The Vikings punched their tickets to Philadelphia for a chance at the NFC title with a late game winner, while the Jaguars earned a chance against the Patriots for the AFC crown.
Here’s an early look at the championship round:
AFC Championship Game
When: Sunday, Jan. 21, at 3:05 p.m. ET | Where: Gillette Stadium | TV: CBS | More: Game HQ
Jaguars’ best chance to win: Straight talk here — I didn’t wake up this morning planning an argument for how the Jaguars might win the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium. But here we are. The Jaguars are by far the most physical team remaining in the playoffs. They’re perfectly capable of pushing back the line of scrimmage, hitting Tom Brady often and hard, and keeping the Patriots off balance on both sides of the ball. If Jacksonville can use that physicality to cajole a few well-timed mistakes, and if tailback Leonard Fournette can get up a head of steam to minimize the pressure on quarterback Blake Bortles, then why not? Ream more on the Jaguars from Michael DiRocco.
Patriots’ best chance to win: If I had to pick one NFL coach to cook up a game plan that would thoroughly scramble Bortles’ brain, it would be Bill Belichick. The two have only matched up once, and in that game, Belichick’s Patriots squeaked by with a 51-17 victory. You could envision the Patriots following a similar game plan to the one that stifled Marcus Mariota in the divisional round. New England stacked against the Titans’ run, holding tailback Derrick Henry to an average of 0.8 yards per carry before contact, then got after Mariota on the obvious passing downs that ensued. The Patriots sacked Mariota eight times and had him under duress on 31 percent of his dropbacks. Sounds like a plan against the Jaguars, as well. Read more on the Patriots from Mike Reiss.
Stat nugget: The Jaguars are 1-10 against the Patriots in their franchise history. For what it’s worth, the one victory came in the playoffs, in Jacksonville, after the 1998 regular season.
Bottom line: The Jaguars are a tough, physical and still very inexperienced team. They’ll need to punch the Patriots in the mouth and then play a near-perfect game thereafter to pull off the upset. The chances of that turn of events seems low.
NFC Championship Game
When: Sunday, Jan. 21, at 6:40 p.m. ET | Where: Lincoln Financial Field | TV: Fox | Game HQ
Vikings’ best chance to win: Minnesota’s defense is better positioned than the Falcons’ was to stop what the Eagles cooked up in the divisional round. The Vikings led the NFL by holding opposing runners to 1.38 yards per carry after first contact and ranked ninth in average yards allowed after the catch (1.37); in other words, they’re great tacklers. That will make it more difficult for the Eagles to turn short passes into big gains, like they did against the Falcons, against whom Philadelphia averaged 4.9 air yards per throw and had a season-high 164 yards after the catch. The Vikings also have a decent chance to limit tailback Jay Ajayi, who managed a career-high 64 yards after first contact against Atlanta.
Eagles best chance to win: Philadelphia’s home-field advantage matters more than you might realize. The past eight NFC/AFC title games have all been won by the home team. Just as important: Consider that the Vikings have won only three road playoff games in the 35 years since they moved into an indoor home stadium in 1982. Every team is different, of course, but a clear trend over that long of a timeframe — three victories in 15 total road playoff games — is revealing. This season, two of the Vikings’ three losses came on the road on grass outdoor fields. The grass at Lincoln Financial Field was noticeably slippery in the Eagles’ divisional-round matchup with the Falcons. These are not trivial matters. Read more on the Eagles from Tim McManus.
Stat nugget: The Eagles are 4-0 in the postseason as home underdogs in franchise history, having defeated the Falcons (2018), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2000), Detroit Lions (1995) and Dallas Cowboys (1980). They opened as 3.5 home underdogs against the Vikings.
Bottom line: The Eagles’ home-field advantage is real. The Vikings, on a neutral field, are objectively a better team. This is why they play the games!