Call me crazy, but I never understood why the Eagles were an underdog against Atlanta. The Falcons were a shadow of what they were last year, and Nick Foles is not a bad quarterback. He was the last guy who led the Eagles to the playoffs prior to this year, I believe. Yet the press treated him like he’d never seen a football before. So I wasn’t shocked that they managed to pull out the narrow win.
The Vikings meanwhile were the beneficiaries of a coverage screw-up the likes of which had not been seen since the 2012 Baltimore/Denver divisional game. But that’s not to say they were lucky rather than good—their defense had New Orleans on the ropes until late in the 3rd quarter, but eventually they started to bend before the powerful Saints attack.
I’ll be honest—my opinion beforehand was that Saints/Vikings was the real NFC championship, and everything that happened in the game reinforced that impression. The Vikings have a brutal defense, one that could only be tested by a Hall-of-Fame quarterback in command of a high-powered and balanced offense. Foles, while better than the press has given him credit for, is not in Brees’s class, and I think he’s going to be in for a rough game Sunday. Minnesota will stifle the Eagles and punch their ticket to… Minnesota, where they can become the first team ever to host the Super Bowl.
Oh, look, it’s the New England Patriots again. They’ve been conference title game fixtures for years now, and I think everyone is getting sick of it. I don’t even dislike the Patriots as a rule, but at some point you get tired of seeing the same uniform over and over again. (Although even the Patriots’ ridiculous “Flying Elvis” looks like a design masterpiece next to the abominations that their opponents will wear.)
The Patriots are of course heavily favored to beat the upstart Jaguars, and why not? They’re the defending champs, they’re playing at home in chilly Foxborough, and Jacksonville’s quarterback is a wildly inconsistent gunslinger who only completed 53% of his passes against Pittsburgh.
But I’m having flashbacks to another AFC Championship game—specifically, the one two years ago in which the Pats were road favorites against a Denver team that had a strong pass rush and a quarterback who was highly suspect.
I know, I know. You’re saying: “Did you really just compare Bortles to Peyton Manning? The Peyton Manning, one of the best to ever play the game?”
Well, not exactly. I’m comparing Bortles to 2015 Peyton Manning, who was merely a ghost of his former all-star self. Manning was long past his prime by then. I have no doubt that he could (and can) read a defense better than Bortles, but Bortles can scramble and throw the ball with more power than 2015 Manning could. So it’s pretty much a wash.
The Jaguars chances look even better when you remember that their team vice president, Tom Coughlin, was the coach of the New York Giants teams that twice upset the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Those teams also fielded a strong defensive line and an inconsistent quarterback whose play was rarely pretty, but who had a knack for getting things done when it mattered most.
The Jaguars, in short, are the very model of a Patriots-beating team.
To be sure, it’s not going to be easy—the 2015 AFC Championship, Super Bowl XLII and Super Bowl XLVI were all extremely close affairs. You can bet your bottom dollar that Belichick’s defense is going to take away Jacksonville’s favorite offensive weapon, running back Leonard Fournette, and force Bortles to throw the ball. But I think he’s got enough arm strength and sheer guts to get it done against New England’s bend-but-don’t-break secondary. And the Jaguars’ defense will give Brady all kinds of problems—he doesn’t have the ability to heave the ball like Roethlisberger did in a valiant failed comeback last week, and he’s going to get hit a lot. And New England doesn’t have the kind of bruising running back that they need to take the pressure off Brady.
All season long, the Patriots have just looked off to me. Sure, they’ve still been the most consistently good team in a weak AFC—they have the greatest coach and greatest quarterback of all time, after all—but the usual Patriots’ swagger has been absent ever since their shocking opening-day defeat. I think all the big games and the sky-high expectations and deep playoff runs year after year (Remember, they have to play 2-3 more games a season than the typical team) are finally starting to take their toll. Brady has so far defied the decline that comes with age, but the clock is bound to strike midnight eventually. My pick is that it will happen this Sunday, against a team seemingly designed to beat him.