Dieter Kurtenbach wrote a column for The Mercury News on Saturday opining that if Jimmy Garoppolo was starting for any of the four teams playing in the conference championship games, that team would be the favorite to win it all. That opinion is a great conversation starter in itself, but it rests largely on the fact that, at least entering this season, the three starting quarterbacks not named Tom Brady were, at least before the season, viewed as backups or below average starters. Yet, at least one of them would be in the Super Bowl, and another would have a chance to meet him there.
So I wanted to take a look at their performances, and how they shaped our Super Bowl matchup. I also wanted to grade them, because it makes me feel powerful.
The former third overall pick has been a disappointment over the course of his career thus far, but he is Jason Mendoza’s favorite QB. So there’s that. At times this season -- including last week at Pittsburgh -- he has looked like someone Jacksonville could ask to lead them rather than just not screw things up. Other times, not so much.
Bortles started strong on Sunday, completing short and medium passes to help Jacksonville move the ball effectively. With the Patriots clearly gearing up for the run, he made quick reads, great decisions, and accurate passes -- leading the Jags down the field with ease for two touchdowns to give them a 14-3 lead.
His only really costly mistake came just before halftime when he allowed the play clock to expire just before a terrific third down throw to get Jacksonville back into field goal range. Had it counted, the Jags would’ve been able to bleed most of the time remaining and at least kicked a field goal to go up 17-3. Instead, the penalty led to a punt, which gave Tom Brady time to the led the Pats down for a touchdown. The Jacksonville lead was cut to 14-10, making that delay of game essentially at least a 10-point penalty (if not 14).
After halftime, Bortles’ effectiveness waned a bit as the Jags offensive strategy grew (understandably) more conservative, but he was still solid. On a huge third down around midfield with less than seven minutes left, however, he failed to see an open receiver downfield and threw incomplete in the flat, short of the sticks. By the time Jacksonville got the ball back for what turned out to be their last gasp, they were trailing 24-20 with just 2:48 remaining.
Bortles looked up to the task, leading the Jags from their 25-yard line to the New England 38 on just two passes. But on his final four plays the clock finally struck midnight for Bortles. On first down, he threw short of Fournette who had a step down the sidelines. On second down, Bortles took a costly sack, fumbling the ball backwards to lose eight yards. After a short completion on third down left the Jags with a 4th-and-13, Bortles faced pressure and had to step and throw to a well-covered Dede Westbrook. His pass was accurate, but knocked away on a beautiful play by Stephon Gilmore.
Bortles put up excellent numbers (23/36, 293 yards, 1 TD, 98.5 Rating), hit some big throws, and didn’t turn the ball over. But it takes perfection, or very close to it, to beat Brady and Belichick. And one could argue Bortles’ one glaring mistake -- his inability to get off that key 3rd down play on time at the end of the first half -- cost the Jags the upset and a trip to the Super Bowl.
Coming into Sunday, Keenum had to be viewed as the best of the Other QBs playing today -- which is sort of like calling him the tallest midget. He certainly had the best year -- a big reason why the Vikings were favored on the road.
Keenum took advantage of a strong running game to get off to a hot start against the Eagles defense. Minnesota’s effective ground attack allowed them to pick and choose when to throw. When they did, Keenum was poised and accurate, hitting receivers for a couple of big gains, including Kyle Rudolph for the game’s first score.
But the thing about the Other QBs is they all have a little Jekyll-and-Hyde in them, and Mr. Hyde appeared on Minnesota’s next possession. Leading 7-0, Keenum was contacted -- though not really “hit” -- by Chris Long, and threw a duck, resulting in a game-tying pick-six by the Eagles. Whether you think that’s on Keenum or not, it clearly shook him — and fired up Philadelphia’s D. Over Minnesota’s next couple of drives, Keenum was unable to generate any offense to speak of.
Dr. Jekyll reappeared midway through the 2nd quarter with Minnesota trailing 14-7. Keenum led the Vikings down the field, using all his receivers and attacking every level of the Eagles defense. But on a third down in the red zone, Keenum was sacked and fumbled the ball to end the drive. Unlike his previous turnover, Keenum was hit hard from his blind side, so it’s hard to place the blame on him. But by the time he got the ball back with just over a minute left in the first half, he was down 21-7. After hitting a couple of throws, Keenum missed a wide-open Stefon Diggs on the sidelines, costing the Vikings a chance to close the gap. Making things worse, the Eagles kicked a field to end the half.
In Keenum’s first possession of the second half, he led Minnesota to the red zone again, and again failed to net any points. Down 24, Mike Zimmer chose to go for it on 4th-and-goal, and Adam Thielen’s circus touchdown catch was correctly overturned after replay. By the time Keenum saw the ball again, the Vikings trailed 38-7 in the 4th quarter and the game was decided.
Though Keenum wasn’t terrible, and the Vikings defense certainly didn’t help, his numbers looked about like what you’d picture if someone said “Case Keenum” to you before the season (28/48, 271 yards, 1 TD/2 INT). It doesn’t take many bad plays or missed opportunities to lose any game in the NFL -- especially against a very good team, particularly on the road. That goes double in the playoffs, and triple if you’re facing a QB playing at a high level -- just ask Blake Bortles. And Keenum’s two early turnovers were went a long way toward sinking the Vikings boat.
Nick Foles is easily the most accomplished of the quarterbacks playing on Sunday, compiling one of the more effective passing seasons in league history in 2013. Since then, he has looked like a one-year wonder in time with the then St. Louis Rams and Kansas City Chiefs. However, he played respectably against Atlanta in the divisional round, giving Eagles fans hope the drop-off from Carson Wentz might not be a fatal blow to their title hopes.
Philadelphia came out throwing aggressively and Foles was on point. After one dart for a first down, he was failed by his receivers — Torrey Smith dropped a well-thrown deep ball and Trey Burton did a poor job of staying in bounds on a third down pass. Once his defense tied the game up, 7-7, Foles continued his sharp play -- this time with much better results. He led the Eagles to three scoring drives in the second quarter, the highlight coming on a 53-yard bomb to Alshon Jeffery that came after Foles stood tall in the pocket as it was seemingly crumbling around him. He bought so much time in so little space, CB Terrance Newman jumped the route, thinking Foles would have to throw right away or not at all. But Jeffrey broke deep as Foles shuffled to his left and launched a perfect deep ball for the score.
But Foles best drive may have come when Philadelphia got the ball on their own 20-yard line with just 0:29 remaining in the first half. Looking positive Brady-esque, Foles led the Eagles 60 yards on just three plays to set up a field goal which gave them a 24-7 halftime lead. He then picked up right where he left off in the second half, going 5-for-5 on yet another scoring drive, capped by a superb 41-yard strike to Smith through a tight window for a touchdown to make it 31-7, and all but secure Philadelphia’s spot in the Super Bowl.
Foles played the best of the Other QBs by far on Sunday, putting up eye-popping numbers (26/33, 352 yards, 3 TD, 141.4 rating), hitting huge plays, and making Eagles fans forget Wentz — if only briefly. He wasn’t just a guy the Eagles could win with, he put up one of the best performances in their playoff history. And what did it earn him? A chance to be the Other QB again in two weeks against Brady. I’m sure he’ll take it, and if he plays anything like how he did today it should be quite a game. But as well as he played today, it’s hard for me to imagine him repeating it.