Friday, January 19, 2018

NFL Conference Championship Predictions

2-2 last week again. Count on 50% accuracy (at best) this time around as well; the fun is in guessing which half. Both games are on Sunday 1/21, times PST. [Note:  In the original post on Friday, I called the AFC game for the Fackin' Patsies, but after thinking about it for a day, decided the Jagwires could take this, and changed the pick on Saturday (1/20), well before game time.]

AFC Championship Game -- 12:15 PM
Jacksonville Jaguars (12-6) at New England Patriots (14-3)(-7.5):  Once again, I'll always root for whoever's going up against Belichick's Death Star, and not just because Belichick and Kraft are friends with Fuckface Von Clownstick (though that certainly doesn't help). But in this case, the Jaguars are one of those teams I tend to root for when the Raiders are sucking wind. So I'd definitely like to see the Jags pull this one off and make it to their first Super Bowl, and based on their performance last week in Pittsburgh (as opposed to their performance the weekend before at home against the Bills), they might have a decent shot.

The two keys to the Jaguars' success have been their outstanding pass defense (2nd in points and yards allowed), and QB Blake Bortles' improved efficiency under new OC Nathaniel Hackett. While his stats are not earth-shattering by any means (3,687 passing yards, 21 TD, 13 INT), his completion percentage (60.2) and interception percentage (2.5) are career bests. (Bortles will also be a free agent after this season, which means he's playing for a $100M contract, whether it's in Jacksonville or somewhere else. Expect a bidding war with Miami, Arizona, and the LA Chargers if Philip Rivers retires.) Rookie RB Leonard Fournette is already the best runner the team has had since Fred Taylor or Maurice Jones-Drew, putting up 1,040 rushing yards and 9 rushing TDs in 13 games in the regular season, and tacking on another 109 yards and 3 TDs against a top-10 Steelers defense in the divisional playoff round.

Despite what for the Patsies would be considered something of a subpar season (two of their three regular-season losses were at home; four of their wins were by less than a touchdown), the fact is that the team does nothing but execute, and generally without a surplus of star players. Brady completed two-thirds of his pass attempts and had a 4:1 TD:INT ratio, using Gronk and a rotation of select castoffs. Free-agent speedster Brandin Cooks is the only real deep threat for Brady to work with. And yet, in their last three games (against the Bills, Jets, and last week's divisional win over the Titans), they've outscored their opponents by a total of 98-36.

As much as I like to hate on the Patsies, the fact is that they get it done with strategy and execution. And this might be where, believe it or not, Jacksonville can get the upper hand. Turns out that not only is Jacksonville (+10) ahead of New England (+6) in the all-important turnover ratio stat, but even the actual takeaway-giveaway numbers (33-23 Jags; 18-12 Pats) indicate how much more opportunistic the Jaguars' defense has been. It's also a function of how much the Patsies have settled in as a time-of-possession team later in the season.

So that's all there is to it for the Jacksonville Jaguars to get to the Super Bowl:  create turnovers, don't make offensive mistakes, and grind the clock. These are all things they've actually been pretty good at this season. They have one of the best pairs of cornerbacks in the league with Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye. It actually isn't too difficult to envision a scenario where the Jaguars get ahead early like they did in Pittsburgh, and hold out just enough in the end to eke out a shootout win. The reality of it is more likely to be the Patsies being just one step ahead the whole game and heading to their umpteenth Super Bowl. I'm only half-kidding when I say they have the luck of the devil, and the refs on their side.

But the hell with it -- let's take the underdog.

Final Score:  Jaguars 41, Patsies 38.

NFC Championship Game -- 3:45 PM
Minnesota Vikings (14-3)(-3) at Philadelphia Eagles (14-3):  I'm not going to claim to be a full-on NFL historian, nor would I even know how to go about searching for such a statistic, but this has to be the only or one of the very few times in playoff history where teams that were seeded 1-2 face off in the conference finals with backup quarterbacks starting for both teams. Both QBs (Case Keenum for the Vikings; Nick Foles for the Eagles) have been respectable, helped greatly by strong defenses and solid running games.

The Vikings head into Philly after a highlight-reel finish against the Saints, with New Orleans leading 24-23 and Keenum hitting WR Stefon Diggs on a desperation 4th-and-5 lob with :09 remaining, just hoping to get within field goal range, but Diggs hauling it in for a touchdown to end the game. However, it never should have gotten that close in the first place, with Minnesota running up a 17-0 halftime lead, and the Vikings' offense collapsing in the second half. One of the Saints' comeback TDs was thanks to a wildly errant throw from Keenum from his own red zone, a slow rainbow falling straight into the arms of Saints DB Marcus Williams. (Then again, it was Williams who missed an opportunity to tackle Diggs on the final play and secure the win.)

While Foles is a decent backup, the fact is that the Eagles have been struggling on offense the last few games. Put it this way:  in Week 16, while they were still trying to finalize their playoff seeding and secure home-filed advantage, Philly did everything they could to give the game to the hapless Raiders, who were simply too incompetent to take it. The Eagles' final regular-season game was a 6-0 laugher loss against the Cowboys, who also had nothing to play for. Even last week's 15-10 win over Atlanta had as much to do with the Falcons' shortcomings as the Eagles' strengths.

This will probably be a low-to-mid-scoring affair, and it wouldn't be surprising to see something along the lines of 7-3 at halftime, with maybe some late scores. But the Vikings are just better enough to where they should be playing in their first Super Bowl in forty years, and become the first team to play in the big game in their home stadium.

Final Score:  Vikings 20, Eagles 9.

[Update 2/4/18 12:30 PM PST:  I'm less annoyed about going 0-2 on the conference championship games, than at the prospect of yet another Patsies Super Bowl. But again, as much as I like to hate on Hoodie and Tommy, the fact is they strategize and execute better than other teams. The Jaguars had it in the bag, and let it slip away. It's as if the Patsies haven't done that shit a million times before. All you have to do is watch the film and plan accordingly. That's all they do.

Anyway, Philly's defense turns out to be pretty damned good, but they are impacted by injuries at this point, so Nick Foles will have to step up the offense. If Chris Long can get in there and harass Brady enough, the Iggles  have a fighting chance, but as recent history shows, even when you have a boot on their neck, the Patsies (with a little help from the refs) have a knack for coming back. Rooting for Philly, but realistically it's probably another notch in the belt for Fuckface Von Clownstick's favorite team.

Final Score:  Patsies 27, Eagles 24.]

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