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Here is What Have We Learned from Divisional Weekend of the 2018 NFL Playoffs, thanks to the AP Pro 32 for photos & help in this article.
- Stefon Diggs erased decades of Minnesota heartache-An exceptional medley of great awareness, terrific balance and deft reflexes allowed Stefon Diggs to ad lib and seize both the ball and the moment in the Vikings’ demon-exorcising “Minneapolis Miracle .”
Diggs was supposed to go out of bounds if Case Keenum threw his way on the play dubbed “Seven Heaven,” although in countless rehearsals at practice never did the pass go to the deep receiver, according to teammate Jarius Wright.
Ten seconds and no timeouts remained when Keenum dropped back from his 39 on third-and-10 in the hushed U.S. Bank Stadium, another haunting playoff heartbreak looming for Minnesota . New Orleans had taken a 24-23 lead just 15 seconds earlier.
The Saints had three defensive backs guarding the sideline as Kyle Rudolph, Wright and Diggs all ran sideline routes from the right of their formation.
Diggs was the deepest, with his break coming at about 25 yards, and just as he swiveled his hips he noticed nothing but green grass and purple end zone behind rookie free safety Marcus Williams, who was closing fast.
Diggs turned back to see the ball heading his way.
“I was thinking, ‘Catch it, get out of bounds and maybe kick a field goal,” Diggs said. “I took a picture before I turned around to catch the ball. There was only one guy there. If he slipped, then I was going to try to stay up and keep it going.”
Williams, who had a key interception on a floater to Diggs in the third quarter, arrived a tad early. A pass interference flag would stop the clock with about 5 seconds left, giving the Vikings a chance at a field goal.
Williams awkwardly whiffed on Diggs, taking out cornerback Ken Crawley as Diggs came down, tucked the ball in his right arm and stuck his left hand in the turf to stay up.
If he stumbles there, maybe he gets caught and time runs out. But he kept his balance, his cool — and stayed in bounds — shooting toward the end zone like a sprinter coming out of the blocks.
His 61-yard touchdown catch was one of the NFL’s all-time last-play stunners and it erased four decades of heartache for a franchise that was victimized by Drew Pearson’s original “Hail Mary” catch; Gary Anderson missing his only field goal of the season in the NFC title game; Brett Favre throwing across his body for a game-destroying pick in another NFC championship contest; and Blair Walsh shanking a short field goal against Seattle.
While the delirium echoed, Williams, the 42nd overall selection in last April’s NFL draft, sat sobbing in front of his cubicle in the Saints’ locker room.
“I’m going to take it upon myself,” Williams said after composing himself for a stand-up performance in front of the assembled media, “to make sure nothing like this happens again to me.”
- Jaguars ride offense, swagger to AFC title game-The Jacksonville Jaguars haven’t faced the New England Patriots in a game that matters in more than two years. That’s OK. They know a pretty good place to go to get a heads up on their opponent in the AFC title game.
“We need the notes the Steelers have on the Patriots because they were doing a lot of advanced scouting,” safety Barry Church said Sunday after the Jaguars stunned Pittsburgh 45-42 to earn a trip to Foxborough next weekend to face the defending Super Bowl champions. “We need all the notes they got on the Patriots. Other than that, it’s time to roll to New England baby.”
With their brute force rookie running back, their enigmatic quarterback and more than a little bit of swagger in tow.
“You can do all the talking you want on Twitter, to the media, all of that,” Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey said. “But when you get on the field you’re going to have to produce, you’re going to have to show us what you’re about. We’re confident because we know the work we put in. We’re going to go out there confident.”
Ticked off by several Steelers openly talking about a rematch with the Patriots with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line, the Jaguars took it out on Pittsburgh one touchdown at a time. They earned the franchise’s third trip to the conference championship game in the process.
Now it’s on to New England, a place they’ve never won and where the Patriots hung 51 on them in 2015. But that was before coach Doug Marrone put together the NFL’s best defense. Before Leonard Fournette arrived. Before Blake Bortles embraced his role as the enigmatic touchstone for a team that suddenly looks like a threat on both sides of the ball.
Third-seeded Jacksonville (12-6) never trailed and was only rarely threatened on an afternoon it matched the most points the Steelers have given up in their storied playoff history. Fournette churned for 109 yards and three scores . Bortles bounced back from an ugly performance against Buffalo by throwing for 214 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown to at least temporarily hit mute on his critics.
“I have no animosity against anyone who said anything,” Bortles said. “I’m happy to be able to come here and do this with this team. There are a lot of guys on the couch watching this.”
That group now will include the Steelers. Pittsburgh (13-4) lost at home in the divisional round for the second time in 11 tries, unable to overcome a sluggish start that allowed the Jaguars to take a 21-point lead.
The Steelers only had the ball with a chance to tie once over the final three quarters, the lone shot evaporating when Ben Roethlisberger threw incomplete on fourth-and-1 at the Jacksonville 39 early in the fourth quarter. The Jaguars responded with a drive that culminated in Fournette’s third touchdown, and that was it.
Roethlisberger, who finished with 469 yards passing and a franchise-record five touchdowns , said he will be back in 2018, though the sting of a stunning upset will linger into an offseason longer than planned.
“If you don’t win the Super Bowl, you’ve underachieved, right?” Roethlisberger said. “Because that is always our goal. It wasn’t our day. It wasn’t our year.”
- Defense rose to challenge for Eagles-When Carson Wentz went down for the Philadelphia Eagles, the pressure fell on backup Nick Foles and everyone else to step up.
The defense rose to the challenge in the first playoff game.
They harassed Matt Ryan, contained Julio Jones and made a goal-line stand at the end in a 15-10 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.
“We know defense wins championships. You say it all the time. You hear it. It’s cliché but it’s true, especially where we are now at home,” Pro Bowl safety Malcolm Jenkins said.
The strong defensive effort helped the underdog Eagles (14-3) advance to the NFC championship game for the sixth time since 2001. They’ll host the Vikings (14-3) next Sunday. Minnesota advanced with a thrilling 29-24 win over New Orleans.
“We don’t even care,” linebacker Nigel Bradham said about a preferred opponent. “Obviously, we’ll see a good game and get ready to prepare for whoever we’re going to play next.”
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s unit was No. 1 against the run, 17th against the pass and fourth in points allowed.
They held the Falcons to 281 yards, no points in the second half and Atlanta’s only touchdown drive came after a fumbled punt at the Eagles 18.
“We don’t point fingers,” defensive end Brandon Graham said. “Just stay the task and keep playing your technique. Keep playing with effort. The second half, we went out there and did that. Nobody gave us a shot. We have another 60 minutes next week. I’m happy with this team because we are a great team. We stay together even through adversity.”
Eagles coach Doug Pederson showed his confidence in the defense when he chose to have Jake Elliott kick a 21-yard field goal instead of going for fourth-and-1 at the Falcons 3 with a 12-10 lead and 6:05 remaining.
The defense had forced two three-and-outs and held Atlanta to only 49 yards in the second half. But Ryan led the Falcons on a long drive, converting a fourth-and-6 along the way. Atlanta had a first down at the Eagles 9 with 1:19 left.
Ryan threw incomplete to Jones and T.J. Ward. After a 7-yard pass to Jones to the 2, the season came down to one play.
Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian inexplicably called a rollout, taking half the field away for Ryan.
The defense read the play when they saw the formation, pressured Ryan and forced him to throw it up to Jones in the corner of the end zone. Jalen Mills had tight coverage and the ball sailed over Jones’ hands.
“We probably had three guys calling out the play on that one just based on our preparation, our study,” Jenkins said.
Jones had nine catches for 101 yards, but Mills and Ronald Darby kept him out of the end zone.
“The whole motto and the slogan was just ‘do your job,'” Mills said. “Nobody has to go out there and be superman. Know what you have to do for one, then go out there and execute.”
The defense did its part. The defense will have to do it again next week because the offense isn’t going to win a shootout.
“It was on us and we wouldn’t want it any other way,” Bradham said. “That’s how you feel when you’re on (defense) and you feel like we lead this team. We set the tone for this team and we set the pace for this team. That’s how we feel. We feel like all the energy and everything comes through us and everybody feeds off of it.”
- AP source: Browns interviewing former Giants coach McAdoo-Bounced from New York, Ben McAdoo might get a new opportunity with the Browns.
McAdoo, who was fired as Giants coach in December after going 2-10 and benching star quarterback Eli Manning, is interviewing Tuesday to be the offensive coordinator for Cleveland coach Hue Jackson.
The 40-year-old McAdoo is meeting with general manager John Dorsey and Jackson, said the person who spoke on condition of anonymity because the team is not confirming any coaching interviews.
Jackson is still considering whether to bring on a coordinator after handling those duties the past two seasons. But after going 0-16, Jackson said he was open to handing over play-calling duties and McAdoo has done that in the past.
McAdoo was New York’s offensive coordinator for two seasons before taking over as coach when Tom Coughlin left. McAdoo went 11-5 in 2016, but things unraveled for him after he demoted Manning, a two-time Super Bowl champion.
McAdoo has connections with Dorsey as they worked together for seven seasons in Green Bay. McAdoo coached the Packers tight ends and quarterbacks.
Jackson, who has overhauled his offensive staff, previously met with Houston quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan about the coordinator’s position. Also, former Tennessee coach Mike Mularkey, who was fired Monday, could be on the Browns’ radar.
Last week, Jackson hired former Giants wide receivers coach Adam Henry and Ken Zampese as his new quarterbacks coach. Zampese was fired last season as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator.
- Titans fire coach Mike Mularkey after playoff win-The Tennessee Titans believe the potential reward from quarterback Marcus Mariota working with his third head coach in his fourth NFL season outweighs the risk of change.
Or sticking with the same coach.
So now the Titans are looking for a new coach to replace Mike Mularkey and build off the franchise’s first playoff win in 14 years to make them a true NFL contender.
“There’s nothing more that I want for our fans than to bring a championship here,” general manager Jon Robinson said Monday afternoon . “I feel like it’s my charge to put the team in the best position to do that.”
The Titans fired Mike Mularkey on Monday, less than 48 hours after a 35-14 loss to New England in the AFC divisional round. Mularkey revived a team with the NFL’s worst record over two seasons and led them to their first playoff victory in 14 years only to become the first coach let go after winning a playoff game since San Francisco fired Steve Mariucci after the 2002 season.
Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk turned to Mularkey in November 2015 when she fired Ken Whisenhunt after 23 games . Mularkey went 2-7 down the stretch as the Titans finished 3-13 to land the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2016. That capped a 5-27 record over 2014 and 2015 that was the NFL’s worst.
Mularkey led the Titans to back-to-back 9-7 records — their first consecutive winning records since 2007-08. He finished with a 21-22 record after a season in which the Titans cost themselves the AFC South title with a three-game skid in December and needed to beat the Jaguars, now in the AFC championship game, to reach the postseason for the first time since 2008.
His devotion to an offense he’s known since being offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh between 2001 and 2003 may have cost him. He said Sunday he was prepared to move “full speed” ahead after talking with Strunk. He defended offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie’s play-calling, saying he was happy with Mariota’s development.
Mularkey also said he didn’t anticipate any changes on his coaching staff a week after Strunk issued a statement on his job security . But talk of an extension since a 22-21 comeback win against Kansas City in the wild-card round ended Monday morning when Robinson and president and chief executive officer Steve Underwood told Mularkey he was being let go.
Strunk called it “unfortunate” that they couldn’t find common ground on how to improve.
“I also view this as an important moment for our football team as we try to make that next step to sustained success on the field,” Strunk said in a statement.
Now Robinson will oversee his first coaching search with the Titans the seventh NFL team to change coaches since the start of the season. He was hired two days before Mularkey had the interim title removed in January 2016.
“This boils down to doing what we think is best for the football team moving forward, taking the next step,” Robinson said.
Robinson said interviews with candidates could be held as early as this week, though the Titans will confirm a candidate only after an interview is completed. The general manager declined to discuss Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, saying he couldn’t comment on coaches under contract.
“This is a very attractive job for a lot of candidates,” Robinson said. “I look forward to working with whoever the next head coach is. I think that they will see that myself and Amy will be unified with them in our vision for the football team.”
In Mularkey’s first full season, the Titans led the NFL scoring touchdowns inside the red zone, and they led the AFC while ranking third in rushing offense. Mariota also threw 26 touchdowns with only nine interceptions.
This season, the Titans failed to take advantage of an AFC South in which Andrew Luck did not play for Indianapolis and two-time defending division champ Houston lost rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson to an injury early.
Mariota also had his worst season yet with a career-worst 15 interceptions and 13 touchdowns. The run game, the basis of Mularkey’s offense, slumped to 15th in the NFL.
Robinson said the key is finding the right coach to get the best out of the Titans’ roster, and the general manager isn’t worried about Mariota working with yet another head coach.
“Marcus is a pretty resilient guy,” Robinson said. “He’s a very mentally tough guy. He takes a lot from the standpoint of ownership in things. I have zero concern in Marcus being able to adapt and learn, and do what’s best to get the offense going.
- Defense rises, but offense is a new concern for Falcons– The Atlanta Falcons enter the offseason forced to address this startling new reality: Defense is the team’s new strength.
That means there are new concerns on offense.
Only one year after Atlanta led the league in scoring in its 2016 Super Bowl season, the offense was no better than middling in the league.
It was appropriate that a season of regression on offense — and improvement on defense — ended with a scoreless second half in a 15-10 divisional round playoff loss at Philadelphia on Saturday.
First-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkasian was the easy target to blame for Atlanta’s sharp decline in scoring , but there were other problems.
Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman each missed time with concussions. Left guard Andy Levitre was placed on injured reserve before a wild-card win over the Rams with a triceps injury.
Quarterback Matt Ryan couldn’t repeat his 2016 MVP production. Julio Jones was held to only three touchdown catches — his low total since having two in 2013, when he played only five games. He couldn’t catch a last-chance, fourth down pass in the end zone from the Eagles 2.
The Falcons tumbled from first to 15th in scoring.
“I think that’s certainly something that we have to look at and evaluate this offseason,” Ryan said. “There were too many times that we were a little bit inconsistent.”
While the core of the defense is young, the window is closing for the leaders of the offense. Ryan will be 33 next season — the last year on his six-year, $103.75 million contract. Jones will be 29.
Recent history provides a reason to give Sarkasian another season with the offense.
There was much talk that Ryan and Kyle Shanahan were not on the same page in Shanahan’s first year leading the offense in 2015, and Shanahan then won praise when the Falcons led the league with 33.8 points per game in 2016. The turnaround helped Shanahan land a job as San Francisco’s head coach.
Jones noted the Falcons had “new pieces” this season, including Sarkasian.
“Everybody has to be on the same page and it takes time,” Jones said. “It takes more than one year. … We are a much better offense than we showed for sure. That is just on us, on all of us.”
- Humbled Steelers face questions heading into offseason– It wasn’t the pregame talk about New England.
Or the seemingly weekly distractions that piled up one on top of the other, some of them self-created and others the byproduct of circumstances far beyond their control.
The Pittsburgh Steelers spent Monday cleaning out their lockers instead of getting ready for the AFC championship game because they were outplayed and outclassed by Jacksonville in a wild 45-42 loss .
That’s it. That’s all.
“I don’t think (the outside noise) had anything to do with it,” guard David DeCastro said. “They just made more plays than us. I don’t mean to sound cliche, but I thought we did a great job blocking all that stuff out all year and didn’t make too big a deal of it.”
If anything, the Steelers seemed to thrive off adversity while going 13-4 and earning a second straight AFC North title.
Yet all that swagger, all that confidence eroded over the course of three difficult hours against the Jaguars.
The defense that set a franchise record and led the NFL with 55 sacks couldn’t get a hand on Blake Bortles.
The offense piled up 534 yards, but also committed two turnovers that gift-wrapped Jacksonville 14 points.
Running back Le’Veon Bell stressed there were “no excuses” heading into the postseason.
And as they met for the last time before the cycle begins anew in March, they didn’t offer any.
Four consecutive playoff berths have yielded zero parades through downtown in mid-February with the Lombardi Trophy in hand.
They’re well aware the issue isn’t talent.
“Every time you don’t win the Super Bowl, it’s a wasted opportunity,” linebacker Vince Williams said.
Asked if he believes the pieces are in place for the current core to take the step that’s proven elusive, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said he “absolutely” does while promising to return for a 15th season.
It’s an assurance that at least will help the Steelers avoid the weeks of “will he or won’t he” Roethlisberger put the team through while he pondered his future last spring.
“I don’t know about contracts and who’s coming back, but I know the guys up front are,” Roethlisberger said. “That makes it good for me.”
It just might not make it good for everyone.
A look at what went wrong and what may be in store between now and when the Steelers report for organized team activities in May.
RUN OVER: The Steelers finished fifth in the league in total defense and 10th against the rush, but had issues getting dominated at times. Jacksonville combined to pile up 395 yards on the ground while winning twice at Heinz Field.
“The things that happened this year can’t happen next year,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “There are going to be new problems and new things we need to correct, but let’s find a different problem.”
REPLACING RYAN: Pittsburgh linebacker Ryan Shazier’s season and likely his NFL career ended when he suffered a spinal injury against Cincinnati on Dec. 4. He underwent spinal stabilization surgery two days later and his upbeat approach to his recovery (highlighted by the #Shalieve hashtag) gave the Steelers an emotional rallying point.
The business side of the equation, however, will need to be addressed in the offseason. Pittsburgh signed Sean Spence to take Shazier’s place in October, but the defense as a whole struggled at times over the final weeks.
A major priority heading into the draft will be finding a player who can inherit Shazier’s spot in the huddle, though Shazier’s role as a leader will be far more difficult to fill.
WHAT ABOUT TODD?: Offensive coordinator Todd Haley has helped Roethlisberger put together the most productive seasons of his potentially Hall of Fame career.
And while the two have never been close, they’ve found enough common ground to help the Steelers and their “Killer B” offense rank among the most consistently dynamic attacks in the league.
It may be time, however, to move on. The Steelers made a pair of questionable play calls on fourth-and-1 against Jacksonville, both of which ended with Pittsburgh failing to convert.
Throw in Haley’s peripheral involvement in an incident at a bar on New Year’s Eve in which he was injured and Pittsburgh could decide to find someone else to run an offense that includes Roethlisberger, Bell, Antonio Brown, rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant.
HAPPY RETURNS?: Bell skipped training camp while waiting to sign his one-year, $12 million franchise tender. The Steelers will have a chance to sign him to a long-term deal or franchise him yet again next year, a move that Bell told ESPN would force him to consider retiring or sitting out the entire season.
Bell, who led the NFL in touches this season (404) said Sunday his preference is to remain in Pittsburgh. Bryant, who made an ill-advised trade request in September after returning from a drug suspension, has one year left on his deal and wants to stay in Pittsburgh. Bryant came on late and made a spectacular diving touchdown grab against Jacksonville.