The conference championships have come and gone, but that doesn’t mean I’m done talking about them. No sir, Sunday gave us more than enough material to fill two Daily Doses. So here are some leftover thoughts, observations and ramblings from an eventful weekend in the NFL.
1. Tom Brady is the greatest. Take away his go-to receiving weapon (the guy who did this in last year’s Super Bowl) and he still leads New England to a 13-win regular season. Publish a damning report about his growing disconnect with Bill Belichick (not to mention that he may have had Jimmy Garoppolo locked out of his treatment facility) and he still goes out and carves the Titans up like a Christmas ham. Then he nearly gets his hand cut off Luke Skywalker style (only a slight exaggeration) AND loses the world’s greatest tight end mid-game against Jacksonville, only to triumph over the league’s best defense with another one of his patented fourth-quarter comebacks. Did I mention he’s 40 and probably going to win the MVP award for the third time (doesn’t that number seem low?)?
It wouldn’t be a New England victory without controversy—the referees were oddly chummy to the Patriots while you could argue Myles Jack’s return of a Dion Lewis fumble shouldn’t have been blown dead. But Brady still proved that no lead is safe, even with Gronk in the concussion protocol, down by 10 on third-and-18 with 10:56 remaining.
2. Speaking of third-and-18, when did Danny Amendola become awesome? We knew the Jags would have a plan for Rob Gronkowski while it was also safe to assume Jalen Ramsey would spend a good portion of the afternoon shadowing deep threat Brandin Cooks. So naturally the Pats featured Amendola, who stole the show with five catches for 56 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. That’s as many touchdowns as Amendola scored during the entire regular season.
But Amendola’s biggest contribution, the play that would ultimately swing the momentum back in New England’s favor, came on third-and-18 following a long incompletion to Chris Hogan. Jacksonville’s win probability was 93.2 percent at the time but Amendola turned the tide with a sliding 21-yard grab in front of Tashaun Gipson for the first down. Amendola came through again with just over four minutes remaining, this time coming down with a tumbling, eight-yard reception that led to various, frantic sound effects from Tony Romo. Amendola’s other highlights included a 20-yard completion to Dion Lewis (it was only the second pass of his NFL career) and a 20-yard punt return that put New England well into Jacksonville territory.
While Amendola isn’t the most prolific pass-catcher Brady has ever had—Gronk, Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Julian Edelman occupy that conversation—he’s certainly made his presence felt in the postseason. Amendola led New England with 112 yards in the Divisional Round and rescued the Patriots in last year’s Super Bowl with a fourth-quarter touchdown followed by a game-tying two-point conversion. The 32-year-old has never topped 700 yards in a season and has taken countless pay cuts throughout his Patriots tenure, but when the game is on the line, Amendola usually finds a way to get it done.
3. Stephon Gilmore—the recipient of a five-year, $65 million mega-deal this past offseason—has drawn mixed reviews in his first year as a Patriot. He earned PFF’s No. 14 coverage grade out of 121 qualifiers at cornerback during the regular season. That’s not bad considering how poorly he fared early in the year, particularly when he was embarrassed by Kelvin Benjamin in a Week 4 loss to Carolina.
But all was forgiven when Gilmore made the play of his life on Sunday. On fourth-and-14 with 1:47 remaining, Blake Bortles uncorked a last-gasp throw to Dede Westbrook down the right sideline. Westbrook had him by a step but Gilmore swatted it down for the incompletion. That came just four plays after Westbrook beat Gilmore for a 29-yard gain down the left sideline.
We all strive for it, but perfection is an unrealistic expectation. No team in the history of football has ever put together a perfect 60 minutes. Mistakes aren’t just a likelihood—they’re a certainty. But the great ones don’t let mistakes haunt them and resiliency has been a key tenant of New England’s dynasty. Gilmore showed this trait in spades Sunday as did Dion Lewis, who sealed the game with an 18-yard run after losing a fumble early in the fourth quarter.
4. While Brady and Amendola were firing on all cylinders Sunday, Chris Hogan was not. In fact, Hogan has managed just three catches for 24 yards on eight targets since returning from a shoulder injury that cost him seven of his last eight regular season games. Hogan was a huge weapon early in the year with five touchdowns in his first five games but he’s been invisible ever since.
Rex Burkhead also had a quiet afternoon. He was out-touched 16-1 by Lewis and was only on the field for three of New England’s 64 offensive snaps. The Patriots may have been trying to ease him in after missing so much time—he hadn’t played since Week 15 due to a sprained knee. But it was still surprising that Burkhead, who scored eight touchdowns during the regular year including six in his last four games, wasn’t a bigger factor. Burkhead, of course, was reported as the player who collided with Brady when he cut his hand at practice last week. It’s a stretch to think Burkhead was benched for that sole reason, but I’m sure Belichick has punished players for much less.
5. The no-nonsense Patriots aren’t usually much for whimsy, but I was oddly captivated by this image of Matt Patricia frolicking in a sea of confetti after New England’s win. In his final home game with the Patriots, it was nice to see Patricia taking it all in. With Patricia moving on to coach the Lions at the end of the year, the Patriots are expected to promote LBs coach Brian Flores to defensive coordinator. An up-and-comer in the coaching world, Flores had been up for the head job in Arizona before the Cardinals landed on Steve Wilks.
6. I think we can all agree that Chris Simms underestimated Blake Bortles just a tad when he ranked him the 70th-best quarterback in the league, but that doesn’t mean he has a secure future in Jacksonville. Bortles actually threw for more yards than Brady on Sunday (he outgained him 293-290) and didn’t commit a single turnover throughout his postseason run. But remember, this is the same guy who was intercepted five times in his last two regular season games and pulled a Tim Tebow by rushing for more yards than he threw in the Wild Card round against Buffalo. The reality is, even on his best day, Bortles is little more than average. And that would be fine if the Jaguars were an average team, but now that they have the league’s best defense and a budding star in Leonard Fournette, the stakes have been raised.
The Jags could probably get by with another year of Bortles under center, but if the team sees an opportunity to upgrade at quarterback this offseason—Kirk Cousins and Alex Smith should be available—Jacksonville could close the book on Bortles with minimal cap risk. Bortles’ fifth-year team option for $19.053 million is only guaranteed for injury, so the Jaguars could cut him without paying a dime of that as long as he’s off their roster by the start of the new league year (March 14).
7. After New England erased Jacksonville, I said Patriots fans should be rooting for Philadelphia against Minnesota on the basis that facing the Eagles would be preferable to playing the Vikings on their home turf in Super Bowl LII. The Eagles held up their end of the bargain by winning, but if you were a Pats fan watching you had to be thinking to yourself, “we have to face these guys next?” Nick Foles went ballistic (352 yards, three touchdowns), the defense wreaked havoc (two interceptions, one fumble recovery) and Mike Trout loved every second of it.
8. The Vikings had nothing left after the Minneapolis Miracle, falling flat as Case Keenum struggled through one of his worst games of the season (28-for-48, 271 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions). With Keenum’s contract set to expire, it’s anyone’s guess if the 29-year-old will be back in Minnesota next year. It certainly didn’t help matters that All-Pro receiver Adam Thielen (three catches for 28 yards on nine targets) was playing through a fractured back.
9. Now the Eagles will oppose the Patriots in a rematch of Super XXXIX. They say opposites attract and that’s certainly true of New England and Philadelphia. The Patriots are seeking their sixth Lombardi Trophy, which would match the Steelers for the most all-time, while the Eagles are aiming to win their first Super Bowl in franchise history. The Patriots opened as 5.5-point favorites but that’s nothing new for the Eagles, who were underdogs against Atlanta in the Divisional Round and again versus Minnesota in the NFC title game.
The matchup will be especially meaningful for LeGarrette Blount and Chris Long, who defected to Philadelphia after leading New England to a win in last year’s Super Bowl. As usual, there will be no shortage of storylines for the big game, but the one you’ll hear about most is Rob Gronkowski’s health. The Patriots believe he’ll have enough time to clear the concussion protocol, but given the tricky nature of head injuries, it could go down to the wire.
Quick Hits: Former Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks has accepted the Cardinals’ head-coaching job. Wilks is replacing Bruce Arians, who retired at the conclusion of the 2017 season. Wilks is expected to bring on Panthers LBs coach Al Holcomb as his defensive coordinator while Darrell Bevell is interviewing for the offensive coordinator position. It appears the Cardinals will not retain DC James Bettcher or OC Harold Goodwin. Eric Washington will assume Wilks’ old post as the Panthers’ defensive coordinator … Ex-Vikings OC Pat Shurmur was officially announced as the Giants’ head coach on Monday. Shurmur is reportedly targeting former Raiders coach Jack Del Rio as his defensive coordinator, which would leave Steve Spagnuolo out of a job … The Jets have promoted QBs coach Jeremy Bates to offensive coordinator. He’s taking over for John Morton, who was fired after only one season … The Browns have hired Todd Haley as their offensive coordinator. He’s the first OC the Browns have had under head coach Hue Jackson. Haley is coming off a six-year stint as the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh. The Steelers decided not to renew his contract due to his estranged relationship with Ben Roethlisberger … The Titans will not retain coordinators Dick LeBeau or Terry Robiskie. Ryan Day had been a leading candidate to replace Robiskie at offensive coordinator, but instead it looks like he’ll remain in his current role as the co-offensive coordinator at Ohio State … Impending free agent Jerick McKinnon wants to play where he can be a featured back. That makes him a long shot to re-sign with the Vikings, who are committed to workhorse Dalvin Cook … Speaking of Cook, the rookie has resumed jogging. The second-round pick out of Florida State got off to a hot start in 2017 before tearing his ACL in Week 4 … Teddy Bridgewater said he “definitely” envisions himself as a starter next season. Coming off a brutal knee injury that cost him all of 2016, the impending free agent only attempted two passes this season … Sports Illustrated’s Peter King named the Raiders as a team to watch for impending free agent Le’Veon Bell. The 25-year-old still hopes to re-sign with the Steelers this offseason but has threatened to retire if the team assigns him the franchise tag as they did in 2017.