Melissa’s Monday Musings: Underdog QBs Inch Closer to the Super Bowl

“OH MY GOD.” Case Keenum, five seconds after Stefon Diggs scored the game-winning touchdown to catapult the Vikings into the NFC Championship.

Wow, wow, wow. I don’t know about you but I still can’t breathe after that Saints-Vikings ending for the ages. During the final 90 seconds, before Drew Brees would showcase why a Canton bust awaits by calmly leading the Saints to a go-ahead field goal, before Keenum’s subsequent insane desperation throw to Diggs, my social media streams were clogged with people expressing anxiety. NFL fans, media members, non-NFL fans, most without a rooting interest, were biting off their fingernails, doing jumping jacks, emphatically chowing down on chocolate bars or all of the above. The NFL is going nowhere, folks.

Like The Catch and the Immaculate Reception, the Minnesota Miracle will be a moment that NFL fans remember forever (especially if the Vikes advance to the Super Bowl.) Adding to the allure of the play is the fact that it was orchestrated by an underdog journeyman who serendipitously found himself in that position.

Keenum is only one of multiple underdog quarterbacks headed to the conference championship round. Here is how they stack up in terms of dark horse status. (And read on for more of my musings about an overall glorious divisional weekend).

Nick Foles

After bouncing around from the Eagles to the Rams to the Chiefs, Foles revealed that he was on verge of retirement “I had no love for the game, and it was tough,” he admitted as part of a devotional series. Strike one: Underdogs don’t ever lose their love of the game.

Foles is riding a wave in Philadelphia right now but even in the excitement of the Eagles’ upset over the Falcons, the undeniable truth is that Philly won despite Foles.

For much of the battle against Atlanta, Foles had absolutely no pocket awareness, and his footwork was atrocious. In fact, his biggest throw was a pass that ricocheted off the knee Falcons safety Keanu Neal, right into the hands of Torrey Smith before halftime.

A true underdog’s flaws transcend his team’s fanbase. While Foles has received some mockery, it has never reached the depth of other quarterbacks headed to the next round. Plus he’ll always have that Chip Kelly-driven Pro Bowl berth. Bonus dark horse points for having to replace the frontrunner for MVP, though.

Underdog rating: 5/10

Case Keenum 

The pandemonium in the aftermath of Keenum’s 61-yard touchdown strike to Diggs was its own highlight reel. A stunned Diggs. Sideline reporters trying to facilitate interviews as a mandatory extra point remained. But the most brilliant moment came when Case Keenum led the raucous crowd in the SKOL chant, rhythmically clapping his hands above his head. Those few seconds illustrated that this is Keenum’s team now.

Yet there’s still a part of us that can’t believe it. The usually polite Amy Trask echoed many thoughts when she tweeted, “Case F’in Keenum.”

Up until this season, Keenum, undrafted in 2012, had been a journeyman who toggled between being embedded on benches and mocked when he saw emergency action.

“I’ve had a chip on my shoulder for a long time,” he told Bleacher Report’s Dan Pompei last week. “It’s driven me to work hard my whole career. I am who I am. I don’t apologize about it. I don’t worry about it.”

But the truth is that Keenum has been serviceable and was viewed as an upper echelon backup. He had options last offseason and chose Minnesota because, as he wrote for The Player’s Tribune, “They wanted me more than the other teams. I could feel it.”

When Sam Bradford was injured, Keenum was plucked into a Pat Shurmer offense that perfectly suited his strong points. While the strength of Minnesota is its defensive line, Keenum exceeded a 100 passer rating seven times this season and is more an asset than a detriment.  Still, he looks more like your local mechanic than an NFL quarterback, has always been on the fringes and no one can actually believe what he has accomplished this season.

Underdog rating: 8/10

Side note: Keenum or Foles will be starting in a Super Bowl. Let that sink in.

Blake Bortles

Titans DE Jurrell Casey said Bortles would choke under pressure. Casey’s teammate, safety Kevin Byard said he wanted to make Tom Brady look like Blake Bortles. Bortlin’ is a verb in the extensive Bortles book of mockery.

Bortles knows the deal by now:I’m sure there will always be people who always think I suck,” he said last week.

Part of the Bortles equation is the fact that he went no. 3 overall in the 2014, and thus came with high expectations. At best, he has been streaky over a three-year career, this season was no exception. In Weeks 13-15, Bortles put together perhaps the best run of his career in wins over Indianapolis, Houston and Seattle. But last week against the Bills he could barely muster a respectable forward pass. Sunday’s improbable win against Pittsburgh will definitely be a career highlight for Bortles, who is still only 25. He played mistake free football and aired it out far more than usual, executing several key third downs in the process. But because Bortles didn’t have a career-changing moment like Keenum and will have to spend a week being jokingly compared to the greatest quarterback of all time, a role which he endearingly embraces he unquestionably earns top marks in this important exercise.

Underdog rating: 10/10

Tom Brady

Brady has won five Super Bowls, is the best ever to play his position, is married to a gazillionaire supermodel, gets people to spend $100 on his “performance” pajamas, yet taunts his opponents after victories and reportedly scoffs at not being named Patriot of the Week.

Underdog rating: -5 million/10

More divisional round musings:

Doug Marrone deserves so much of the credit in that Jacksonville win for going for it on 4th and goal from the 2 on the Jaguars’ first drive. He easily could have settled for points but that gutsy call and execution completely set the tone.

– Kudos to Marrone and Jacksonville for using Pittsburgh’s overconfidence to its advantage. Myles Jack said he saw Le’Veon Bell tweet’s assuming they would play New England:  “Oh, for sure. Yannick (Ngakoue) had actually screenshotted it for me.” Leonard Fournette told FOX’s Kristina Pink said that you can’t look past teams and that it “was disrespectful.”

 – Horrible coaching on the other end of the sideline. Todd Haley’s decision to have Roethlisberger drop back and pass on multiple 4th and inches plays wasn’t the worst of it. Clearly looking ahead to New England, Mike Tomlin’s crew had no focus. The Steelers’ relaxed culture has to come in to question now. No way would a player feel confident publicly looking past an opponent in Bill Belichick’s universe. Belichick would also never deactivate his starters in Week 17 with a bye looming like Tomlin did. It was stunning how unprepared the Steelers were and had Antonio Brown been a no go, they would have been absolutely blown out.

– The Pats offense vs. Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye and the Jags defense is the clear marquee matchup of the championship round but Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount behind the Eagles improved offensive line vs. the vaunted defensive line of the Vikings is a close second. Both battles could be legendary.

– Love the Patriots facing a Tom Coughlin team in the playoffs. Obviously Coughlin is not the Jags coach but is still in a minuscule club of those who have outschemed Bill Belichick as his Giants bested the Patriots in both Super Bowl XLII and XLVI. I’m guessing Coughlin and Marrone will have quite the intriguing conversations this week.

– Tom Brady’s incredible scrambling throw across the field on 3rd and 10 in the early 4th quarter certainly answered looming questions of regression. However, the Patriots victory hardly mitigates the ESPN report of discord in New England, as many Boston-based fans and journalists were quick to suggest.

– Drew Brees was Superman in the end of the Saints-Vikings game and remains better than 90% of NFL quarterbacks but his arm strength has clearly regressed. Exhibit A: The underthrown ball to Ted Ginn Jr. with 1:06 left in the first half. Three years ago that’s a Ginn TD; Sunday it was an interception.

– These two are so adorable:

– Fun fact: No Super Bowl host team has made it as far as the Vikings.

– Tremendous move by Roger Goodell rewarding this 99-yard Vikings fan at her first playoff game.

– Please someone make catches non-reviewable. These should be an eye test, just like pass interference. What is missed from time-to-time will be more than made up with a much improved (and faster) product. As is, the catch rule is going to take ten years off our lives.

– Random idea: Let’s spice up in game player introductions by asking all players the same question in a quest to dig into their interests. So the intro graphic would have players and a personality-driven question such as “What is your favorite breakfast item?” Instead of “Drew Brees, Purdue,” we’d get “Drew Brees, Purdue, chicken sausage.” “Marshon Lattimore, Ohio State, blueberry pancakes.” Feel free to start the petition for me to replace Goodell.

I’m still loopy from Keenum-to-Diggs.