Brady. Bortles. Foles. Keenum. If you had those guys in your quarterback final four before the season, congratulations on successfully traveling back in time to this entertainingly weird season of football. This was the weekend when a quarterback crop with four former league MVPs and/or future Hall of Famers could have knocked four neophytes out of the water, but the passers with the combined career playoff record of 49-27 lost three of four to the quarterbacks who came into the divisional round with one playoff start before this year.
It’s too simplistic to use those three wins as the basis for a trend piece on how the league has changed. Two of those wins came down to the final play. If Julio Jones doesn’t slip and Marcus Williams doesn’t duck, the story might be about how veteran quarterbacks and experience are what wins close games in the postseason.
Instead, the reality is that we ended up with three games that were each close enough to be decided or put out of reach by one play. That in itself is the story of 2017, even if it won’t be the story of 2018 and beyond. There are lessons to be learned from each of the quarterbacks who have made it to the final four, even if we couldn’t possibly have predicted their rise before this season started.
Let’s run through those lessons and talk about what happened during the divisional round, starting with the story you already knew:
Lesson: Pressure or die
The story is true for everyone, but it holds especially true for teams facing one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the NFL: If you don’t get pass pressure on Brady, you simply aren’t going to win. The Titans weren’t able to sack Brady once on 53 pass attempts Saturday night, and they were quickly dispatched by the Super Bowl favorites. Since the 2007 season, when the Giants handed Brady his most notable playoff loss with a five-sack performance in Super Bowl XLII, teams that haven’t been able to manufacture a pass rush against Brady have withered:
Nowhere was that clearer than the second quarter, when the Patriots appeared to go three-and-out deep in their own territory after a strong third-down bull rush from Derrick Morgan got in Brady’s face and forced an early throw to a covered James White. The Titans’ defense marched off the field, only to be brought back on after a neutral zone infraction on the ensuing punt attempt gave the Patriots a first down. Tennessee pressured Brady only once more on the ensuing 14 plays of the drive, with Brian Orakpo forcing a red zone incompletion before Brady threw a touchdown pass on the next play. Chris Hogan scored to put the Patriots up 21-7, and the Titans never seriously threatened the rest of the way.
This is not a new story. Look through New England’s playoff losses and the pressure trend is clear. The Giants’ front four ate the Patriots up in 2007 and 2011. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware dominated as part of a 17-knockdown day in 2015. The Jets sacked Brady five times in 2010. An early Terrell Suggs strip-sack gave the Ravens a 14-point lead in 2009. Even in their Super Bowl wins, pressure has defined the game. The Pats launched their comeback against Seattle after Cliff Avril left with a concussion. Last year, Grady Jarrett and the Falcons’ pass rush shut down the Patriots before they collapsed under a near-record 93 snaps and failed to bother Brady in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Quite frankly, if you’re an AFC team, your first priority after finding a quarterback needs to be developing a deep, effective pass rush, because you’re going to have to go through the Patriots if you want to make the Super Bowl. You can’t afford to settle for a decent unit and even just one superstar, because we saw Khalil Mack and Von Miller talk about wanting to produce 30-sack seasons before the year, only to combine for 20.5 sacks on defenses that each took a step backward.
I can’t even really fault the Titans, although it was clear what they had wasn’t enough. Jurrell Casey didn’t influence the game on the interior. Morgan and Orakpo are steady enough to reliably produce between seven and 10 sacks a year each when healthy, but that wasn’t enough to threaten the Patriots. Teams need multiple players who can repeatedly win one-on-one matchups and force the Pats to either change their offense and give help in pass protection or risk getting Brady beat up.
Without steady pressure, teams simply can’t hold up. The Titans don’t have the safeties and linebackers to man up against New England’s bevy of running backs and tight ends. Dick LeBeau started the game with All-Pro safety Kevin Byard on Rob Gronkowski, and when that didn’t work, he moved Byard back into center field and swapped in Johnathan Cyprien and a series of inside linebackers. That also didn’t work, which led to Byard returning, only for Gronk to beat him for a first down and then a subsequent touchdown. Imagine what teams without a first-team All-Pro at safety are supposed to do.
All of this makes New England’s opponents on Sunday even more fascinating. The Jaguars finished the season second in pressure rate (33.3 percent) despite blitzing just 17.8 percent of the time, the lowest rate in football. Getting pressure with their front four is how the Giants beat the Patriots twice, and the Jaguars have the horses to ruin Brady’s day without needing to send a fifth man after the opposing quarterback. With A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey, the Jags also have a pair of cornerbacks who can line up anywhere on defense and hold their own in man coverage.
Naturally, Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels will adapt their game plan, something they do as well as anyone in football. They won’t have as many of the unexpected wrinkles as they did Saturday, when they fooled the Titans by playing off their own season-long tendencies and threw a shovel pass to White for a touchdown and blocked up Tennessee’s cross-dog blitz near the goal line for another easy score.
Instead, they might totally transform the playbook. The Patriots could follow their philosophy against the Andrew Luck-led Colts teams and go bigger while leaning heavily on the run against a Jacksonville run defense that ranked 26th by DVOA. Maybe they’ll avoid the cornerbacks and focus on Gronk, White and Dion Lewis, trusting that they’re better than Myles Jack, Telvin Smith and Jacksonville’s safeties. Maybe they’ll go back to the no-huddle that flummoxed Tennessee and try to tucker out Jacksonville’s front four. We know Belichick will have a plan, and we know Brady is capable of executing it. What matters is whether the opposing defense manages to disrupt the league’s longest-running symphony.
Lesson: What comes next? Nobody knows
From Weeks 13-15, as I mentioned in my column last week, Bortles posted the league’s best passer rating (128.6) and Total QBR (85.1). Over his three subsequent games, Bortles was 30th in passer rating (62.3) and 18th in QBR (44.9), with most of the latter owing to his work as a scrambler in the wild-card win over the Bills. The Jaguars narrowly beat Buffalo, but Bortles looked bereft of confidence, and they looked badly overmatched on offense for their game to come with the Steelers.
And then, on Sunday, Bortles was a genuine threat again. He got off to a hot start, completing his first three passes for 53 yards with touch on a drive that ended with Jacksonville’s second fourth-and-goal touchdown in two weeks. Bortles struggled for most of the two subsequent quarters, but he came alive again in the fourth quarter. The former third overall pick hit Keelan Cole on a 45-yard bomb to set up one touchdown before a well-designed play-fake set up fullback Tommy Bohanon for a second score. On Jacksonville’s final two drives, Bortles went 5-of-6 for 118 yards with two game-sealing touchdown passes, going drive-for-drive with a future Hall of Famer in Ben Roethlisberger.
As much as Bortles has been in positive situations this year by virtue of his defense, the Jaguars needed the 35 points their offense scored to win on Sunday. Jacksonville forced another defensive touchdown — something it has done three times in two games against the Steelers this season when no other team has scored one in more than four seasons — and came up with a pair of fourth-and-short stops, but the Steelers came up with big play after big play to stay in the game. They converted fourth-and-11 for a touchdown before halftime. Later, Le’Veon Bell scored on a third-and-9 TD toss. Antonio Brown hauled in a 43-yard score on fourth-and-5. Three third-down conversions, including two third-and-10s, set up a Roethlisberger lateral to Bell for another score. Those weren’t enough because the Jaguars’ offense kept answering the bell.
Of course, Bortles has been surprising us all season. It looked like Bortles was on his way out after the Jags benched him during the preseason, only to hand the ball back after Chad Henne failed to impress. He alternated great games with abysmal performances the next week at times, throwing four touchdowns against a great Ravens pass defense in London before producing 140 passing yards in a loss to the Jets. Bortles followed the best three-game stretch of his career with one of his worst stretches as a pro. He wasn’t even consistent from quarter to quarter on Sunday and still came up with big plays when Jacksonville needed them most.
As we evaluate Bortles and other quarterbacks, we have to remember that developing passers don’t have the same growth curve and don’t have static levels of talent. It’s so tempting and simple to put signal-callers on the pass/fail system, where they’re either no-doubt franchise quarterbacks or passers who don’t have a prayer of ever winning a Super Bowl. There are a few guys who are going to be the best player on the field every week and a whole bunch of quarterbacks who should inspire no hope, but the vast majority of them are somewhere in the middle, and the combination of context and sheer variance changes how they look from week to week or season to season.
A bunch of those guys — Joe Flacco, Eli Manning and end-of-career Peyton Manning come to mind — have won Super Bowls in recent years. In many cases, they just got hot at the right time. Flacco threw 11 touchdowns without an interception over a four-game stretch during the 2012 postseason and hasn’t posted a single four-game run with 11 touchdowns or zero interceptions in 71 ensuing tries. Eli went 8-0 during his two Super Bowl runs and hasn’t won a playoff game otherwise. The phrase “This quarterback is good enough to win a Super Bowl” should be launched into outer space like a bad pass. Three or four great games might be enough, and you might not see them coming.
It’s easy to look at Bortles and assume he’ll turn into a pumpkin against the Patriots in Foxborough on Sunday, and indeed, he very well might. It’s also fair to remember that Flacco has twice won in the postseason in Foxborough, and might have four wins with slightly better luck. Mark Sanchez won a playoff game in New England. Their respective defenses deserved a huge amount of credit for those wins, but what do you think Bortles is bringing with him to town next weekend?
Lesson: Coaching matters
Suggesting that coaching plays a big role in winning football games isn’t exactly some newfangled secret, but we often underestimate just how much it really matters in thinking about matchups before a game. Foles wasn’t very good on Saturday night, especially during a rough start for the Eagles’ offense. It’s a small miracle that Foles didn’t throw an interception to Keanu Neal, who had the ball bounce off him and to Torrey Smith, which became the biggest play on what ended up becoming a critical field goal just before halftime.
Thanks to a smart game plan and a coaching staff that adapted as the game went along, though, Doug Pederson & Co. moved on. Faced with a speedy, undersized defense capable of giving his struggling quarterback fits, Pederson leaned heavily on a power running game that relied more heavily on his offensive line than the skills of his quarterback. As the game went along, Foles found success as a passer on run-pass options (RPOs), which require him to make a single read after the snap before making a decision.
Pederson stuck with what worked, even calling the same play (or plays that at least looked similar) twice in a row on multiple occasions. He would have had more success with a better quarterback, given that the bomb Pederson dialed up on the very first play from scrimmage would have gone for a touchdown with a quarterback who either had a better arm or didn’t lose his footing. Foles’ duck resulted in a long pass interference call that the Eagles wasted on a subsequent Jay Ajayi fumble, but the right idea was there from a schematic perspective.
As teams with a bye should, the Eagles also mixed in things the Falcons hadn’t seen before — or, at the very least, since high school. After getting the speedy, young Falcons to flow to the play side, Pederson dialed up something out of the single-wing to get Nelson Agholor free on a counter for a crucial 23-yard run on third-and-3. As underdogs, they played like a team that needed to take risks, going for it on fourth-and-1 at the end of the same drive and scoring their only touchdown on a LeGarrette Blount plunge.
Contrast that to the Falcons, who rued the departed Kyle Shanahan in a game in which their offense simply didn’t do enough to win. New offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian took much of the blame as Atlanta’s offense failed to live up to the lofty heights of 2016 throughout the season, and he — alongside coach Dan Quinn — certainly didn’t have his best game as a coordinator. The Falcons seemed to decide to go for it on fourth-and-2 at midfield in the second quarter, only to somehow end up not getting set and running a play just after the play clock expired. The play wouldn’t have worked, but while the Falcons caught a break, the whole episode just spoke to how flummoxing their offense seemed to be at times on Saturday.
Sarkisian’s playcalls on the final series also came in for plenty of criticism. A first-down fade to Julio Jones failed. On second down, he called for a shovel pass to Terron Ward, who didn’t seem ready for the ball. Third down was a slant to Jones short of the end zone, before fourth down saw the Falcons motion fullback Derrick Coleman out as a wide receiver before running a sprint-out for Jones, who slipped and never got open on a play the Eagles saw coming as the Falcons broke the huddle.
The playcalls certainly didn’t work, but they weren’t as bad as the picture I presented above. The fade to Jones is entirely defensible given that he was matched up one-on-one against the shorter Ronald Darby. Ryan’s throw was bad. I don’t understand why it wasn’t to Devonta Freeman or Tevin Coleman, but the shovel pass has been an effective play near the goal line this season, with the Chiefs scoring repeatedly with the tactic. The Patriots also scored on a shovel pass on Saturday.
As for the fourth-down call, the fullback motioning out to the weak side is a tactic the vast majority of teams (including the Patriots) will use to both identify coverage and take a defender out of the play. The Eagles called the sprint-out, but the Saints used a similar play as their regular two-point/fourth-down play for years, while the Raiders ran the same sort of sprint-out and throw to the pylon for a game-winning score against the Chiefs in Week 7. It’s a natural follow-up when teams are expecting a fade, but Jones slipped. I don’t think it was a great playcall, but it’s not an inherently stupid choice.
Atlanta fans’ frustration with Sarkisian is also overstated and a product of regression toward the mean. The Falcons were dominant under Shanahan last season. They led the league in points scored, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Their five offensive linemen started all 16 games, the only team in the league to do so. Atlanta sported the most productive first-down offense in the history of football. Even if the Falcons planted Shanahan on the sidelines and didn’t allow him to take a single call from another team, Atlanta’s offense was going to decline in 2017.
And to be honest, it didn’t decline very much. The Falcons had the league’s third-best first-down offense. They were the best team in the league converting third downs. Atlanta finished ninth in offensive DVOA and seventh in points per drive.
Their raw numbers went down because the Falcons ran a league-low 157 meaningful drives on offense, 24 fewer than the league average and 38 fewer than the league-leading Cardinals. That’s a product of their own offense generating long drives and their defense struggling to get off the field. No team faced more plays per drive than the Falcons’ defense, which had the second-longest average time of possession per drive on defense. As a result, the Falcons’ offense struggled to get on the field and had the league’s second-worst average starting field position.
If you want to ignore that, it’s your call. The easy, reactionary thing to do would be to fire Sarkisian. Never mind that some Falcons fans wanted to fire Shanahan after his first year in town, when Atlanta ranked 23rd in offensive DVOA and looked disjointed all year, which would suggest that continuity might be the smarter move.
There just isn’t much in the way of better options out there. Consider that the Seahawks are hiring Brian Schottenheimer — who has been run out of his past three coordinating jobs with the Jets, Rams and at Georgia — because they were concerned that he wouldn’t last much longer on the market. Who are you hiring who represents a clear upgrade on Sarkisian?
I asked Falcons fans on Twitter and heard Gary Kubiak as the most frequent response, but Texans fans were sick of what they considered to be an antiquated Kubiak offense when he was pushed out in Houston. And after Kubiak ranked ninth in offensive DVOA during his lone season in Baltimore, his offenses ranked 25th and 28th in two seasons with the Broncos. Darrell Bevell was just fired so the Seahawks could hire Schottenheimer. Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo was 27th in DVOA during his lone season as an offensive coordinator with the Browns in 2015. This just isn’t a great market for offensive minds.
Consider the Eagles, who were one of seven teams to hire a head coach during the 2016 offseason. Each of those seven teams hired an offense-minded coach. Two of those other six — Chip Kelly and Ben McAdoo — are already out of their jobs. Dirk Koetter and Mike Mularkey nearly lost their jobs this year. Adam Gase saw his team fall apart in what was supposed to be a big year. Hue Jackson has gone 1-31. Pederson pretty clearly has been the most successful hire of the bunch, and now, both he and his backup quarterback are one game from the Super Bowl.
Lesson: It’s the situation, not the player
When the Vikings desperately needed a big play on offense, it didn’t seem like they had it in them. Both Keenum and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur have had breakout seasons in 2017, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them both making a lot more money in bigger roles together somewhere else next season.
After the Saints went up 21-20 in the fourth quarter and Keenum needed to march the Vikings downfield, though, he and his offensive coordinator had few answers. On their first drive, Keenum looked frazzled and came up with one big play, a 24-yard duck to Adam Thielen that saw the star receiver draw two flags on star corner Marshon Lattimore and still come up with a circus catch. The Vikings gained 5 more yards before Kai Forbath kicked a 53-yard field goal to take the lead.
The Saints subsequently drove and took the lead, and you know what happened next. Keenum hit Stefon Diggs on a dig route for 19 yards, which the Saints were likely happy to give away given that it kept the Vikings inbounds and forced them to use their last timeout. Keenum’s next two passes were incomplete, and you already know what happened on third down. The former Houston star made a good throw to the sideline, only for Diggs to elude a bizarrely bad tackle attempt from Marcus Williams and turn upfield for one of the most incredible plays in playoff history.
Let’s talk about what happened, although I wouldn’t fault Saints fans for looking away. Obviously, Williams deserves some of the blame, although it’s not incomprehensible. His tackle attempt was designed to get underneath Diggs and flip him over, which would have brought the Vikings receiver down inbounds with five seconds left and no timeouts, ending the game. If Williams played it more conservatively and allowed Diggs to catch the ball before pushing him out of bounds, Diggs would likely have gone out of bounds around the 33-yard line, which would have given the Vikings a shot at a 50-yard field goal to win it. I think Williams was too aggressive, obviously, but you can understand at least part of why he felt like it was so important to bring Diggs down inbounds.
I would place a lot of the blame, though, on Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. The Saints appear in two-deep coverage on the play, which is a lot to ask of Williams on a play in which we know the Vikings need to go to the sidelines. There’s nothing inherently wrong with playing two-deep in that situation, but how Allen employed the rest of his defense is befuddling.
The Saints loaded up the strong side with defenders on both second and third downs as the Vikings went with trips to the right side, and I’m not a defensive coordinator, but I can’t understand why P.J. Williams is lurking in the flat three yards off the line of scrimmage on third-and-10. Williams serves no purpose on the play. If the Saints want him to prevent a quick out to set up an easier fourth-and-short, I don’t get it; at that point of the game, they would happily take a fourth-and-5 with seven or eight seconds left on the clock.
You might think about the play in which Alabama won the College Football Playoff National Championship last week, where Georgia was in Cover 6 with a lone safety covering one half of the field on what ended up as the season-ending touchdown. That defensive call had an underneath cornerback who was supposed to disrupt and reroute receivers at the line of scrimmage before presumably staying responsible for the flat, but that was on second-and-26 in an untimed situation. Williams also wasn’t near any receivers at the snap and didn’t impact the play whatsoever. Ken Crawley was playing in an intermediate zone behind him and got caught ball-watching as Williams went for the football and subsequently took him out with his diving attempt. The Saints also had two linebackers waiting in the middle of the field at the 50-yard line, another place where they should have happily allowed a completion.
It would have been nice for the Saints to have had a chance before the play to call timeout, rest their pass-rushers and establish what they wanted to do on defense heading into the most important defensive snap of the game up to that point. They were able to call a timeout before the previous play but couldn’t repeat the move because Payton burned their first two timeouts with desperate challenge attempts in the fourth quarter. The Vikings kept all of their timeouts and were able to use them on defense to get the ball back after the Saints failed on third-and-1, which set up Wil Lutz‘s field goal and the subsequent drive from the Vikings.
The fourth quarter gave Vikings fans a moment they’ll never forget while simultaneously taking years off their lives. It’s also a place they don’t want to go while trailing and needing Keenum to throw them back into the game. Keenum had one fourth-quarter comeback this season, and that came when he threw a touchdown pass on the opening play of the fourth quarter to put the Vikings up 14-9 on the Falcons. His three game-winning drives included that Falcons drive and a short field after a Mitchell Trubisky interception on which Keenum threw one pass before a game-winning field goal.
Just 9.4 percent of Keenum’s passes this season came with the Vikings trailing in the fourth quarter, the second-lowest rate in the league and just narrowly ahead of Jared Goff, who also struggled while trying to lead the Rams back last week. Keenum posted the league’s second-best Total QBR this season, but on his 45 dropbacks when trailing in the fourth quarter this season, his QBR fell from 69.6 to 34.5, which was 23rd in the league. Before 2017, his 29.7 QBR in those situations was 68th among 71 passers.
One of the reasons Keenum has been able to enjoy a breakout season in 2017 has been that the Vikings haven’t needed him to throw them back into games. When the Vikings needed Keenum on Sunday, it took a prayer off his back foot and a play Vikings fans are literally calling a miracle to push Minnesota into the NFC Championship Game. You would forgive the Vikings for wanting to keep things out of the spiritual realm in Philadelphia next Sunday.