The first day of the divisional playoff games has ended and two teams are headed to the conference championship. Here are some of our big takeaways from Saturday’s games:
1. This was a victory straight out of a 1980s Bill Parcells game script, with power pushing speed around the field as the Eagles won the battle in the trenches on both sides of the ball. Although the offensive line dominated from the outset, their first-half handiwork was undone by the self-sabotage of four fumbles and a series of Nick Foles misfires. Fortunate to enter halftime down by just one point, the Eagles took control of the contest late in the third quarter with a pair of methodical field-goal drives that totaled 154 yards on 26 plays and 13:39 in time of possession.
2. Ten months of planning, practice and game execution came down to one play at the 2-yard line, in large part because Julio Jones beat Pro Bowl safety Malcolm Jenkins for a 20-yard gain to pick up a crucial fourth-and-6 first down after the catch rule’s notorious “survive the ground” clause overturned Mohamed Sanu‘s third-down conversion. It’s fitting that Philadelphia’s defense bowed up for four plays with the season on the line after Tevin Coleman‘s 10-yard run gave Atlanta a first-and-goal opportunity at the 9-yard line. Starting in the second quarter, Fletcher Cox and the Eagles defensive front seven took control of the line of scrimmage, forcing six punts on seven Falcons possessions as Foles’ offense found its footing and managed a trio of field-goal drives to grind out the win.
3. How did Carson Wentz‘s stand-in fare? Foles’ nightmare of a first half was best encapsulated by a botched interception that went through Keanu Neal‘s hands and bounced off the safety’s knee 12 yards backwards into Torrey Smith‘s waiting hands for a 20-yard gain. The worst throw of the day was Foles’ longest completion of the half, ultimately resulting in a 53-yard Jake Elliot field goal into the teeth of a gusty wind. The second half played out like a pre-game Doug Pederson dream scenario. Foles avoided implosion by hitting simple, easily defined throws on run-pass options and screen passes while the defense kept Matt Ryan and Jones off the field. As shiny as Foles’ 100.1 passer rating looks in the box score, his remedial-level work behind center remains a question mark for the NFC Championship Game. Make no mistake, it was Pederson’s play-calling and Philadelphia’s offensive line that were the difference in this outcome. The Eagles will need their quarterback to hit tougher throws to advance to the Super Bowl.
— Chris Wesseling
1. Responding to Marcus Mariota‘s perfectly orchestrated 95-yard scoring drive late in the first quarter, the Patriots took control of the game with a quick-strike offense that exhausted the Titans‘ defensive line while generating a trio of second-quarter touchdowns. Play-caller Josh McDaniels adjusted his aerial attack, ditching deep and intermediate throws in favor of a return to the uptempo, short-passing scheme of years past. Dick LeBeau’s defense was forced to pick its poison, paying for the early containment of Rob Gronkowski and Brandin Cooks in conceding death by a dozen paper cuts from Dion Lewis, James White and Danny Amendola. Tom Brady shrugged off a slow start to lead the offense’s most impressive all-around performance in at least three months, overtaking Brett Favre as the oldest quarterback ever to win a postseason game.
2. An outclassed underdog such as the Titans must play a nearly perfect game to beat the powerhouse Patriots in New England. After hanging tough for one quarter, Mike Mularkey’s squad was undone by a mistake-prone, one-dimensional offense, a lack of playmakers on defense, bad breaks on penalties and glaring deficiencies in play-calling and clock management. Credit Matt Patricia’s bend-but-don’t-break defense for shutting Mariota down for the final three quarters, registering a season-high eight sacks. The Patriots‘ coaching stability and experience in big games shined through. It will be interesting to see if that precision execution changes next year with McDaniels and Patricia in high demand to fill head coaching vacancies.
3. So much for Brady’s so-called slump to close out the regular season. While the MVP favorite’s production tailed off in December, that troublesome stretch also featured exquisite ball placement and big-time throws in a comeback victory over the Steelers. In the other three games starting with the Dolphins‘ unlikely Week 14 dominance, it was impossible to untangle Brady’s own Achilles injury, the absences of key receivers and running backs and the deleterious effects of bone-chilling weather on the passing game. Removed from the injury report this week, Brady showed early-season form with improvisational plays highlighted by a backfoot floater to Danny Amendola, converting a red-zone third down early in the fourth quarter. He extended his own postseason record with a 13th 300-yard game, generating a 102.5 passing rating on 53 attempts. Brady will now compete in his seventh consecutive conference championship game and 12th overall, not only more than all but three NFL franchises (Steelers, 49ers, Cowboys) but also more than quarterbacks Peyton Manning and John Elway combined.
— Chris Wesseling