BY ADRIAN JARDING | Ball State Sports Link
As we reach the final two weeks of the NFL season (excluding the Pro Bowl) it has been a mixed bag to say the least. In a year of political talk, a long list of household players injured and new teams rising up, it sure has been a weird year for the league.
Three of the final four teams remaining — Jacksonville, Minnesota and Philadelphia — have never won a Super Bowl. Only the defending champion New England Patriots have ever hoisted the Lombardi trophy.
No matter the outcome of the NFC Championship, this will be the third consecutive year a representative from the conference has never won a Super Bowl (the Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers were the last two NFC champions).
Just to make matters even more interesting, only two of the remaining quarterbacks have ever been named to the Pro Bowl, the Eagles’ Nick Foles (2013) and the Patriots’ Tom Brady (who has been named 13 times). The Jaguars’ Blake Bortles and Vikings’ Case Keenum have never accomplished much of anything.
So you may ask why you should care about watching the games this weekend if there is only one perennial powerhouse left in Foxborough, who Vegas has as nine point favorites against Jacksonville?
There are ample reasons, but I’ll give you three of my main one
1. The Jaguars Are Real and Can Beat The Patriots
For the past two seasons, I have been trying to convince everyone Jacksonville is one of the most talented teams in the NFL. Back-to-back records of 5-11 and 3-13 certainly did not help my case, but I still stuck with my belief because they have so much individual talent.
Near the end of 2016, they fired their head coach Gus Bradley, whom I felt was holding the team back and voila, this year they went 10-6 and made it to the AFC Championship.
Much of the credit is going to Tom Coughlin, who certainly brought some stability, but most of it should go towards general manager David Caldwell who has built one of the best defenses in the league.
Jacksonville has a much better chance than many people believe, including Las Vegas who has the Patriots at a 19-point spread.
Back in 2015 the Jaguars made a visit to Foxborough during week three. It was a routine Patriots drubbing of an unprepared team with ample potential due to them being young. The only remarkable note for the game other than Tom Brady throwing for his 400th touchdown pass was a comment made by CBS color analyst for the game, Rich Gannon. When talking with the players beforehand he mentioned how they were using the game as a benchmark experience to see how the best in the game handles themselves.
While it wouldn’t show in 2016 going 3-13, they took advantage of joint practices with the Patriots this season which Belichick said he was impressed by how far they have come. Now they have another opportunity to show the rest of the world they can compete with the best on the highest stage Sunday.
2. Defense Wins Championships
I haven’t been this excited for both conference games since the 2009 season. The main reason is because three of the top four defenses statistically in the league are featured (Jacksonville, Minnesota and Philadelphia). While the Patriots had an off year defensively, Bill Belichick’s unit always rises when needed.
Both games are going to be physical, fairly low scoring and highly strategic. For those who found the Oklahoma versus Georgia game to be poorly coached defensively and the opposite of how the game should be played, this week will be the redeemer you and I need.
The NFC Championship between the Vikings and Eagles will be a case study of which offense can will themselves more to muster any kind of points.
Mike Zimmer’s unit had an almost complete meltdown in the second half last week against the Saints, but the rust will be knocked off this week. The Eagles’ defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz orchestrated a perfect game-plan against the high-flying Falcons and will look to carry the Eagles once again this weekend.
Meanwhile the AFC Championship features the most talented defense in the league in Jacksonville, versus the best coached unit in the Patriots.
Each ‘t’ will be crossed and every ‘i’ will be dotted. The main question is can Blake Bortles keep up with Tom Brady, who will be sure to wear down the Jaguars throughout the second half.
If he plays as solidly as he did against Pittsburgh, Jacksonville will have an easier time.
3. New Teams, New Faces
My favorite reason is stated in the title: we have parity this weekend.
I grew up watching every NFL game I could on Sundays so I am biased here, but I love the parity in the league.
In the NBA, everyone could predict last year that, barring injuries or colossal disaster, the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers would be in the Finals.
Where’s the fun in that? Wouldn’t it be great for other markets like Utah or Orlando to have a chance?
Last year the Vikings, Eagles and Jaguars were all sitting at home during the playoffs. A year later they are all vying for a spot in the Super Bowl. The fact that any team can turn things around that quickly is a testament to the setup of the league. The way free agency and the draft work make it possible for anyone to be good in a hurry.
It’s a great showing for the league to have new teams and faces in the biggest games this time of year. In the NBA, if you want to win a championship you have to join the best and the rich become richer. In the NFL, you can go to the least interested markets and compete like Jacksonville.
Heck, the case-in study for Philadelphia is a great story. Last year they went 7-9 with a rookie quarterback named Carson Wentz. This year they went 13-3 and are the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. The 76ers right down the road have been in rebuilding mode for five years and are only now starting to see improvements.
The fact journeymen like Case Keenum and Nick Foles have an opportunity to hoist the Lombardi trophy should be an inspiring thing for all players who have been continually overlooked.
Young men who watch the championships this weekend should have hope no matter where they get drafted — because it is possible.
All you need is competency in all branches of your organization to make it work.
I hope you all enjoy this weekend as much as I will.