As we wait for Jimmy Garoppolo to sign an extension with the 49ers and for the Scouting Combine to start and for free agency to begin, let’s turn our attention to Sunday’s conference championship games.
Here’s what to watch for in each one.
Disclaimer: I’m not taking Tom Brady’s thumb injury seriously. The quarterback allegedly hurt it in practice on Wednesday and almost certainly will play on Sunday. No one knows if the injury is fact or fiction. The Patriots could be playing mind games with their opponent, the Jacksonville Jaguars. Head coach Bill Belichick has played so many mind games throughout the years. You simply cannot trust his injury reports or what he says.
EARLY GAME: PATRIOTS vs. JAGUARS.
No coach has had more success against Belichick than Jaguars executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin.
Of course, Coughlin isn’t a head coach any more. Doug Marrone coaches the Jaguars. But Coughlin still game plans and diagrams plays and provides the vision for the Jaguars present and future.
And in certain ways, the Jaguars are similar to Coughlin’s past championship teams with the Giants.
When Coughlin coached the Giants, he beat Belichick both times they faced each other in the Super Bowl. In each game, Coughlin won with four great pass rushers who swarmed Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
The Jaguars also have four great pass rushers. Calais Campbell. Malik Jackson. Dante Fowler. Yannick Ngakoue.
And the Jaguars have Jalen Ramsey, a big cornerback who can cover the Patriots best offensive weapon — tight end Rob Gronkowki. And, the Jaguars have A.J. Bouye, another excellent corner who can cover the Patriots second-best offensive weapon — wide receiver Brandin Cooks.
The Jaguars defense matches up well against the Patriots offense.
But, can the Jaguars offense score enough to win this game? That’s the main question.
The Jaguars rank fifth in points scored this season, while the Patriots rank fifth in fewest points allowed. Seems like an even matchup. But, the Patriots defense is improving. It gave up only 36 points total the past three games.
And here’s the big thing, the whopper, the Jaguars quarterback is Blake Bortles. You saw him a few weeks ago when the 49ers beat the Jaguars. He’s crude. He’s inaccurate. To use a technical football term, he stinks. Can’t make difficult throws. So, the Jaguars have to force the issue on the ground to work around his deficiencies. They lead the league in rushing attempts per game with 33.1.
Belichick will try to shut down Jaguars running backs Leonard Fournette and T.J. Yeldon, and make Bortles win the game with his arm.
Fat chance Bortles wins the game with his arm. He can’t beat anyone with his arm. He threw for only 87 yards a couple weeks ago against the Buffalo Bills in the Wild Card round. You hardly could call that throwing.
Final score prediction: Patriots 26, Jaguars 19.
LATE GAME: EAGLES vs. VIKINGS.
This is the battle of the backup quarterbacks.
It’s also the battle of two of the most talented teams in the NFL. The Eagles have six Pro Bowlers and the Vikings have four.
But, both teams lost their starting quarterbacks this season. Vikings starter Sam Bradford had knee surgery, and Eagles starter Carson Wentz tore his ACL and meniscus.
So, we will watch Case Keenum face Nick Foles.
Keenum is better than Foles. That’s one advantage for the Vikings. Keenum’s quarterback rating this season was 98.8 in 15 regular-season appearances and 14 starts. Foles’ rating was 79.5 in seven appearances and three starts this season.
Keenum is having a magical season and so are the Vikings. Their last-second win last week against the New Orleans Saints was pure magic. Maybe this is just the Vikings’ year.
Or, maybe their luck will run out Sunday.
The Eagles have one more day of rest than the Vikings. Philly played last Saturday and Minnesota played last Sunday. Teams with an extra day of rest are 12-4 in conference championships the past eight years.
And, the Vikings are on the road. They’re an indoor dome team that has to play outside in the cold of the real world. This season, the Vikings played six outdoor games and won four of them. They beat the Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns, Washington Redskins and Green Bay Packers — four non-playoff teams with a combined record of 19-45. The two outdoor games the Vikings lost were against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Carolina Panthers — two playoff teams with a combined record of 24-8.
And, the Vikings have a plodding, plow-horse run game. Their tailback, Latavius Murray, is a Clydesdale, not a thoroughbred. Not dynamic or dangerous. The Vikings offense is one dimensional. They rely on Keenum to drop back and make difficult throws into tight spaces.
The Eagles ask much less from Foles. They have one of the best rushing attacks in the league, averaging 4.5 yards per carry. Foles just has to hand the ball off and make easy play-action passes into defensive voids. He doesn’t make tight-window throws.
The Eagles like to run a particular type of play-action pass with Foles — it’s called a run-pass option. Foles lines up in the shotgun and fakes a handoff, as if he’s running the read-option. But, when he keeps the ball, he throws it instead of running with it.
Run-pass options create a “conflicted defender” who has to make a difficult choice, either cover a receiver or defend a potential run, and he has to decide instantly. If the conflicted defender stays with the receiver, Foles hands off. If the conflicted defender bites on the run fake and rushes toward the line of scrimmage, Foles throws.
This play is the Eagles’ biggest advantage against the Vikings. And it will work.
Final score prediction: Eagles 20, Vikings 17.
Grant Cohn covers the 49ers for The Santa Rosa Press Democrat and Pressdemocrat.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.