The greatest NFL Sunday of the year, Conference Championship Sunday, is finally upon us. Two games, four teams, everything on the line. Not making the playoffs sucks. Losing in the first round is even worse. But nothing hits harder as a fan than getting one game away from the Super Bowl, blowing it, and then waiting a year to see if you even get another shot at it (spoiler alert: you won’t). This year’s match-ups are Patriots-Jaguars and Eagles-Vikings and I’d like you to raise your hand if, in September, you thought the last four quarterbacks playing would be Brady, Bortles, Foles, and Keenum. If you raised your hand, fuck you, you liar. Moving on.
The BarnBurner is here to provide you all the insights you need into what hopes to be a great day on the gridiron. Check out our takes on what to watch for, the key players in each game, and our predictions on who moves on to Minneapolis for Super Bowl LII.
NFC Championship Game – Vikings at Eagles
Key Matchup: Vikings D-Line vs. Eagles O-Line
The Vikings have an all-around scary defense. They led the league in total defense this season in both yards and points allowed and, no offense to Case Keenum or Stefon Diggs, are the reason the Vikings have had as great of a season as they have. The D-Line, though, has not been a sack machine coming in at 17th in the league during the regular season. Nick Foles is obviously not the guy the Eagles (or anyone, really) want starting in this game, but, as he proved last week, if you let him get comfortable he can do just enough to win big games on the shoulders of the Eagles’ also impressive D. The Falcons tallied just one sack in that game. The Vikings need to do better than that. If the Vikings D-Line can put the pressure on Foles and keep him on the ground, the Eagles will struggle to hit double digits. If the Eagles’ O-Line gives him time, though, he’ll do just enough to put the Eagles in the Super Bowl.
Vikings Player to Watch: Case Keenum
I wanted to put Everson Griffen here because I really do think the game will come down to D-Line vs. O-Line play. Griffen was the only Viking to crack the top-40 in sacks during the season as he tallied an impressive 13, good enough for 4th in the league. Him getting pressure on Foles might be the deciding factor in whether the Eagles can put up enough points to support their D. I’ll be original, though. Two months ago, despite being like 9-2, some Vikings fans didn’t even want Keenum on the field. Teddy Bridgewater was the guy and the spot was his as soon as he was healthy. Fast forward two months and Keenum – the undersized, mid-major, system quarterback – has proven everyone wrong (if you can call averaging like 200 yards and 1 TD a game proving someone wrong). Time and time again, he does just enough and makes few enough mistakes to get the Vikings the win. This Eagles defense, though, is going to be one of the toughest Keenum has seen. Combine that with the ferocious Philly fans and a hostile environment and Keenum is in for something he’s never seen before. If the Vikings are going to win this game, Keenum has to play well. They can’t survive a dud.
Eagles Player to Watch: Jay Ajayi
The Eagles can’t rely solely on Nick Foles. Yeah, he did enough to beat the Falcons last week, but the Vikings defense is a whole different breed. If the Eagles can’t establish the run, the Vikings will key the pass all game and Foles will get eaten alive. However, that is no easy task as the Vikings D is giving up only 84.3 yards on the ground this season. Enter Jay Ajayi. Ajayi is still pissed the Dolphins traded him and he’s said he’s not gonna consider his revenge complete without a Super Bowl trophy. Is he a stud? No, not really. Is he the guy anyone expects to pierce the Vikings’ armor? Probably not. But that pissed off attitude might be just what it takes. Ajayi will be running with a vengeance and the Eagles will absolutely need him to make the Vikings respect him to give Foles a chance to get going.
Prediction: Vikings 17, Eagles 10
This is really a toss-up for me and if the Eagles win it’s going to be by a pretty similar score. The teams are largely mirrors of each other. Both play great defense and can’t rely too heavily on their offense. They also both start pretty sketchy playoff quarterbacks so points will definitely be at a premium in this one. In a game like this, the winner will be the team whose quarterback makes the most plays (also read: plays the least shitty, depending on if you’re a glass half-full or a glass half-empty type). For that reason, I have to take the Vikings. Keenum isn’t a sexy pick by any means, but he’s got more experience this year than Foles does. Can he win on the road in the playoffs? Tough to say. But I just can’t fathom Foles and the Eagles scoring enough on the Vikings to win and I have like at least 10% faith in Keenum. So take that for what it’s worth. This one is gonna be close.
AFC Championship Game – Jaguars at Patriots
Key Matchup: Jaguars D-Line vs. Patriots O-Line
I know, fuck me, I sound like a broken record, but it’s not my fault that defensive line play is the most important part of an NFL defense. And the Jaguars have a damn good one. The name Sacksonville is pretty cliche and I have to admit I mostly hated it at first, but with a D-Line like that, you’ve gotta let it slide. The Jags have All-Pro Calais Campbell and another stud in Yannick Ngakoue who both cracked the top-10 in sacks in the NFL this season. As a team, they were second behind only Pittsburgh. The Patriots go as Tom Brady goes and he is the only quarterback in this round that can actually put a team on his back. If Brady is left unchecked, he’s gonna Tom Brady the Jaguars right out of the playoffs. For the Jaguars to win, their D-Line is going to have to put up another stellar performance. This should be a fun battle to watch.
Jaguars Player to Watch: Blake Bortles
Has there even been an NFL player with halves of the season as vastly opposite as Blake Bortles? First, he barely even won the starting job over Chad Henne. Then, he proceeded to play just not-shitty enough to keep his job as the rest of the team did all the heavy lifting in keeping them in the playoff hunt. Then, he goes on a tear in late December, hits the top of the league in passing stats for the month, and the Jags snag the 3-seed in the playoffs, all while still being berated by opposing players.
FS Earl Thomas sitting slumping in folding chair in front of his locker in pants, pads lamenting long after #Seahawks loss at Blake Bortles, JAX: "That is a subpar quarterback."
— Gregg Bell (@gbellseattle) December 11, 2017
Jadeveon Clowney was asked if Blake Bortles is improving his reply 'He's trash'
— Aaron Wilson (@AaronWilson_NFL) December 17, 2017
Now? Bortles has been good enough in the playoffs to get the Jags this far. He impressed on the ground against the Bills and in the air against the Steelers. He needs to keep it up this game, as well. The Patriots are going to score points – the question is just how many. Fortunately for the Jags, Bortles proved against the Steelers he can outscore top-tier signal callers. The Jaguars will go as far against the Patriots as Bortles takes them so keep your eyes on him.
Patriots Player to Watch: Tom Brady
Is there really any other choice here? Tom Brady is going for his sixth Super Bowl ring this year and is the only elite quarterback left in the playoffs. Hell, he might be the only average quarterback left in the playoffs. Brady, even at age 40, is one of the most consistent playoff performers of all-time, and the Patriots require him to keep that up. If Brady plays well, the Pats coast in this one. If Brady has a rare bad day under the pressure of the Jacksonville D-Line? Hell, who knows. Like I said above, the crux of the game is whether Sacksonville can get pressure on Brady and that makes Brady the most important player to watch for the Pats today. They’ll go as far as he takes him and not an inch further.
Prediction: Patriots 34, Jaguars 17
My heart is screaming “Jaguars” but I can’t bet against Brady at home in the playoffs. The Jaguars have the D-Line to make him nervous, but this is like his 30th rodeo. It’s not the first time he’s seen an elite pass rush. I also think Bortles’ hot streak finally runs out. He looked average (at best) for the entire season and I have a hard time believing he just changed into a different player in the past month and a half. Guys get on heaters, but I think Bortles comes back to Earth today. If the Jaguars get some lucky breaks and get out early, anything can happen. But as the Pats showed against the Titans (and the Falcons last year, sorry guys), they can score and they can score fast, so no lead is ever going to be safe. I don’t even think it gets to that point and I think the Pats win this one comfortably and get Brady to yet another Super Bowl.