Extremely close predictions for championship weekend

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Extremely close predictions for championship weekend

One team had to make a game-saving defensive stand, the other gets a miraculous touchdown, and so here they stand — the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings are at the doorstep of representing the NFC in the Super Bowl. 

These two teams mirror each other so much. Both are guided by quarterbacks who were backups on their depth charts when this long journey began. Both have defenses that can clamp down on opposing offenses. Both with identical records. And both have never won a Super Bowl (Vikings 0-4, Eagles 0-2). 

For Nick Foles, it's imperative that he stays within himself. Stick to the short, high-percentage passing game and hopefully get some much needed help from the run game. 

Against the Falcons, the Eagles had 49 yards rushing in the opening quarter but only 47 the rest of the game against Atlanta's ninth-ranked run defense. 

Minnesota's defense is ranked No. 1 overall, No. 2 against the run, No. 2 against the pass and No. 1 in points allowed. 

The Eagles' defensive front has to get to Vikings QB Case Keenum before he can find Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Both are excellent route runners with exceptional hands. What a matchup up this is. Pat Shurmur's offense against Jim Schwartz's defense. 

I've gone back and forth all week on who will win this game in what could be your basic backyard brawl. So what I came up with is this: In the final seconds of the game, the Eagles will be down one point when Jake Elliott gets the call and nails a 50-yarder as time expires. Eagles win 23-21 and dance their way to the Super Bowl. 
 
Jaguars at Patriots (Sunday, 3:05 p.m. on CBS)
Who would have thought Jacksonville would be playing for the AFC Championship, except maybe the Jaguars? There's no question Jacksonville has a top-notch defense but their offense is hard to figure out. In their first-round playoff game at home against Buffalo, the Jags barely scored 10 points and quarterback Blake Bortles was 12 of 23 for 87 yards with a TD. 

The following week, the Jaguars go on the road and put up 45 points in Pittsburgh with Bortles throwing for 214 yards with a TD. Look for Jacksonville to lean on its freight train of a running back, Leonard Fournette, who ran for 109 yards against the Steelers and scored three rushing TDs. 

Tom Brady is 40 years old but he is still the G.O.A.T. until further notice. Brady lit up Tennessee's defense last week for 337 yards and 3 touchdowns. 

It will be interesting to see how the Jags try to neutralize Rob Gronkowski. Jaguars CB Jalen Ramsey has made the bold prediction that Jacksonville is going to the Super Bowl. The Jaguars' defense has the capability to make it a long, miserable day for Brady and Co.

But Brady and his crew have playoff experience on their side and Bill Belichick is the ultimate big-game coach. Unfortunately, the evil empire that is New England will be heading to another Super Bowl.

Patriots 27, Jaguars 24

How Eagles could shut down Vikings' receiving duo

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How Eagles could shut down Vikings' receiving duo

When you think about the best wide receivers in the NFL today, names like Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, and DeAndre Hopkins come to mind and rightfully so, but the Minnesota Vikings have a pair of wideouts who have given opposing secondaries fits.

This season, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs have been the perfect complement to each other. Thielen finished the regular season with 91 receptions (eighth-best in the league), 1276 yards (fifth-best) and his 20 catches for 20 or more yards tied for fifth-best overall. As for Diggs, he finished with 64 receptions for 849 yards.

Together, Thielen and Diggs accounted for 54 percent of the Vikings' receiving yards this season. They also combined for 12 touchdowns. In the Vikes' miraculous playoff win over the New Orleans Saints, they accounted for 66 percent of the passing game. They have been the safety valves for Case Keenum all season long.

Minnesota offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has the rare luxury of lining up either one of them on the inside or outside on any given play. Both are excellent route runners — whether it's doing deep or intermediate routes or crossing routes, and both are excellent blockers.

So how should Jim Schwartz defend against these two? Some believe help over the top on Thielen and playing single coverage on Diggs is the way to go. We may see that concept occasionally in the NFC Championship Game but I have a feeling Schwartz will come up with some variation we have not seen before. The Eagles are not going to completely shut these two down, but their damage can be minimized. Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills, Patrick Robinson and the other DBs will put in a full day’s work shadowing these two.

Who's next? 6 things to watch in today's Saints-Vikings game

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Who's next? 6 things to watch in today's Saints-Vikings game

A ticket to the NFC Championship game will be punched and a trip to the Linc to face the top-seeded Eagles will be booked when the Minnesota Vikings host the New Orleans Saints this evening at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

NBC Sports Philadelphia's Derrick Gunn breaks down key points and matchups to watch for as the two teams battle for the right to face the Eagles with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line next Sunday.

• It all begins with the two head coaches. The Saints' Sean Payton and the Vikings' Mike Zimmer are longtime friends, having coached together on the Dallas Cowboys' staff from 2003-05. Payton was the offensive coordinator in Dallas while Zimmer was the defensive coordinator. Both are intense, creative and successful minds and have very similar styles of coaching. The difference: Payton is an offensive mastermind while Zimmer is a defensive guru. Zimmer's defense finished ranked No. 1 overall in the league this season. Payton's offense was No. 2 overall. Let the chess match begin.

• Keep an eye on the matchup between Minnesota all-pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes and Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas. Thomas, in just his second year in the league out of Ohio State, finished sixth in the league in receiving with 1245 yards. Rhodes, Thomas' adversary Sunday, is one of the best cover corners in the game. He's got two picks and 44 total tackles on the season.

• Vikings wideout Adam Thielen finished fifth in the NFL during the regular season with 1276 receiving yards. There should be a really good battle between him and Saints' rookie first-round pick, cornerback Marshon Lattimore. Lattimore finished tied for fifth in the league with five interceptions this season.

• This game features three premiere edge-rushers. Minnesota's Everson Griffin and Danielle Hunter teamed up for 20 sacks this season. Griffin finished tied for fourth in the league with 13 sacks, while Hunter supplied seven of his own. The Saints' Cameron Jordan also had 13 sacks this season. Drew Brees and Case Keenum are both pocket passers, but is any of those guys break into the pocket, look out.

• Keep an eye on the battle in the trenches between the Vikings' defensive line and the Saints' offensive line. Minnesota has a fierce pass rush, but New Orleans allowed just 20 sacks in the regular season, second fewest in the entire league.

• Which QB will do the best job of completing plays? Brees and Keenum, the latter of whom is an unlikely MVP candidate, have been two of the best this season at staying upright. Brees has been sacked just 20 times. Keenum has been sacked just 22 times. Both guys have an uncanny ability to keep plays alive and make something out of nothing.

For more analysis on the Eagles and their opponent in next Sunday's NFC Championship Game, tune into tonight's Mission Minneapolis playoff special on NBC Sports Philadelphia following the Saints-Vikings game.