NFL Divisional Round Recap: Jaguars, Vikings Improve Toxic Season with Dream Wins

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Throughout the 2017 NFL season, it was impossible to avoid a feeling of fatigue toward the sport. The countdown to a Sunday of football was replaced by the guilt of supporting a league that not only ignores the safety of its players, but also now proved its owners aren’t above blacklisting a player or attempting to censor political action.

From the Colin Kaepernick Saga to the controversy surrounding players kneeling before the National Anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality, to Ryan Shazier’s scary back injury on Monday Night Football, everything this season was just a bit too much to handle — which, understandably so, has put a significant strain on our enjoyment of the league.

Those who defended the NFL and its Shield throughout this toxic season of decreased ratings and negative feelings assured us that the Playoffs would serve as a saving grace in the final hour.

After the lights were shut off on the NFL Divisional Round on Sunday night, those people who defended the league and assured us that we would all be back in January were right. After a day of ESPN Classic fodder provided by the Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings, we are all back and even the biggest of cynics was satisfied with the quality of sport provided by the National Football League.

Sunday started with a bang as the Jacksonville Jaguars roared out to a 21-0 lead at Heinz Field over the Pittsburgh Steelers to put everyone on watch that the day was to be a special one. With the Jaguars in front, the Steelers triforce of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell got to work to bring themselves back into things.

By the time Ben Roethlisberger connected on a deep bomb to Brown to keep the Steelers within touching distance at halftime with a score of 28-14, you could already get the feeling we were all headed for a shootout.

With the Jaguars desperately holding onto their lead and the Steelers high powered offense emptying the chamber on every possession in desperation to get back in the game, the second half provided some of the best scoring football we have seen in the playoffs in recent memory.

Instead of relying on bleeding out the clock, the Jaguars would knock off the Steelers by punching them in the mouth repeatedly. Multiple defensive touchdowns and a monster day from running back Leonard Fournette – who returned from a first-half ankle injury to finish with 107 rushing yards and three touchdowns – allowed the Jaguars to outgun the Steelers in the slugfest.

In the end, however, it was Blake Bortles who would finish off the Steelers with an unexpected and poised fourth quarter drive. With the Jaguars up by just a single touchdown and the pressure on, Bortles drove the Jaguars down the field with an array of clutch throws against a Steelers defense that had chosen to commit to loading the box to force him to throw.

That decision – the correct one given Bortles limitations – burned the Steelers. Bortles made big throw after big throw in the second half to keep the lead safe. A masterfully executed redzone play action throw to wide open fullback Tommy Bohanon gave Bortles his lone touchdown pass on the day and the Jaguars enough points to stave off Big Ben.

After a dubious decision by Mike Tomlin to go for an onside kick failed, the Jaguars were officially headed to the AFC Championship game at the end of a shootout that featured 87 points in one of the most action packed playoff games in recent memory.

Now, Jacksonville will take their confidence and high octane scoring defense to Foxboro in a date with the vaunted New England Patriots. It is a matchup the Jaguars are less likely to win, but it is one that provides plenty of intrigue and the opportunity for a young Jacksonville team to continue to enjoy the national spotlight after an incredible season.

Not to be outdone by the Jaguars and the Steelers, the second game of Sunday’s doubleheader in Minnesota between the Vikings and the Saints was an equal second act on the day. Even if things didn’t appear that way at the half, with Minnesota fully in command and in control of a 17-0 lead after a first half of errors from Drew Brees.

In the second half, Saints and Vikings slowly entered classic status. The Vikings offense stalled with Case Keenum under center, allowing the Saints to work themselves into a slow burn of a comeback against the stringy Minnesota defense.

Michael Thomas would bring the Saints to within ten points with a late third quarter touchdown to make the score 17-7 entering the final frame. What would follow in the fourth quarter was six scoring plays – four in the final three minutes – in one of the craziest finishes to an NFL playoff game of all-time.

After a Saints stop, Thomas would catch a second touchdown to bring New Orleans within a field goal. Keenum and the Vikings would answer right back, driving downfield to set up a Kai Forbath field goal to go up 20-14.

The Saints and Vikings would then trade stops, giving Brees the ball back with time left to take the lead. An opportunity he took advantage of, guiding the Saints on a four play, 40 yard drive that ended with a beautiful deep strike to Alvin Kamara that completed the comeback and put the Saints in front.

21-20 was the lead for the Saints with 3:01 to play. Enough time for Case Keenum to find Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph to set Kai Forbath up for a 53-yard field goal to put Minnesota back in front.

With the ghosts of Morten Andersen and Blair Walsh in the building, Forbath would hit the 53-yard attempt dead center to give the Vikings the 24-23 lead. Unfortunately for Minnesota, Keenum couldn’t burn enough clock to avoid handing Drew Brees the ball back with 1:29 to work with.

The Vikings failure to kill the clock despite Sean Payton blowing two of his timeouts on curious challenge attempts looked to be the decision that sealed their fate. With just enough time to march down the field, Brees continued to atone for his scoreless first half with a near perfect drive to set up a chip shot field goal for Will Lutz to put New Orleans back in front.

This time the Saints had the lead in a position where they had the Vikings left for dead. One timeout and :25 left on the clock for Keenum, who hadn’t guided the Vikings to a touchdown drive since the early stages of the second quarter was the challenge to overcome for Minnesota to avoid yet another heartbreak.

With the opportunity to play in the Super Bowl as hosts and a dream season fading with each tick of the scoreboard clock, Keenum’s final desperation throw would find Stefon Diggs in the most perfect of moments to allow Diggs to run freely past a missed tackle from safety Marcus Williams and into glory.

The moment of Diggs running unopposed into the endzone and turning the Vikings season from despair into hope of a potential Super Bowl run at long last is exactly what the NFL needed at exactly the write time.

Near the end of the 2017 season, the narrative of this season being one of the worst in NFL history both on and off the field is now conceding to excitement over an incredible day of football. The Jaguars high powered upset over the Steelers and the Diggs miracle providing relief to alleviate some of the fatigue surrounding the league this season.

This isn’t to give the NFL a pass for its very real off the field issues that need to be addressed, both in terms of protecting player safety and recognizing the right of the players to use their platform to address social issues. But at the same time, it was pretty damn fun to watch the NFL again on Sunday for the first time in a long while and that is to be cherished and enjoyed.

Let’s all hope the final three games can be just as good after one of the best days to be a fan of the sport in recent memory.