Patriots

Curran's game day walkthrough: The award goes to . . .

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Curran's game day walkthrough: The award goes to . . .

The Patriots haven't lost a regular season game later than November 7 since the 2009 season. Sunday night represents the best chance to have that date reset. This is their toughest late-season matchup since 2010 when they followed up a dud in Cleveland with a road win over the Steelers and a tight win over the Colts. Now, some edible observational nuggets to chew on and digest before kickoff.

With three regular-season games to go, my leanings on the Big Three awards for 2012 - MVP, Offensive Player of the Year and Comeback Player of the Year - are for Tom Brady, Adrian Peterson and Peyton Manning respectively.

First, Manning has a great case for MVP. After a 2-3 start, the Broncos are 10-3 now. He's had some incredible comeback performances. He's transformed a decent little team into a legit Super Bowl contender. But I believe Brady trumps him because: 1) Manning's the maestro of an offense that's scored 37 touchdowns; the Patriots have scored 49. Touchdown passes are immensely overrated (as are passing yards) 2) The stat that's never overrated is interceptions. Manning's got 10; Brady's thrown 4. 3) The Broncos and Manning lost head-to-head to Brady. Caveats! The loss wasn't through much fault of Mannings - Demaryius Thomas and Willis McGahee fumbles figured big, and QB vs. QB doesn't float too much with me. It's QB vs. Defense. Brady's played behind a makeshift offensive line, played under the pressure of knowing he had a crap defense for about the first eight games and would need to score about 30 and has yet to have the full complement of offensive weapons at his disposal.

As for Offensive Player of the Year, it's really easy to me. Even though Peterson doesn't carry the same burden of preparing for intricate defenses, getting the offense in and out of bad plays and leading a team the way an elite quarterback must, his 2012 performance at running back has been more outstanding than either of the two quarterbacks. A running back will never be more valuable than a quarterback. But his statistics can be more impressive and I believe Peterson's assault on 2000 yards is more impressive than anybody else's work.

And why Manning over Peterson for Comeback Player of the Year? To me, it's the enormity of Manning's injury - neck - and the time he spent away from the game. I didn't think his return to high-level football was a fait accompli. With Peterson - astounding as his performance and speed of recovery have been, ACLs have previously been conquered in the offseason (Wes Welker, Phillip Rivers). Manning is doing something unprecedented and doing it for a new franchise at an advanced age.

The NFL is insistent on foisting football on foreigners whether they like it or not. The Bills' annual game in Canada isn't in quite the same vein as the league's European invasion, but the observation of Bill defensive end Mario Williams is still priceless. Whenever you go and play somewhere else, even if its supposedly a home game, you cant really say its going to be that way. Youre going somewhere where some people might not even care much about football. So its not really that big of a deal because they dont really care who wins.

I think Aaron Rodgers is more physically gifted than Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. I enjoy his personality. I love watching him play. But he's not exactly stoic about the challenges of playing elite-level football over a sustained length of time. Speaking to Alex Marvez of FOXSports.com, Rodgers said, I think this season more than any other has just been a mental and physical grind. I find myself more tired because of the actual preparation and extra study. Weve had to change up some personnel packages and plays to try and make things easier on some of the young guys who are playing more. Its been a lot of different guys playing.It has been frustrating at times with the lack of familiarity with some of the guys who have been out there. We havent had Greg (Jennings) and Jordy (Nelson) for too many games playing at the same time, which is difficult.
Difficult but also a fact of life. And that's why the Patriots current run of 10 seasons with 10-or-more wins (and 12 seasons either leading or tied for the lead in the AFC East) is so astounding. They don't even pay attention to attrition.

Is the AFC East the worst division in the NFL and when was the last time Tom Brady had a very good quarterback to compete against as a divisional rival? My answers are: Yes. And Chad Pennington?

If I'm the Patriots - and I'm not, by way of explanation - I would instruct Wes Welker to fair catch every punt and hit the deck every time Dashon Goldson or Donte Whitner are in his vicinity. He's taking absurd punishment the past few weeks and the little guy isn't showing the same reanimation skills he's had in past years. He's wearing down.

Please, please, please NFL...please don't turn well-meaning memorials for Sandy Hook Elementary into a contest to show who cares the most. Dignity. Not opportunity.

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.

MORE - Bortles earning respect from teammates, Patriots

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