The Debrief  

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The Debrief: First thoughts on conference title games

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Gregg Rosenthal catches you up on everything you need to know as we turn from the Divisional Round to Championship Sunday.

Well, that was fun. If anyone needed a refresher on why football is our greatest, most heart-stopping, maddening, unpredictable, electric and beautiful sport, this Divisional Round weekend did the trick. (Unless you're a Saints fan. Or a Steelers, Falcons or Titans fan. Apologies.)

Stefon Diggs' Minnesota Miracle capped one of the great playoff games in NFL history, which included a 17-point comeback by a Hall of Fame quarterback against the league's best defense, four lead changes in the final 3:01 and perhaps the weight of a long-suffering fan base lifted.

It takes a truly special game to render a 45-point performance by a Blake Bortles-led Jaguars team at Heinz Field the second-most breathtaking development of the day. With last year's NFC champions deposed of on Saturday and brand-name quarterbacks like Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger kicked out of the tournament on Sunday, Championship Sunday has a distinct three Davids and a Goliath feel to it.

Consider: The Patriots have appeared in seven (consecutive) conference championships in the time since the last appearance from either the Vikings, Eagles or Jaguars. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have appeared in seven Super Bowls together, while the Vikings -- as a franchise -- have played in four (all losses, all more than 40 years ago), the Eagles have played in just two and the Jaguars haven't made one at all. Tom Brady has been a part of 26 playoff victories, while Nick Foles, Case Keenum and Blake Bortles all tasted success as a playoff starter for the first time this year. You get the idea.

After a season so often defined by who was missing, this was an essential weekend for the NFL. It was a reminder of the sport's infinite possibility and felt like a table-setter in a crazy season that can only end with Goliath falling to one of the three Davids left.

First thoughts about Championship Sunday

1) The "book" on how to beat Tom Brady has long resembled the game plan from the 2007 New York Giants. Disrupting Brady's timing with a strong front four without sending extra pass rushers is Job No. 1. (Getting pressure on him up the middle is especially key.) Then you have to find some cornerbacks, like the recent-vintage Denver Broncos, who are able to play physical man coverage against the Patriots' smaller receivers.

Few defenses in recent NFL history are better suited to execute that game plan than the 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars. Brady is at another level in finding the right matchups, but there is no substitute for a defense that can simply overwhelm any opponent with physicality and talent. This Jaguars defense has a chance to do that.

2) There's no way to know which Jaguars offense will show up next week. It's not just Blake Bortles, who finished off Sunday's win over the Steelers in style. From the team's offensive line to its running backs to its play-calling, no offense has a bigger variance from week to week than the Jaguars' attack. The playoffs are a perfect example, with the team's offensive no-show against Buffalo to Sunday's laser show in Pittsburgh. This is not a new trend. Playing like world beaters one week and egg beaters the next has been the defining characteristic for Jacksonville's offense this season.

3) It wasn't just the opponent that made the Patriots look so dominant Saturday night. New England is an appreciably different offense with James White and Chris Hogan fully healthy, helping to replace the snaps of players like Kenny Britt and Phillip Dorsett who were playing big snaps late in the season. A healthy version of defensive end Trey Flowers transforms the entire defense, while linebackers Kyle Van Noy and James Harrison improve the run defense significantly. The Patriots survived a lot of injuries throughout the season and look healthier now than they have in a while, which bodes well against the Jaguars.

4) Eagles coach Doug Pederson did a masterful job Saturday helping quarterback Nick Foles against a talented Falcons defense. Pederson will have to do even better with the Vikings' defense coming to town. The Saints appeared to be a far more favorable matchup for the Eagles because points will be so hard to come by against Minnesota.

5) Nick Foles considered retirement after losing his job to Case Keenum on a Rams team on its way out of St. Louis in 2015. It is beyond preposterous that those two men are facing off in the NFC Championship Game, with Foles' old replacement in Philadelphia, Sam Bradford, waiting in the wings should Keenum get hurt.

6) This is a defense-heavy final four. Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan all fell victim over the weekend to defenses ranked in the top-five of Football Outsiders' DVOA.

That's why all the "analysis" that Tom Brady only needs to "beat" Blake Bortles, then Case Keenum or Nick Foles, is silly. Great defenses, not individual players, have historically proven most effective at beating the Brady/Belichick-era Patriots. The Jaguars, Vikings and Eagles all boast potential championship-level defenses.

7) The Vikings losing in Philadelphia after that ending in Minneapolis would be awfully anticlimactic.

Offseason questions for vanquished teams

1) Roethlisberger won't publicly contemplate a potential retirement that no one believes this time around. He confirmed after Sunday's 45-42 loss to the Jaguars that he'll be back next season, but what will the team around him look like?

Le'Veon Bell wants a new contract and has an unlikely retirement threat of his own if he doesn't get a long-term deal. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley is a free agent and could be on the way out.

Haley has undeniably helped Big Ben to the most productive, consistent seasons of his career. But Sunday's loss was a microcosm of so many Steelers shortcomings of this decade. Roethlisberger, Bell and Antonio Brown dazzled with individual brilliance rarely seen on the same field, yet the team made too many mental mistakes. (Roethlisberger's early turnovers, Haley's fourth-down play calls and the curious game management decisions from Mike Tomlin come to mind.)

Ultimately, Roethlisberger threw for five touchdowns and helped put up 42 points and 545 total yards against the league's best defense. It was Tomlin's defense, once again, that came up short on the game's biggest stage.

2) The Steelers wore "Shalieve" shirts before Sunday's game to support linebacker Ryan Shazier and his recovery from a spinal injury. Shazier's story is so much bigger than football, and yet it's also the biggest story there is related to football. Information is scarce, but I can only hope there are positive updates throughout the coming months related to Shazier's rehabilitation.

3) Atlanta's roster, especially on defense, is in excellent shape to make another run at a Super Bowl in 2018. In an NFC that included five new playoff teams, the Falcons have the team most built to last because of their youth and roster depth. Coach Dan Quinn appears committed to retaining offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian despite a predictable, underachieving performance throughout 2017. The Falcons were only one play away in another playoff loss, and they seem likely to stay the course as a franchise.

4) The Saints need to settle Drew Brees' contract situation before moving forward with the rest of their offseason. (Remember that his last contract standoff ate up the team's entire offseason.) This is a young roster that has a lot of injured players who will return in 2018, which is reason for optimism after the team's devastating defeat. With Brees turning 39 on Monday, however, the Saints are running out of time to make another Super Bowl run. It will be difficult to get back to this stage of the playoffs with Brees playing so well and with such an open path to the Super Bowl. This NFC was theirs for the taking, which makes the squandered comeback on Sunday all the more painful.

5) Monday morning's decision by the Tennessee Titans to part ways with coach Mike Mularkey was shocking because of the statement released by ownership just one week before.

"Just to eliminate any distractions moving forward, Mike Mularkey is our head coach and will be our head coach moving forward," Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk said January 7.

NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Sunday evening that the Titans were working on an extension for Mularkey, and Strunk confirmed as much in a new statement, saying that contract talks revealed "it became evident that we saw different paths to achieve greater success."

While it was initially thought, after the divorce from Mularkey, that Tennessee's new path could include pursuing Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport and NFL Network's Tom Pelissero reported Monday that the Patriots' offensive coordinator is expected to become the Colts' new head coach.

Questions that will never be answered

1) Did the Saints' coaching staff have its defense aligned correctly on Diggs' touchdown?

Saints safety Marcus Williams will understandably take the brunt of the blame for his role in the heartbreaking loss, which is unfortunate considering how the terrific 21-year-old rookie ignited the team's comeback in Minnesota with an earlier interception. But it was strange to see the Saints aligned with so few defenders in the deep part of the field with only 10 seconds left and no timeouts.

The Vikings' offensive line also deserves credit for blocking up the play after the Saints' pass rush wreaked havoc on the closing sequences of the game.

2) Does Saints coach Sean Payton regret running on third-and-1 with 33 seconds left?

The failed play call, a one-yard loss by Alvin Kamara, made logical sense, forcing the Vikings to use a timeout before the Saints lined up for a go-ahead field goal. But these are the go-for-broke Saints, and Payton must have considered letting Brees throw on play-action for a first down. The Saints could then set up a closer field goal and kill the clock entirely. New Orleans' decision to send the ensuing kickoff into the end zone for a touchback also gave the Vikings the extra time they needed to make history.

3) Did (now former) Titans coach Mike Mularkey really say the offensive pass-interference call against receiver Eric Decker will "go down in history?"

The penalty in question was a judgment call that the refs appeared to get wrong; though, it was hardly the most egregious miss of the weekend. (Or even of the Titans-Patriots game.) The play also took place on the Titans' side of the field in a 7-7 game early in the second quarter. The Patriots went on to score 35 straight points and outgain the Titans 304-65 in the second and third quarters, and that's the play that made the difference?

4) What would have happened if Doug Pederson went for fourth-and-1 with 6:05 left?

The Eagles were leading 12-10 at the time. In the locker room after the game, Eagles offensive players told me that Pederson wanted to go for it and sent in a play call. But Pederson's indecision caused the Eagles to run out of time on the play clock, burn a timeout, eventually causing the Eagles coach to reconsider and kick a field goal. It worked out, and it's quite possible that going for it would have worked out even better, considering the way Philadelphia's stout offensive line was playing. Ultimately, Pederson got a great result from a faulty process, and his original intention would have dramatically changed the end of the game one way or another.

5) What if Matt Ryan had given Julio Jones a better ball on first-and-goal?

Sarkisian rightfully took a lot of grief for his play-calling sequence during Atlanta's final possession. But it's hard to question his first-and-goal call that was quickly forgotten in the mess to follow.

Jones was matched up against Eagles cornerback Ronald Darby on the outside, with no safety help. Ryan's fade pass was too high for Jones to reach. A better ball perhaps saves Sarkisian from himself. The Falcons know better than any team that seasons can turn on moments like that. This weekend of playoff action was a reminder these moments can happen when you least expect them.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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