The road to Minnesota runs through Philadelphia and Foxborough on Sunday when the Vikings visit the Eagles in the NFC Championship game and the Jaguars (!) head to New England in the AFC Championship. The Patriots have now appeared in a positively absurd seven consecutive AFC Championships (3-3 in the previous six). In 22 seasons of existence, the Jaguars, 3-13 last season, have never reached the Super Bowl and last appeared in the conference championship in 1999.
As usual the Patriot are touchdown-plus favorites at -7.5 at most Las Vegas sportsbooks, which represents a drop of 1.5 from the opener of -9. This downtick is due in part to concern over Tom Brady’s thumb/hand injury (more on this). Now let’s all take a look at that hand:
#tb12 Tom Brady wears a glove on his injured throwing hand as he speaks with backup Brian Hoyer @Patriots practice. #bostonherald pic.twitter.com/FchnDWfFzB
— Matt West (@westipix) January 18, 2018
In Philly, the Eagles are once again home underdogs and starting to believe that they can reach and win the Super Bowl despite the downgrade from MVP candidate Carson Wentz to competent but limited backup Nick Foles. Both games are fascinating matchups with highly inexperienced QBs for three squads and one familiar face.
TPS Report: NFL Conference Championships: Picks, Projections: Patriots Do It Again, Beat Jaguars; Vikings Edge Eagles, Barely
Sunday 3:05 PM
Jacksonville Jaguars +7.5 at New England Patriots (o/u 46.5): The Jaguars made it here after a 45-42 beatdown of the Steelers, who were caught looking ahead to this week. Incredibly both teams exceeded the game total (the odds of which might have been 150:1) in an unexpected shootout featuring fourth-down touchdown bombs, a defensive touchdown and 58 Ben Roethlisberger pass attempts.
Before we go on, here’s an amusing aside from oft-maligned Jaguars QB Blake Bortles:
What would Blake Bortles be doing if he wasn't playing football? Exactly what you are doing
Posted by Barstool Sports on Tuesday, January 16, 2018
For those watching in an office, Bortles respond to the question “What would you do if you weren’t playing football?: “Workin’ construction and rippin’ cigs.”
Without cigarettes on the sideline, Bortles will look continue exceeding expectations at New England where mad genius Bill Belichick is likely throw an onslaught of different coverages at Bortles in an effort to throw him off.
But the Jaguars won’t be looking to pass very much or get involved in a shootout like last week. More likely they’ll turn to rookie rusher Leonard Fournette, who’s performed a bit like Dr. Ankle Injury and Mr. Hyde this season. The balky ankle showed up against at Pittsburgh last week, forcing him out of the game, before returning at a lower gear.
Leonard Fournette carries on Sunday:
Before ankle injury: 5, 2, 5, 1 (TD), 10, 6, 18 (TD), 5, 16, 8, 4, 2.
After injury: 4, 1, 0, 0, 2, 3 (TD), 2, 3, 1, 2, 1, 3, 5.
— Phillip Heilman (@phillip_heilman) January 16, 2018
As always, it’s something to watch. Expect to see more of scatback T.J. Yeldon (caught a 40-yard swing pass last week). I was surprised that RB Chris Ivory was a healthy scratch in Pittsburgh, at least for the sake of depth considering the regularity of Fournette health issues. And keep in mind the Patriots are pretty fresh here and fairly untested in recent weeks that included home games against the Bills then Jets, then a bye and then a ho-hum drubbing over the Titans, again at home.
No travel for the Patriots for exactly more than one month now. That might explain in part why they got so much pressure on Marcus Mariota last week: 19 pressures and eight sacks. They’re healthy, have found a good rotation of unheralded defensive linemen (no more Vince Wilfork) and have attacked weaknesses on opposing lines, which is a Belichick staple.
If this game boils down to Bortles needing to heave some passes downfield into coverage and hope his receivers come down with it, it’s probably not going to end well for Jacksonville. But if the Jag’s O-Line can get some push and Fournette can bang out yardage and keep Brady off the field, they’ve definitely got a shot to win outright here or at least cover, in large part because of their defense, which has been pretty wildly inconsistent but when it’s on, it’s dominant.
How About the Patriots on Offense?
They’re going to throw a kitchen sink of formations at the Jaguars, which are solid at every level but obviously capable of keeping a scorekeeper busy. Back to Brady’s hand: I’m not a doctor nor did I stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, so it seems silly to speculate when a trained medical profession @ProFootballDoc has done it for us. Former Chargers team doctor David J. Chao MD wrote on Thursday:
The good news is the odds based on the limited information and my medical deduction are on this being the moderate situation – an open dislocation of the IP joint. That would be the one case where a splint incorporating the thumb tip was used, thus making the thumb look a little longer under the glove. If that is the case, I believe in the end the injury will have minimal ramifications for Brady and the Patriots.
We’ll see if anything contrary comes out but that’s the best information we have right now.
Update: Oh yes, there’s more information and there are now +7’s (or -7’s) out there, stemming from more Brady uncertainty. And the total is down to 45 or 44.5.
Felger on Brady injury:
“No fracture. No ligament. Just a cut from hitting the buckle on someone’s helmet. Four stitches around the knuckle, should not affect him.
— James Stewart (@IAmJamesStewart) January 19, 2018
Stitches, per Felger. I heard it was a bloody mess but also that Brady’s been throwing the ball well. https://t.co/9t269Z1CUV
— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) January 19, 2018
Multiple private sources telling me …
Tom Brady's hand injury is WORSE than the mainstream thinks.
(I would not be surprised if #Patriots drop to -7 in the near-term.)
— RJ Bell (@RJinVegas) January 19, 2018
Two tidbits from #Patriots QB Tom Brady’s thumb injury: 1. It was gushing blood when it happened. 2. He was “zinging it pretty good today,” source said.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) January 19, 2018
What’ do we make of this? We’re now in the world of speculation and factoring the risk of the unknown. I don’t see what incentive the Patriots organization would have to leak information supporting the idea that Brady is A-OK. Why not force the Jaguars to have to go watch some Brian Hoyer film and spend a bit of time preparing for his tendencies? Yes, I know Brian Hoyer is just a serviceable backup – but still. Strategery.
Brady is going to play and I think he’ll be fine. If you agree, you’re now getting the Pats at -7. If you think he’s seriously injured or potentially hampered, you’ve missed the best of the line on the Jaguars, but if you think he’ll really be a mess, well, go for it. If this wasn’t the AFC Championship game, I wouldn’t going anywhere near this game. But at the least there’s playoffs pools to be won here.
Back to original: The Patriots’ formula last week against the Titans was death by short-to-mid-range passes to running backs, with a healthy dose of Rob Gronkowski wherever he lined up. The Jags’ plan for containing Gronk. They Jaguars have options but no good solutions for this task. What do you think Doug Marrone?
“Hope they don’t throw him the football,” Marrone said. “Hope he drops it. There is no secret formula. I’d like to watch the game where someone has been able to do it. He is going to make his plays and you hope those plays don’t end up killing you.”
The Patriots will also go back to the running back reception game, probably with more running here against a beatable Jaguars rushing defense, especially in the red zone where New England always run and where the Jaguars really struggle to defend it (29th in red zone rushing defense).
The Jaguars can get after Brady with just four rushers including the monstrous Calais Campbell, which is key to stopping him, but Brady is still pretty great when facing pressure.
All in all, which team is likelier to make a game-changing mistake here? Or lose their composure and commit a dumb penalty (ahem, Telvin Smith)? Which team has the coaching advantage? Which team has the (much) better quarterback? Home field advantage? More rest? More experience? A plethora of banners? And which team has covered the spread in 10 of its last 11 games, no matter how far oddsmakers push ‘em out? Well, at least Doug Marrone has something the Patriots don’t:
#Jaguars HC Doug Marrone was given a playbook by @BollesSchool first graders. Wonder if there's anything about running the ball a lot in there. #teamsideline pic.twitter.com/maXFsRksie
— Mike Kaye (@mike_e_kaye) January 18, 2018
I hate laying a touchdown but simply cannot come up with a compelling reason to pick the Jaguars, even at 7.5. The Jaguars have been point-spread-destroying great at times this season but inconsistent overall. If the Jags hadn’t just dropped 45 on a Steelers squad that was incredibly unprepared to bring it, the line would probably be 10 or 10.5. This game is likelier to be a near-blowout than a Jaguars win, and for that reason, I’ve got to side with the steady villains — and the under (the under as of this morning at least; it’s dicier now at 44.5/45 and I’d lay off.) Score projection: Patriots 28, Jaguars 17
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Sunday 6:40 PM
Minnesota Vikings -3 at Philadelphia Eagles (o/u 38.5): The range of outcomes here seems much narrower than in the AFC Championship. Expect a close game, or at least a close game for much of the game.
Foles is a quintessential “game manager” who knows better than to try to take risks and ruin a drive or impair the defense’s ability to control the flow of the game. And head coach Doug Pederson, while often willing to roll the dice, did a solid job over the bye designing a game plan to accomplish a risk-adverse but productive-enough offense that was able to capitalize on Falcons mistakes. We ought to expect more of that against Minnesota, which no doubt possesses a much better defense and a tougher challenge overall. But one the Eagles are definitely up for.
So what’s the offense going to look like? A heavy dose of tackle-breaking running back Jay Ajayi (averaging 5.8 yards per carry in Philly) and less LeGarrette Blount, more run-pass options for Foles and a healthy click of play-action. Foles lacks arm strength and might be playing through an elbow injury but he can hit short passes.
The Vikings defense is a different beast than Atlanta’s. They actually haven’t excelled at getting pressure on QBs this year but good luck running against them or finding receivers with separation. Their man coverage is suffocating and they’ll get back free safety Andrew Sendejo (concussion) who left last week’s game after a scary collision with Michael Thomas. If the Eagles can run the ball effectively and control the clock and play the field the position game, they stand a pretty good chance to win outright and/or cover.
How About the Vikings on Offense?
Just chuck it to Stefon Diggs on the sideline and let him tightrope for 50+ yard touchdowns? Not quite, but first let’s go to the doppler: the Vikings leave the friendly confines of their dome with hopes of returning to Minneapolis for Super Bowl LII, and head to Philly where conditions will actually be quite friendly for mid-January with a 43-degree night expected, no precipitation and no wind. That dulls Philly’s home-field advantage a bit for a squad comfortable playing in frigid conditions, although the Vikings get plenty of that too at Chicago and Green Bay late in the season.
Outside of a couple ill-advised deep throws against New Orleans in the Divisional Round that led to one momentum-changing interception, Case Keenum was pretty effective and spread the ball around evenly to Diggs, Adam Thielen, Jarius Wright and Kyle Rudolph. That’s a lot of capable pass catchers for the Vikings to manage, but no team brings more pressure than the Eagles.
Keenum does pretty well when he’s not pressured and is overall accurate, although like Foles he doesn’t have a ton of arm strength. If he gets to ball to those receivers, they can make some plays against an Eagles defense that allows a lot of yards after the catch (5.2 per, against wideouts). The Vikings running game featuring Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon is average and there’s not much else to say about that. The Vikings’ passing game will make or break them here.
This line opened at Vikings -3.5 before the hook got gobbled up and sits at 3. I think it could go to 2.5 as appetite increases for the home dog in what feels like a toss up game. The 38.5 point total is miniature for an NFL game too but consider that each of the past three Eagles games, all Foles starts, although the Cowboys game was a Week 17 oddity, have gone under 30 points. With two elite defenses on the field and mostly “safe” or risk-adverse QBs at the helm who don’t throw a good deep ball, I don’t see a ton of points here. Which is why I think you take the Eagles, or pass, and look under. Score projection: Vikings 14, Eagles 13
Happy Championship Weekend! Before you place any wagers, check the weather and check for any key injuries/inactives on Sunday. Also, check your bias. Hit me up on Twitter with any thoughts, comments, concerns, questions, compliments or dad jokes.