Championship Sunday will consist of Tom Brady and … the other guys. The GOAT vs. the really?
Case Keenum, Nick Foles and Blake Bortles were fighting for their jobs during the preseason, and now they are one win away from adding “starting quarterback in a Super Bowl” to their modest resumes. According to Elias Sports Bureau research, this is the first time that three starting quarterbacks in conference championship games had two or fewer playoff starts since 1999 (Kurt Warner, Shaun King and Steve McNair).
To put that into further perspective, Brady has as many Super Bowl wins (five) as Keenum, Foles and Bortles have playoff starts (five).
Clearly, Brady has the edge in every category, starting with experience. But how much does that really matter given what the Vikings, Eagles and Jaguars ask their quarterback to do? NFL Nation reporters Michael DiRocco (Jaguars), Courtney Cronin (Vikings), Tim McManus (Eagles) and Mike Reiss (Patriots) discuss what lies ahead for the quarterbacks on Sunday:
Blake Bortles, Jaguars
Career starts: 61 | Career win percentage: .344 | Playoff record: 2-0
Why inexperience might not matter: Bortles just needs to do what he did against Buffalo and Pittsburgh: not turn the ball over, make some plays with his legs, and come through with some key throws. The Jaguars are 13-6 (including playoffs) when Bortles doesn’t commit a turnover, including 8-0 this season. He had never played more than four turnover-free games in any of his first three seasons. Bortles ran for 88 yards (he threw for 87) against the Bills and has 123 yards rushing in the two postseason games. That includes 98 yards on scrambles, which is already tied for the third-most scramble yards in the past 10 postseasons, per ESPN Stats & Information research. Five of Bortles’ 15 runs have gone for first downs, too. The Jaguars would prefer to slow the game down to keep the Patriots’ offense off the field, which means more Leonard Fournette runs and fewer passes. Bortles will have to make four or five must-have throws, whether it be a key third-down conversion or a deep pass, and he has to deliver the way he did against the Bills (fourth-down TD pass to Ben Koyack) and Steelers (deep throw to Keelan Cole, TD toss to Tommy Bohanon) in the game’s critical moments. — DiRocco
Case Keenum, Vikings
Career starts: 38 | Career win percentage: .526 | Playoff record: 1-0
Why inexperience might not matter: Did you see the throw Keenum made on the final play against the Saints to catapult the Vikings into the NFC Championship Game? All debate about his lack of playoff experience ended on that 61-yard bomb to Stefon Diggs, now dubbed the Minneapolis Miracle. Yeah, Minnesota practices “Buffalo right, 7 Heaven” all the time, but what Keenum did in that moment defies situational football. “That is what Case has done all year long,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “He’s a battler, a fighter. He never flinches. He doesn’t back down from anything and that’s just who he is. Whether it’s the fourthquarter [of a] playoff game or it’s the fourth quarter of OTA’s out here, I don’t think he cares.” His instincts have paid off in critical moments through his ability to sense pressure and know when to take off and extend drives with his feet. On top of that, Keenum has some really good numbers (and excellent weapons at his disposal) that support his case. In terms of total QBR, Keenum ranks first in one-score games, when pressured and against the blitz. He has the fourth best total QBR on the road and when making plays outside of the pocket. Drew Brees had years of playoff experience on his resume when Keenum started his first postseason game. In the end, none of that mattered. — Cronin
Nick Foles, Eagles
Career starts: 39 | Career win percentage: .564 | Playoff record: 1-1
Why inexperience might not matter: Foles is backed by a ferocious defense that has lifted its level of play since Carson Wentz went down with a torn ACL in Week 14. Jim Schwartz’s group has yielded 26 points total over the past three games, including 10 in a divisional-round win over Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and the Atlanta Falcons. The leader of that defense, safety Malcolm Jenkins, was asked how to explain the fact that there is only one classic franchise quarterback — Brady — among the four remaining teams. “The cliché that defense wins championships is alive and well,” he replied. Foles will have to raise his game to get the team into the Super Bowl, and he faces a stiff test in the top-ranked Vikings on Sunday. Though he has limited playoff experience, Foles has six pro seasons under his belt, so it’s not like the Eagles are going into this matchup with a neophyte at the helm. “I walk by that hallway in there every day and you see this [picture of] No. 9 with these locks hanging out the back of his helmet on that Pro Bowl wall, and that’s Foles,” receiver Torrey Smith said. “It’s the same guy that threw seven touchdowns in one game — that’s Nick Foles. So we’re lucky we had him as a backup. We believe in him.” — McManus
Tom Brady, Patriots
Career starts: 251 | Career win percentage: .781 | Playoff record: 29-9
Why experience matters: Brady will play in his 36th career playoff game, which is more than two full regular seasons’ worth of experience. That will extend his own NFL record (Adam Vinatieri is next, at 30) and highlights how he has been in so many pressure-packed playoff games that it is invaluable experience to have. The leadership and confidence that Brady exudes, especially in the playoffs, provides a road map for his teammates to follow. That includes a record 12 AFC Championship Game appearances to go along with a record seven victories. He also has played in seven Super Bowls. At the same time, Bill Belichick annually stresses to players that it’s more about playoff execution than playoff experience (e.g. Malcolm Butler didn’t have much experience when he made his game-saving interception in Super Bowl XLIX), and the point is well taken. If experience was all that mattered, the team could simply sign a bunch of championship-hardened veterans and all would be taken care of. Nonetheless, who wouldn’t want to have the player, Brady, with an NFL-record 66 playoff touchdown passes on their side? — Reiss