Whenever we get into Conference Champion weekend, there’s a pretty good idea of who the favorites are to be playing in the Super Bowl. Going into this weekend, the Patriots and Vikings have opened up as the obvious front-runners to be representing their conferences in the biggest Sunday in sports. And admittedly, things don’t look great for the Jaguars and the Eagles. The Jaguars leave a lot to be desired in their passing game and the Eagles without Carson Wentz seem like a shadow of their formers selves. But we, like the Steelers before us, should not be so quick to overlook the apparent underdogs heading into this weekend. These teams are more evenly matched than we assume, and a conference favorite could going home upset.
The Jaguars Are Designed to Beat New England
It’s easy to go gaga at the Patriots making their 7th straight AFC Championship appearance until you remember that they’re 3-3 in the six games leading up to this one. There are a handful of consistent factors in those losses.
First, let’s look at how Tom Brady plays during a loss. Let’s start with the passing yards. Brady is pretty good, he’s going to pass well against you and he’s going to gain over 250 yards. We accept that as a fact; legends don’t get crushed. But they can be slowed and stopped. In two of Brady’s recent conference game losses, he’s thrown exactly two interceptions and has had to throw the ball over 30 times in all three of the games. Opposing defenses who have beat Brady have forced him to throw the ball and throw it a lot. Definitely more than he’s used to. Now, there was a game where Brady threw no picks and still lost the game, but the Broncos also held him to only one touchdown. Putting Brady under pressure and making him work for his win has been his downfall just as often as it’s been to his strength so what becomes the secret to making it his downfall? You take out his running backs. The most yards a single runner gained in a single Patriot conference game loss was 70 yards on 18 attempts. That’s not an unimpressive outing, but it certainly didn’t aid the Patriots at all, forcing Brady to throw 54 times. In their most recent conference loss, Tom Brady was the team’s leading rusher. These tasks, of course, are harder than they sound. The Patriots this year have the 10th most rushing yards in the league, which has eased Brady’s job quite a bit. Brady is also throwing at an elite level — to the tune of over 4,500 yards. They laid waste to the Titans in every possible way so it’s easy to see why the Jaguars may seem doomed.
Until you consider that this is exactly what the Jaguars are designed to do.
Looking at the Jaguars’ playoff wins to this point, their opponents are looking a lot like Tom Brady in a playoff loss. In their first win, they held the second-best running back in the playoffs, LeSean McCoy, to 75 yards on 19 attempts and no touchdowns. That’s no small task. The next week they held Le’Veon Bell, the best running back in the playoffs, to 67 yards on 16 attempts and 1 touchdown. They’ve already done away with the two biggest running threats in their way. Stuffing the likes of James White, Dion Lewis, and Rex Burkhead isn’t going to be nearly as challenging; it will just be a test of making sure one of the three doesn’t go on a huge tear. They made Tyrod Taylor throw the ball and the Bills paid for it. Making Ben Roethlisberger throw the ball is not the best thing to do considering that the Steelers have one of the deadliest passing games in the league but the Jaguars held on, picked Ben off when needed, and leaned on their mighty running attack. Now they have to crack the Patriot system, pressure Brady, and stop the run. Make no mistake: the Jaguars are not another speed bump on the long road trip for the Patriot dynasty. It could be a season ender. The factor will be how the Jaguars offense takes on the Patriot defense. The key to their great success has been in their run game. Oh, and wouldn’t you know it, the Patriots are in the bottom half of the league when it comes to defending running backs. The Jaguars are tailored to hang with New England. The question now is if they can rise to the challenge. (Also: can Blake Bortles stay far enough out of the way not to jeopardize that win?)
Case Keenum Is Going To Face More Pressure Than Ever
The Eagles have looked incredibly different under Nick Foles then they have under Carson Wentz and this is the only, stupid reason they are unfavored against a stalwart Vikings defense. Minnesota is a scary team and has earned that right. They have the number one defense, went on a prolific 11-1 record under Case Keenum, solidified their running attack without rookie sensation Dalvin Cook, and of course, they have Harrison Smith borderline eating people wherever he ends up on the field. Plus, the Vikings just had the miracle play of the playoffs. Usually, the team that pulls off the big miracle play find themselves in the Super Bowl. 2000 Titans and the Music City Miracle? John Elway and The Drive? Super Bowl. John Montana and the Catch? Super Bowl. Sure, it’s not a sustainable formula and plenty of miracle teams have missed the Super Bowl, but it’s worth noting the level of confidence that kind of a win can give you. More impressive, the Vikings picked Drew Brees off twice and pressed him to play the most inaccurate game of the season during the first half, forcing his team to play catch up for the entire second half. We don’t have a long history of playoff success to dwell on with Minnesota, we can only reaffirm what we have already learned from this season: if you want to beat Minnesota you just have to outplay them.
Which is why the Eagles could vault into the Super Bowl, upsetting the Vikings in the process.
Here’s a fun metric from that game against the Saints: Case Keenum had a passer rating of 5.1 while under pressure. That’s not great. That’s not even passable in most situations. When he’s safe, he’s electric. When he’s not, he tends to make some bad decisions and ill-advised throws. During the season, Keenum has a passer rating of 78.5 — certainly better, but not Super Bowl winning numbers. The Eagles’ ability to create pressure is among the tops of the league. If you don’t believe me, ask Matt Ryan. Last year’s MVP threw 14 incompletions, was sacked three times for a loss of 15 yards, and could not get past the Eagle defense for any more than one touchdown. It didn’t matter how many yards they gained or how great Coleman and Jones performed; the Eagles just stopped them over and over. Now the Eagles have to deal with the Vikings offense which relies on a protected Keenum to deliver great passes. And here’s the thing: the Eagles lead the league in generating pressure and it isn’t even one of those stats where they’re close to somebody else. The Philly defensive front are an angry bunch who will hunt you down, force you out of the pocket, and eventually take you down. The Eagles may be leaning on a backup quarterback, but their defense could be the driving force to put them back into the Super Bowl.
No one is necessarily listing the Eagles or Jaguars as a lock to make the Super Bowl; the Vikings and Patriots have legitimate reasons to be favored. Still, with the matchups lined up as they are, you certainly can’t count anyone out.