Arguably the best day of the football season is here as we get to watch two games that showcase the two remaining teams each conference has to offer. Last year, the common trend was all of the teams who made it this far had top tier quarterback play. The starting quarterbacks were Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan. This year, only Brady returns while the three other teams boast some of the league’s premier defenses.
With the cost of high-end quarterback play, it will be interesting to see if more teams try the defense-oriented approach in what’s a copycat league. Even if attempted, I feel this season is more of an outlier in that department rather than the norm. Strong play at quarterback can at least consistently get you in the playoffs and as we’ve seen the past few weeks, anything can happen from that point.
Straight up: 3-1, Postseason: 5-3
Against the spread: 2-2, Postseason: 4-4
Jaguars 21 Patriots (-9.5) 26: When the Patriots shared a few days of practice time with the Jaguars in August before their preseason meeting, I’m pretty sure Bill Belichick and company didn’t see them as a potential playoff threat. A little over four months later, and the Jaguars are now the last obstacle the Patriots face to appear in yet another Super Bowl. As we all know, the Jaguars have an extremely talented defense that has the ability to pressure quarterbacks with just four pass rushers; a common trend of teams that have beaten Tom Brady in the postseason.
Brady apparently banged his right hand on a helmet while throwing in practice this week, but as of now that’s all a mystery. I’m expecting Brady when passing to spread the field with four or five receivers, see where his best matchup lies and take advantage. Plays that take only a few seconds to develop wouldn’t be surprising either as Brady and company through the air have shown they can neutralize top pass rushes with gains of six to eight yards consistently.
How the Jaguars decide to cover Rob Gronkowski will be a very interesting development. My guess is initially the Jaguars will start with Myles Jack who is a fantastic athlete at linebacker, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Jalen Ramsey is covering Gronkowski in a few instances. With the Jaguars slightly more vulnerable against the run, Dion Lewis and James White remain x-factors as players who could make a difference between the tackles or after the catch.
The Jaguar offense will likely come down to the health of Leonard Fournette and the ball security of Blake Bortles. To this point, Bortles in the postseason has been asked to be a hybrid of early year Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow. Essentially a quarterback who doesn’t make things harder on his defense by committing turnovers and keeping defenses honest with his running ability. The longer Bortles can extend drives, the less time it gives Brady and the Patriots offensively which is where Fournette comes into play.
Fournette has had higher rushing totals in his rookie year, but last week prior to his injury was the best I felt he has looked as a pro. The offensive line also came up big in terms of opening lanes, but Fournette showed how quickly he can accelerate and was consistently picking up big yards on first down. T.J. Yeldon also came up big when called upon, so if Fournette’s ankle is clearly bothering him, Yeldon could see an expanded role. While I think this game has all the makings of an upset, I’m worried about if the Jaguars face an early deficit like the Titans did last week which leads me to taking the Pats.
Vikings 20 Eagles (+3.5) 16: Even though Sam Bradford isn’t starting at quarterback for the Vikings in this one, there’s a chance he’s to thank for this matchup being possible. If the Eagles hadn’t traded Bradford, 2017 would have likely been the first full year of the Carson Wentz era, rather than one where he emerged into an MVP candidate. Both of these teams have extremely talented defenses and this game has all the makings of a potential slugfest.
Case Keenum’s storybook season continued last week as his touchdown as time expired to Stefon Diggs made for one of the greatest moments in franchise history. The good news for Keenum is that the Eagles defensive backs have been inconsistent in coverage. With arguably the league’s premier receiver duo in Adam Thielen and Diggs, Keenum and the offense should be able to move the ball through the air if given time in the pocket. That’s a big if given the amount of talent along the Eagles’ defensive line, but even on shorter patterns both receivers can create after the catch.
Nick Foles did enough to win in Wentz’s absence last week, but it wasn’t necessarily pretty. Foles at least tried a few deeper attempts, but to no avail and against this Vikings defense, will have to hope they can connect on one of them. Even with Xavier Rhodes in coverage, Alshon Jeffery is a player who has had success against members of the Viking secondary dating back to his tenure with the Bears. A big game from Jeffery and a player such as Zach Ertz or Nelson Agholor would be a huge boost.
In what I predict to be a low scoring game, whoever establishes the run game in this one could be at a major advantage. Both of these defenses during the regular season allowed less than four yards an attempt on the ground, so it could come down to manufacturing touches for backs as well. The Vikings mainly use Latavius Murray in the ground game, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Jerick McKinnon was more involved if Murray failed to get anything going. McKinnon offers more as a receiver, so even short passes could be used to an extent. The Eagles could rely on Jay Ajayi or Corey Clement in similar ways to McKinnon as LeGarrette Blount is more of a two down player. This one should be close, but I’m siding with the Vikings on the road as even though the Eagles are a very well rounded team, I have more faith in Keenum than Foles.