3:05 PM EST, CBS – Line: Patriots -9, Over/Under: 46.5
After an insane Divisional Playoff Weekend we’ve now come to the NFL’s Final Four, with the first matchup featuring an improbable clash of polar opposites as the reigning Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots host the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game from Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Arguably the unlikeliest of the unlikely, the Jaguars (10-6, 1st in AFC South) have continued to defy their critics in route to their first AFC Championship Game since 1999, against (ironically) the same franchise that they lost their last Playoff Game to: the Patriots. The irony cuts particularly deep here, folks, for the premature demise of each of Jacksonville’s two previous Postseason Runs (2005 and 2007) came at the hands of New England, with each defeat taking place at Gillette Stadium as well. While there will be plenty of familiar faces on the opposite sideline today, a great deal has changed for the Jags, who have undergone a revolutionary renovation in 2017 under the watchful eye of new Executive VP of Football Operations, Tom Coughlin, and his lieutenants General Manager David Caldwell and Head Coach Doug Marrone, who have collectively ended a dismal decade of football in Northeastern Florida. This franchise has done an excellent job through the Draft and Free Agency in building a tough, physical unit built upon arguably the most dominant Defense in the league coupled with a punishing Rushing Attack, two major ingredients for success in the Playoffs, particularly on the road. While the remaining four Defenses in this Postseason are each impressive in their own right, you’d be hard-pressed to put any of them ahead of the Jaguars. Size? Speed? Athleticism? Depth? A mean-streak? This unit has it all, relegating the opposition to 16.8 Points (2nd Overall) on 286.2 Total Yards (2nd Overall), including a league-low 169.9 Yards against the Pass (1st Overall) on 4.8 Net Yards per Attempt (1st Overall), and another 116.3 Yards versus the Run (21st Overall) on 4.3 yards per Carry (26th Overall), along with Thirty-Three Takeaways (2nd Overall) and Fifty-Five Sacks (2nd Overall). Furthermore, they’ve been just as good from a situational perspective, permitting a 33.6% Conversion Rate on Third Down (4th Overall) and a 39.3% Touchdown Rate in the Red Zone (2nd Overall).
And consider this: in this pass-happy era of football that we’re embroiled in, their 169.9 Passing Yards Allowed is less than the average figure relinquished by the likes of the 2013 Seattle Seahawks, 2000 Baltimore Ravens, and even the 1985 Chicago Bears, three of the greatest Defenses in Super Bowl History. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, they’ve proven to be rather prolific when it comes to putting points on the board, for Marrone’s Defense has scored a whopping Seven Touchdowns this season (1st Overall), adding another last Sunday. Considering all that, it should be absolutely fascinating to see this star-studded group matchup with Tom Brady and the Patriots’ prolific Passing Attack (which we’ll cover shortly). The Defensive Line is ridiculously deep with Pro Bowlers such as Calais Campbell (67 TKL, 14.5 SK, 3 FF, 1 FR, 1 TD), Malik Jackson (40 TKL, 8.0 SK, 4 FF), and Yannick Ngakoue (30 TKL, 12.0 SK, 6 FF, 2 FR, 1 TD), with rangy Linebackers like Telvin Smith (102 TKL, 1.0 SK, 1 FF, 2 FR, 1 TD, 3 INT, 5 PD, 1 TD), who returned a crucial fumble for a score last weekend, and Myles Jack (90 TKL, 2.0 SK, 2 FR, 1 TD), who captured an early Interception in that same game, that are adept in coverage. Meanwhile, Jalen Ramsey (63 TKL, 4 INT, 17 PD) and A.J. Bouye (56 TKL, 6 INT, 18 PD) are arguably the stingiest tandem of Cornerbacks in the league, with the former proclaiming upon his team’s return to the sunshine state that they would be heading to the Super Bowl, and that they were going to indeed “Win that B@#$”, in no uncertain terms. And while that certainly remains to be seen, the man that is likely to have biggest influence on turning that into a reality is Blake Bortles (60.2%, 3,687 YDS, 6.52 NY/A, 21 TD, 13 INT, 55.5 QBR ), who just might be the most maligned Quarterback to advance to this juncture of the Playoffs since Rex Grossman led the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl back in 2006. Granted, the 4th-Year Veteran Quarterback has done little to dissuade his ever-growing legion of doubters, in large part to his inconsistent play spilling over into the Postseason; after struggling mightily in his team’s 10-3 victory over the Buffalo Bills on Wild Weekend, becoming the first starting Quarterback in the Super Bowl Era to win a Playoff Game in which he ran for more yards (88) than he threw for (87), Bortles flipped the script the following week at Heinz Field, where he and his teammates bested the Pittsburgh Steelers for the second time this season in a 45-42 shootout, completing a much more palatable 14-of-26 Passes for 214 Yards and a Touchdown. While the term Game Manager has been thrown around far too frequently over the years, that’s really all that Marrone and his charges need this guy to be at this point. After all, after watching their Quarterback throw a league-worst Fifty-One Interceptions over the previous three seasons, they decided to minimize those mistakes by turning to the Running Game, ranking first in the NFL in both Rushing Attempts (32.9 A/G) and Rushing Yards (141.4 Y/G), all the while being the only team to sport five different players with 200+ Rushing Yards, one of which was Bortles (57 CAR, 322 YDS, 2 TD). Rookie Tailback Leonard Fournette (268 CAR, 1,040 YDS, 9 TD) has been fantastic this season, once again playing a pivotal role against the Steelers last weekend, rushing for 109 Yards and Thee Touchdowns on Twenty-Five Carries, despite sustaining what looked to be a sprained ankle late in the Second Quarter. However, that approach has only taken them so far, for despite all of their success on the ground, Jacksonville has still been hard-pressed to move the football with regularity, converting on just 37.3% of their Third Downs (20th Overall), which is a damning reflection on their Quarterback’s inability to keep Drives moving despite constantly being in favorable Down and Distance. And it’s with that said, that Bortles must make some plays on Third Down, whether it’s with his arms or his legs; he’s completed just 55.9% of his Attempts on Third Down this season, with Five Touchdowns in comparison to Six Interceptions, while converting on Third Down just 39.2% of the time whether he passed the football or tucked it and ran. Will he invoke Trent Dilfer from 2000 or Brad Johnson circa 2002, or will he end up like Grossman did in 2006? Either way, it should be fascinating to watch it all unfold on Sunday.
Meanwhile, there really is something to be said in regards to the old adage of poking the bear, for once again the Patriots (13-3, 1st in AFC East) have responded in dominant fashion after a reported scandal/controversy. Back in 2007, Bill Belichick’s charges put together the first 16-0 campaign since 1972 after the fallout from the SpyGate scandal of Super Bowl XXXVI, only to go 14-2 last year in route to their Fifth Lombardi Trophy after the frustratingly persistent DeflateGate Scandal stemming from the 2014 AFC Championship Game. Of course, that latter example resulted in a 4-Game Suspension of Tom Brady, for the legendary Quarterback’s role in the controversy, a jab from the NFL that would light the proverbial flames of motivation for a team that is always looking for one in an attempt to avoid the dreaded complacency that inevitably comes with such outstanding success. Prior to last weekend’s Divisional Playoff with the Tennessee Titans, reports broke about a purported rift in the organization between their three pillars, namely the aforementioned Belichick and Brady, along with the Owner, Robert Kraft. It was a fascinating tale revolving around Brady’s desire to play well into his 40’s (which is unprecedented at his position), the role of his erstwhile Personal Trainer, whose influence in the Lockerroom has certainly ruffled the feathers of Belichick, and the fact that Kraft decreed that his longtime Head Coach swiftly trade Backup Quarterback (and presumed heir to Brady’s throne) Jimmy Garoppolo for just a Second Round Pick (seriously?), because Brady felt “threatened” by his understudy’s presence (again, seriously?). While that is definitely a lot to digest, what makes the story so interesting is the fact that one of the most successful runs in sports history could be felled by nothing more than the disparate egos of three men, which is absolutely shocking given the franchise’s hallmarks of teamwork, chemistry, and unity, each of which serving as a foundational piece of the Patriot Way. And then there is the general feeling that this is indeed the end of an era, with things naturally running their curse, as each of Belichick’s chief Lieutenants, Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels and Defensive Coordinator Matt Patricia, who have served in those respective posts for each of the past six years, with the former being unofficially hired by the Indianapolis Colts, and the latter accepting the same position with the Detroit Lions. It’s akin to the last hurrah for the cast of a wildly successful Movie Franchise or Television Series, or the final album or tour of an all-time band. With that said, we can all put away our respective Soap Opera Digest, for their performance on the field last Saturday Night indicated nothing close to discord as New England methodically throttled the upstart Titans in a 35-14 beatdown, advancing themselves to a record seventh consecutive AFC Championship Game this Sunday. After Tennessee took a 7-0 lead towards the end of a largely uneventful First Quarter, the hosts went to work scoring twenty-one unanswered points in the second stanza, taking advantage of some truly curious Titans’ Playcalling before putting the game out of reach in Second Half. The Pats rolled up a whopping 438 Yards of Total Offense on their counterparts, while the unheralded Defense smothered Marcus Mariota & Co., relinquishing just 267 Total Yards on Fifteen First Downs, including a scant Sixty-Five Rushing Yards, while racking up a staggering Eight Sacks.
To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Brady (66.3%, 4,577 YDS, 710 NY/A, 32 TD, 8 INT, 70.2 QBR) was masterful, completing 35-of-53 Attempts for 337 Yards, and Three Touchdowns, spreading the wealth to seven different Receivers, led by Danny Amendola (61 REC, 659 YDS, 2 TD), who reeled in a game-high Eleven Receptions for 112 Yards on Thirteen Targets, while Rob Gronkowksi (69 REC, 1,084 YDS, 8 TD), James White (56 REC, 429 YDS, 3 TD), and the recently returned Chris Hogan (34 REC, 439 YDS, 5 TD), each hauled in a score. It seems as if the Bye Week was just what Brady needed to mend the wear and tear that he had accrued over the course of his eighteenth campaign in the league, particularly after the month of December, in which he finally looked to be wearing down a bit; over the final five outings of the Regular Season, the 40-Year old completed just 59.4% of his Attempts for an average of 236.3 Yards on 6.31 Net Yards per Attempt, with Six Touchdowns and Four Interceptions, while taking Eight Sacks for a loss of Forty-Three Yards. Furthermore, the 2-Time MVP has absolutely carried the weight of the Offense, a burden that isn’t necessarily ideal for a Quarterback in the twilight of his career, leading the NFL in both Passing Attempts (581) and Passing Yards (4,577) in 2017, steering an at times one-dimensional Offense to 28.6 Points per Game (2nd Overall) on a league-best 406.8 Total Yards (1st Overall). Of course, when you throw the football so much, pressure becomes something to keep an eye, for protecting him is of the utmost priority at this stage; after being sacked a scant fifteen times in 2016, Brady was dropped thirty-five times this season, behind an Offensive Line that is missing Right Tackle Marcus Cannon (Ankle), who was placed on Injured Reserve. And this is what makes this matchup with the Jaguars so intriguing, for it should be a proverbial Chess Match between he, the aforementioned McDaniels, and Jacksonville’s Defense. Few units in the league are better at wearing opposing Defenses down through the use of tempo as New England, with Brady having demonstrated his mastery of the No-Huddle throughout his storied career. Just look back to his last two Super Bowls, in which he tormented the Seattle Seahawks and the Atlanta Falcons with a flurry of short, quick passes out of the Shotgun to negate the Pass-Rush, all the while leaving them dangerously fatigued in the latter stages of each affair; in those two pivotal contests, Brady completed a whopping 80-of-112 Attempts (71.4%) for 794 Yards (7.09 Y/A), Six Touchdowns and Three Interceptions, despite taking Seven Sacks, though much of that pressure effected him earlier in those respective outings. And why is this relevant, you ask? Because under the aforementioned Marrone, the Jags continue to run the Cover Three/Cover One system wildly fashioned by the Seahawks over the past five years, with former Head Coach Gus Bradley implementing the scheme over the previous four seasons. Both Bradley and Falcons’ Head Coach Dan Quinn served as Defensive Coordinators in Seattle, with the team’s current Coordinator, Todd Wash, having been on Bradley’s Staff since 2013, following him from the Pacific Northwest where he coached their Defensive Line for two years as well. With that said, Jacksonville’s depth along the Defensive Front is one of their strengths, so it might behoove Belichick to mix things up with the Running Game, in an attempt to further wear out his adversaries. Despite their predilection to throw the football, New England usually does a good job of keeping things somewhat balanced with the Run, averaging a respectable 28.0 Attempts (11th Overall) for 118.1 Yards (10th Overall) on 4.2 Yards per Carry (12th Overall). Look for them to help their Offensive Line by employing Multi-Tight End formations, subtly using the position as extra blockers to run the football with greater success, something they’ve used frequently over the years. This could certainly come into play on Sunday, for while they’ve been as fearsome as any unit in the league, the Jaguars have been gashed on occasion this season, allowing 116.3 Rushing Yards (21st Overall) on 4.3 Yards per Carry (26th Overall), relinquishing 130+ Yards eight times, including exactly that amount in their Wild Card meeting with the Bills.