Conference Championship Sunday
3:05 PM ET Game
Jacksonville @ New England
Team Totals: Patriots 26.5, Jaguars 19
Among the many factors that solidify the Patriots as pro football’s greatest team is their game-planning humility, borne out in New England’s penchant for accentuating its own team strengths and attacking opponent weaknesses. By doing so, the Patriots openly acknowledge they don’t have all the answers and don’t overestimate themselves; they simply seek to give their team the best odds. … Although the Jags’ defensive flaws are minimal, one of them is late-season struggles against running backs in the passing game, highlighted by 49ers FB Kyle Juszczyk’s 5/76/0 receiving line in Week 16, Derrick Henry’s 66-yard screen-pass touchdown in Week 17, Bills backs’ combined 7/56/0 stat line in the Wild Card Round, and Le’Veon Bell’s 9/88/1 number on 13 targets last week. Dion Lewis has been a passing-game monster with target counts of 5 > 7 > 10 in the past three weeks, earning feature back duties regardless of Rex Burkhead’s (knee) status. Burkhead’s expected return is more concerning for James White, whose Divisional Round fantasy contributions came largely on two touches inside the ten-yard line, where Burkhead has been featured when healthy. With all three Pats backs at full strength in Weeks 10-14, Lewis logged touch counts of 14 > 14 > 16 > 15 > 10 to Burkhead’s 13 > 9 > 15 > 15 > 10 and White’s 5 > 5 > 4 > 9 > 3.
In his excellent breakdown of Jacksonville’s few defensive weaknesses, Warren Sharp noted the Jaguars have struggled most against teams that attack in “12” and “21” two-tight end and two-back formations. My guess is we’ll see a frequent rotation of Lewis, White, and Burkhead lined up on either side of Tom Brady in the shotgun, a bit more than usual of James Develin and Dwayne Allen, and a bit less of Danny Amendola, whose playing time is reserved for three-receiver “11” formations. More “12” (two TEs) and “21” (two RBs) personnel alignments would also give New England an easier means of manufacturing high-percentage completions, a requirement if Brady’s hand injury is any hindrance to his grip on the ball.
Running back passes, schemed tight end and fullback production, and vertical daggers were the primary culprits as Jacksonville’s defense gave up 42 points to Pittsburgh in the Divisional Round, 44 to San Francisco in Week 16, 24 to Seattle in Week 14, and 27 to Arizona in Week 12. The Jaguars have allowed 22 touchdown passes in 18 games, 15 (68%) of which came on throws outside of the red zone. Deep threats Antonio Brown (7/132/2), Tyler Lockett (4/90/1), DeAndre Hopkins (4/80/1), Doug Baldwin (3/78/1), Martavis Bryant (2/78/1), Paul Richardson (3/72/1), and T.Y. Hilton (3/51/1) all produced at or above expectation against the Jaguars in the season’s second half.
New England’s biggest obstacle for exploiting Jacksonville’s vulnerabilities in the intermediate and deep passing games is the health of Tom Brady’s hand. And we have no way of knowing how it will impact his play. Before Brady got hurt in Wednesday’s practice, I viewed this as a sneaky blowup spot for Brandin Cooks, who ranked second in the NFL behind Tyreek Hill (628) in yards (608) on throws attempted 20-plus yards downfield. Cooks logged 80-plus yards and/or a touchdown in five of his final eight regular season games. … Second favorite among Patriots wideouts for deep-ball connections is Chris Hogan, whose 11 20-plus-yard targets rank third on the team behind Cooks and Rob Gronkowski despite seven missed games. Hogan remained a red-zone presence in last week’s win over Tennessee, catching a four-yard score and running 48 routes, only four fewer than Cooks and seven more than Danny Amendola. … Gronk drew 15 targets beyond 20 yards and is easily the top pass-catcher DFS play on the Conference Championship slate. The Jaguars were creamed for 11/124/0 receiving by Steelers tight ends in last week’s Divisional Round win, feeding Vance McDonald high-percentage shovel passes and screens. Although we don’t typically see Gronk used in those exact capacities, they are certainly wrinkles that could be added to the playbook to circumvent any added pressure on Brady’s hand. … Amendola was a high-volume DFS moneymaker last week, but his AFFCG matchup is far more difficult against a Jaguars defense that surrendered the NFL’s fewest fantasy points to slot receivers this season, then rendered JuJu Smith-Schuster (3/5/1) a non-factor in the Divisional Round.
Although New England’s season-long rushing efficiency allowed suggests they are a defense to attack on the ground, there are recent facts indicating otherwise. The Pats held enemy backs to a 50/136/2.72/0 rushing line in their last three games, while New England’s weekly focus is on making its opponent play “left handed,” suggesting Leonard Fournette should expect eight in the box. Nevertheless, Fournette heads into the AFC title game with 21-plus touches in six straight weeks as arguably the most volume-secure back on the slate. … As Fournette has battled ankle problems and T.J. Yeldon’s role has increased, Yeldon’s all-purpose skill set fits nicely as a weapon against a Patriots defense that allowed the NFL’s third-most receiving yards per game (52.4) to running backs. While Fournette is obviously a higher-upside bet on sheer usage and scoring potential, Yeldon warrants a long low-cost DFS look.
The Patriots’ defensive game plan figures to attempt to confine dual-threat Blake Bortles to the pocket and force him to make tight-window outside-the-numbers throws amid selective pressure. Bortles’ sheer projected opportunity raises his intrigue against a Patriots defense that faced the NFL’s third-most pass attempts per game (36.9), right on par with Marcus Mariota’s 37 throws in the Divisional Round. The Jaguars’ coaching staff will undoubtedly try to “manage” Bortles, but that will change quickly if Jacksonville falls behind. Fellow dual-threat QBs to face New England this season include Cam Newton (8/44/1 rushing), Deshaun Watson (8/41/0), Mariota (4/37/0) and Tyrod Taylor (3/32/0, 3/16/0). A heavy dose of Bortles usage seems inevitable in this scenario, particularly after he logged five-plus carries in three of the last four games. As a passer, Bortles has proven reliably hit or miss regardless of his opposition.
The Jaguars maintained a four-way wide receiver rotation in the Divisional Round. Dede Westbrook was the leader in snaps (69%) but drew only three targets. Marqise Lee led in targets (6) and was second in playing time (64%). Keelan Cole caught a 45-yard bomb from Bortles, but his snap rate dipped to 36%, and Allen Hurns’ dropped to 30%. In DFS, only Westbrook and Lee appear playable against the Patriots, whose bend-but-don’t-break defense guards perimeter wideouts stingily and is more vulnerable inside. From a size standpoint, it would make slightly more sense for the Patriots to assign Stephon Gilmore (6’1/190) to Lee (6’0/192) while Malcolm Butler (5’10/187) chases Westbrook (6’0/178). Butler has been more giving lately, allowing two Divisional Round touchdowns to Corey Davis, who didn’t catch a TD all year. … Marcedes Lewis has logged route totals of 16 and 11 through two playoff games. Ben Koyack has run 4 and 6 routes, and James O’Shaughnessy’s route totals are 12 and 8. You could try to get lucky with one of them hoping they score a touchdown, but none has a meaningful passing-game role.
Score Prediction: Patriots 24, Jaguars 20
6:40 PM ET Game
Minnesota @ Philadelphia
Team Totals: Vikings 21, Eagles 18
As reflected in this game’s low total (39.0), offensive edges are few and far between for both NFC title contenders. Case Keenum draws an Eagles defense that has held 10 of its last 11 quarterbacks faced below 230 passing yards while generating immense pressure. After leading the NFL in regular season QB hits per game (7.2), DC Jim Schwartz’s unit hung 11 hits and three sacks on Matt Ryan in the Divisional Round, dominating the game up front. The Eagles’ cornerbacks are burnable enough for Keenum to make a handful of big individual passing plays, but he’ll likely have to do it in muddy pockets.
After playing 65% of his Week 17 snaps in the slot, Adam Thielen moved outside for a surprising 72% of his Divisional Round plays and drew shadow coverage from Marshon Lattimore. The biggest reason was Minnesota’s commitment to Jarius Wright at third receiver over Michael Floyd and Laquon Treadwell; Wright’s 29 routes run, six targets, and 56 yards were all season highs, and he ran 93% of his patterns inside, forcing Thielen and Stefon Diggs to the perimeter. Assuming this usage holds, Wright is a DFS sleeper against an Eagles defense fellow slot men Doug Baldwin (5/84/0), Cooper Kupp (5/118/1), and Sterling Shepard (11/139/1) tore up in Weeks 13-15. … Wright’s emergence inside does ensure Thielen and Diggs will draw more of LCB Jalen Mills, who has yielded five touchdown passes in the last five games. Diggs ran a team-high 51% of his routes at left corners this regular season and should find himself matched on Mills most often. Eagles RCB Ronald Darby has been solid on the other side. ... Kyle Rudolph resumed his normal playing time (87%) in the Divisional Round after being limited late in the season by an ankle injury. The Eagles allowed the NFL's 12th-fewest receiving yards to tight ends (745), then stymied Austin Hooper (1/3/0) last week. Rudolph is best viewed as a touchdown-or-bust DFS bet in this matchup. He does lead the Vikings in red-zone targets (18) and targets inside the ten-yard line (11), increasing Rudolph's TD chances.
The Eagles played stout run defense all year, then shut down Devonta Freeman (10/7/0) in the Divisional Round while Tevin Coleman (10/79/0) had far more success attacking the edges of Schwartz’s defense. It’s a one-game sample and not necessarily predictive, but last week’s results suggest superior perimeter runner Jerick McKinnon is a better bet than between-the-tackles grinder Latavius Murray to exploit shortcomings in Philadelphia’s front seven. McKinnon does enter the NFC Championship with an unreliable week-to-week role, having logged touch counts of 9 > 16 > 9 > 12 > 11 in his last five games. The Eagles have also defended receiving backs stoutly, limiting enemy running backs to the NFL’s ninth-fewest receiving yards (645) this regular season, then holding Falcons backs to 40 yards on six targets in the Divisional Round.
I expect the health of Nick Foles’ throwing arm to become a bigger story as Vikings-Eagles game time draws near. Foles has dealt with elbow problems since November of 2016, considered retiring at one point, missed all of the 2017 preseason with more elbow issues, and has struggled mightily to complete anything downfield since replacing Carson Wentz (ACL) in Week 14. Per PFF, Foles is 2-of-15 (13.3%) passing for 52 yards (3.4 YPA) and an interception on throws attempted more than 20 yards in the air. Although game plans are sometimes easier contemplated than executed, it seems clear Vikings coach Mike Zimmer’s strategy should be to sell out to stop everything short and force Foles to resort downfield.
Jay Ajayi was the Eagles’ most dangerous offensive weapon in the Divisional Round, but his NFCCG impact is fair to doubt against a Vikings defense that held enemy backs to a combined 70/203/2.90/1 rushing line in its last four games, including last week’s shutdown of New Orleans’ vaunted running attack. Nevertheless, we should see another uptick in Ajayi’s usage after his 18 touches in last week’s win were a season high since Ajayi joined the Eagles, and LeGarrette Blount was painfully inefficient (9/19/1) on his runs. Should Philadelphia fall behind, two-minute/passing-game back Corey Clement would likely see enhanced usage. Clement parlayed his six Divisional Round touches into 36 yards, tying for the team lead in targets (5). Blount, of course, remained the Eagles’ designated goal-line runner.
Foles’ 2017 target distribution: Zach Ertz 31; Nelson Agholor 25; Alshon Jeffery 22; Torrey Smith 18; Ajayi 11; Clement 9; Trey Burton 5; Mack Hollins 4; Brent Celek 3; Blount 2. … Never a plus matchup for tight ends due to their top-shelf safety play and athletic linebacker corps, the Vikings allowed the NFL’s third-fewest yards to tight ends (596) this season. With FS Andrew Sendejo (concussion) expected to play, Minnesota’s tight end coverage will be at full strength, rendering Ertz a bet-on-volume DFS option. Ertz has gotten volume, of course, leading the team in target share (26.5%) with Foles under center. Ertz’s box-score results are 6/56/1 > 9/81/0 > 3/32/0 in Foles’ three fully-played games. … Slot man Agholor has Philadelphia’s top pass-catcher matchup against the Vikings, who use Mackensie Alexander at slot corner on passing downs. The Saints attacked Alexander specifically last week, targeting him six times and completing five for 54 yards. Alexander also showed up on this week’s injury report with a rib ailment and is listed as questionable. Agholor’s stat lines in Foles’ three full games are 7/59/1 > 4/35/0 > 3/24/0. The Eagles used Agholor on designed runs in the last two games, producing 27 yards on three carries. … Jeffery will undoubtedly get Xavier Rhodes shadow treatment after logging 4/49/1 > 0/0 > 4/61/0 in Foles’ three full games. With fewer than 70 yards in eight straight games, Jeffery looks like a touchdown-or-bust dart throw against Rhodes, who has allowed three TDs in 17 games. … Smith runs the deep routes Foles has struggled to hit, with box scores of 2/17/0 > 1/5/0 > 3/39/0 to show for it.
Score Prediction: Vikings 17, Eagles 13