Right before one of the NFL’s biggest weekends of the year, featuring the conference championship games, the league’s top PR official announced he’s stepping down.
On Thursday, NFL Executive VP/Communications Joe Lockhart told staffers he’s leaving his current post after the Super Bowl.
Lockhart lorded over the NFL’s PR Machine the last two years, a rough couple of seasons for the league’s image, in part, due to some players kneeling during the national anthem.
While Lockhart says he wasn’t forced out, often when a big corporation gets a lot of bad PR, they look for a new spin doctor.
Lockhart, who was Bill Clinton’s press secretary from 1998 to 2000, told staff members he’s leaving his current post to spend more time with his family, do political commentary, and possibly teach.
The NFL has hired executive search-firm Korn Ferry to look for his replacement.
But the games on and on Sunday we will find out which two teams will play in the Super Bowl. So here is a preview of the conference championship games:
Jacksonville Jaguars at New England Patriots
Patriots QB Tom Brady hurt his right hand in practice Wednesday colliding with a running back, didn’t practice on Thursday and was limited on Friday.
According to WBZ Radio’s Michael Felger Brady needed four stitches to repair the bleeding wound.
Brady was asked on Friday about the condition of his hand
“Not talking about it,” Brady said on Friday.
Will he play?
“We’ll see,” Brady said.
Talk host Kirk Minihane, of Boston’s WEEI, tweeted on Friday, “Sources: Brady threw both with and without his glove today (about 50-50) and looked great.”
How effective Brady will be remains to be seen, but facing Jaguars great pass-rush probably isn’t what the doctored ordered for a QB with a hand injury. The Jaguars finished this past season with 55 sacks.
The Patriots’ offensive line will need to be at their best, like they were last week in a win over Tennessee.
Aside from good blocking, other ways to slow down a great pass rush is with screen passes and a strong running game, so expect these two elements to be a big part of the Patriots’ offensive game plan. While the Jaguars are a superb pass rushing team, their run defense is inconsistent.
If Brady can’t play, or has to come out of the game, the Patriots have a seasoned-backup in journeyman Brian Hoyer who has 28 career starts. He also has a lot of experience against Jacksonville.
“They’re a great defense,” Hoyer said about Jacksonville. “I’ve played against these guys four times in the last three years, and each year they seem to get a little better.”
If Brady does play, his match-up against the Jaguars’ cornerbacks, the best tandem in the NFL, should be fun to watch.
Cornerback A.J. Bouye led the Jaguars with six interceptions and 18 pass breakups. And the player opposite him is even better – Jalen Ramsey was the NFL’s best cornerback this past season.
“The good Lord made that guy, and he said, ‘Let there be corner,’ and there he is,” said Patriots wide receiver Matthew Slater said about Ramsey.
On defense, expect the Patriots to focus on shutting down Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette, and make mercurial QB Blake Bortles beat them through the air.
The bottom line is if Brady plays, and isn’t bothered by his hand injury, the Patriots should win. If the hand is a big problem, and he struggles, or his backup needs to play, the game is a toss-up.
The mystery of Brady’s hand will be solved on Sunday.
Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles
How often do you see two backup quarterbacks squaring off in a championship game? Well that is the case in the NFC with Minnesota’s Case Keenum against Philadelphia’s Nick Foles battling in Philadelphia on Sunday.
Without Keenum, the Vikings wouldn’t be playing in his game. After taking over as the starter in Week Two, Keenum led the Vikings to a 13-3 record, throwing 22 touchdowns to just seven interceptions, and led them on an eight-game winning streak.
As for Foles, he hasn’t been quite as effective as his counterpart. After starter Carson Wentz hurt his knee, Foles took over as the starter in Week 15, and looked great, throwing four touchdowns in a win over the New York Giants.
However, since then, in two regular-season games and a one playoff contest, he’s thrown just one touchdown.
And Foles faces a huge challenge this week against the NFL’s best defense. The Vikings led the NFL in fewest yards allowed (275.9) and fewest points allowed (15.8).
Increasing the challenge for Foles, is the fact that his starting left tackle Jason Peters is on injured-reserve. So a backup, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, will be forced to block one of the NFL’s best pass rushers, Everson Griffen, who finished the season with 14 sacks. This could be a huge problem for the Eagles, especially since Foles isn’t particularly mobile.
Also, the Vikings have the NFL’s deepest cornerback depth chart with Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander and Terrence Newman.
But, you know what, the Eagles have a darn good defense as well, led by one of the NFL’s top defensive minds, Jim Schwartz.
Philadelphia has the NFL’s top run defense, so it could be tough for the Vikings’ tailback duo of Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon to get anything going. The Eagles’ outstanding defensive line, led by tackle Fletcher Cox, makes running on them exceedingly hard.
“The key to this game is stopping the run and then us two tackles (Cox and Timmy Jernigan) pressuring Keenum up the middle so he can’t run,” Cox said.
If the Vikings can run the ball, they have a very good chance of winning this game because Keenum works a lot better with a running game.
If the Vikings do win, they will become the first team in NFL history to play home Super Bowl.
This game is too close to call.