What do Blake Bortles, Case Keenum and Nick Foles have in common besides starting on Conference Championship Sunday and having names that don’t rhyme with Dom Spady?
Bortles’ Jaguars, Keenum’s Vikings and Foles’ Eagles have dominant defenses that ranked in the top five in a plethora of regular-season categories, none more important than points allowed. (Spady’s Patriots’ ‘D,’ for what it’s worth, also squeaked into the top five in points permitted after averaging nearly 32 per game in the season’s first quarter.)
Of course, few likely foresaw Bortles, Keenum and Foles leading their teams by the end of the regular season, never mind to within one win of a Super Bowl appearance. Only Foles had postseason experience prior to this year — one whopping game — bringing the trio’s combined total to five, or 14.3 percent of Spady’s (Spoiler: Spady is married to a supermodel, swears by pliability and also responds to GOAT calls).
But Bortles arriving in his first playoff was absolutely the byproduct of Jacksonville’s playmaking ‘D.’ Keenum has exceeded even the wildest of expectations but he finished 21st in attempts per game, undoubtedly helping fuel his 98.7 passer rating, much like one of the best defenses of our generation. And the Eagles held Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Co. to 10 points and 281 yards to extend their season, while Foles played a complementary role.
The moral of the story is that the NFL might still be a quarterback-driven league — note the division round featured passers accounting for eight rings and six league or Super Bowl MVPs — but the NFL’s postseason still tends to be dominated by the best defenses.
Super Bowl LII will mark the eighth time in the past 10 years that at least one of the NFL’s first- or second-ranked ‘D’s in points allowed is involved. We couldn’t help but chuckle at some analysts who suggested that just because this conference championship weekend’s quarterbacks are shall we say, a little lesser known and feared than others, NFL decision makers must revisit their singular most important element in constructing championship-caliber rosters — QB supremacy.
Having a great quarterback still matters a great deal, obviously. So too does building not only stingy and sinister defenses but strong coaching staffs. With all due respect to Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, New Orleans’ Sean Payton and Tennessee’s Mike Mularkey, does anyone question how severely out-coached they were last weekend by Doug Marrone, Mike Zimmer and Bill Belichick, respectively?
Tomlin arguably coached one of the worst postseason games in recent memory, with fourth-and-short failures and unnecessary onside kickoffs, to name just a few missteps. Marrone had his team not only brimming with confidence but not in need of smelling salts as Pittsburgh was after digging a 21-0 second-quarter hole.
Payton overcame his inexcusable flushing of two timeouts on bad challenges, but his club also fell behind big early, necessitating that furious rally that preceded the madness that would ensue thereafter; Coach of the Year candidate Mike Zimmer’s staff has a deserving Assistant of the Year in Pat Shurmur, whose work with Keenum has been nothing short of, well, miraculous.
And Mularkey lost his job on Tuesday after winning 19 combined games the past two seasons because of his rigidness on offense, particularly the backfield; Belichick’s reputation precedes him but that was pretty astute coaching in exposing Tennessee’s linebackers in coverage with the Patriots backs all evening.
Ironically, because it’s still a league without enough quarterbacks to go around, that’s where a lot of the attention immediately drifted once the Conference Championship participants were known. Make no mistake: Bortles, Keenum and Foles are superb stories worthy of being told and celebrated this week.
Yet so are the defenses. Jacksonville’s boisterous pass ‘D’ that suddenly rushes the passer like none other in football. New England’s sum-is-greater-than-its-parts unit whose in-season turnaround was so dramatic. Minnesota’s historically good third-down defense and All-Pro laden secondary. And the Eagles’ fearsome front seven and a group enjoying the fruits of Howie Roseman’s wheeling and dealing.
Quarterback league or not, defense still wins championships.