LAS VEGAS--Assuming that Tom Brady’s injured hand does not affect him in a major way Sunday, the New England Patriots should advance to defend last February’s Super Bowl championship.
But bettors beware. Many of us thought that the spread might rise to Patriots minus-10. But instead, word of a glove on Brady’s throwing hand brought immediate money in on the Jaguars, and the line dropped from 9 to 7½ and briefly to 7.
The Patriots offense relies on Brady’s ability to complete short passes to a variety of receivers in space. New England ranked eighth in the league this season with 2,019 yards after catch. That translates to 44 percent of Brady’s yardage. They will attack the Jaguars with James White, Brandin Cooks, Dion Lewis and Danny Amendola. Those are the four who have had to replace the injured Julian Edelman this season.
Of course Rob Gronkowski presents an entirely different problem. I can’t shake the image of Gronk trampling Titan defensive backs up and down the field last week. I could see that happening all over again against the Jaguars, whose vaunted “Sacksonville” defense didn’t show me any sign last week that it has the tools to stop him.
Linebacker Telvin Smith was burned repeatedly by Ben Roethlisberger. It isn’t likely that he’ll be able to hold up when he’s matched this week against Gronkowski. Some have suggested that cornerback Jalen Ramsey should switch to Gronk, but that would throw the Jaguars defense askew. They’ll have to try and use a linebacker or a safety to keep Gronkowski under control, and that’s a huge advantage for the Patriots – provided Brady can throw the ball accurately.
It is unusual that two teams in a conference championship have basically played the same teams down the stretch. Both the Patriots and Jaguars have had to deal with Pittsburgh, Tennessee and Buffalo since the middle of last month. In all three instances the Patriots played much better overall than the Jaguars. In fact, Jacksonville even lost to Tennessee, although the game didn’t mean anything to the Jaguars.
You have to respect Bill Belichick’s leadership qualities here. Not only is he dealing with Brady’s injured hand, but he has two coordinators – Josh McDaniels on offense and Matt Patricia on defense – who appear headed for Indianapolis and Detroit as head coaches at the end of the season. Belichick has lost coordinators before. In fact, Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis both left following a Super Bowl triumph 13 years ago. Belichick preaches that he’ll whatever is best for the team, meaning he has his arms wrapped around this situation.
The only fly in the ointment that I can imagine here is that ownership did encourage Belichick to trade Jimmy Garoppolo during the season. If the ESPN story about the dysfunction between Belichick, Brady and owner Robert Kraft was in any way accurate, there could be trouble within the Patriots organization, regardless of whether they win or lose against Jacksonville.
Otherwise, Belichick can say “I’ve got this.” Compare that with what’s gone on with the Patriots’ top AFC challenger – the Pittsburgh Steelers. They are sitting at home this Sunday because they lack the kind of Belichick-style leadership that brings a team to realize its full potential, no matter what is swirling around it. Maybe even a hurting, 40-year-old hand.
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Since they are catching three points Sunday, the Philadelphia Eagles should keep the dog masks around. But maybe they should also be out of sight, because the Vikings just might be a team of destiny.
Minnesota is one win away from being the first team to play a Super Bowl in its own stadium. We have heard that plenty of times this month. We have not heard as much about the 1979 Rams and the 1984 49ers. They both played Super Bowls in their neighborhoods, but this could be very different.
The Vikings’ offense is clearly superior to the Eagles’. Yes, Case Keenum struggled against New Orleans; he even through a horrible interception. That was before the Minneapolis Miracle when he found Stefon Diggs, who got plenty of help not just from a missed tackle but when one New Orleans defensive back took out another on that final play.
It’s not only Diggs. You’ve got Adam Thielen on the other side. With 155 catches for 2,125 yards and 12 touchdowns, these two are as good a combination of wide receivers as you’ll find anywhere. Add tight end Kyle Rudolph and underrated ex-Raiders running back Latavius Murray, and it all starts to add up for the Vikings offense.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson deserves a lot of credit for managing backup quarterback Nick Foles past the Atlanta Falcons. But after reviewing that game it says here that the Falcons lost it more than the Eagles won it. Last week I liked the Eagles to win against a Falcon team that hung in there and played very well. This week they face a Minnesota team that has a few more weapons.
History does favor the Vikes in one sense. Since the 1997 season the NFC Championship has seen the visiting team favored four times, and the visitor has gone 3-1 both straight up and ATS. The last road favorite to break through was five years ago, when Jim Harbaugh, Colin Kaepernick and San Francisco beat Atlanta 28-24 in the Georgia Dome.
The intangibles – a dome visitor playing outside, a raucous home crowd – are clearly on Philadelphia’s side. But it isn’t like the Viking players have never been in cold weather or on the road. I’m leaning back toward Minnesota. I think the Vikings will cover this one 23-17.
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You may have seen the note that Tim Tebow is going to spring training with the New York Mets. Obviously this is a box-office move. But in my dealings with Tebow – and I’ve had a lot – he’s just a fine, young man. If you know Tebow, you just cannot dislike him.
I know that he hit only .226 last year in 126 minor-league games with Columbia, S.C., and Port St. Lucie, Fla. But he also hit eight home runs, and everyone who dealt with him said that he is the type of teammate that you want to have around.
After he failed as an NFL quarterback, you have to give Tebow a lot of credit for giving full effort to a sport that he hasn’t played since high school. It’s a long shot, but I’ll be pulling for the 30-year-old rookie from the University of Florida to make it in the big leagues.