By Steve Silverman
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The AFC championship game will not be decided by the history books. If it were, the New England Patriots would certainly have an advantage by wide miles, and the Jacksonville Jaguars would have very little to stand on.
The Jaguars are not interested in comparing résumés with the Patriots. Instead, they want to get down and dirty and start smacking heads on the football field. Coach Doug Marrone has put together a team of nasty marauders on defense, and the Jaguars are going to try to get physical with Tom Brady and the rest of New England’s crew of offensive playmakers.
The Jaguars ranked second in the league in yards allowed, trailing only the Minnesota Vikings. But when it comes to nastiness and inflicting pain, Jacksonville is at the top of the heap.
Start off with defensive ends Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue, who combined for 26½ sacks. Having two big-time pass rushers puts an unusual amount of pressure on the opposing offensive line, and that allows an interior rusher such as Malik Jackson to jump in and add eight more sacks, and the same holds for defensive end Dante Fowler Jr.
There’s a lot more to the Jacksonville defense than the pass rush. Linebackers Telvin Smith and Myles Jack combined for 192 tackles in the regular season, but more than the numbers, both are extremely hard hitters who can go sideline to sideline to keep big plays from happening.
The secondary may be as strong as any in the league with Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye manning the cornerback spots along with Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson at strong safety and free safety, respectively.
The Jaguars have as good a chance as matching up with New England’s offense as any team out there. They may be a little overemotional – I’m talking to you, Mr. Ramsey – but they have the speed, strength and talent to hang in with New England into the second half.
That’s when things should really get interesting. It would not be a surprise to see Jacksonville within a field goal at halftime. But what happens in the second half to a team with Blake Bortles at quarterback?
If he is the same leader who threw for 87 yards against the Buffalo Bills in the wild-card game, the Jaguars will disappear and the Patriots will claim yet another AFC title game. However, if Bortles can come through with a series of clutch throws to Keelan Coles and Marqise Lee, Jacksonville has a chance to put the fear of God into the Patriots.
Bortles was a much better quarterback against the Pittsburgh Steelers than he was against the Bills, completing 14 of 26 passes for 214 yards with a touchdown, and that’s indicative of progress.
It’s also a necessity for Bortles to play well, because the Patriots’ defense is going to do everything possible to slow down rookie running back Leonard Fournette. Matt Patricia’s defense will put eight men in the box to corral Fournette, dare Bortles to find the open man and make the accurate throw.
Look for the Jaguars to push the Pats hard for 30 minutes, but New England has a legacy for a good reason. Brady – bad hand or not – knows how to come through when the game is on the line, and tight end Rob Gronkowski is almost always the difference-maker.
The Patriots will get bloodied, but they will survive.
VIKINGS AT EAGLES
The NFC title game, meanwhile, appears to be a more even matchup than the Jacksonville-New England game. The Minnesota Vikings may or may not have their feet firmly planted on the ground when the game kicks off Sunday evening after their miracle finish win over the New Orleans Saints.
But they should have somewhat of an advantage over the Philadelphia Eagles because quarterback Nick Foles is such a shaky commodity at the quarterback position. He was better against the Falcons than he was against the Raiders and Cowboys in the last two regular-season games, but there’s no reason to think he can come through against the No. 1 defense in the league.
The Eagles have the home-field edge, but this is the Vikings’ time. If they win, they get to play the Super Bowl on their own home field, and they have the versatility on offense to help them win in Philadelphia.
Running backs Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray have stepped up after the Dalvin Cook injury, while Adam Thielen has become a star at one wide receiver position and Stefon Diggs created the greatest play in Vikings history.
Quarterback Case Keenum is the gutsy leader who makes it all run. He can make the short- and medium-range throws, and he can also buy time with his feet.
He makes better decisions with the ball than Foles does. Thanks to Keenum, look for the Vikings to play in their first Super Bowl in 41 years — and they’ll do it in their home stadium.