The divisional round of the playoffs brought the goods, with Sunday featuring one of the wildest finishes in playoff history in the Vikings’ miraculous win over the Saints and a shootout no one saw coming in the Jaguars victory in Heinz Field. The story of the Saturday games was controversial officiating, a problem that the NFL can’t seem to avoid. On the deciding play of the Falcons-Eagles game, Julio Jones appeared to be shoved to the ground in the end zone by Jalen Mills before having the game-winning pass slip through his hands, ensuring a Philadelphia win. Tom Brady and Co. dominated the Titans, though the Patriots’ large contingent of haters focused on a number of questionable calls early in the game that seemed to swing New England’s way. With only four teams remaining and Super Bowl trips on the line, the stakes have never been higher.
Jacksonville Jaguars at New England Patriots: 2:05 CT
With the Patriots’ 35-14 win over the Titans, Tom Brady became the oldest quarterback in NFL history to win a playoff game. However, the defending Super Bowl MVP will not be satisfied with that, and the 40-year-old has his team in position to reach the big game yet again. New England is favored by nine points over Jacksonville, and considering Brady is 7-0 against the Jags in his career, it is easy to understand why. Brady was nearly flawless last week, throwing for 337 yards and three touchdowns, though those kind of numbers will be difficult against the Jaguars’ fearsome defense. However, the most encouraging sign for the Patriots in last week’s contest was their shutdown of Derrick Henry. New England’s weak spot all season was their rush defense, and limiting Henry to only 28 yards a week after he ran all over Kansas City showed that their defensive unit could be stronger than stats may show. If the Patriots can contain Jags’ rookie star rusher Leonard Fournette early and often, the Pats will be on their way to their third Super Bowl in the last four years.
Jacksonville may be overlooked, as most everyone in the NFL community assumed that the Steelers would be the squad playing the Patriots at this point in the season. However, the Jaguars have now beaten the Steelers twice in Pittsburgh this year, and brings a formula to the table that’s been unfavorable to the Patriots in the past. “Sacksonville” has been a force to be reckoned with this season, as Calais Campbell leads a scary defensive front. The only way to beat Brady is to hit him, and to hit him a lot. Armed with two of the league’s best corners in Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye, the Jaguars’ downfield coverage has to be strong enough to prevent Brady from hitting on his beloved intermediate throws and give their pass rushers time to get to the future HOFer. Another key for the Jaguars is to limit the action of Dion Lewis, whose versatility was a critical factor in New England’s win over Tennessee. Outside linebackers Telvin Smith and Myles Jack are both strong football players and have the speed to negate Lewis’ quickness. On the offensive side of the ball, establishing Fournette early in the game could be the deciding factor. Feeding the rookie allowed Jacksonville to leap out to a 21-0 lead against Pittsburgh, and getting that early jump in New England as well as keeping the ball out of Blake Bortles’ hands is crucial for the Jaguars’ chances. However, a lot needs to go right for Jacksonville to win, and the Patriots are ultimately too experienced for the Jags to advance to their first Super Bowl.
Patriots 23, Jaguars 14
Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles: 5:40 CT
Neither of these teams has a Lombardi Trophy resting in their team headquarters despite having storied histories, which should make for a fun NFC title game. With two Jeff Fisher rejects occupying the starting quarterback roles, the Case Keenum-Nick Foles matchup is surprisingly enticing. Keenum and the Vikings enter as the favorites, with the top-seeded Eagles playing the underdog role for the second week in a row in the wake of Carson Wentz’s injury. Foles, however, played admirably in the Eagles’ sloppy 15-10 win over the Falcons, completing 23-of-30 passes for 246 yards. Against the top-ranked Vikings defense, he will have to be even better. He was sacked only once by Atlanta, and the Eagles will have to match that performance against Everson Griffen and the stacked Minnesota front. Getting the run game back on track is imperative for the Eagles, as Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount averaged 3.6 and 2.1 yards per carry, respectively, against Atlanta. The Vikings’ offense is weaker than their D, though still a top ten unit. Forcing three-and-outs early and containing Keenum in the pocket will be huge for Philadelphia.
The Vikings are here by a miracle but aren’t going home anytime soon. Their various offensive weapons, such as Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs and Kyle Rudolph will make things quite difficult for an inexperienced Eagles secondary. Fletcher Cox and the Eagles’ D-Line could create problems for Minnesota, especially in the run game, but springing Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon outside the tackles would allow the Vikings to control the time of possession. Defensively, the Vikings know that Nick Foles will make a couple of key mistakes, and capitalizing on those errors will make the difference. In the Atlanta game, Foles badly missed on two throws, yet the Eagles benefited by drawing a pass interference call and having a would-be interception bounce off of Keanu Neal’s knee and into the waiting arms of Torrey Smith. Had the Falcons come up with those plays, they would be the ones facing Minnesota this week. The Vikings can’t afford to let the same thing happen to them, but their disciplined defense won’t allow that to occur.
Vikings 24, Eagles 10