Punching a ticket to the Super Bowl might depend on how these matchups pan out.
Sports Pulse: USA TODAY Sports experts give us their pick on who will win the NFC Championship, the Vikings or the Eagles. USA TODAY Sports
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For both the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings, the NFC Championship Game all comes down to pressure.
Built off the strength of their defensive lines, the two teams have stepped to the verge of Super Bowl LII by harassing quarterbacks and disrupting run games all season long. And reaching the game's biggest stage likely depends on each offense's ability to find an answer for that pressure.
For Case Keenum, the challenge is a fitting penultimate obstacle in the Vikings' pursuit of the Super Bowl.
In filling in for Sam Bradford, Keenum has thrived in the face of an oncoming rush. By consistently side-stepping defenders and remaining cool in the pocket, he has kept Minnesota's offense efficient (ranking third in third-down conversion rate at 43.5) and relatively mistake-free (third-fewest giveaways with 14).
But last week's slip-up against the New Orleans Saints almost proved lethal. Keenum had just a 5.1 quarterback rating when under pressure, according to Pro Football Focus, and needed a last-second, 61-yard touchdown strike to Stefon Diggs to advance.
Part of Minnesota's problems started up front. The Vikings moved Mike Remmers to left guard and had Rashod Hill fill in at right tackle, and both players frequently struggled at the spots.
The Eagles might only exacerbate those issues. Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan are tough for even the most seasoned offensive linemen to handle, and Philadelphia has a steady rotation of edge players (Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Derek Barnett and Chris Long) to wear out opposing tackles.
The Vikings, however, can follow the blue print set by the New York Giants, who racked up 434 passing yards and three touchdowns through the air in Week 15 by emphasizing slants and crossing routes. Much of this effort might come down to Pro Bowl wide receiver Adam Thielen, who is listed as questionable with a lower back injury.
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Here are three other matchups that will define Sunday's conference championship games:
New England Patriots RBs Dion Lewis, James White and Rex Burkhead vs. Jacksonville Jaguars LBs Telvin Smith and Myles Jack
Rob Gronkowski is the most problematic matchup for Jacksonville, as the four-time all-pro looms as the big-play and red-zone threat capable of breaking down the defense. Yet the Jaguars can't derail Tom Brady without an answer for the consistent barrage of short passes to running backs.
With Burkhead's potential return, the Patriots could have enviable flexibility. Lewis and White combined for 13 catches last week, and New England could frequently deploy empty sets to get its running backs matched up in space. That could force Jacksonville's hand with linebacker Paul Posluszny, who is stout against the run but is a liability in coverage.
Smith and Jack have the speed and range to match up with opposing running backs, but recent lapses should be cause for concern. How the Patriots fare on this front also could be the determining factor in whether the offense is able to negate the Jaguars' formidable pass rush.
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Eagles RB Jay Ajayi vs. Vikings DT Linval Joseph
While the Eagles got enough out of Nick Foles in a divisional-round win against the Atlanta Falcons, the stats belie the quarterback's role in the offense's success. Just six of his 30 attempts went 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, with a bulk of the damage in the passing game coming from yards after catch on quick hits. A similar approach likely won't be tenable against the Vikings.
Minnesota's top-ranked defense is adept at taking away the short passing game from opposing quarterbacks, and its secondary is full of sure tacklers. While more deep throws might seem like the answer, Foles is ill-equipped to deal with an imposing front four. The lone answer for Philadelphia might be to establish the run and hope that it opens up sporadic opportunities for big gains through the air.
After seeing his workload ramp up late in the season, Ajayi could be in for his first 20-touch day with the Eagles. Joseph, however, has led the charge for the NFL's second-ranked run defense. Ajayi will need center Jason Kelce to hold his own, but the running back will need to find his way to the second level.
Jaguars QB Blake Bortles vs. Patriots' pass rush
Derided throughout the Jaguars' run to the playoffs, Bortles has largely provided the steady, mistake-free play that has been asked of him. Though Jacksonville will ride its rugged running game and defense once again, keeping pace with New England depends on reliable outings on third down as well as the occasional big play through the air.
Bortles has executed on both those fronts at times this season. What could trip him up, however, is a New England pass rush that has 18 sacks in its last three games, including eight last week against the Tennessee Titans. If the Patriots force the Jaguars into obvious passing downs and take away the play-action element, Bortles will be hard-pressed to make consistent connections with a lackluster receiving corps.
Given his solid protection from the offensive line and noteworthy ability to evade the rush, Bortles has been difficult to corral, with just a 4.4% sack rate on the year (tied for sixth-lowest of any starter). While no New England player had more than 6 sacks this season, a deep and diverse group could keep Jacksonville off-balance. Keep an eye on a potential matchup of top rookies in Patriots defensive end Deatrich Wise, who had two sacks last week, and Jaguars left tackle Cam Robinson.
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.
PHOTOS: Best conference championship game moments
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