With one of the most stunning plays in NFL playoff history, the Vikings beat the Saints, 29-24, to advance to the NFC championship game. Down a point, with seconds left and out of field goal range, Minnesota scored a touchdown when Stefon Diggs hauled in a pass from Case Keenum, eluded a bizarre non-tackle by rookie New Orleans safety Marcus Williams and dashed the rest of the way into the end zone.
The improbable score set off pandemonium at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, where purple-clad fans had appeared set for yet another of the franchise’s brutal postseason defeats. Instead, it was Drew Brees and his shocked teammates, particularly Williams, who will have the offseason and beyond to bemoan a near-certain victory that got away in the final moments.
Adding to the Saints’ misery was the fact that they had staged a terrific comeback just to position themselves for a gut punch. The Vikings had controlled the first half, taking a 17-0 lead, but Brees threw three second-half touchdown passes, two to wide receiver Michael Thomas to take a one-point lead with just over three minutes left in the game.
From there, the teams traded field goals, with Minnesota’s Kai Forbath nailing a clutch 53-yarder before New Orleans’s Wil Lutz hit one from 43 yards out with just 25 seconds to go. That set the stage for the heroics from Diggs and Keenum, and now the Vikings will travel to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles and their backup quarterback, Nick Foles, with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake.
Until Saints-Vikings heated up in the fourth quarter, it appeared that the earlier game, between the Jags and Steelers, would provide all of Sunday’s playoff fireworks. It had everything — if, by everything, you mean 87 points and a Jacksonville team that batted back everything Pittsburgh threw at it in Heinz Field.
Where to even begin with this game, in which the Jaguars jumped out to a quick two-touchdown lead and stiff-armed the Steelers the rest of the way, with the heap of key turnovers, questionable coaching decisions and poor executions? That sells the Jags, who will play the Patriots for the AFC championship Sunday in New England, short.
Jacksonville got three rushing touchdowns from rookie Leonard Fournette in what was the highest-scoring performance ever against the Steelers in a postseason game. Leading 28-14 at halftime, the Jags had to fight off the Steelers, who rallied time and again behind Ben Roethlisberger’s five touchdown passes (two to Antonio Brown) on on 37-of-58 passing for 469 yards.
For the Steelers, there will be plenty to second-guess, from play calls to a poorly executed onside kick (a combination of the two). Coach Mike Tomlin had spoken last week about expecting to face the Patriots next weekend. Instead, he’ll have the day off.
Suddenly, Bortles, who completed 14 of 26 passes for 214 yards and one touchdown, isn’t such a laughingstock.
“I’m sure there are going to be tons of people who are going to disapprove or talk negative or hate or do whatever they want,” he said on the field after the game, “but we get to keep playing and we get the opportunity to play in Foxborough for another week.”
Here are a few highlights (or lowlights, depending on your point of view):
Two first-quarter TDs came courtesy of Fournette.
The second came after Myles Jack nicely hauled in an intercepted Roethlisberger pass.
And the second quarter offered a third rushing touchdown, with T.J. Yeldon scoring this time.
The Steelers did manage to get on the board with an Antonio Brown touchdown catch midway through the second quarter.
But Jacksonville quickly answered, with Yannick Ngakoue punching the ball from Roethlisberger’s grasp and Telvin Smith returned the fumble 50 yards for a touchdown and a 28-7 lead.
Roethlisberger came up big as the half was ending, hitting Martavis Bennett on a 36-yard touchdown on a fourth-down play.
Just when it seemed the Steelers were closing in on the comeback, Bortles unleashed a spectacular 45-yard pass to Keelan Cole, setting up a 3-yard touchdown plunge by Fournette on the following play to put the lead back to 14.
That scoring play followed the Steelers turning the ball over on downs after failing to convert on a fourth-and-1 play in which they opted to pass than run. It was the second time Pittsburgh executed an odd play call on fourth-and-1, earlier opting to toss the ball back to Bell instead of running up the middle or giving Roethlisberger the ball on a QB sneak.
Pittsburgh was far from done, however. On the ensuing drive the Steelers again faced fourth down, this time in a clear passing situation. Roethlisberger again opted to take a shot down field, connecting with Brown for another TD to pull Pittsburgh back to a seven-point deficit.
Of course, the Jaguars had a reply. This one was a 14-yard TD pass from Bortles to Tommy Bohanon, the ninth Jacksonville receiver of the game, that restored the Jaguars’ 14-point lead.
Pittsburgh came back once more, with Roethlisberger tossing a lateral to Bell for a touchdown with just over two-minutes remaining, making the score 42-35. However a questionable decision to use an onside kick gave the Jaguars the ball well inside field goal range after the Steelers failed to recover. A Josh Lambo field goal put the Jaguars up 10 with 1:45 to play, but a touchdown pass by Roethlisberger to JuJu Smith-Schuster closed the final margin to three.
Afterward, Roethlisberger was asked whether he planned to return next season. “I don’t know who’s coming back, but I know the guys up front are and that makes it good for me. So I look forward to next year with these guys.”
Top story lines
Arrest made after threat to Steelers, fans: A San Antonio man was arrested after allegedly threatening a mass shooting during the game Sunday at Heinz Field. (Read more.)
A spirited defense: Jaguars tackle Malik Jackson offered a spirited defense of Bortles, ripping Titans defensive lineman Jurrell Casey for a prediction that the quarterback would choke against the Steelers. “He’s a dog,” he said after the Jags advanced to the AFC championship game.” I want to know what Jurrell Casey has to say about him choking in big moments, while you sit at home and watch us next week”
The Patriots did their thing: New England’s reign over the AFC continued Saturday night in Foxborough, Mass., in the form of a 35-14 blowout win over the Tennessee Titans. The victory sends the Pats to their seventh consecutive conference championship game, and 12th in 17 years.
Tom Brady passed for 337 yards and three touchdowns, the 10th time in his career he’s had at least three scoring passes in a playoff game. Dion Lewis had 141 total yards for New England, while Danny Amendola caught 11 passes for 112 yards, Rob Gronkowski had six catches for 81 yards and a touchdown, and James White added two touchdowns. Tennessee led 7-0 before the Patriots ran off 35 straight points in the rout, which featured a moment in the fourth quarter when the hosts had just nine fewer first downs (30) than the visitors had total plays (39).
New England will be looking to reach its eighth Super Bowl since the 2001 season.
Eagles are barking: Then, there were the Philadelphia Eagles. They fell behind early and were relying on a backup quarterback. But the Eagles survived their divisional round matchup with the Atlanta Falcons, winning, 15-10, to advance to next Sunday’s NFC championship game.
Nick Foles passed for 246 yards, LeGarrette Blount rushed for his ninth career postseason touchdown, and the Eagles’ defense held Atlanta to 281 total yards. The NFC’s No. 1 seed, which will host the winner of Sunday’s Saints-Vikings matchup, managed to escape with the Falcons advancing all the way to the Philadelphia 2-yard line on their final possession. A fourth-and-goal pass to Julio Jones by Matt Ryan went through the wide receiver’s hands and fell incomplete with just over a minute left.
The Eagles were the rare home underdog, a fact that they took great glee in pointing out afterward.
Nothing to see here: Tom Brady makes a curious attempt to shoot down reports of friction with Bill Belichick and the Pats. (Read more.)
Trivial pursuit: Brady is 40 years, 163 days old; Mariota is 24 years and 75 days old. That age difference will mark the first time in NFL history that starting quarterbacks have been more than 16 years apart. Because you want to know, the largest previous gap was 15 years, 166 days — when the Chiefs’ Steve DeBerg, at 37, beat the Raiders’ 22-year-old Todd Marinovich in 1991.
Diggs was big in high school, too: Before he found success with the Vikings, Stefon Diggs was impossible to stop in high school. (Read more.)
Who will play in London: Three NFL playoff teams will play in London this fall, but a new survey shows Brits are still bored by the American football. (Read more.)
Trump blowback: Athletes of Haitian descent took issue with the president’s vulgar comment about immigration. (Read more.)
Bradford on deck: Backing up Vikings quarterback Case Keenum will be Sam Bradford, with Teddy Bridgewater inactive.
Divisional-playoff picks and Super Bowl odds: The Eagles and Jaguars will upset the Falcons and Steelers. (Read more.)