SETTING THE SUPER BOWL

NFL Playoffs: AFC & NFC Conference title game observations

NFL Playoffs: AFC & NFC Conference title game observations
Nick Foles had a monster game. Eagles.com

Games this far into the playoffs can often go either way. Some felt strongly about their picks; most no so much. Others, such as myself, fell more along the line of the former rather than the latter. However, the games must be played. Championships aren’t awarded by conjecture. That said, let’s look at how the games played out:

Jacksonville Jaguars vs New England Patriots

Whether you believed the Jags were going to win because of the Tom Coughlin juju, or Tom Brady was going to Brady the Pats to another Super Bowl appearance, this game generated varying opinions on the potential outcome. The Pats opening drive stalled and they were forced into a kicking a field goal. The Jags came out using smas mouth runs, misdirection, and play action passing to take a 14-3 lead. Their defense appeared to have the Coughlin juju working as they frustrated the Pats to punt on their next three possessions. As the Pats were attempting to get a score before halftime, Rob Gronkowski took a helmet to helmet shot from Barry Church,  which resulted in a 15-yard penalty. Gronk was so disoriented when he got up, he went to the locker room for concussion evaluation instead of the blue sideline tent. On the very next play, A.J. Bouye drew a pass interference call by getting too handsy with Brandin Cooks. The 47 yards of penalties on two plays put the Pats in position to score a touchdown to cut the lead to 14-10 as halftime approached.

The Jags came out of halftime looking to take back control of the game. A field goal would have to do for a 17-10 lead. The teams then served, volleyed, and volleyed punts until the Jags added another field goal to go up 20-10 to open the fourth quarter. The Pats went to the trick bag with a double pass, but Myles Jack made an incredible play to not only tackle Dion Lewis, but strip and recover the ball as they both fell to the ground. After the Pats forced a three and out, Brady engineered an 85-yard touchdown drive on 5 of 7 passing to cut the lead to three at 20-17.

Another punt-punt-punt sequence followed that saw the field position game come into play after the Jags were forced to punt from their 9-yard line to the 50 and Danny Amendola returned it  to the Jags’ 30 yard line. When the Pats got the ball already in field goal range, down by three, with five minutes left in the game, we saw a scene unfold for the millionth time. Brady threw the go ahead touchdown to Amendola in the back of the end zone, up high where only he could catch it, and Amendola reciprocated by holding onto the pass and toe-tapping to ensure there was no doubt. The Jags made a valiant effort on their possession, but ultimately turned it over on downs. With 1:42 left in the game, the Pats took possession and ended it after a crucial first down run by Lewis on 3rd and 9. The kneel downs that followed were a mere formality. Lost throughout this was how well Blake Bortles played. Did he play well enough to stave off a quarterback change is a major question for them. On to the Super Bowl for the Patriots.

Minnesota Vikings vs Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles were home dogs yet again in the playoffs (dog masks are a thing now in Philly). The Vikings were seeking to become the first host to play in their own stadium at a Super Bowl. These defenses were primed and ready. A battle of backups was set to take place. The game’s opening drive (3 passes, 6 runs) was capped by a Case Keenum touchdown pass on play action to Kyle Rudolph. After the Eagles were forced into and three and out punt, it looked as if the Vikings were going to take this game by the throat. That’s when the Eagles turned into The Mountain and made the Vikings their Oberyn. Keenum threw a pick-six to Patrick Robinson to tie the game. Momentum had shifted and never swung back. The Eagles went on to score on five of their next eight possessions for a 38-7 win. Their last two possessions: runs then a punt when game was clearly decided and running out the clock to end the game. The Vikings looked like the muscle-bound knockout artist who was allowed to run out of gas, then systematically taken apart by the more-skilled, longer winded fighter (i.e. the UFC heavyweight title fight between Stipe Miocic and Francis Ngannou last night). Not much to say because it wasn’t competitive.

The Pats/Jags game was awesome, even though it ended as predictable as a leaked episode of (insert your favorite TV show). Bortles played out of character, in a good way, and wasn’t the reason they lost. Their vaunted defense was to blame, but can one really blame them considering the G.O.A.T. was opposing them? Eagles quarterback Nick Foles took his team to a Super Bowl berth despite doubters thinking they’d be a one and done. How quickly we forget that Eagles head coach Doug Pederson was his offensive coordinator when he went to the Pro Bowl a few years ago. Their defense proved to be the stronger of the two in the NFC game. Now, we’re down to the G.O.A.T. versus a backup who’s bounced around and last saw success four years ago. A team seeking back to back titles versus a team seemingly destined to win despite setbacks. We’re in for a helluva Super Bowl!

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Coogs beat the Sooners, 87-85. Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images.

Jamal Shead hit a short follow shot with 0.4 seconds left and No. 1 Houston beat Oklahoma 87-85 on Saturday night, giving coach Kelvin Sampson a victory over one of his former schools.

Shead missed a driving layup attempt, but corralled the rebound and put the Cougars back ahead after they blew a 15-point lead. Emanuel Sharp tipped away a desperation pass by Oklahoma’s Milos Uzan as time expired.

“The main thing (on the last shot) was to get it to the rim,” Sampson said. “We weren’t going to shoot anything outside of 5 feet. There were three ways to win that game — a whistle, make the shot or (grab) an offensive rebound and put it in — and we got the third one.”

Sampson credited the result to Houston’s “winning DNA. We had a lot of things go against us tonight. … We were just plugging the holes in the boat up.”

L.J. Cryer led Houston (26-3, 13-3 Big 12) with 23 points, making 5 of 9 3-pointers. J’Wan Roberts added 20 points on 10-of-12 shooting, and Shead scored 14 points. Houston shot 56.7% from the field and Oklahoma was at 52.7%.

Rivaldo Soares had 16 points for Oklahoma (19-10, 7-9). Le’Tre Darthard had 15 points, finishing 5 of 7 from 3-point range.

Sampson coached Oklahoma from 1994 to 2006 and ranks second in program history with 279 wins and first in winning percentage (.719). Before Saturday, he’d never coached against the Sooners, but Houston’s entry into the Big 12 for this basketball season provided that opportunity.

Sampson received a warm welcome as he entered the Lloyd Noble Arena court, with many fans applauding, cheering and standing. Just before player introductions, Sampson and his three assistants with Oklahoma ties — former players Hollis Price, Quannas White and Kellen Sampson, his son — were individually recognized with announcements and pictured on the video board.

“The memories that I will take from here are just amazing,” Kelvin Sampson said. “Oklahoma will always be home in a lot of ways.”

Houston made its first week this season at No. 1 a successful one, with two wins. The Cougars are a game ahead of No. 8 Iowa State in the conference standings with two games left in the regular season and remain in the conversation for the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Houston has won eight of the last nine games it has played as the No. 1-ranked team and is 35-5 overall while atop the AP poll.

Oklahoma dropped its second game of the week against a top-10 opponent, having lost 58-45 at Iowa State on Wednesday night.

The Sooners pushed Houston to the limit. Houston led 67-52 with 12:01 left, but the Sooners methodically closed that gap and Javian McCollum’s layup with 11.8 seconds left tied it at 85. It came after a hustle play by Uzan, who tracked down a rebound off a missed free throw and threw it off the leg of Sharp, allowing it to carom out of bounds.

Oklahoma coach Porter Moser said the vibe in the Sooners’ locker room was “tough. It wasn’t like they were happy to be close. They’re hurting. That’s a good sign. … That’s the elite of the elite and we’ve got to find a way to win that. That’s my job.

“I thought they were resilient battling back. Houston made tough shots, open shots, good shots. They do a lot of good things … but I thought we did too. We played the best team in the country, but we fell short. The margin of error when you play a team that good is small.”

Godwin went 6 of 6 from the field and led Oklahoma with 17 points, missing only the one free throw in six attempts as well. He also had seven rebounds.

BIG PICTURE

Houston: Sampson surely appreciated the warm welcome from fans on his return to Oklahoma, but he’s undoubtedly glad to have the emotional game against the Sooners over with. Now he can push the Cougars to focus on finishing the regular season strong and prepare them for the postseason.

Oklahoma: A win over the nation’s No. 1 team might have pushed the Sooners up a line or two in NCAA tournament seeding, but the loss shouldn’t damage their postseason hopes too much. Oklahoma probably needs at least one win next week — at home against Cincinnati or at Texas — to stay comfortably off the NCAA bubble heading into the Big 12 Tournament.

UP NEXT:

Houston: At Central Florida on Wednesday night.

Oklahoma: Host Cincinnati on Tuesday night.

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