Patriots

First impressions: Patriots 41, Bills 25

First impressions: Patriots 41, Bills 25

In Buffalo, it was apparent that the Patriots were a much different team than the one that took the field at Gillette Stadium and lost to the Bills in Week 4. They easily rolled over Rex Ryan's club, 41-17, moving their record to 7-1 on the season. Here are five quick impressions from the matchup . . .

PATRIOTS 41, BILLS 25: Curran's Best and Worst | Bills Mafia throws WHAT on the field??

* Tom Brady continues to perform as the most consistent signal-caller in the NFL as he completed 22 of 33 passes for 315 yards and four touchdowns. He spread the ball to a variety of targets, completing multiple passes to six different receivers. He also continues to impress as he used his legs sparingly but effectively. He was able to climb the pocket and buy himself time to find open receivers. He stepped up, avoided pressure coming from the edges, and threw with Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams in his face for his first touchdown pass of the game. In the third quarter, Brady scrambled for a gain of 15 yards on a third-and-five play to keep a drive alive that eventually resulted in a LeGarrette Blount score. Brady came out with 4:29 left in the game, giving way to backup Jimmy Garoppolo.

* Buffalo played a smart football game against an undermanned Patriots group back in Week 4, but at home they imploded. From the beginning, they drew penalties on a consistent basis. They had a 12-men-on-the-field flag on New England's first drive of the game, on the second their defensive holding penalty canceled out a Patriots offensive-pass-interference call. A late hit in the third quarter and a hold in the fourth also helped the Patriots keep drives alive and led to scores. They finished with 12 penalties for 84 yards. The Patriots were called for some long ones themselves, particularly pass interference calls on Eric Rowe and Justin Coleman, giving them nine flags for 87 yards. 

* Stephen Gostkowski made all of his kicks on the afternoon, perhaps giving him the shot of confidence he's been looking for over the last few weeks. He made two field goald, including a 51-yarder at the end of the first half, and five extra-points. The long boot of the day actually ricocheted off of the upright and bounced through. Gostkowski appeared fired up, throwing his hands into the air in celebration upon seeing that it was good. 

* Rob Gronkowski snagged five passes for 109 yards, including a 53-yard score that gave him the new Patriots record with 69 career receiving touchdowns. Gronkowski found himself in one-on-one coverage down the seam in the first quarter for his record-breaking catch. He took a bow immediately after crossing the goal line, then executed his trademark spike. That was a celebration that could have gone any number of ways, and he chose the classy route. 

* While the Patriots will be happy to head home with another divisional win, one area they'll have to continue to evaluate is their depth at cornerback. Malcolm Butler has solidified himself as a No. 1 corner, and he had another strong game on Sunday, but after that there are some question marks. Last week, Eric Rowe played every snap, looking like the No. 2 on the depth chart, ahead of Logan Ryan. This week, Rowe saw plenty of action through the early portion of the game, and the Bills went right after him. He committed a pass-interference penalty and an illegal contact penalty early in the game, and he picked up another pass interference flag in the fourth quarter. He was targeted eight times, only allowing three receptions, but he was personally responsible for 63 penalty yards. Ryan and Justin Coleman also saw their share of action but the No. 2 job looks like it's up for grabs. Second-round rookie Cyrus Jones was made a healthy scratch before the game for the third consecutive week. 

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