Pick-6 for NFL Conference Championships

Written by Sam Pearce

It's the Conference Championships, so time for our NFL picks ATS. As discussed on our Playoffs podcast this week, we'll see some favorites like New England this Sunday, but also underdogs like Jacksonville. Jaguars-Patriots is the early game, kicking off at 3:05 Eastern time, followed by Vikings-Eagles. It's the NFL's final four and it should be good, but may be tough to beat last weekend's excellent Divisional round. The defending champs are still playing, but so are the NFL's three best defenses. Let's take a look at what to watch for, and how to pick the games. Here we go! All the picks, previews, and commentary you need from The Football Pod:


It was cold in Pittsburgh, but the Jaguars stayed hot.  Leonard Fournette scored early in the first quarter and Jacksonville never looked back. 
Photo Courtesy:  Jacksonville Jaguars/jaguars.com


***These are Wednesday morning lines for the Conference Championships. If you pick later in the week and need help with adjusted lines just find me on twitter, and I'll help you out. That's what friends are for!***


Jacksonville (+9.5) @ New England:

Super Bowl hero James White scored two touchdowns for the Patriots in their win over the Titans in the Divisional Playoffs. 
Photo Courtesy:  Greg M. Cooper, USA TODAY Sports


You may recall that back in Week 15 we told you that Patriots-Steelers was not just the game of the day but the game of the season, at least as far as the regular season is concerned.  The winner of that game was sure to host the rematch for the AFC championship in January.  Pittsburgh dropped a touchdown, then threw an interception in the closing seconds of that game.  New England won (as we predicted) and now the Patriots are getting ready to host the rematch...  Except it turns out there won't be a rematch because the Jacksonville Jaguars have crashed the party.  After winning in Pittsburgh last week, the Jags - not the Steelers - will head to Foxboro to play for the Lamar Hunt Trophy.  We discussed the very unceremonious ending to the Steelers season at length on the podcast this week.  (Just in case you're still wondering what went wrong...  )  But for now, let's focus on the teams that are playing on Sunday.  The Jaguars are going to the championship game, and they're going to win.  Just ask Jalen Ramsey.  What Ramsey actually said is that the Jags "...are going to the Super Bowl and we are going to win that bitch!  We are going to win that bitch!"  That of course requires beating the Patriots first.  We assume Ramsey understands that the AFC title game prefaces the Super Bowl.  What we know he understands is playing excellent football.  Jacksonville got into a shootout in Pittsburgh, but don't be fooled:  This is still one of the two or three very best defenses in the league.  I can't decide if they remind me more of the young Ravens in 2000 or the Seahawks in 2012 and 2013.  But they have the talent on the defensive side of the ball to go on a dominant run here over the next several years, just like both of those former champions.  Is it enough to dethrone the world champs this year though?  

The first thing Jacksonville must do in New England is get after Tom Brady.  It's easier said than done but they do have Calais Campbell and a disruptive pass rush on their side.  Including the Playoffs, the Jags are tied for first in the league at sacks per game, getting 3.3.  But to cover on Sunday (and certainly to win outright), Jacksonville will have to be better than their season average.  They'll have to get at Brady early and often.  The rush will have to come as much from the interior line as the edge.  When New England actually loses games (rare, I know), it's typically because opposing defenses get this pressure right up the middle.  Brady isn't Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson.  The last thing he wants to do is scramble and/or leave the pocket.  He's at his best when he has plenty of room to step up into the pocket.  Jacksonville must take this away as much as possible.  If they can prevent Brady from having the time to sit in the pocket AND if the pocket is collapsing, then the Jags have a shot to make plays on defense.  The pressure is most important, and the coverage is essential too.  This is yet another strength for the Jacksonville defense.  For the season, they lead the league in passing defense.  They only give up 184.1 yards per game (YPG) through the air.  This is an insanely good number in the current pass-happy NFL era.  And it's not just that teams are afraid to throw on the Jaguars, because Jacksonville leads the league in opponents yards per pass play (YPP) too.  They only give up 5.5 YPP through the air.  This is another tremendous number.  And if teams continue to try their luck throwing against the Jags anyway, they pay the price by turning it over:  Jacksonville was second in the NFL in forcing interceptions, at 1.3 per game.  Jacksonville not only gets pressure up front and excellent play from their secondary, but the linebackers do everything well in between.  Myles Jack was all over an ill-advised Ben Roethlisberger pass in the first quarter last week.  Jack's interception led to more points for the Jags and they were up 14-0 in no time.  Later, linebacker Telvin Smith scooped up a Roethlisberger fumble and took it the distance for a defensive touchdown.  The Jags literally have playmakers at every level of the defense...  when they're defending the pass.  Defending the run is another story.  Jacksonville isn't a bad run defense, as evidenced by their fourth down stops in Pittsburgh last week.  But they aren't elite.  New England was a pass-heavy offense for much of the season.  But late in the regular season they did a much better job with their ground game.  Dion Lewis has been particularly impressive.  Lewis has over 500 yards from scrimmage in the last four games.  Even in games when Brady throws a lot and the Patriots have success through the air, they find a way to get their rushing attempts in too.  Last week the Patriots had a clear advantage over the Tennessee Titans secondary, and Brady made plenty of big throws.  But New England still found a way to get 27 carries into their game plan, and ran for over 100 yards in the win.  It's New England's balance on offense that may ensure they win this game.  Or Jacksonville's ability to defend both the run and the pass at an elite level could be the difference for the Jags.    

But even if Jacksonville stifles the New England offense, can the Jaguars actually move the ball and score on the Patriots?  It'll have to start with their run game.  The Jags led the league in rushing this year, gaining 143.4 YPG on the ground.  This is actually a decent matchup for Jacksonville.  New England gave up 111.8 YPG rushing.  That ranked them 17th in the league, very middle of the pack.  How well the Jags can come out and establish the run early is as critical to their success as getting pressure on Brady when they're on defense.  If they can sustain a couple early drives and put points on the board, even field goals, that keeps their defense off the field and that means they'll be fresh when they do have to blitz and cover.  In Pittsburgh last week, Jacksonville received the opening kick, and promptly marched all the way down the field and scored a touchdown on their opening possession.  The Steelers may have taken the Jags offense lightly; the Patriots assuredly won't.  New England will sell out to stop the run.  Leonard Fournette may be having Alabama flashbacks in the first quarter.  For those of you that don't follow college football, Alabama would stack the line of scrimmage with extra defenders and limit Fournette to one and two yard carries (when he was lucky; he often got dropped for negative yards).  Will Jacksonville coach Doug Marrone and his staff anticipate this and react accordingly?  Will they actually come out throwing?  Do they maybe utilize a trick play?  Whatever it is, Jacksonville will have to play their best offensive game of the season.  This seems unlikely on the road in New England.  Despite the fact that they're always heavy favorites, the Patriots are an astounding 12-5 ATS this year.  Straight-up, they're 10-0 in Playoffs games at Gillette Stadium in the Brady/Belichick era.  They're also 10-1 in Playoffs games against AFC South teams in this era.  (The only loss came on the road to a Peyton Manning-led Indy team.)  And the Patriots, playing in their seventh consecutive AFC title game, are on a four game win streak in the postseason.  Those wins have come by an average of 16 points each.  So as I've been saying all year, don't overthink it.  Patriots to cover:

Sam's Play: Patriots
KAM's Play: Jaguars
Kevin's Play: Jaguars
Payton's Play: Patriots
Rick's Play: Jaguars
Greg's Play: Jaguars
Jeremy's Play: Jaguars



***Sam's Football History Lesson***

Twenty years ago this weekend, we weren't lacking superstar quarterbacks in the NFC title game.  Steve Young and Brett Favre battled it out at a muddy Candlestick Park for the George Halas Trophy. 
Photo Courtesy:  Mickey Pfleger, Getty Images


The NFC Championship game this weekend "features" two quarterbacks that began the 2017 season as backups. But because of injuries both will do their best to seize the moment and lead their respective teams and fan bases to the Super Bowl. It's an incredible opportunity for two quarterbacks that are hardly considered NFL stars.


Fortunately, most years do involve superstar signal-callers that can make any game feel bigger, especially in the postseason. Twenty years ago was no exception when the Green Bay Packers traveled to San Francisco to face a familiar foe, the five-time world champion 49ers. The 1990's NFL landscape was dominated by a handful of teams and their Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks. Between 1992 and 1998 there were only four teams to win the Lombardi Trophy: Dallas, San Francisco, Green Bay, and Denver. Because the Cowboys, 49ers, and Packers all played in the NFC, they had no choice but to go through each other to get to the Super Bowl. These teams had the good fortune of being led by all-time great quarterbacks: Troy Aikman for the Cowboys, Steve Young for the 49ers, and, Brett Favre for the Packers. The result was a unique three team rivalry that ensued. Each team had superstars all over the field, but the quarterbacks were larger than life.


When Favre led the Packers into Candlestick Park in January 1998, it was the third of four straight years that Green Bay and San Francisco met in the NFC Playoffs. Green Bay had won the previous two, including a decisive 35-14 win in the Divisional round at Lambeau Field the previous year. But Young had been injured and didn't play in that game. This time the 49ers had their athletic leader back under center and they were the top seed in the NFC so the rematch would be played at home in San Francisco. When fans of either team think of weather games, they probably think of Lambeau. But on this particular day, the weather was a factor in San Francisco. Torrential rains in the Bay Area left Candlestick Park wet, sloppy, and very muddy. The weather conditions made for great TV, but it was difficult for either offense to move the ball consistently in the first half. The 49ers got a field goal late in the second quarter, but still trailed 10-3, and worse, left Favre and the Packers a minute to work with. Favre completed a 40 yard pass to Antonio Freeman to set up a Green Bay field goal, and the Packers went into halftime up 13-3. Both defenses played well in the second half, but Favre led two more scoring drives and the Packers got up 23-3 before the 49ers scored a late touchdown. Green Bay won 23-10 and headed back to the Super Bowl. The 49ers would have to wait another year for yet another rematch in this storied rivalry. This time it came in the Wildcard round, in San Francisco again. That day the 49ers finally knocked off the Packers in what John Madden called one of the greatest games ever played. Favre and Young battled back and forth all day, but the 49ers prevailed when Terrell Owens caught a touchdown pass from Young with three seconds left on the clock. And the rest is NFL history. 


Minnesota (-3.5) @ Philadelphia:

After regaining his balance, there was no one in-between Stephon Diggs and a walk-off touchdown in the Divisional Playoffs. 
Photo Courtesy:  Brad Rempel, USA TODAY Sports

For the second straight week, Philadelphia will host an NFC Playoff game as home underdogs.  This time the Minnesota Vikings are coming to town for this one versus two matchup to get to the Super Bowl.  The Eagles are here because they won in spite of their backup quarterback.  You can argue that the Vikings are here because they're playing a quarterback, Case Keenum, that started out as a backup this year.  Or you could argue that success for both of these squads is predicated almost entirely on defense.  On our podcast this week, KAM did an excellent job breaking down how good both of these defenses are.  Check it out if you have doubts, but all you really need to know is that both defenses are ranked in the top five in nearly every statistical category.  This includes run defense.  The Eagles are the best in the league, giving up less than 80 YPG on the ground.  The Vikings are second best, only giving up 83.4.  This could be troubling for both teams since each of them start quarterbacks that were backups at the beginning of the year.  So while I expect both teams to try and establish the run, I also expect both to struggle.  Last week Philly beat Atlanta in a 15-10 game and this seems like it has all the makings of another low-scoring affair.  It's unfortunate for the Eagles that their season is now so reliant on winning these slugfests.  In the 13 games that Carson Wentz started, the Eagles were flying high, averaging over 31 PPG.  That was tops in the NFL.  In the four games they've played without Wentz - and with backup Nick Foles playing - that number has dropped to 17 PPG.  If you take out the 34 points the Eagles scored against the lowly Giants, they've only scored 11.3 PPG in their last three outings.  That's an awful number and indicative of how limited this offense has become.  Think about that... In their last three games they average 20 PPG less than what they scored with Carson Wentz the first 13 games this season!  Fortunately, their stout defense has been up to the challenge of picking up the slack.  Not only do they remain top four in scoring defense (allowing 17.9 PPG) and total defense (allowing 305 YPG), but they're even better at home:  In Philly those numbers drop to 13 PPG and 280.7 YPG.  And in their last three games, regardless of where they've been played, the Eagles are giving up a mere 8.7 PPG.  This defense is on a mission.  As is the Vikings defense.  Turnovers, and short fields as a result of turnovers could certainly be the difference here.  I expect another conservative, but effective, game plan from Doug Pederson that will prevent mistakes.  The Eagles were fine getting into a low-scoring field position game with the Falcons last week, and they'll be happy to play that way again.  That they're at home, gives them a slight advantage in that type of game. 

Offensively, Minnesota is the better team right now.  It wasn't this way for most of the season, as evidenced by Philly's tremendous offensive output when Wentz was playing.  But reasonable people would acknowledge that the Vikings are getting better performance at quarterback and they have better big-play potential from their receivers.  But over the last few games, the Eagles have been almost as good defending the pass as they are defending the run.  In their last three games, they're only giving up 168 YPG through the air.  That includes limiting Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and the rest of the Falcons to only 5 YPP passing last week.  The Falcons tried to move the ball through the air.  Ryan dropped back 39 times and threw 36 passes.  But the Eagles made them earn every yard.  Overall, the Eagles limited the Falcons to less than 4.8 YPP last week on their 59 total snaps.  I expect a similar effort from the Philly defense this week.  Especially considering that in the second half of the Minnesota Divisional game, New Orleans had made adjustments and mostly shut down the Vikings offense.  I don't discredit the Miracle in Minneapolis at all.  It was a great play.  But if not for a "miracle" then the Vikings couldn't score enough points at home to beat the Saints.  Now they have to score enough to beat the Eagles on the road.  That's a real challenge.   

None of this explains how the Eagles will put points on the scoreboard.  And if I were an Eagles fan, I'd of course be nervous for Nick Foles in the NFC title game.  But they got it done last week in a similar battle of attrition.  And after beating Atlanta, Philly is now 4-0 all-time as a home underdog in the Playoffs.  I don't know if the Eagles can win on Sunday night, but I love them getting points at home.  Especially more than a field goal.  Eagles to cover

Sam's Play: Eagles
KAM's Play: Vikings
Kevin's Play: Eagles
Payton's Play: Eagles
Rick's Play: Vikings
Greg's Play: Vikings
Jeremy's Play: Vikings



Last Week Win Loss Push
Sam 1 3
Kevin 3
Payton 0
Rick 0 4


Season Win Loss Push
Sam 81 62 6
KAM 72 71 6
Kevin 65 78 6
Payton 76 67 6
Rick 65 78 6
Greg 75 68 6
Jeremy 63 80 6



Did you like our NFL picks this week?  Hate the picks?  Want to play along and teach us how to pick?  Let our experts know what you think: 


Sam finally had a decent season in 2016 and hit a 55% success rate on his NFL picks. So your best bet is to fade his picks this year. It won't hurt his feelings.
The voice of thefootballpod.com, KAM's so good that she's been known to pick both NFL and college games. She'll share her picks as long as you don't trash talk her Packers.
Need power picks and the power sweep, both? Then look no further than Kevin's picks. This Western Pennsylvania football product knows the game as well as anyone.
She's not only the best bartender in town, but #PaytonsPicks set the pace in 2016, to the tune of a 56% success rate! Catch her if you can. Or just wisely follow her picks.
He's our resident Cowboys expert, so you'll hear from Rick a lot this year. As for his picks, #RicksLocks are as money as Dallas playing as the one seed in the NFC Playoffs.
Founder of theredbeat.com, and a contributor at turnonthejets.com, Greg is the newest member of the team. He's the biggest Jets fan we know (and willing to admit it...)
After making the rounds on the podcast circuit for years, we finally have our Kansas City Chiefs expert weighing in, writing columns, and picking games. So pay attention!




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