NFL conference championships open thread

Jazz: This post-season is obviously going to come down to the wire here at Hot Air. Last Sunday I decided to go with the “safe bet” in the early game and take the Steelers. For the late game, I took a flier on an upset in favor of the Saints. You probably already know how that worked out for me and I wound up going 0-2 on the day, bringing my post-season record to 5-3, only one game ahead of Ed. Things won’t get any easier today on the prognostication front, as the best of the remaining best square off for the conference championships and try to punch their ticket to the big game. But hey… once more into the breach, my friends.

Ed: Success! I’m, er, 4-4, which is the same percentage I was last week. I too picked the Steelers, which I know shocked, shocked Hot Air readers, but they should have been able to handle the Jaguars a second time. Instead, they’ve got a long off-season full of what-ifs, and with Big Ben turning 36, not so many years left to get another title. Until the last play of the Vikings game, I thought it would be me explaining the 0-2 from last Sunday, but the NFL’s very first walk-off TD in the playoffs delivered Minnesota from the nearly unbeatable New Orleans Saints. Believe me when I tell you that everyone in Minnesocold has been talking about nearly nothing else all week and think that the play proves that the Vikings are the “team of destiny” in 2018. The Eagles may beg to differ, but … we’ll see.

Jazz: The Jacksonville Jaguars, much like Obi-Wan Kenobi, are now our only hope to keep the New England Patriots out of the Super Bowl. (3:05, CBS) There is little to no reason to think that the Jaguars can beat New England. They’ve only defeated the Pats once in the twelve times the two franchises have met and they’re 0-7 against them on New England’s home turf. Of course, there was really no reason they should have beaten the Bills or the Steelers either, but they did. The Jaguars have proven they have the mettle to take on the big boys in high-pressure situations and put in four full quarters. Can they do it again? Bortles has shocked the world, but he’s never been terribly consistent over the long run. Also, while their defense is solid, they’re not a blitzing team, so keeping Brady on the bench will be a tall order. Yes, I saw the headlines about Brady supposedly injuring his hand. I’m not buying it. I think it’s more Patriots hype to build up the drama. I got burned last week betting against the Jaguars, but I fear I have to do it again. Jacksonville will come close but fall short in a 27-21 loss to New England.

Ed: Everyone thinks that it would take a miracle for Jacksonville to knock off New England, and … well, that’s somewhat true. The Pats are at home, but that’s where they lost two of their three games this season (against playoff teams Chiefs and Panthers, although early in the season). The two offenses score nearly the same amount of points per game, although Brady’s stitches on his right hand might affect that calculus today (if you’re buying the “questionable” tag at all). New England has a decent rushing game, but not as good as Jacksonville’s, and their rushing defenses are almost identical in yards allowed per game.

The difference here will be on pass defense. The Jaguars actually match up pretty well against the Pats on defense, although as Jazz points out they don’t rush the QB very well. What they do well is hit receivers at the line and disrupt the timing of the passing game, which is why the Jags are the #1 team for pass defense this year. The Steelers scored five TDs in the air last week on Jacksonville, but Roethlisberger is a scrambling QB who can make the pass rush work for him, and that’s not exactly Brady’s style. The Pats’ defense is ranked 5th in points allowed (Jags are #2), but 29th in yards allowed. Teams move up and down the field on New England, but don’t score much. The key will be Blake Bortles’ ability to punch it in, a sort of immovable object meets unstoppable force setup. I’ll pick the way I’m rooting and choose the big upset today with a 31-27 win by Jacksonville over New England.

Jazz: Our late game has the Vikings hitting the road to face the Philadelphia Eagles ((6:40, FOX). The Vikings are the favorite here, but only by a field goal. Minnesota is the fairy tale story waiting to happen, hoping to be the first team ever to enjoy home field advantage in the Super Bowl. They’ve really shocked the world this season, building up an incredible winning streak in the face of losing more starters than any team should be able to survive and come out the other end with the highest total of both points and yards gained offensively in the league. But it’s also been a while since they’ve run into anything like the Eagles’ defense, which is right up there with Minnesota’s in terms of points and yards allowed. The Eagles have only given up 26 total points over the last three games. Philly’s offense has somehow adjusted to the loss of Carson Wentz and made it to this stage and they’ll have home-field advantage in front of some of the nastiest fans in the nation. Will that be enough? I’m afraid not. I think this will be one of the toughest, nastiest and probably closest battles of the playoffs (not counting the Vikings’ last game, of course), but Minnesota has a hotter property in QB Case Keenum and that should be enough to tip the scales. I’ll go with the Vikings 24-19 in what should be an awesome game to watch.

Ed: This will be another defense-driven contest, only this time with a lower scoring output. Case Keenum has worked marvels for the Vikings, but he’s a first-tier journeyman or a second-tier starter; Minnesota’s defense is what’s carried them into the playoffs, last-second heroics of last week aside. Philadelphia has the third-ranked offense for points scored in 2017, but almost all of that was while Carson Wentz was under center. In Nick Foles’ last three starts, the Eagles have scored 34 points, averaging less than two TDs per game. Philly’s defense has had to step up, allowing Foles to get past two offenses rated 15th (Atlanta last week) and 23rd (Oakland in week 16), while the O dropped a goose egg on Dallas and their  8th-ranked D. Minnesota has the top-ranked defense in both points allowed and yards allowed, and managed to choke off Drew Brees for a half until Keenum put a ball up for grabs and allowed New Orleans to seize the momentum for a while.

Foles won’t get it done this week, not even in front of the home-town crowd. Vikings win this one 20-13, this time without the last-second score.