All the chatter heading into conference championship week was about Tom Brady and three other quarterbacks who weren’t suppose to get this far.
Did no one learn from the divisional round? Yes, the Vikings’ Case Keenum, the Eagles’ Nick Foles and the Jaguars’ Blake Bortles stepped up last week. But the focus should be on the defenses of the Vikings, Eagles and Jaguars for getting this far and knocking out Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger from the postseason.
Many assumed the three would advance to the next round to join the Patriots and Brady to set up a final four featuring elite quarterbacks.
Quarterbacks always get the spotlight, but it’s time to acknowledge three of the top-four ranked defenses in the league. The No. 1-ranked total defense of the Vikings will go up against the No. 4 Eagles’ defense Sunday in Philadelphia. The Jaguars, the No. 2 defense, will go on the road to meet the defending Super Bowl champs, the Patriots.
Here are the strength and weaknesses of the Vikings, Jaguars and Eagles on defense:
The Vikings have the most complete defense among the four remaining teams, which is why they were ranked first in yards allowed (275.9) and points allowed per game (15.8) in the regular season.
Minnesota is loaded with Pro Bowlers in all three phases of the defense, but if you had to nitpick one weakness, it would be the pass rush.
Everson Griffen has created havoc in the trenches for most of the season, but his defensive line teammates have been quiet. The Vikings recorded 37 sacks as a team, the 17th most in the league.
Brees had plenty of time to operate in the second half against the Vikings last week. The future Hall of Famer burned them countless times down the stretch as he got into a groove with wide receiver Michael Thomas to erase a 17-point deficit.
With a strong offensive line, Foles also could have extended time to make plays, but he’s no Brees. Can he find holes in the Vikings’ strong secondary that features cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Harrison Smith? Foles missed multiple throws against the Falcons.
Here’s what makes the Vikings’ defense great. Even if the offensive line holds up, the quarterback still has to get past a solid linebacker unit featuring Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks. They don’t allow many yards on screens and short passes up the middle, which is why the Vikings were the best defensive team on third down.
Cornerback Jalen Ramsey might want to reconsider his guarantee of winning the Super Bowl.
The Jaguars have the daunting task of slowing arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Brady is 3-0 in his postseason career against top-two scoring defenses with a passer rating of over 100. That stat doesn’t bode well for a defense that allowed Roethlisberger to throw for 469 yards and five touchdowns last week.
Inexperience might be the Jaguars’ biggest weakness. But with two postseason games this season, the young Jags could get back on track.
Calais Campbell, front-runner for the Defensive Player of the Year award, and Yannick Ngakoue must get to Brady to force him into mistakes against arguably the best secondary in the league.
Ramsey and A.J. Bouye won’t have to worry about Antonio Brown, but the Patriots’ plethora of weapons could cause confusion.
Jaguars linebackers most likely will have trouble against Rob Gronkowski. Jaguars coach Doug Marrone might want to consider using the physical Ramsey against Gronkowski. The Jaguars’ depth at cornerback allows Ramsey to shadow the All-Pro tight end.
Keenum loves to play on the dangerous side with his rainbow throws off the back foot. That could cost him against arguably the best pass rush in the league.
The Vikings’ offensive line struggled to contain the Saints’ Cameron Jordan last week. Unfortunately for the Vikings, the Eagles have about four Cameron Jordans.
Fletcher Cox is capable of bringing down two offensive linemen on each pass play, allowing Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett and Chris Long to go after the quarterback.
Expect Keenum to take a lot of hits and possible throw multiple interceptions. But if Keenum is able to buy time with his legs, that could mean trouble for the Eagles’ secondary.
Eagles cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby have struggled at times and will have their hands full against Vikings wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen.
Defenses never rest
Here’s how three of the best defenses in the NFL rank:
Eagles: Yards allowed per game (fourth, 306.5), points allowed per game (fourth, 18.4), pass yards allowed per game (17th, 227.3), rushing yards allowed per game (first, 79.2), sacks (15th, 38)
Jaguars: Yards allowed per game (second, 286.1), points allowed per game (second, 16.8), pass yards allowed per game (first, 169.9), rushing yards allowed per game (21st, 116.3), sacks (second, 55)
Vikings: Yards allowed per game (first, 275.9), points allowed per game (first, 15.8), pass yards allowed per game (second, 192.4), rushing yards allowed per game (second, 83.6), sacks (17th, 37)