Well, another week, another split for Andy and I–we both went 1-1 in the AFC (who would have thought the Patriots could outlast that pesky Titans squad, eh?), and we each got a different one wrong in the NFC–Andy missing with his pick of the Falcons, while I missed on the game that I was hoping I would miss. We’ll jump straight into this Sunday’s big match ups.
Jacksonville Jaguars at New England Patriots – Sunday, January 21st, 2018 – 1:05PM kickoff
Tony: Conference Championship Sunday will start with the match up everyone expected in the AFC, the New England Patriots hosting the Jacksonville Jaguars. I mean, you all picked Jacksonville to kick three kinds of dog crap out of Pittsburgh, right? And don’t let the final score (45-42) trick you–the game wasn’t that close. Of course, there is one concerning thing for Jaguars fans about that score–the fact that their 2nd ranked defense gave up 42 points at all. The Steelers are a good team, but the Patriots are better.
Andy: I wouldn’t be too hard on the Jaguars’ defense. Jacksonville got off to a quick start and, for the majority of the game, never led by fewer than two scores. Just like in the Vikings game, the winner was going up against a potentially Hall of Fame caliber QB who wasn’t going to shrivel up in a ball and quit. And the Jaguars offense, when needed, showed up and made plays — I did not think there was any chance the Jags won a shootout, but I was wrong.
Now, they do need to regroup a bit. The Steelers will throw out a clunker every now and again and they were minus Ryan Shazier, which left them vulnerable to the run the last several weeks. The Patriots aren’t likely to do so. New England, I believe, is on another “us against the world” journey following reports if internal dissension. This will be a much tougher nut for the Cats to crack.
Tony: Like many, I didn’t give the Jaguars much of a chance against the Steelers. And like many, I’m not giving them much of a chance against the Patriots. To say it couldn’t happen, though, is folly. The Steelers were third in passing offense, and third in overall offense. The Patriots had the top ranked overall offense in the NFL, but they were led by their passing game (2nd overall, 276.1 yards per game)–so it’s not like the Patriots offense is significantly superior to the one the Jags just faced. The Jags had the best passing defense in the league, at just 169.9 yards per game, although they were 21st against the run (a stat that moved up with the acquisition of Marcell Dareus). While it seems unlikely that the Jags will completely shut down Tom Brady, they can undoubtedly cause him some problems, and/or force the Pats to focus on their run game, not something that they are known for having the patience of.
On the flip side, the Patriots have the 20th ranked run defense, and 30th ranked pass defense–facts that should have Leonard Fournette licking his chops, as long as his ankle is healthy. And for all of his detractors, Blake Bortles played exactly like they will need him to against the Patriots–not huge yardage, but moving the ball well when needed, and putting them in a position to score on the ground.
Andy: While all the statistics say the Jags have a shot and this could be a good game, there are a couple factors that say otherwise: Tom Brady is mountains better than Blake Bortles. Bill Belichick is more experienced, established and, at least at this point, better than Doug Marrone. And the Patriots have been winning games like these for a decade-and-a-half. The Jags … they’ve been mostly irrelevant during that timeframe. Jacksonville is back — make no mistake — they will be in games like this for several years to come. But New England wins this one, 30-13.
Tony: There are all kinds of factors that say the Patriots should clean up this game rather easily–just like there were factors that pointed to the Jaguars getting killed by the Steelers. I don’t think that the Patriots will make the biggest mistake that I suspect the Steelers made, which is looking past the Jaguars–but I do think that the Jags will give them a game. I’ve got the Patriots winning 20-10.
Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles – Sunday, January 21st, 2018 – 4:40PM kickoff
Tony: On the NFC side, the Minnesota Vikings will travel to Philadelphia to face the Eagles after their stunning, last second victory over the New Orleans Saints. As a Vikings fan, my biggest fears right now are 1) a let down after the huge comeback win, 2) a misguided belief that the Vikings are “destined” to play in their home Super Bowl leading to over confidence, and 3) whether or not Andrew Sendejo will be out of concussion protocol (which I never would have guessed would have been a concern).
Andy: I think Mike Zimmer is a pretty good coach and he has plenty of ammunition on his players to make sure they get focused on Philadelphia. Namely, he can play off of how they gave up a 17-0 halftime lead. So I’m not too worried about losing because they suddenly think they are a team of destiny.
What does worry me a bit is that in the Eagles game against Atlanta it looked like Philly had found a way to use Nick Foles as a strength, or at least as a neutral figure, while avoiding his deficiencies. That, coupled with another strong defense, do make the Eagles a threat that for a bit it looked like they weren’t going to be. I suspect neither team will get off to a 17 point lead this week and, if one of the teams does, I feel equally confident that there will not be a huge comeback, as nobody in this game is as equipped as Drew Brees to make that kind of rally happen.
Tony: Nick Foles isn’t as bad as the reputation that he has had the last 2 months, but this is the guy who was benched in his last year in St. Louis in favor of…Case Keenum. On the plus side, I believe the Eagles really need the run game to take the pressure off him–and while they only managed 25-78 against the Falcons, they might struggle to get even that much against the Vikings. And while the Falcons defense is pretty solid, I’m not sure that Foles can manage 23/30 for 246 against the Vikings either.
What may be the most interesting match up of the game will actually be the Vikings offense against the Eagles defense–across the lines especially. Fletcher Cox in particular will be a tough load for the Vikings OL to handle, but if the Vikings can manage the same 88 yards on the ground that the Falcons got, I think the Vikings will be in decent shape.
Andy: I don’t think by saying Nick Foles is unlikely to replicate what Drew Brees did that I’m saying he is a bad QB. Brees is one of the best and he has great weapons around him. Foles is a solid backup QB. But he doesn’t have skillset as Brees and the surrounding talent is less explosive. So Philly has to stay close or get ahead early, that’s all.
I do agree with the last part. If the Vikings can’t handle the d-line, it’s going to be a long day. It might be anyway. I don’t expect a lot of scoring in this game. There could be a lot of punting, running on third down and field-positioning in this one.
Tony: Ultimately, while my confidence in the Vikings against the Saints seemed to dwindle as the week went on–right now, as I dig into the game against the Eagles, my confidence seems to be increasing–and as a Vikings fan, that scares me. Of course, I’ve avoided picking the Vikings all season long, something I continued last week in picking the Saints. So this week, I’m going to once again hope I’m wrong, and pick the Eagles gutting out a narrow victory, 17-16.
Andy: I know you’re superstitious about the Vikings. And I also try to avoid getting too amped up, knowing the history. But this team warrants your confidence. They just have a bit of a different feel this season, a more resilient feel. That’s a bit nebulous, I know, but I’ve felt this way from about mid-season. If the Eagles were coming into this game with Carson Wentz, I would definitely look at it differently. That’s not a knock on Foles as much as it is a credit to Wentz — the Eagles, at times, looked almost unbeatable when he was playing. And the team rallied around him. With Foles, this game is a toss-up. I’ll get specific here as the Vikings continue their “conquering demons” tour. Minnesota will be up by seven in the waning minutes. Foles will lead a drive deep into Vikings territory. On, let’s say, fourth-and-four from the six, Foles will drop back and pass to Jay Ajayi running parallel to the end zone. At the last second, Xavier Rhodes, who will be covering Alshon Jeffery, will break on the route, hitting Ajayi at the same time the ball arrives, knocking it to the turf and preserving the game for Minnesota. Vikings 17, Eagles 10.