By Jason Keidel
The NFL’s final four is an odd lot, featuring two quarterbacks (Case Keenum and Nick Foles) who didn’t start the season as the starter, one who’s been branded the weak link on his club (Blake Bortles), and Tom Brady, a familiar face late in the playoffs.
This is our last chance to look smart during a football postseason that’s been hard to predict.
Jacksonville Jaguars (12-6) @ New England Patriots (14-3)
Sunday, January 21, 3:05 pm ET
It’s rather rare, but sometimes a team doesn’t play for points or pride or the normal, sports-fed goals that often motivate a franchise.
The New England Patriots are just playing for and against themselves, adding layers to their legacy. At this point, they really transcend stats. Especially when you’re playing in your seventh straight AFC title game, for a chance to play in an NFL-record 10th Super Bowl. Tom Brady has more Super Bowl rings (5) than the remaining playoff QBs have combined playoff wins (4).
The Pats are hosting the Jacksonville Jaguars, about as historically divergent as any possible opponent. The Jags are in just their second AFC title game and have never played in a Super Bowl. It’s not a coincidence that the other time Jacksonville made it this far, they were led by Tom Coughlin. This time, as boss of football operations, Coughlin quickly remolded the Jaguars into his tough, red-faced, disciplined image.
But what’s a breakdown sans statistics? Here are a few gems.
The Pats are 18-3 at home in the playoffs since 2000.
The Jags are 4-5 on the road in the playoffs, with half their wins posted in Pittsburgh.
Brady’s 337 yards last weekend against the Titans was the most in a playoff game by a QB in his 40s, also making him the oldest to win a playoff game.
Jacksonville has scored eight defensive TDs this season (including playoffs), most in the NFL.
Which Jags defense will show up? The one that led the NFL by allowing a meager 169.9 passing yards per game? Or the one that was gashed by Ben Roethlisberger for five TD passes? Though Big Ben and the Steelers dropped 42 on the Jags last Sunday, the Pats don’t quite have Pittsburgh’s firepower.
On the other side of the ball, Blake Bortles has been the third-most sacked QB since he entered the NFL. Sadly, for Bortles, the Patriots are finding more paths to the QB, with 18 sacks over their last three games, including a franchise-record eight last week against Tennessee. The Pats are 10-1 all-time against Jacksonville, including the playoffs. Brady is an astounding 14-0 in the playoffs against teams he hasn’t faced in the regular season.
If you buy these new whispers that Brady injured his throwing hand, then you may give Jacksonville a valid shot to win the game. But knowing Brady, he would have to lose a few fingers — if not his whole hand — to miss this game. Even then, he may figure out to how to play QB as a southpaw, score the winning TD with an ugly, wobbly left-handed throw.
The Patriots are at home, have done this too many times before, and have the best QB/HC combo in the history of professional football. That’s more than enough to yank the glass slipper from this year’s Cinderella.
Prediction: Patriots win, 27-16
Minnesota Vikings (14-3) @ Philadelphia Eagles (14-3)
Sunday, January 21, 6:40 pm ET
Some very silly or bored people have asserted that franchise quarterbacks are now overrated because of the dearth of dominant QBs in this year’s final four.
Stop. We came within a few plays of having Brady, Big Ben, Matt Ryan, and Drew Brees paying on Sunday. Had Julio Jones made that catch, had Marcus Williams made that tackle, there would be no Nick Foles or Case Keenum this weekend. This is not to trivialize either QB, or at least Keenum, who’s had a sublime season, going 11-3, tossing 22 touchdowns and just seven interceptions, while completing 67 percent of his passes. But the Eagles went 13-3 because they had a franchise QB, Carson Wentz, for 14 weeks, and Keenum is playing like one.
This is a battle between two forlorn franchises that have gotten so close to the NFL title, yet are a combined 0-6 in the Super Bowl. Both clubs finished the regular season 13-3, and both were legitimate Super Bowl contenders, until Wentz snapped his ACL. Now the Vikings seem to have the edge, with a QB who has been there nearly all year, a de facto starter and playing like one. Interestingly, Foles had his best season in Philadelphia, leading the Eagles to the playoffs in 2013 with some surreal stats (27 TD, 2 INT), before losing at home in the playoffs to the Saints. He hasn’t found that form during his second stint in Philly.
The Eagles were the first top seed to be an underdog at home in the playoffs. Now they are underdogs once again. While the Eagles enjoy the home-field crowd, the normally ornery weather will not help, with a forecast of a balmy 50 degrees in January.
The Eagles are 6-2 against the Vikings since 2001, and 2-0 in the playoffs.
The Vikings are 6-1 on the road since Week 5, tied for the best in the league over that stretch.
But the Vikings are 6-16 all-time in the playoffs on the road. Their last January win away from home was in 2005, against Green Bay.
Philadelphia’s win over Atlanta last weekend was their first home playoff win with more than two turnovers since 1981, snapping a streak of five losses when turning the ball over at least twice.
Eagles WR Alshon Jeffery has grabbed seven touchdown passes against the Vikings over his career. He has more than three TDs against only one other NFL club.
It’s not surprising that the four teams still alive are also in the NFL’s top-five scoring defenses. And it’s safe to say the Vikings and Eagles have the two best defenses in the NFC, each with a rabid pass rush. Minnesota led the NFL in total yards allowed, total yards per game, and points allowed per game. Philadelphia was fourth in the same categories.
The Eagles have just two offensive TDs in their last three games. Somehow that was enough to beat Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and the Falcons’ fantastic running game. It likely won’t be enough to beat a team as balanced and focused as the Vikings. It will be a good game, a violent game, a close game, but not a winning game for the home team. With a win, Minnesota will be the first team ever to play a Super Bowl on their home turf.
Prediction: Vikings win, 20-17
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.