CHAMPIONSHIP SUNDAY: There’s no time to exhale after a thrilling Divisional Round that featured one of the most memorable walk-off touchdowns in NFL history, as we now move on to what many consider the best day of football all year: Championship Sunday.
In the NFC, the Philadelphia Eagles will host a Minnesota Vikings team that just pulled off the aforementioned walk-off miracle, while in the AFC the surprising Jacksonville Jaguars, fresh off an upset over Pittsburgh and sporting a fierce, trash-talking defense, will head up to Foxboro and attempt to dethrone the heavily-favored Patriots. Come Sunday night, two teams will be closer to football immortality and the countdown to Super Bowl LII will officially commence.
Here’s how I see these two games playing out:
AFC Championship Game
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS @ NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (NE -8.5, 46.5)
Recommendation: Jacksonville +8.5 at 1.9
The setup here is rather obvious: the Patriots are the defending Super Bowl champions, a modern-day dynasty led by a coach and quarterback who will both be first-ballot Hall of Famers. They finished the season with the NFL’s best record, earned the 1-seed in the AFC playoffs, and steamrolled an overmatched Tennessee team last week. The Jaguars, meanwhile, have been the laughingstock of the league for the past decade. They went 3-13 last season, and should they win on Sunday they would become the first team in NFL history to advance to the Super Bowl after winning three or fewer games the previous season. This is Tom Brady vs. Blake Bortles; Bill Belichick vs. Doug Marrone; Winners vs. Losers; Patriots vs. Jaguars.
All that being said, there’s reason to believe that Jacksonville may give the Pats some trouble this week. Make no mistake: these Jags have a great defense, a unit that ranked second in the NFL in both yards allowed and points allowed this season and led the league in sacks, touchdowns scored, and passing defense. They have an elite pair of corners who will be able to hold up in man coverage and a front four that will be able to pressure Tom Brady without having to blitz. The Jacksonville offense is rather one-dimensional and quarterback Blake Bortles can be unreliable at times, but let’s take a look at New England’s last six postseason losses:
’15 at Denver
’13 at Denver
’11 NY Giants (Super Bowl)
’10 NY Jets
What’s the one thing that all six of those teams have in common? They all had great defenses, and only one— the 2013 Denver Broncos— had a top-5 offense. The Patriots were held to 21 points or fewer in all six of those games.
So it sure looks like there’s a blueprint on how to beat New England in the playoffs: crowd the receivers, pressure and rough up Tom Brady, and disrupt the rhythm of the offense. You need a great defense to be able to do that… a defense like Jacksonville’s.
And on the other side of the ball, the Pats have struggled against the run all season— they ranked 20th in rushing defense and surrendered 4.7 yards per carry, a worse mark than every team but the L.A. Chargers. The Jacksonville offense, meanwhile, led the NFL in rushing behind terrific rookie running back Leonard Fournette and a physical, underrated o-line. If the Jags can keep from falling behind early, Fournette should be able to do some damage in this game.
Can Jacksonville shock the world and pull off the upset? I’m not quite willing to go that far, but I don’t think this is going to be another walkover for the Patriots— the Jags are a tough matchup for them, the exact type of team they’ve struggled with in the past. I’m going to take those points and hope that Brady doesn’t make me look foolish.
NFC Championship Game
MINNESOTA VIKINGS @ PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (Min -3, 38)
Recommendation: Minnesota -3 at 1.99
I still can’t believe what I witnessed in Minnesota last week. There’s no need to rehash it now, but I’m sure the Vikings feel like they have a new lease on life after one of the most miraculous plays in NFL history. Now they travel to Philadelphia to face an Eagles team that seemed to relish the underdog role last week and will have the opportunity to play up that angle once again, as the Vikes are a slight favorite here.
This would be a classic Strength vs. Strength matchup… if Carson Wentz were still under center in Philly. With Wentz running the show, the Eagles had one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses, but his season-ending Week 14 injury changed the complexion of not only his team but the NFC as a whole. The new Eagles are a team that relies on its defense and a ball-control, run-first offense. So you might say they’re like the Vikings— a poor man’s version of the Vikings.
You see, while Philly has a good defense, one that ranked 4th in the NFL in total yards allowed this season, the Vikings have a great defense, a unit that led the league in both yards allowed and points allowed, surrendering just 15.8 ppg. And that Vikings D will be facing an Eagles offense that has been punchless with Nick Foles under center, producing just 11.3 ppg in the team’s past three contests. Even in last week’s win over Atlanta, when Foles was universally praised, he finished the game with 246 passing yards and zero touchdowns, and the Eagles could manage a mere 15 points. This week Foles will be facing the NFL’s best defense. Draw your own conclusions.
Foles’ counterpart in this game, Minnesota’s Case Keenum, was shaky at times last week and is more of a game manager than a difference-maker, but he’s been efficient and effective this season and he’ll be facing an Eagles secondary that has been victimized several times, most recently in Week 15, when they surrendered 434 passing yards to Eli Manning and the hapless Giants offense. Philly can get after the quarterback and Keenum sometimes struggles when pressured, so the Vikings o-line will need to play well here, but if they can keep Keenum upright he’ll have some opportunities downfield.
Unless something unexpected happens, this won’t be a high-scoring game. Both defenses are excellent and neither offense as presently constituted is particularly explosive. But man, the Vikings have been grinding out wins like this every week— they’ve now won 12 of their past 13 games, and their defense has shown that it can be relied upon to carry the team even when the offense sputters. This will be a hostile environment and the Eagles are a quality team that has been proving doubters wrong all season, but if Keenum takes care of the ball I really like Minnesota’s chances of escaping the Linc with a win.