Storylines abound in the NFL’s final four as we get ready for the conference championship games. In the NFC you have the “underdog” top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles taking on the Minnesota Vikings, hoping to become the first team to ever play in their home stadium in the Super Bowl. In the AFC, it’s the New England Patriots, the reigning champs looking to shrug off the outside noise, hosting the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars, who continue to win despite poor quarterback play at times. It should be a fun Sunday and perhaps a profitable one as well.
Record: 50-32-3 (7-1 in selections; 6-2 straight up)
Note: Times are ET and both games are on Sunday, Jan. 21
Jacksonville Jaguars (12-6) at New England Patriots (14-3), 3:05 p.m.
The Jaguars come to Gillette Stadium attempting to knock the Patriots from their lofty perch. We probably say it every year that "team X" has what it takes to beat the Pats, but they never do. I'll continue the trend because there's a lot to like about the Jaguars who are a top-five defense and are playing with a swagger right now. The Jags went 1-3 against playoff teams in the regular season with the win coming over the Steelers and the losses being to the Titans twice and the Rams.
For Jacksonville, it all starts on offense with Leonard Fournette (above, right), who will probably be Bill Belichick's first, second and third priority on the scouting report. The head coach would be nuts to not put eight or nine in the box on almost every play. This means Blake Bortles will have to step up and he's got to be feeling good after putting up 45 points on Pittsburgh. Some of those weren't due to the quarterback, but he does have some decent weapons. New England's defense has been vulnerable in the past, and the Patriots also have gone through a stretch of facing some of the weaker offenses in the league (at least statistically speaking) so it’s tough to gauge just how good this unit is at this point.
On the opposite side, you've got Tom Brady and his cast of characters, who could struggle against the Jaguars. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger had a big game last week, but Antonio Brown is a once-in-a-lifetime wide receiver, even when he’s not completely healthy. Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola fit New England’s system nicely, but none are on Brown's level. The real focus will be on Rob Gronkowski, who is a game-changer and matchup nightmare. Do the Jags double him with a linebacker and a safety knowing that their cornerbacks may have the advantage? Other factors in this game include the presence of Jacksonville Tom Coughlin, who runs the Jaguars’ front office and had postseason success against New England when he was the head coach of the New York Giants. The Patriots have covered 19 of their last 28 home games and 36 of their last 54 contests overall. The Jaguars are the upstart in this one and while they may not win this game, if they keep the core together, they'll likely be back in this position sooner rather than later. SELECTION: Under 46(Patriots 24-20)
Minnesota Vikings (14-3) at Philadelphia Eagles (14-3), 6:40 p.m.
Up front, I'll just say that I'm a proud Eagles fan, but I have not let that cloud my judgment this season. It's odd for the No. 1 seed to be an underdog once again, but Minnesota is a great team. The Vikings have incredible numbers on defense and Case Keenum (right) for the most part is running their offense efficiently. In an ideal world though they want to run the ball more to ease Keenum’s load. But that could be a problem against the NFL’s No. 1 rushing defense, which held the Falcons to 86 yards on the ground last week. Minnesota’s offensive line may struggle with Philadelphia’s front seven, which means Keenum could be under more pressure than he’s used to facing. The Vikings do have threats out wide in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, so the Eagles will have to be careful to not give up too many plays through the air.
Minnesota’s defense also should have the advantage going up against Nick Foles, who did what he needed to against Atlanta a week ago. Even though Foles threw for 246 yards he missed open receivers on more than one occasion, something he can’t afford against the Vikings. One storyline to watch will be Andrew Sendejo’s availability for Minnesota after suffering a concussion in the Divisional Round win over New Orleans.
The Eagles beat the Vikings last year as a three-point underdog, winning 21-10, which is ironic because they also beat the Falcons at home in 2016 as well. It doesn’t appear that the weather will be major factor on Sunday night. To me, this game comes down to the trenches and I like Philadelphia there on both sides of the ball. I also like the underdog chip that the team is using as motivation. This isn't just me wishing my team would make the Super Bowl. I actually think the Eagles do. Ironically, the best prediction is that at some point, both fatalistic fan bases will be telling one another that they are going to lose before the clock runs out (unless it goes into overtime). SELECTION: Eagles +3(Eagles 17-13)
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.