Conference Championship Weekend

OK, we have arrived at the weekend to decide the conference champions in the NFL.  Just because I enjoy embarrassing myself, here is what I predicted back in early September for the 4 teams left in the playoffs:

  • Jaguars:  6-10  last in the AFC South
  • Patriots:  13-3  first in the AFC East;  #1 seed in the AFC for the playoffs
  • Vikings:  9-7  2nd in the NFC North; not in the playoffs in the NFC
  • Eagles:  9-7  3rd in the NFC East; not in the playoffs in the NFC

So much for prognostication …

At 3:00 PM EST on Sunday, the Patriots host the Jaguars and the Patriots are 7.5-point favorites at home.  The Total Line for the game is 47 points.  The spread opened the week at 9 points and held steady there until news that Tom Brady “jammed his throwing hand” in practice and had to leave practice in mid-week.  That dropped the line quickly to 8 points and now to 7.5 points.  My assumption here is that unless Brady’s injury requires an amputation of his hand up to the middle of his “throwing forearm”, he will be on the field on Sunday.  Regarding trends against the spread and things of that nature, consider:

  • Pats have been favored in every game this year.  They are 12-5 against the spread.
  • The Jags are 10-8 against the spread and they are 4-2 against the spread as an underdog.
  • Tom Brady’s record against the Jags for his career is 7-0 straight up.

If you want to analyze this game from the standpoint of “experience”, please stop right here and declare that the Patriots are a mortal lock.

  • Bill Belichick has coached 37 NFL playoff games and won 27 of them.
  • Doug Marrone has coached 2 playoff games (this year) and won both of them.
  • Tom Brady has 5 Super Bowl rings.
  • Blake Bortles has played in 2 playoff games

There is no comparison between these teams if you base it on “who has been there before.”  So let me try to look a bit deeper into the game.  Notwithstanding the NFL’s 25-year focus on limiting defensive football to increase scoring and fan interest, this “final four” field is defensively dominant.  The Jags, Vikes and Eagles ranked first, second and third respectively in fewest points allowed per opponent’s possession in the regular season.  The Pats’ defense that was slammed from pillar to post back in September ranked a very respectable 6th in the league in that stat.  Defensive football has lots of stats associated with it and many of them are important indicators of defensive prowess; but the single most important thing a defensive unit can do is to minimize the number of points that the opponent scores in a game.  Any and all of the other stats one can create take a back seat here.  And these 4 teams are really good at preventing the “other guys” from scoring lots of points.

The Jags have arrived at this place in the season on the strength of their defense – and the strength of their pass defense in particular.  They rush the passer well and they have two excellent cover corners in Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye.  That Jags’ strength matches up well with the Pats’ offensive strength which is the passing game orchestrated by Tom Brady.  The big question/mismatch for the Jags is Rob Gronkowski.  The Jags’ best cover guy is one of the bigger guys they have in the secondary and that is Jalen Ramsey.  If the Jags choose to put Ramsey on Gronk, that could reduce Gronk’s big-play effectiveness, but it would mean playing Ramsey out of position and playing someone else in Ramsey’s normal position.  I will be interested to see how the Jags line up against the Pats in passing situations.

I do not expect Leonard Fournette to dominate the game; I assume that he is the weapon the Pats will take away from the Jags in the game.  However, I would watch out for TJ Yeldon as the other RB for the Jags.  He is a very different runner and pass catcher from Fournette and he may see a lot of action on Sunday.

I think the Patriots are the better team and that their playoff experience will assure total focus on the task at hand on Sunday.  I think the Pats will win the game, but that line looks fat to me.  My preference is to take the Jags plus the 7.5 points and to take the game to stay UNDER 47 points.

The Eagles and the Vikings are similar teams that have arrived here with the same sort of story.  Few prognosticators had either team winning their division this year; both teams have succeeded because of an outstanding defense; both teams are here missing their starting QB. The Vikes are 3.5-point favorites on the road in this game and the Total Line is at 39 points.  Here are some trends to consider in the game:

  • The Vikes are 11-6 against the spread and they are 8-5 when they are the favorite.
  • The Eagles are 11-6 against the spread and they are 4-2 as an underdog.
  • Case Keenum has played in 1 playoff game in his career (last week).
  • Nick Foles has played in 2 playoff games in his career.

I mention those QB stats because I believe this game will be decided by which of these two relatively inexperienced QBs reacts better to the defensive pressure they will be under.  Neither Keenum nor Foles is going to have an easy time of it; one of them will be more poised/less error-prone and that QB will be the one on the winning team.  Having said that, I believe that the head-to-head matchup that will determine the relative fate of these two QBs is this one:

  • Vikes’ DE, Everson Griffen versus Eagles’ LT, Halapoulivaati Vaitai.

Should both QBs be stressed out and the respective offensive coordinators turn to the running game, the Eagles have an advantage.  The Vikes’ tandem of Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon is a good one, but the Eagles can put 4 different running backs in the game and each brings a different dimension to the game.  The advantage there would be for the home team.

I like this as a venue pick.  The Eagles only lost one game at home this year and that was in Week 17 when they had already locked in their top-seed status and rested several starters.  I concur with the oddsmaker that this will be a low-scoring affair and I prefer to take points in those situations.  So, I’ll take the Eagles plus the 3.5 points here.

Finally, here is a comment regarding an NFL QB who is not in the playoffs this year by Dwight Perry of the Seattle Times:

“Packers QB Aaron Rodgers and race-car driver Danica Patrick were reportedly spotted out on a date at a Green Bay restaurant.

“Either that or they were just discussing the finer points of two-minute drives.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………



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