Which NFL Players Have the Most to Prove in Conference Championship Games?
And then there were four.
The NFL's conference championship matchups are set. By Sunday night, we'll know who will meet in Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis.
Including perhaps the first "home" Super Bowl team.
There are those Minnesota Vikings, fresh off one of the wildest finishes in postseason history. Their NFC title game opponent and host, the Philadelphia Eagles, refuse to give up their top-seed status without a fight...even without Carson Wentz.
On the AFC side, it's David and Goliath. The Jacksonville Jaguars have ridden an elite defense to their first conference championship matchup since the 1999 season. But a trip to Gillette Stadium to face Tom Brady and the New England Patriots is standing in their way.
As you can see, there's no shortage of overarching storylines.
But football is comprised of games within the game, and for every team angle there are 10 individual threads. Some players are chasing history. Others a final chance at glory. Others still are desperate to prove their worth to franchises who sit one victory away from the biggest game in sports.
It's that last group we're focusing on. The quarterback out to show he can play. The wide receiver looking to finish a down year on an up note. The cornerbacks set to demonstrate they aren't weak points.
These are the players with the most to prove in the conference championship games.
Chris Hogan, WR, New England Patriots
In last year's AFC Championship win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Chris Hogan had one of the best games of his career. The then-28-year-old reeled in nine catches for an eye-popping 180 yards and two touchdowns.
Things haven't gone as well in 2017.
He failed to top 100 yards in each of his nine games. In fact, Hogan didn't notch even 80 receiving yards in a contest this season. He posted five touchdowns, but the last came in Week 5 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Since then, Hogan has just 11 catches for 151 yards. Since injuring his shoulder in October, Hogan has two catches for five yards—total.
He made his return in Saturday's 35-14 divisional-round win over the Tennessee Titans. But while Danny Amendola had a huge game (11 catches, 112 yards), Hogan was invisible, with just one reception for four yards.
He'll need to do a lot better if the Patriots are to beat the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars.
It's not a matter of a lack of weaponry, as that's not a phrase often used to describe the Patriots offense. New England has a healthy Rob Gronkowski at tight end. It added wideout Brandin Cooks this year, who topped 1,000 receiving yards and found the end zone seven times. Amendola showed what he's capable of in Saturday's thrashing of the Titans.
And no matter how many running backs the Patriots lose to injury, there always seems to be another waiting to fill the void.
But all those options don't make Hogan less important—especially in this matchup.
The Patriots will face their stiffest defensive test of the season Sunday in Gillette Stadium. The Jaguars ranked second in the NFL in scoring defense and total defense and first against the pass.
In A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey, the Jags have the NFL's best cornerback duo. Bouye didn't allow a touchdown (per the CBS telecast Sunday) in coverage all season until Antonio Brown got him twice last week. The 6'1", 208-pound Ramsey is one of the few players in the league at his position who (in theory) has the size to take on the 6'6", 265-pound Gronkowski.
Get Ramsey some safety help while Bouye shadows Cooks, and Jacksonville has a good chance at limiting Tom Brady's two favorite targets.
Those matchups will ratchet up the pressure on secondary options such as Amendola and Hogan. And you can bet that the Jaguars will take note of Amendola's big game against Tennessee.
That leaves Hogan, who could well be the latest player to go from afterthought to star for the Patriots in the postseason.
Do that, and this season's disappearing act will quickly vanish from memory.
Kyle Van Noy, OLB, New England Patriots
The New England Patriots probably had to set their first 24 hours or so of game-planning on fire Sunday afternoon.
After all, just like everyone else, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick likely figured his team would be hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game.
Someone forgot to tell the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Luckily, it's not exactly difficult to devise a defensive game plan to combat the Jaguars.
That may be a tall task, though. New England was better against the run than the pass, but that isn't saying a ton. The Patriots were 20th in the NFL on the ground, giving up 114.8 yards per game (30th against the pass).
Darth Hoodie will do what he can schematically to help. There'll be lots of stacked boxes and safeties cheating up.
But no team ran the ball more effectively than the Jaguars. They'll get some kind of push up front. And that'll put a lot of pressure on a cadre of linebackers who aren't exactly household names.
Early this season, Kyle Van Noy appeared as though he'd be able to cast aside anonymity. When Dont'a Hightower tore his pec in Week 7, Van Noy became the defensive signal-caller. Over the first eight weeks of the regular season, he piled up 55 total tackles.
But then he managed just 18 more stops before suffering a calf injury in Week 13.
However, Van Noy is healthy again. He played 45 snaps against the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round—most among New England linebackers, per ESPN.com's Mike Reiss. And while he had just two tackles, he made a bigger impact than the stat sheet indicates.
As Jim McBride of the Boston Globe reported, veteran safety Devin McCourty said Van Noy's versatility makes him valuable.
"The thing about KV is he's very versatile, so we've used him a bunch of different ways," McCourty said. "He's been able to play [an] end type of position, outside linebacker, inside linebacker ... so having him back out there has been great, obviously from his versatility but [also] from a communication standpoint because he's a guy that's been in there. He's been a leader, he's run the huddle kind of since he's been in there, obviously with him and High and Elandon Roberts. He's been a big asset to our team."
That versatility could play a big role Sunday, whether it's helping at the point of attack or covering Jacksonville's running backs out of the backfield.
And book-ending two stretches of rock-solid play around his injury would send Van Noy not just on to the Super Bowl but also into the offseason with plenty of reasons for the Pats to consider locking him up long term.
Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars
After he ran for more yards (88) than he passed for (87) in an ugly 10-3 wild-card win over the Buffalo Bills, Blake Bortles saw plenty of pundits write off his Jacksonville Jaguars. The quarterback admitted to reporters he's aware a large segment of the population believes he's…ungood.
"It will probably never stop," Bortles said. "There's people that think LeBron James sucks, so if that happens, I'm sure there'll be a lot of people that always think I suck."
To be fair, Bortles played better in Sunday's 45-42 divisional-round stunner against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He threw for 214 yards against one of the league's better pass defenses. His passer rating was a respectable 94.1.
But he also completed just 53.8 percent of his passes, and a lot of his success through the air came on a couple of busted coverages late in the game.
In other words, while Bortles looked better than the week before, it might be jumping the gun to say he looked good.
And now he's about to play in the biggest game of his life against the defending world champions with a Super Bowl trip and his future as a starting quarterback hanging in the balance.
Bill Belichick is the best head coach in the history of the NFL at taking away what an opponent does best in big games. The Patriots will sell out and then some to stop Leonard Fournette.
They'll double-dog dare Bortles to beat them through the air.
If he completes just half of his passes, the Jaguars are toast. Jacksonville will lose by at least 17 points, and the narrative will switch right back to what it was a week ago: The Jaguars are a good team but can't be great because of their subpar signal-caller.
But if Bortles can make a few big downfield throws into single coverage and the Jaguars shock the world for a second straight game? There's no way they'll move on from a quarterback who beat the Steelers and Patriots on the road to advance to the first Super Bowl in franchise history—stats be damned.
This is it for Bortles. The game that can define the rest of his professional career.
Sixty minutes. Put up or shut up.
Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Let's get this out of the way: In most respects, Jalen Ramsey has exactly spit to prove.
In just two seasons, 2016's No. 5 pick has not only lived up to his lofty draft status but also become one of the NFL's best cover cornerbacks. Ramsey piled up 63 tackles and four picks en route Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro status this season.
If the Jaguars lose to the New England Patriots, no one will point a finger at Ramsey or label him a bum. Jacksonville opened as 9.5-point underdogs in the AFC Championship Game, per OddsShark.
But there's an opportunity Sunday at Gillette Stadium. One that many players go their entire careers without experiencing. A chance to take one's reputation to new heights. To be more than just one of the best. To be the best at one of the league's most valued positions.
Because Ramsey will be tasked with stopping the unstoppable.
He'll take on Gronk.
At 6'1" and 208 pounds, Ramsey's lanky by cornerback standards. And he plays even bigger—big enough that the Jaguars' best bet at slowing down New England's all-world tight end may be the Florida State product.
If the Jags are to have any hope of pulling off the upset, they'll have to keep Gronkowski from having the sort of stat line (six catches for 81 yards and a touchdown) he did in New England's dissection of the Tennessee Titans. When Brady can toss it up for grabs safe in the knowledge No. 87 will haul it in, it all gets too easy for the Pats.
In New England's 13 regular-season wins, Gronk had 63 catches for 971 yards and eight touchdowns. In three losses (one of which Gronkowski missed due to a one-game suspension) he had six grabs for 113 yards.
It's simple. If you want to slow Tom Brady and the Patriots, it means slowing Gronkowski—with as few resources as possible.
This isn't to say Ramsey can do so for an entire game—at least not by himself. Gronkowski will make a few plays, and there will be situations where it'll be vital to get Ramsey some help.
Say, every play inside Jacksonville's 10-yard line.
But if Ramsey can hold his own—against possibly the most un-coverable (hey, it's almost a word) pass-catcher in the NFL—in what could arguably be the biggest postseason upset since Eli Manning and the New York Giants ruined New England's perfect season in 2007?
The discussion won't just surround whether Ramsey's the NFL's best cornerback.
It will be a matter of his having a strong case as the NFL's best defensive player period.
Nick Foles, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
There's a reason the Philadelphia Eagles entered the divisional round as the first No. 1 seed to be a home underdog since 1970.
That was quarterback Nick Foles, who'd looked bad over his last two regular-season starts. In a win over the Oakland Raiders and loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Foles threw for just 202 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions, having played just one quarter against Dallas.
However, Foles turned things around in Saturday's win over the Atlanta Falcons. His 246 yards on 23-of-30 passing isn't a jaw-dropping stat line. But on a day where the Eagles' vaunted ground game managed just 96 yards on 32 carries, Foles posted a 100.1 passer rating and made plays when he needed to.
Most importantly, he didn't make the kind of mistakes that had plagued in recent weeks—the sort of errors that can cut a playoff run short.
Per Pro Football Talk's Josh Alper, Foles didn't have much to say to all the folks who predicted an Atlanta victory.
"It doesn't matter," Foles said after the win. "They are doing their job, but it doesn't affect how I play or what I believe. And ya'll asked me last week am I confident in myself; well, I am confident in myself because I know how hard we work and I know that we believe in one another in that locker room. So there is no need to waste my time to say anything about it because we went out there and played great team football. We played Philadelphia Eagle football tonight and that's the most important thing. I don't need to say anything else to anyone."
As ESPN.com's Tim McManus reported, Foles was equally quick to credit his teammates.
"We do this together. Not any one person has to be superhuman. That alleviates a lot of the pressure," Foles said, "when you know every single guy is playing for each other."
That's some fine jockspeak—almost as good a performance as his exploits on the field Saturday. And Foles is correct that he didn't do it alone. The Eagles defense played lights-out.
But the reality is Foles will have to play even better Sunday against the Vikings. Minnesota led the NFL in both total defense and scoring defense, and no team in the NFC was harder to throw on this season.
Other than that, the Vikings are marshmallow-soft.
If Foles can play another mistake-free game and lead the Eagles to victory, he'll become a Philly folk hero—at least for two weeks. He'll be the player who kept the train on the tracks and got the Eagles to the promised land.
But if Foles falters, those same fans could turn on him just as quickly. Blame him for ruining the team's most promising season in years.
Welcome to life as a quarterback in the City of Brotherly Love.
Jalen Mills, CB, Philadelphia Eagles
Nick Foles isn't the only Eagles player who's faced criticism after late-season struggles.
As ESPN.com's Mike Clay reported Christmas Day, cornerback Jalen Mills ranked at or near the top of the NFL in a number of categories defensive backs don't want to rank highly in: targets, receptions allowed, yards allowed and touchdowns allowed.
There's a reason corners get targeted with that sort of regularity, and it has nothing to do with "shutdown" status.
However, as Jeff Kerr wrote for 247Sports, while Mills may not be a shutdown corner, he did a good impression of one in Saturday's win over the Falcons.
Maybe he stayed at a Holiday Inn Express.
According to Kerr, Mills allowed just one reception for 12 yards on four targets. He made a couple of big coverage plays, including defending Julio Jones on fourth down on the game's final drive.
As NJ.com's Connor Hughes reported, making that final play put a smile on Mills' face.
"To make a play? To end the game?" Mills said. "That's what you live for."
"This is playoff ball," Mills said. "This is big-boy ball."
Mills won't have much time to enjoy his performance because he'll have to play at this level (at least) again for the Eagles to beat the Vikings.
No team played the run better in 2017 than the Eagles. For the season, Philadelphia allowed 79.2 yards per game.
Against the pass, though, the Eagles weren't as formidable. They ranked 17th, surrendering 227.3 yards per contest.
That's a function of Philly's phenomenal run defense. Opponents know they can't run the ball, so they abandon the ground game.
In quarterback Case Keenum and the Vikings, Mills and the Philadelphia secondary will square off against the NFL's 11th-ranked passing game. The Vikes have a formidable pair of wide receivers in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, and they just vividly demonstrated how capable they are of making a game-changing play.
We know the Vikings will be hard-pressed to gain rushing yards, despite their regular-season success in that regard.
If Mills plays like he did against the Falcons, the Vikes could have the same difficulty putting points on the board. And make no mistake: The lower the score, the better Philly's odds get.
If Mills and the Eagles can pull this off, many of the same people who were criticizing him a couple of weeks ago will start singing a much different tune—and he could earn more job security in the process.
Case Keenum, QB, Minnesota Vikings
It feels almost insulting to suggest Case Keenum still has something to prove this season. If going 11-3 as the Vikings starter and leading them to the NFC's No. 2 seed didn't settle that, then the last play of the divisional round did.
That's on the short list for the wildest play I've seen—and I've been a rabid football fan for the better part of the last four decades.
And yet, one of the dominant storylines for the NFC Championship Game is guaranteed to be discussion of Keenum and Nick Foles as the unlikeliest of Super Bowl quarterbacks.
That's not to say Keenum hasn't played well. Yes, the Vikings have a fantastic defense, but teams don't generally go 11-3 with a liability under center. Whereas to this point Keenum's career was that of journeyman backup, in 2017 he threw for 3,547 yards and 22 touchdowns against seven interceptions.
Keenum's passer rating was 98.3—11 points higher than in any of his first five NFL seasons.
It's also a contract year, because of course it is.
But for all Keenum has accomplished, he's only getting started.
Now he's playing for a trip to the Super Bowl.
There's little doubt that for the Vikings to win in Philadelphia, Keenum will have to play well. Probably better than he did in the 29-24 thriller against the New Orleans Saints.
Sure, Keenum's stat line for the divisional round was OK—318 passing yards with a touchdown and an interception.
But the interception was the result of a terrible decision that helped spur a Saints comeback. That led to the Vikings' late one-point deficit—the point where Keenum threw the touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs that we'll all be watching replays of until the end of time.
The NFC title game will be on the road. In the elements. In front of a crowd that's as hostile as any in the league. Against a defense that's better than the Saints'.
The Eagles were the hardest team in the NFL to run on in 2017, as they allowed 79.2 yards a game. If the Vikings are to move the ball, it will be behind Keenum's right arm.
Heading into last week's instant classic, Keenum told Bleacher Report's Dan Pompei that he had a simple philosophy.
"I believe in being smart with the football, not taking sacks and giving guys chances," Keenum said. "But I let it rip. Attack, attack, attack. I like to let it rip. I do."
If he can do both on such a massive stage, he'll earn a trip to the Super Bowl and a toe-curler of a contract next year.
Trae Waynes, CB, Minnesota Vikings
Even great defenses sometimes have a weak link.
Take the 2017 Minnesota Vikings. For the season, they allowed a league-low 15.8 points per game. They gave up only 275.9 yards per contest—also tops in the league. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars surrendered fewer passing yards per game than Minnesota's 192.4.
And yet, cornerback Trae Waynes was still one of the five-most targeted cornerbacks this season, per Fox's divisional-round broadcast.
For the sake of fairness, it's worth noting that much of that has nothing to do with Waynes' ability as a cornerback. Xavier Rhodes is an All-Pro and one of the best players at his position. Terence Newman's playing time may have been scaled back the past couple of years, but that has a lot more to do with his being 39 years old than his effectiveness in coverage.
Waynes is the third-best cornerback in the Minnesota secondary, and he hasn't validated his 2015 first-round status.
But that doesn't make him bad.
As a matter of fact, teammate Harrison Smith believes the rest of the country doesn't realize how good Waynes has gotten in his third NFL season.
"[Waynes] is playing lights out," Smith told Chip Scoggins of the Star-Tribune. "I just don't think he's gotten quite enough love [in outside praise]. You obviously have Xavier, and everybody knows how good he is. When you get Trae playing the way he's playing, it's hard to throw it around."
Well, this Waynes' chance to show everyone Smith's right.
The NFC championship is probably not going to be decided on the ground. The Eagles and Vikings are the two toughest teams in the NFL to run on, as they allow 162.8 yards per game combined.
In comparison, the Washington Redskins allowed 134.1 yards a game in 2017.
This contest will be won through the air. That should afford the Vikings an edge—provided Nick Foles and the Eagles don't find a gap in the armor.
Right or wrong, the narrative around Waynes is he's that gap in Minnesota's armor. Were he to struggle against the Eagles, it would be reinforced tenfold.
This is the time of year when narratives can be cast in stone or turned on their heads—all in the span of 60 minutes, and Waynes can do just that.