Here’s who should prevail, both straight up and against the spread, in the NFL Conference Championships.
Jacksonville Jaguars @ New England Patriots (-9.5)
The Patriots, making their NFL-record seventh straight Conference Championship appearance, are deserved favorites against an inexperienced Jaguars squad but may have trouble covering this sizable number.
Jacksonville’s defense gave the Steelers plenty of trouble in chilly Pittsburgh last Sunday. They limited Le’Veon Bell to 67 yards rushing and forced two turnovers to bring their differential in the playoffs to plus-4 (they had the fifth-best turnover margin in the regular season at plus-10).
They also brought down Ben Roethlisberger twice, which served as a reminder of just how dangerous the Jaguars’ pass rushers are (55 sacks in the regular season, second-best in the league). New England’s offensive line, 15th in the NFL in sacks allowed during the regular season, should have their hands full keeping Tom Brady upright.
Jacksonville’s pass rush also contributes to their league-best mark in passing yards allowed. Though the Jaguars gave up large chunks of yardage through the air to the Steelers last week, it’s worth noting there were several highlight-reel catches by Pittsburgh wideouts in that contest, including a pair by Antonio Brown. The Patriots have no such receiver on their roster.
The Jaguars top-ranked rush attack, led by Leonard Fournette, should be able to move the ball effectively against the Patriots’ 17th-ranked run stoppers. As long as the Jacksonville defense holds up their end of the bargain, that should be enough to at least keep this game close, regardless of how Blake Bortles plays.
The pick: Jaguars +9.5
Minnesota Vikings (-3) @ Philadelphia Eagles
Minnesota may have needed a miracle to beat the Saints at home last Sunday, but Vikings fans should be confident going into this matchup against a depleted Eagles team.
Nick Foles held his own against a decent Falcons defense last week, but his teammates betrayed him by putting the ball on the ground twice. Philadelphia can’t afford to make mistakes against a stingy Minnesota defense that was first in points per game allowed and yards allowed in the regular season.
The Vikings were particularly effective against the Saints’ ground game last week, holding Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara to just 80 rushing yards. That could be a problem for the Eagles, who have struggled to move the ball on the ground of late and have just one rushing touchdown since Nov. 19 (Blount’s goal-line carry against Atlanta last Saturday).
Minnesota’s versatile offense was on display against New Orleans, as Case Keenum and company (308 yards) bailed out the Vikings’ usually-reliable ground game (95 yards but eighth in the NFL during the regular season). Keenum should have similar success against an Eagles unit that was 17th in passing yards allowed in the regular season. Expect the Vikings to win and cover on the road.
The pick: Vikings -3