(3) Jacksonville Jaguars at (1) New England Patriots
Seeing Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots in their seventh consecutive AFC Championship Game should surprise no one. Seeing Jacksonville on the other side of the field is a major surprise; in fact, you could call it an absolute shock.
For years, the Jaguars were perennial offseason winners without seeing any regular season success. It all came together this year though. Leonard Fournette powered a ground-and-pound rushing attack, and oh, that Jacksonville defense. Calais Campbell has a shot to win Defensive Player of the Year, and Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye are the league’s best cornerback tandem. The key to beating Tom Brady in postseasons of past has been a ferocious pass rush, and Jacksonville has the ingredients to do it. Campbell put up 14.5 sacks, Yannick Ngakoue had 12 and six forced fumbles, and Malik Jackson and Dante Fowler had eight sacks apiece.
So what to make of the news of this apparent Tom Brady hand injury? Brady has made it no secret in the past that he hates wearing a glove on his throwing hand in cold weather, and reports say he practiced wearing gloves on both hands this week. He’s listed as questionable, and you probably have a better chance of New England winning 100-0 than you do of Brady not playing, but how effective will he be?
Assuming Brady is able to play at close to full health, he’s still operating as well as any quarterback in the game, even during his age-40 season. Brady will likely win his third MVP award this year, and he quarterbacked New England to 13 wins and home field advantage, seemingly like always. He has a plethora of weapons at his disposal. Rob Gronkowski is the most uncoverable tight end in history. Brandin Cooks is a bonafide deep threat. Dion Lewis is an incredibly underrated pass-catching back who also averages over five yards on the ground. You would normally expect the Patriots to put up 30 points with ease, but this Jaguars team – even after allowing five touchdown passes to Ben Roethlisberger – is ridiculously talented on defense.
The wild card is obviously Jacksonville’s quarterback situation. Blake Bortles is as inconsistent as they get. With an effective running game and an elite defense, he’s been able to manage the offense, and that’s all Jacksonville can ask from him. If he doesn’t turn the ball over, they stand a strong chance. If he puts up a bad Bortles game, Jacksonville has no chance.
Prediction: New England 16, Jacksonville 12
(2) Minnesota Vikings at (1) Philadelphia Eagles
If you predicted Case Keenum against Nick Foles in the NFC Championship Game, all I want to know is… why? Even if you had predicted Sam Bradford against Carson Wentz, that would have been a good move on your part.
The Philadelphia Eagles have home field advantage, but they’re also underdogs against a Minnesota team that has a chance to play the Super Bowl in its home stadium. It feels weird to say Philly ‘survived’ an NFC Divisional Playoff game in which Foles completed 77 percent of his passes and posted a passer rating over 100, but that’s exactly what happened. Foles sailed some passes, looked skittish in the pocket, and played a dismal first half. In the second half, he was money on short, precise passes, and that was enough for a narrow win.
Unfortunately, Minnesota feasts on quarterbacks like Foles. Their defense rated No. 1 in the league per DVOA, total defense, and scoring defense. The Vikings have stars everywhere – Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Anthony Barr, Xavier #RhodesClosed, and don’t forget, their ballhawking safety, Harrison Smith.
So that’s why the Eagles traded for Jay Ajayi, right? They couldn’t have known that Wentz would get injured, but is there a better time to unleash Ajayi than this game? Ajayi can handle a full workload. LeGarrette Blount can wear defenses down. Corey Clement can catch passes and carry the football. A good running game is a quarterback’s best friend, and the Eagles need themselves a good running game to score some points.
The Vikings’ offense is solid, if unspectacular, but capable of putting up points on the right opponent. Keenum played the position as well as anyone could have hoped this year, especially considering he’s essentially the third-string quarterback. Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray filled in exceptionally when Dalvin Cook was injured, and Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are probably the best 1-2 receiver duo in the league. Fortunately for the Eagles, Philly should win the battle in the trenches. Brandon Graham is the defensive key to this game. He’s lining up against former undrafted free agent Rashod Hill, and Graham has the ability to destroy Hill all contest. The Eagles need Graham, Fletcher Cox, Timmy Jernigan, Derek Barnett, Vinny Curry and Chris Long to get to Keenum constantly.
It’s a winnable game for the Eagles. It’s also a winnable game for the Vikings. Neither team has a top-tier quarterback. Each has a strong defense. Philly won last week despite four fumbles and a missed extra point. Minnesota won despite almost blowing a 17-point lead at home. The key is playing smart, fundamental football. No interceptions. No fumbles. No muffed punts. No missed kicks from either kicker (extra points are not difficult, Jake). Still, it’s probably going to come down to the wire. Football is a game of inches, and this is probably going to be one of those. It will be awkward, ugly, and low-scoring. And it will probably come down to a kick.
Prediction: Eagles 16, Vikings 15
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