NFL Playoff Picks: AFC, NFC Championship Game Odds, Predictions

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And then there were four.

The NFL’s championship weekend is here, and who could have seen this coming in September? Obviously, it’s never surprising to see the New England Patriots playing for a trip to the Super Bowl — this will be their seventh consecutive AFC Championship game — but the rest of the field is a bit surprising, to say the least.

Entering Week 1, here’s where the preseason Super Bowl odds for the other three teams playing this weekend stood:

Minnesota Vikings: 28-1
Philadelphia Eagles: 40-1
Jacksonville Jaguars: 66-1

That’s why they play the games, though, and if there are games to be played, there are picks to be made. NESN.com’s Mike Cole, Andre Khatchaturian and Ricky Doyle are back again this week to make their against-the-spread picks for the two games.

Here’s how they fared last week.

Mike Cole: 2-2 (124-122-11 overall)
Andre Khatchaturian: 1-3 (123-123-11)
Ricky Doyle: 2-2 (110-136-11)

AFC CHAMPIONSHIP
Jacksonville Jaguars at (-9) New England Patriots, 3:05 p.m.
Mike: Jaguars. I picked the Jaguars on “The Spread” this week, and that was before we learned about Tom Brady’s hand injury. I still think the Patriots ultimately win, but this is the best defense Brady and the Patriots have faced all season, and that’s a big enough reason to believe Jacksonville can keep it within the number. All of Brady’s biggest playoff losses have come when he’s been put on the ground, and the Jaguars have the ability to do that, and they don’t need to blitz to make it happen. As pointed out by ESPN, Jacksonville finished second in the NFL in pressure rate despite blitzing an NFL-low 17.8 percent of the time. If the Jaguars create some pressure and maybe get a takeaway, they can make this a game.

Ricky: Patriots. So, we’re just going to throw out the Jaguars’ 10-3 slopfest against the Bills, a game in which Blake Bortles — the man tasked with going step-for-step with Tom Brady this Sunday — had more rushing yards (88) than passing yards (87)? Listen, I understand Jacksonville’s defense is legit. But the Patriots are so experienced, so prepared and so well-coached that it’ll be surprising if they don’t find ways to move the football, likely in short increments rather than relying on deep plays. Of Brady’s 35 completions against the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round, 20 were to running backs or tight ends and 11 were to slot receiver Danny Amendola. The Patriots should deploy a similar attack against the Jaguars, who ranked 15th in defending running backs in the passing game and 20th in defending tight ends (according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA), much like Jimmy Garoppolo and San Francisco 49ers did en route to scoring 44 points against Jacksonville in Week 16. On the flip side, New England’s defense — allowing just 14 points per game over its last 13 games and 12.6 points per game over its last six home games — will come up with a big play against Jacksonville’s inconsistent offense.

Andre: Jaguars. The Jaguars statistically match up well against the Patriots’ strengths. While Rob Gronkowski is a threat and will likely get his fair share of receptions and yardage, the Jaguars have allowed the fourth-fewest receiving yards to tight ends this year. As Mike mentioned, the Jaguars are successful at getting to the quarterback without blitzing. This means they can put a man on Gronk. The Patriots also utilize pass-catching running backs. Well, the Jaguars are good at defending them, too, allowing the 10th-fewest receiving yards to running backs. The Patriots’ offensive line isn’t all that great either. Tom Brady has taken at least two sacks in 12 of his 17 games this season and the Jaguars definitely can get pressure up the middle. Brady has an 85.2 winning percentage since 2008 when he’s sacked zero or one times in a game. That winning percentage falls to 61.9 percent when he’s sacked four or more times. Finally, the Patriots allowed the third-most yards per carry this season and the Jaguars led the league in rushing yards this season. There’s just too much statistically stacked up against New England in this one and the Jaguars should be able to cover this large spread.

NFC CHAMPIONSHIP
(-3) Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles, 6:40 p.m.
Mike: Vikings. Again, it’s hard to lay points on the road when the home team has won the last eight conference championships, and the Eagles reminded everyone last week that despite having Nick Foles under center, their defense is legit. But the Vikings’ defense is better than the Atlanta unit, and the Eagles scored just 15 points last week. The Falcons missed far too many tackles, which allowed Foles the luxury of not having to throw downfield. That won’t be the same case this week against a Vikings defense that’s among the better tackling teams in the NFL. As long as Case Keenum takes care of the ball — he has just three interceptions in his last eight games — Minnesota should be able to get a win and head home to host the Super Bowl.

Ricky: Vikings. The ground game feels like a wash thanks to both teams fielding elite run defenses, in which case I turn to the air, where the Vikings are more likely to have success — relatively speaking, of course — than the Eagles. Minnesota ranks first at defending running backs in the passing game and second in defending tight ends, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA, which could lead to some ill-advised throws by Nick Foles, who won’t have any security blankets to rely on. Conversely, Philadelphia ranks 10th and 17th in those categories, respectively, and Minnesota just so happens to have a good pass-catching running back in Jerick McKinnon and a solid pass-catching tight end in Kyle Rudolph. The Vikings also have an excellent red-zone defense, which might be the ultimate difference-maker against an Eagles offense that’s experienced a noticeable drop-off in the red zone without Carson Wentz.

Andre: Vikings. Case Keenum won the starting job over Nick Foles back in St. Louis for a reason — he’s the better quarterback. Since Foles took over, the Eagles have a yards per play differential of -0.58. To put that into context, only four teams had a worse yards per play differential throughout the entire regular season. Long story short, the Eagles’ offense has been stagnant because of Foles. Minnesota’s defense is simply too strong and they’ll give Foles plenty of problems. Ricky made excellent points about Minnesota’s ability to defend tight ends and pass-catching running backs. And as Mike said, the Vikings just turn the ball over. They only had 14 giveaways this season — the third-fewest in the league.

Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images

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