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It’s one of the strangest quarterback groupings in NFL conference championship weekend history, so of course all we’re talking about at the end of the week is the superstar of the group.
The hand injury that caused New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to miss practice on Wednesday and Thursday was felt in Las Vegas, too. When news came out Thursday that Brady didn’t participate, the line moved fairly quickly from the Patriots being favored by 8.5 in some spots to 7.5.
The injury is mysterious but let’s get one thing out of the way: Bill Belichick is not doing this as a rouse. No coach is going to sit out his starting quarterback from the two most important days of preparation for an AFC title game just to confuse an opponent. First of all, it’s the safest bet in the world the Jaguars aren’t changing anything; they’re preparing for Brady like he’ll play and play well. So there’s no advantage to be gained. If you believe Brady is not injured at all and this is Belichick playing games, it’s illogical and it goes to show how paranoid everyone in the NFL is about the Patriots, fans included.
What we don’t know is how to factor in the injury for picking purposes. As of Friday morning, nobody expects Brady to sit out, and he won’t. Since being drafted in 2000 he has sat out for only one injury, his ACL tear in 2008. He’s not sitting out a championship game. But once we acknowledge he has a real injury that’s significant enough to force him out of practice (let it go, conspiracy theorists), it’s hard to get a grasp on how much it will affect Brady’s play. If he has trouble gripping the ball, nobody should have to explain how that would be an issue against the Jacksonville Jaguars’ No. 1 pass defense. Or, perhaps the injury isn’t that bad, the Patriots were just being cautious on Thursday and Brady looks like Brady on Sunday. We just don’t know, and don’t expect to get a clear answer before kickoff either. Heck, it’s only the status of the greatest quarterback ever. No big deal.
So that late-breaking development muddies the waters a bit as we get into the championship game picks:
Jaguars at Patriots (-8.5): The Yahoo Pro Football Pick’em line was set at 8.5 before it shifted with further news on Brady’s injury. Even before the injury, I thought the Jaguars were the right side.
Jacksonville’s defense should give New England some issues and keep it close. The Patriots offense is very, very good and they’ll have a plan to attack the Jaguars (analyst Warren Sharp deftly pointed out that the Jaguars do much better against three-receiver sets than two tight ends, two running backs or both so assume we’ll see heavier sets from the Patriots). I figure the Patriots will run the ball a lot — the Jaguars’ pass defense is much better than its run defense — which could also keep the scoring down. But the Jaguars defense will compete hard and present some problems.
The problem with picking the Jaguars is you’re also taking their offense. If the Jaguars offense we saw last week shows up, Jacksonville will be fine and even has a shot at an upset. But if Blake Bortles can’t complete simple passes, which is what happened in the wild-card win over the Bills, it could be a blowout. That’s the risk. Still, I’m picking the Jaguars defense to make a game of it. And it’s at least possible that we’ll look back on Brady’s injury being a pretty big deal. The pick: Patriots 24, Jaguars 20.
Vikings (-3) over Eagles: Last week, I thought the Eagles were being disrespected by being an underdog at home in the divisional round. Not this week.
The Eagles shouldn’t have been underdogs at home last week to an Atlanta Falcons team that wasn’t too impressive all season. The Vikings are a much better opponent, however. The Eagles struggled to score last week, and it’ll be very hard against a Vikings defense that led the NFL in yards and points allowed.
The Eagles’ best path to victory would be to win the turnover battle, but that won’t be easy either. The Vikings offense doesn’t turn the ball over. They had 14 turnovers in the regular season. Case Keenum has been excellent, consistent and very rarely makes mistakes. He threw one bad interception against the New Orleans Saints last week, but that hasn’t been the norm.
The Eagles have had a great season and Nick Foles has probably been criticized too much based on one bad performance against the Raiders (eliminate that game and a meaningless quarter in Week 17 and Foles has a 108.1 rating since Carson Wentz got hurt), but the Vikings are very good. I think they’re moving on to host Super Bowl LII. The pick: Vikings 20, Eagles 10
Last week: 3-1
Season to date: 143-113-8
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