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.