patriots went into the half with some momentum, down only 14-10. These are the "pee down your leg just a little bit" openings that other teams seem to always give the Patriots, and the Patriots take advantage every single time.
3. The human brain
On the ensuing touchdown drive following the Jags' punt near the end of the half, Patriots All Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski was knocked loopy by a Barry Church helmet to helmet hit. Gronk remained out for the rest of the game, and as of my typing this, he is in the concussion protocol with no clear timeframe for his clearance leading up to the Super Bowl in 13 days. On that play, you got a very real feel for how unfair the trade off of 15 yards in penalty yardage is for losing the services of a player like Gronk for a game (or maybe more). I know people think the college rule, in which a player committing targeting with the helmet is ejected, is a little too draconian, but in the moment when a player of Gronk's caliber is knocked out, ejecting Church feels like the only thing that would be remotely fair. The Jags players, and any team, would gladly trade 15 yards of field position near midfield for Gronk's removal from the game, and that's what they got.
2. Philly pole climbers
If you're fearful of your citizens putting themselves in a situation where they could climb a pole and either (a) fall and tumble to their death or (b) electrocute themselves, then the city of Philadelphia figured out one way to prevent that from happening....
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
That's nice.... but if I were running things in Philly, I'd leave the Crisco at home, let the idiots climb the pole and either fall or fry themselves so we can prevent a second generation of children inclined to do the same from being born. I'm pro-Darwinism.
1. Some poor intern at WCVB-TV in Boston
Sourcing photos for use in web stories isn't always the easiest thing. I speak from experience. On here, I've probably given improper credit or failed to give credit at least a few times, all of which were swiftly corrected by our awesome editing staff. That said, I'm pretty sure that when I needed a stock photo for a game result, the player in my photo was always (a) still on the team, and (b) still alive....
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Oops. To their credit, WCVB owned up to their gaffe....
A news service that provides WCVB some digital content accidentally posted a pic of Aaron Hernandez in connection w/Pats AFC champ win on our social media. It's embarrassing & unacceptable. We apologize & are working w/team to correct so something like this never happens again.— WCVB-TV Boston (@WCVB) January 22, 2018
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.