Conference Championship Picks

We have two games and two weeks until Super Bowl Sunday. In possibly one of the greatest weeks of the year, the NFL will see it’s last two games at a non-neutral site until the 2018 season starts. First, the Patriots will host the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars at Gillette Stadium in what has become an annual game for the Brady bunch. New England got here in typical Patriots fashion with a quiet 13-3 season followed by a divisional round blowout. Except, the Patriots season wasn’t as quiet as usual due a questionable relationship between coach, owner, and quarterback. As for Jacksonville, their surprising 10-6 season had a lot to do with the best defense in football. After a 10-3 drubbing of Buffalo, which led to doubt over the capabilities of Blake Bortles at quarterback, Bortles came back with a stellar performance to down the Steelers at Pittsburgh for the second time this year. Thus, Jacksonville’s story book run will continue  today. The NFC Championship game may not have as many storylines, but it is a fantastic showdown between clashing styles. Minnesota and Philadelphia have rode great defenses to this matchup, and although the Vikings are favored, the Eagles will have home-field advantage and momentum coming into this one. It should be an old-fashioned defensive battle in the cold.

Comment of the Week: Conference Championships.png
Both the Eagles and Vikings had great performances against the run last week. Both were up against explosive and dynamic running back duos. This has been the story all season long: can you beat these defenses through the air? Philadelphia has been hard to beat because of their pass rush. No team has had run success against the Eagles, and as a result, offensive coordinators need to do their best to avoid third down. On third down, Jim Schwartz’s defensive front is invincible. With an inexperienced quarterback in Case Keenum, Minnesota needs to complete intermediate passing routes on first down to avoid pressure from the likes of Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan. The Eagles have a similar outlook, but may be better off in the run game. Philadelphia cannot allow Minnesota’s ball hawking secondary to force turnovers, and as a result, it will be up to their strong offensive line and running backs to maintain some sort of standard on the ground. 3.5 yards per carry and balanced play calling could do the trick.

Surprise of the Week:
I can’t say I’ve been more surprised by any other team than the Jaguars, who I have now incorrectly picked against in back to back games. If you had told me that Jacksonville would give up 42 points to Pittsburgh last Sunday and win, I probably would have smacked you across the face, because that doesn’t happen when you have a number one defense, and Blake Bortles as your quarterback. However, Bortles was the game manager  for the Jaguars. He completed important passes on third down, created plays with his legs, and most importantly didn’t turn the ball over. If Bortles can have that type of success today, there’s no telling how far the Jaguars can go. In fact, they’ve been given a reasonable chance against the Patriots today, and they deserve it.

The Divisional Round went a little better for me as I went 2-2 in picking games. I’m now 3-5 in the playoffs, and 161-103 (0.610) on the season. There are only three picks left on the whole year, so I’ll hope to make the best of them. Let’s get to it!

AFC Championship Game
#3 Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) @ #1 New England Patriots (13-3) 3:05 CBS

Tom Coughlin has had the Patriots number. You’ve probably heard about that all week long. Yet, there is a kryptonite to the Patriots that shows itself every once in a while. Brady and Belichick have oft been beaten out by signature pass rushers. Von Miller, Michael Strahan, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Terrell Suggs are a few names that come to mind. The Jaguars have the pass rush to torture New England’s offensive line, but is it enough to win if the Patriots take away Jacksonville’s run game? There is worry about Tom Brady’s hand inside the Patriots’ organization. Can he play the same? The answer, if you really didn’t know, is yes. I bet Tom Brady is going to take a beating in this game, but the confines of Gillette Stadium will be too much for the Jags to overcome. Perhaps we will see a performance similar to Curt Schilling’s bloody sock game of Boston lore from Tom Brady. The Bloody glove game? Just note that I coined that phrase before anyone else did. The thing is, there are just too many weapons on this team. Pittsburgh had a lot of weapons, but it is clear that Jacksonville only had to limit the production of Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell early on to win; this game will be very different. The Patriots have an intricate way of game planning for elite defenses. They figure out what good matchups they have, and try to exploit them early on, but never stick to the plan. Obviously finding good matchups is the norm for offenses in the NFL, however, that’s not the Patriots’ plan. New England quietly knows what personnel, not plays, the defense isn’t expecting, and this week that most definitely will be wide receiver screens, and draw plays to unexpected running backs like James White and Rex Burkhead. Eventually, Dion Lewis will line up as a receiver with another half-back in the backfield, and beat the Jags on an intermediate route with yards after the catch. New England doesn’t have a ton of weapons, they just know how to use every player on their roster, and at home they’ve been unstoppable at this game plan in January. Pick: Patriots 23, Jaguars 17

NFC Championship Game
#2 Minnesota Vikings (13-3) @ #1 Philadelphia Eagles (13-3) 6:40 FOX

The Vikings were my Super Bowl pick entering the playoffs because of upstart quarterback play from Case Keenum, a high performing defense, and, in my opinion, the best receiving corps in the NFL. Earlier in this article I discussed the offensive plan for each of these teams entering the game, so I will refer to that a bunch in this segment. The Vikings will need success on first down. Philadelphia’s third down pass rush is reminiscent of the days of the Bears’ 46 defense in 1985, except on one down instead of all three. Minnesota needs at least a few big plays in the passing game to even score tonight. I do not trust Case Keenum on third down against the Eagles defense. Eventually, if third downs becomes a pattern, the Eagles will force multiple turnovers out of Keenum, and the Vikings will be unable to get their pro bowl receivers involved. As I mentioned before, throw the run game out the door, because the Eagles have been unstoppable in that category. Also, Case Keenum played kind of sporadically at times against New Orleans. It often looked like he was throwing balls off his back feet hoping for a receiver to make a play. Most of the time, because of a talented receiving corps, he got lucky. That will not be the case if he does the same against the Eagles’ defense. Case Keenum’s play on Sunday reminds me of Eli Manning in the playoffs. This is going to sound a bit harsh, because it is, but closing your eyes and tossing the ball up into the air is not an effective way of winning games. Keenum did that against New Orleans, and it was great to watch, but I’ll be the first to tell you that the Vikings did not deserve to win that game. Down the stretch, Minnesota faltered on defense, and Drew Brees looked unstoppable. Now, I’m never going to compare Nick Foles to Drew Brees, but I think he can play poised in this game. Foles completed over 75% of his passes against Atlanta, which is really good. Anything like that out of him today will easily beat this Vikings team. Minnesota, despite a lot of talent, looked inexperienced in their first playoff game. As I said, the Vikings were my Super Bowl pick entering the playoffs, but the Eagles confidence has changed my mind. It’s another home upset for Philly. Pick: Eagles 14, Vikings 13

Photo Credit: AP Images/USA Today Images

All Rights Reserved – Nick Merriam – 2018

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