DIVISIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP: What to look out for

Can you believe that there are now only three games left in the 2017 season? THREE! And two of them take place this Sunday evening. Richard O’Hagan is looking forward to them. 

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS at NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (Sunday, 8.05pm)

You know that you’ve reached the serious, pointy, end of the NFL season when the games start kicking off at weird times. You can’t help but think that it must be a little weird for the teams involved, after getting used to playing at pretty much the same time on the same days since September.

The Patriots, of course, are old hands at this sort of thing. Bear in mind that there are players in this squad who have not only reached the playoffs in every season in Foxborough, but who have had a bye to the divisional round every time, too. In New England, you don’t just hope to reach this point of the season, you expect to.

They got here, of course, by handing Tennessee such a whipping that the Titans promptly reversed track on their promise to keep Mike Mullarkey for another season. But whilst they will feel a little confident after schooling Marcus Mariota et al, they are up against a very different beast in this game.

Jacksonville’s progress to this stage seems to have caught a lot of people by surprise. But they have the league’s best cornerback pairing in Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye, the presumptive defensive MVP in the giant Calais Campbell and the ability to shut down any offense. If this defense can handle Ben RoethlisbergerAntonio Brown and Le’veon Bell, you have to think that they can handle what the Patriots have to offer. Indeed, the big talking point of the week has been more over which Jaguars player will cover Rob Gronkowski than what the Patriots might do to a team few expected to get this far.

None of which is to denigrate the Jacksonville offense. Blake Bortles‘ renaissance in the second half of the season has been remarkable, almost completely justifying the Jags’ faith in him over the past few seasons. Leonard Fournette seems to be none the worse for his car accident earlier in the week and will fancy his chances against a side not renowned for their run defense, especially if Alan Branch is again unable to play.

It would be remiss of us not to mention Tom Brady‘s hand injury, suffered in practice on Wednesday. But, to put it bluntly, you can forget about it. Not only is there little chance that Brady would sit out any game at this stage of the season, the Patriots’ injury reports have always read like they were written by a raging hypochondriac who believed every injury or illness to be potentially life-threatening.

Prediction: Patriots by 10

 

MINNESOTA VIKINGS at PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (Sunday, 11.40pm)

If you had said at the start of the season that these two teams would be competing for the NFC title, just about everyone would’ve thought you were mad. One team with a second year quarterback, the other forced to play an eleventy-year journeyman under center, in the penultimate game of the year? Only a crazy person would think that.

But maybe we were the crazy ones? Heck, we even picked both of these sides to lose at home in the divisional round. They proved us – and an awful lot of other people – wrong. The Eagles won the battle of the raptors, simply grinding the Falcons down. The Vikings needed that last second Stefon Diggs miracle touchdown to overcome the Saints, but were in many respects worthy winners. And, along the way, Nick Foles and Case Keenum did nothing but enhance their reputations.

All of which makes for a mouthwatering contest. The Vikings have the NFL’s best run defense. They also have Harrison Smith, the player that Pro Football Focus rates as being the best in the entire NFL. The Eagles have two tremendous running backs in LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi. It may well be the football equivalent of the immovable object meeting the irresistible force.

Turn the ball around and you have a similar matchup. Keenum, Latavious MurrayJerrell NorwoodAdam Thielen and Diggs on one side, a bruising Eagles defense led by the evergreen Fletcher Cox on the other. You would think that if the Eagles can handle Matt Ryan and Julio Jones – not to mention the twin punch running game that is such a feature of Arizona’s game plan – then they could handle everything the Vikings have to offer.

Prediction: Vikings by 2

 

AND ONE MORE THING

Not a prediction or an analysis at all, but wouldn’t it be great for the UK game if the Superbowl featured the Jaguars, who have long promoted themselves as ‘London’s team’, against the Eagles and the London-born Ajayi?

Richard O’Hagan

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Richard O'Hagan
Writer on such diverse topics as sport, music, theatre, law and politics. Author of 'Eddie the Sheep'. Supporter of underachieving teams, including the Chicago Bears from before that brief, heady, period in the mid-1980s when they were actually any good. All I want for Christmas is a Jim McMahon away shirt.
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