After a very exciting 2017-18 NFL Divisional Round Weekend, we are down to the proverbial Final Four for Championship Sunday, on January 21, 2018. Raise your hands, if you had the following quarterbacks in the Final Four: Tom Brady and the New England Patriots facing Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game, and Case Keenum and the Minnesota Vikings facing Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. Alright, put your hands down, because I KNOW none of my readers had this quartet of quarterbacks playing in the Final Four. Like I have said in previous blogs, this NFL Season has been very strange, with injuries to top players, especially quarterbacks. Nevertheless, all four of these talented men worked hard to lead their teams to their respective championship games, and they and their teams deserved it.
These teams are one step away from Super Bowl 52 in Minneapolis, MN. There are many different storylines, and I plan to discuss all of them in this blog. Will the Jacksonville Jaguars ride the “disrespect” card all the way to Foxborough, and stun the defending Super Bowl champs? Will Tom Brady’s apparently minor hand injury be a huge factor? Will the Minnesota Vikings be the first team in NFL history to host a Super Bowl in their own stadium? Can the Eagles play the “underdog” card again to success? I will discuss this, and more, as I make my predictions for 2017-18 Championship Sunday.
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
- Teams: (3) Jacksonville Jaguars at (1) New England Patriots
- Network: CBS
- Kickoff: 3:05pm, EST
- Stadium: Gillette Stadium
HOW THEY GOT HERE:
The Jacksonville Jaguars got to the AFC Championship game by defeating the Buffalo Bills at home, 10-3. They won that game with a stifling defense, and the offense, led by QB Blake Bortles, did enough to win. In the Divisional Round last week, the Jaguars defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers at Pittsburgh, 45-42. They faced a Steelers team, that once could argue, was caught asleep at the switch. Whether several Steelers players were looking ahead to the Patriots, or because of poor tactics by the Steelers’ coaching staff, particularly when it came to situational football and clock management, the Jaguars got out to a 21-0 lead, and never looked back.
The New England Patriots earned a bye week, due to their 13-3 record, and tie-breakers, so they didn’t play in the Wild Card Round. In the Divisional Round, the Patriots faced the Tennessee Titans, who had come from a 21-3 deficit to stun the Kansas City Chiefs in Kansas City. Some in the NFL media thought that the Titans could do the same, as Titans QB Marcus Mariota was a mobile QB, and the Patriots defense had issues with mobile QBs. Well, in the game, the Titans jumped to a 7-0 lead, but that was about it for them. The Patriots tied it up, and then took a 14-7 lead, and took control of the game. Mariota was sacked 8 times during the game. The final score was 35-14, in favor of the Patriots.
ANALYSIS AND FINAL SCORE:
Let’s start with the Jaguars. Many players and media types have been making fun of Jaguars QB Blake Bortles, because of his stats. Well, he has had his moments of lousy QB play over the years, but he has gotten his team to Championship Sunday. Bortles is a winner. Bortles is excellent with the play-action passing, and is excellent on his feet. The New England Patriots defense must be aware of this. RB Leonard Fournette is a ferocious back. WR Marqise Lee is as solid a wide receiver as they come.
Of course, much has been made of this ferocious Jaguars defense, and they deserve their praise. This team with DE Calais Campbell, DT Marcell Dareus, DT Malik Jackson, and others, can put a frightening pass rush on QB Tom Brady. The Jaguars have an excellent secondary, particularly CB Jalen Ramsey. This defense will be a tough test for the Patriots offense. The fact that this same Jaguars defense gave up 42 points to the Steelers last week, and over 40 points to the San Francisco 49ers a few weeks ago, during the regular season, does give me some pause, as to how impenetrable this defense really is.
Now, let’s discuss the Patriots. To get this “crisis” out of the way, per various sources in the Boston media, Patriots QB Tom Brady suffered an apparently minor right (throwing) hand injury at Wednesday’s practice, during a handoff. He was with the medical staff, and skipped the Wednesday press conferences for Championship Sunday, that the four participating teams were doing. He suffered a cut, and X-Rays were taken, and they were negative (no structural damage. He returned to practice on Thursday, with gloves on both hands, during warm-ups. However, on Thursday’s injury report, he was listed as “Did Not Participate.” He did not participate in the team drills, and the team cancelled his Thursday presser. Brady will speak on Friday. Reports have it that the injury isn’t expected to hinder him for Sunday’s game. I am not worried, but how this injury affects Brady’s playing should be paid attention to, throughout the game.
All this being said, the Patriots offensive line must protect Brady, as this Jaguars defense is no joke. I would suspect that FB James Devlin will be used to help with opening up the running game. Brady needs to get the ball out quickly to his targets. TE Rob Gronkowksi will need to be at his best for this game. The Jaguars defense can be exploited by the use of tight ends. The return of RB Rex Burkhead will be a help, because he is great at running the ball, and catching it. WR Danny Amendola could help move the chains as well.
When the Patriots go on defense, they must stop Leonard Fournette, who is dealing with an injury of his own, an ankle injury, suffered against the Steelers. He won’t be 100%, but he will be a threat, as Fournette is pretty much the Jaguars’ entire offense. Once the Jaguars get Fournette going, they can get QB Blake Bortles starting with the play action. The Patriots defense must take away Fournette, and make Bortles beat them with his arm. The Patriots defense must watch out for Bortles’ ability to get yards and first downs with his feet, as well. The Jaguars are very aggressive, as far as going for it on 4th down, if it’s close, so the Patriots need to watch out for that.
Yes, I am aware of the “Tom Coughlin” effect, as he is with the Jaguars as an executive. Yes, I know that Coughlin’s Giants beat the Patriots twice in the Super Bowl. However, the players are the ones who play the game.
FINAL SCORE: Even with a sore hand and maybe a glove, I think Brady will lead the Patriots to another Super Bowl appearance. Patriots 27-17
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
- Teams: (2) Minnesota Vikings at (1) Philadelphia Eagles
- Network: FOX
- Kickoff: 6:40PM, EST
- Stadium: Lincoln Financial Field
HOW THEY GOT THERE:
The Philadelphia Eagles earned the #1 Seed by virtue of having the best record, and a tie breaker over the Minnesota Vikings, who have the #2 Seed. The Eagles had the bye, so they didn’t play in the Wild Card Round. The Eagles, despite QB Nick Foles having an uneven game, defeated the visiting Atlanta Falcons with their defense and running game, by a score of 15-10. Both teams were sloppy, but that Eagles defense prevented a last attempt at victory by the Falcons, by knocking away a would be game winning TD thrown to Atlanta WR Julio Jones by QB Matt Ryan to end the game.
The Minnesota Vikings, like the Eagles, earned the other first round bye, and were the #2 seed. They also did not play in the Wild Card Round. They got to the NFC Championship Round by winning one of the most exciting NFL playoff games in history. The Vikings had lead by 17 points over The New Orleans Saints, when Saints QB Drew Brees led a ferocious comeback, and near the end of the game, the score was 24-23, Saints. With about 10 seconds left on the playclock, Vikings QB Case Keenum throws the ball to the sideline, and WR Stefon Diggs catches it, and Saints DB Marcus Williams tries to tackle Diggs, but goes low, and Diggs jumps over Williams, and scores the winning touchdown. It was an amazing, miraculous victory for the often snakebitten Vikings franchise.
ANALYSIS AND SCORE:
For the Minnesota Vikings to win this game, QB Case Keenum will have to be very careful with the ball. The Eagles have an opportunistic, aggressive defense, and Eagles defensive coordinator Jeff Schwartz will have them ready. I expect TE Kyle Rudolf to have a big game. WR Adam Thielen has missed a day of practice, due to a back injury, but has returned this week. He is a definite threat to make big plays. Keenum needs to make plays to his playmakers. The Vikings defense must harass Eagles QB Nick Foles all day long. They must stop the Eagles’ running game, especially RB Jay Ajayi.
For the Philadelphia Eagles to end up in the Super Bowl, their defense has to get after Keenum. They have to stop WR Stefon Diggs, and especially Thielen. QB Nick Foles must be able to play much better than last week. He was atrocious. I am surprised that Eagles coach Doug Pederson DIDN’T pull him out. Foles can not throw interceptions. He must protect the ball. The Eagles need to rely on RB Jay Ajayi, and RB LeGarrette Blount, if they want to make it to Super Bowl 52.
FINAL SCORE: This is a tough game to predict, because both teams have excellent defenses. I am going to go with the Philadelphia Eagles by a score of 20-16.
Therefore, my prediction for Super Bowl 52 is New England Patriots vs the Philadelphia Eagles, or a rematch of Super Bowl 39.
Well, that is my blog. I hope you enjoyed it. Feedback is welcome.