Alex Smith’s latest, and probably last, playoff appearance with the Kansas City Chiefs began unraveling when Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota delivered a touchdown pass to himself.
Mariota was performing at Rice-Eccles Stadium the night when Utah’s Kaelin Clay dropped the football short of the goal line and an Oregon linebacker returned it for a touchdown. That sequence took longer and may have been even crazier than Mariota’s self-produced completion off a defensive back’s deflection, but Tennessee’s TD was just as much of a momentum-changing play.
The Titans’ rally for a 22-21 win in an AFC wild card game last Saturday could become career-altering for Smith. The former Ute star likely will be traded this winter, when the Chiefs turn to Patrick Mahomes II as their quarterback of the future and use Smith’s salary slot to improve their roster. After an outstanding season when he led the NFL in passing rating at age 33, Smith might have extended his Kansas City tenure with a deep playoff run.
These dilemmas tend to solve themselves. And when Mariota scrambled and launched a pass that came right back to him, resulting in a TD – “Mariota 6 pass from Mariota,” in the box score – it seemed like a cosmic sign regarding Smith’s future. Just to complete Mariota’s multidimensional day, he made a key block on Derrick Henry’s run that enabled the Titans to kill the clock.
Tennessee’s comeback makes Mariota and Philadelphia’s Nick Foles the most interesting quarterbacks for me to watch in the NFL’s divisional round, considering their Pac-12 backgrounds and what’s expected of them this weekend. The Pac-12 nearly produced another quarterfinalist QB, but the Los Angeles Rams were eliminated to end Jared Goff’s productive second season.
If Tennessee has any shot at an upset of New England, Mariota will have to play even better than he did at Kansas City, passing for 205 yards. He’ll try to keep the good vibes going for quarterbacks from the St. Louis School in Honolulu, after Tua Tagovailoa rescued Alabama’s victory over Georgia in Monday’s national championship game.
Oregon’s 2014 visit to Utah is memorable mostly for Clay’s blunder, but Mariota may have clinched the Heisman Trophy that night by passing and running for 353 total yards in a 51-27 victory. He has pretty much lived up expectations in three years with Tennessee. Anything more that Mariota and the Titans do this season will be a bonus, after the franchise’s first playoff victory in 14 years.
The standards are much higher in Philadelphia, where Foles is in his second stint as the Eagles’ starter — this time, because of Carson Wentz’s knee injury. In January 2014, in his second season after being drafted out of Arizona, Foles played well in a wild card game. His touchdown pass gave the Eagles a 24-23 lead over New Orleans, only to have the Saints drive to a winning field goal on the final play.
Foles has endured an up-and-down career since then, including a 2016 season that he spent backing up Smith in Kansas City. So now he’s back in Philly, where the Eagles looked like the NFL’s best team all season. They’re underdogs against Atlanta as a No. 1 seed, all because of the perceived dropoff from Wentz to Foles.
When Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2011, Foles was among the players showcased in a video with a “conference of quarterbacks” theme during the Football Media Day. Stanford’s Andrew Luck, USC’s Matt Barkley and Arizona State’s Brock Osweiler also would be highly drafted in the next two years.
Arizona fell apart during Foles’ senior season and coach Mike Stoops was fired in October. Playing for an interim coach, the Wildcats lost 34-21 to Utah, with Ute cornerback Conroy Black intercepting Foles in the end zone in the fourth quarter.
In Philadelphia, fans are just hoping Foles won’t ruin their season. They were picturing the Eagles in the Super Bowl until Wentz went down in mid-December. Now, who knows?
Playoff QBs vs. the Utes
Here’s how NFL quarterbacks Nick Foles and Marcus Mariota performed against Utah in Pac-12 games:
2011 – Utah 34, Arizona 21. Foles: 25 of 43, 326 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions.
2013 – Oregon 44, Utah 21. Mariota: 19 of 26, 288 yards, three touchdowns. 2014 – Oregon 51, Utah 27. Mariota: 17 of 29, 239 yards, three touchdowns.
Utahns in the playoffs
Players from Utah schools on active rosters for the NFL’s remaining playoff teams:
Atlanta Falcons – Defensive end Derrick Shelby, Utah.
New England Patriots – Linebacker Kyle Van Noy, BYU; cornerback Eric Rowe, Utah.
New Orleans Saints – Special-teams player Taysom Hill, BYU; safety Marcus Williams, Utah.
Pittsburgh Steelers – Cornerback Brian Allen, Utah. Tennessee Titans – Cornerback Brice McCain, Utah.