Nineteen weeks of football are in the books. Only three games remain in a season that always goes too fast. But here we are, and championship Sunday always proves to be interesting.
At the start of the season, when all the analysts make their predictions, most people had the usual suspects in the final four teams. Many Packers, Falcons, Steelers, and Cowboys picks graced the pages of major sports sites. Of course, pretty much everyone had the Patriots this far. But, the three others are definitely anything but usual.
The Eagles are still riding the wave, even without second year quarterback Carson Wentz. Wentz tore his ACL in a December game against the Rams, and all hope looked lost in the city of brotherly love. However, the Eagles played enough defense to defeat the Falcons in the divisional round, and here they are, one game away.
The Vikings took the league by storm as well, and their journey didn’t always look bright. The Vikings lost Sam Bradford for a period of time early in the season and turned to journeyman Case Keenum. That move proved to be a good one, as he has flourished in Pat Shurmur’s offense. They also lost Dalvin Cook, who looked like he would be in the offensive rookie of the year conversation by season’s end. But, the Vikings have persevered, and here they stand, one win away from hosting a Super Bowl.
And finally, here sit the Jaguars. Back in March, everyone believed the Jags once again “won the offseason”, and believed it wouldn’t mean much come season time. But the Jags are rolling thanks to a historically good defense (yeah, check the numbers), running the football with Leonard Fournette, and just enough from Blake Bortles.
Analysts and fans consistently doubted these teams, and yet, they are here. No one, including myself, thought the Eagles could win without Wentz. The Vikings looked dead in the water without the steady Bradford and electric Cook. No one thought Bortles could handle the pressure of a playoff game. Yet the push continues, all of them looking to defy the odds.
And oh yes, the Patriots. We cannot forget about the organization that continues to be rock solid. Bill Belichick is still Bill Belichick, building and coaching championship rosters, with great discipline and little to no mistakes. They also have one of the greatest quarterbacks of any generation, and the schemes on both sides of the ball to frustrate opponents. They don’t need any more motivation, because that sixth Lombardi is staring them in the face and they want it. Once again, we could see three Patriots titles in four seasons.
With all that in mind, let’s take a look at the games that grace the second to last Sunday in the NFL season.
AFC Championship: Jaguars at Patriots, 3:05 ET, Gillette Stadium
On paper, just reading that line above, people are still a little dumbfounded.
How in the world are the Jaguars here?
Defense, running the ball, and enough danger in the passing game is the formula. The presence of Tom Coughlin in the organization wouldn’t have it any other way.
Even with that formula, the matchup still favors the Patriots in so many ways. For one, a home game in Foxborough bids horribly for opponents. The fact of the matter is, the Patriots just don’t lose at home very often in January. In fact, it’s extremely rare.
We’re off to a great start. What else do we know? Oh yes, the Patriots are famous for being a team that takes something away from an offense. With their underrated rush defense (only six touchdowns allowed this year), the Pats have the formula to force the ball into the hands of Blake Bortles.
Third, the Jaguars play a certain style of Cover 3, which this Patriots team has seen plenty of over the years. The Jags certainly have the talent at every level, but there are certain things the Pats offense can do to beat that Cover 3 scheme.
The last of the big keys? The Jags are extremely aggressive on defense, and a disciplined offense can make them look foolish. The Pats have the type of players with the quickness to take advantage of aggressive linebacker play. That will yield big gains for the Pats in the short passing game.
Also, who can forget about Gronk? We aren’t sure how the Jags will attempt to cover him, but it will be a tough test.
All of that is stacked against the Jaguars. And yet, they still have surprises of their own.
The key to beating a Patriots team is to rush with four and get there, allowing seven players to drop into coverage. Luckily, the Jags can do just that with their front. Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler rush the passer off of the edge, while interior guys like Calais Campbell and Avery Jones look to collapse the pocket from the interior. If the Jags can get to Brady early and disrupt the offense, they could force the Pats into obvious passing downs and get off the field.
Offensively, the Jags will have to get creative. It’s likely Fournette will be limited, so they need to get the ball into T.J. Yeldon’s hands. Yeldon isn’t as dynamic as Fournette, but he’s a solid runner who can contribute in the passing game. And of course, Bortles will need to make a few plays. He has done that this year, and there’s no reason he can’t find a way this time.
As for the prediction? Most of America wants this upset-minded Jaguars team to win. But, this is the Patriots. Every little mistake will cost you in this game. So, I’m not giving the Jags much of a chance in this one.
Pats 27, Jags 13
NFC Championship Game, Vikings at Eagles, 5:40 ET, Lincoln Financial Field
With all the talent in the NFC, a Case Keenum-Nick Foles showdown is what is delivered. With that in play, this game may very well be a throwback to the days of smash mouth football with excellent defense. Both teams are top five in many defensive categories this season. Both can get to the quarterback and excel in coverage.
So where does the scale tip for either team?
It’s whether or not their quarterback can handle a bit of pressure.
Neither quarterback handled pressure particularly well, especially not Case Keenum. According to Pro Football Focus, Keenum had a quarterback rating of 5.1 versus the blitz. After seeing that statistic, the Eagles certainly will send extra players at Keenum to frustrate him and the flow of the offense.
How do the Vikings combat that? Pat Shurmur has to design plays to neutralize pressure. Luckily, he has two wide receivers at his disposal who can make plays at any time and in a number of ways. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are do-it-all guys. Whether it be in the screen game or getting open downfield, they will make plays. When pressure comes, they need to be ready to make something happen.
Another key to this game? The middle of the field. The Philly receivers will be on an island a lot, but they have the tight ends to work the middle of the field. However, the Vikings have two linebackers who will make it difficult for anything positive to happen in the middle of the field. Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr are smart, quick, hard-hitting linebackers that give teams fits. It will be up to guys like Zach Ertz and Trey Burton to win over the field to help the Eagles extend drives.
Lastly, of course, the run game. We talked about this being a grind it out game. Now, both teams have big time players in the middle of the defensive line. The Vikings have Linval Joseph and the Eagles have Fletcher Cox. These guys shouldn’t make either team avoid running the ball. The Eagles have three running backs they give the ball to frequently. Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount should see enough carries to keep the Vikings honest. Corey Clement can come in and be a change of pace back to break off a couple big runs. As for the Vikings, it comes down to trusting Latavius Murray in big spots and Jerick McKinnon in space. Murray has done well filling in for Dalvin Cook all year, and he needs to run well again Sunday to get the Vikings to the promised land. McKinnon is a threat in the passing game, and he will get his chances to make things happen in space. Whichever team’s running backs are more productive in big situations, they win.
So who wins this game? The Eagles showed last week that they won’t be disrespected without Wentz, and the Vikings also silenced the doubters on the last play of the game. The NFC Championship will come down to the very end, and I like the Vikings just a bit more than the Eagles. I believe Case Keenum wants to atone for last week’s performance against the blitz. Also, the Vikings win the turnover battle, which is another big determinant (obviously).
Vikings 20, Eagles 16