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Top storylines for NFL Conference Championship Sunday

Vincent Frank

A five-time Super Bowl champion. The reigning Super Bowl champions. Three other teams that didn’t even make the playoffs last season. This is what makes up the NFL’s version of the Final Four this upcoming weekend.

Huge home favorites, the New England Patriots will play host to Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game. And in the NFL title bout, the Philadelphia Eagles will take on a Minnesota Vikings squad that could very well be one of destiny.

Can Jacksonville pull off the huge upset at home? How will the Jeff Fisher Bowl go in Philadelphia? And just how important is the coaching dynamic in the two games? These are your top storylines for NFL Conference Championship Sunday.

Home cooking at Gillette 

Following last week’s 35-14 win over Tennessee in the divisional playoffs, New England is averaging 31.7 points in its past 13 home games, postseason included. For their part, the Jaguars have now given up 40-plus points in two of their past three road dates after yielding an average of 16.7 points in their previous six away games. This will surely have an impact come Sunday afternoon a Gillette Stadium.

No one in their right mind expects Jacksonville to keep pace with New England in a high-scoring affair. Sure the same thing was said last week against Pittsburgh, but a road game in New England is a completely different story. After all, Tom Brady is now 18-3 at home in his career during the playoffs.

We also have to take into account the officiating here. Sure Tennessee was blown out in the divisional round. But as former Titans head coach Mike Mularkey would like us to believe, the officials didn’t do them any favors. It’s most definitely something to keep an eye on Sunday.

The Jeff Fisher game 

You all had to know this was coming, right? Either Case Keenum or Nick Foles will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. That’s simply insane in and of itself. Now consider this small fact.

These two quarterbacks combined to start 20 games for the Jeff Fisher-led Rams in 2015 and 2016. In those 20 starts, they combined for an 8-12 record with 16 touchdowns compared to 21 interceptions. Playoffs included, Keenum and Foles have combined for a 15-4 record with 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 19 starts this season.

It’s just a minor backstory to check in on. Are Foles and Keenum as bad as they looked under Fisher? No. Do either one compare to other recent Super Bowl quarterbacks? No. And as it relates to Fisher, he’ll be watching from home wondering exactly what went wrong in both St. Louis and Los Angeles.

Will the real Blake Bortles step up? 

For the most part this postseason, we have seen the bad Blake Bortles. He compiled less than 100 passing yards through the first three quarters last week against Pittsburgh. All said, Bortles had less than 190 passing yards in his first seven postseason quarters. Normally, that’s just not going to come close to cutting it.

Then, in an instant, something clicked big time in the fourth quarter of Jacksonville’s AFC Divisional Playoff win over the Steelers. He completed his final seven passes for 118 yards, leading Jacksonville to two touchdowns in the final stanza in what was ultimately a 45-42 victory.

Most objective observers don’t believe Bortles can go tit-for-tat with Brady in the conference title game. To think otherwise would be foolish. But if he can move the chains on third down, avoid the mistakes that plagued him for his first three-plus seasons and somehow keep Brady off the field, the Jaguars’ defense could very well do the rest in what would be a huge upset win. It might be a long shot, but we saw a glimpse of what Bortles might be able to offer against a good defense in last week’s late-game performance against Pittsburgh.

Destiny for the Vikings? 

One now has to wonder following last week’s almost unbelievable late-game victory over New Orleans whether these Vikings are destined to become the first team to ever host a Super Bowl.

There were 10 seconds remaining in the game. Minnesota had zero timeouts remaining. There was not enough time to get the ball in field goal range and run another play. Despite this, one of the most-iconic moments in Viking football history was born. Case Keenum hit Stefon Diggs down the field. Saints safety Marcus Williams misplayed the ball miserably. The end result was a 61-yard game-winning walkoff touchdown to send Minnesota to this weekend’s conference title game.

Now seen as the favorites heading into Philadelphia, the Vikings will go into a hostile environment in an attempt to earn their first Super Bowl appearance since 1976. It will do so with destiny on its side. It will also do so with the team’s history not necessarily in its favor.

With a win on Sunday, the Vikings will squash the narrative that they can’t come out on top in that big game. In doing so, the ghosts for Fran Tarkenton, Steve Young, Blair Walsh and Gary Anderson will be washed away. It will be replaced by a new era of Vikings football — one that will see this team be the first in NFL history to host a Super Bowl. Destiny seems to be on the side of Mike Zimmer’s squad. It’s now all about putting everything together and coming away with a victory on Sunday.

The coaching dynamic 

Doug Pederson

Mike Zimmer, Doug Marrone and Doug Pederson combined to coach exactly one playoff game in their careers prior to this January. The three now have five games of head coaching experience in the postseason heading into Conference Championship Sunday. Bill Belichick has led the Patriots to five Lombardi Trophies, seven Super Bowl appearances, and has coached a whopping 37 playoff games.

None of this means much in 2018. Is Belichick the most-accomplished head coach of the four remaining? Yes. Is he the best head coach with the best staff? Surely. But in-game situations can lead us to different conclusions than we might normally expect.

Look at Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone completely out-scheming Steelers head man Mike Tomlin last week. Tomlin had coached 14 playoff games prior to this season — leading Pittsburgh to two Super Bowl appearances and one title during that span. Marrone was coming off coaching just his first playoff game — a less-than-stellar 10-3 win over the Bills. It’s all about the right now, not the yesterday. Keep that in mind before we discount what coaches in Jacksonville, Philadelphia and Minnesota bring to the table here.

Playing for contracts

We know full well that the NFL is a team sport, but there are many individual players taking to the field on Conference Championship Sunday that wil also be thinking about No. 1. Continued excellent performances from these soon-to-be free agents and potential offseason trade options could set them up well when March comes calling.

It starts with Case Keenum in Minnesota. Having already led the team further in the playoffs than it’s been since 2009, he’s a borderline hero in the Twin Cities. Add in last week’s dramatic late-game win, and that legend has been taken to a whole new level. Showing himself to be more than a starter-caliber quarterback over the course of the season, Keenum will be in line for a huge pay day come March. Maybe it will come in the form of the Vikings handing him the franchise tag tender, guaranteeing a quarterback that’s made $7 million in six seasons north of $23 million in 2018.

Nick Foles also finds himself in an interesting situation with the Eagles. He might be under contract for another season, but a run to the Super Bowl will put the veteran on the radar of teams looking for a starter — something that’s not going to happen with Carson Wentz acting as Mr. Franchise in Philadelphia. What might his offseason look like with a win Sunday?

Final days on the job 

Last year saw Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan coach his team through the NFC Playoffs while knowing full well he would be the San Francisco 49ers’ next head coach. No one will say Shanahan struggled in that role during the playoffs, but he did have some obvious issues late in Atlanta’s Super Bowl meltdown against the Patriots.

This year, multiple coordinators will look to lead their teams past Championship Sunday and to the Super Bowl, all the while knowing they will soon become head coaches for other franchises.

This includes New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who is expected to take the Indianapolis Colts’ job. Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia is expected to be named the Detroit Lions’ next head coach. Meanwhile, Minnesota Vikings offensive mastermind Pat Shurmur will likely become the football Giants’ next head man.

These coaches are professionals. They’ll do their jobs while not looking forward to their next gigs. It’s still definitely something to watch in both conference championship games come Sunday.

Tom Brady vs the world 

It seems like a broken record. Every single January, we focus on the absurd historical numbers Mr. Brady has put up compared to the rest of the field heading into Championship Sunday. Now set to take part in his seventh consecutive AFC title bout, the numbers are even more staggering. And when we take into account the other three teams, they’re even more unbelievable.

Brady has five Super Bowl titles. The other three quarterbacks starting on Sunday have a combined five postseason starts under the belt. And prior to this season, that number stood at one. Brady has more postseason wins than his counterpart, Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles, has regular season wins. He’s started five times more playoff games than the other three quarterbacks combined.

In reality, this might not amount to a hill of beans. This is a completely different year. Level playing field. That type of thing. Even then, history shows us Brady will hoist the Lombardi in Minnesota come February. It’s up to Bortles and the Jags to put an end to this narrative Sunday at Gillette Stadium.

The underdogs

Eagles quarterback Nick Foles

It’s readily apparent that the No. 1-seed Philadelphia Eagles are using this as a rallying cry. After defeating the defending conference champion Falcons at home as underdogs last week, offensive tackle Lane Johnson sported this dog mask on the field. And since then, it’s taken on an entirely new meaning.

The Eagles themselves are asking fans to wear the “Underdog” masks. The fans themselves have sold out of said masks on this one site. And we could be in store for what would be a freaky scene with thousands of fans looking like this at Lincoln Financial Sunday when the underdog Eagles take on everyone’s darling, the Minnesota Vikings. It really could be something to behold. And it’s definitely one of the top storylines for NFL’s Conference Championship Sunday.