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More than four months after the journey began for 32 teams we're now down to four. You could have been in a coma pretty much at any point this century and come out guessing that Tom Brady was a game away from the Super Bowl. What nobody saw coming -- the three other quarterbacks taking part in the championship games: Blake Bortles, Case Keenum and Nick Foles.
But hey, that's parity for you.
Or, more precisely, the importance of building a roster of 52 other players capable of dominating for long stretches. That has been the unofficial playbook for the Jaguars, Vikings and Eagles' defenses for much of the season though the respective quarterbacks, in varying degrees, have been integral to their success. If Bortles' progress has been a pleasant development, Keenum's productivity has been the biggest surprise of the season. And Foles, who struggled as Carson Wentz's replacement late in the season, found his form against the Falcons last week.
Now the question becomes: Which of these quarterbacks show up for conference championship weekend?
For the Jaguars, it all starts with Bortles, who as a rookie in 2014 ranked dead last in total value among all quarterbacks, according to Football Outsiders' metrics. He improved to 25th in total value in 2015, when he threw 35 touchdowns along with 18 interceptions and five lost fumbles. And if last season was among his most disappointing -- Bortles had 23 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and six fumbles and there were constant calls to bench him for Chad Henne -- this season has instilled confidence in not only the embattled quarterback but his teammates and coaches too.
After Jacksonville throttled Seattle in Week 14, skeptics suddenly skipped right over questions about whether the Jags could play winning football -- that had been made crystal clear -- and now folks were left wondering if Bortles, the running game and this defense could play winning football in the postseason. Those questions have been answered too; the Jaguars eked out a win over the Bills in the wild-card matchup, and dropped 45 points on the Steelers last week -- in Pittsburgh, no less.
Shortly after beating the Seahawks, Jaguars cornerback A.J. Bouye, who intercepted Russell Wilson twice, said this: "Everybody wants to joke about it but we've been talking about that since we played Pittsburgh [in Week 5]: We don't get respect. They say Roethlisberger was retiring, Flacco didn't have it, usually a lot of stuff like that and we just went up against a player who all week they said was an MVP candidate so I just can't wait to see what they say about that."
Here's what they said, A.J.: It's time to take the Jaguars seriously. And you can bet that Bill Belichick won't overlook this group.
In the NFC matchup, it all starts with Keenum, who signed a one-year deal with the Vikings in the offseason for one reason: to be Sam Bradford's backup while Teddy Bridgewater continued his recovery from knee surgery. But Bradford was injured in Week 1, Keenum took over in Week 2, and now, four months later, he has emerged as one of the NFL's best players. This isn't hyperbole; in 15 regular-season starts, Keenum completed 67.6 percent of his throws with 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He was first in value per play among all quarterbacks, according to Football Outsiders' metrics, and fourth in total value, behind only Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Drew Brees.
A week ago, the Eagles' defense held Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and the Falcons' offense to 10 points. Keenum has Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, who were collectively more efficient, according to Football Outsiders (Jones and Sanu ranked seventh and 18th in total value; Thielen and Diggs were 11th and ninth).
Thielen is a legit No. 1 wide receiver who has a knack for the big play. And Diggs, who led all receivers with six catches for 137 yards Sunday, also has a flair for the dramatic. But there's also tight end Kyle Rudolph, who ranks eighth in total value, along with running back Jerick McKinnon, who had 421 receiving yards to go along with 520 rushing yards. The point: For as well rounded as the Eagles are on defense -- they're seventh against the pass, third against the run -- the Vikings' offense is loaded with weapons.