By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — There’s been quite a bit of grumbling this week over the perceived lack of quarterback talent left in the NFL playoffs, outside of the Irish lad in New England. And, well, sure, from a marquee standpoint, a Blake Bortles-Nick Foles Super Bowl would not be particularly juicy to the American public at large.
But for one — who cares? The Vikings and Eagles have two of the best defenses in the league, and they’re playing in a great sports city on Sunday night with a Super Bowl berth on the line. If you enjoy football, you’ll enjoy that game. Likewise, Tom Brady going against a speedy, athletic and hyper-confident defense should be a great spectacle.
Plus, it remains to be seen how a bad QB matchup would affect Super Bowl ratings, if at all. Provided the Patriots make the Super Bowl, you’re still going to have Brady going up against either the No. 1 or No. 4 defense in the Super Bowl — and possibly against a home team. If it’s the Jaguars, the NFL admittedly loses quite a bit of sizzle, but will that deter anyone from watching the Super Bowl?
It seems like a bit of overreaction to paint the picture so drearily. Yes perhaps the NFL has a “star” problem, and marketing the likes Eric Kendricks and Everson Griffin to the non-football-watching public will be a challenge. But have the playoffs not been supremely entertaining thus far?
The Titans stormed back from 21-3 in Kansas City to stun the Cheifs; Marcus Mariota threw a freaking touchdown pass to himself. New Orleans masterfully came back to beat the Vikings, only to shockingly give up a 61-yard touchdown pass from Case Keenum to Stefon Diggs with no time on the clock. The upstart Jaguars marched into Pittsburgh and smacked the Steelers in the mouth, opening up a 21-0 lead and hanging on for a wild 45-42 victory. The Falcons marched 74 yards for an end-of-game winning score, but Matt Ryan’s pass floated through Julio Jones’ hands, electrifying the Philly crowd and giving birth to a wild craze of huge men wearing dog masks.
The football has been good! Some more than others, but divisional weekend was about as enjoyable as anybody could have expected.
Maybe I’m just an optimist (no, that’s not true), but I’m going to watch the remaining three football games of the year, and I bet you will too. It’s more likely than not that we find ourselves entertained.
(Home team in CAPS; Wednesday lines)
NEW ENGLAND (-9) over Jacksonville
The Jaguars’ defense is outstanding, chock full of talented players who can disrupt opposing offenses. I believe they may impact this game in a tremendous way, and the risk is there for this game to remain close throughout the bulk of the 60 minutes.
Yet no matter which way I slice it, no matter how many matchups might go the Jaguars’ way, I still can’t get past two things: The Patriots just have too many offensive weapons, and the Jaguars’ offense is just not quite dynamic enough to rack up touchdowns in Foxboro.
On the latter point, the Jaguars’ offense is actually underrated. They ranked fifth in the NFL in points scored and sixth in yards this season. With the way people talk about the unit headed by Leonard Fournette and quarterbacked by Blake Bortles, you’d think they’d sit with the Clevelands and Buffalos of the world. But they’re actually capable.
The issue I foresee is simply with personnel. Fournette is their best player, but the Patriots never lose to a team when a running back is their best player. Going back to Marshall Faulk, through Brian Westbrook, through LaDainian Tomlinson, through Maurice Jones-Drew and Adrian Peterson, the Patriots under Bill Belichick always know how to contain the league’s highly talented backs. (Ray Rice is the exception; man, that ’09 team stunk.) The defensive line is so well-coached, so well-disciplined and so strong that the idea of Fournette carrying 40-plus times with success is hard to fathom. (Derrick Henry, for example, went from a 156-yard night in Kansas City to a 28-yard night in Foxboro. That tends to be what happens.)
And if Bortles decides to lob up one of those deep balls — he threw three in Pittsburgh, even completing one — then they’re getting picked off by either Devin McCourty or Duron Harmon. Those wounded ducks will not harmlessly hit the synthetic turf in Gillette.
Defensively, the Jaguars have the luxury if they so choose to put Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye on the outside to lock down Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan. If the officials allow the corners to be physical, then those Patriots are in for long afternoons. But then, is there anyone who can stay with Danny Amendola? Is there any one person who can get in the way of Rob Gronowski? Myles Jack can try, and so can Telvin Smith, Tashaun Gipson and/or Barry Church.
And all of that is without even addressing the trio of James White, Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead out of the backfield. Each presents matchup problems for defenses every single week, and they figure to be significant contributors this Sunday for Brady.
It’s just too much. I do have some hesitancy in the Patriots’ offensive line, matched up against Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue and Malik Jackson. Those three are ferocious, and a few sacks and a fumble are the types of plays that can really go a long way in leading to upsets.
But ultimately, the Patriots have too much. With unseasonably warm temperatures expected in Foxboro, it should be a good day for throwing the football for Brady, despite the individual talent spread out across the opposing defense.
PHILADELPHIA (+3) over Minnesota
These two teams are riding high on life as they enter the NFC Championship Game.
It’d hard to be more emotionally charged than the Vikings, who really came as close to losing as is humanly possible before pulling off the miracle touchdown to end all miracle touchdowns. That game right there was a moment, one that will be talked about 30 years from now.
But don’t sleep on the Philadelphia Eagles now. Remember, the Falcons waltzed into the Coliseum in the wild-card round and stomped all over arguably the NFL’s best team. When they walked into Philly a week later, they could hardly do anything at all.
Prior to the final drive, Matt Ryan was held to 16-of-26 passing for 148 yards and a touchdown. The Falcons generated just two scoring drives while punting six times and turning it over on downs at the end of the game.
Nick Foles put forth some surprisingly decent stats, going 23-for-30 for 246 yards without throwing any picks, kicker Jake Elliot was nails. It was the perfect recipe for a home win by a cold-weather team.
And while there will be a groundswell of support for a Vikings team coming off that huge win and with the chances of hosting a Super Bowl staring them in the face, I can’t fade away from an Eagles team that is very clearly taking that “nobody believed in us” mantra and running with it. Sometimes, it’s as simple as that.
Last week: 3-1
Regular season: 121-123-12