NFL Conference Championship Preview + Predictions
After an incredible slate of games last week that included one of the most spectacular last-second plays that I have ever seen, this week’s championship games have pretty big shoes to fill. This weekend’s game will decide who plays in the super bowl, and in my mind, there is one preferable matchup, and three matchups that I think would be boring. I’ll get into that towards the end of this piece, after we break down this week’s game and predict the outcome.
The first game of the weekend is between the Jacksonville Jaguars and New England Patriots, and the game will be in New England, on Sunday at 12:05 p.m. The Jaguars are coming off of a game in which they managed to outscore the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers, 45-42, which was unbelievably unexpected. Blake Bortles looked confident, and only had to throw the ball 26 times because of how effective Leonard Fournette was. Fournette was absurd, rushing for 109 yards and three touchdowns on 25 touches. His backup even had a good game, rushing for 20 yards and a touchdown, and the rushing attack was able to just tear right through the Steelers’ defense. Now, they do have a depleted receiving corps, so they will have to rely on their rushing attack against the Patriots. The reliance on the rushing attack might be a disadvantage for them this week because Leonard Fournette is limited with a sprained ankle, and it is currently unknown how he will be feeling on Sunday.
The thing about the Jaguars though, is that they are a defensive team. While they have the potential to have a great offensive game occasionally, the real bread and butter of this team is the defense. During the regular season, the Jaguars were the NFL’s second-best defense. They allowed 286.1 total yards per game, which was only behind the Minnesota Vikings. They had the second most sacks in the NFL this season, with 55, and only trailed the Pittsburgh Steelers (who had 56), who they beat last week. The problem with their great defense, is that that they are running full speed into Tom Brady and the Patriots, who have one of the best offenses in football.
The Patriots are coming off a game in which they just dispatched of the Tennessee Titans like it was nothing, because we all knew that they had no chance. I was incredible confident about New England’s Super Bowl odds until a couple days ago. Now, a couple days ago, this game would have been much more of a lock than it is now. What happened a couple days ago to change this? Tom Brady injured his throwing hand when colliding with a teammate in practice, and since then, several interesting tidbits have come out. There have been reports that Brady has not been participating in practice, that the injured hand will affect his ability to throw the football, and that he has stitches on his injured hand. With all this floating around, to say that I am worried is an understatement. In my mind, the success of the patriots from this point forward in the postseason rides on Tom Brady. I watched Brian Hoyer attempt to be a effective quarterback on the 49ers this year, and have very little confidence in his ability to lead an offense at this point in his career. While the Patriots’ run game was good last week, I do not think that it will be nearly as effective this week against the Jags’ mighty defense, thus making the team much more reliant on the passing game. To put it simply with my mindset around the Patriots at this point, I think that if Tom Brady plays, the Pats will win, but it Brian Hoyer plays, the team is going to lose, and it could get ugly. I have much more confidence in a beat-up Tom Brady than a healthy Brian Hoyer, and think that Hoyer would just make mistakes while testing guys like Jalen Ramsey, giving Bortles and the Jags offense a chance to find a rhythm and heat up.
Las Vegas currently has the line for this game at Patriots -7.5, which means that they are favored to win by more than a touchdown. I think that if Brady plays, then they will win and I have confidence that Brady will play regardless of how this injury plays out. I think the Patriots will win the game 31-24.
The second game of the weekend is between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Minnesota Vikings in Minneapolis, on Sunday at 3:40 p.m. The Eagles are coming off of a game in which they beat the offensively challenged Atlanta Falcons. The Minnesota Vikings are coming off of an incredible walk-off touchdown to beat the New Orleans Saints. For me, this game does not require much analysis or intense contemplation. I think that the Minnesota Vikings will win the game, and I’ll tell you why.
I think that the Vikings have much more momentum on their side right now. While the Eagles may have won their last game, they only won 15-10, and it was largely on the back of their defense. So, if the game with the Vikings comes down to a battle of top-tier defenses, I trust Minnesota a lot more than I do Philly. Each starter on the Minnesota Vikings’ defense has been on the roster for at least three years, and they have gotten better in each of the last three years. Mike Zimmer is a defensive-minded head coach, and his defense has been able to thrive under his tutelage. The Eagles had a great defense this year, but it has its shortcomings, and those were hidden by the fact that they had an MVP-caliber quarterback leading the offense and taking the pressure off the defense. Now, with Carson Wentz injured and Nick Foles in the starting role, the pressure is back on the defense, and I simply think that the Vikings have a much better, refined, hard-nosed defense.
When it comes to the offenses, I think that it really comes down to quarterback. While Nick Foles and Case Keenum are not elite quarterbacks, I think that Case Keenum is a lot more talented, and has the ability to do a lot more with a lot less, if that makes sense. At this point in the year, the Eagles have more weapons on offense surrounding Foles than the weapons surrounding Keenum, but I think Keenum is able to maximize the weapons in a way that Foles can’t. I think that this game will come down to defense down the stretch in the second half, simply because neither of these offenses is particularly great at the moment. However, I think that the Minnesota receiving corps will have a much better game than the Philadelphia receiving corps.
The line in Vegas is currently set at Minnesota -3, so that means they are projected to win by a field goal, and I think that I would take the over. I think that this will be a close game in the first half, but down the stretch the Minnesota defense will take the Eagles’ offense out of it and allow for Case Keenum to heat up and hit Stefon Diggs or Adam Thielen for some big plays. I think that the Minnesota Vikings will win the game 24-17.
Now, based on my predictions for both of these games, I assume that you can figure out my preferred Super Bowl matchup (Hint: it’s the Minnesota Vikings v. New England Patriots). I think that the Minnesota Vikings playing for the Super Bowl in their home stadium would be incredible, and the crowd would be absolutely electric. I think that if the Patriots have to walk into Minnesota to face the Vikings, it would not only be their biggest challenge, but also would give Tom Brady and Bill Belichick the opportunity to become the first team to win a Super Bowl in the opponents’ home stadium. I think that this matchup would provide the best storylines, and ultimately, the most entertaining game.
The other three matchups would, to be honest, suck. I think that if Jacksonville plays against Minnesota, then it would be a super intense defensive battle with very little scoring, which makes for a less entertaining game. In my mind, the most entertaining games are ones that have flashes of incredible defense when the teams need it most, and offenses capable of stepping up and scoring points on big plays. In this matchup, the Jags don’t have the offense capable of putting together really entertaining scoring plays, despite their performance in Pittsburgh last weekend. The Minnesota Vikings would win this matchup, and while it would be nice to see the Vikings win in their home stadium, regardless of the matchup, I would prefer there to be more storylines and drama, which you get with New England.
Now, I just don’t want to see the Eagles in the Super Bowl. I think that without Carson Wentz, they are a pretty boring team. Their offense doesn’t score as much, and they have to rely more on the defense. I think that if the Eagles manage to make it to the Super Bowl, they would be met with one of two results. They would either get run out of the Stadium by the Patriots, or they would lose in a defensive slugfest to Blake Bortles and the Jaguars. Neither of those games sound particularly interesting to me, and that is why my preferred matchup is between the Vikings and Patriots.