Adam Thielen, Bill Belichick, Blake Bortles, Carson Wentz, Case Keenum, Chip Kelly, Doug Pederson, Fletcher Cox, Jacksonville Jaguars, Leonard Fournette, Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots, NFL, Nick Foles, Philadelphia Eagles, Rob Gronkowski, Stefon Diggs, TJ Yeldon, Tom Brady
Jacksonville Jaguars @ New England Patriots
This weekend’s games start with the boisterously confident Jaguars travelling to face a Patriots team who seem as buttoned down as ever despite the ESPN story that broke about tensions between the owner, his head coach and their half of fame quarterback.
The Patriots made short work of the Titans last week and have seemed destined for the AFC championship game for most of the season. The defence may have struggled early in the season and finished ranked thirty-first by DVOA but they also gave up the fifth fewest points in the regular season and look to be good enough when paired with the number one offence in the league. Lots of people are familiar with the Bill Belichick’s defensive approach of taking away what a team does best and you imagine that they will be focussing on stopping the run and making Blake Bortles beat them with his arm. We could even see them focussing on containing Bortles in the pocket as Belichick acknowledged his running ability, although you can’t exactly rely on what little information you get out of a Belichick press conference.
On the other side of the ball the numbers still seem to be there for Tom Brady who has had a couple of niggling injuries this season and had another scare this week when he jammed his hand in practise. There has been a lot of speculation regarding Brady’s hand but the reports are that he sustained a cut to his thumb in practice and that has had to be stitched, but Brady practised Friday and should start the game. The big mismatch for the Patriots’ offence will be Gronkowski as it usually is, but they will face a stern test from the best defence in the league by DVOA. If there is a formula for beating Brady in the playoffs it involves being able to get pressure with four and good coverage. The Jaguars have the players to do this but the Patriots are likely to use bigger personnel packages to challenge the defence and take advantage of a rush defence that finished the regular season ranked twenty-sixth by DVOA.
The Jaguars come into this game full of confidence having won their first two playoff games in a long time but their defence whilst ranking number one in pass defence by DVOA, only ranks twentieth against tight ends and fifteenth against running backs when looking at DVOA against specific types of receiver. The Jaguars already have a tendency to rush four and cover as mentioned above, but if they can’t stop Brady finding his tight ends and running backs then we know Brady has the patience and skill to keep picking up short gains and drive the length of the field to score.
The offence for the Jaguars looked much better last week and they used play action well to get Bortles throws he is comfortable with. A lot will rest on Leonard Fournette’s ankle and whether he can play as he did in the first quarter of last week’s game. That said, whilst TJ Yeldon is a very different running back that might lack the power of Fournette to take on stacked fronts, he proved effective catching the ball against the Steelers and had three times for fifty-seven yards giving him the most receiving yards in the game. If Bortles can continue to spread the ball around like he did last week then the Jaguars might be able to eke out the points they need, but you have to think that he will facing a Patriots defence that will be disciplined in their run defence, focussing on not allowing Bortles to scramble as well as the running backs, and try to make Bortles beat them by making accurate throws into tight windows.
I think that most people would still give the edge to the Patriots but the Jaguars faced that last week as well and they are probably the team the Patriots least wanted to face given their resemblance to other teams that have beaten them in the post-season in the past. It should be a fascinating game.
Minnesota Vikings @ Philadelphia Eagles
The NFC conference game pits the first seed Eagles against the second seed Vikings who finished the season with the same 13-3 record and who were the fourth and fifth ranked teams by DVOA at the end of the regular season.
The Eagles eked out a win last week against the Falcons on the back off a controlled offence performance and a defence that kept the Falcons from getting two hundred yards passing or one hundred yards rushing. The Eagles defence finished the season ranked fifth in the league by DVOA and were top ten against both the run and the pass. The strength of the defence is their line and in Fletcher Cox they have one of the best interior linemen in the league. They will try to pressure the Vikings and will need to as their secondary could struggle to contain the Vikings’ excellent receivers.
However, if the Eagles are to win this game then their offence has to do a job with their backup quarterback. The game plan last week was to run the ball to control the game and give Nick Foles the kind of throws he can make to win the game. They may have only scored fifteen points with one touchdown and run the ball eighty-six yards but it was enough for them to the win. In Nick Foles they have a backup with a lot more experience than most and whilst no one expects him to replicate the amazing form he had for one year under Chip Kelly, the Eagles have proved they can be competitive with him. However, they are facing a fearsome defence that is co-ordinated by one of the best defensive minds in the game.
The Vikings defence finished the season ranked second in the league by DVOA and excellent players at all three levels of the defence. They may show blitz a lot with Mike Zimmer’s trademark double A gap look where two linebackers line up on the defensive line from where they can then blitz or drop into coverage. Unlike the Jaguars’ number one unit, the Vikings are pretty evenly balanced against the run and the pass so this scheme matchup of Zimmer against Doug Pederson and his offensive staff should be an intriguing schematic battle.
The Vikings offence has played remarkably well when you consider that they have lost both a starting quarterback and running back. Still, Case Keenum has been playing since week two of the regular season and has had a really productive break out season culminating in a last second win last week. He is ably helped by one of the best pairings of receivers in the league and the Eagles will have their work cut out to cover both Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. The Vikings may not run the ball brilliantly, in fact they only ranked seventeenth by DVOA, but they do it often and well enough for it to enable their play fakes to be effective and so they will try to keep the Eagles defence guessing.
The Vikings will be without their home field advantage but were competitive on the road and I think have a slight edge in this game with the Eagles not having Carson Wentz. However, if the Eagles stay in this game the Philadelphia crowd will make life very difficult and this could be a very close game.