For four teams, the long road to Super Bowl 52 has narrowed to 60 minutes of football.
The Jacksonville Jaguars, New England Patriots, Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles will suit up on Sunday in the AFC and NFC Championship games, knowing the Lombardi Trophy is waiting just over the horizon. For the Patriots it’s a familiar feeling; for the upstart Jaguars this is novel ground. The Eagles are playing with the pressure of never having won a Super Bowl, while the Vikings have the added lure, and weight, of playing for a Championship in front of their own fans in their own stadium.
How will the Conference Title games play out? We’ve had a go at predicting the outcomes below.
Jaguars at Patriots (CBS, K.O. 3.05 p.m. ET)
Matthew Slater, the Patriots’ special-teams captain, told NESN this week the Jaguars are, “An elite football team.” “They’ve proven it all year long,” Slater said. “And this will be the best football team that we’ve played all season long.”
The Patriots, in words and in deeds, are almost certainly going to treat Jacksonville with more reverence than the Pittsburgh Steelers did. While Pittsburgh can be forgiven for letting Leonard Fournette run through and over a defense lacking the dynamism of Ryan Shazier, allowing Blake Bortles to dice them up was beyond the pale.
The Patriots, never less than meticulously coached and prepared, aren’t going to give Bortles anything like the kind of easy ride he had in Heinz Field last Sunday. If they do—if Bortles avoids turnovers—then the Jaguars have more of a chance than anyone respected is giving them of walking out of Gillette Stadium with a place in Super Bowl 52.
The AFC’s best defense is strong where it needs to be against Brady, in the secondary and pass-rush. Look, then, for Bill Belichick and the Colts-bound Josh McDaniels to attempt victory by a thousand cuts, by matching up Rob Gronkowski with the Jaguars’ linebackers.
The Patriots’ biggest danger lies in forgetting that the Jaguars are an elite football team. The Steelers looked one game further down the line and paid the price. Don’t expect New England to do the same.
Prediction: Jaguars 16 Patriots 35
Vikings at Eagles (Fox, K.O. 6.30 p.m. ET)
Can the Vikings harness the electricity of Stefon Diggs’ walk-off touchdown against the New Orleans Saints, or will that moment drain them of energy against an Eagles team that only scraped past the Atlanta Falcons itself?
The NFC’s last two teams standing back up the adage, "Defense wins championships." The Vikings have consistently hassled opposition quarterbacks all year, and have one of the NFL’s best secondaries to mop up should anyone get the time to throw downfield against them. The Eagles’ defense is up front, where the giant Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fletcher Cox will seek to disrupt the rhythm of Case Keenum.
Keenum has performed consistently all year in relief of Sam Bradford, who went down in Week One. The Texan has the ability to scramble and salvage plays out of nothing and is a surer option under center than his counterpart Nick Foles. Foles was surprisingly OK against the Falcons but there is still the uncomfortable sense that his game could fall apart under pressure. Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount should have major roles to play, especially if the Eagles get ahead by more than a score.
Were Carson Wentz playing, the Eagles would have the edge. As it is, the Vikings’ defense and Keenum’s playmaking ability should send them into a Super Bowl in their own stadium.
Prediction: Vikings 14 Eagles 13
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