Conference Championships Have Potential For Underdogs
The NFL Playoffs Divisional Round had some of the most intense football of the season and set up an interesting Conference Championship picture. The New England Patriots performed up to expectations in dismantling the Tennessee Titans. However, the other 3 games went against most analysts’ and bettors’ perceived outcomes. After a wild weekend, we have the Patriots against the Jaguars in the AFC Championship and the Minnesota Vikings against the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship.
If you asked most people to predict the AFC Championship, you would get a million answers of a rematch between the Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers. Even the Steelers were under this impression and seemed to not credit the Jacksonville Jaguars as a potential threat. However, Jacksonville stunned the football world by beating the Steelers at home 45-42. Now, the Jaguars are heading to New England to try and defeat the defending champions.
Do the Jaguars have a shot? Analysis will tell you no, but Jacksonville has proved all the doubters wrong. Jacksonville looked flat offensively in the Wild Card round against the Buffalo Bills. QB Blake Bortles has improved tremendously from the Wild Card to the Divisional Round. Against Pittsburgh, Bortles completed 14 of 26 passes for 214 yards and a touchdown. He had some solid long throws down the stretch that showed flashes of the player at UCF, not the struggling quarterback most Jags fans have come to know. RB Leonard Fournette was the true hero of the game, rushing for 109 yards and 3 touchdowns on 25 carries. If Bortles and Fournette can be this effective, the Jags could pull something off, but the Patriots defense, led by defensive ace Matt Patricia, will be tough to beat. On the defensive end, Jacksonville has been strong throughout the season, however they gave up 42 points to Pittsburgh. To their credit, Steelers’ WR Antonio Brown is an elite player, but the Patriots have some weapons of their own. Jacksonville showed they can win on the road, but they will need something special to pull this one off.
New England is on the path towards their 6th Super Bowl in the Brady-Belichick era. The defending champions clinched a first-round bye after winning their division. Tennessee surprised Kansas City in the Wild Card to earn a chance against the champs, though New England showed why they are still the Super Bowl favorites. The Titans scored the first touchdown, but it was all New England from there. This year’s Pats’ offense has been primarily passing, which is not surprising given Tom Brady’s talent, and was on display yet again in the Divisional Round. Brady threw for 337 yards and 3 touchdowns. Their receiving corps was on fire through Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski, Brandin Cooks, Dion Lewis, James White and Chris Hogan each getting on in those 337 pass yards. Jacksonville’s defense will have a full plate when it comes time for the AFC Championship. The Patriots’ D held Tennessee to 14 points—1 touchdown scored in the first quarter and another scored in garbage time in the fourth.
The NFC Championship sees the Minnesota Vikings take on the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles were being touted for the Super Bowl throughout the regular season, right up until QB Carson Wentz went down with an injury. Despite backup QB Nick Foles’ spotty NFL career, the Eagles have managed to keep rolling. They were the underdog against the Atlanta Falcons, but their defense managed to snuff Matt Ryan and Julio Jones from stealing a victory at the last second. Minnesota has been dominant throughout the year and looked to be in fine form for the entire first half against the Saints. A second half comeback forced the Vikings to make some adjustments, which ultimately led to what is being called the “Miracle in Minnesota.”
The emphasis will be on defense for both of these teams. Philly must keep QB Case Keenum in check along with receivers Stefon Diggs, Kyle Rudolph and Adam Thielen. RB combo Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon will also be in the crosshairs of the Eagles defense, however the Birds did keep Atlanta to under 100 rushing yards. Offensively, the Eagles need Foles to show up. He had a decent game against Atlanta, though 0 touchdowns. The Eagles’ rush of Jay Ajayi LeGarrette Blount will be huge factors in the game. Alshon Jeffery must also show up if they’re to win.
Minnesota’s defense almost suffered some key losses to injury, but were fortunate enough that defensive stars Xavier Rhodes and Shamar Stephen were alright. Andrew Sendejo suffered a concussion and is questionable for the NFC Championship. If Atlanta held Philly to 15 points, Minnesota should have no issues stopping the Eagles. The Vikings should take note of what happened in the Divisional Round to avoid any second half upsets. On the offensive end, look out for more passing through Keenum, as the Eagles will likely focus on stopping the run again.
This year’s NFL betting lines for the playoffs have seen a few underdogs pull off the upset. No one expected Philadelphia or Jacksonville to still be in the picture, so you know those teams have cost some bettors a lot of money. As of now, the Pats and Vikings are favored to advance to the Super Bowl. It’ll be an uphill battle for both teams, but anything is possible in this league.