NFL NFC and AFC Conference championship preview and predictions

Brady is listed as "questionable" to play against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Brady is listed as "questionable" to play against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Photo credit: Getty

AFC Conference championship
New England Patriots vs Jacksonville Jaguars on Monday, 9:05am

The reigning Super Bowl champions welcome the Jacksonville Jaguars to Foxborough in the first of two NFL Conference championships.

Jacksonville beat the odds to narrowly edge the Steelers in last Monday's Divisional Round 45-42 in Pittsburgh.

Despite boasting the best secondary of any other team during the regular season, it was their offence that spared their defences blushes.

They now play the best offence in football in the form of the Patriots, who average 394 total yards a game.

The spotlight will no doubt be on all-pro defensive-backs Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye's ability to shutdown MVP favourite Tom Brady and his wide-receivers, and in particular Ramsey's match-up against tight-end Rob Gronkowski, whom he has already called out ahead of Sunday's must-win clash.

"He hasn't played a corner like me before," Ramsey told reporters.

Gronkowski has been the Patriots' primary target this season, having miss last year's post-season run through injury.

"Gronk" leads his team in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns and remains Brady's best friend in the red zone.

Ramsey has been a standout in an elite Jaguars secondary.
Ramsey has been a standout in an elite Jaguars secondary. Photo credit: Getty

Should the Jaguars contain the Patriots' passing game, it will be their run-defence that will need to step up against an underrated Patriots running-back core.

Dion Lewis, Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead have shared the workload, with 16 rushing touchdowns between them, filling the void left by LeGarrette Blount, who amassed 18 of his own but was let go by Bill Belichick this past off-season.

Lewis has been their primary go-to, racking up almost 900 yards and at average of five per carry.

While the Jaguars' inept pass-offence is often criticised, it's their run-defence that's caused them the most problems this season  a particular aspect the Patriots also struggle with, with both teams ranking in the bottom 12 in terms of yards conceded on the ground.

But unlike the Patriots, the Jaguars' run game is more than just serviceable; it's the best in the league.

They average 141 yards on the ground a game - six more than the next best - and are tied second for rushing touchdowns. Much of that can be attributed to their number-one pick in the 2017 NFL draft, Leonard Fournette, and his success in his rookie year.

The LSU alumnus has more than 1000 yards rushing for the season, 10 total touchdowns, and is a threat in the pass-game with more than 300 receiving yards.

He was the heart of the Jaguars' offence in their win over the Steelers, with three touchdowns, and will again need to be the deciding factor if they are to upset the New England Patriots.

Quarter-back Blake Bortles has been less than inspiring under centre, and the less he is called upon to do, the better the chance the Jaguars have of booking their flights to Minnesota.

New England Patriots 24-10 Jacksonville Jaguars

NFC Conference championship
Philadelphia Eagles vs Minnesota Vikings on Monday, 12:40pm

Much like Jacksonville, the Philadelphia Eagles will need to ask their quarter-back, Nick Foles, to do as little as possible if they are upset the odds and beat the Minnesota Vikings.

The Eagles welcome the Vikings to Lincoln Financial Field off the back of their unlikely 15-10 win over last season's Super Bowl runner-ups, the Atlanta Falcons.

Foles has been Philadelphia's starting quater-back since Wentz' season-ending injury.
Foles has been Philadelphia's starting quater-back since Wentz' season-ending injury. Photo credit: Getty

Since starting quarter-back Carson Wentz's injury, Philadelphia's already great defensive has gone up a gear in the face of adversity.

They have kept their last three opponents to just 26 points combined, relying on their run-game to bail them out on offence.

Former Dolphins running-back Jay Ajayi has taken over the starting duties for the Eagles since being traded, and bounced back from a fumble off his very first carry against the Falcons in an impressive outing.

More of that will be expected from Ajayi on Monday when the Eagles come up against the best defence in the NFL.

The Vikings allow the fewest total yards on defence, rank second in passing and second in rushing, and are regarded as one of the best defensive units the league has ever seen.

Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith earned all-pro honours following their season's efforts, highlighting the Vikings' defensive prowess all around the gridiron.

While the match-up screams a defensive struggle between two elite units, it has been the quarter-back battle that has everyone talking.

Case Keenum's success in Minnesota has been as incredible as it has been surprising.

Keenum led the Vikings to an incredible last-play victory over the Saints in the divisional round.
Keenum led the Vikings to an incredible last-play victory over the Saints in the divisional round. Photo credit: Getty

A journeyman by NFL standards, Keenum has seized the opportunity to be the starting quarter-back for the Vikings following Sam Bradford's injury.

The 29-year-old has thrown for more than 3500 yards, 22 touchdowns on the regular season and was an early MVP candidate.

He's formed a great relationship with his wide-receivers, with Adam Thielen notching more than 1200 yards in the air, earning second-team all-pro status with Stefon Diggs, who with his incredible match-winning touchdown in their win over the New Orleans Saints in the divisional round entered Vikings folk law.

But before all his success, Keenum was a back-up to Monday's opponent and one of his best friends, Nick Foles, at the Rams just three seasons ago.

Foles was the starting for the then-St Louis-based NFL team for the 2015 season, before being benched for Keenum halfway through the season.

Both would eventually resume their roles as back-ups to younger prospects, with Foles making a return to the Eagles, and Keenum no longer wanted by the Rams before signing a one-year contract with the Vikings.

The two now prepare to face arguably the best defence either have seen all season, in a game where a single mistake or ill-advised decision could result in six points going the other way.

Neither team has yet to win the Super Bowl, with a combined six appearances to the big dance between them.

Minnesota could also become just the third team in Super Bowl history to host the grand finale in their home market, while Philadelphia could potentially set up a Super Bowl rematch with New England, whom they lost to in their last appearance in 2004.

Philadelphia Eagles 21-20 Minnesota Vikings



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