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NFL Conference Championship Preview: Will Defense Conquer All?

It’s going to be hard for the NFL to top last weekend’s divisional round of the playoffs. Saturday had the Philadelphia Eagles squeak by the Atlanta Falcons late, as well as the New England Patriots domination of the Tennessee Titans. Nothing eye-opening, but fairly serviceable for two postseason contests.

Then Sunday topped those games with an upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers by the Jacksonville Jaguars and a finish that will go down in football history when the Minnesota Vikings beat the New Orleans Saints on a miracle play as time expired.

What will go down in the conference championship games this Sunday? We’ll just have to wait and see.

#3 Jacksonville Jaguars @ #1 New England Patriots (3:05 p.m.)

Pretty much everyone had the AFC Championship pegged as a Steelers-Patriots grudge match. But the Jaguars had other ideas, opening up a three-touchdown lead on the Black and Gold early in the first half and outlasting them from there.

Yes, their normally elite defense let up 42 points, but most of the Steelers scores came in the second half while the Jags were playing prevent defense. Additionally, the two turnovers they forced in the first half were the reason they had a big lead in the first place.

The biggest question the Jags have to answer on Sunday is whether or not they can do the same to Tom Brady. The Steelers arguably have more weapons on offense than the Patriots, but Brady eclipses every other player on the field. The Jags must get after Brady via pass rush early and often. Their secondary, led by shutdown corner Jalen Ramsey, has to continue to be the best in football.

There’s a different story on the other side of the ball. Blake Bortles has done a good job of not committing turnovers in the Jaguars two playoff games thus far, but he isn’t much of a threat through the air. Then again, the Patriots defense has underperformed for much of the season and have allowed the third most yards through the air in the league.

It’ll be interesting to see how this game ends. Will it be a high scoring affair like the Jags-Steelers game? A blowout like the Patriots-Titans game? Or a defensive struggle? Anything can happen, especially when the Patriots are involved.

#2 Minnesota Vikings @ #1 Philadelphia Eagles (6:40 p.m.)

Both teams won their divisional round matchups late. The Eagles defense held off Matt Ryan and Julio Jones on the Falcons final drive, while the Vikings needed a miracle throw from Case Keenum to Stefon Diggs to top the Saints. Clutch performances in the waning minutes of this game will be key.

The Vikings defense is the best in the NFL, and while the Saints were able to get the better of them in the second half last Sunday, they had shut Drew Brees and company down for most of the first half. This unit is well-balanced and is fully capable of shutting the Eagles out. Consistency has to be their primary focus though.

Nick Foles may have other ideas. Like Bortles, he hasn’t performed like an elite signal caller since taking over for Carson Wentz, but he minimized mistakes against the Falcons, and that was enough. It’ll be a lot tougher to do that again, but Foles is capable when he puts his mind to it.

Keenum, on the other hand, has a much more talented arm than Foles but is prone to make occasional mistakes. He threw an interception that kickstarted the Saints comeback in the last game, and second half turnovers have been a slight problem for the Vikings this year. The Eagles defense has just as much talent as the Vikings as well. Gunslinging is Keenum’s bread and butter though, he just has to use his talents more wisely.

These are the top two run defenses in the league, so the two running back duos (Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount for the Eagles, Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon for the Vikings) might not have much of an impact. The Eagles probably have a better receiving corps than the Vikings, but Diggs and Adam Thielen had amazing heroic moments down the stretch last Sunday.

Heartstopping finishes might not come up again like the last round. But the Eagles and Vikings are two extremely similar teams, and this should be a close one. Let’s hope so.

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