If the goal of the postseason were to create a metaphor or symbol of an NFL's regular season, this year's playoffs is doing a hell of a job. In a season where television ratings dipped (significantly, in some weeks), players protested during the anthem, player and owner conflict amped up, injuries decimated multiple hopeful teams, and the concussion protocol became a weekly talk piñata —- well in a season like that, you had to end up with a conference title round that includes two career backups on one side, and Blake Bortles about to get mind-screwed by Bill Belichick on the other.
I can only imagine the emergency meetings going on right now in the NBC offices with the thought that Blake F-ing Bortles could be one of the two quarterbacks chasing a Super Bowl with no star power on the other side of the ledger in the NFC. Seriously, who is the biggest star in the NFC title game? Stefan Diggs? Fletcher Cox? The Viking mascot?
If we are stack ranking the four Super Bowl matchup possibilities, the only good news for TV execs is that the two favorites in the conference title games undoubtedly yield the most compelling matchup — New England going for a record sixth Super Bowl title in the home stadium of their opponent, the Minnesota Vikings.
The other three potential matchups have major flaws, and God forbid, we wind up with Jacksonville versus Philly.
BORTLES! FOLES! ONLY ON NBC!!!!
Ok, let's get to a couple things to watch for and a prediction for each of these games. Consider the post the end result of a "Four Things To Watch For" and a "Best Bets" post having journalistic intercourse. This is the baby! Here we go....
AFC TITLE GAME:
Jacksonville Jaguars at New England Patriots, 2:05 p.m.
1. Corralling Gronk
The Patriots No. 1, unstoppable weapon is their superhuman, party rocking, first team All Pro tight end, Rob Gronkowski. It's not exactly "stop Gronk, and you stop the Pats," but slowing them down starts here. The Jags are in a unique position in that they actually have a few players who can contest Gronk in single coverage. Myles Jack is one of the better coverage linebackers in the league (go back and watch his pick in the game last weekend in Pittsburgh), but beyond that, I could see the Jags using either of their All Pro cornerbacks in one-on-one coverage, either Jalen Ramsey or A.J. Bouye. Personally, I'd use Bouye most of the time, as he used to be the designated tight end stopper when he was with the Texans, and he would seem to be ready for the physicality of the matchup. Also, that would leave Ramsey to cover the Pats only real downfield threat, Brandin Cooks. If any team is built to slow down Gronkowski, it's Jacksonville.
2. Stepping up in coaching weight class
Last week, the Jaguars had a masterful gameplan, a perfect combination of preparation and in-game bravado, but we can't ignore the fact that it was supplemented by just an abysmal job of preparing his team and pushing the right buttons by Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. The Steelers were clearly looking past the Jags, based in part on their comments leading up to the game, and during the game, Tomlin (and offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who works for Tomlin) made decisions and game management gaffes that aided the Jags' efforts. Jacksonville will get no such coaching reprieve this weekend. Bill Belichick has to be salivating at the notion of Bortles being the only thing standing in his way defensively from another trip to the Super Bowl, and I'm fairly certain that when it comes to fourth down play calls and managing the clock, Belichick will do Doug Marrone no favors. If last week was like running a 5K for Marrone, this week will be like running a 10K with cement shoes.
It won't be easy, but I see a methodical Patriots win, with a touchdown in the fourth quarter covering the number. Patriots 27, Jaguars 13
NFC TITLE GAME:
Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles, 5:20 p.m.
1. Handling pressure
Both of these teams do a phenomenal job of pressuring the quarterback, and as a result, both quarterbacks are going to have a hard time playing a clean game. Pro Football Focus
indicates that Foles delta between "when pressured" and "when clean" is gargantuan, with a 23.8 passer rating under pressure, and a 106.3 passer rating when kept clean. For all of his panicking under pressure and taking 15 yard sacks early in his career, the biggest difference now with Case Keenum in 2017 versus his earlier years is that he is damn good under pressure, with a passer rating of 78.5 with heat bearing down. On those pressures, he takes sacks just under 11 percent of the time, one of the top figures in the NFL. If it comes down to which quarterback handles the pass rush better, the money should be on Keenum.
2. One big play
In a game that I think will be pretty low scoring, it may come down to which team swings field position at the right time of the game with a huge play. It would seem as though the Vikings are better equipped to do that, considering Foles' shoddy ability to push the ball down the field, and the presence of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen on the outside for the Vikings. Diggs and Thielen are one of the top three receiving combinations in football. Kyle Rudolph is one of the better tight ends. Can the combination of Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor, and Zach Ertz outperform their Viking counterparts against a stellar Viking secondary, led by All-Pro safety Harrison Smith?
Every metric is telling me to take the Vikings. I probably won't bet this game in real life, but in a season where the NFL has karmically gotten nothing it wants, I'll take the home dog and the dream of Pats-Vikings goes down the drain. Eagles 13, Vikings 10
58-56-2 (50.9 percent)
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