The NFL playoffs have not as much high-flying offense this year, with notable quarterback injuries, but they have still been filled with quality games. Hopefully, this weekend’s AFC and NFC title games live up to the hype built around a few finishes from last week. As usual, the New England Patriots are making an appearance in the AFC Championship, and they’ll take on the young and hungry Jacksonville Jaguars. Following that, two upstart teams (in the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings) will try to punch their ticket to Super Bowl LII. Both games have their share of storylines and intriguing individual matchups.
Key To Jaguars-Patriots: Can Blake Bortles Be Effective In Play-Action?
Even though they gave up 42 points to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Antonio Brown last week, the Jaguars have a great defense, and they’ll try to redeem themselves. Jacksonville is loaded with talent at all three levels of the defense, and they’ll need to bring their A game against the best quarterback in NFL history in Tom Brady. That’s no small task, though, especially in Brady’s house.
Even with Brady reportedly having an injury on his throwing hand, according to Kevin Patra of NFL.com, New England will be ready to roll. This isn’t Brady’s first time on an injury report in his career, and the Pats have plenty of weapons. While it is clear that Jalen Ramsey, Telvin Smith, and others need to limit arguably an uncoverable Rob Gronkowski, the Jags’ offense has to do their part, too.
Blake Bortles was able to take advantage of an ultra-aggressive Steelers defense last week by hitting wide-open receivers in play-action plays. If bruiser Leonard Fournette can have over 100 yards and anything close to three touchdowns again this week, the Jags have a good chance of coming out a winner. It’s hard to believe that Fournette can just run wild against the Pats on the road, though. New England’s defense has gotten better each month of the season, and they’re fresh off shutting down the Tennessee Titans last week.
If Bortles has to make plays frequently in obvious passing situations, as he likely will in this game, the Jags don’t have much of a chance. It’s also difficult to see Bortles playing turnover-free in consecutive weeks against the Steelers and Pats. He’ll need to complete big-time throws against a good New England cornerback duo of Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore, who can be a lockdown corner at times, evidenced by Pro Football Focus.
It doesn't get much more ????⬇️ than this!
???? Stephon Gilmore pic.twitter.com/g9K3YYvXk3
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) January 14, 2018
Gilmore played outstanding last week, and New England’s secondary is capable of making plays against the inaccurate Bortles. Obviously, Jacksonville’s pass defense is as good as it gets, but they have a whole lot more pressure on them in this game. New England might not have a bunch of plays connect down the field, but they have favorable matchups every week with their pass-catching running backs in Dion Lewis and James White.
The Pats get a few turnovers in this game after containing Fournette and forcing Bortles to play ahead of himself, and Brady takes advantage of pre-snap motions that favor his backs. New England will separate themselves in the second half after the Jags don’t get touchdowns, and Brady does. Last week, Bortles and company were going against the second-worst redzone defense in the league in Pittsburgh, according to Teamrankings.com.
This time around, they’ll be going against a team more prepared, in New England’s fifth-best redzone D. With that being the case, Fournette won’t have three TD’s again. In addition, field position will likely tilt the game in Bill Belichick and Brady’s favor.
Prediction: Patriots 30, Jaguars 13
The second matchup of the day should be much closer in Philadelphia between the Eagles and Vikings.
Key To Vikings-Eagles: Who Controls The Line Of Scrimmage?
As playoff football is often decided, this matchup will be won on the line of scrimmage. Minnesota and Philadelphia both have elite defensive lines, and both offensive lines are very athletic. Even though the Eagles only accounted for 15 points last week against the favored Atlanta Falcons, their offensive line did take over the game at times in short yardage, and they bled the clock. That won’t be an easy task this week, but Philly’s stable of running backs will have their chances.
On the other side, Minnesota’s offense has quite a challenge in dealing with Philly’s defensive front as well. Philadelphia’s defensive line is very deep, and they’re so difficult to block because of them having so many players who can rush the passer. That includes Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Chris Long, and Derek Barnett, among others. ESPN’s Hallie Grossman touched on that in a recent article. They don’t have one player who is dominating sack totals, but they have so much talent.
“What the D-line does have instead are four players with at least five sacks in the regular season — Graham (9.5), Cox (5.5), Long and Barnett (five apiece). Philadelphia is one of seven teams in the league to claim such an abundance of disruptors.”
Those guys will need to make plays up front because Minnesota has the passing game advantage with talented receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. According to head coach Mike Zimmer, Thielen is questionable with a lower back injury, but it’s hard to believe he won’t give it a go in the NFC Championship. The Vikings receivers made big plays in crunch time last week against the New Orleans Saints, and that was against a better secondary. Case Keenum should be able to complete throws at a high percentage if he has time.
The Vikings have a heck of a defense of their own, too, and they should be licking their chops. Against a limited Eagles offense with Nick Foles under center, look for Minnesota to throw everything but the kitchen sink at Philadelphia. The Vikings conceded the lowest amount of points and yards per game this season, courtesy of ESPN NFL Statistics. On third down, they were nothing short of incredible, as was illustrated by Pro Football Focus.
The #Vikings had a historically good third-down defense this season, allowing opponents to covert just 25.2% of the time. Check out @PPF_Mike's article explaining what makes the defense work so well. https://t.co/BI5bjWRn4U
— PFF MIN Vikings (@PFF_Minnesota) January 19, 2018
They are arguably the best defense in the league, as they have a number of playmakers at all over the field, including Everson Griffen, Eric Kendricks, and Harrison Smith. like the Jags. Minnesota might not force a turnover in this game, but Foles won’t be able to play close to as well as he did last week. The Vikings get enough offense to pull out a tight victory in Philadelphia and become the first team ever to host a Super Bowl.