Jaguars vs. Patriots
Money Line (as of Jan. 18):
It comes as absolutely no surprise that Tom Brady and the New England Patriots are once again playing for an AFC championship (Please turn down the Star Wars - Imperial March theme music, please).
On the other sideline, though? None other than Blake Bortles, who certainly has his share of critics as quarterback of the Jacksonville Jaguars since being selected third overall in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Since 2007, the Jaguars haven't been quite as bad as the Cleveland Browns, but they've been another unfortunate example of mediocrity for a decade, posting a 3-13 record last season. What a rapid turnaround it has been. A year later, and they're in the AFC championship game, albeit underdogs (+7.5 for the Point Spread and 3.70 for the Money Line as of Thursday) but still with a chance to knock off the reigning champions from New England.
NFL Pre-Game Betting Breakdown:
The plot thickened Thursday, when reports surfaced that Brady was a non-participant in practice because of an apparent hand injury.
The Jaguars have achieved this with a nasty attitude on defence, allowing the second fewest points per game during the regular season, as well as the fewest passing yards against and the second most interceptions. Only Baltimore had more picks during the regular season.
Earlier on, the Patriots' defence had been guilty of being ventilated but, as you might expect given pedigree of defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and head coach Bill Belichick, that element of their game also tightened up as the season progressed. As stifling as Jacksonville could be (OK, they did give up a lot of points last week against the Steelers), the Patriots finished fifth in the NFL, allowing only 18.5 points per game on defence by the time the season ended.
This game could perhaps prove to be an interesting match-up. It features a pair of defences that were top 5 in the NFL in points allowed. It features a pair of offences that were also top 5 in the NFL in points scored per game, and both teams will enter this game with the total points set at 46.5 (as of Thursday).
The OVER is 8-3 in New England's last 11 games as the home favourite, while the OVER is 5-2-1 in Jacksonville's last eight playoff games.
The key for Jacksonville's offence will be to establish the run game. Bortles, who hasn't thrown an interception yet in these playoffs, actually had more rushing yards (88) than passing yards (87) in the Jaguars' Wild Card win over Buffalo. But the true catalyst has been rookie running back Leonard Fournette.
He posted more than 1,000 yards rushing during the regular season and that was after missing a trio of games. He's coming off a 109-yard, three-touchdown performance along the ground against the Steelers in the Divisional Round.
If the Jaguars are able to effectively run the ball, that could take some of the pressure off Bortles, because looking at the quarterback match-up on paper, it's a no-brainer nod in Brady's direction. The injury reports may result in a little doubt about what Brady is capable of, but all things being equal, Bortles and Brady are simply not on the same level. And certainly Brady's excellence and experience over the years should account for plenty at this time of year as the games get increasingly more important.
As good as Jacksonville's defence has been this season, this team is fresh off a week in which they allowed 42 points on the road. They're back on the road, this time in New England, and they face Brady and the Patriots, which has proven in the past to be a recipe for disaster for opposing teams.
Go ahead, turn up the Imperial March theme again.
Vikings vs. Eagles
Money Line (As of Jan. 18):
After finishing the season as the No.1 seed in the NFC, the Philadelphia Eagles seem to be embracing the role of underdog brought on by the season-ending injury to star quarterback Carson Wentz.
They find themselves right back in the same situation this week. They're currently 3-point underdogs (as of Thursday). For what it's worth, Minnesota is 2-6 against the spread in its last eight games with Philadelphia.
The Eagles will once again need quarterback Nick Foles to help get them through to the Super Bowl, and they'll need another solid performance from their running backs, particularly Jay Ajayi, to reduce the stress in the passing game. As tough as Atlanta's defence could be, it's likely to get increasingly difficult against the Vikings on Sunday.
The Vikings allowed the fewest points in the league during the regular season, and held New Orleans off the score board through the first half last week before the Saints eventually broke through -- which set up a crazy, thrilling, and utterly dumbfounding fourth-quarter finish.
The numbers point to a defensive-minded, low-scoring game. The Vikings had the top defence as far as points allowed per game, but the Eagles finished fourth in that same category and kept the Falcons to just 10 points last week.
The Total Points was set at 38.5 (as of Thursday). The UNDER has been dominant, at 7-2-1 in Minnesota's last 10 playoff games and 9-1-1 in Philadelphia's last 11 home playoff games.
But what is likely to lead the storylines on Sunday will be the, um, unheralded quarterbacks vying for a spot in the Super Bowl. OK, remove Tom Brady from that equation. He's been there, done that a few times. But with Blake Bortles, Nick Foles and Case Keenum leading their teams into the conference championships? What a time to be alive.