NFL Conference Championships Preview

“It’s a 61 yard Minneapolis Miracle!” exclaimed Paul Allen, the Vikings’ radio broadcaster at the end of what turned out to be, as expected, a fantastic game and a fantastic round of playoff football.  As soon the Eagles knocked off the Falcons in a defensive battle Saturday afternoon, the scene was set for more craziness, because as that game showed, anyone can win at this time of the year.  So let’s quickly go over what happened.

The Falcons choked.  Whether it was questionable play calling or just lack of execution, it doesn’t really matter, because the Falcons were playing a team with their back up quarterback  a team that we knew was not going to score many points. All they had to do was play mediocre on offense and they could outscore the Eagles, but they couldn’t even do that.  They put up a goose egg in the second half, getting shut out by an Eagles defense that was fourth in the league, but should never have been able to completely shut down an offense as talented as Atlanta’s.  Despite everything that should have happened, the Eagles are moving on and get to host the NFC Championship with a Super Bowl berth on the line.

In the second game of the weekend, not much out of the ordinary happened.  Brady played fantastically and the Patriots ran away with the game, as expected.

On Sunday, the Steelers had a chance at home to avenge an embarrassing Week 5 loss, but instead, they went out and made Blake Bortles look like he deserved to be in the ranks of Joe Montana and Tom Brady.  The Jaguars were able to get everything they wanted on offense with little to no pushback from the Steelers’ #5 ranked defense.  On the offensive side of the ball, the Steelers started out just as bad, as they got into a massive hole late after some terrible play calling on a fourth down at the twenty and then two Big Ben turnovers. They came back and made the game interesting, but in the end, they gave the Jaguars too much of a head start to be able to complete the comeback.

Then, in the last game of the Divisional Round, the world saw a Minneapolis Miracle.  With 14 seconds left in the game, down one from his own 39 yard line, Case Keenum threw a gorgeous ball to Stefon Diggs who was able to turn and tiptoe down the sideline into the end zone for a walk off touchdown.  U.S. Bank Stadium went absolutely nuts.  The fans had just seen Drew Brees play maybe the best second half of his playoff career to set up the would-be game winning field goal for the Saints.  All the air had left the stadium, as the crippling reality set in.  After starting the drive with a nineteen yard completion, the Vikings seemed like they might be able to redeem themselves, but then Case Keenum missed back to back throws.  I have to admit: I thought the game was over.  On their last hope, Keenum just threw it up to give Diggs a chance the same thing he has done all season through his turnover free and clutch play: Give the Vikings a chance.  The play really was truly amazing: Kick six, Malcolm Butler interception, or David Tyree helmet catch level unbelievable.  At the same time, it was hard to watch for Marcus Williams of the Saints, who was covering Diggs and absolutely whiffed on a tackle that would have prevented the touchdown.  (I say it may have prevented the touchdown, but it probably wouldn’t have saved the game.  If he had made the hit, it would have been pass interference because he got to Diggs before the ball. That would have set up a 51 yard field goal, a makeable attempt, but obviously not a sure thing.)  Even before that play though, this game was an instant classic.  The Vikings looked unstoppable early on both sides of the ball, and late, the exact same was true for the Saints.  In the second half, Brees completed 17 of 22 passes and threw for 3 TDs and no interceptions, erasing a forgettable first half.  Despite his play though, his team is going home and it sets up a pretty predictable NFC Championship, while the AFC is where the excitement will be this week. So, this is it. One more win for any of the teams, and they are in the Super Bowl.

 

 

Tom Brady vs. Titans
NBC Sports from Getty Images

 

 

AFC Championship

#1 New England Patriots vs. #3 Jacksonville Jaguars

This is the first game in what could be the most brutal and career defining stretch of Tom Brady’s career.  If the Patriots want to win the Super Bowl they will have to beat two of the top four defenses in the league to do it, in all probability the top two.  If Brady plays well and they win their sixth title in the Brady-Belichick Era, it will undoubtedly cement Brady’s already strong legacy as the best quarterback ever. Of course, this will only apply if the Patriots can find a way to beat this young Jacksonville team, which I think will happen.

The main reason I am picking the Patriots to win this close game is because of Blake Bortles.  It’s going to take a lot more than one good season (he still looked very mediocre at times) for me to begin believing Bortles can consistently perform at a high level. On top of this, even this year, he is much worse on the road and in the cold. Even with his “break out” season this year, he has only been pretty good.  In many games, his team has won in spite of him, and overall, he isn’t even having his career best season in most passing categories, except for interceptions, which he has done a good job of limiting. This season, he has also had the benefit of a great team around him.  The Jags fantastic running game and solid offensive line kept the pressure off him all year, giving him a clean pocket and time to make his progressions and deliver the ball fairly accurately. The defense has also supplied him with a constant stream of short fields.  Even when the Jaguars win, he plays mediocre.  In last week’s 45-42 win over the Steelers, he only threw for 214 yards and one touchdown, pretty average numbers, and not ones you would expect to see with a 45 on the scoreboard. In the Wild Card Round against the Bills, he threw for only 87 yards.  The “Sacksonville” defense also looked very porous last week, despite getting two turnovers — a defensive touchdown and an interception returned to the eighteen yard line (another short field).  I am sure that the Patriots will be able to exploit some of the same weaknesses as the Steelers did.

In this game, Jalen Ramsey will lock down Rob Gronkowski and RBs Dion Lewis and James White will be limited by the Jags’ fast athletic linebackers, but Brandin Cooks will find room down the field and once again, Chris Hogan is going to have a monstrous AFC Championship Game. The Patriots defense should also be able to put pressure on Bortles, causing some bad decision, and continue their defensive red zone dominance, forcing a few timely turnovers and making Jacksonville settle for field goals. For these reasons, I am leaning towards the Patriots in this game, but it is going to be a hard fought game, and if a few things go the Jaguars’ way, I could easily see them pulling this game out.  If Bortles can make plays with his legs and the Jacksonville pass rush can get to Brady consistently with a four man rush, the Jags have a great chance to pull off the upset.

Result:

Patriots 34, Jaguars 26

 

NFC Championship

#1 Philadelphia Eagles vs. #2 Minnesota Vikings

This game really isn’t that complicated.  It will be a battle between Minnesota’s top ranked defense and Philadelphia’s fourth ranked defense.  Simply, Case Keenum will make more plays than Nick Foles, and the Vikings will advance and get to host Super Bowl LII. It doesn’t get much more clear cut than that.  In his three full games this year, Foles has been terrible, mediocre, and great. While Eagles fans would have to hope that he comes out and plays great, that completely unrealistic because his only good game just happened to be against the #31 ranked New York Giants’ defense which isn’t even in the same realm as the Vikings’ #1 ranked defense.  Keenum, on the other hand, has proven all season and proved again last week that he can make plays against a great defense: The Vikings are going to win this game fairly easily.

Result:

Vikings 20, Eagles 10

 

 

Featured Image: blogandtackle.net

 

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