The NFL conference championship games are on the way with the New England Patriots set to take on the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC game while the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings will clash in the NFC. Despite what some seem to think, both of these games could go either way and it’s clear that whichever two teams make it to the Super Bowl will absolutely deserve it. With that said, here are three keys to victory for each team in the conference championship round.
1. Consistent Pass-Rush
“Sacksonville” earned that nickname through pass-rushing dominance, but if the team really wants to beat the Patriots on Sunday, they must exceed even their high expectations. Tom Brady, though listed as questionable because of a hand injury, should be New England’s starting QB, and it’s imperative that the Jaguars pass-rush forces him to make plays outside of the pocket in order to slow down New England’s passing attack.
2. Neutralize Rob Gronkowski
Though it is much easier said than done, the Jaguars are one of the few teams who, on paper, have the defensive personnel necessary to match up with Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronk, who is the premier player at the position, can take over entire games if given the opportunity. In all likelihood, second-year man Jalen Ramsey will be tasked with covering Gronk for the most part, and with excellent size and athleticism as well as natural cover skills, Ramsey has the talent needed to keep Gronkowski quiet. If Ramsey lives up to the challenge, it will go a long way toward securing a Jacksonville victory.
3. Efficient Passing
Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles has gotten plenty of criticism this postseason, some deserved, some not, but there’s absolutely no doubt he must play well if his team wants to pull off the upset this week. Bortles doesn’t need to be amazing, but he does need to be efficient and take some pressure off of Leonard Fournette and the rushing game. The Patriots are going to try to force Bortles to win the game with his arm, and it’s imperative he proves capable of doing just that.
New England Patriots
1. Shut Down Jaguars Rushing Attack
If Leonard Fournette and co. are able to put up big numbers, it’s going to be much more difficult for the Patriots to pull off the victory in this game. By playing well against the run, the Patriots will force Blake Bortles to win the game through the air, and for a quarterback positing Tim Tebow-esque efficiency numbers, that would bode well for the Patriots chances.
2. Diversify Passing Targets
In the Jaguars blurb, we discussed how Jalen Ramsey will present a tough challenge to Rob Gronkowski, but fellow cornerback A.J. Bouye is every bit as good as Ramsey and it figures to be tough for No. 1 receiver Brandin Cooks to put up big numbers in this contest. The best chance for the Patriots to move the ball through the air is to focus on getting the ball to guys like Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan. The Jaguars have a tough secondary, but by focusing on throwing to secondary options, the Patriots can still pass effectively.
3. Protect Tom Brady
As we already discussed, Jacksonville’s pass-rush is an elite unit, making it incredibly important for the Patriots offensive line to play well. Brady is already dealing with a hand injury and if the Jaguars are able to get consistent pressure on him, it’s not crazy to think we could see a rough outing from No. 12, making it imperative that his offensive line provides a clean pocket as often as possible.
1. Force Turnovers
Riding the No. 1 defense in the league, the Minnesota Vikings have made it this far, and that very same defense is a major key to securing the team’s spot in the Super Bowl. Nick Foles, though he has been surprisingly effective recently, is not Carson Wentz, and there are times Foles makes some questionable throws. If Minnesota can turn those throws into turnovers, it will make life incredibly hard for Philadelphia’s offense.
2. Run Effectively
Lost in the headlines surrounding the Vikings is that this team’s offense has been predicated on the run all season long, not Case Keenum or the passing attack. The Eagles are the NFL’s best rushing defense, holding opponents to just under 80 rushing yards per game, making this a very tough matchup for Minnesota’s offense. Keenum, despite a special season, does his best work when the rushing attack leads the way, and it would make a victory much easier if the running backs can break through this tough defensive opponent.
3. Tune Out Crowd Noise
Going into Philadelphia is never an easy task for an opponent, and the Eagles 7-1 home record proves that. Philadelphia fans are some of the most passionate in the NFL, and with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, it’s likely the crowd is going to be especially pumped up. Minnesota needs to tune out the crowd however and focus on playing efficiently if they expect to move on.
1. Pressure Case Keenum
Case Keenum is in the midst of a truly remarkable season, but at the same time, he has started to look less spectacular in recent weeks. Although he continues to do enough to win, the Vikings can’t afford any reckless turnovers from their quarterback. Coming away with a couple takeaways in the passing game would be huge for Philly.
2. Target Trae Waynes
Although Minnesota cornerback Trae Waynes is putting up his best professional season so far, he remains a relatively average player at the position and can struggle with his focus at times, leading him susceptible to big plays. Philadelphia should definitely look to exploit this matchup every chance they get.
3. Convert Special Teams Opportunities
Throughout what has been a great season, one of the Eagles biggest struggles has come on special teams, namely the field goal unit. Sitting at No. 28 in the NFL in field goal conversion percentage, the Eagles need to play well in that area come Sunday. In what is sure to be a defensive battle settled by field goals, the Eagles need to make sure they are taking advantage of their opportunities.