Championship Sunday game picks: Patriots, Vikings advance


Nobody was really paying attention ...

Mark Brunell and the boys delivered an upset of gargantuan proportions at the home of the AFC's top seed in the 1996 playoffs. Not just Brunell, but Jimmy Smith, Keenan McCardell, Tony Boselli, Kevin Hardy and even Clyde Simmons (who rose to prominence with the Buddy Ryan 46 defense) took down perhaps Mike Shanahan's best Broncos team (if not for the group that romped through the '98 playoffs). That Denver nucleus, including Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway and the premier running back in football, Terrell Davis, fell to the upstart Jaguars, who wound up playing the Patriots the next week in the AFC Championship Game. New England, of course, was led by head coach Bill Parcells and "failed" head coach-turned-defensive assistant Bill Belichick.

Jaguars-Broncos did not attract a ton of notice because that Divisional Round postseason classic was played on a Saturday. The football world's eyes were on the NFL's other newly minted franchise, the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers were taking on the Cowboys the next day, trying to prevent Dallas from winning an unprecedented fourth Super Bowl in five years. Dom Capers' guys would prevail. But Carolina could not sustain that momentum going forward, not even sniffing the postseason for years to come. Tom Coughlin's Jacksonville team, meanwhile, lost to the Patriots but made the playoffs in 1997, '98 and '99, when the Jags went back to the AFC title game.

Like those late-'90s teams, the late-'80s Vikings are an overlooked bunch. Perhaps they're way less remembered, too, given the time elapsed and the way our memories have been shortened by the salary-cap era. Under Jerry Burns, Minnesota went to the NFC title game in 1987, coming a dropped pass away from the organization's fifth Super Bowl berth. They would put together stellar '88 and '89 seasons, only to fall to the champion 49ers in both years.

Now both the Vikings and Jaguars find themselves in the championship games of their respective conferences again, each still looking for their first Lombardi win. Do they make it to Super Bowl LII? See below. And let me know your thoughts on that matter ... @HarrisonNFL is the place.

Now, let's get to it!

Elliot Harrison went 2-2 on his predictions for the Divisional Round, giving him a record of 170-94 thus far this season. How will he fare on Championship Sunday? His picks are below:

Sunday, Jan. 21 @ 3:05 PM ET
What the Jags decide to do matchup-wise against the Patriots will not only be intriguing -- it should decide the outcome, as well. It's like playing Stratego, for all of you nerds out there ... or something like that. Figuring out who Tom Brady is trying to get the ball to, and what Josh McDaniels' overall plan is, makes a huge difference, because of one simple equation: Jacksonville's talent on defense > New England's talent on offense.

Can the Patriots roast the Jags with their running backs, as they have done with so many teams, including the Titans last week? As fast as Telvin Smith and Myles Jack are, they can be beaten in coverage. Look at Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell, who caught nine balls for 88 yards and a touchdown against Jacksonville in the Divisional Round. Back in the wild-card game, Bills RB LeSean McCoy was able to get loose for six receptions, had a huge gainer called back on a holding penalty and would've probably scored on a rub route had Jack not grabbed him (smart penalty). If defensive coordinator Todd Wash prepares for this potential eventuality, it might be up to Pats receivers Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola to win their matchups. The Cooks- A.J. Bouye face-off in particular will be of import. That's because I see the Jags locking up Rob Gronkowski with Jalen Ramsey. Who cares that it's CB on TE? Ramsey's size (6-foot-1, 208 pounds) and Gronkowski's relevance to opening the field up for the Dion Lewises of the world make that matchup inevitable. Of course, the great elixir for New England in all this is Tom Brady, who can put the ball where he wants to.

Not sure I can say the same for Blake Bortles. Still, if the much-maligned passer plays at or near the level he did in the Divisional Round, Jacksonville wins. (And we'll all be in awe of a potential Bortles- Nick Foles Super Bowl.) Matt Patricia's Patriots defense has been performing at such a high level for three months that this is where Doug Marrone and staff must be careful -- as in, the Jags should run the ball 30 times. Part of staying on the ground could mean Bortles takes off whenever appropriate. As we saw last week, Bortles should take the dump-off to T.J. Yeldon whenever he has it. Still, a major advantage goes to Patricia's unit here. The Patriots are allowing 18.2 points per game this season, including the playoffs, while the Jags are allowing 17.4. The above-average score I'm predicting is dependent on either defense producing points.

(Not) fun fact: Since coming into the NFL in 1995, the Jaguars have a winning percentage of .091 against the Patriots, the lowest of any team against any opponent. That's a 1-10 record, if you're scoring at home.

Historical note: Per @RealJackAndrade, NFL Researcher deluxe, Jacksonville's ascension from three wins in 2016 to the AFC Championship Game the next season is tied for the biggest turnaround in league history, along with the 2005 Saints and 1966 Oilers. Tom Coughlin's 1996 Jaguars team went from 4-12 as an expansion outfit in '95 to the AFC title game, as well. While we're talking history, perhaps I shouldn't reference Stratego when discussing Bill Belichick's team strategy, given that the spy is such an underrated piece in that game.
Sunday, Jan. 21 @ 6:40 PM ET
This Vikings team is different. Sure, fortune was on Minnesota's side last week. I can dig that, but that last-second touchdown pass still required a high degree of skill, namely from Case Keenum, who threw the ball right where it needed to be. The matchup between Minnesota's "plucky" QB, as my editor calls him, and the Eagles' pass defense will decide Sunday's affair in Philly. Doug Pederson's team might be playing with house money at this point, too, as no one expected the Eagles to get this far with Nick Foles playing in Carson Wentz's place. Philly's front seven has had much to do with this team's survival. Fletcher Cox's ability to blow up the middle of the line is so important, because no quarterback likes pressure in his face, repeatedly. The Saints brought much of that duress to Keenum in the second half last week, allowing them to crawl back in the game. While there's no doubt Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs can beat Philadelphia's secondary on intermediate routes, their quarterback must have time to make the required drops. If he's bailing as soon he plants that back foot, no bueno.

That is how the Eagles win, provided Foles does not force throws, something both he and Keenum do a bit too often. While Keenum has, as Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer has noted, gotten away with a few (though Keenum was burned last week), Foles might not be so lucky, especially not against the No. 1 scoring defense in pro football. Minnesota safety Harrison Smith is worthy of Defensive Player of the Year mention. Xavier Rhodes can cover any player on Pederson's play sheet. The key factors here will be: A) Will safety Andrew Sendejo be physically ready to go? B) Can Minnesota's edge rushers beat the Eagles' tackles? Lane Johnson should be able to win most of his battles against Danielle Hunter. Everson Griffen versus Halapoulivaati Vaitai is another story. If ever there was a game in which Philly needed Jason Peters ...

All of this comes down to the Eagles' ability to stay effective on the ground. This could be a Leggie Blount game. He's enjoyed a couple of huge days in the postseason before. If OC Frank Reich uses him to soften the Vikings up for some of these RPOs (run-pass options), Foles should see larger windows downfield. RPOs have become the new RPGs. You know, role-playing games, like "D&D" and "Baldur's Gate." Never mind.

(Not) fun fact: In reference to Foles having opportunities downfield off play-action, @RealJackAndrade is one negative Nancy. This is just slightly concerning:

Carson Wentz, when passing deep (20-plus air yards): 25 of 65, 44.6 accuracy percentage, 10 TDs, 4 INTs, 100.2 passer rating.
Nick Foles, when passing deep: 2 of 15, 20.0 accuracy percentage, 0 TDs, 1 INT, 13.8 passer rating.

Interesting tidbit: The Vikings are 12-0 this season when Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon combine for at least 100 scrimmage yards. Those pesky Minnesota running backs counter pressure on Keenum, for sure. The win in Atlanta comes to mind here.

Historical note: For all the droning on about the Vikings never winning the Super Bowl, fans and media alike need to reconsider how successful this franchise has been. While the '90s Bills get a ton of love for losing four Super Bowls in a row, the Bud Grant Vikings teams (1967-1983, 1985) don't receive the same due. Not only did they reach the ultimate game four times during Grant's tenure, they made the postseason 10 times from 1968 to 1978. The '80s might not have seen the same amount of success, but Minnesota did reach the playoffs in 1980, '82, '87, '88 and '89. Don't sleep on the '90s, when Dennis Green's squads made the postseason on seven occasions. This is a franchise steeped in tradition, with #SKOL (SKOAL Bandit?), and all that stuff. It's also rich in winning.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.



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