Patriots

Broncos' distaste for Pats hasn't hampered preparations

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Broncos' distaste for Pats hasn't hampered preparations

DENVER -- Broncos running back C.J. Anderson has already played the disrespect card and, if you’re being honest, you can see where he’s coming from.

It’s rare that a No. 1 seed is actually the underdog in a conference championship game; it’s only happened seven times prior. But here Denver is, three-point dogs with the Patriots coming to Mile High.

"I hate everything about them,” said Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe. “They're always in my way. I got a ton of respect for them. I just hate them."

“I don’t hate em,” said safety T.J. Ward. “I dislike em. Hate is a strong word.”

But that underlying feeling of distaste, shall we call it, hasn’t seemed to impact the Broncos preparation this week.

“I really believe in this team this year,” said linebacker Danny Trevathan. “I really believe that our foot is in the right place; our head is in the right place. We came out here today and put together one of the best practices I’ve seen. It’s definitely going to carry over toward the game Sunday.”

“When we’re loud, we’re pretty good,” said coach Gary Kubiak after Friday’s practice. “I mean, we’ve got a lot of characters on this football team, but they’re very focused. They like to talk in practice. A lot of personalities. They’ve had it this week. They’ve worked hard. They’ve done the work. I told them today after practice, ‘All I can ask you to do is do the work to get ready to play,’ and they’ve done that.”

Kubiak has played a major role in what players say is a transformation here in Denver, not just from the team’s overall identity but in how they work and what they get out of it.

“Coach Kubiak has really encouraged that,” said Peyton Manning earlier in the week. “This is a special opportunity, a unique opportunity and the wrong thing is to just put blinders until Sunday at one o’clock. Enjoy these practices. Enjoy putting the game plan in. That’s what Coach encouraged us to do early in the week and I’m doing that. I think that our whole team is doing that as well. I think that’s a good thing.”

“He’s done a tremendous job,” said linebacker Brandon Marshall. “Gary, the whole staff -- [defensive coordinator] Wade [Phillips], [offensive coordinator Rick] Rico [Dennison] -- those guys have done a tremendous job. We had the talent, but I think every team has talent. I think they just refined the talent. They did awesome in my opinion, which is why we’re in the AFC Championship game.” 

This is Kubiak’s ninth AFC Championship Game appearance as a player or coach, but just his first as the head coach. His previous stop as the boss -- in Houston -- was a study in mediocrity. But he seems to have managed some delicate situations well, relying not just on X’s and O’s, but but putting his faith in his players.

“My message has always been, ‘Be yourself, but be your best you.’ That’s what we want them to do. I think they’ve done a good job of that.”

Now comes the ultimate test.

Will the real Jaguars defense please stand up?

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Will the real Jaguars defense please stand up?

FOXBORO -- Are we giving the Jaguars defense too much credit?

The numbers, on the surface, paint Jacksonville's defense as one of the best the NFL has seen in years. They finished the season as the league's top passing defense in terms of yards allowed, and they were second when it came to points allowed, total yards and sacks.

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Then there are the postseason awards that have been bestowed upon their defensive regulars. Jalen Ramsey, AJ Bouye, Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson have all been named Pro Bowlers. Ramsey and Campbell are First-Team All-Pros, while Bouye and Telvin Smith are Second-Teamers. Campbell is in the running for Defensive Player of the Year. 

So why, then, is there this lingering feeling that the Jaguars defense isn't all it's cracked up to be? They allowed Ben Roethlisberger to heave his way to 42 points in the Divisional Round. In Week 16, they gave up 44 to Jimmy Garoppolo and the Niners. Hell, Blaine Gabbert and the Cardinals put up 27 and beat them in Week 12. 

Those results don't exactly scream "all-time defense." So what is Jacksonville? Overrated? Properly rated? 

One thing is for certain: The Jags played an easy schedule. The combined winning percentage of their opponents in 2017 was a league-low 44 percent. And when it comes to the defense in particular, they had the second-easiest schedule in the league, according to Football Outsiders. It didn't hurt that they were able to play the Colts with Jacoby Brissett, the Texans before Deshaun Watson became a star and after he got hurt, and the NFL's No. 23-ranked Titans offense. Twice. Each. They also got the Ravens (No. 27 offense), Jets (No. 28), Bengals (No. 32), Browns (No. 24) and Cardinals (No. 22). Add it all up and that's nine games -- more than half their schedule -- against bottom-third NFL offenses. Two more games came against a Houston offense that featured starting quarterbacks Tom Savage and TJ Yates. 

When you dig into the analytics it's harder to find ways to poke holes in Jacksonville's credibility as a top-tier defensive unit. Pro Football Focus grades the Jags as their No. 1 defense, and it's really not close. Football Outsiders calls them their No. 1 defense in terms of DVOA. Even when you factor in some of its recent performances -- like letdowns versus the Steelers and Niners -- Jacksonville is still the league's No. 4 defense in weighted DVOA, which is adjusted so that games that were played earlier in the season are gradually less important. 

At the same time, the analytics can be occasionally unkind to the Jaguars. Football Outsiders has them ranked as one of the most inconsistent defenses in the league. According to their variance statistic, Jacksonville is the fourth most inconsistent defense in football. A deeper dive into the numbers has also located an apparent soft underbelly of the Jaguars defense. Per Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Analysis, the Jaguars are dominant against three-receiver sets -- No. 1 in the league, in fact -- but they're the No. 23 defense in the NFL when it comes to defending personnel groupings that feature one or two wide receivers. That would explain, in part, why the Titans (who Sharp rated as the least-likely team to employ three-receiver sets this season) and Niners (who went with more "21" and "12" personnel looks late in the season) were able to beat the Jaguars. 

The most difficult argument against the legitimacy of the Jaguars' defensive rankings is the talent they put on the field on a weekly basis. Their roster, defensively at least, stacks up with some of the most imposing defensive units in recent memory. The Seahawks had four First and Second-Team All-Pros on their defense in 2014. The Broncos defense had five Pro Bowlers in 2015. The Jaguars have five players who were named either All-Pros or Pro Bowlers or both this year, and they probably should've had a sixth in pass-rusher Yannick Ngakoue, who recorded 12 sacks (eighth in the NFL) and a league-best six forced fumbles. 

The verdict? The Jaguars defense is loaded with blue-chip players. It will be the best unit the Patriots offense has seen this year. But they have been inconsistent, they have holes -- which we touched upon in this week's Quick Slants the Podcast with Jerod Mayo -- and there remains the very real possibility that Tom Brady and his teammates will light up the Gillette Stadium scoreboard on Sunday. 

Now, is Brady healthy? Good question. Will he have enough time to throw? We'll see. But if the answer to both of those questions is "yes" (or "enough"), then the Patriots should be headed to Minnesota. This Jaguars defense is very good, but it's far from inpenetrable.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

BEST OF BST PODCAST: Tom Brady injures right hand during practice

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BEST OF BST PODCAST: Tom Brady injures right hand during practice

0:41 - Tom Brady injured his right hand during practice on Wednesday. Tom Curran, Albert Breer, Michael Holley, and Tom Giles discuss how this injury could impact Brady’s ability to throw against the Jaguars on Sunday.

6:06 - Isaiah Thomas has asked the Celtics to cancel his video tribute on Paul Pierce Night, and Pierce said that Thomas was trying to ‘punk’ Danny Ainge into a tribute video. Michael Holley, Kyle Draper, and Tom Giles debate if Isaiah Thomas or Paul Pierce is in the wrong.

11:19 - Albert Breer discusses how much credit Tom Coughlin deserves for the Jaguars great season and if Coughlin’s success against the Patriots and Bill Belichick will come into play on Sunday.

15:37 - Joe Haggerty joins BST from the TD Garden to break down the Bruins win over the Canadiens and Claude Julien’s return to Boston.

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THE EPISODE