The New Orleans Saints suffered a heart-wrenching loss in Minnesota last week, dashing the Saints’ Super Bowl hopes and putting a damper on arguably the best weekend in sports, NFL Conference Championship weekend. Unfortunately, we must move on without the Saints and look at the matchups ahead.
The NFL’s final four take the stage to determine who moves on to Super Bowl LII. The AFC title matchup features the defending Super Bowl Champions hosting the young and hungry Jags, while the NFC title matchup features two of the best defenses in the NFL. These games could get very interesting.
Last week I went 1-3
I told you so: Patriots over Titans!
What do I know: Falcons over Eagles?
#3 Jacksonville Jaguars at #1 New England Patriots
Sunday, January 21st - 2:05pm CST - CBS
The path is remarkably clear for Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl Champion Patriots. Prematurely eliminated is Pittsburgh, who was seemingly destined to meet the Patriots in this game. In their stead are the Jaguars, who have made one of the great franchise turnarounds in quite some time, going from perennial laughingstock to standing on the precipice of the Super Bowl in one stellar season.
While things have clearly gone Jacksonville’s way, now they face the toughest possible situation, beating the Patriots in New England with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. This may not be impossible, but its the next closest thing to. The Patriots are already tough to eliminate from the playoffs every year as it is, but when they’re at home, and in the AFC title game, where they are appearing for the seventh consecutive year, they have a clear advantage.
Jacksonville will have to play flawlessly and execute to perfection in order to pull out the huge upset on the road. While it’s obvious that Tom Brady has an overwhelming advantage over Blake Bortles, they hold other statistical advantages over the Pats coming into this game. The Jaguars need to lean heavily on their top-ranked rushing attack and second-ranked defense in order to bring this game to a halt. This is paramount as they face the top-ranked offense in the NFL, led by one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. No pressure, Jags.
The reason the four teams playing today are the final four in the NFL is due their defense. New England may seem like the weak link of the four defensively, it’s simply not the case. They may have given up far more yards than the others this season, but they stand alongside the others in the top-five in points allowed. They’re consistent in stopping their opponent when they need to keep them out of the end zone.
It’s here where the Patriots can be trusted and the Jaguars cannot. Jacksonville just isn't consistent enough to trust in this spot, while New England is nothing but consistent. The Pats will key in on stopping rookie superstar Leonard Fournette and force Bortles to be as good as he was last week in Pittsburgh. He won't be, and his defense will need to be better than they were in that same game. They might be, but there are too many variables. New England will do what they usually do in this spot, advance to the Super Bowl.
Final Score: 35-23
#2 Minnesota Vikings at #1 Philadelphia Eagles
Sunday, January 21st - 5:40pm CST - FOX
The most unlikely, yet likely NFC title matchup is set to take place in the City of Brotherly Love. Never before has a 1 vs 2 matchup seemed like the matchup no one saw coming. The reason for this is due primarily to starting quarterbacks Nick Foles and Case Keenum. Although they have been much maligned, they deserve a great deal of credit for leading their teams to victory last week, in spite of a fair amount of ridicule and skepticism.
While the spotlight may shine on the unlikely quarterback matchup, the focus truly belongs to these two outstanding defenses, Minnesota’s top-ranked unit and Philadelphia’s fourth-ranked outfit. This will be an out-and-out dogfight, so don’t expect a lot of scoring in this game. Minnesota’s stout defense will give Foles far more trouble than he saw against Atlanta, and he will need to avoid crucial mistakes against a team that will make him pay for them. Both teams will attempt to wear down the other with their rushing attack, but Philly has the advantage in this strategy and will need it to succeed in order to win.
Philadelphia’s stellar defense systematically dismantled Matt Ryan and Atlanta’s top-ten offense with ease. Now the Eagles face the far less daunting task of taming Keenum and the Minnesota offense. Philly can succeed where others haven’t against the Vikes through their pass rush. Just like Minnesota, Philly’s front seven is stout. Philly fields the best run defense in the NFL, which should take away Minnesota’s ability to run the ball effectively and put more pressure on Keenum’s shoulders than he’s had to face in previous games.
Homefield advantage is paramount in this game. Minnesota may be the favorite, and deservedly so, considering how well they dominated in the first half last week. But remember, that game was in Minnesota, and the advantages they had are now gone. Philly will be an extremely difficult place to win this Sunday. That crowd will be just as much a benefit for the Eagles this Sunday as last week’s crowd was for the Vikings.
For all the talk of weak quarterbacks and strong defenses, this game will ultimately come down to two players: Kai Forbath and Jake Elliott. These two kickers will carry a lot of weight in this game, and a trip to Super Bowl LII will come down to one of their field goal attempts. A late Forbath miss, which could provide a cushion on the scoreboard, will haunt Minnesota, as Elliott nails a game winner as time expires, sending the rabid home crowd into an absolute frenzy. They may Cry Eagles Cry, but they will shed tears of joy in Philadelphia on Sunday night.
Final Score: 17-16
Well, there you have it ladies and gentlemen, your potential conference champions. Although the Saints aren’t in the NFC title game, we’ll potentially have some players (like Fournette) and story lines to root for or against this weekend. Leave us your picks, insight, and comments below.
Who will be playing in Super Bowl LII?
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Patriots vs. Eagles
Patriots vs. Vikings
Jaguars vs. Eagles
Jaguars vs. Vikings