AFC Champion New England Patriots
Down and … out?
Tom Brady uttered these words back in October: “We’re all disappointed.” It came after the Patriots dropped to 2-2 following a loss to the Panthers. Doubts began to seep in — had Brady lost it? Was the dynasty dead? As it turns out, it was unnecessary hyperventilation. They won their next eight games and 11 of the last 12 in the regular season.
The Patriots and Steelers met Dec. 17 with the winner gaining the edge for the AFC playoff home-field advantage. Running back Dion Lewis scored a go-ahead touchdown with 56 seconds left. Ben Roethlisberger was picked off by Duron Harmon in the end zone to seal the outcome. With the 27-24 win, the Patriots picked up their ninth straight AFC East title and were on their way to securing home-field advantage.
Linebacker James Harrison was released from the Steelers despite collecting 80½ sacks in Pittsburgh. Maybe there wasn’t room for him anymore there, but the sage Bill Belichick signed a player nearly as old as Tom Brady and the 39-year-old began to contribute. In his last 14 games in Pittsburgh, he played just 40 snaps. In the AFC Championship Game against the Jaguars, Harrison played 32 snaps and recorded three tackles and a quarterback hit. He can’t go all game long, but in spurts, Harrison can make his presence known.
It seems like ages ago now, but remember when Patriots nation pressed the panic button when Julian Edelman went down with a torn ACL? Coming off a year in which he caught 98 balls for 1,106 yards — an average of 11.3 yards per catch — Edelman’s injury felt ominous. In the end, it was not. Brandin Cooks, acquired from New Orleans in a trade, caught 65 passes, Danny Amendola caught 61 and tight end Rob Gronkowski led the team with 69 grabs. Gronk was placed in concussion protocol during the AFC Championship Game but hopes to recover in plenty of time for Super Bowl LII.
Jimmy Garoppolo, the player all assumed was the heir apparent to Brady, was sent to the 49ers on Oct. 31. Many are still trying to make sense of it, particularly when you consider Garoppolo went 5-0 as the starter in San Francisco. But for all of the dust-up after that, including an ESPN expose, the Patriots stayed the course. Patriots brass tried to knock down suggestions that there was disharmony within the organization. All seemed bent on making sure the outside noise wouldn’t prove problematic, and so far, at least as is evident on the field, it has been business — and winning — as usual.
NFC Champion Philadelphia Eagles
Down and … out?
The Eagles entered the Dec. 4 game at Seattle on a nine-game winning streak, averaging 31.9 points per game. But the Eagles failed the big road test, losing 24-10 to a team fighting to stay in the playoff hunt. Carson Wentz was sacked three times, threw an interception and lost a fumble. For perhaps the first time all season, there was slight skepticism about the Eagles.
This could have been the beginning of the end. It wasn’t. Wentz threw four touchdown passes in the 43-35 win over the Rams but left the game after suffering a torn ACL that would end his season. Nick Foles came in and completed six of 10 passes. Foles’ strike to Nelson Agholor on third down with 1:45 left helped put the game away, and Brandon Graham’s touchdown after recovering the Rams’ fumbled lateral capped the big win. The Eagles needed to win, regardless of Wentz’s status, and they did.
If the Eagles were contenders before the trade deadline, they became heavy NFC favorites after picking up running back Jay Ajayi from the Dolphins. Sitting at 7-1, the Eagles sent a fourth-round draft pick to the Dolphins for Ajayi. He gained 1,272 yards — an average of 4.9 yards a carry — in 2016. But early this season, running behind Miami’s poor offensive line, he’d fallen to 3.4 yards a carry. In Philadelphia during the regular season, he’s gained 5.8 yards per carry and caught 10 passes for 91 yards.
The most obvious and troubling loss was Wentz, but his injury wasn’t the only setback. The Eagles lost left tackle Jason Peters (knee) and middle linebacker Jordan Hicks (Achilles’ tendon) vs. Washington in October. And punt returner Darren Sproles suffered a broken arm and a torn ACL against the Giants in September. Second-year tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai stepped in for Peters and performed well. Mychal Kendricks, the brother of Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks, picked up time in Hicks’ place. Through it all, the Eagles have continued to roll.
One player didn’t accept a salary all season long. Another spent time in the league office in New York City throughout parts of the year. Chris Long and Malcolm Jenkins didn’t sacrifice football in their collective and individual efforts to engage in social justice solutions. However, one pervasive argument often suggested by team owners and coaches against such involvement is that the players’ actions would become a “distraction” within the locker room. So much for that. Long caused the interception that started the unraveling of the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game. Jenkins was the same on-field disrupter he has been.
RANA L. CASH