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NFL playoffs 2018: What to expect from Vikings vs. Eagles, Jaguars vs. Patriots

Former NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz takes a look at how he thinks each team will try to win in the Conference Championship Round.

NFL: Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

I write mostly about X’s and O’s. I love thinking outside the box about game plans — or sometimes, it’s just thinking inside the box — and then put it into words we can all understand. For this weekend’s Conference Championship Round, it has mostly the latter.

When figuring out how a team will attack another, it starts at the quarterback position. And this weekend, we have Nick Foles starting for the Philadelphia Eagles, Case Keenum for the Minnesota Vikings and Blake Bortles starting in New England for the Jaguars. All three of those fit inside the box.

Those three teams will try winning the same way: by riding their defenses. All three of those teams are in the top four in defensive points per game. According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA, the Jaguars have the best defense, followed by the Vikings. At No. 5, it’s the Eagles.

Expect a low-scoring Eagles vs. Vikings game in the NFC Championship

Looking specifically at the NFC Championship Game, the first team to 17 might win. The Vikings and Eagles both want to run the ball. They are second and sixth in rush attempts per game, respectively, and they’re both in the top eight for rushing units.

They are equally as efficient at stopping the run. The Eagles have the third-best rush defense according to Football Outsiders, while the Vikings are sitting at No. 5. Something has to give.

The give is the quarterback position — specifically, which quarterback will make fewer mistakes. Keenum can create more in his offense than Foles can, but Foles isn’t put in a position to make as many mistakes as Keenum. The Eagles used a ton of run-pass options (RPOs) last weekend to pass the ball because Foles did that well within Chip Kelly’s offense in 2013, his best season as a pro.

Keenum pushes the ball downfield more often, ninth-most in the NFL for qualifying quarterbacks. So in the end, both teams will try the same thing: Run the ball, play field position, try forcing turnovers and make enough plays at the quarterback position.

Why the Eagles remain dangerous without Carson Wentz

The Jaguars will run the ball vs. the Patriots in the AFC Championship

What I said above is the Jacksonville Jaguars’ game plan, too. They lead the league in rush attempts per game. That’s their bread and butter: run and then play-action pass. Bortles has a passer rating of 106 on play-action passes, good for seventh-best in the NFL. His passer rating drops down to 77.8 on a non-play-action pass.

So we know what Jacksonville will do on offense, especially since New England is the one of the worst teams in the NFL at stopping the run up the middle, which Jacksonville excels at. However, Bill Belichick is one of the best at limiting one-dimensional offenses, which (and sorry to Bortles fans) is, by design, one-dimensional.

What will the New England offense throw at the Jaguars?

The intriguing matchup this weekend is New England’s offense against Jacksonville’s defense. New England is the best in the NFL at adapting a game plan to fit the upcoming opponent. For example, Tom Brady threw the ball 53 times last weekend against the Titans, far more than any game this season. I’ve covered Jacksonville’s pass rush in an X’s and O’s video, and it’s elite. And we know pressure, especially up the middle, bothers Brady. That’s not unique to Brady, but when New England struggles on offense, it’s because of this.

One last thing to note: Brady is 3-0 in the playoffs against top-two ranked scoring defenses, with a passer rating of 109.9. He won’t be intimidated by the Jags.

The conventional wisdom is to leave in extra blockers in passing situations to give your offensive linemen more help. This works best when a team has one or maybe two guys who are elite pass rushers. Easy to target them. It shouldn’t work as well against Jacksonville, though. Which pass rusher do you double? You can’t double all of them.

So I expect the Patriots to do what they always do against a great pass rush: Go empty, find matchup issues, and throw the ball quickly.

New England was fifth in the NFL at almost 20 percent of offensive pass snaps being from empty. That number almost feels too low. The Patriots are able to go empty to isolate their best players, primarily Rob Gronkowski, on defenders who can’t guard him.

Sometimes instead of going empty, they will put Gronk into the boundary by himself, again allowing for a favorable matchup. Going both empty with motion, which the Pats do most every time, and putting Gronk to one side by himself gives Brady a man or zone read. Here are some examples of that from last week, especially on third down and in the low red zone when the Patriots need to make a play:

Motion to see man coverage, throw to Gronk. Bingo

Another third down, another matchup win for the Patriots, but this time it’s not from empty:

Just one last example, this time against Denver in Week 10. It’s just not something they started doing last week. Here’s a third-and-9 converted to a first down:

Another reason the Patriots are so effective at spreading out a defense is their ability of their running backs to be receivers. All three of them — James White, Dion Lewis, and Rex Burkhead — do excellent jobs out of the backfield, or even lined up in space:

Most linebackers have no shot here, and there are plenty of examples of how the Patriots love to use these matchups to their advantage.

How will the Jacksonville defense try to stop the Patriots?

So the fun part is figuring out how the Jaguars will defend these looks, mostly how they will defend Gronk, and whether Gronk will even split out wide. The easy answer is just to put in their stud cornerback, Jalen Ramsey, on Gronk and use the rest of their pieces on defense to double whomever they see fit on certain plays. Myles Jack, their speedy linebacker and former dual threat at UCLA (he played RB/LB for two seasons) can cover any back out of the backfield.

However, earlier this week the Jags’ coaching staff said they won’t put Ramsey on Gronk in man-to-man coverage, as they are primarily are a Cover-3 team. So the Jaguars will just run their defense. If that’s the case, Ramsey can lock up whatever WR. I just don’t believe Jacksonville will want Barry Church one-on-one at any time against Gronk. I’m fascinated to find out how Jacksonville will manage to play this.

At the same time, if going empty keeps the Jaguars in Cover 3, New England will most likely keep Gronk and the RBs in the slot to exploit the middle of the field, instead of looking outside the hashes where Jacksonville allowed only a 51 percent completion rate, good for third-best in the NFL. So much going on.

Lastly, and it’s not talked about enough because of Jacksonville’s excellent pass defense, its rush defense is suspect. According to Football Outsiders, the Jaguars have the 26th-ranked rush defense, while the Patriots have the third-ranked adjusted rushing offense. Just looking at first-and-10, the Patriots have used a fullback on 109 snaps in either 21 or 22 personnel this season, and when rushing the ball, they are in the top eight in yards per carry. So the Patriots will try rushing the ball.

My guess is the Patriots will mix between two offenses. They will tempo the Jaguars with spread formations, not allowing the DL to rotate. Then they will hit them with base personnel runs as they switch out the starters for backups.

One last nugget to point out: Brady is excellent in the play-action game, and the Patriots offense has always excelled with this concept below:

A fake power run, throw over the middle to Gronk. This play will get run this weekend.

I can’t wait to watch the games! Let me know who you think will win. I’m going with Philadelphia against New England in the Super Bowl.