Going back to September’s preview, this 2017 season was my pessimistic “Eat Arby’s” and “Patriots vs. the NFL” season. Here we are for Championship Sunday and…it’s the Patriots again, and the Three Stooges/Sacrificial Lambs.
OK, that’s not fair to some really good defensive teams, and we should respect that Case Keenum had a career year for the Vikings, and that the Eagles essentially earned a bye before the Carson Wentz injury. Blake Bortles also can’t help that he’s Blake Bortles, but I still think this is one of the weaker simulations that the 2017 season could have spit out for us. Hopefully the games will actually be good, and I think at least one of them will be.
Jaguars at Patriots
You might say I saw this one coming a few months ago.
I’m not going to actually predict 20-9 as the final, but I think we have our story for how this one will be perceived. Tom Brady has a right hand injury. It was feared to be serious at one point, but now it’s sounding more like a cut that caused him to miss Thursday’s practice (he practiced Friday), and maybe he’ll wear a glove. A big deal? Doubtful, because we’re talking about a cut rather than some actual ligament damage or something that would impact his strength. It basically comes down to pain tolerance, and Brady often gets irritated on the field no matter how healthy he is. I’m chalking this up as a non-story, but that won’t stop Jim Nantz and Tony Romo from giving every throw and close-up replay the Zapruder analysis.
This also offers Brady a “he gutted it out against the No. 1 defense with a bad hand” storyline. Great. I will stick to my prediction that Brady won’t have a great game against this defense, which plays a Seattle style of defense and can rush the passer and cover without needing to blitz. I think Brady has seen several better defenses than this one, including the 2015 Broncos and 2009 Jets, but it’s a pretty talented unit.
Brady generally doesn’t impress in the AFC Championship Game, unless he’s playing the Steelers. I definitely like the under in this one, because I think the Jacksonville offense is going to struggle to score. This isn’t Pittsburgh. The Patriots actually figured out how to improve on defense this season after a bad four-week start. They’ve done everything they could to change the perception of how the season started, but those perceptions are hard to shake. This defense has caught some lucky breaks with dropped or overturned touchdowns, missed field goals, and the schedule easing up, but Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia have figured out how to keep the score (and yards even) down without the services of Dont’a Hightower. If you’re going to blame the Steelers’ defensive collapse on Ryan Shazier’s injury, then how do you explain the Patriots doing what they’ve done without Hightower? It’s just better coaching, simple as that.
Jacksonville’s running game isn’t efficient. Leonard Fournette is not that big of a difference maker as some think, and I expect the Patriots to contain him on the ground while taking away the play-action options for Bortles and forcing him into third-and-long situations. Bortles should try to scramble in this one as much as he can, but I just don’t think he has the receiving weapons to make plays against this defense that does still allow a good number of successful plays in some weeks. You absolutely have to finish drives for touchdowns instead of field goals and that’s really hard to do in Foxboro.
I think Bortles will flop in the biggest game of his career and those mistakes (setting up short fields) will be capitalized on by Brady and the offense. I’d be alarmed with how Jacksonville’s defense has given up a lot of big plays down the stretch of the season. They also haven’t played NE yet, and the Patriots are 14-0 in the playoffs since 2001 against new opponents. Jalen Ramsey might cover Gronkowski, but that’s not something the Jaguars are used to doing. I’d do it though, putting my best player on their best. Gronk is the player who can make some jaw-dropping catches like the Steelers did last week in their effort to hang 42 points on this defense. The 49ers also scored a lot on the Jags with Jimmy Garoppolo, but there was a return touchdown and some short fields involved in that output. Still, the Patriots can do the same thing, and they can do it by using their running backs and Gronk. If Brady tries to win this game by going bombs away to Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan, then I like the Jaguars in an upset, but we know the Patriots understand matchups too well for that to happen. It will be getting rid of the ball quickly and this is probably the deepest backfield in the NFL.
For Jacksonville to pull off the upset, it needs to control the game early with a turnover or two, don’t fall behind, and make sure Brady is getting hit repeatedly. Doug Marrone may even need to get brave with a big fourth down or fake punt or surprise onside kick. It’s all just asking too much from this team if you ask me. At least when the 2010 Jets won in New England with Mark Sanchez, they had the experience of the 2009 AFC Championship Game and already beat the Patriots earlier that year. When the 2012 Ravens won in New England, that completed a season sweep and we know they should have won the 2011 AFC Championship Game too (Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff had other plans). This is all still new for Jacksonville, who matched up well with Pittsburgh this year, but we’re talking about the Patriots here. That’s going from checkers to chess.
Final: Patriots 23, Jaguars 16
Vikings at Eagles
I previewed this game at FO, so definitely check that out for the stats and my thoughts. Basically, I think it comes down to which unlikely QB1 screws things up the most. I don’t think there’s enough of an advantage with special teams or the running games for it to be about that. It’s going to be about whether Nick Foles or Case Keenum throws a pick parade or takes some dreadful sacks or just has that one big giveaway in the fourth quarter that so often highlights a team’s run to the Super Bowl. I also think the Eagles’ front seven can be a tough matchup for Minnesota’s OL, so Keenum especially can’t panic and throw a terrible pick like he did last week at home.
While I lean towards Minnesota having the better team, I do think home-field advantage matters here. Not just playing outdoors with the rowdy crowd, but the Vikings also had a huge emotional win against the Saints thanks to the miracle play by Stefon Diggs. They need to come off of that with a good start on the road instead of playing flat. This should be low scoring with two strong defenses, but look for the turnover battle to be extra decisive.
Let’s just hope it doesn’t come down to a kicker, but I could definitely see that too.
Final: Vikings 20, Eagles 17