Tom Brady and the big game-tested Patriots (14-3) square off against the sack-happy Jacksonville Jaguars (12-6) next Sunday in the AFC championship game in Foxborough, Massachusetts — with the winner headed to the Super Bowl.
“It’s been an awesome year,” Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles said, “and we want to keep it going.”
In the NFC, Nick Foles and the resilient Philadelphia Eagles (14-3) host Case Keenum and the surprising Minnesota Vikings (14-3) — in a matchup of teams that overcame losing their starting quarterbacks.
“They count us out all the time,” said Minnesota’s Stefon Diggs, whose 61-yard touchdown catch as time expired Sunday gave the Vikings a stunning 29 to 24 victory. “Nobody thinking we can do it. This game was over. I don’t stop playing till the clock hit zero. That’s it.”
The Vikings open as a 3 ½-point favorite against the Eagles, while the Patriots open favored by 9 1/2 in their game.
Being here is nothing new, of course, for New England, which has advanced to the Super Bowl in three of the past six seasons.
For fresh-faced Jacksonville, however, this is all rare territory.
The Jaguars are playing in the conference title game for just the third time in franchise history, and first since losing to Tennessee during the 1999 season. Jacksonville is also one of four franchises to never play in the Super Bowl.
“I’m sure there will still be tons of people that are going to disapprove or talk negative or hate or do whatever they want,” Bortles said. “But we get to keep playing. We get an opportunity to go play in Foxborough for another week, so I’m just honored to be able to do this and especially with this group of guys.”
And, it has all come full circle for Tom Coughlin, who was Jacksonville’s coach the previous time the franchise got this far in the postseason.
He went on to win two Super Bowls with the New York Giants — both against Bill Belichick’s Patriots — but is now the Jaguars’ executive vice president of football operations. He helped assemble a squad with coach Doug Marrone that has been powered by a tenacious defense that ranked second in the NFL during the regular season in sacks.
After a few ho-hum games, Bortles, running back Leonard Fournette and the Jaguars offense showed it isn’t too shabby, either, outslugging Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers in a stunning 45 to 42 victory Sunday.
“Obviously, with what they have on their side of the ball, it’s a good team and we know they’ve got a good offense,” Bortles said. “We knew we had to keep scoring.”
There’s also this neat nugget: Jacksonville’s first AFC championship game appearance came during the 1996 season — against New England, which went on to play in the Super Bowl under then-coach Bill Parcells and lost to the Brett Favre-led Green Bay Packers.
The Patriots have made it to the AFC championship game for seven straight seasons, clinching this trip with a 35 to 14 drubbing of the Tennessee Titans on Saturday night.
“The reality of the NFL is what we did this week will have nothing to do with what happens next week,” Brady said. “We’re going to have to go repeat it, so you’ve got to get right back to work, right back to the process of trying to figure out how to break down our opponent.
“Everyone’s got to feel good physically and mentally and go out there and try to cut it loose one more time in a huge game.”
The Patriots know how to do that, and they’re masters of tuning out distractions. Despite a published report during the week that raised questions about the relationships between Brady, Belichick and team owner Robert Kraft, New England was all business on the field against the Titans.
“It’s pretty incredible to be a part of that,” Brady said. “I think the thing is that we don’t really take it for granted around here. I know how hard it is to get to this game. We’re very blessed to do it.”
Meanwhile, Philadelphia is playing for the NFC title for the 11th time, but hasn’t won it since the 2004 season — when the Eagles went on to lose to the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
“We’ll be ready for next week,” defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said.
The Eagles used steady play by Foles and a late goal-line stand by their defense to beat the Atlanta Falcons 15 to 10 on Saturday afternoon. It set up Philadelphia’s first conference championship appearance since the 2008 season.
And it comes despite the Eagles losing starting quarterback Carson Wentz, a leading MVP contender, to a season-ending knee injury last month.
“Our team never wavered, defense did an amazing job, special teams,” Foles said. “That’s just been the story this year is that we just all stuck together.”
The same can be said of the Vikings, who entered the season with Sam Bradford as their quarterback and had big playoff hopes. But he went down with a knee injury after the first week — and it appeared Minnesota’s dreams might be dashed.
Enter Keenum, an unheralded and undrafted backup who ended up having the best season of his career.
To top it off, Keenum combined with Diggs on one of the most stunning plays in NFL playoff history, a winning TD that sent the Vikings to their 10th NFC title game and first since the 2009 season.
“I don’t even know right now,” Keenum said. “I have no words.”
And now, the Vikings, Eagles, Patriots and Jaguars are all one win away from the Super Bowl.