The Schein Nine  

 

NFL Divisional Round hat tips: Guys who defined unreal weekend

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I've argued forever that the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs is the best weekend in all of sports.

Yes, I also love the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, the Masters, Week 1 of the NFL season and those magical October weekends when we get college football, NFL and MLB playoffs. But the Divisional Round is a simple setup -- four games over two days -- that always lives up to its immense billing. And boy, was that true of this year's edition.

Now, we could easily dwell on the negatives: the Saints' heartbreak of unfathomable proportions; Mike Tomlin's Steelers not being buttoned-up and losing another game they were supposed to win (at home, no less); the latest example of wretched postseason play-calling by the Falcons.

But I'm in a great mood. Let's focus on the positives, soak in the good stuff. Here are nine tips of the ol' cap off a spectacular Divisional Round -- plus a special mention at the end.

NOTE: As you can see, this installment of the Schein Nine flows chronologically -- wanted to recapture this memorable weekend in the manner we all saw it play out. And yes, Sunday's participants receive more shoutouts than Saturday's because, well, Sunday was freakin' amazing.

1) Nick Foles, quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles

I gave Nicky Foles a zero percent chance of winning in the playoffs. Wow, was I wrong.

The first game of the weekend started out rough for Carson Wentz's replacement. Foles' early play was defined by scattershot throws and sloppy ball handling -- fortunately for the Eagles, none of this lackluster QB play actually turned the ball over. But Philadelphia's offense initially appeared stuck in the mud.

Credit Foles for getting in a great rhythm with the run-pass options that reminded me of the quarterback's Pro Bowl season with the Chip Kelly Eagles. And credit Doug Pederson for getting Foles in a zone and giving him balance with Jay Ajayi (98 yards on 18 total touches). Foles rocked steady -- completing 23 of his 30 throws for 246 yards -- and gave his raging defense a chance by not throwing a single pick. It wasn't dazzling. It was efficient. It was winning. And I whiffed big-time on thinking the Eagles had no shot sans Wentz.

2) Fletcher Cox, defensive tackle, Philadelphia Eagles

It's easy -- and accurate -- to rip the Falcons' play-calling late in this game, but Cox was the true game-wrecker here. The 6-foot-4, 310-pound force of nature had his way with Atlanta's offensive line, recording seven total tackles, including two for loss and a sack. As Pro Football Focus points out, the defensive tackle was particularly effective against the run, racking up five run stops in just 17 snaps against run plays.

This guy's an animal. He delivered in a big way after playing the disrespect card last week and spearheading Philly's "us against the world" mentality. Major credit is due.

3) Bill Belichick, head coach, New England Patriots

I will argue forever that the Patriots' run under Bill Belichick is the greatest dynasty in sports history. I can hit you with the division titles and Super Bowl appearances and Lombardi Trophies as amazing accumulated marks. But Saturday night's blowout win over the Titans -- the only snoozer game of the weekend -- sent the Patriots to a seventh straight Championship Sunday. Seven years in a row, New England has hit the final four. That's maintained, consistent genius and domination. And this has occurred in the salary cap era. Players change teams. Squads go worst-to-first quite often. Yet Belichick's Patriots remain the same bona fide title contenders, year in and year out. Tip the cap, and applaud while you're at it.

You might hate New England, because you're jealous. And you should be.

4) Blake Bortles, quarterback, Jacksonville Jaguars

Some might argue I've built my career on ripping Blake Bortles to shreds. Heck, I destroyed the draft pick the very night it happened in this space -- questioning how Jacksonville could take Bortles over Khalil Mack -- and I haven't stopped since. But here's the truth:

Blake Bortles just played tough, clutch, interception-free, winning football Sunday in Pittsburgh, rocking the Steelers on third down and guiding the Jaguars to the AFC title game.

Imagine writing that sentence last August, when Doug Marrone was openly questioning his play in camp. Or, heck, just last week, following a wild-card win over the Bills in which Bortles set offense back to the stone ages.

When Bortles name-checked LeBron last week -- while discussing the criticism surrounding his own play -- it was comical ... but it also showed he would be loose. Bortles handled it all incredibly well -- and shined on Sunday, answering the bell every time the Steelers came calling.

5) AND 6) Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett, head coach and offensive coordinator, Jacksonville Jaguars

Tom Coughlin deserves so much credit for the Jaguars' success. And he gets it. Let's make sure Marrone and Hackett also get their due.

Marrone sees it just like Coughlin, as a no-nonsense type of guy. And he's quickly established a culture of winning down in Duuuuuuuvvvvvalll. It wasn't surprising to see him go for the touchdown early, on fourth-and-goal, to establish tone and tempo. And Leonard Fournette paid it off with a touchdown. Marrone's Jags were playing to win -- and, despite the Steelers' courageous comeback attempt, Jacksonville did just that.

And Hackett got my AP vote for Assistant Coach of the Year. While it might be a stretch to call him part Bill Walsh and part Houdini, you have to be one heck of an offensive play-caller to reach the AFC title game with Bortles and a rag-tag group of receivers.

7) Antonio Brown, wide receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers

He's the best receiver in the NFL, bar none. And you can make a case that he's the best receiver the NFL has seen since Jerry Rice. (No, I'm not forgetting Randy Moss or Terrell Owens.)

Tomlin's Steelers suffered another disappointing loss because they weren't focused, but Brown escapes blame. Seven catches for 132 yards and two touchdowns in his first game back from a calf injury in Week 15? Against the best cornerback duo in the NFL today? With that incredible catch on the bomb from Big Ben? Wow. Just wow.

Sad that we don't get to see this guy play again for eight months.

8) Case Keenum, quarterback, Minnesota Vikings

Did that happen? Did that really happen? I still don't believe it. And neither does Case Keenum.

Did Case Keenum seriously throw a walk-off, 61-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs on the final play of the game? Did he really flip the script from what would've been another epic Vikings collapse?

Is Case Keenum really four quarters away from the Super Bowl?

If I'm in disbelief, how about the Vikings' great fans? Wow. Tip many caps to Keenum, who made a number of big throws in Minnesota's mind-blowing 29-24 win. What a sensational story amid one of the all-time great finishes.

9) Kai Forbath, kicker, Minnesota Vikings

He made the kick. That needs to be stressed. Forbath made the go-ahead kick with 1:29 remaining from 53 yards out. Yes, Saints K Will Lutz proceeded to make a go-ahead kick of his own one minute later, setting the stage for Diggs' miraculous touchdown -- THIS. WAS. A. CRAZY. GAME. -- but don't forget Forbath's bomb.

Considering the Vikings' awful past when it comes to big-game kickers, Forbath's clutch boot was fantastic. And given that Minnesota's a defense-first team, I'm thinking Forbath hasn't faced his last high-pressure situation of this postseason. That 53-yarder -- down by a point, in the game's waning minutes -- is a huge confidence-booster.

BONUS HAT TIP: Matt Nagy, head coach, Chicago Bears

OK, let's hand out some kudos for last week's efforts to one non-playoff team. I liked the Bears hiring of Nagy a whole lot. And quietly, the 39-year-old head coach is putting together an all-star staff, retaining Vic Fangio (a top-five defensive coordinator) and snatching the great Harry Hiestand from Notre Dame to coach the offensive line.

Now, if only Ryan Pace can get Nagy some players ...

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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