Bortle Kombat: NFL Conference Championship Preview

Quibbl Sports takes a look at the playoff weekend’s sure things, long shots, and who-knows-whats.

By Gavin Byrnes

So here’s the thing. We started off friends. It was cool, but it was all prete— wait, sorry. Let me start again.

So here’s the thing. I cannot remotely pretend to objectivity about this weekend’s Conference Championship games, as they involve two of my three least favorite teams in the NFL, plus Blake Bortles, rapidly becoming a folk hero for anyone who has ever Faced Adversity. Go Jags, go Vikings by default, and may the Eagles and Patriots have their dreams crushed like so many folding tables in the parking lot of a Bills game

In the spirit of Quibbl’s commitment to accountability in punditry, let’s start off by taking a quick look back at my divisional round analysis: some things I got right, some things I got wrong, and some things I think I learned.

I’ve Made a Huge Mistake

Well, I just reread my column from last week. Hell, what didn’t I get wrong? I was wrong about the Eagles choking, I was wrong about the Vikings choking, and I never should have listened to that slaveowning dillhole George Washington about how the Jaguars couldn’t throw on Pittsburgh. I even would have been wrong had I picked Jacksonville, because I thought that a Jaguars win would be something like 17-10, not 45-42!

I WARNED YOU

I predicted, correctly, that Brian Hoyer would be on the field during the Patriots-Titans game, and not because Tom Brady got hurt.  I guess I was sort of right that Minnesota would establish the run; they ran 29 times, including 19 carries for Latavius Murray, and scored two of their touchdowns on the ground. That’s roughly it for accurate predictions, though you can see the barest glimmer of a correct prognostication in my thought that it would behoove the Falcons to get Taylor Gabriel and Austin Hooper involved. They didn’t, and they lost! Ha! Tommy Point for me! (Sorry; my roommate watches a lot of Celtics games).

Things I Think I’ve Learned

The Eagles can win without Wentz, the Vikings might not be cursed by God, the Patriots are an unfeeling destruction machine that cannot be derailed by anything as petty as a Distraction, and I should never have doubted my Big Good Boy Blake. Strong quarterbacking doesn’t ALWAYS win in the playoffs… but it obviously doesn’t hurt.

Minnesota Vikings (14-3) at Philadelphia Eagles (14-3)

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Meet the Quarterbacks

Much has been made this week of the amusing routes that took Nick Foles and Case Keenum to this point; both have played on the Rams for Jeff Fisher (at the same time, in fact!), both started this season as backups, and the injured player Keenum replaced in Minnesota, Sam Bradford, was traded there because the Eagles got Carson Wentz… for whom Foles is now starting due to injury. Both of these men have had one astonishingly productive season mixed in with a lot of replacement-level backup mediocrity. The difference is that Foles’ world-conquering aberration was four years ago while Keenum’s is currently occurring, making the Case that the latter is the better quarterback at this point in time. Avoiding mistakes is always important for a signal-caller, but it will be particularly vital for these two fellows, as both defenses in this game are among the best in the league.

When Philadelphia Has the Ball

If I were coaching Minnesota, I would be telling them to bottle up the rushing and short passing games and make Nick Foles beat them deep. Of Foles’ 106 passes this regular season, only one was a completion that traveled more than 20 yards in the air. Against Atlanta last weekend, he went 23 for 30… while throwing only three passes described as “throwing deep” by pro-football-reference.com… all of which were incomplete.

Given this bleak history on big plays, it’s crucial that Foles and company move the ball on early downs. This is even more important because the glorious Play Index at pro-football-reference.com informs me that the Vikings allowed a first down or a touchdown on only 17.1% of plays on 3rd down with 7 or more yards to go, ranking first in the league (the league average was just over 25.6%, and by the way the Eagles were in third). The Vikings are also among the best teams in the league at defending running backs and tight ends, meaning that Foles will have to do a better job of finding his wide receivers — particularly Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, who caught only 9 of their 29 combined targets from Foles during the regular season.

When Minnesota Has the Ball

Well, it sure would help the Vikings if Philadelphia’s safeties missed tackles with nobody behind them to make a play! Jokes about the wild end of last Sunday’s Vikings-Saints game aside, I would recommend to the Vikings that they attack the middle of the field against the Eagles; per Football Outsiders, the Eagles were 2nd in DVOA against passes to the right side of the field and 7th in DVOA against passes to the left side of the field, but only 19th against passes over the middle and 17th against passes to tight ends.

This is good news for Minnesota tight end Kyle Rudolph, who, if you ever saw him, you would say that he is an impressively large and sure-handed target who caught over 70% of passes thrown to him this season. If the Eagles manage to disallow Rudolph from playing his reindeer games, Minnesota will have to hope that Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs can win a battle of strength against strength; Philly’s run defense is even better than their pass defense, and the Vikings have not gotten much receiving production from their tertiary wide receivers.

Something Weird That Might Happen

Both of these fanbases rightfully consider their team to be snakebitten, so the weird thing that will definitely happen is one of them advancing to the Super Bowl. Beyond that, the Eagles’ superiority at defending the run versus defending pass-catching backs implies that Jerick McKinnon will be a more important factor in the game than Latavius Murray.

My Gut Feeling

Minnesota, on paper, is a better team than a Philadelphia team without Carson Wentz. If there’s a blowout, I think it’ll be by Minnesota. But if it comes down to field goals in the freezing cold, the Vikings’ history won’t be on their side. Call it a reverse jinx, call it fatalism, call it what you want — I think the Eagles win by a field goal.

Jacksonville BORTLES (12-6) at New England Hellbeasts (14-3)

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Meet the Quarterbacks

IN THIS CORNER! An utterly impersonal pseudoscience-loving robot sent from Robot Hell to perfect the game of football and defy natural laws of aging! Marvel as he just never… gets… any… effing… worse… even… after… we… all… want… him… to… just… go… away!

Aaaaaaaand IN THIS CORNER! The NFL’s answer to Nickelback, Milhouse Van Houten, and the Kardashians! Someone whose possible drinking problem is treated with laughter rather than concern! A man consistently and universally mocked for his ineptitude despite being one of the 40 best people in the world at an extraordinarily specific and highly valued skill! Hero to fictional dead idiots and real live anti-anti-hipsters everywhere!

If you are rooting for Tom Brady over Blake Bortles and you aren’t from New England, you’d probably root for the Monstars, or Duke, or Bugs Meany.

When New England Has the Ball

The matchup between the Patriots offense and Jaguars defense is arguably the best one of the playoffs; you could make good cases for both units as the best in the league. By now, everyone knows the blueprint to beating New England in the playoffs, as demonstrated by the Giants in 2008 and 2012: get pressure on Brady with just the defensive line, don’t give up big plays, control the ball, and if you can get one or both of (a) a bonkers insane play that defies all expectation or (b) a Rob Gronkowski limited by injuries, you’re in good shape!

Gronk is his healthy, dynamic self, but this Jaguars team has a better secondary than either of those Giants teams had. It’s possible that #Sacksonville will be able to leave their secondary with a little less help in order to bring more pressure… but they’re going to have to get to Brady quickly if they do. He’s been picking up blitzes and finding James White and Danny Amendola for quick first downs since they were named Shane Vereen and Julian Edelman, or Danny Woodhead and Wes Welker, or Kevin Faulk and Troy Brown.

When Jacksonville Has the Ball

Blake Bortles is like a box of chocolates — he can supplement an already good situation, but you don’t want to be left relying on him alone. Nonetheless, Bortles looked downright competent in Pittsburgh, making the right reads and hitting open receivers in stride.

He’s going to have to do it again; New England’s run defense completely stymied Tennessee’s so-called “exotic smashmouth” offense, holding Derrick Henry to 28 yards on 12 carries — without a run longer than 4(!) yards. One gets the feeling that Mike Mularkey isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed (and indeed the world, or at least Titans ownership, has rolled him). Jacksonville has to hope that Leonard Fournette will have recovered well enough from his injury last week to hit the ground running; once the Patriots start coming, they don’t stop coming. I’d advise Jacksonville to keep things simple for Bortles against the genius of Bill Belichick; if the gameplan is too complicated, his brain will get smart… but his head just might get dumb. Hey now.

Something Weird That Might Happen

Though they’ve been much stouter over the latter part of the season, New England’s pass defense was very weak early on — particularly over the middle, both short and long. I would love to see Bortles find the confidence to look for one of his speedy young receivers (DeDe Westbrook, Keelan Cole, and the like) over the top… and connect.

My Gut Feeling

I see it playing out like this: I get fired up for a potential Jacksonville upset and feel a twinge of excitement when the Jaguars force a 3-and-out on New England’s first possession. Bortles moves the ball slowly but effectively and I grow more stoked… but the offense stalls in the red zone and Jacksonville settles for a field goal. Next drive, Brady goes 7 for 8, culminating in a touchdown to Gronkowski. By halftime, it’s 17-3 and the fun dreams of yesterday are dead. Somebody else will have to step it up in the Super Bowl to prevent another Patriot victory. In the end, Bortles settles into the category of Tim Tebow and frozen yogurt: fun for a while, but in the end you’re gonna need the real thing.

But you know what? Maybe the real Good Place is the Jaguars we made along the way. I want there to be no possibility that I look at this article Sunday night and think, “Man, why didn’t I believe in the Jaguars?” And there is none. I believe in the Jaguars.

BORTLES.

Questions? Comments? Dare we say… QUIBBLS? Get at us in the box below!

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