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NFL Conference Championship Predictions

We NFL fans were treated to one of the best Divisional Rounds in recent memory.  Other than the Patriots trouncing the Titans, every other game last weekend was a nail biter till the final whistle was blown.

The home underdog Eagles proved their critics wrong by playing tough defense with an effective run game to advance to the NFC Championship.  Their opponent on Championship Sunday is the resilient Vikings who traded the lead with the Saints throughout the 4th quarter until the Miracle in Minnesota occurred as Case Keenum threw a 61-yard touchdown pass to Stephon Diggs as the game clock expired.

The hometown favored Steelers were prepared for revenge from the beating they took at the hands of the Jaguars back in week five of the regular season.  Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, the Jags never gave them a chance jumping out to a 28 – 7 lead before your eyes could blink.  The Killer Bee’s managed to come back in the 2nd half to get within a touchdown of tying the game.  Then Blake Bortles channeled his inner Aaron Rodgers by connecting on clutch throws and using his legs when the play broke down.

While I give Jacksonville a ton of credit for dominating on the road in hostile territory, I have to put the majority of the blame on the Steelers coaching staff.  Roethlisberger didn’t get his nickname “Big Ben” for no reason.  The man is 6’5 and weighs over 240 pounds.  Why wouldn’t the Steelers allow Big Ben to fall forward an inch for a first down on two separate occasions?  Baffles me!  Todd Haley made a few more bad calls by running sweeps and toss plays to Bell out of the backfield.  The Jaguars defense are to quick and don’t allow the offensive line to form a wall of blockers on those sideline type runs.  Pittsburgh also played terrible defensively and they didn’t change up their scheme until it was too late.  If you watched the game then you know that Mike Tomlin and company coached poorly and essentially chocked.  But in the end, the players need to execute and they simply couldn’t when it counted most!

This brings us to the Conference Championships where New England will host Jacksonville as Minnesota travels to Philadelphia to take on the top-seeded Eagles.  Philly were home dogs against Atlanta last weekend and even though they won a physical battle, they remain the underdogs again as the Vikings come into town.  If not for a horrible prevent defensive on the final play of the game, then the Saints would be marching toward the “City of Brotherly Love.”

However, the Vikings absolutely deserve to be playing for the rare opportunity to host the Super Bowl in their home dome at U.S. Bank Stadium.  They have the number one statistical defense in the league and an offense with big-play capability that very seldom makes mistakes.  Even their ground game has preformed well as Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon have improved their game at the right time.  Both players reached pay-dirt in their victory over the Saints while Case Keenum threw for over 300 yards against a tough New Orleans defense.  I’ve been saying all season long that the Vikings and Eagles are the two most complete teams in the NFC.  They have the personnel on the field and excellent coaching on the sideline.  It was Philly one and Minnesota two but the injury to Carson Wentz made me flip-flop those rankings.

On a side note, just sit back and think of the names playing quarterback in the most crucial games of the season thus far.  Tom Brady is no surprise as he heads toward his 7th straight AFC Championship game looking for his record-breaking 6th Super Bowl ring.  That’s just amazing!  The other names are either backup QB’s or on the brink of losing their job.  Case Keenum was basically the third-string quarterback on the Vikings depth chart behind Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater.  Nick Foles was drafted by the Eagles in 2012 and played well at times.  Not well enough apparently, as Philly traded Foles to the Rams in 2015 where he was ultimately released when Los Angeles drafted Jared Goff.  He signed a two year deal with the Chiefs to back up Alex Smith but the team declined the second-year option and let Foles go.  Now he’s back where he stared with the Eagles playing in the biggest game of his career with the weight of the state of Pennsylvania on his back.

Perhaps the most surprising quarterback under center this weekend is Blake Bortles.  It seems Bortles is playing for his job every Sunday and has managed to keep it despite playing sub-par football.  To his credit, the Jaguars quarterback has improved but if not for their defense the Jags wouldn’t even be here!  Speaking of defense, we probably have the four best defensive units in the league playing for the right to go to the Super Bowl.  So the old adage of defense wins championships holds true even in this day and age where we live in an offensive oriented league.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just think about the most recent Super Bowl champs.  The Patriots had the best statistical defense in the league last season and won the title.  The Denver Broncos won the championship because they had an incredible defense that carried a Peyton Manning led team.  The Seattle Seahawks went to consecutive Super Bowls because of “The Legion of Boom” and the rest of that ball-hawking defense.  Even the Ravens in 2012 won the Super Bowl based off a strong cohesive defensive unit despite Joe Flacco’s inability to put points on the scoreboard.  So even though three of the four QB’s playing this weekend aren’t household names, we should appreciate how great these defenses are and give credit where it’s due.

Patriots vs Jaguars:  I believe the Jags have the best defense in the league.  From the front four to the athletic linebackers and stingy secondary, if any defense can slow down Tom Brady and the Pats it’s Jacksonville.  They can rush the passer with four players and put pressure on Brady to throw off the timing of their offense.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bill Belichick is a master at taking away the opponents best player on offense.  Not so true for a defense of the caliber of the Jaguars.  All Brady and Belichick can do is get the ball out quickly to open receivers and try to gain chunks of yards in the process.  The only weakness Jacksonville has is defending the run game up the middle.  We saw Le’Veon Bell bust through the gut of the Jags interior line and you can bet that Belichick took notice of that.  Therefore, I expect Dion Lewis and James White to get plenty of touches to run up the middle of the Jaguars defense.  If successful then they will be able to work play action passes to Gronk over the middle and hit Amendola and Cooks on short slant routes.

Since both teams will be running the ball predominately, I expect a low scoring game.  Adjustments will have to be made and I give Coach Belichick the edge every time.  The best running back in this contest is rookie Leonard Fournette who’s an absolute beast with power and elusiveness.  He’ll get the ball a ton because the Patriots defensive weakness is also stopping the run game.  Although New England did a great job of containing Derrick Henry last week, it will be a tough task to stop Fournette behind that monster offensive line.

The Jaguars have the formula to defeat the Patriots.  They play incredible defense, they’re young and athletic and have all the confidence in the world!  If they run successfully then Bortles may put on another great performance working off play-action and getting the ball downfield to the speedy Marquis Lee.  All that being said I believe the first half will go Jacksonville’s way by controlling the clock and keeping the ball on the ground.  However, coach Belichick is the king of halftime adjustments and he’ll tweak his offense and defense if need be.  The Pick: Patriots

The NFC title match-up will also be a defensive game.  As I mentioned earlier, the four teams left in the tournament have the top defenses in the league.  The Vikings may be as good on D as the Jags.  And Philly isn’t far behind.  Both teams play with passion and rarely make mistakes.

The Eagles will use all of their running backs to keep them fresh throughout the game.  Nick Foles has done a nice job replacing Carson Wentz by not turning over the ball and hitting his receivers on short passes to keep the chains moving.  I have no doubt that Minnesota will come into Philadelphia ready to rock!  They have playmakers at every level on defense as well.  Since Foles can’t run around and create plays with his feet, the Vikings defensive game plan will likely consist of loading the box and concentrating on the stopping the run.  Minnesota will force Foles into beating them with his arm.  They have great cornerbacks, especially Xavier Rhodes who will probably follow Alshon Jeffrey around all game long.

The Vikings will attempt to establish a run game early with Murray and McKinnon to keep the Eagles defense honest.  But they’ll win this game by making big plays in the passing game.  Adam Theilen and Stephon Diggs are major threats to any cornerback and Kyle Rudolph can beat almost any linebacker one on one.  Case Keenum gets more comfortable in this offense every game.  He’s very smart and knows his limits as a quarterback.  He has a very high football IQ and uses his brain to make things happen.  The Pick: Vikings

Both the AFC and NFC championship games will come down to who’s defense holds strong and creates turnovers.  Every quarterback playing on Championship Sunday will have to be on their toes and ready to release the ball quickly.  Yes, even Tom Brady will have to step up his game if the Pats are going to put points on the board.  Again, defense wins championships!  But the offense still needs to score.  So I believe big plays downfield will be the difference.  It will be tough for all four teams to move the ball consistently.  Perhaps pass interference penalties will play a big part in these games.  They’ll all have to take chances throwing deep passes and whoever connects most will win the game.

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