This season’s second-to-last Sunday of NFL competition comes this weekend, and Tom Brady will be playing. That’s not exactly stunning. Brady has pretty much ended all debate about which quarterback is the greatest in pro football history. He and the New England Patriots will be playing in their seventh straight AFC championship game this weekend.
But the quarterbacking company that Brady will keep this weekend is not exactly what anyone would have expected. It is, by the NFL’s customary late-January standards, pretty sketchy, actually. There’s not a Manning to be found. Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan were bounced from the playoffs this past weekend. Cam Newton exited a week earlier. Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson didn’t even make it.
If you said going into the season that Blake Bortles, Case Keenum and Nick Foles would be starting the conference title games, you had it pegged.
Yeah, sure you did.
“I’ve said it a bunch all year long: I really don’t care,” Bortles said Sunday in Pittsburgh after he and the Jacksonville Jaguars ousted the Steelers. “I could care less what anybody in here says about me or what anybody in the world says about me. I enjoy going to work every day with the guys in that locker room and the coaching staff. I enjoy everything we do. And this is the type of stuff you dream of, is getting opportunities to play in games like this.”
Bortles spoke about his own approach to ignoring the considerable criticism that has come his way. But he could have been speaking for the other quarterbacks not named Brady who will be playing Sunday. It’s Bortles and the Jaguars facing Brady’s Patriots in the AFC, and Foles’s Philadelphia Eagles hosting Keenum and the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game.
“I know there was a lot of people against us this last week, just answering questions and just hearing about it,” Foles said after the Eagles beat the Ryan-led Atlanta Falcons on Saturday. “But the biggest thing about this is, that’s sports. That’s part of it. The biggest thing in our locker room is we believe in one another. Everyone believes.”
It will be a reunion of sorts for Foles and Keenum, who are former Rams teammates. Foles was benched in favor of Keenum in 2015, when the franchise was in St. Louis. By the summer of 2016 the team was in Los Angeles, the Rams had picked quarterback Jared Goff first overall in that spring’s draft and Foles wanted out. The Rams granted his request to be released.
Now, the two will face off Sunday in Philadelphia with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake.
“I don’t know if I can put it in perspective right now,” Keenum said after the Vikings’ first-of-its-kind, walk-off victory over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. “My family’s here. I’m just going to go enjoy the night and get ready for the conference championship on Sunday.”
Keenum, undrafted in 2012 before a couple of unremarkable stints with the Houston Texans and the Rams, became the starter in Minnesota only because of injuries to Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater. But once he was allowed on the field this season, there was no getting him off it. He played at a near-MVP level, and now he has the Vikings a win away from becoming the first team to play a Super Bowl on its home field.
The win over the Saints will go down in NFL playoff lore as the first postseason game ever decided on a touchdown with time expired in the fourth quarter. The most memorable characters in the drama were Vikings wideout and former Maryland star Stefon Diggs, who was on the receiving end of the 61-yard catch and run, and Saints safety Marcus Williams, whose missed tackle gave Diggs a free path to the end zone. But it was Keenum who delivered the throw.
“It’s very magical, miraculous,” he said Sunday. “I’m sure you guys will find lots of good words to name the play or whatever you guys are going to do. But for us, we don’t want to waste any opportunity … that’s given to us, especially this one. Does it put any more pressure on the future or this next game? No, this next game is big no matter what.”
The Eagles are a vulnerable No. 1 seed in these NFC playoffs because they have Foles filling in for Carson Wentz, the second-year quarterback who was an MVP front-runner before suffering a season-ending knee injury in December. Philadelphia has looked predictably unsteady since Wentz was hurt, and Coach Doug Pederson even was asked before the playoffs about his willingness to bench Foles in favor of youngster Nate Sudfeld if needed.
That wasn’t necessary Saturday. There was a bit of good fortune for Foles, like when a would-be interception caromed off a Falcons defender for a key catch that set up a field goal at the end of the first half. But Foles steadied himself and outplayed Ryan, the reigning league MVP, with a 23-for-30, 246-yard passing performance.
Yet even the doubts faced by Keenum and Foles don’t stack up to the level of derision aimed at Bortles, the Jaguars’ once-prized young quarterback who has faced intense scrutiny for his decision-making in the pocket, his delivery and his propensity to throw interceptions. Houston Texans defensive standout Jadeveon Clowney referred to Bortles as “trash” this season, and that was while Bortles was playing well.
Many observers say they expect Jaguars football boss Tom Coughlin and Coach Doug Marrone to bring in a new quarterback next season to go with a dominating defense. But it was Bortles, rookie tailback Leonard Fournette and the offense, not that defense, that led the way to Sunday’s 45-42 win in Pittsburgh. And Bortles’s teammates were quick to come to his defense afterward.
“He has a huge heart,” Jaguars defensive end Calais Campbell said. “He’s very competitive. I’ve got so much respect for him. He came out here and played his heart out. I’m proud of him. We know we can do some great things.”
Said defensive tackle Malik Jackson: “I’m excited for that man. All these quarterbacks are paid with no playoff games. I wish I was Blake.”
The next task for Bortles and the Jaguars is formidable. The Patriots will be playing in their 12th AFC championship game with Brady as their quarterback and Bill Belichick as their coach. That duo is seeking its eighth Super Bowl appearance and sixth Super Bowl victory.
But calling Bortles the other, lesser quarterback in a game played by Brady is not likely to offend him. He has heard far, far worse, after all.
“I’m just happy to win,” Bortles said Sunday. “I have no animosity toward anybody that’s ever said anything. I’m happy to be able to come here and do this with this team, happy to be able to continue to play for another week. There’s a lot of guys sitting at home on the couch watching this that I’m sure [are] wishing they could play. I know in past years, I’ve been. So to continue to have an opportunity to go play is pretty awesome.”
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