Thursday, January 18, 2018

NFL Conference Championship Picks: I Want To Be Wrong

Jacksonville at NEW ENGLAND (-7)

The case for Jacksonville: Elite defense that would have won last week's game by a lot more if only fourth and garbage time weirdness hadn't kicked in. Power running game is a common element in teams that win in New England in the playoffs. GM Tom Coughlin has beaten the Belichick Beast in big games before. Playing with the most house money you could imagine in a stage of this size. QB Blake Bortles can make plays with his legs. The special teams don't make the killer mistakes that turn games against the Patriots into routs. Secondary is the best in the NFL right now.

The case against:QB Blake Bortles can be comically inept, and even at best, erratic. None of these WRs would start for any of the other remaining teams. RB Leonard Fournette is banged up, which is about the worst thing he can be right now. Gave up a ton of points last week, and can lose focus, like any young team. Oh, and young teams die in Foxboro. Forever.

The case for New England: Having as easy a route to the Super Bowl as any team has, well, ever. Best coach, QB, blah blah blah. Don't beat themselves. Defense has been very good at preventing points, because of course they are. After a weak start to the season, have looked more than good enough to win. TE Rob Gronkowski remains the biggest matchup problem in the NFL. OL has been solid, especially in run blocking. At home, as rested as you can hope for, nearly as healthy as you can hope for.

The case against: So spoiled that home field is barely a thing now. If QB Tom Brady is limited, serious dent in the armor. Fell behind early against a middling Titans team, then got momentum going with the usual gut punch officiating call. Might not get the gut punch officiating call. Could be secretly mediocre and propped up by their cakewalk schedule. We usually only find that out around this stage of the season.

Prediction: Death, taxes, Patriots. Lather, rinse, repeat. Close early, Jags don't convert their chances, Patriots do, you feel stupid for watching. Please all die in a fire.

Patriots 31, Jaguars 16

MINNESOTA (-3) at Philadelphia

The case for Minnesota: Best defense in the game. Lockdown run defense. Exceptional corners. Well coached. Deep. Get pressure, don't beat themselves, excellent tacklers. You only score against them with short fields and/or exceptional execution early. Then they get a lead, and the momentum continues. As good a defense as Seattle during their heyday, and unlike Seattle, the offense keeps them rested. Offense is competent, with two very good WRs; WR2 Stefon Diggs could be a nightmare in this game. Playing with a sense of destiny after unreal escape last week. QB Case Keenum made a bunch of big plays, even before the final one, and mobile QBs have hurt the PHL defense this year (see Russell Wilson in SEA, and Alex Smith in KC).

The case against: Should have lost, and would have blown a big lead in doing so. Keenum also looked shaky late and will give you chances for turnovers. Running backs are just ordinary at this point (due to injury). TE Kyle Rudolph isn't special, and special teams are also ordinary. Coaching is untested at this level. Could have road issues in elements, since they play in a dome. For the superstitious, no home team has ever appeared in a Super Bowl, and the game is in Minny. A team that pulls off a once in a lifetime escape after blowing a big lead at home and on a bye doesn't seem like one you should bet on. I'd probably be taking the Falcons against them if Atlanta won last week.

The case for Philadelphia: At home, with the best defense they've had in a decade. Deep stable of running backs and very solid group of WRs and TEs. QB Nick Foles resembled an NFL QB in the second half of the Atlanta win. Best home field crowd this side of Seattle or Kansas City, and they will totally sell out for this team, given what they have had to overcome on injuries. Coaching staff has been freakishly blessed on fourth down aggressiveness. Special teams no longer amazing, but haven't hurt. Offensive line might be the best unit left in the playoffs, especially on plays when they can get downfield. Secondary recovers from mistakes. Linebackers tackle well, defensive line gets pressure, especially on running plays. As the only #1 seed to ever be the underdogs in two successive games, incredibly motivated.

The case against: Foles was terrible in the first half against Atlanta, and the Minnesota defense is a lot better than that. Turnover rate has crept up since QB Carson Wentz went down as guys try to do too much to overcome the loss. Foles has historically bad mobility and can't extend plays; he also can't be trusted in anything resembling improvisation. WRs have had some drop issues. DBs are susceptible to double moves. They don't always do well with officiating, and K Jake Elliott misses more PATs than anyone ever should. He also makes the long ones, but, um, still. That kind of thing is worrisome. Hanging on by the skin of your teeth to beat a 6 seed with a goal line stand, when you are coming off a bye and they are not, does not exactly scream out team you should bet on.

The prediction: If I were a younger man, filled with hope and love for a team that is coming together to rally past adversity, I'd bet that way.

I'm not.

Foles is the original sin, and with the Minnesota run defense the way it is, they need him to play his best to win. He won't.

Vikings 19, Eagles 13

Last week: 2-2

Season: 130-124-8

Career: 1012-1011-43

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