By Sterling Pingree
Another round of playoffs, another 2-2 week of picks for The Wrong Guy. I’m 4-4 so far in the postseason, and that’s only because Marcus Williams tackled Manti Te’o’s girlfriend instead of Stefon Diggs. (You may have just read history, that might be the last Manti Te’o had a made up girlfriend joke ever made. It’s got to atleast be the first one made in 2018.)
NFC: Vikings at Eagles
For all of the talk about how much wilder the NFC playoffs were going to be than the AFC, in the end we have the number one seed hosting the number two seed. The games have been solidly entertaining, Saints-Panthers was good, Falcons-Eagles was fine, Falcons-Rams wasn’t very exciting, but Saints-Vikings was a classic. At halftime it looked like Minnesota was about to riverboat race Sean Payton back to “Nawlins” when instead a back and fourth struggle broke out.
By the way, one of the gifts that keeps on giving from the Patriots comeback in Super Bowl LI is that now every time a team is attempting to overcome a deficit, that game gets mentioned. I can’t imagine that’ll ever get old. Kind of like seeing the Diggs play won’t get old, which is a highlight that we’ll be seeing in montages forever.
I watched the Eagles beat the Falcons, but weirdly, I have a hard time remembering how they did it. The football intelligentsia has been lampooning Falcons OC Steve Sarkisian all week over his predictable play calling and that seems right because the game itself was very vanilla. In what other flavor or fashion could Nick Foles beat Matt Ryan?
(A quick aside when people ask, how important are offensive coordinators? Just remember the drop off for Matt Ryan from last year with Kyle Shanahan to this year with Sark. That Falcons offense last year was terrifying and personel-wise, they brought back the exact same group except this year they look like the Mon-Stars from Space Jam stole their talent. That’s how important scheme and game planning is in the NFL, Matt Ryan can go from the NFL MVP to getting beat in the postseason by Nick Foles.)
The Eagles showed on Saturday that their defense is still really good and that Nick Foles can manage a game with moderate success. Though for them to have a chance to beat Minnesota this weekend, they’re going to have to get a lot of production out of Jay Ajayi. Fans in New England have seen what Legarrette Blount can do, but Minnesota doesn’t seem like the type of front that Blount generally succeeds against. Blount needs to get his wheels turning, while Ajayi is more of the explosive back that can get into the second level and barrel over safeties.
Along with all of the things that Crash Davis professed to believe in Bull Durham, I also believe in momentum and destiny in the NFL playoffs. The Vikings won a playoff game in the kookiest manner possible in the same year that their new stadium is hosting the Super Bowl. We’ve seen championship droughts end in baseball the last two years with the Cubs winning in 2016 and the Astros in 2017, could this be a trend in sports that the winless finally have their moment? There is a precedent for some of this, think back to 2012 when Jacoby Jones made a play similar to Diggs to upset the #1 seed Denver Broncos. The next week they knocked out the #2 Patriots in Foxboro and then won the Super Bowl against a seemingly loaded 49ers team. The Vikings could ride that wave, but will we see a team play a Super Bowl in their home stadium for the first time?
Is playing a Super Bowl at home an advantage?
We shall see.
Vikings 23 Eagles 20
AFC: Jaguars at Patriots
Was last weekend the perfect divisional round for Patriots fans? 4 games, 3 were entertaining, especially the two Sunday games and the Patriots game was a blowout victory. What could be better than that? Not to mention that the Steelers lost.
I saw the argument on social media begin as soon as Jacksonville took a 21-0 lead that Patriots fans should be careful what they wish for and that they would be better off playing Pittsburgh for the AFC title than Jacksonville. This is utter, HOOEY! That’s right, HOOEY! I don’t care about the vogue argument that you suddenly don’t need a top level quarterback to win a championship (this year’s final four be damned) the Patriots are better off playing against Blake Bortles than Ben Roethlisberger.
The Steelers have so many weapons on offense that they probably have 3 receivers on their practice squad from places like Chadron State that run 4.3- 40s and could break a long touchdown next week, not to mention a quarterback that has won two Super Bowls.
There is a theory that in each round of the playoffs there is a team that people overvalue because of what they did the week before. Last weekend it was the Atlanta Falcons who looked pristine against a seemingly very good Rams team and then laid an egg against Philly. Jacksonville went the opposite way, they scored 10 points at home against Buffalo and then hung 45 on the Steelers in Heinz Field. Which is the real Jaguars? It’s hard to tell, because against Buffalo two stats are telling: Blake Bortles led the team in passing and rushing. That’s great if we’re talking about Randall Cunningham, but in this case Bortles only threw for 87 yards and rushed for 88.
Leonard Fournette in the first quarter against the Steelers looked like a modern day Earl Campbell until he injured his ankle. Fournette has been limited in practice this week which means he’ll be out there on Sunday but the question remains, in what condition will he be in? The rookie returned to the game which is generally a good sign, but it didn’t take Mike Lombardi to realize that he could only run in a straight line and couldn’t or wouldn’t cut on that ankle. If he is less than 100% against the Patriots this weekend, Jacksonville is going to have to rely on Bortles for his feet AND is arm. (On the scale of former Red Sox reliever Mike Myers to Halloween’s Michael Myers on level of scary, that is as close to as Halloween movie as you’re gonna get in the NFL.)
The game plan for the Patriots on defense should be relatively similar to what they did last Saturday against Marcus Mariota because the makeup of the two teams is markedly like. Both teams have mobile quarterbacks, big punishing running backs, solid tight ends and receivers that are good enough. Comparing the two, I’d give Mariota the advantage over Bortles, Fournette the advantage over Henry (if healthy) while Delanie Walker and Marcedes Lewis are a wash (I actually have a working theory that they’re the same person) and I give the Titans a slight edge at receiver but I guess that depends on how much you value Corey Davis.
The key for the Patriot defense will be containing Fournette like they did Henry and forcing Bortles to throw the ball down field. The X-factor on offense is TJ Yeldon as he led the Jags in receiving against Pittsburgh and appears to be Bortles safety blanket on third down.
The elephant in the room is Brady’s hand. Reports are out there that the injury is worse than what is being reported, but in the last 18 hours or so, there have been reports made that he busted his finger open at Wednesday’s practice and had three stitches in his hand. A follow up report noted that Brady was “zipping the ball pretty good” in limited action at Friday’s practice. I’m 75% sure that Brady will play on Sunday, but an injury to a quarterback’s throwing hand is unquestionably cause for concern because it makes just taking the snap under center more of a chore than it needs to be.
On offense, the Patriots have their work cut out for them but the Jaguars defense has points of weakness. Like Tennessee, Jacksonville struggles to cover running backs on pass routes and as we know that is an area that the Patriots thrive in. Gronkowski is a match up nightmare for most teams but many believe the Jags will use safeties Gipson and Church to cover Gronk in the middle of the field, much the same way Seattle has with Chancellor and Thomas. If that’s the case, look for Gronkowski to line up wide more often and try to find his way into one-on-one coverage with linebackers. Jaguars DC Todd Wash said Friday that they wouldn’t line up All-Pro Jalen Ramsey on #87, much the way Kansas City limited Gronk in this season’s opener with Eric Berry, but the possibility remains out there even if Jacksonville believes it will “overturn their apple cart.”
The key to the game will be the amount of pressure on Brady that Jacksonville can generate from their base defense with a four man front. Jackson and Campbell are a handful up front and the Patriots offensive line, which could be without LaAdrian Waddle, will have its work cut out for them. The blue print for Jacksonville to beat the Patriots on Sunday was written in Denver two years ago in this game: pressure Brady and force him into making throws he doesn’t want to make and score just enough to win. Is Blake Bortles better in 2018 than Peyton Manning was in the 2015 AFC championship game? That is the question.
Jacksonville is a team is momentum, if they can get going early like they did in Pittsburgh, they can roll. If they start sluggish like they did against Buffalo and get back on their heels, then I think the Patriots take it to them.
In the end, I see the Patriots offense grinding out more points than Jacksonville in this replay of the 1996 AFC title game which ended 20-6. Last week I predicted that Jacksonville would fall to Pittsburgh by that same score. What does that mean? I’m not really sure, I just thought the coincidence was interesting.
Patriots 30 Jacksonville 19
Sterling Pingree (@SterlingPingree on Twitter) is a co-host on The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.