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ProCanes NFL Conference Championship Preview: Campbell Named DPOY, Chad Thomas’ Big Week

Can Calais Campbell help the Jaguars to their first Super Bowl appearance?

NFL: Houston Texans at Jacksonville Jaguars Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

For fans, it will be a bittersweet Sunday afternoon. For players, it’s the final obstacle to reaching that goal that they set for themselves oh-so-long-ago before grinding into shape, working on technique and rehabbing numerous injuries to be ready for a game. With but one game left to win to make it to the Super Bowl LII, expect all four teams to hold nothing back as they look to punch their ticket to Minneapolis in two weeks.

Again, before we get into the previews for this week’s AFC and NFC Championship contests, we say bon voyage to the teams (and ProCanes players) who were shown the door after the Divisional round.

Pittsburgh Steelers (CB Artie Burns, LB Anthony Chickillo and LB Sean Spence)

Atlanta Falcons (P Matt Bosher)

Tennessee Titans

New Orleans Saints (DE Al-Quadin Muhammad)

Jacksonville Jaguars vs New England Patriots 3:40 PM

NFL: International Series-Baltimore Ravens at Jacksonville Jaguars Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Whether on the road, or playing at home,“Duuuuuval!!” has shown up big in the postseason. If the Jaguars hope to make the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance they’ll need a bit more than just that oustanding defense to travel with them to Gillette Stadium to take down QB Tom Brady and the rest of the Patriots’ offense. Brady and the Patriots have not lost a playoff at home since their 28–13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the 2013 postseason.

Aside from that blemish, there have been few opponents that have been able to knock off head coach Bill Belichick in a regular season game, let alone in the playoffs. However, there is a blueprint to beating the Pats in the postseason. It starts with the obvious solution of disrupting Brady’s timing in the pocket. The Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos pulled this feat off and were able to halt the Patriots from a couple more Super Bowl appearances. Baltimore had LB Terrell Suggs and Denver had linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller applying pressure on Brady and getting home the occasional time. The Jags have ProCane DE Calais Campbell who has been a terror to opponents from the regular season into the postseason. Expect the Pats to slide protection over to Campbell’s side of the defense in an attempt to disrupt his pursuit of the QB, similar to the strategy the Steelers used a week ago.

Campbell does not have a sack so far in the playoff. In fact, Campbell has recorded zero sacks in the postseason throughout his career. Yet, there is more to the game of defensive lineman than just sacks and tackles for loss, with Campbell’s capability to take over a game that should give fellow linemates Yannick Ngakoue, Dante Fowler Jr. and Malik Jackson the opportunity to make more plays. Should the Jags pull out the win, Campbell would return to the Super Bowl for the first time since his rookie season in 2009 as a member of the Arizona Cardinals, when the Cardinals took on the Steelers in XLIII. Optimistically, Campbell is hoping for a more favorable result. But first he’ll need to defeat the Patriots.

When making the comparison of this Jaguars team to that of past Super Bowl contenders, the most fitting one has to be that of the 2015-16 Denver Broncos, a franchise that has defeated the Patriots on three different occasions during the Belichick era (2005, ‘13 and ‘15). That 2015 Broncos squad was spearheaded by a talented defense stacked with All-Pros at every level, while an offense did just enough behind a solid running game and good enough passing game to pull out a win. Nobody will mistake Jaguars’ QB Blake Bortles for Peyton Manning; however, both men share similar scrutiny at the game’s most important position. Against Pittsburgh, Bortles threw a decent 14 of 26 for 214 passing yards, one touchdown and zero picks. By now, you’ve heard ad nauseum that Belichick and the Patriots’ defense will take away an opponent’s greatest strength, forcing them to win in a manner that they’re not used to. Similar to what they did against the Titans and Marcus Mariota in the Divisional round, expect to see a hoard of Pat defenders close to the line of scrimmage, forcing Bortles to look down the field for completions and not rely on his legs as much.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

That downfield passing attack means plenty of work for ProCane C Brandon Linder. Coming off a nearly flawless game against the Steelers where he did not allow a sack, a QB hit or a hurry on 28 dropbacks for a 100.0 pass blocking rating according to PFF, Linder is going to need an encore performance if Jacksonville wants to enjoy the offensive success they experienced at Heinz Field. Getting a good push up the middle to help ignite Jacksonville’s running game will be integral to the success of the Jaguars’ offense. RB Leonard Fournette ran rampant against a Steelers’ defense that had few answers as to how to slow the rookie down, even after he came back from a first-half ankle injury.

To keep New England’s defenders on their toes, Jacksonville’s offensive coordinator, Nathaniel Hackett, could look to ProCane WR Allen Hurns on intermediate routes to take some pressure off the QB. Hurns has been used sparingly in the previous two playoff rounds, seeing just two targets for one reception and 12 yards receiving against the Steelers last weekend. This could be a coming out party for the Hurricanes’ WR who will need to avoid coverage from either of the Pats’ cornerbacks, Malcolm Butler or Stephon Gilmore. Hurns has seen few appearances on the field in the postseason, as the Jaguars have opted to go with receivers Marquise Lee, Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook as well as rolling out multiple TE formations that keep him on the sideline. If the Jags do opt to go with a spread to stretch out New England’s defense, it should allow for more targets for Hurns to make a larger impact in the postseason than he has made to date.

In what will be the biggest game perhaps in the history of the Jaguars franchise, the onus for production could boil down to the performance of a few ProCanes.

Late in the week it was revealed that Patriots QB Tom Brady suffered a cut on the thumb on his throwing hand. Brady is expected to play Sunday despite concerns from those outside of the New England’s locker room regarding the QB’s most prized thumb. It remains to be seen if WR Phillip Dorsett will see any snaps on offense as the lone ProCane on the Patriots. While Dorsett’s impact on the game is murky at best, it is reasonable to assume that New England will feed the ball to their trio of running backs: Rex Burkhead, Dion Lewis, James White. Yet, the biggest question for Jacksonville’s defense will be how they defend TE Rob Gronkowski.

Minnesota Vikings vs Philadelphia Eagles 6:40 PM

With a win, the Vikings could be hosting the Super Bowl for the first time in the modern era. To get there last time, they won a thrilling game in spectacular fashion, with WR Stefon Diggs catching a Case Keenum pass, staying inbounds and running down the sideline to glory as the Vikings went on to pull off an improbable victory at home.

So how do they follow that up?

Well, they’re going to have to battle it out in the elements at Lincoln Financial Field against the NFC’s number one seed, the Philadelphia Eagles — an Eagles team that was thought of as the underdogs a week ago against Atlanta, hanging on to defeat the reigning NFC champions.

NFL: International Series-Minnesota Vikings at Cleveland Browns Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

There is very little ProCanes action in this game. Both G Danny Isidora and WR Stacy Coley are afterthoughts, with Coley unlikely to be active for the game. Isidora on the other hand, will be active. However, given how well the Vikings did against the Saints’ defensive front in the Divisional round, the line rotation will be the same against an Eagles’ front that has speed from the edge in DE Brandon Graham and power up the middle for DT Timmy Jernigan, with a combination of both from DT Fletcher Cox.

What should be intriguing in the NFC Championship game is what kind of performance we see out of the two quarterbacks. Philadelphia QB Nick Foles was thought of as a hindrance more than a substitute when Carson Wentz went down for the season with a torn ACL. Vikings’ QB Case Keenum was thought of as a temporary patch at the position in Minnesota, but has played well enough throughout the season to be considered the starter well into the future.

While this game should come down to which team is able to establish a consistent ground game, one of those quarterbacks will need to exceed expectations once more to push their squad into the Super Bowl.

Calais Campbell Named DPY by Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

This past week, Jagaurs DE Calais Campbell edged out Rams DT Aaron Donald for the honor of being named Defensive Player of the Year according to PFWA. While a Super Bowl 52 appearance is his primary focus today, Campbell could make it a clean sweep at the NFL Honors ceremony next month.

Are McIntosh and Norton Sitting Pretty?

The NFL’s deadline for underclassmen to officially declare for the 2018 draft passed on Monday. If you missed the news, most of Clemson’s defensive line (DT Christian Wilkins, DE Antonio Bryant and DE Clelin Ferrell) will all return to campus for the 2018 season. For McIntosh, who reportedly received the highest draft grade of any Hurricane this season, it could mean a higher ceiling in terms of who he is selected by in April.

With a defensive line class next season that could potentially feature Houston’s Ed Oliver and Michigan’s Rashan Gary, as well as Clemson’s entire defensive line (Ferrell, Bryant, Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence), McIntosh and Norton made a smart play by leaving in their junior season and avoiding the incoming competition. You can see how Miami’s starting DTs fair at the NFL Scouting Combine March 4th on the NFL Network.

Chad Thomas Impressing Early in Draft Season

From the start of practices earlier in the week, DE Chad Thomas made noise all week long at the East-West Shrine Bowl practices. Whether it was in one-on-one or during team sessions, Thomas took advantage of the opportunities presented to him. Before the end of the week, Thomas earned a late invite to the Reese’s Senior Bowl next Saturday. It’s early, yet Thomas has a great chance to raise his draft stock before the NFL Scouting Combine in March.

Quick Outs

  • G KC McDermott will play in the 2018 East-West Shrine Game. Afterward, McDermott will go back to train with IMG Academy in preparation for the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis happening in March.