NFL Conference Championship Preview
by Elan Berger
A journeyman quarterback. A miracle in Minnesota. A young, scrappy defense. Tom Brady. These are what championship teams are made of.
Next week, the Eagles and the Vikings of the NFC, and the Jaguars and the Patriots of the AFC, will face off in their respective conference championship games. The Eagles will be seeking a Super Bowl berth without standout quarterback Carson Wentz, who suffered a season-ending ACL injury during week 14 of the regular season, while the Vikings, fresh off of a miraculous win as time expired against the New Orleans Saints, will be vying for their first conference championship since 1977. After upsetting Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers in a thrilling contest, the Jaguars will be hoping to beat the odds once more in Foxborough. And finally, the New England Patriots, 9.5 point favorites playing in their seventh consecutive AFC championship game, undoubtedly have plans to make the Super Bowl.
It has been no small feat for any of the teams competing for a Super Bowl berth to reach their current position. The Eagles enjoyed 14 weeks of an MVP-caliber season from second year quarterback Carson Wentz before he unfortunately went down for the remainder of the season with an ACL tear. Though the Eagles benefit from a top tier defense and solid running game, much of their success through the first 14 weeks of the season can be affixed to the North Dakota State product. Not many believed that the Eagles success could continue with Nick Foles under center. However, after defeating the Falcons in the divisional round, Foles is 3-1 as a starter this season, with his lone loss coming in week 17—after the Eagles had already clinched a first round bye in the playoffs. The Eagles will face a formidable opponent, however, when they face the Vikings this Sunday.
The Vikings have had no shortage of roadblocks this season either. In a season in which the NFL was ravaged by injuries, the Vikings lost Dalvin Cook and Sam Bradford to season-ending injuries, and Teddy Bridgewater was sidelined for the 2016 season and essentially the entire 2017 season after suffering a knee injury in August of 2016. Although the Vikings’ top two quarterbacks were sidelined for the majority of the season, former undrafted free-agent Case Keenum was up to the task, and led Minnesota to a 13-3 season. Despite the injuries to some of their top players, the Vikings have no shortage of talent on their roster. On offense, one of the best stories in football, Adam Thielen, has emerged as one of the game’s top receivers alongside Stefon Diggs. The Vikings boast one of the best defenses in the league as well, with two All-Pros, Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith, in the secondary.
In the AFC, the Jaguars will face their toughest test of the season when the face off against the Patriots. Although Jacksonville lost star wide receiver Allen Robinson to an ACL injury during week 1, the rest of their roster has, for the most part, remained intact. Behind their sixth ranked total offense and second ranked total defense, the Jaguars reached their first postseason since 2007. Despite their success in the regular season, the Jacksonville defense, led by All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey, will be facing their most challenging opponent yet in New England’s top ranked total offense.
After defeating the Steelers, Ramsey proclaimed that the Jaguars would win the AFC Championship and the Super Bowl. However, there is one huge obstacle in their way… and his name is Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. The greatest quarterback of all time has no plans to let the Jaguars get to the Super Bowl, and he will likely make that known on Sunday (hence the 9.5 point spread). All logic points to the Patriots beating the Jaguars this week, and they likely will. However, if there’s one team that can vanquish the two-headed monster of Brady and Belichick, it’s the Jaguars. I’m not saying that I think they will win, but I expect Jacksonville to keep the game much closer than most people expect.
No team that will be competing this Sunday had an easy path to the conference championship game. Every team playing this weekend is comprised of players who are hungry for a Super Bowl, and they will let that show in their gameplay. If this postseason has taught us anything thus far, it’s that one should not try to predict playoff football games. Hopefully, that trend continues this Sunday, and more great football will be played.