AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
JACKSONVILLE @ NEW ENGLAND, 3:05 p.m. (EST)
The line: Patriots by 7-1/2
The weather: Partly cloudy, high of 47
The story: Once upon a time, I said the biggest threat to New England was the Patriots themselves … and look what happened. Tom Brady has an injured thumb on his throwing hand — and not because of anything that happened last weekend vs. Tennessee but because a teammate (Rex Burkhead?) accidentally hurt him in practice. So how much will it affect his performance? Well, all we know is that nobody this week has seen him without a glove, and the betting line dropped by two points the past two days. So stay tuned. But, guaranteed, if Brady isn’t Tom Terrific, and the Patriots lose, people will be calling out the Pats … again … for their trade of Jimmy Garoppolo. And if he’s OK? The Patriots ease on down the road to their third Super Bowl in the last four years and Brady appearing in his eighth Super Bowl in 16 years as the full-time starter … or once every two years. Now, think about that a minute. Once ever two years. If the Jags win, they make their first Super Bowl appearance … ever … as a franchise, with Jalen Ramsey free to issue another proclamation. The key to this game is simple: Do what few others have been able to do and frustrate Brady. Doesn’t matter if it’s his hand, his protection, his receivers … if the Jags’ defense can pressure him with its front four and man-up with his receivers they might have a chance. Hey, it worked for Tom Coughlin in New York. So why couldn’t it work here? OK, he had Eli there, and he has Blake Bortles here. I’m under no illusions: Bortles can’t win this game, but the Jags’ defense could. No defense this year produced more points off takeaways than Jacksonville. But keep this in mind: For all the talk about the greatness of the Jacksonville, ‘D,’ it was punctured for 42 or more points in two of its last four starts — including 44 by the 49ers and former Brady understudy, Jimmy G.
Something to consider: Since 2007, Brady is 70-8 at home during the regular season. His 70 wins are more than each of five teams have home and away during that period — Tampa Bay (68), Oakland (66), Jacksonville (63), L.A. Rams (57) and Cleveland (48).
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
MINNESOTA @ PHILADELPHIA, 6:40 p.m. (EST)
The line: Vikings by 3
The weather: Partly cloudy, high of 51
The story: Two former backups are the starting quarterbacks in this game, the first time two guys who didn’t open the season on the field wind up as championship game starters. So it doesn’t take a Stephen Hawking to figure out what to do next: Make them, not their backs, beat you. And you know something? Putting this game on the quarterbacks’ shoulders might be easier than you think. Reason: The Eagles rank first vs. the run; the Vikings second — which, if you’re wondering, is why the over/under for this game is so low (38.5). Yes, Minnesota has the better defense, and, yes, the Vikings have the all important Mo working after what happened last weekend. But history is against them: Dome teams don’t win championship games outdoors, and no club in the history of the Super Bowl ever hosted the game in its own stadium — though Minnesota is one game away. Turnovers are critical here, and good news, Eagles’ fans: Your team doesn’t make them. In fact, Philadelphia’s 20 giveaways this season tied for the second fewest in franchise history. But then there’s this: Nobody anywhere was better on third-down conversions than the Vikings’ defense, holding opponents to an NFL-low 25.2 percent rate. And on the other side of the ball? The Vikings’ offense ranked third in third-down conversions at 43.5 percent. If it sounds as if these two are evenly matched, it’s only because they are. Look for turnovers and/or special teams to determine the outcome … that is, unless Stefon Diggs has another last-second magic act in him.
Something to consider: Philadelphia is 8-1 at home, including the playoffs, and 14-3 in two seasons there under Doug Pederson — the best home record in the NFL since 2016.
OUR BEST BETS
(Picks are vs. the spread)
RON BORGES (Season record 12-7) — PATRIOTS (–7-1/2). I’m betting that Tom Brady gives the thumbs-up to the Patriots and the finger to the Jacksonville Jaguars’ overrated defense. Vegas’ wise guys have dropped the line to 7-1/2, but that’s still a win. So give the 7-1/2 and bet on Brady’s thumb.
CLARK JUDGE (Season record 9-9-1) — PATRIOTS (–7-1/2). Let’s see, Brady + Belichick + homefield = Big win.
RICK GOSSELIN (Season record 9-10) — JACKSONVILLE (+7-1/2). This will be the best defense Tom Brady and the Patriots will see this season. The Jags finished second in the NFL in sacks. Knock Brady around, and you have a chance for the upset.
SUNDAY’S HALL OF FAMOUS
JACKSONVILLE RB LEONARD FOURNETTE. With one rushing TD, he ties the NFL rookie record for most playoff rushing scores with four. Baltimore’s Jamal Lewis was the last to do it in 2000.
NEW ENGLAND QB TOM BRADY. He can become the first quarterback in playoff history to produce four consecutive games with 300 yards and multiple touchdowns.
NEW ENGLAND RB JAMES WHITE. With two more scores, he ties Emmitt Smith and Larry Fitzgerald for the most combined touchdowns — rushing and/or receiving — in three consecutive playoff games with seven. White had three in Super Bowl LI and two more last week.
NEW ENGLAND LB JAMES HARRISON. He has 11 sacks in his playoff career, tied for fifth most in league history.
MINNESOTA RB LATAVIUS MURRAY. He’s tied for the NFL’s most rushing touchdowns (22) since 2016, including the playoffs.
PHILADELPHIA WR ALSHON JEFFERY. He has seven touchdowns in nine career games vs. Minnesota.
TEN THINGS YOU PROBABLY SHOULD KNOW
- Clete Blakeman is the referee for the AFC championship game. The Patriots are 2-4 in all games officiated by him.
- Only two teams since 2003 have gone from worst in their division one season to a Super Bowl the next: The 2003 Carolina Panthers and 2009 New Orleans Saints. Philadelphia and Jacksonville are trying to join them.
- This is the first time that three teams that missed the playoffs one year advanced to the championship round the next.
- Nick Foles, who had a passer rating of 101.1 last weekend, can become just the fifth quarterback in playoff history to put up ratings of 100 or better in his first three postseason starts. The others are Troy Aikman, Aaron Rodgers, Tony Eason and Joe Theismann.
- Since Tom Brady took over, New England has never lost a conference championship game as the No. 1 seed.
- Alshon Jeffery (9), Nelson Agholor (8) and Zach Ertz (8) were the only trio of teammates to have eight or more scoring catches each this season.
- Philadelphia outscored opponents 244-117 (+127) at home this season, allowing an average of 13.0 points per game.
- Jacksonville’s 67.9 percent TD rate in the Red Zone is the best in the NFL. The Jags have had six Red Zone possessions in the playoffs and scored TDs on all six.
- The Jaguars scored an NFL-best 151 points off takeaways this season, including the playoffs — or 30 more than runner-up Baltimore (121).
- The Jaguars are 6-0 this season when Blake Bortles doesn’t commit a turnover.