Case KeenumAP Photo/Paul SancyaThe Vikings will have to decide whether Case Keenum can maintain an elite level of play.

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum was one of the biggest surprises of the 2017 season, evolving from journeyman to MVP candidate.

But that evolution came without any security beyond this season. Now that the Vikings have been eliminated from the playoffs, will they bring Keenum back? Or will they turn to Teddy Bridgewater to resume his spot as the starting quarterback after missing nearly two full seasons with a knee injury? Or will they turn to Sam Bradford? The Vikings currently don’t have a quarterback under contract for 2018.

We asked our panel of ESPN NFL insiders to give us their thoughts.

Who will be the Vikings’ primary starting quarterback in 2018?

Courtney Cronin, NFL Nation Vikings reporter: I used to think Bridgewater took priority over Keenum in terms of how the Vikings view their long-term plans at quarterback. I’m not so sure anymore, even after Keenum’s clunker in the NFC Championship Game. Keenum did a lot to earn the job going forward, including winning a playoff game. Despite Pat Shurmur being all but signed, sealed and delivered to the New York Giants as their next head coach, the Vikings' offense is going to look very similar to how it does now, aside from the expected retirement of right guard Joe Berger and possibility of Jerick McKinnon getting a deal elsewhere in free agency. Minnesota has the core of its playmakers coming back next year, including the return of Dalvin Cook.

The Vikings will go after an offensive coordinator who will build his system around his personnel just like Shurmur did, so it’s not hard to imagine Keenum having continued success under center in Minnesota. Plus, I’m not so sure I believe the Keenum-Shurmur package deal will come to fruition after all. New York can stick with Eli Manning, who is under contract for two more years, have last year’s third-round pick, Davis Webb, next in line and can use the No. 2 overall pick on a quarterback if it so chooses. The other question is this: If Keenum is the Vikings' starter in 2018, what happens to Bridgewater and Bradford? Both believe they can be starters, but will the Vikings be able to convince one of them to return as a backup next season?

Matt Bowen, NFL writer: Keenum’s ability to thrive in Shurmur’s offense put the Vikings on the door of the Super Bowl. But with Shurmur reportedly leaving to take over the Giants, I expect the Vikings to let Keenum test free agency. Look for the veteran to earn starting money on the market and for Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer to re-sign Bridgewater as the front-runner to land the starting job in ’18 after a full offseason of work.

Dan Graziano, NFL writer: I predict that Bridgewater will lead the Vikings in quarterback starts in 2018. My expectation is that they re-sign him AND Keenum, but that Bridgewater (a favorite of the coaching staff’s) either wins a training camp competition to begin the season as the starter or ends up taking over the job at some point during the season. I still think the Vikings view Bridgewater as their long-term guy and don’t think he’s had the chance to fully develop into that role yet.

Kevin Seifert, NFL writer: There is still great loyalty and sentimentality within the organization toward Bridgewater. He would have been starting by the end of the season if Keenum had done anything other than play at the highest level imaginable for him. But the Vikings' deep playoff run changed the calculus. I now wonder if the Vikings can avoid moving forward without Keenum. Bridgewater's steady personality more closely matches Zimmer's ethos, but the organization might have tipped its hand in deciding to leapfrog Sam Bradford over Bridgewater on the playoff depth chart.

Which team is the best fit for Keenum in 2018?

Cronin: Keenum has earned himself a big pay day for his next contract and will earn starter money in 2018. When free agency hits, expect a handful of quarterback-needy teams to come calling in addition to the Vikings. In the end, if Minnesota can find a coordinator whose offensive philosophy mirrors the one that brought the best out of the quarterback in the best season of his career, Keenum has the best chance of succeeding with the Vikings.

Bowen: Following Shurmur to New York doesn’t seem logical at this point with two-years left on Manning’s contract and the Giants holding the No.2 overall pick, where they could be in a position to draft USC’s Sam Darnold or UCLA’s Josh Rosen. However, when we look at the clubs in need of a veteran starter at quarterback, such as Denver, Buffalo or Arizona, Keenum could have his pick of landing spots in 2018.

Graziano: It’s possible he could follow Shurmur to New York, but I think it’s more likely the Giants draft a quarterback and maybe even keep Manning for another year. So, if following Shurmur isn’t an option, I think the run the Vikings have made will convince them to bring back Keenum, whether they sign Bridgewater or not, and install him as the starter entering camp and the regular season. After that, I imagine he has to keep playing at this level to keep the job long-term.

Seifert: It's possible he'll follow Shurmur, but it now seems more likely than ever that he'll remain with the Vikings.

From miracle to misery: Keenum, Vikings routed in Philadelphia

January, 21, 2018
Jan 21

videoPHILADELPHIA -- Another long offseason awaits the Vikings following their sixth straight defeat in the NFC Championship Game.

The days, weeks and months ahead of Minnesota’s 38-7 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles will be a source of agonizing retrospect as the Vikings try to comprehend what went wrong the night their dream of being the first team to play in the Super Bowl on their home turf was crushed, dashed and discarded.

The Minneapolis Miracle turned out to be short-lived. The Vikings were adamant that they weren’t aiming to build off the euphoric high from last week’s insane walk-off touchdown in hopes of preventing an emotional hangover. But the momentum they had hoped would carry over from that win wasn’t there.

The loss coincided with a series of unfortunate firsts for the Vikings: the first defensive touchdown they allowed this season, the longest passing touchdown (53 yards) they gave up this season, the offense’s first red zone turnover and the most first-half points they gave up (24).

Eric Hartline/USA TODAY SportsCase Keenum and the Vikings ran out of magic against the Eagles, who forced three key turnovers.

The pressure Case Keenum had been so good at performing under finally got to him midway through the first quarter when he threw his first pick-six as a Viking. Before halftime, the quarterback turned the ball over again, a product of a cross-blocking scheme gone awry in the red zone when tight end David Morgan was called upon to block Eagles defensive end Derek Barnett, who came speeding off the right edge to strip the ball from Keenum and force a fumble.

If those errors didn’t cause enough of a sting, this tidbit will. Remember the name Derek Barnett? If you're a Vikings fan, you might. The defensive end was taken by the Eagles with the draft pick acquired in the trade for Sam Bradford in 2016.

The Vikings got so close to their ultimate goal once again, but watched it slip away in devastating fashion. This wasn’t the worst of the past six losses in the NFC title game (that belongs to the 2000 Minnesota team that was blown out 41-0 by the New York Giants), but given the improbability of this season and all the Vikings had accomplished under adverse conditions, this one may carry the heaviest sting of all.

They weren’t supposed to be playing at this point of the season. Not after losing Bradford and top draft choice Dalvin Cook within the first four weeks of the season. Yet there they were, the NFL’s Cinderella story of the year, led by a career backup QB in Keenum, who had a career year in leading the Vikings on an eight-game winning streak from Weeks 5-13, to a first-round bye and to a monumental win in the divisional round.

So close, yet so far.

This game was supposed to be a defensive struggle featuring a heavyweight battle between two of the best defenses in the NFL. Minnesota finished the regular season No. 1 in yards and points allowed per game. Philadelphia boasted the league’s best run defense, which tightened up after allowing 33 yards on the ground in the first quarter, most of which occurred on the Vikings' sole scoring drive, and held Minnesota to 70 total rushing yards.

The Vikings' defense got tripped up by the Eagles’ run-pass option and couldn’t recover. The Eagles’ stupendous play-calling allowed Nick Foles to look like his 2013 Pro Bowl self, throwing for 352 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

Foles’ success was aided by a domino effect of injuries in the Vikings’ starting secondary. Xavier Rhodes hurt his toe and had to play through injury. Andrew Sendejo never returned from a calf injury. Harrison Smith got burned by Eagles tight end Zach Ertz all night. Trae Waynes bit on how well wide receiver Torrey Smith sold his route on the flea-flicker, opening the flood gates even further for the Eagles in the second half.

The Vikings did a lot of good things this season. They proved that they could fight back and not just get by. They proved they could dominate teams and win not only with their top-tier defense, but also with their offense.

But those things didn't happen on Sunday night. The team that lost the NFC Championship Game did not resemble the one that got the Vikings this far.

It won't take another Minneapolis Miracle for this team to recover. Much of this current roster will be in place next season, although the quarterback position is up for grabs with no current QB under contract. The team will have to decide between Keenum, Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater. But while the Vikings should return another strong team, that doesn’t mean the sting from this defeat will go away any time

PHILADELPHIA -- The stadium began to shake during cornerback Patrick Robinson's 50-yard interception return, much the way it did the week before when Jalen Mills wagged his finger over a fallen Julio Jones in the corner of the end zone.

This is a town that worships defense above all else. It's Chuck Bednarik and Reggie White and Brian Dawkins, who served as honorary captain Sunday and was splashed all over the Jumbotron to whip the crowd into a frenzy. The franchise doesn't have a Lombardi trophy yet, but the Philadelphia fans have that identity, and it has been enough to sustain them through a 58-year championship drought.

It's only fitting that it was the defense that has carried them to this point.

Vikings vs. Eagles (Derek Barnett causes Case Keenum to fumble)Eric Hartline/USA TODAY SportsThe Eagles' defense made life miserable for Case Keenum and the Vikings.

Robinson's pick-six midway through the first quarter stopped the Minnesota Vikings' momentum in its tracks, and rookie Derek Barnett's strip-sack in the second quarter served as a stomach punch from which Minnesota would not recover, as the Eagles surged to a 38-7 win in the NFC Championship Game. They advance to play Tom Brady and the New England Patriots on Feb. 4 in Minneapolis, a rematch of Super Bowl XXXIX.

The Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas has installed the Patriots as 5.5-point favorites in Super Bowl LII. But the Eagles have grown quite accustomed to the that role. They were the first No. 1 seed in NFL history to be underdogs in their opening playoff game when the Atlanta Falcons were listed as 3-point favorites in the divisional-round game. The Vikings were also 3-point favorites. The Eagles embraced it, as did the city, which went out and bought "underdog" masks in droves after right tackle Lane Johnson and defensive end Chris Long broke them out postgame last week.

The odds have been against the Eagles since quarterback Carson Wentz was lost to a torn ACL against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 14. Backup Nick Foles' erratic play down the stretch didn't help. But Foles rose to the occasion Sunday night, slicing the top-ranked defense to the tune of three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 141.4 quarterback rating.

No matter the state of the offense, Jim Schwartz's defense has been the constant that has allowed this team to endure. It has yielded 33 points total in its past four games, including a measly 17 points through two postseason contests. What separated this performance was the takeaways. The Eagles forced three against Minnesota compared to zero against Atlanta.

Robinson's interception return was monstrous. The Vikings scored easily on their first possession and were on the move again, until Long pressured quarterback Case Keenum into an errant throw that Robinson took the distance.

Barnett's time in the spotlight came later in the half. As fate would have it, the Eagles took him with 14th overall selection, which was acquired from Minnesota in the Sam Bradford trade before the start of the 2016 season. He has been a regular contributor on arguably the best defensive line in football and created one of the biggest plays of the game by forcing a Keenum fumble that Long recovered.

The players involved in those two tide-turning moments -- Long, Robinson and Barnett -- speak to the kind of offseason executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman and the rest of the front office had. Robinson and Long were both low-cost free-agent signings, and Barnett was an immediate impact player at one of the game's most important positions: defensive end.

As this season has showed, it has been a collective effort, from the talent evaluators to Doug Pederson and the coaching staff to the backups, like Foles, who came in and performed to make up for key losses. But it's the defense that led the way, as it did once again Sunday to make the Eagles' Super Bowl dreams a

videoThe Jacksonville Jaguars' surprising season is in the books, with a loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday. Can the same be said of their quarterback, Blake Bortles?

Bortles entered this season with just 11 wins in three seasons as a starter -- the same number of pick-sixes he has thrown in his career. He flipped the script this season, cutting down on his turnovers as the Jaguars shifted the focus to rookie Leonard Fournette and their running game, which was the best in the NFL. That, along with one of the NFL's best defenses, fueled the Jaguars to a 10-6 record and their first playoff appearance since the 2007 season. Bortles capped it off with a brilliant first half against the Patriots until Tom Brady did his Tom Brady thing and brought New England back.

The Jaguars picked up the fifth-year option on Bortles' contract, and his salary for 2018 will be approximately $19.1 million (the average of the top 10 highest-paid quarterbacks). The deal is guaranteed for injury only until the first day of the 2018 league year in March, when it becomes fully guaranteed.

Will it be Bortles or someone else under center for the Jaguars in 2018? Which team would be the best fit for Bortles? We asked our panel of ESPN NFL insiders to weigh in.

Who will be the Jaguars' primary starting QB in 2018?

Mike Clay, NFL analyst: Bortles. The Jaguars were super-aggressive while loading up on defensive stars during the past two free-agency periods. The strategy worked, but it's also likely to stop them from making a strong push for a top-end, free-agent quarterback such as Kirk Cousins or even Case Keenum. Instead, expect Jacksonville to bring in competition for Bortles, whether it's a rookie or a veteran along the lines of Sam Bradford, Josh McCown or Ryan Fitzpatrick. Don't be surprised if the Jaguars attempt to mimic the 2017 Texans and Chiefs by trading up for a quarterback during the first round of April's draft.

Michael DiRocco, NFL Nation Jaguars reporter: Bortles. This was Bortles' best season. He completed 60 percent of his passes for the first time, threw for 21 TDs and trimmed his interceptions to 13 -- and he did so without his No. 1 receiver (Allen Robinson) and had to rely on two rookies because of other injuries. He still wasn't as consistent as he needed to be, but he had a fantastic stretch in early December. That just didn't seem to be enough for the Jaguars to bring him back in 2018 -- and then he won a pair of playoff games. He had more yards rushing (88) than passing (87) in a victory over the Buffalo Bills, but he won the game with his legs and a fourth-down TD pass. He led a pair of critical, fourth-quarter drives against Pittsburgh, and he hit key throws on each drive. He followed that with a 293-yard game with a touchdown pass and no interceptions against the Patriots. He has earned a return trip to Jacksonville in 2018.

Blake BortlesSam Greenwood/Getty ImagesBlake Bortles had a resurgent and yet still inconsistent fourth season with the Jaguars in 2017.

Mina Kimes, senior writer: Alex Smith. While Bortles performed well in the AFC Championship Game, he's still extremely inconsistent, which is why the Jaguars should look to upgrade. Given the strength of their defense and run game, the Jaguars don't need a gunslinger. They just need a quarterback who can move the chains alongside Fournette without turning the ball over. Given those parameters, Smith seems like a good fit.

Mike Sando, senior NFL writer: Alex Smith, Tyrod Taylor or another veteran who protects the football. I see the Jaguars drafting a quarterback as well. Paying $1.1 million per week to Bortles under his current deal seems unlikely. How much less would he take?

Field Yates, NFL Insider: It will still be Bortles. He has come so far this season compared to the downtrodden 2016 campaign that led to questions about his future. Although he is not a build-your-franchise-around-him quarterback, the Jaguars don't need that right now. Their defense and remaining portions of the roster are truly that good. Those types of quarterbacks are rarely readily available, but the improved Bortles gives the team another opportunity to build off this remarkable 2017 season.

Which team would be the best fit for Bortles in 2018?

Clay: Bills. If Bortles moves on from Jacksonville, his best shot to start and succeed would be a run-heavy offense with a good defense and a hole at the quarterback position. There are a few teams that check those boxes, but the likes of Minnesota (Keenum) and Washington (Cousins) have solid in-house options to try to re-sign. Denver, Cleveland and the New York Jets can address the position via a top-six overall pick in April's draft. If I connect one more dot and send Alex Smith out of the AFC to Arizona, that leaves the run-heavy, quarterback-needy, defense-first Bills as a logical landing spot for Bortles. He makes sense as veteran competition for second-year QB Nathan Peterman, and same as he did with Jacksonville, he would be asked to simply manage a Bills offense that features LeSean McCoy. It's a match made in The Medium Place.

DiRocco: Jaguars. Bortles likely will get some competition during the offseason via free agency or in the draft, but he should still be the opening day starter. Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett has said repeatedly that Bortles made significant strides in his first season in his offense (remember, when Hackett was promoted to OC midway through the 2016 season, he stuck with Greg Olson's offense because changing midseason would be ridiculous). That year of experience, as well as the addition of some help at wide receiver and tight end, should result in better production in what will be Bortles' final chance to prove that he is the long-term answer.

Kimes: Arizona. With Arians out, it's hard to predict what sort of signal-caller the organization will look for next season, but I could see the Cardinals paying Bortles a below-average starter salary to compete alongside a young draft pick. My second choice would be the Jets for the same reason.

Sando: San Francisco comes to mind for some reason. Kyle Shanahan might be able to work with him and help him become effective in an offense that emphasizes the running game. Kansas City and Oakland come to mind as places where the head coach could take an interest in developing someone at the position. Just to be clear: We're talking about him as a backup in this context.

Yates: The Jaguars. It's clear that Bortles has some physical tools a team desires in its quarterback, and it's also clear that he found a comfort zone in Jacksonville this season. Quarterback play often stems back to confidence and the ability to process information before the snap, leading to improved execution after the snap. Bortles made strides in all those categories in 2017 and would be best suited to stay in Jacksonville in 2018.

videoFOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- As painful as Sunday afternoon ended up being for the Jacksonville Jaguars, a couple of things became abundantly clear.

The Jaguars belonged in the AFC Championship Game, and they're not going away. They proved they're going to be every bit the Super Bowl contender in the AFC over the next several years that the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers have been for the past 20.

Jaguars vs. Patriots (Blake Bortles rolls out )Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images Blake Bortles did not turn the ball over in the postseason and silenced his many critics by reaching the AFC Championship Game.

The 24-20 loss to the Patriots at Gillette Stadium was just as much of a validation of quarterback Tom Brady's greatness as it was a failure by the Jaguars. Brady guided the Patriots back from a 28-3 deficit in the last Super Bowl and put together two fourth-quarter touchdown drives against a Jaguars defense that finished second in the NFL in the regular season in scoring, turnovers and sacks.

The Jaguars didn't wilt on the big stage but couldn't overcome six penalties for 98 yards -- including two pass-interference penalties -- and were unable to get stops late in the fourth quarter.

However, that doesn't diminish what the team accomplished in 2017: One year after going 3-13, the Jaguars went 10-6, won their first division title since 1999 and made their first playoff appearance since 2007. They did it behind a core of youngsters, especially on defense, and nearly all of their key players will return in 2018.

It's hard for coach Doug Marrone to see that now because it's going to be awhile before he can get over what happened Sunday. It's hard for him to take a step back and see how far the franchise has come since owner Shad Khan fired Gus Bradley on Dec. 17, 2016.

"Probably the more I think about it, the more it'll hurt and the more it'll weigh on my mind about what we we could have done better," Marrone sad. "Everyone in that room right now, everyone in that locker room, is thinking what could we have done a better job of to win the game? Outside of, God forbid, someone passing away that you feel close to, this is probably as close a pain that you'll have. This is the pain that you deal with when you lose football games.

"It's something that we've got to deal with, and it hurts, and it stays with us for a long time."

Nobody has come further than quarterback Blake Bortles, whose performance against the Patriots, as well as throughout the entire postseason, should silence his many critics. The much-maligned Bortles completed 64 percent of his passes for 293 yards and a touchdown and, most important, did not commit a turnover.

He needs more help at receiver, which he should get if the team brings back Allen Robinson -- who missed the season because of a torn left ACL -- and another year of growth in coordinator Nathaniel Hackett's system.

Bortles didn't turn it over in the entire postseason and was a critical reason why the Jaguars were playing Sunday. He had more yards rushing (88) than passing (87) in the 10-3 wild-card victory over the Buffalo Bills, but he threw a fourth-down touchdown pass.

Bortles also led a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives in Pittsburgh after the Steelers had cut the Jaguars' lead to one touchdown. He hit key throws on both drives, including a deep pass to Keelan Cole to set up one touchdown, and audibled out of a play into a pass to fullback Tommy Bohanon that went for a score.

He certainly didn't choke, or play like trash, or look like a subpar quarterback in the postseason, which is just some of what he was called this year.

The Jaguars surprised a lot of people in 2017. That won't happen next season. It'll be expected.

"That's the goal, in all honesty," receiver Marqise Lee said. "We know how good we are. We know the talent we have on this team and what we're capable of in the future. There's nothing to hang our heads [about]. At this point all we can do is build, make our team even better. We're holding our heads up high. We know where we stand.

"We don't plan on being the same Jacksonville team we were years ago."videovideo

videoFOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Tom Brady magic, for the 54th time.

Led by the incomparable Brady, who was playing with black tape on his right throwing hand to protect a cut that required 12 stitches, the New England Patriots escaped with a 24-20 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.

It marked the 54th time that Brady has engineered a game-winning performance to lead the Patriots to a victory from a fourth-quarter deficit or tie. This one was obviously sweet, given the reward: a trip to Super Bowl LII to face the winner of the NFC championship between the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings on Feb. 4 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Jaguars vs. Patriots (Tom Brady focused )AP Photo/Charles Krupa Injured hand and all, Tom Brady led the Patriots back to the Super Bowl.

Of those 54 winning drives by Brady, 11 have come in the playoffs. Such clutch performances in games with the highest stakes are why many view Brady as the greatest quarterback of all time.

"Tommy’s the best. He’s the toughest guy I’ve ever met physically [and] mentally," said receiver Danny Amendola, who was also one of the Patriots' top performers with seven catches for 84 yards and two touchdowns. "If there is anything that happens to Tom, I know he can handle it. It was unfortunate to see him get injured mid-week. I know mentally it probably stressed him out a bit, and physically I know it’s hard to throw a football with stitches in your thumb.

"Everybody knows how tough he is. Everybody knows that he’s our leader. It’s a testament to his career, his personality, the man he is. Not only is he the best player in our locker room, but he gets everybody else to play well and step their game up and that’s why he’s the best."

Special-teams captain Matthew Slater said the 54 comebacks are reflective of a once-in-a-lifetime player.

“Tom Brady. He’s one of a kind,” said Slater, one of the Patriots’ emotional leaders. “We’ve seen a lot of clutch players over the history of this league. I was raised to appreciate the history of the game and the great players of this league, and it’s really hard to find a guy who has been able to help his team the way he has consistently, playing at the level he’s playing at -- at 40 years of age. It’s Tom Brady.”

Few might have figured the Patriots would need such a comeback, but the Jaguars proved to be a worthy foe and then some.

Add that the Patriots played the second half without tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was knocked out of the game by a presumed concussion after absorbing a big hit from safety Barry Church, and the challenge was steep. Brady & Co. trailed 20-10 early in the fourth quarter.

Of course, it's nothing the Patriots haven't conquered before, as they won their previous three playoff games in which they trailed by at least 10 points: Super Bowl LI, Super Bowl XLIX and in the 2014 divisional-round playoffs. Entering Sunday, they were 5-5 since 2001 in playoff games in which they trailed by at least 10 points.

"We got a lot of guys that really fight and never give up," coach Bill Belichick said in the Lamar Hunt Trophy presentation. "They know how to play good, situational football and I’m really proud of these players. They did a great job."

While Brady led the charge, there were no shortage of stellar individual efforts, led by Amendola, who reached up high on the back line of the end zone with 2:48 left and kept his feet in bounds for what turned out to be the winning touchdown. Amendola also had a terrific diving catch earlier on the drive.

Last week, Gronkowski nicknamed him Danny "Playoff" Amendola because he always seems to come through in the clutch.

Coming through in the clutch has long been Brady's M.O. as well, and Sunday added another chapter to his Hall of Fame-level career accomplishments. That he went 26-of-38 for 290 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions just five days after a freak accident at practice produced a major scare was storybook stuff.

Next stop: Minnesota.

"You cherish these moments and opportunities, and I know we’ve had quite a few of them, which we’ve been very blessed to do," said Brady, who will make his eighth Super Bowl appearance. "It’s just been an unbelievable run, and I think everyone should be really proud of what we accomplished. This is a different team than last year’s team.

"It didn’t look good at 2-2 and you just keep showing up to work every day, and we sit in these chairs and Coach Belichick gets up here and he demands a lot out of us and he tries to get the most out of us every day. It’s not always great. Sometimes it’s pretty average and then you’re just trying to get better and better and get to the point where you can make the fourth quarter of a game and try to play well enough to get yourself into the next one.

"So, just proud of our team, proud of what we accomplished. It’s pretty amazing and proud of this team, great leadership and it’s just been a great year. It’d be really great if we take care of business in a couple weeks."video

Tim McManus/ESPNT.J. from Reading, Pennsylvania, was one of hundreds of Eagles fan who embraced the role of underdog by donning a dog mask.

PHILADELPHIA -- An Eagles fan was asked what it’s like when he puts his dog mask on.

T.J. from Reading, Pennsylvania, wanted clarification.

“What is it like physically or spiritually?” he asked.

Let’s go with both.

“It smells like mothballs,” he said. “It was probably sitting in a warehouse somewhere for the last decade. But I put it on, and once I kind of get used to the burning in my throat, I just want to start barking.”

It was an eerie scene outside Lincoln Financial Field prior to Sunday’s NFC Championship Game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings. Inspired by the “underdog” masks that right tackle Lane Johnson and defensive end Chris Long donned after the Eagles defeated the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round, Philadelphia fans went out in droves to purchase dog masks of their own.

Tim McManus/ESPN

Tim McManus/ESPN

According to CreepyParty, the manufacturer of the German Shepherd mask that Johnson and Long wore, the company had received orders for more than 2,500 dog masks as of mid-week. Their biggest issue has been trying to keep up with demand, as they had a limited number of masks in stock. With their factory located in China, they had to scramble to get the masks to the United States by game day.

No worries. The Philadelphia fans improvised, hitting up local costume stores, digging though attics and even designing dog attire of their own to get into character.

The fruits of their efforts were realized as the Lincoln Financial Field gates opened and fans began taking their seats. Vikings players didn’t have to look far to lock eyes with a canine.

As three-point underdogs to the Falcons last week, the Eagles became the first No. 1 seed in NFL history to not be favored in their first game of the postseason. They were installed as three-point 'dogs against the Vikings as well. The team and the entire city, clearly, have embraced the role.

"When did Carson [Wentz] go down? Since that point, no one's given us a chance," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said, referring to the quarterback's Dec. 10 ACL tear. "I understand Carson's a great player, but every week our guys are hearing the same thing. Now, all of a sudden, we're not good enough? We're 13-3, best record in football, home-field advantage throughout.

"The guys are gonna motivate themselves based on what they've heard for the last month. It really doesn't matter what you guys talk about because [our] locker room is united. I'll go to bat for every one of those guys. I'll go to war for every one of those guys in that dressing room."

How Pat Shurmur helped bring the best out of Case Keenum, Nick Foles

January, 21, 2018
Jan 21

videoPHILADELPHIA -- Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur is reportedly headed to New York at the end of the Vikings' season to become the Giants' next head coach. One of the more pressing situations awaiting him in New York would be coming up with a plan for the team’s quarterbacks in 2018.

Will Shurmur be on the same page as Giants owner John Mara and general manager Dave Gettleman in regard to moving forward with Eli Manning? What happens if the Giants take Sam Darnold or Josh Rosen with the No. 2 pick? And don’t forget, the Giants' third-round pick last year, Davis Webb, is still part of this equation.

Whatever direction they choose, if they hire Shurmur, the Giants should have all the confidence in the world that they have the right person to tackle this task. If there’s one thing above all the accomplishments he’s had as an offensive coordinator, Shurmur has proved he can handle just about any quarterback situation and make his personnel thrive.

When the NFC Championship Game kicks off Sunday night, the byproduct of Shurmur's work will be on display as the Vikings' Case Keenum and the Eagles' Nick Foles each look to lead his team to the Super Bowl.

Brace Hemmelgarn/USA Today SportsVikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur molds his system to his personnel and not the other way around, which helped both Case Keenum and Nick Foles have the best seasons of their careers under Shurmur.

The ties between Keenum and Foles were made long before this season, during their time together with the Los Angeles Rams in 2015, but there’s a common denominator for how this matchup came together -- for how these two journeyman QBs achieved success in the NFL.

Shurmur was Foles' offensive coordinator during Foles' first stint with the Philadelphia Eagles, as the team began to transition into the post-Michael Vick era. Under Shurmur’s direction, Foles had the best season of his career in 2013, throwing 27 touchdowns and two interceptions and posting a passer rating of 119.2, the third highest in NFL history. Foles rode his success that season all the way to the Pro Bowl. When Foles’ production slipped in 2014 -- his adjusted yards per attempt shrunk from 10.5 to 6.5 and he turned the ball over 13 times in 29 quarters -- Shurmur defended his quarterback.

“Pat, he’s a tremendous coach,” Foles said. “I really enjoyed playing for him. I’m excited, he’s obviously had a lot of success since. I haven’t seen him since I was here last, I believe, so it’ll be good to see him and compete against him.”

The numbers back up the notion that both Keenum and Foles performed their best in Shurmur’s system. The two quarterbacks have a combined 26-8 record as starters under Shurmur compared to a collective 18-28 mark under all other offensive coordinators. According to ESPN Stats & Information, both quarterbacks' completion percentage, touchdown-interception ratio, passing yards per game, yards per attempt and Total QBR are all higher with Shurmur as their offensive coordinator.

For Keenum, this season was all about being in the right situation and the right system at the right time.

After taking over for Sam Bradford, who suffered a knee injury in Week 1, Keenum posted the best season of his five-year NFL career, completing 67.6 percent of his passes (No. 2 among all QBs) for 3,547 yards, 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions in the regular season. In his West Coast system, Shurmur has capitalized on Keenum’s mobility, a heavy dose of play-action and using play designs that best suit the strengths of his QB, which are different from the other quarterbacks Minnesota has on its roster.

“He’s done an incredible job of getting me on the same page,” Keenum said. “I think it’s just communication, it’s both you guys getting on the same page. It’s me as a player to play as I’m coached. I try to fit his [system] as much as I possibly can.”

In terms of playcalling, Shurmur has moved Keenum outside the pocket and utilized more play-action in 2017 than in any other season of the quarterback’s career. As a starter this season, 29 percent of Keenum’s pass attempts have come via play-action, compared to 22 percent from 2013 to '16. Benefiting from his innate ability to sense pressure, 15 percent of Keenum's pass attempts were made from outside the pocket in 2017, up 4 percent from his first four seasons in the league.

“I never get a play call that comes in where I’m like, ‘Golly, I don’t like this play,’” Keenum said. “Every play that comes in I like, I like the play. He does a great job of protecting the quarterback, keeping us in good situations and giving us a chance to be successful.”

The notion that Shurmur molds his system to his personnel and not the other way around is echoed throughout the Vikings' locker room. Building upon the strengths of the players he has at his disposal, particularly his quarterbacks, is how the offensive coordinator has been able to adapt to changes along the way and not miss a beat.

“No matter how many layers you have coaching the quarterback, you have to stay on the same page so the quarterback is hearing the same message,” Shurmur said. “They’ve done the things we’ve asked them to do, they’ve made plays, they’ve created, they get us in and out of runs, from run to pass and pass to run. They’ve functioned well, and it’s really helped us win games.”

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Gnats are an inconvenient part of the culture in the Deep South. They sometimes show up in swarms so thick they appear to be small clouds. They can swirl around your face and body to the point that it's maddening.

That’s what the Jacksonville Jaguars want to be defensively when they face New England quarterback Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

“You can hit Brady, you can hit Brady, but hitting him isn’t what’s going to get to him," Jaguars defensive tackle Marcell Dareus said. “It’s constantly being that gnat in his face. He just hates that gnat just always [being] around.

“You sack him, he’s going to get up and just keep rolling. He’s that competitive spirit, like, ‘OK, you got me. Now I’m gonna go throw this touchdown the next play. Forty yards. You happy about that sack, but there you go.’ That’s just his mentality."

Jaguars defense sackCharles LeClaire/USA Today SportsThe Jaguars don't necessarily have to blitz to get pressure on the quarterback.

The Jaguars have the defense to bug Brady like a gnat. They can pressure with their front four of Calais Campbell, Malik Jackson, Abry Jones and Yannick Ngakoue and drop seven into coverage to defend Brady’s short passes to his backs and receivers -- and tight end Rob Gronkowski.

That’s been a formula for success against Brady in past playoff games and Super Bowls.

The Giants beat the Patriots 21-17 in Super Bowl XLVI following the 2011 season. They sacked Brady twice, hurried him eight times and intercepted him once, holding him to 276 yards and two touchdowns.

In Super Bowl XLII following the 2007 season, the Giants sacked Brady five times, hurried him nine times and held him to 266 yards and one touchdown.

It doesn’t have to be done with a 4-3 scheme as Jacksonville uses and the Giants used. In the 2015 AFC Championship Game, the Denver Broncos sacked Brady four times, hurried him 17 times and intercepted him twice in a 20-18 victory out of their 3-4 alignment.

But their principal was the same: keep somebody in Brady’s face. That’s why Jackson, who was with Denver in 2015, had the Jaguars' defense supplied with video of that game on their iPads.

“I told Yannick and Dante [Fowler] to watch [DeMarcus] D-Ware and Von [Miller], let them know what they were thinking, what they were doing," Jackson said of the Denver ends, who combined for three sacks and 11 hurries in that 2015 game. "I just told them the thought process we had going into that game as far as what we were thinking rushing Tom Brady, what we had to do to beat that O-line.

“I shared a few tidbits, but these guys have been doing it great all year. So we’ll continue doing what they’ve been doing. I’m not going to give them too much to overdo them."

And details of what the Broncos did?

“A little bit of this, a little bit of that," Jackson said with a smile. “We’ll show you Sunday."

It helps to be sound defensively and have solid corners. The Broncos, with the No. 1 defense in the NFL in 2015, had that. The Jaguars, with the No. 2 defense this season, have that.

The Broncos didn't have to blitz a lot to rattle Brady, nor do the Jaguars. Jacksonville has the lowest blitz rate in the NFL at 18 percent, yet they still finished second in the NFL in sacks with 55. Brady’s three postseason losses in Foxborough came against teams -- Baltimore twice and the New York Jets once -- that blitzed only 18 percent of the time.

Brady’s actually really good against the blitz, completing 62.6 percent of his passes for 146 touchdowns to only 86 interceptions for a passer rating of 111.0. His career passer rating against normal pressure is 97.6, with a 63.9 percent completion percentage.

“We just feel like we match up well with them," linebacker Myles Jack said. “We feel they can create pressure. If not sacks, just be around him. No quarterback wants to be hit, no quarterback wants to be bumped or hit. Just be in his presence."

Like a gnat?

“Just constantly bumping him, letting him know we’re there," Jack said.

The Jaguars love to swarm quarterbacks. It’s been a key to their success. A strip-sack by Ngakoue led to a 50-yard fumble return for a touchdown in last week’s win at Pittsburgh.

“Confident? We’ve been hitting everybody else. Why can’t we hit him?," Fowler said. "He’s a good quarterback. He gets the ball out really fast. But we have the best secondary in the whole world. We’ll see how it goes."

“We just got to go out and execute on all cylinders; out-will him and outsmart him and out-discipline him and we’ll be great."

Surprising Brady with exotic schemes typically doesn’t work. He’s seen everything.

Teams that can pressure him without having to sacrifice with blitzes using help from the back end have the most success. Pressuring Brady with interior coverage and getting him off his mark is a big part of that.

“For us to be successful, we have to harass him, make him uncomfortable," Campbell said. “Honestly, he is the best player to ever play this game for a reason. But at the end of the day, we have a lot of guys who can make plays, so we have to take advantage of opportunities.”

And no, the Jaguars don't believe that Brady will be limited with a right-hand injury that had him on the injury report all week.

“I’m sure he can throw left-handed if he has a problem with his right hand, you know, and throw it just as well," coach Doug Marrone said.

Marrone called Brady one of the “most naturally gifted throwers I’ve ever seen." So getting in Brady’s face so he doesn’t have clear sight lines and passing lanes is crucial.

Again, the gnat theory.

“Just stay on him, annoy him," Jones said. “He is a great quarterback, and if you leave him back there to pass all the time he’s going to prove why he’s a great quarterback. He’s great with pressure and without pressure, but we feel we have a better chance if we pressure him all the time and keep him in the pocket."

As for gnats not thriving in cold weather like they will have in New England, Dareus has a counter.

“I don’t know that much about gnats," he admitted. “I just know they’re aggravating. We’ll do what we can. When we were in Pittsburgh it was 18 degrees, so we’ll bundle up and be ready for him."

Brandon GrahamAndrew Dieb/Icon SportswireBrandon Graham and the Eagles defense have a Super Bowl berth in their sights.

As we get ready for Sunday's NFC Championship Game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the visiting Minnesota Vikings (6:40 p.m. ET, Fox), here's a look at three matchups that will decide which team advances to the Super Bowl:

Vikings DE Everson Griffen vs. Eagles LT Halapoulivaati Vaitai

The Eagles have faced a number of elite pass-rushers this season -- Von Miller, Khalil Mack, Justin Houston ... the list goes on -- but have been fortunate that most spent the bulk of their time going up against standout right tackle Lane Johnson. No such luck this time around. Griffen will be head-up on Vaitai, and that's a mismatch on paper. The 30-year-old Griffen tied for fourth in the NFL in sacks during the regular season with 13. He had a sack and a forced fumble in Minnesota's victory over the New Orleans Saints last week and also deflected a Drew Brees pass that led to an Anthony Barr interception.

"He's a game-wrecker," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said.

Vaitai, a second-year pro out of TCU, stepped in at left tackle when Jason Peters was lost in late October to a torn ACL and MCL. He has been a fairly effective replacement but is susceptible to letdowns. Pederson indicated that the Eagles will be giving Vaitai help by sliding protection his way.

"We've faced some tremendous defensive ends all season long and this will be his greatest challenge in this game," Pederson said. "But I have a lot of confidence in V and what he's done this season, and he'll get a good week of preparation and be ready to go."

Eagles WR Alshon Jeffery vs. Vikings CB Xavier Rhodes

Jeffery knows the Vikings quite well from his Chicago Bears days. He has 45 catches for 685 yards and seven touchdowns in nine games against Minnesota, all career highs versus a single opponent. He has his hands full with one of the best corners in the league in Rhodes, however. Jeffery (6-foot-3, 218 pounds) typically uses his size and strength to his advantage, but the 6-foot-1, 218-pound Rhodes has the ability to match that physicality.

"We've had some good battles. He's a great competitor. We like to compete against one another," Jeffery said. "Strong, physical, long arms. It's going to be a challenge, but I look forward to it."

Jeffery led all Eagles receivers with four catches for 61 yards in a divisional-round victory over the Atlanta Falcons. He subscribes to the big-time players make big-time plays in big moments mantra. It doesn't get any bigger than this, and with the Eagles operating with Nick Foles instead of Carson Wentz at quarterback, it's more important than ever that their No. 1 receiver makes his presence felt in this one.

Eagles DE Brandon Graham vs. RT Rashod Hill

Injury forced Mike Remmers from right tackle to left guard for Minnesota, and Hill has taken his place. Hill, a second-year player out of Southern Mississippi, was up and down against Cameron Jordan and the Saints last week, looking shaky at times.

Graham paced the Eagles with 9.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss this season. Strong and explosive, the eighth-year pro has a way of wearing his opponent down over the course of a game.

"It's going to be a tough matchup for him," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said of Hill. "What I'd like for him to do is play like he did at the beginning of the ballgame [against New Orleans]. I thought he played great the first 30-some plays. Then he kind of hit a little snag, had to get readjusted again. Just be consistent, continue to do it every time."

The defensive line is the Eagles' biggest strength and needs to wreak havoc if it wants to send the Philly crowd home happy Sunday night.

PHILADELPHIA -- The best defense in the NFL comes to Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday night for the NFC Championship Game. Or at least that is what they’re saying about the Minnesota Vikings.

The overall statistics indicate no defense was as good as the Vikings' this season. Minnesota finished the regular season allowing the fewest yards (275.9) and points (15.8) per game.

The Eagles weren’t far behind. They were fourth in yards (306.5) and fourth in points (18.4). They know what they’re chasing this week.

“As a defensive player, when you have the No. 1 defense coming in, statistically, obviously we know going into this game, whoever’s defense plays better is going to win this game,” Eagles Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. “We’ve been preparing. We won’t change nothing that we do. Everybody will go out and be themselves.”

When it comes to this week’s game, in this venue, it shouldn’t be so clear cut that the Vikings have the better defense. The Eagles have allowed 13.0 points per game at home this season, second behind only ... the Vikings.

But Minnesota is not playing this week at U.S. Bank Stadium, where they could host the Super Bowl if they win Sunday. The Vikings allowed 19.0 points per game on the road, compared to 12.5 at home.

So who really has the better defense in the NFC Championship Game?

For this game alone, the defensive advantage might belong to the Eagles. There is expected to be a raucous crowd that will have had a full day to tailgate and prepare for the occasion. That should make life difficult for the Vikings, who will be forced to use silent snap counts and deal with intense crowd noise. The Eagles faithful will undoubtedly be in a frenzy.

Brandon GrahamMitchell Leff/Getty ImagesBrandon Graham and the Eagles defense go into each week wanting to prove they are the best.

Minnesota’s edge is its slight personnel advantage. It has a consistent double-digit sack defensive end in Everson Griffen. It has the more complete linebackers with Anthony Barr and the better of the Kendricks brothers, Eric. (Mychal plays for the Eagles.)

The Vikings also have a shutdown cornerback in Xavier Rhodes and an All-Pro safety in Harrison Smith. These are some of the reasons they have enjoyed tremendous success this season and have the personnel advantage on Sunday.

“From top to bottom, Philly is good, but Minnesota is better defensively, especially at the second and third level,” according to a pro personnel scout with an NFC team.

The Eagles rely heavily on a deep defensive line that has proven to be their foundation for defensive success. Cox is the star, but he’s aided by defensive ends Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Chris Long and Derek Barnett -- all solid players. Timmy Jernigan and Beau Allen are also stout on the interior.

“Our whole front, they make our defense go,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said.

They will be tasked with keeping quarterback Case Keenum in the pocket and slowing down Minnesota’s running game. The Eagles talked all week about those being the keys.

But they also know the Vikings' defense has been receiving much of the hype, and the Eagles are out to prove they’re the best defense and defensive front in the NFL.

“We always have that mindset every week, and we got to go out there and prove it every week," Graham said. "And I think this is a good opportunity for us to prove who the best defensive line and front, you know, because we're playing against the best, you know, and now we got to go out there and show up, and if we say we're the best, we got to go out there and prove it. I think that's our mindset this week is to go out there and prove it and have more intensity than their defense, and then we'll see what happens.”

The atmosphere should help. So, too, should the venue. Given that the NFC Championship Game is being played in Philadelphia, the Eagles are the team with better defensive numbers.

In this regard, home-field advantage is important.

“We just want to have a big performance for ourselves since it’s our home, our crowd,” Jenkins said. “The crowd gets up for the defense. In order to make it a home-field advantage, we have to play well. That is what we fully anticipate doing.”

If the Eagles defense holds up its end of the bargain, there’s a good Philadelphia will be celebrating a Super Bowl berth on Sunday night. May the best defense win.

Robby AndersonJoshua Sarner/Icon SportswireRobby Anderson caught 63 passes for 941 yards and seven TDs in 2017, his second NFL season.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A look at what's happening around the New York Jets (as I prepare to cover the AFC Championship Game on Sunday):

1. Arrested development: Robby Anderson was one of the Jets' few bright spots in 2017, a homegrown talent who displayed flashes of stardom before our eyes, but he ruined his feel-good ascent with his second arrest in an eight-month span. If you're scoring at home, his felony count (three charges) is nearly half his season touchdown total (seven).

From a football perspective, the question is: Does he have a future with the Jets?

Judging from the reaction on Twitter, it seems most fans want the 24-year-old released immediately. I'd be surprised if coach Todd Bowles cuts him loose. While the allegations in the most recent arrest are highly disturbing, my sense is Bowles will give Anderson a chance to redeem himself if he shows remorse and demonstrates a willingness to make changes in his life. From now on, it should be zero tolerance for Anderson, who's not good enough to deserve a third chance.

Remember, Bowles gave Sheldon Richardson another chance after his arrest in 2015, which also involved high-speed driving and resisting arrest. Richardson wound up pleading guilty to the latter charge, resulting in a one-game suspension under the NFL's personal-conduct policy. The organization suspects Anderson will get hit with at least one game.

Clearly, Anderson is immature and makes bad decisions, but the organization doesn't see him as a bad person. (It should be noted that no drugs or alcohol were involved in Friday's arrest, police said.) At the same time, he embarrassed the franchise and jeopardized his long-term future.

A former undrafted free agent, Anderson will make only $630,000 in 2018, the final year of his contract. He will be a restricted free agent in 2019, so the Jets have him at a fixed cost for two more years. Beyond that, it's cloudy.

At this point, why would they entertain the notion of making a long-term investment? There's absolutely no way. He'll need to pull a 180 to regain the trust of the organization. By that, I mean an attitude reversal, not miles per hour.

2. A show of hands: Whether Anderson stays or goes, the Jets still need a No. 1 receiver. They have complementary receivers in Jermaine Kearse and Quincy Enunwa, who returns from a neck injury, but there's no star who draws double-teams on a consistent basis.

Problem is, there aren't many good ones in free agency.

The top free agents are Jarvis Landry (a possession receiver), Allen Robinson (coming off knee surgery) and Sammy Watkins (underachiever). If the Jets stay with a West Coast offense, which works better with big targets, the best fit would be Robinson (6-foot-3), but there's risk because of his knee.

The Jets have so many other needs that I'd be surprised if they make receiver a high priority in free agency. Don't forget, they still have two of Mike Maccagnan's draft picks, Chad Hansen and ArDarius Stewart, waiting in the wings.

3. Not-so-special K: The big storyline during the run-up to free agency (March 14 is when players can sign new deals) will be quarterback Kirk Cousins, who could be the most coveted player if the Washington Redskins let him hit the open market. Some team -- maybe the Jets -- will give him an extraordinary amount of money and we'll spend the next few years debating whether he's worth it.

The potential suitors might want to consider this less-than-enthusiastic evaluation from former Redskins general manager Scot McCloughan, who was around Cousins for the 2015 and 2016 seasons.

"He's a good player. Is he special? I don't see special," McCloughan said last week on Denver's KKFN-FM 104.3 The Fan. "But also, we were still building a roster around him to make him special. Jay Gruden does a great job playcalling. Sean McVay did a great job playcalling to put him in positions to be successful.

"He's talented," McCloughan continued. "Talent is good at quarterback in the NFL. He's won games. I know his record overall is not over .500 -- I know he has not won a playoff game -- but he's competitive. He works his tail off. He's so methodical. Every day he has planned out. He's always in the building, he's always watching tape, he's always talking to coaches, he was talking to me. From the standpoint of intangibles, they're excellent. You just need to have some talent around him because you don't want him to be throwing the ball 35 to 40 times to win the game."


4. Special K: ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. did a media conference call last week, and the hot topic was the top quarterbacks: Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen and Josh Allen. A few quotes from Kiper, whose opinions should be of interest to quarterback-starved Jets fans:

On USC's Darnold: "Darnold just didn't have the great year anticipated. Came into the year looking like the clear-cut No. 1 pick overall. Struggled. Some bad habits were developed. Made some bad decisions, some poor throws, some ill-advised throws, a lot of fumbles. Ball security was an issue. Holding the ball with one hand like a loaf of bread in the pocket. There's some things he needs to clean up."

On UCLA's Rosen: "From pure passer, from a being under center, three-, five-, seven-step drop, the most artistic picture-perfect, pure-passing quarterback is Josh Rosen."

On Wyoming's Allen: "He’s got the physical capability to do the job in the weather conditions, like Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Wentz, quarterbacks he'll be compared to for that size and the physicality and the arm strength and the mobility and the toughness and the competitiveness for playing in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Baltimore every year."

On Allen's 56 percent completion rate: "Stats are for losers, in my opinion, in a lot of ways. The kid won. You can say, 'Well, look at his record.' When he was out there, they won football games. A lot of guys have stats and can't get their teams over .500."

Bill Belichick, Tony KhanCourtesy Jacksonville JaguarsJaguars executive Tony Khan, right, has found a mentor in Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. When the Patriots host the Jaguars in Sunday's AFC Championship Game, Bill Belichick's team will be going up against a regime he played a small part in constructing. It traces back to Belichick's willingness to help a newcomer to the NFL who sought him out with an interest in learning more about the game that is such a big part of Belichick's life.

Here's the backstory:

When Shad Khan purchased the Jaguars in 2011, his son Tony, a senior vice president of football administration and technology, reached out to Belichick. His thought: who better to talk to about players, coaches, and their tendencies?

Belichick was gracious with his time -- as he often is with those whom he sees have a passion for the game he loves -- and the two still communicate, with the 35-year-old Khan viewing Belichick as one of his primary mentors along with Tom Coughlin.

With that connection well established in January 2015, shortly after Doug Marrone had exercised an opt-out clause in his contract as Bills head coach, Belichick played the role of matchmaker by connecting Khan with Marrone. The Jaguars then hired Marrone as assistant head coach/offensive line coach a few weeks later.

While Marrone might have landed in Jacksonville regardless (he shared the same agent as then-head coach Gus Bradley), Belichick's complimentary words to Khan didn't hurt.

Belichick's respect for Marrone traced back, in part, to competing against him early in his Patriots tenure, when Marrone was offensive line coach for the Jets (2002-05). Marrone then moved on to the Saints as offensive coordinator (2006-08) under another close Belichick friend, Sean Payton, before spending four years as head coach at Syracuse, where the Patriots got a good feel for his program after selecting Chandler Jones in the first round of the 2012 draft.

So when the Jaguars were exploring possibilities for their head coaching vacancy in January 2017, Khan once again leaned on Belichick for advice, even as Belichick was busy preparing for the playoffs and an eventual Super Bowl championship. Belichick, whose graciousness with his time during such an important stretch for the Patriots stood out to Khan, relayed that Marrone would be an excellent choice.

While it would be overstating it to say Belichick's recommendation closed the deal for the Jaguars to promote Marrone (owner Shad Khan, Tony's father, went through a detailed process as part of the search), it was a notable piece to the puzzle.

Now, to advance to Super Bowl LII, Belichick and the Patriots need to beat Marrone and the Jaguars, the coach he recommended twice in Jacksonville.

1b. Belichick deflected questions throughout the week on the impact that Coughlin has had in his 2017 return to the Jaguars as executive vice president of football operations. One thought as to why: He doesn't want it to be perceived as taking any credit away from Marrone. The first thing Belichick said to reporters about the Jaguars upon learning they would be the Patriots' opponent: "Obviously, they're well-coached."

1c. Tony Khan has leaned on advice from Belichick and now sits next to Coughlin on game day while learning from him on a daily basis. He has told those close to him how fortunate he feels about such mentorship, and how both are different than the news-conference personas they portray.

2. Sunday marks the 24th anniversary of Robert Kraft taking ownership of the Patriots, and honorary captain Drew Bledsoe -- the No. 1 overall pick in the 1993 draft -- remembers the day well. Bledsoe said that was the catalyst to the franchise becoming the best in professional sports. "When you look at what Robert Kraft has done with that organization, there isn't one single thing you can point to that he does different than anything else. It's everything," Bledsoe said. "He's trying to be better at every single thing they do -- from player personnel, to diet, to training players, to being financially sound. It sets him apart as an owner in all of professional sports."

3. Bledsoe can speak from first-hand experience what it's like to play through an injury to a right-handed quarterback's right hand, as he famously gutted through having a pin in his broken index finger on his right throwing hand late in the 1998 season. That isn't the same injury Tom Brady is currently managing, but when we spoke Friday, Bledsoe mentioned something that still applies to Brady: "One thing I learned with that deal was that if your mechanics are sound, then you don't really have to feel your hand. And Tommy is so mechanically sound, that as long as he can get a grip on the ball, he should be fine."

4. From the consider-every-contingency-plan category: If the Patriots had to go to an emergency third quarterback, who would it be? Receiver Chris Hogan got a good laugh last week when I asked him if he would be up for the task. He extended his left arm in front of him, tapped his wrist like a baseball manager calling for a lefty out of the bullpen, and said he hasn't played the position since he was 7. With Julian Edelman on injured reserve, Hogan would probably be the choice.

5. As nice as Patriots receiver Brandin Cooks' gesture was last week to give away two tickets to the divisional-round victory over the Titans to a single mother -- an acknowledgment of how much he appreciated his own mother's sacrifice from being in that situation -- I thought the aftermath of it said as much about Cooks as anything. He declined all interview requests on the topic, saying he didn't do it for publicity.

6. Did You Know (via ESPN's Stats & Information): If the Patriots beat the Jaguars to advance to the Super Bowl, they will become just the fifth team in each of the major four professional sports to advance to their respective championship 10 times (since 1966). The others are the Los Angeles Lakers (22), Montreal Canadiens (13), Boston Celtics (12) and New York Yankees (11).

7. If the Patriots beat the Jaguars in the AFC title game, it opens a second "window" for teams to talk to coordinators Matt Patricia and Josh McDaniels, and linebackers coach Brian Flores, about head coaching opportunities. Patricia is expected to land with the Lions, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, while this week -- win or lose -- should provide more clarity on where things truly stand with McDaniels and Flores with the Colts and Cardinals, respectively.

8. The Titans' decision Saturday to hire Mike Vrabel as head coach sparked thoughts of something Belichick reflected on a few years back. When Vrabel played for Belichick in 2001-08, Belichick said the idea of Vrabel going into coaching was obvious. "Mike and I talked about that a lot," Belichick said in 2015. "He'd give me advice and I'd say, 'Mike, when you're a coach, you should go ahead and do that. Here's why we're not going to do that.' Or [it was,] 'That's a great idea. We can do that. I'm glad you brought that up.' Mike's not afraid to make a suggestion. ... Mike's got a great mind for it, a great passion for it." Vrabel's Titans will host the Patriots next season.

9. With running back Rex Burkhead expected to be back in action for the AFC Championship Game, according to Schefter, the Patriots will probably have only one player (OT LaAdrian Waddle) who isn't active because of an injury. That means there will be a few unconventional players who don't make it on the 46-man game-day roster, and one of them could be rookie tight end Jacob Hollister. Since he was inactive in the season opener, Hollister has played in every game since, carving out a core role on special teams and as a seldom-used No. 3 tight end (four catches, 42 yards). If Hollister is indeed inactive, the Patriots will have to fill his spot on the kickoff-return, punt-protection, punt-return and kickoff-coverage units, which is the type of 1-for-4 exchange that challenges resourceful special teams coach Joe Judge and his assistant Ray Ventrone.

10. With the Patriots and Jaguars meeting for the AFC championship, some Patriots players said they reviewed film from August joint practices to re-familiarize themselves with some Jacksonville players (e.g., offensive linemen focused on pass-rush moves). That added a unique dynamic to game-plan preparations and also served up a reminder of one of the fun exchanges at one of those practices. When the third-string Patriots offense was capping off practice against the Jaguars' third-unit defense, Belichick said the final rep would decide which team had to do pushups. The Jaguars got the stop, and everyone on the New England side hit the deck, including Belichick. "He hopped down there and did those pushups," Jaguars defensive lineman Calais Campbell said that day. "Very impressed. I thought that was pretty cool that he got down and paid his debt with his team." Pushups in August for a third-string rep, and now the Lamar Hunt Trophy on the line Sunday: Few could have seen this coming.

videoNASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee Titans general manager Jon Robinson couldn't have been more clear Monday in the post-Mike Mularkey firing news conference as he talked about how important it was for the head coach, general manager and ownership to be aligned in vision, philosophy, everything.

"Paramount," Robinson said with a fierce stare that let reporters know that maybe this was the most important factor in the upcoming search.

Yes, developing Marcus Mariota is essential. Yes, the Titans need to maximize their talent to make the next step. But Robinson has to trust the new head coach to successfully do all of those things and be on the same page on how to get that done.

That's what prompted the Titans to hire Mike Vrabel.

Mike VrabelZach Bolinger/Icon SportswireMike Vrabel's ability to relate to players was one of the things that prompted the Titans to hire him.

First thoughts on the hire: Man, that was fast. The Titans had interviews with Vrabel and Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks on Thursday, then Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur on Friday. The hiring of Vrabel was announced Saturday evening, the day before the conference title games. Why then? It didn't seem like the Titans had to compete with another team.

Regardless of the reason, it's clear that Vrabel was always Robinson's man. The plan appeared to be to hire a CEO head coach and strong leader to help lead the Titans down the Patriots' path. The Patriots way is a big deal here, as Robinson and Vrabel spent seven years in New England together. They won two Super Bowls during that time, with Vrabel a player and Robinson as a scout.

The NFL is a relationship business, for better or worse, but there's plenty of reason to trust Robinson's judgment in making this move. Chasing a winning model similar to the one in New England isn't something to frown upon. The key will be bringing in the personnel and building the culture to duplicate that success.

There will obviously be questions -- like Vrabel's four years of NFL coaching experience, just one as a coordinator, or the choice to hire a defensive-minded coach when Mariota's slow development was such a big factor in the Mularkey firing.

The pressure is on Robinson now to bring the Titans a championship, and he's putting his name on Vrabel being the man to lead this team. Robinson will likely tell us that there is no reward without risk, and that is true.

Speaking to people who have worked with Vrabel on several levels, the reaction has been extremely positive. Folks rave about his leadership, ability to relate to players and intelligence. As a first-time head coach, his readiness will be revealed in time. There's no question his staff will be extremely important.

This video filmed by the Texans during Vrabel's second year as linebackers coach and a tweet from one of his former players might give you an idea of who his players think he is.

This a strong Titans locker room, but if the players react like the Texans did to Vrabel then he'll win an important battle as head coach. This team isn't too far from going where it wants to go and needs the right man to lead it.

"Everything we do is going to be geared towards winning and being physical," Vrabel said. "We want to prepare our players so they know what to do, which will allow them to play fast and aggressive."

Vrabel and Robinson are definitely aligned on that.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- James Harrison, a 39-year-old linebacker, looked up and saw his 40-year-old quarterback walking by in the New England Patriots' locker room on Friday.

"Look, there's Tom Brady," the media-shy Harrison said, perhaps hoping the group of reporters at his locker would leave him alone and chase down "The Gloved One."

No such luck. The crowd stuck to him.

While the pregame attention has focused on Brady's injured right hand/thumb -- it's "handemonium" in the New England region -- it would be wrong to dismiss Harrison. The recently signed Harrison will play an integral role in Sunday's AFC Championship Game.

The Jacksonville Jaguars got this far, in part, because of their smash-mouth rushing attack. Harrison became one of the best linebackers of his generation because of his smash-mouth attitude as a run defender.

James HarrisonMaddie Meyer/Getty ImagesJames Harrison will be tasked with slowing down Jags running back Leonard Fournette.

It's a classic matchup: The rocked-up, 242-pound Harrison, who probably can bench press a Zipcar, will go head-to-head with running back Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville's 228-pound rookie stud.

"It's another monster that we've got to try to contain," Harrison said.

Since being released by the Pittsburgh Steelers and landing with the Patriots, Harrison has played 57 out of a possible 126 defensive snaps (45 percent) in two games as an edge-setting outside linebacker. In the divisional round, he helped the Patriots contain Derrick Henry, the Tennessee Titans' bruising runner. Now they face a similarly powerful rushing attack in Jacksonville.

"It's their will against our will," Harrison said.

Harrison is not shy in the will department. No player, especially a linebacker, can last 16 years in the league without an indomitable will. Harrison has played in 193 regular-season games, plus another 20 in the postseason. At his age -- he turns 40 in May -- he literally takes it one game at a time. Sunday could be his farewell game. Who knows?

"I approach every game the same, except now it's single elimination," he said. "If you don't get everything done to an appropriate level now, you go home."

The younger players, meaning everybody on the roster except Brady, enjoy having him around because of his knowledge and intense work ethic. Rookie defensive tackle Adam Butler credited Harrison with teaching him how to develop a stronger "rip" move, a pass-rushing technique.

"When he speaks, you can definitely tell he's been in the game for a while," Butler said. "Listening to him and how he pass-rushes and some of the things he looks at when he pass-rushes, it's amazing."

Outside linebacker Trevor Reilly, a member of the practice squad, said it's awesome to be in Harrison's presence.

"He's what I aspire to be at 39," Reilly said. "He's one of the greatest players in the history of the game. ... He's a guy who has a lot of knowledge. He's played linebacker for what seems like forever, and he's won a lot of football games."

Harrison won most of his games, including a Super Bowl, with the Steelers. Everybody figured he'd face his old team in the conference championship, which would've created a terrific storyline. Ah, but the Jaguars ruined that, with some help from the Steelers.

Harrison said he didn't watch the Steelers-Jaguars game, also claiming he hasn't talked to any of his former teammates this week. Asked if he's disappointed by not getting a shot at his old team, Harrison -- serious as ever -- said, "I'm just happy that we're here and playing somebody."



Sunday, 1/21