Who are you picking to win the Championship games?

Posted Jan 19, 2018

talkSPORT's Mike Carlson make his picks for the weekend games.

The poet Alan Ginsberg once addressed inspiration by saying 'first thought, best thought'. If he had been a football coach, he might have said 'trust your gut', 'don't over-think yourself' or KISS (keep it simple, stupid). Last week I wrote about how I had over-ridden my gut feeling to pick the Falcons over the Eagles in the Bird Derby. Yet had the Falcons not refused to keep it simple, and been able to punch the ball into the end zone with four tries from the nine in the final minute, I might still have been right. On the other hand, Atlanta hadn't come up with a new 'two-point play' for that fourth-down from the two yard line: Philadelphia knew exactly what was coming, but still needed Julio Jones to 'slip' twice and let the ball go through his hands to seal the win.

This 'slipping' was one of the themes of last weekend, because, along with what is and isn't a catch, what is or isn't holding in the line, pass coverage is another of the league's black holes of officiating. The idea that there is some sort of equality for the defender and receiver to remain in contact down the field negates the basic rule of interference. I make the point that teams relying on press man coverage generally establish hand contact all the way down the field, at times holding the receivers arms with their hands, releasing only when the receiver makes a move for the ball, at which point they throw their arms into what they hope will be the ball's path. We saw some amazing catches, most notably Antonio Brown's 43 yard TD on fourth down, where the receivers' arms or hands were barely free even as the ball got there. The slippery slope began when the chuck rule and the offensive holding rules were changed in the late 70s: they have now become, not just judgement calls, but judgement as to the amount of intereference, or amount of benefit gained from the holding. It is like basketball, and even Mike Pereira calls penalties 'fouls'.

When you deal with a 16 game NFL week, picking games is relatively easy, especially later in the season (between weeks 7-16 I went 114-35). But in the playoffs, the four game weekends invite you to over-think. And this weekend with only two? My head is steaming. The simple way to approach these games, in a quarterback-centric league, is to look at the four signal callers, and that bias against those perceived as lesser has played a big part in the establishing of the Pats as favourites and the Eagles as home dogs Sunday. So let Iron Mike's over-thinking commence.

AFC CHAMPIONSHIP: Jacksonville (12-6) at New England (14-3): You've probably heard the 'Tom Coughlin has the Pats' number' come up more than once this week, but beyond the pschological mumbo-jumbo, there is a strong kernel of truth. Not because he's Tom Coughlin, but because the team the Jags have built is put together like Coughlin's Giants, and indeed like his Jags when he coached them, and the things they do well are the things that can help you beat New England. They can rush the passer with just four (and note that the Pats will likely be starting a third-stringer at right tackle) and they have a very good four, comparable to those Pat-buster Giants. The Pats have trouble with teams that beat them up in the middle, don't allow their finesse blocking, and stop Brady from stepping up in the pocket. The Jags also have quick linebackers who can cover, and a secondary whose corners are adept at press-man, which they need to be playing in a Seattle-like cover 3 or cover 1. Their O line is big and run-blocks well, and Leonard Fournette of course is a bell-cow back. The key for the Jags is to disrupt New England early, control the clock, keep the game close, and not fall far behind. In a one-score game, anything can happen, as Giants' fans know.

The Pats are likely (though who knows with Bill Belichick?) to try to run the ball, to use multiple tight end formations to try to create mis-matches and leave the Jags' Pro Bowl corners isolated. New England has no Antonio Brown or Julio Jones to take out of the game; one interesting question is whether the Jags might put Ramsey or Bouye on Gronk, which Seattle has done in the past, and take him out of the equation. The Pats are not a big-play team: they need to stretch drives out as pass plays fail then succeed. One thing the Jags cannot let happen is for New England to establish a lead, as they did against the Titans; they do not want their game to have to be one-dimensional. It's unlikely Blake Bortles (there, I've said it!) beats the Pats running, but it's less likely he beats them passing.

Of course the usual caveats about turnovers, big play returns, and penalties apply. And I suppose home field advantage. But I think back to the 2009 Wild Card game with the Ravens, when Ray Rice busted a long TD run to start things going and Baltimore won 33-14. Watch Fournette in the first quarter. Can the Pats hold him in check? Pick: Pats

NFC CHAMPIONSHIP: Minnesota (14-3) at Philadelphia (14-3): Jeff Fisher Survivors Bowl! Case Keenum started the season third on the Vikings depth chart; Nick Foles was number two. Foles is a game-manager type with a decent arm, who has to game-manage because he's slow to read and release. It was no shock that the Eagles' pass game worked when they went to Chip Kelly's offense: easy read options which the Vikes will likely be prepared to take away this week. Keenum is a mobile gamer, always looking to make things happen, with the odd habit of throwing a few prayers up there and hoping his receivers can make plays. Keenum isn't quite Joe Kapp, he's not as big or tough a runner, and he's a better passer than that, but that's who I think of when I watch him.

This is also a matchup of Andy Reid disciples, which all goes back to Green Bay. When the Packers won Super Bowl 36, Reid was an assistant, Fritz Shurmur was the defensive coordinator and Doug Pederson was the backup quarterback. Vikes' offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur is Fritz's nephew; his and Pederson's careers mesh nicely: Shurmur in Philly with Reid 1999-2008, Pederson from 2009-12; then Pederson goes with Reid to KC 2013-15 while Shurmur coaches the Eagles under Chip those same years. You can imagine they will understand each other's concepts.

The key to this game is in the middle. I'd almost consider Linval Joseph the Vikings' MVP, him or Harrison Smith at safety. Joseph's ability to dominate double-teams is crucial to everything else their defense does. It was fascinating to watch their pass rush disappear in the second half against the Saints: Zimmer dialled up no blitzes, none of his famed double A gap rushes up the middle, preferring to keep seven in coverage and Drew Brees nearly made them pay. The center of the Eagles' O line had a very good game against Atlanta, getting out to the second level to tie up Deion Jones in particular, but they will have a harder time with Joseph. Their backup left tackle, Big V, has held up well against the pass rush so far: Everson Griffen will be a challenge this week.

Meanwhile, the Eagles have Fletcher Cox and the much overlooked Tim Jernigan inside, a dynamic duo reminiscent of the kind of lines Jim Schwartz loved in Tennessee. They beauty of these two guys is either is strong enough to hold off doubles, and quick enough to penetrate gaps, which gives them great flexibility. The idea is to try to get the outside rushers isolated on tackles and deny Keenum an escape up the middle. The Saints got good rush in the second half, and the Vikes didn't have a lot of success running the ball: Latavius Murray is basically a take what is blocked guy. Jerrick McKinnon offers more flexibility, and he's a former QB: watch for the option pass. The Eagles of course have a posse of effective runners, led by London-Born Jay Ajayi, which should keep the excellent Barr, Kendricks, Smith and hopefully Sendejo busy up the middle.

But it comes down to who make the plays. Keenum's receivers have proven they can do that: Adam Thielen's catch to set up the 53 yard field goal by Kai Forbath was as brilliant in its way as Stefon Diggs'. They get a bit from Wright and Rudolph. The Eagles don't have a number one receiver, and Alshon Jeffrey can expect to see more trouble running those slants, but they have a group of good tight ends, and love to throw to their backs. My question is what happens when the Vikes close the run/pass option off and Foles has to win from the deep pocket? What happens when the Eagles force the Vikes to the air and bring the wide-9 rush? Do the Eagles deserve to be home dogs two weeks in a row? Pick: Eagles


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