Vikings 29, Saints 24
One missed tackle can change an entire season.
The Minnesota Vikings were down 24-23 to the New Orleans Saints with the ball at their own 39-yard line and 10 seconds to go. Drew Brees had just led the Saints on a drive which ended in a go-ahead field goal for Wil Lutz (a drive after Kai Forbath had put the Vikings up with a field goal of their own).
Logic dictates that they needed to somehow get the ball into field goal range for Forbath to try another game-winner. But they had no timeouts, so their chances of winning seemed slim-to-none.
Case Keenum dropped back to pass and found Stefon Diggs in a hole in the Saints coverage. Safety Marcus Williams whiffed on a tackle. Diggs turned upfield, and with no other Saints player in front of him, jogged easily into the end zone as time expired.
And just like that, the Vikings had won. They’ll travel to play the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field in the NFC Championship Game next week.
Early on, the Vikings were dominating. They led 17-0 at halftime, and it took an offensive resurgence from the Saints and a couple of turnovers to make things close. New Orleans took the lead for the first time on a Brees TD pass to Alvin Kamara after a blocked punt from George Johnson, which kicked off the final sequence.
Both quarterbacks had similar numbers, but Keenum was the one who came out on top. He threw for 318 yards on 25 for 40 passing to go along with the game-winner. He also threw an interception to Williams (of all players) that set up the Saints first score.
Diggs led the Vikings in receiving with 6 grabs for 137 yards, with 61 coming on the game-winning TD. Adam Thielen had a clutch catch of his own to set up Forbath’s field goal after the two-minute warning; he finished with 6 catches for 74 yards.
As amazing as the Vikings miracle score was, it’s a bit disheartening to see Brees lose, as he was the catalyst for their second-half turnaround. He was bothered by the Vikings pass rush in the first half, which caused him to force two INTs to Anthony Barr and Andrew Sendejo. However, he turned it on big time afterward, ending up with 294 yards and 3 TDs on 25 for 40 passing (same as Keenum).
Along with the previously mentioned score to Kamara, the other two went to Michael Thomas (7 catches, 85 yards). Ted Ginn Jr. led the team in receptions, nabbing 8 for 72 yards. While Kamara (4 catches, 62 yards) made an impact through the air, he and Mark Ingram (11 carries for 43 yards and 10 carries 25 yards, respectively), didn’t do much in the rushing attack.
And then there were four. Three will be first-time Super Bowl winners. The other has won five in this century. This should be fun.
Jaguars 45, Steelers 42
Blake Bortles has led the Jacksonville Jaguars to the AFC Championship Game. Raise your hand if you predicted that happening at the beginning of the season.
It’s for real. The Jaguars upset the Pittsburgh Steelers 45-42 in a high-scoring affair at Heinz Field. Early on, it looked like the Jags were going to run away with it, bursting to a 21-0 lead, with one score set up by a Myles Jack interception deep in Steelers territory.
Things got worse for the Steelers after Yannick Ngakoue strip-sacked Ben Roethlisberger, which Telvin Smith scooped up for a 50-yard touchdown. The Steelers had two TDs in the second quarter but entered halftime down 28-14.
Pittsburgh kept themselves alive with some fantastic plays by their offensive weapons. Both Antonio Brown (7 catches, 132 yards) and Martavis Bryant (2 catches, 78 yards) reeled in deep passes from Roethlisberger for scores in the second period. Le’Veon Bell (9 catches, 88 yards) bailed his QB out in the third with a juggling catch to put the Steelers behind by 7 points.
From there on out, it was a back-and-forth scoring battle in the final quarter. The Jaguars got in the end zone quickly on a five play drive with a Leonard Fournette TD, his third of the day. Brown caught another long bomb TD on the next Steelers possession. Fullback Tommy Bohanon scored on a beautiful play-action pass the following possession for the Jags, taking nearly five minutes off the clock in the process.
Bell narrowed the gap to 42-35 again on a wacky play where Roethlisberger scrambled and tossed a backward pass to him with just over two minutes left in the game. While the Steelers had two timeouts left to potentially get the ball back for a game-tying TD, head coach Mike Tomlin opted for an onside kick instead of a regular kickoff, which utterly failed, putting the Jaguars in field goal range.
Josh Lambo hit a 45-yard field goal to put his team up 10 with 1:45 to go. The Steelers were able to get a TD via a JuJu Smith-Schuster catch with one second on the clock, which gave them no time to try and get the ball back.
The coaching decisions for the Steelers killed their chances for victory. They failed to convert two 4th-and-short tries, once with a pitch and the other with a pass. Tomlin’s onside kick call was curious as well. Even if those had succeeded, the Steelers defense struggled to slow down a surprisingly efficient Jaguars offense.
Bortles wasn’t perfect, but he minimized mistakes and didn’t take any risks, which worked rather well. He had 214 yards and the TD to Bohanon on 14 for 26 passing, scrambling 5 times for 35 more yards.
Jacksonville kept drives moving with the ground game. Fournette had 109 yards on 25 rushes to go with his 3 scores, amazing considering he missed a large chunk of the game with an ankle injury. T.J. Yeldon (5 carries, 20 yards) also had a rushing TD while also leading the team in receiving with 3 receptions for 57 yards.
Roethlisberger’s stats look great on paper, but his early miscues set the team back and ultimately did them in. He had 469 yards (second most in postseason history) and 5 TDs on 37 for 58 passing. Bell had 16 carries for 67 yards to go along with his receiving totals. Vance McDonald (10 catches, 112 yards) led the team in receptions.
In addition to the fumble return TD, Smith led the Jaguars with 16 total tackles.
The Jaguars will go on the road once again to face the top-seeded New England Patriots in the AFC title game. The Patriots beat the Tennesee Titans by 21 yesterday. This will be the Jaguars’ third conference championship appearance and their first since 1999. They have never been to the Super Bowl. Is this finally their year?