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Dublin: 17 °C Wednesday 15 August, 2018
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Tom Brady's grotesquely swollen thumb and your Championship Round preview

We’re talkin’ football, specifically the AFC and NFC Championship games.

Jacksonville Jaguars @ New England Patriots – AFC Championship Game – 8.05pm

UPI 20171225 Blacke Bortles is officially the NFL's most inconsistent quarterback. Which version will appear today? Source: UPI/PA Images

How did they get here?

HOW DID WE get here is something that Jacksonville Jaguars fans must be asking themselves quite a lot this week. Last year, they went 3-13 in the regular season after coming into the year with high expectations.

Those performances were enough to see former head coach Gus Bradley canned and his interim replacement, Doug Marrone, given the gig full-time. The transformation has been astounding.

The Jags won 12 regular season games in 2017, more than they had won in the previous three seasons combined (11) before overcoming the Bills in a defensive battle on Wildcard weekend and outgunning the Steelers in a shootout last weekend.

For the Patriots, it’s the AFC Championship game so of course they’re playing. During the 17-year Bill Belichick and Tom Brady partnership, New England have won 15 divisional titles and appeared in 12 AFC Championship games in a league designed specifically to stop such long-term success from happening.

In that time, they’ve failed to win double-digit regular season games just once (2002) and missed out on the postseason on only two occasions. This is the eighth successive year they’ve won 12 or more games and the defensive struggles of their opening four games look
to be well behind them.

Should they win today, Brady and Belichick will appear in their eighth Super Bowl, more than all but three other teams have managed. Should they win a sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy, the pair alone would have as many as the most successful team in NFL history — the Pittsburgh Steelers — have managed.

How do the Jaguars win?

UPI 20180107 The Jags need to live up to their Sacksonville billing. Source: UPI/PA Images

Under pressure. Last year, another AFC South team — the Houston Texans — gave the Patriots quite a bit of trouble in the playoffs, not by sending all out blitzes after Tom Brady, but by creating pressure with their front four and dropping seven players into coverage.

Jacksonville will look to do something similar in this game, scheming their defence to ensure Yannick Ngakoue lines up on the Patriots’ back-up right tackle, LaAdrian Waddle, who is coming into the encounter with an injury. This would allow them to have Calais Campbell collapse the pocket from the inside and have Brady step into the direction of Ngakoue.

On offence, the Jags won’t be able to run the same game plan they relied upon against the Steelers. You see, Jacksonville loves nothing more than running play-action only for Blake Bortles to pass to one of his backs. Indeed, nine of his 26 postseason completions have been to backs but the Patriots are too well coached — looking for keys such as how the offensive linemen block — to fall for it the way the Steelers did.

How do the Patriots win?

UPI 20171029 Feed Gronk and he will score. Source: UPI/PA Images

Go big. Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Analysis put a lot of work into finding out what made the Jacksonville Jaguars’ pass defence so good, and he discovered that they allow just 4.9 yards per attempt and an opposing passer rating of 73 when offences are in their 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) — the most common personnel grouping in the NFL.

However, once teams start running out two tight ends and/or two running backs, the Jags are no longer world-beaters. Indeed, when offences went big, Jacksonville allowed an average of 9.6 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 99. That’s a huge difference.

And as much as Jacksonville will try to scheme Ngakoue on Waddle, the Patriots will go into 12, 21 or 22 personnel in an attempt to get Rob Gronkowski lined up with Paul Posluszny, by far the least talented member of the Jags’ defence. If they do, it could be a long day for the visitors.

Who will win?

Because of an injury to Brady’s thumb which the Patriots refuse to talk about, the five-time Super Bowl winning quarterback is officially listed as questionable for today’s game but I’d be shocked if he doesn’t line up come kick-off.

The Patriots started the week as 10-point favourites, but that has fallen all the way to 7.5 as I write this preview. That’s probably much more in line with what it should have been to start with.

Only an idiot would back against the Patriots in a home AFC Championship game and, despite that, even I think New England will win and cover. But would I be shocked if the Jags got a win? Given what they’ve achieved this season, absolutely not.

Minnesota Vikings @ Philadelphia Eagles – NFC Championship Game – 11.40pm

UPI 20180114 How the Eagles would love to have Carson Wentz lining up this weekend. Source: UPI/PA Images

How did they get here?

After a brilliant 2015 regular season that saw them finish first in the NFC North for just the third time this century, the Minnesota Vikings put a last-second Blair Walsh field goal miss behind them in that season’s playoffs to start 5-0 in 2016, only to win just three more games last season.

Perhaps because of that failure to live up to their billing, the Vikings weren’t exactly tipped by many to make a run at becoming the first team not just to host a Super Bowl, but possibly win one.

However, Minnesota not only won 13 games of their own this season, but they also took Aaron Rodgers out of the playoff reckoning too. And if you’re reading this preview, I surely don’t need to remind you how the Vikes overcame the Saints last weekend.

Before the season started, I said of Philadelphia: “The NFL averages half a dozen new playoff teams every year and the Eagles could well be among that group this season. I’m probably a little higher on them than most but with more to work with on the outside, Carson Wentz has the chance to be a good quarterback if he can be protected.”

It’s nice to be right every now and again but — and to save you the trouble of looking  – I had the Vikings way too low in the very same piece.

This is just the second time Philadelphia have reached the NFC Championship game since they appeared in Super Bowl XXXIX and they did so despite losing Wentz late in the season. Their upset win over the Falcons last weekend in the Divisional Round was a defensive masterclass.

How do the Vikings win?

Tampa Bay at Minnesota Harrison Smith is among the best defensive players in the league. Source: Jerry Holt/PA Images

Middle men. If you watched that Eagles game last weekend, you would have heard a lot of talk about Run/Pass Options or RPOs. Simply put, RPOs allow the quarterback to key on the actions of a particular member of the defence — usually the middle (Mike) linebacker — and if that player cheats towards the line of scrimmage, the QB throws a relatively easy slant into the middle of the field the Mike has vacated.

This Vikings defence, however, is the best coached in the league and will likely ignore what the quarterback and running back are doing — your eyes can deceive you in the NFL — and, like the Patriots above, key off the left tackle or strong side tight end instead as their blocking is much more likely to tell you what the defence is doing.

The thing to remember is that this Vikings defence has been together forever in NFL terms, with none of the 11 starters on the team for less than three years, a situation almost unheard of in an era of big money free agent moves. That experience brings trust in your team-mates and knowing that the other 10 guys are going to take the right decisions too.

How do the Eagles win?

Falcons Eagles Football Jay Ajayi's role in the Eagles' RPO game is underrated. Source: Chris Szagola/PA Images

While the concussion suffered by Vikings’ safety Andrew Sendejo played a part, the Saints’ comeback last weekend really kicked into gear when their front seven started to put pressure on Case Keenum. And while the Saints’ front seven are good, Philadelphia’s unit is among the best in the league.

Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and company will look to attack a rejigged Vikings offensive line featuring Mike Remmers — a career right tackle — at left guard and his replacement at the tackle position, Rashod Hill. Both were poor last weekend — the Vikings had been one of the best teams at protecting their quarterback during the regular season — and Jim Schwartz will be scheming his defence to take advantage of any weakness.

On offence, the Eagles do need to protect Nick Foles somewhat, so the role of Jay Ajayi both in setting up play-action and in the run game can’t be underrated. The London-born back is averaging over six yards per carry since his move from the Dolphins and, in what might be a low-scoring game, the Eagles will look to him to help keep Minnesota off the field.

Who will win?

As you can probably tell from above, I fully expect this to be a defensive battle and — on paper at least — there’s very little between these two teams; indeed, it’s likely that Philadelphia would be just three-point favourites if Carson Wentz was playing.

However, he’s not, so it’s the Vikings who are field goal favourites heading into the NFC Championship game and I expect them to win and cover on the road.

Sure, it took a last-second miracle play to get them here, but it took a future Hall of Fame quarterback on the other side of the ball to put them in that position and Nick Foles is no Drew Brees.

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About the author:

Steve O'Rourke

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