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Sports pundits forecast NFL conference championships


Hollywood, MD - After a mostly thrilling weekend of four divisional games, the National Football League (NFL) is now down to its final four. It’s on to the conference championships to determine the teams that will play in Super Bowl. One of the teams playing this weekend—the Minnesota Vikings—would get home field advantage should they win the National Football Conference (NFC) title. Super Bowl 52 in the domed U.S. Bank Stadium will be the first time in 26 years that Minnesota has hosted a Super Bowl. This past Sunday fans were stunned by the “Minneapolis Miracle” after the “Heinz Catch-Up” failed. So now the NFC championship game comes down to the host Philadelphia Eagles and the aforementioned Vikings. The AFC is a battle between the surprising Jacksonville Jaguars—who stunned the 13-3 Steelers in Pittsburgh despite blowing a huge lead—and the heavily favored host New England Patriots.

Starting with the AFC, one regional sports pundit—blogger and WTOP Radio reporter Rob Woodfork---pointed out that Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles is the NFL’s “most intercepted quarterback since 2014” and has thrown the most “pick-sixes” (interceptions run back for touchdowns) of any passer during that period. In last Sunday’s win vs. Pittsburgh, Bortles was 14 of 26 for 214 yards and a touchdown. His quarterback rating was 94.1. No one is predicting Bortles will out-duel New England’s Tom Brady. Sporting News’ David Steele calls the Jacksonville team a “physically and mentally tough bunch of players who are not intimidated by anyone.” Steele stated the Patriots’ “handling the Jaguars’ front seven will be a mighty task,” adding the Jags are second-best in total defense, scoring defense, sacks and interceptions. He also notes that while Jacksonville’s defensive unit played great against Pittsburgh, they allowed the Steelers to get back in the game. In last year’s Super Bowl the Patriots erased a 25-point Atlanta Falcons lead. Patriots’ tight end Rob Groncowski, said Steele, may be the big playmaker the Jags can’t stop. Another Sporting News columnist, Vinner Iyer, is going with the Jags, declaring the game “has a similar feel to the 2015 AFC Championship Game two years ago in Denver.” Iyer added that “Jacksonville won’t try to outsmart New England. It will simply rely on its talent to be faster and physical in all matchups.” CBS Sports’ Pete Prisco predicts the Jags will keep it close but the Pats will win. Another CBS pundit John Breech said if the Jags “had anything resembling a consistent quarterback, I would pick them by double digits. But they don’t.” Still, Breech is picking the Jags to win, but it won’t happen if Bortles throws four interceptions.

Breech predicts the quarterbacks in the NFC Championship game—Minnesota (Case Keenum) at Philadelphia (Nick Foles)—are in for a rough day. “I have zero faith in either quarterback to play well this week and that’s mainly because both guys will be playing against the best defense they’ve seen all season.” That’s why Breech is picking the Vikings, the team he affirms was “best in the NFL all season." Prisco opined that Keenum is a better quarterback and Minnesota has a better defense so he also likes the Vikes. Forbes Magazine’s Tim Wood has this to say about the maligned quarterback matchup. “It's not the sexiest matchup for the NFC Championship Game,” Wood stated. “We get it. But if you can get past seeing the QBs as backups and look at the matchup, you will see that there is much to get excited about.” The experts, however, seem to be forgetting the 12th man. Philly holds the home-field advantage and many of the rabid fans will be disguised as rabid dogs. The dog masks will figure prominently—not so much in the game’s outcome—but in the visual aspect of the game. If you love dogs, you’ll be rooting for the Eagles.

One other prediction worth noting is that of Sport Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch, who sees the two conference championships as a yardstick for the league’s popularity. Deitsch indicated in a recent column that the electrifying last play of Sunday’s New Orleans-Minnesota game may have sparked, or at least rekindled, interest in the NFL during a season when many “fans” have claimed they have been boycotting due to “patriotic” reasons. The two games will “provide significant insight into the health of the television viewership of the league.” It should be noted that Jacksonville is one of the smallest television markets to vie for a Super Bowl berth. But this weekend could prove to be the quintessential “any given Sunday” for two teams to come up big on the field and the TV screen.

Enjoy the games!

Contact Marty Madden at marty.madden@thebaynet.com

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