QB Case Keenum Has Vikings One Win Away From Super Bowl LII

Where were you when the Minneapolis Miracle happened? It was one of the most improbable, dramatic moments in NFL history and one that Minnesota Vikings fans won’t ever forget. The significance of that moment will be even greater if the Vikings beat the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship game to clinch their first Super Bowl appearance in 41 years.

Meanwhile, the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots host the underdog Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Championship game. There is one dominant theme that stands out among the rest heading into Championship Sunday: the disparity among the four remaining quarterbacks that will suit up this weekend.

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Tom Brady has as many Super Bowl wins as the three other quarterbacks have combined playoff starts. Blake Bortles owns the worst career regular-season win percentage ever for a starting quarterback heading in to a Conference Championship game. Case Keenum and Nick Foles were both backups at the beginning of the year.

This postseason is proof that teams with loaded rosters on both sides of the football could reach the final four with competent quarterback play. The biggest question now is whether those teams have what it takes to reach the Super Bowl.

Revisiting The Minneapolis Miracle in This Week’s NFL Sounds

The Vikings are the first NFL team to play in a conference championship game in the same year they are hosting the Super Bowl. No team has ever played in the biggest game of them all in their home stadium. Is the Minneapolis Miracle a precursor to Minnesota becoming the first team in NFL history to accomplish that feat?

The Vikings will have to end another significant drought in order to reach the Super Bowl – Minnesota is 0-5 in conference championship games since 1976.

Cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Andrew Sendejo should be good to go for the league’s top-ranked defence. The pressure remains on the offence to produce against a tough Eagles defence that held Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons to 10 points in the divisional round.

Keenum threw for 318 yards and a touchdown in last week’s win over the New Orleans Saints. Sixty-one of those yards and his lone score came with Minnesota’s season on the line on that final play of the game. Keenum has exceeded all expectations, which includes recording the NFL’s best Total QBR in one-score games. It’s easy to label him as a journeyman backup based on some hard luck in his first few years after breaking in to the league as an undrafted free agent. However, based on how he has performed since taking over for the Vikings, Keenum has proven that he deserves to be a starter in the NFL.

Now he has the opportunity to become the first Minnesota quarterback to win a conference championship game since Fran Tarkenton all the way back in 1976. All eyes will be on Keenum to see if he can deliver versus Philadelphia on Sunday.

While Keenum has been excellent for the Vikings, Foles did just enough last Saturday to help Philadelphia beat the Falcons at home in another game that was decided on the final play.

Unlike with Keenum in Minnesota, the Eagles have been forced to overhaul their offensive playbook since Carson Wentz was injured. After Foles struggled in his final two regular season appearances, there was a clear adjustment made in last week’s win over Atlanta. Head coach Doug Pederson incorporated the run-pass option in to Philadelphia’s offensive playbook, which is a scheme Foles excelled in during his first stint with the Eagles under Chip Kelly back in 2013 when he threw 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions.

In addition to the RPO concepts, Pederson called plays designed to get the ball out of Foles’ hands quicker in order to counteract his struggles versus pressure. In the regular season, Foles averaged 2.60 seconds from the snap to his release. In last week’s win over Atlanta, Foles cut that number down to 2.24 seconds from snap to release. While his average pass distance dropped from 7.9 yards to 4.9 yards, his completion percentage rose from 56 per cent to 77 per cent. The quick-strike, short passing game combined with the RPO played to Foles’ strengths and minimized his exposure.

The tape from last week’s win over the Falcons will be something that the Vikings study closely this week as they develop a game plan to shut down the Eagles pass offence. Philadelphia has averaged two fewer touchdowns per game with Foles as the starter. After hanging on last week, the Eagles will be in tough against Minnesota with some lingering question marks with Foles at the quarterback position heading into this Sunday.

None of the four quarterbacks that will play this Sunday have faced more criticism this season than Bortles in Jacksonville. However, for as much as he has struggled at times this season, Bortles held his own in last week’s win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Bortles completed 14 passes to nine different receivers while throwing for 214 yards and a touchdown. Just as important is the fact that he didn’t turn the ball over. As was the case with Foles in Philadelphia, Doug Marrone and his staff developed a game plan that minimized Bortles’ exposure while giving him the best chance to succeed.

The Jaguars leaned heavily on the play-action pass and Bortles was able to pick apart the Steelers zone defence. After scoring on each of its five red-zone trips versus Pittsburgh, Jacksonville will face a much tougher test in New England this weekend. The Patriots will play man defence and flood the middle of the field in an attempt to force Bortles to make accurate throws downfield and to the sideline.

Bortles is 4-0 in head-to-head meetings with Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks this season. The Jaguars have averaged 37.3 points per game in those four contests. If he extends that perfect record on Sunday, Jacksonville will head to the Super Bowl. Nobody is expecting that to happen. Then again, nobody expected the Jaguars to get this far in the first place.

Only one of the four quarterbacks has been here before. Brady is a five-time Super Bowl champion. He will play in his seventh consecutive AFC Championship game on Sunday.

Brady has never lost to Jacksonville in his career. He has thrown 14 touchdowns and zero interceptions while going 7-0 all-time against the Jaguars. However, there is a sudden sense of uncertainty surrounding the future Hall of Fame quarterback after he missed practice on Thursday following an injury to his throwing hand. All indications are that Brady will play on Sunday. The question now is how much if at all he will be limited by the injury.

What we do know is that the Jacksonville defence will present one of the toughest tests Brady will face this season, regardless of whether or not the injury has a lingering effect on his performance. The Jaguars have been able to pressure opposing quarterbacks at the third-highest rate in the NFL while blitzing at the third-lowest rate this season. What does that mean? Jacksonville can generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks without needing to send additional rushers. If the Jaguars can consistently get to Brady with just four down linemen then it could significantly disrupt the Patriots offence.

Injured or not, Brady is the best quarterback left standing heading into Championship Sunday. New England has won 17 straight home games against AFC South opponents. If they can extend that run to 18, they will set another NFL record by clinching a 10th Super Bowl appearance.

One thing is for sure. All eyes will be on the quarterbacks this Sunday.