NFL Playoffs – Conference Championships
Super Bowl LII is only two weeks away. Four teams are still alive in the quest to become the World Champions of the 2017 season. In the National Football Conference, we have two of the league’s top defenses and a pair of backup quarterbacks squaring off for the George Halas Trophy. In the American Football Conference, a perennial contender faces a team that was a perennial laughing stock for the Lamar Hunt Trophy. These are the big games before the biggest game. Conference Championship Sunday is one of the best days of the NFL season, and fans are certainly in for a good one this year.
Soon only two teams will remain.
Here are my picks for the Conference Championship Games:
(3) Jacksonville Jaguars @ (1) New England Patriots – Sunday 3:05 PM ET, CBS
Not many people would have thought that this would be the AFC Championship Game back in August. Many of the experts anticipated another Steelers-Patriots matchup. Boy did Jacksonville prove them wrong. You have to believe that they relish in being the underdog. If you are a team going into Foxborough in late January, you are definitely an underdog. These two teams met in the AFC Championship Game in the 1996-97 season playoffs. Quarterback Mark Brunell led Jacksonville to the postseason in only their second year of existence. The Patriots, however, would win that game by a score of 20-6 behind the right arm of Drew Bledsoe. Bledsoe’s successor, Tom Brady, is 7-0 in his career against the Jacksonville Jaguars including the playoffs (2-0). Will he make it 8-0 en route to his eighth Super Bowl appearance?
Jacksonville Jaguars (12-6)
If the Jaguars aren’t one of the bigger stories in this postseason they sure should be. Their offense has slowly improved, complimenting a championship-caliber defense. After a tight defensive struggle in the Wild Card Round, the Jags went into Heinz Field and made a meal out of the Steelers (13-4), holding on for a 45-42 win. Now Jacksonville is on the cusp of their franchise’s first Super Bowl berth.
Blake Bortles was a revelation last week. Blake tossed 214 yards with a touchdown pass and no interceptions on Sunday against a vaunted Steelers defense. He also added 35 yards on the ground. These numbers don’t sound like much, but they’re indicative of a Blake Bortles that has been playing mistake-free football in the month of January. And by mistake-free I mean he hasn’t turned the ball over. He had plenty of help. Leonard Fournette gashed the Steelers for 109 yards on the ground and three touchdowns. I said last week that if the Jags want to be successful, they would need to run the football well and take the pressure off of Bortles to win the game with his arm. In Pittsburgh, they did exactly that.
In addition to not turning the ball over, the Jaguars were efficient on third down. Jacksonville converted on 8 out of 14 third down attempts (57%). When your offense is able to convert on their third down attempts, it helps our your defense by keeping the opposing offense off of the field. The Jags offense was able to do that just enough, helping their defense reduce the number of scoring opportunities that the Steelers would have.
Let’s take a moment to talk about how great the Jaguars defense is. This unit is awesome. How do they compare against some of the other great championship defenses we have seen? The 2015 Denver Broncos allowed an average of 18.5 points per game, the Jags only allowed 16.8 points per game. Sacksonville sacked opposing quarterbacks 55 times this season, twelve more times than the Buccaneers did in 2002. The Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom” secondary allowed only an average of 172.0 net passing yards per game in 2013; Jacksonville only allowed an average of 169.9 this season. In 1985, the great Chicago Bears defense scored five defensive touchdowns en route to their dominant win in Super Bowl XX. The Jaguars had seven defensive touchdowns this season.
The Jaguars certainly had their hands full against Pittsburgh. Jacksonville’s defense fell off a bit in the second half after they had jumped out to a 28-14 halftime lead. Pittsburgh outscored Jacksonville in the second half by a score of 28-17. Roethlisberger had 469 yards passing and five touchdown passes. As a team, the Steelers combined for 83 yards rushing and another touchdown. By far, this had to be Jacksonville’s worst defensive performance of the season. Even still, they were able to force two key turnovers (interception, 51-yard fumble return touchdown) and stop the Steelers on two of their six fourth down attempts. The Steelers made just enough mistakes to lose, and Jacksonville avoided making those mistakes. It’s mistakes they will need to avoid if they wish to do in Foxborough what they did in Pittsburgh.
New England Patriots (14-3)
Not surprisingly, the Patriots easily dispatched the Tennessee Titans (10-8) at home by a score of 35-14. That storyline has been largely overlooked in light of a reported injury to Tom Brady’s throwing hand. Brady is 7-0 in his career against the Jaguars, but his status for game number 8 is questionable. Assuming Brady plays, which I estimate that he will, here is how the Pats shape up in this one:
The Patriots boasted one of the league’s top offenses in 2017, and it was easy to see why on Saturday. Tom Brady had 337 yards through the air with three touchdown passes. Dion Lewis and Brandon Bolden had a combined 19 carries for 89 yards and one rushing touchdown. James White had eight touches for 40 scrimmage yards and two total touchdowns as well. Danny Amendola led Patriots receivers with 11 catches for 112 yards.
New England was phenomenal on third down in this game. The Patriots converted on 65% of their third down attempts (11/17). The only area of concern to take away from this game is their early deficit. At the end of the first quarter, the Patriots trailed the Titans 7-0. Now, that’s not a whole lot for any team to overcome, but the last thing New England wants is to face Jacksonville’s defense while trailing on the scoreboard early. It will be imperative that New England gets out to a fast start against the Jaguars.
The same Patriots defense that struggled mightily during the regular season looked much more like their old selves against Tennessee. Marcus Mariota had a pretty decent game on paper. Mariota threw for 254 yards with two touchdown passes and also had 37 rushing yards. Unfortunately for poor Marcus, he was sacked eight times for a total loss of 52 yards. That means that the Titans only had 202 net yards passing and only 267 total yards of offense. When you are playing the Patriots, that kind of offensive output is not going to get it done. Derrick Henry was supposed to be a major contributor in this one, but he only mustered 28 yard on 12 carries.
On third down the Patriots were able to get off of the field. New England only allowed the Titans to convert on 33% of their third down attempts (5/15). The best thing a struggling defense can do for itself is get off of the field on third downs. This allowed New England to win the time of possession battle and wear down the Titans completely. If the Patriots can bottle up Leonard Fournette and keep Blake Bortles from making plays on third down, they may be on their way to their eighth Super Bowl appearance since 2001.
I feel a little more confident in my NFC pick than my AFC pick. I’m just not sure how healthy Tom Brady is at this point. Could all of this injury news be smoke and mirrors? Absolutely. Is Tom Brady sitting out practices significant? You better believe it. I’m fairly certain he will be playing this Sunday. I think, much like last week, the Jaguars defense will have their hands full. This game will be won or lost based on how they perform. I could honestly see this pick being wrong, but my gut tells me that I should not pick against Brady, Belichick, and the Patriots at home in a conference championship game. However, if Jacksonville pulls off the upset, I will not be totally surprised. They’ve proven us wrong before.
New England 27 – Jacksonville 21
(2) Minnesota Vikings @ (1) Philadelphia Eagles – Sunday 6:40 PM ET, FOX
Our final game on Conference Championship Sunday is fixing to be a classic. Two of the league’s top defenses will face offenses that have the potential to be explosive on any given Sunday. Vikings fans may remember that the Eagles were their first loss of the 2016 season after starting 5-0. Both teams ultimately missed the postseason. I can’t help but imagine what the headlines would have been if it were Sam Bradford and Carson Wentz facing off in this one. Bradford played one season for the Eagles back in 2015. Philly would end up trading Bradford to Minnesota before the start of the 2016 season in lieu of Wentz’s arrival.
Instead, we have former journeyman backup Case Keenum and Nick Foles in his second stint in Philadelphia. Both of these quarterbacks were not their team’s number one starter at the beginning of the season, but now they are both in a position to lead their championship-hungry franchises to victory.
Minnesota Vikings (14-3)
What more needs to be said about Minnesota’s 29-24 win against the Saints (12-6) on Sunday? The Vikings stormed to a commanding 17-0 lead, they gave up the lead twice in the second half, and then won on one of the most miraculous plays in the history of sports.
Case Keenum’s 318 passing yards sure looks good on paper. Without that 61-yard game-winning touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs, though, Keenum struggled a little bit throughout this game. It just didn’t look like he was completely comfortable at times. His interception was an ugly one. In the end, Keenum deserves credit for hanging in there and making some plays late when it counted, albeit with a little bit of luck on his side. No one wins in the NFL without a little luck. Case will have his work cut out for him against a physical Eagles front seven.
Keenum will need help from his play-makers. Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon combined for 27 carries for 84 yards and two rushing touchdowns against New Orleans. Their ability to run physically will be of the utmost importance in Philadelphia Sunday night as the Eagles have the league’s top rushing offense.
Stefon Diggs had six catches for 137 yards and the game-winning touchdown on Sunday night. Diggs had to make an athletic catch on that final play. Fortunately for him, the defender whiffed on his tackle attempt, freeing him up to complete the 61-yard walk off touchdown. Diggs will need to elevate his play this Sunday as Adam Thielen’s status for the game is questionable. Diggs and tight end Kyle Rudolph could end up seeing more targets in the event that Thielen doesn’t play or is limited.
The Vikings led the league in total defense (275.9 yards per game), scoring defense (15.8 points per game), and third down defense (25% conversions allowed). They looked every bit like the league’s top defense in the first half against New Orleans. Minnesota forced two Drew Brees interceptions in the first half as they jumped out to a 17-0 halftime lead. Kai Forbath would miss a field goal going into the half, and I couldn’t help but feel like that would be a bit of a momentum-shifting play.
As it turns out, it would be just that. The Saints would end up going on a second half tear. Brees would throw for three touchdown passes in the second half as the Saints outscored the Vikings 24-12 in the final two quarters of action. Alvin Kamara was effective in this game, tallying 15 touches for 105 scrimmage yards and a receiving touchdown. If it wasn’t for an errant 3rd down-and-1 pass from Willie Snead on a trick play, Kamara would have had even more yards and possibly even another touchdown.
As much as the Vikings defense got gashed in the second half, they still did just enough to keep their offense in striking distance late. Minnesota held New Orleans to only 80 yards on the ground, displaying their strength as the league’s second-best rush defense. They also only allowed the Saints to convert on 22% of their third down attempts (2/9).
The Eagles may not have as explosive of an offense as the Saints, but that doesn’t mean Minnesota should take them lightly. Stopping the run and forcing Nick Foles to make plays with his arm downfield will be a point of emphasis for the Vikings defense this Sunday.
Philadelphia Eagles (14-3)
I’d like to think Nick Foles is getting tired of hearing about the Eagles’ offensive capacity being limited without Carson Wentz. Besides the change at quarterback, much of the story remains the same for Philadelphia: they won 13 games in the regular season, they have a great offensive line, they have three runningbacks with particular sets of skills, and they have one of the league’s top defenses.
Nick Foles’ statistics from Saturday (246 yards 0 TDs 0 INTs) won’t blow you away, but he did just enough against the Atlanta Falcons (11-6) to pull out the 15-10 win. Foles didn’t turn the ball over, and he was incredibly efficient throughout the game, completing nearly 77% of his passes. Foles was a master of the run/pass option (“RPO”), a favorite play of the offenses that Chip Kelly ran with Foles and others a few years back. Philly may run this play a fair amount on Sunday in an attempt to get the ball out of Foles’ hands quickly to negate Minnesota’s pass rush.
The Eagles were also effective running the football, picking up 96 yards on the ground as well as their lone touchdown of the game. They were also above average on third down (6/13 – 46%) in addition to winning the time of possession battle (32:06-27:54). It’s hard for the Eagles to complain about amassing 334 total net yards of offense against a top ten defense.
Ball security was an issue for Philadelphia, however, as the Eagles lost two fumbles in addition to two others that they were fortunate enough to fall on. The Eagles can’t play fast and loose with ball security against the Vikings, a team they can ill-afford to give extra chances.
The league’s number one rush defense held Devonta Freeman to only 33 total scrimmage yards on 15 touches. Freeman was able to find his way in the endzone on a touchdown reception, though, despite playing with an injured knee. Tevin Coleman, however, was very effective on the ground for the Falcons. Coleman rushed for 79 yards on 10 attempts, averaging 7.9 yards per carry. Had Freeman been in full health, the Eagles could have been in trouble.
Philadelphia was able to bottle up the Falcons regardless of Coleman’s performance. While they didn’t create any turnovers, the Eagles held Atlanta to only 281 net yards of total offense. The Falcons had the league’s best third down offense during the 2017 regular season. The Eagles, however, dominated on third down, only allowing Atlanta to convert 31% of their attempts (4/13).
The Eagles are more than capable of stopping the run, and they can pressure the quarterback as well as any team in the league. While Minnesota doesn’t have a Julio Jones-type receiver (he had 9 catches for 101 yards on Saturday), but it will be imperative that the Eagles secondary prevents the Vikings receivers from making plays, as they have shown they are more than capable of doing.
Of these two teams, the Vikings have the better defense. Of these two teams, I think right now the Vikings have the better offense. If Carson Wentz were playing it would be a different story, but he is not. We could very well see these two teams square off for conference supremacy for years to come with all of the young talent they have on their rosters. Being at home the Eagles have a strong chance of winning, but this year is not their year. The majority of the points in this one will be scored in the second half, I think the defenses will be on display early in this one. Minnesota returns to the Super Bowl for the first time in over 40 years.
Minnesota 20 – Philadelphia 17