Before the season started, not many people probably expected the starting quarterbacks in the conference championship games to be Blake Bortles, Case Keenum, Nick Foles and Tom Brady. The latter is probably the only one of the quartet that would have had many votes. But thanks to injuries and an upset in the AFC divisional round, that’s where we stand as we enter the semifinals of the tournament known as the NFL postseason.
The first game of the Sunday doubleheader features Bortles leading the Jaguars — whose defense has carried them to this point — into Foxboro to take on Brady and the Patriots, who are playing in their seventh-straight conference championship game — and 12th overall during the Brady era — as they look to repeat as Super Bowl champions. Then the nightcap features the top two seeds in the NFC, with Foles and the Eagles hosting Keenum and the Vikings, who are one win away from becoming the first team in league history to play in a Super Bowl being held in its home stadium.
I didn’t have a good week with my picks last week. I was 1-3 picking games, 0-3-1 against the spread, and 2-2 on over/unders. For the postseason, I’m 3-5 straight up, 1-6-1 ATS, and 4-4 on over/unders.
No. 3 seed Jacksonville Jaguars at No. 1 seed New England Patriots (-7.5, over/under 45)
The Jaguars were underdogs by a full touchdown against the Steelers last week, but they won a high-scoring affair, 45-42, to make it to their third conference championship game in franchise history. Bortles had one of his typical games last week, completing just over 50% of his passes for 214 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. RB Leonard Fournette ran for 109 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries. The defense kept the Jaguars in the game, with two sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery, which LB Telvin Smith returned 50 yards for a touchdown.
In the Patriots’ 35-14 thumping of the Titans, Brady was 35-for-53 for 337 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. He threw one touchdown each to TE Rob Gronkowski, WR Chris Hogan and RB James White, while WR Danny Amendola had 11 receptions for 112 yards. On the ground, RB Dion Lewis had 15 carries for 62 yards, and RB Brandon Bolden and White each had a rushing touchdown. The Patriots didn’t have any defensive scores or any takeaways, but the defense did sack Marcus Mariota eight times in the game and limited the Titans to one touchdown until late in the game when they added a second when the game was already out of reach.
That brings us to this week. There’s not much of a chance that the Jaguars will score in the 40s again this week, so if the defense gives up 42 points again, the home team will be celebrating another AFC title. Bortles has to make sure he doesn’t turn the ball over, but Fournette will be key to success for the Jaguars. Not only is he the team’s best offensive player, but the Jags have to run the ball a lot to keep the clock moving and keep Brady off the field. That is essential if the Jags want to make it to the first Super Bowl in franchise history. Also essential, the defensive players being at the top of their game. The Jaguars have one of the best defenses in the league, and good defenses have had success keeping Brady in check this season. The big story for the Patriots is Brady’s throwing hand. He injured it in practice earlier in the week and is questionable for Sunday. It a near-certainty that he’ll play, but if the hand is a real issue, it could prevent him from playing up to the level we’re used to seeing from him. He has a history of performing well in big games, and I think that will continue this week. I don’t think the hand will be much of an issue. I expect the Jaguars to give the Patriots a more competitive game than the Titans did last week, but the Patriots should come out on top. I’ll go with a final score of 30-20, so that’s Patriots (-7.5) and over the 45.
No. 2 seed Minnesota Vikings at No. 1 seed Philadelphia Eagles (+3, over/under 39)
The Vikings needed one of the best finishes in NFL history to beat the Saints last week after giving up a 17-0 halftime lead. Keenum was 25-for-40 passing for 318 yards, one touchdown and one interception. WR Stefon Diggs had six receptions for 137 yards, including the game-winning touchdown on the memorable final play. WR Adam Thielen added six catches of his own for 74 yards. RBs Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon each had a rushing touchdown, with Murray running for 50 yards and McKinnon 34 yards. The defense sacked Drew Brees twice to go along with two interceptions.
The Eagles relied largely on their defense to beat the Falcons and get the chance to host the NFC championship game. Foles was 23-for-30 for 246, with neither a passing touchdown nor an interception. The Eagles’ lone touchdown last week came on a run by RB LeGarrette Blount, just one of nine carries in the game for him. RB Jay Ajayi was the most production Eagle on the ground, which isn’t saying much because he only had 54 yards on 15 carries. The leading pass-catcher was WR Alshon Jeffery, who had four receptions for 61 yards. RB Corey Clement caught five balls for 31 yards.
For this week’s game, it’s a battle of backup quarterbacks, with Keenum filling in for Sam Bradford and Foles seeing action because of the injury to Carson Wentz. Of the two quarterbacks, Keenum is probably better but neither is likely going to be the reason his team wins the game.This is going to be a defensive battle. Both teams have good defenses, but the Vikings have the better unit on that side of the ball. The Vikings also have the better receivers with Thielen and Diggs, but Eagles TE Zach Ertz could be an X-factor for his team. The Eagles have a slight advantage in the running game, with Ajayi versus the Vikings’ duo. Overall, I give the Vikings the edge in what should be a close, low-scoring affair. I’m going with a Vikings win, 21-17, which means Vikings (-3) and just under the 39.
By the end of the night Sunday, we’ll know which teams will be playing in Super Bowl LII in Minnesota. In the NFC, it’ll definitely be a quarterback playing in his first Super Bowl. In the AFC, it’ll be either another first-timer or a quarterback with a lot of Super Bowl experience.
(Spreads and over/unders from Vegas Insider)