Patriots

Opportunity knocks

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Opportunity knocks

By Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

The NBA season is a little more than two weeks old. The NHL's barely been at it for a month. The NFL just passed its halfway point.

At this stage in the game, all three leagues need binoculars to see the finish line. Yet this week, three Boston teams can make a statement to help propel themselves towards the checkered flag.

Wednesday, November 10: Bruins at Penguins

Thursday, November 11: Celtics at Heat

Sunday, November 14: Patriots at Steelers

It's a five-day stretch that starts Wednesday night in Pittsburgh, and ends Sunday night in Pittsburgh; just for fun, there's a trip down to Miami sandwiched in between. It features villains like Cooke, LeBron and Harrison. Rivalries (both budding and established) like Crosby vs. Seguin, Big Three vs. Big Three and Ben vs. Brady. It includes six teams that will very likely still be playing when it matters; who will probably meet again when the stakes are at their highest. So for that reason, maybe we can't get too carried away with the results.

And we won't.

If the Bruins, Celtics or Patriots lose the next time they take the respective ice, court or field, no one will write them off. No one will ever say, "Ah, they can't beat the Steelers on the road in November, the Pats are screwed!" This isn't do-or-die.

Instead, it's an opportunity.

Tonight in Pittsburgh, the Bruins have an opportunity to take care of some unfinished business, and will take the ice with two objectives:

1. Win.

2. Ensure that Matt Cooke wakes up tomorrow morning feeling like he was run over by a Zamboni.

The first objective needs no explanation. Neither does the fact that without No. 1, No. 2 loses a lot of flavor. But Objective No. 2 is what makes this game so crucial. Up to this point, the B's have done a great job of distancing themselves from last year's history-making mess. They already look like a tougher, more potent and inspired team. But there are still a few demons floating around the locker room, and the stench of Matt Cooke might be the most menacing.

It's now been seven months since Cooke's cheap shot on Marc Savard, and Savvy's career has been drastically altered. His life's been drastically altered.

Take a second and think about how long ago March feels all that's happened since then and now consider that Savard's been living a nightmare everyday of that.

Now imagine you're one of the teammates who failed so miserably in gaining retribution. That must be awful.

Tonight's game not only provides the Bruins a chance to make good on last March's disaster, but also a chance to prove they're officially not that team from last March anymore; that they're willing and able to fight for what's important and still come out on top.

On Thursday night in Miami, the Celtics have an opportunity to gain a serious mental edge on the biggest threat to their Eastern Conference crown.

Sure, the Heat have played better since Opening Night, but still, they're about as emotionally stable as a PMS-ing supermodel. For every step forward, at least in the eyes of the national media, they take seven steps back, and it's got to be wearing on them. Erik Spoelstra can't open the Internet without reading about the eventual Pat Riley takeover. Chris Bosh can't check his Twitter feed without nearly 290K followers telling him he's a fraud. LeBron James can't gaze into the mirror and ask, "What should I do?" without the mirror yelling back, "How about taking over in crunch time of a big game, fool!?!"

I'm not saying the Heat are teetering on any brink of destruction. But if Boston can go into Miami's gym, in the midst of a four-game road trip, without an entirely healthy roster, and win? This game will stick with the Heat for a while.

After Thursday, there are three months before the Heat and Celtics play again, and that's back here at the Garden. If Miami loses tomorrow, then no matter what they accomplish between now and that next meeting, all they'll hear is, "But you can't beat Boston! You can't beat the reaaaaal Big Three!"

And for a team that's already under constant scrutiny, already has the weight of the NBA world on its shoulders, and already boasts a highly flammable arsenal of egos, who knows where that might lead?

I don't, but wouldn't it be fun to find out?

And lastly, on Sunday night, the Patriots have an opportunity to erase that loss to Cleveland.

OK, they can't erase it. We're not talking Men in Black here. But how about Back to the Future?

Maybe the Pats can't remove that game from history, but can't they alter its place?

Right now, the loss to the Browns is a warning sign, a red flag, perhaps the game that exposed all their weaknesses.

With a victory over the Steelers, the loss to the Browns becomes an aberration, a much needed wake-up call, the game that got the Pats back on track!

A loss will be, well, a loss. The specifics will go a long way towards deciding how seriously we take it. But there are very few harder places to win than Heinz Field, especially in prime time. Truthfully, a loss is probably expected.

In fact, the Bruins, Celtics and Patriots will all be underdogs the next time they take the respective ice, court and field. So that's why if they do lose, we won't freak out.

But if one, two or all three can step up and seize the opportunity before them, we'll have reason to remain optimistic, and maybe even increase our expectation, regardless of how far away the finish line might seem.

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on CSNNE.com. Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

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