Super Bowl LII is within sight and just four teams remain as the conference winners are decided on Sunday night. The Minnesota Vikings are looking to become the first ‘home team’ in a Super Bowl but to accomplish that they will need to get the better of the Philadelphia Eagles, a team that continues to surprise everyone.
These two teams were not expected to make it this far, with both opening the season predicted to win between eight and nine games. They have surpassed expectations, finishing ranked first and second in the NFC having achieved 13 wins apiece during the regular season.
Neither look like being overawed by the play-offs either given the performances they produced in the divisional round.
Few expected the Eagles to survive the visit of the Atlanta Falcons – me included – but they rose to the occasion, the defence making up for the lack of quarter-back Carson Wentz as they limited Matt Ryan and his explosive offence to just 10 points.
The goal-line stand against Atlanta will go down in Eagles history as the defence stole the show and their performance on Sunday could go along to deciding whether Philadelphia picks up its first NFC Championship since 2004.
Nick Foles, who now has a 3-1 record as the starting QB for Philly this season, appears the definition of a game manager having seen the Eagles over the line last week but he made mistakes against Atlanta, ones that could be magnified on the big stage this weekend.
As fierce as the Eagles defence was, the Vikings were equally as impressive in the first half of their win over the New Orleans Saints. For just the fourth time in his Saints career, quarter-back Drew Brees failed to put a single point on the scoreboard in a first half.
That all changed after the interval, leading to the ‘Minneapolis Miracle’ as the Vikings survived a second half fightback before snatching the game in the last 10 seconds.
Quarter-back Case Keenum started the season as a back-up but could be set to have a statue built outside the US Bank Stadium – the home of Super Bowl LII – if he lead Minnesota to the promised land.
He threw for 318 yards against a very good defence on Sunday so the question now is whether he can do the same against the backdrop of a raucous Philly crowd. He will be facing plenty of pressure from the Eagles defence as well and has not always performed in those circumstances.
The Vikings start as 10/19 favourites, which could work against them given how the Eagles used the tag of being underdogs against Atlanta to inspire them.
Given Philly’s only home defeat of the season came when putting out a second-string, they look good value at 31/20 to progress to the Super Bowl.
The last two NFC Championship games have been blow outs but that looks unlikely to be the case here given how good these defences are. The Eagles are 5/6 to cover the spread at 3.5 and that would look to be the smart choice.
The AFC Championship game appears a more straight-forward encounter to call as New England Patriots play host to Jacksonville Jaguars.
How can you back against the ‘GOAT’ and Bill Bellichick, especially when they are facing a Jags team who have not contested an AFC title game in 18 years.
Much the like Eagles though, it would be folly to write off completely the Jaguars, who won in Pittsburgh for the second time this season in a thriller to get to this stage.
The 45-42 triumph against the Steelers was everything their 10-3 wildcard win over the Buffalo Bills was not as rookie running back Leonard Fournette ran in three touchdowns and quarter-back Blake Bortles proved he is not just a liability.
However, that was against an overconfident Pittsburgh, the Patriots will not make the same mistake.
Tom Brady shredded the Tennessee Titans to reach a seventh successive AFC Championship match but could have a much tougher time against a defence that has truly earned the nickname ‘Sacksonville’ this season.
55 times the Jags defence has got to the quarter-back, while they have created 33 turnovers, meaning Brady will need to be at his very best to slice and dice.
Worryingly for ‘Sacksonville’, the 40-year-old has looked rock solid in recent weeks and did not turn over the ball once against the Titans. In fact, he has only thrown eight interceptions all season so the Jags have their work cut out.
The Pats ground game also looks in good shape with Dion Lewis rushing for over 500 yards in the last four outings, giving Bellichick another weapon in an already stacked arsenal.
Add to that the fact New England is 6-1 in AFC Championship games at Gillette Stadium and it does not paint a pretty picture for Jacksonville. However, that solitary loss on home soil came in 2012 against a Baltimore Ravens team with an excellent defence and an unfancied quarter-back in Joe Flacco, and similarities can be drawn with the current Jags team.
All the negative material written about them will only serve to spur on Jacksonville and if they can establish a strong ground game through Fournette then they have a chance. However, New England are so good at taking away what the opposition is good at that you feel it will be on Bortles to win the game, and that is not an option worth risking a penny on.
New England start 2/9 favourites for the win, while they are 25/28 to cover the spread, set at eight points. The latter of those two options looks a solid choice with the Jaguars likely to keep it relatively close.
The under 46.5 points for the match total market also appeals at 10/11, despite what the Jags did last week in Pittsburgh, which was a rarity rather than the norm.
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