Battle For The AFC Championship
Down by one point with 25 seconds left to go in the game and the ball on their own 20-yard line, the Minnesota Vikings had a mathematical win probability of only 15% this past Sunday evening.
Yet, just two plays and less than 30 seconds later, Vikings’ wide receiver Stefon Diggs caught a beautifully-placed throw from quarterback Case Keenum, managed to dodge the diving tackle attempt by New Orleans Saints' safety Marcus Williams, and race 35 yards down the right sideline, to score the game-winning touchdown that's now being referred to as "the Minneapolis Miracle." Minnesota defeated New Orleans by a final score of 29-24, and will return to the NFC Championship Game for the second time in eight years.
Ironically, the New England Patriots, who themselves were the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs, also face an even more improbable opponent in the AFC Championship Game, in the form of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Very few people in America, whether nearby or far away from northeastern Florida, would've predicted that the Jaguars would've even made it to the postseason, let alone this far into it. Head coach Doug Marrone barely had three years of NFL coaching experience. Every NFL observer or fan snickered at the idea of Blake Bortles being someone who deserved to be quarterbacking a team playing in the postseason. The defense was young, talented, and precocious, but we didn't think they were quite ready to take that "next step."
New England opened the week as nine-point favorites over the Jaguars, which is a seemingly laughable margin between two teams that are supposed to be the best in their conference. Of course, everyone is expecting New England to roll over Jacksonville, en route to their eighth Super Bowl appearance in the Bill Belichick & Tom Brady era.
But are we really so sure the Jaguars are going to be nothing more than a mere speedbump on the Patriots' road to Minneapolis? In yet another twist of irony, the Jaguars were built, at least in part, through a blueprint laid by Tom Coughlin -- the head coach who handed New England their two losses in their seven Super Bowl appearances. They do exactly what Coughlin's old New York Giants' teams did successfully against New England: generate a fearsome pass rush from the front four, use their numbers and athleticism to take away all of Brady's weapons downfield, and play a ball-control offense through a power running game to keep New England's offense off the field.
Most people believe we're bound to see Minnesota vs. New England in Super Bowl LII. But neither team -- nor its fan base -- should start making any plans for football in early February. They first have to emerge victorious out of quietly difficult match-ups this Sunday.