The Vikings will need more big plays from Stefon Diggs and the Minnesota offense in order to head home as NFC champions. (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Obviously, I’ve been pretty bad this postseason. However, the Conference Championship round is my round. I’m 13-3 in picking winners and 12-4 against the spread. With that said, I have very little confidence in my thoughts this weekend. The stench of three underwhelming quarterbacks has me all discombobulated.
Last Week: 1 – 3 – 0
Playoffs: 4 – 4 – 0
Sunday, January 21 (3:05PM ET)
(3) Jaguars at (1) Patriots
I know the stats say otherwise, but I’m not sold on Jacksonville’s defense being this monster everyone keeps talking about. It’s a nice defense with a ton of talent. I classify them more as a defense that makes big plays to swing games but not a defense that’s going to suffocate you like Philadelphia’s or Minnesota’s. I mean, look at Jacksonville’s schedule this season. They got six games against the AFC South (only one half against Deshaun Watson), three against AFC North garbage not named Pittsburgh, four against the NFC West, and then the Chargers and Jets to boot. It’s understandable why the defense put up such impressive numbers. It’s also fool’s gold. The Jaguars wrecked a lousy Buffalo team and would’ve lost to Pittsburgh had the Steelers not slept through the first 20 minutes of the game. I know it’s been a whacky postseason, but I’m not ready to back Blake Bortles going into New England and knocking off the greatest postseason quarterback and coach combination the league has ever seen. Hearing about how the defense will win it for the Jaguars is a nice thought, but Ben Roethlisberger just dropped 400 yards on them despite EVERYONE ON EARTH KNOWING PITTSBURGH HAD TO THROW THE BALL. I’ll accept I was way off if the Jaguars pull it off, but until then, I’ll ride with the GOAT QB instead of Bortles on the road. PATRIOTS If I were Charles Barkley; Patriots -8
Sunday, January 21 (6:40PM ET)
(2) Vikings at (1) Eagles
Here’s what Eagle fans keep forgetting about last week’s win over Atlanta: Until there were five minutes remaining in the 3rd quarter, Nick Foles was a train wreck. Before Torrey Smith caught a 20 yard pass off Keanu Neal’s knee, Foles’ longest pass of the afternoon was 11 yards on a swing pass to Corey Clement. In fact, before Neal’s incompetency in catching, Foles only had two completions for 12 yards to receivers and only two completions over 10 yards. I understand the argument for looking at his performance over the entirety of the game. However, against pretty much any playoff team but Atlanta, the Eagles likely would’ve found themselves in a sizeable hole by the time Foles got a rhythm late in the 3rd quarter.
There is my biggest concern.
What happens if Foles isn’t sharp right away? The Viking offense, despite injuries and its own issues at quarterback, has playmakers with speed. They can make big plays the Eagles simply can’t without Carson Wentz. Foles trailing by two scores in the 2nd half is a nightmare scenario. Minnesota’s defense ranked 2nd in the league (behind only Philadelphia) in run defense, so I don’t see the Eagles maintaining an effective offense without Foles making plays, and I’m not talking about 11 yard swing passes or 20 yard completions off a safety’s knee. I’m talking about Foles throwing into tight windows downfield and challenging the NFL’s 2nd ranked pass defense.
Here’s where most Eagle fans respond by singing the praises of Philadephia’s equally dominating defense. Unfortunately, it’s not entirely true. The Eagles have holes on the back end that can be exposed and it shows up in the numbers. Philadelphia ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in pass defense. Over the last month of the season, opponents feasted on the Eagles secondary. Take a look at the big plays surrendered in the passing game since Week 13: @SEA – 23 yards, 48, 21. @LAR – 64, 20, 23. @NYG – 25, 28, 67, 57, 25. OAK – 63, 45, 23. DAL – 56, 30, 22, 20. ATL – 21, 24, 20. The Eagles defensive line is ferocious, and they can absolutely win this game, but even their greatness failed to hide some vulnerability in the secondary.
One thing I’d like to mention; look out for Jerick McKinnon. As I hinted at above, Atlanta pretty much blew the game last weekend. Tevin Coleman was giving the Eagles defense fits. Of his 11 touches, five went for 10 or more yards (12 yards, 14 (reception), 18, 23, 10). Due to Atlanta’s boneheaded play calling, he finished the game with only those 11 touches and yet still managed 93 yards from scrimmage. Meanwhile, Devonta Freeman finished with 15 touches and only 33 yards from scrimmage. If the Vikings watch tape, they’ll see the Eagles struggled with speed out of the backfield. McKinnon’s game is speed.
Ok, enough Debbie Downer. How can the Eagles win? Make it close in the 4th quarter. I think it’s that simple. Case Keenum wanted no part of that game last week after New Orleans took the lead. He had happy feet as soon as the football was snapped. It was clear he had no intention of sitting in the pocket and reading the defense. He was one read and get rid of the ball. The Eagles defensive line will absolutely feast on Keenum if the game is in his hands at any point in the final quarter. Watch Alex Smith in the 4th quarter two weeks ago and you’ll see the mirror image of Keenum. Both were more concerned with checking down instead of making plays to win the game. Keenum’s two best throws on those final drives were nothing short of prayer bombs. That’s the difference between quarterbacks you can win with and quarterbacks that win you games. Was there any doubt Brees was getting a field goal with less than 2 minutes and only one timeout? Nope. Neither Foles nor Keenum has that gene, and in a tight 4th quarter I like the Eagles pass rush more than Minnesota’s.
If Philadelphia can find a way to hang on until those final minutes, I like their chances. Unfortunately, I fear Minnesota will have two or three big plays that Foles will be unable to match. VIKINGS If I were Charles Barkley; Vikings -3.5
Last Week: 2 – 2 – 0
Playoffs: 4 – 4 – 0