NFL

Breaking Down the Conference Championships

The NFL’s final four teams are readying to do battle for the right to play in Super Bowl LII. All four of the remaining teams have scoring defenses in the top five in the league, putting points at a premium. The prohibitive favorites are the Patriots, led by their five-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady, while the other three quarterbacks remaining in the field combine for as many playoff appearances as Brady has rings.

Jaguars offense vs Patriots defense

Blake Bortles is the unlikely X-factor in the AFC Championship game. The fourth-year quarterback with a .366 winning percentage over 61 career starts has quarterbacked one of the most unlikely playoff runs in years. To keep it going, Bortles will need to replicate Sunday’s performance in which he completed 14 of 26 passes for 214 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. More importantly, Bortles succeeded in big play scenarios in the fourth quarter, like his 45-yard bomb to Keelan Cole and the 14-yard touchdown pass to fullback Tommy Bohanon on a play-action with 4:19 remaining. Bortles will have to make four or five big plays without turning the ball over to pull out another upset. The Jaguars are 13-6 when Bortles doesn’t commit a turnover, including 8-0 this season.

Patriots offense vs Jaguars defense

Jacksonville will have to put pressure on Tom Brady with the front four. Brady has always been able to pick apart a blitzing defense thanks to how well he moves in the pocket, but he struggles with teams that can apply pressure up the middle with a four-man front because of his inability to beat pressure with his legs. This Jags can exploit this weakness, and with two of the toughest opponents in the Brady era – Tom Coughlin and Malik Jackson – in their organization, their defense knows the blueprint for how to beat down #12.

The Jags accounted for the second most takeaways and sacks in the league during the regular season. The Patriots are undefeated in the playoffs in the Brady era when they win the turnover battle (16-0). To have any chance in Foxborough on Sunday, “Sacksonville” will need steady pressure from the quartet who accounted for 42.5 sacks in the regular season, Calais Campbell, Dante Fowler, Yannick Ngakoue and Jackson. If they can fluster Brady, then the Jags are much more likely to force a crucial turnover to swing another road upset.

Eagles offense vs Vikings defense

The Eagles are going to need a much better showing from the ground game if they want to punch their tickets to the Super Bowl. Registering only 96 yards on 32 carries against the Falcons, the Eagles rushing attack hampered them, forcing the weight of the offense onto Nick Foles. While Foles finished with completions on 23 of 30 passes for 246 yards and a 100.1 passer rating, it was ugly. Going against the league’s top run defense, Foles will need another effective performance to spring another ugly win and home upset.

Vikings offense vs Eagles defense

Like Philadelphia, the Vikings struggled to run the ball in the divisional round, which afforded the Saints a promising chance of a comeback win. On one hand, the Vikings were a miracle play away from blowing a 17-0 halftime lead. On the other, that miracle play and the prospect of playing a Super Bowl home game have the Vikings feeling like a team of destiny.

With the game on the line, Case Keenum led the Vikings on two scoring drives in the game’s final two minutes. In what is sure to be a wild environment in Philadelphia on Sunday, against yet another stout rushing defense, Keenum will need some of that big game poise to get it done.

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