The AFC Conference Championship rematch is set to kickoff at 4:25 EST on CBS and rarely does a week 2 game in the NFL feel like it has as much riding on it as this Sunday between the New England Patriots and Jacksonville Jaguars.
But when one team is out for the ultimate redemption and the other is on a quest to regain its crown atop the league, things can get heated quick.
It’s been nearly eight months since the Jaguars and Patriots faced off in the AFC Championship game. The crowd was boisterous as always in Foxborough, Mass. The Jaguars didn’t seem to notice. The Patriots got popped in the mouth against a team that wouldn’t take no for an answer.
And somehow, they found a way to win anyway.
You can say the refs helped a bit or the league wanted the Pats in the Super Bowl for TV ratings. But it takes away from just how well these two teams battled aside from the yellow hankies.
And now they meet for the encore in Jacksonville, a game that would’ve seemed lopsided this time a year ago. But now it has become what might be the Pats toughest game of the season. And this is a team that plays Green Bay, Minnesota, and Pittsburgh in 2018.
What follows is an in-depth preview of the game, breaking down every component and coming up with a winner in the end.
And in games like these, if you haven’t covered everything, the smallest detail will come back to bite you. Just like the Patriots do.
So let me get started.
What We Learned from Last Year/What It Means for This Year
A sea of adjustments will be made by coaches Bill Belichick (Patriots) and Doug Marrone (Jaguars) for Sunday. They’ve had months to look at this game tape and will undoubtedly have new tricks up their sleeves.
But they also had plenty of workable elements to their existing game plans from January that they’ll go back to.
Patriots Offense vs. Jaguars Defense
The first thing that sticks out the most to me after watching the game over again is what’s missing for the Patriots: Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola. Cooks is in Los Angeles now, playing for the Rams. Amendola now resides in Miami.
Cooks was an absolute game-breaker for the Pats, with 100 yards on six receptions. And they all seemed to be the key grabs of the entire drive. For as many answers as Jacksonville had for New England through the first three quarters, Cooks was dominant throughout.
And now that’s one massive piece of the puzzle New England doesn’t have. And one that will be extremely hard to duplicate.
And with no Julian Edelman around all last year, Amendola filled in well at slot receiver. The Jaguars linebackers were swarming all day against the Patriots short passing and run games. But they had few answers for Amendola and he really got Tom Brady out of some spots, including a crucial 3rd and 18 late.
There was subtle trickery throughout the game on some of the bigger plays New England had. Belichick really had to pull a few things out of the hat to propel his club. And that’s exactly what he and Tom Brady did, as (almost) always.
But as consistent as Brady and his coach are at implementing whatever talent is around them, the Jags showed to be very crafty for most of the 2017 game. They have more than enough talent to match up in all three phases with Cooks and Amendola gone.
A big key to their early success against the Pats was the way they shut down Rob Gronkowski. He had one catch for 21 yards and drew one more penalty on the side of that. The Patriots will lean heavily on him in this game.
It’s hard to duplicate what Jacksonville’s safeties did against him last year, but they have the same personnel grouping for it. And with fewer threats in the New England passing game, they can afford to key on him more.
Brady will always have a shifty back to take his check-downs just in case. But even in this situation, Rex Burkhead is no Dion Lewis. And the fact Edelman is suspended hurts them too.
Jaguars Offense vs Patriots Defense
The way Jacksonville built their plans around Blake Bortles in last year’s game was tremendous. They covered up so many of his flaws, allowing him to succeed with the short and intermediate routes.
But still, Bortles (23 of 36, 293 yards, 1 TD) did a decent job picking up on New England’s blitz packages and recognizing his open man. He’s not a very consistent QB, but he read the short area of the field very quickly when pressure came.
Quick check-downs and short-to-intermediate out-routes did this offense so much good. Bortles also hit a couple crossers and curl routes as he got more comfortable.
RB Corey Grant was specifically effective for Bortles to swing out to for big yards-after-catch. The 26-year-old running back was a non-factor in last week’s game and is at least the third back on this team, so it’s hard to tell if he’ll make much of an impact this weekend.
The Patriots were able to get to Bortles late and disrupt the QB. They were able to shut down the deep passing game aside from the occasional intermediate connection to Allen Hurns, who’s now with the Cowboys.
When it counted most, Stephon Gilmore made the big pass breakup late to seal the deal. But it was already a major trend that the deep part of the field was not where Bortles wanted to work. Unfortunately, he was forced to down late.
Still, for playing in New England in January, he seemed poised inside the pocket. He stepped up too far into it on a couple occasions. But as long as he was able to get it out quick on short routes, he made those throws in the face of pressure and took advantage of the Pats linebackers.
Another thing that stuck out to me was Leonard Fournette. Looking at his numbers (24 carries, 76 yards, 3.2 YPA, TD), it seems the only bright spot is his one touchdown. But a few of his biggest runs were powerful three or four-yard carries that moved the chains, or in one case, got him in the end zone.
It was the Patriots’ plan all along to minimize his playmaking potential and put the heat squarely on the shoulders of Bortles. It worked for the better part of the game, but it was still an understated performance on Fournette’s part. He had some of the most physical runs I saw in the entire playoffs.
Still, when the game was on the line with just over two minutes left and Jacksonville in their territory, New England stood strong in the secondary. And that’s a big reason why they moved on to another Super Bowl.
Matchups to Key On
This is the biggest matchup to me. With noticeably less talent at receiver, Gronkowski is the man of the hour to open the Pats’ offense up and supply Brady with a security blanket.
He can go up and get it with the best of them and the Pats need to utilize that. There’s a clear height advantage, but never underestimate the Jaguars’ physicality and the positioning their safeties get on such passes. Chipping him at the line will help too.
If the Jags can’t stop him again, things could get hairy, even for a defense this talented.
Honestly, this all starts with the offensive line play. But Fournette always seems to tack on a few bulldozing yards whether he has a hole or not.
Fournette’s ability to muscle through the defensive front and help wear them down could open opportunities for Bortles in play-action. The QB is still the weak-link at times for this offense. Fournette will be keyed on to make the crucial short-yardage plays again, and more.
Because the chances of Bortles duplicating his performance in the Championship Game are razor thin. Which leads us to . . .
To further emphasize their focus on shutting down Fournette, the Pats need to continue loading the box. But the focus on shorter routes needs to take precedence over blitzes.
Their front-four alone did just fine delivering pressure late in the game last year. So they can focus more on the short crossers, swing routes, and five-step out-routes. That leaves the receivers and corners battling it out one-on-one further down the field.
Forcing Bortles to make those throws is huge. And Bortles’ line ranked 30th in protection rate last season, so expecting them to keep him clean for that long is questionable.
Even worse, his deep ball completion percentage of 25.4% was only 33rd out of qualifying QBs. There’s not even that many teams in the league.
And that’s despite his receivers dropping the ball the 2nd-least of any NFL unit and having good separation marks from defenders last season.
Who Wins and Spread Pick
I’m taking the Patriots in the 1.5-point spread on Bovada and am even more interested in the under 45.0 total. Here’s why.
Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are the most adaptable combo in the NFL. I truly believe the Jaguars secondary has an advantage over the New England offensive weapons. But Brady can bring that talent-gap so much closer together.
I think Doug Marrone was underestimated as a tactician last year. With that said, if I can diagnose the adjustment the Pats need to make on defense, then Belichick can do it in his sleep.
Expect Fournette to start wearing down the Pats front in the 4th quarter too. But there’s still so much concern with Bortles having to hit deeper routes.
That’s the deciding factor for me, in what could prove to be a preview of another playoff matchup.