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NFL Conference Championship picks: Jaguars stun Patriots, Vikings top Eagles

Jalen Ramsey of the Jacksonville Jaguars celebrates

Jalen Ramsey of the Jacksonville Jaguars celebrates after an interception in the first half against the Indianapolis Colts at EverBank Field on Dec. 3, 2017 in Jacksonville, Florida. Credit: Getty Images / Logan Bowles

If you would’ve told someone before the season that Case Keenum and Nick Foles would be the quarterbacks in the NFC Championship Game, they would’ve chuckled. Let’s do one better: How about a Keenum vs. Blake Bortles Super Bowl? Championship Sunday should produce two down-to-the-wire games with the defenses stealing the show.

AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

JAGUARS (12-6) AT PATRIOTS (14-3), 3:05 p.m.

TV: Ch. 2; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)

Patriots by 7.5; O/U: 46.5

So we didn’t get a Patriots-Steelers rematch. So what. This is still going to be a good one. On name recognition only, Blake Bortles vs. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick might be one of the more lopsided AFC Championship Games in recent memory.

But remember that the Jaguars had one of the NFL’s best defenses all season. “Sacksonville” had a pair of 10-sack games and a total of 55 takedowns for the season. Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue anchor the line. Behind them are a number of speedy linebackers and two star cornerbacks in Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye.

You can make all the Bortles jokes you want, but he doesn’t need to be Brady to win this game. Brady, however, does need to be Brady, and he could be in for a long day against this relentless defense. As we saw in a Week 14 loss at Miami on Monday night, when a defense can pressure Brady, things get interesting. We also saw it when Von Miller and the Broncos rattled Brady in the AFC Championship Game two years ago.

Each of Brady’s Super Bowl losses were against the Giants and their pass rush. So, can Tom Coughlin’s magic pay off with these brash Jaguars?

The belief here is that Jacksonville is going to shock the world. The team is playing with house money, and all of the pressure is on the defending Super Bowl champs. There’s just something about this Jaguars defense that reminds me of those vintage Ravens teams.

The key for the Jaguars will be how they contain running back James White in the passing game, and how they defend Rob Gronkowski. If Jacksonville executes the same Leonard Fournette-heavy, low-risk offensive game plan as last week, it can lean on its defense. The NFL Network flashed this stat: Since 1990, when the NFL’s No. 1 passer faces the No. 1 pass defense in the postseason, the defense has won all three matchups. Make it 4-for-4 as the Jaguars punch their ticket to their first Super Bowl. Call it Jaguars 23, Patriots 20.

The pick: Jaguars

NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

VIKINGS (14-3) AT EAGLES (14-3), 6:40 p.m.

TV: Ch. 5; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)

Vikings by 3; O/U: 38

These were the two best teams in the NFC this season, so it’s no surprise they’re here. That it’s Case Keenum vs. Nick Foles, career backups and former Rams teammates in 2015, is shocking. Foles is 3-1 as a starter since taking over for the injured Carson Wentz while Keenum went 11-1 after Sam Bradford was hurt. Both teams are coming off dramatic wins, the Eagles advancing after a late fourth-down defensive stop, and the Vikings winning on Keenum-to-Stefon Diggs’ 61-yard walk-off TD that will be talked about for years. Philadelphia fed off being a home underdog against the Falcons, with a couple of players even wearing dog masks after the win. Unlike last week, though, the top-seeded Eagles don’t have enough bark to hang with the Vikings. Doug Pederson did a fantastic job with a run-heavy offense last week, but that isn’t going to work against the NFL’s No. 1 defense in points and yards allowed. From Everson Griffen and the line to Eric Kendricks and the linebackers to Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith in the secondary, Minnesota has playmakers at every level. The defense — which was second only to the Eagles in stopping the run at 83.6 yards per game — will be the reason the Vikings become the first team to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium. Giants fans will get a look at their likely new coach in offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who has done a masterful job with Keenum. Look for some creative play calls and efficient, mistake-free football that has been the team’s calling card. With two stout defenses, play the under. After last week’s wild finish, doesn’t this just feel like the Vikings’ year? Call it Vikings 20, Eagles 13.

The pick: Vikings

Staff Picks

JOE MANNIELLO

Playoffs: 3-4-1, 1-1 best bets

Regular season: 118-124-14, 4-13

JAGUARS VIKINGS

BOB GLAUBER

Playoffs: 3-4-1, 1-1

Regular season: 117-125-14, 10-7

PATRIOTS VIKINGS

TOM ROCK

Playoffs: 2-5-1, 0-2

Regular season: 124-118-14, 8-8-1

PATRIOTS VIKINGS

CALVIN WATKINS

Playoffs: 2-5-1, 0-2

Regular season: 115-112-13, 7-9

PATRIOTS EAGLES

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