The New England Patriots host the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday in the AFC Championship, for the right to represent the conference in Super Bowl 52. It’s New England’s seventh-straight conference championship game, trying to win three-of-four Super Bowls for the second time with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Crazy.
This was a weird year in the NFL as the power structure, aside from the Patriots, has mostly been turned over. After years of being a punchline, the Jaguars introduced their fully-healthy defense to the league behind sporadic but effective Blake Bortles, who has played two playoff games of turnover-free football. For all the talk of the Jags’s defense being the only threat, their offense was 5th in points and 6th in yards.
Pats-Jags doesn’t have the same feel as AFC Championships against the Colts, Ravens and Broncos , but the Jaguars have earned the right to become the latest contender to try and knock off Tom Brady and Bill Belichick at home in the AFCCG, something only the 2012 Ravens did.
Tom Brady’s apparent thumb injury adds a new level of intrigue, with the Patriots being noticeably feeding the flames. Ryan Hannable summed it up nicely here.
What do the Patriots need to do to beat the Jaguars and get back to the ‘ship? Here’s the gameplan.
I watched plenty of the Jacksonville defense this week and it’s clear that while they pose a very good threat, the Pats have the pieces to attack their weaknesses as well as anyone. This piece from Sharp Football Analysis was a fascinating read, illustrating that the Jags are very good when you throw three or more wide receivers on the field. They struggled with the multiple tight ends or running backs.
Combine that with a potential concern about Brady’s thumb and all signs point toward James Develin and Dwayne Allen. The Jags match fullbacks with Paul Posluszy and their 4-3 defense, and it’s where they’re most vulnerable. They want to pass rush, they want to crash down on short underneath passes. There is speed everywhere and that calls for 12 and 22 personnel.
The not-so-secret weapon Dion Lewis and hopefully returning Rex Burkhead both play well behind a fullback and running between the tackles. Both can also catch. The Pony package with two running backs, both equally effective running or catching, is a major mismatch for the Jags.
The gameplan to me is clear — ride Gronk, Lewis, Develin, Burkhead, Allen to a physical victory.
The concerns? A defense that gets pressure with just four is always a threat to have a special game and shut the Patriots offense down, with the 2007 Giants being the prime example. The difference here though is that the Patriots running game is so versatile and deadly. If Burkhead is full-go they’re going to make plays and keep the heat off Brady. Going no huddle and not letting them change personnel will help stress communication on a young defense.
Jacksonville better have an extensive plan how to deal with it all.
If the running game somehow can’t get going and the Pats are forced into shotgun third-and-longs it won’t be a good recipe for success. But by now I fully believe in this ground game. Throw a Pro Bowl fullback in front of them and they’re going to be the Jags’ biggest problem.
Hopefully Tom Brady throws to convert a few 3rd-and-3’s, has a quietly efficient night of handoffs and screen passes and he’s on to play in his eighth Super Bowl.
The defensive gameplan has to start with stopping Leonard Fournette. The Pats 32nd-in-run-DVOA defense gave up just 65 yards to the Titans. With James Harrison they’re a different front. His strong presence on the edge has done wonders. If Fournette can’t get going it’s going to put the pressure on Blake Bortles.
Make no mistake, Bortles is playing good football right now. He could’ve faded when the Steelers started coming back, but he continued to shake off a bad throw here or there with good decisions and throws on third down. They’ve played especially fearless and the Pats should be prepared for fourth-down attempts and fakes.
Marqise Lee is Bortles’ most trusted target, but I think the Pats could just play sides and not worry about manning up as much. The surging Stephon Gilmore should be able to handle Lee when they go man.
T.J. Yeldon is an effective receiving back and Bortles is very good at running the ball when he has to. Both are underneath threats that can target the Pats’ linebackers. Marquis Flowers‘ emergence as an athletic linebacker to play with Kyle Van Noy has been almost as valuable as Harrison’s presence. Fournette on Elandon Roberts is a mismatch in the passing game and needs to be avoided.
The Pats might just like how Ricky Jean-Francois is playing over Alan Branch, but the defensive line will be key and I think this is the kind of game Branch plays for. Add either or both to Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy and they’re where this game will be decided.
If they win the line of scrimmage and Fournette’s damage on the ground is limited, the Pats should roll.
Five Points of Emphasis
- The Three-RB Monster — We wondered how the Pats would manage having so many good running backs last summer. They’re banged up but all are still on the practice field and utilizing their skills on the ground and through the air is how to attack the Jags.
- Alan Branch — Branch thought he was ready to play last week but I think the Pats were just saving him. For a vet like Branch this is why they still play, AFC Championship games. Last year, a motivated Branch was absolutely dominant and he’s still the Pats biggest DT. Call it a hunch but I think Branch will be out there and dominating again Sunday. And even if he doesn’t expect Brown, Guy and Jean-Francois to meet the physical Jags o-line with the force necessary. I just think we get 2016 Branch for a game.
- Fast and Physical — This Jaguars team will come in with a confident “just-let-it-rip” approach. They need to quickly be reminded that the Patriots built this dynasty by both out-thinking you and out-hitting you. Hit them hard and fast out of the gate. Stress their communication. Make them yell at each other.
- 60 Minutes — I don’t know what’s up with Brady’s thumb. Maybe it does hinder him. Maybe he looks like the same guy we saw last weekend. What I do know is that this Patriots team will fight for 60 minutes no matter how the game unfolds or who’s in there, even if it’s the Hoy Dog himself. This is one game to get to the Super Bowl and it could very well go down to the final play and we should all be prepared for that.
- Win — I’m not sure I could wrap my head around going back to the Super Bowl right now. Let’s wait on that. Beat the Jags. That is all.