Patriots

SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL: Packers beat Lions, win NFC North

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SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL: Packers beat Lions, win NFC North

DETROIT - Aaron Rodgers threw three of his four touchdown passes in the second half, lifting the Green Bay Packers to an NFC North-winning 31-24 victory over the Detroit Lions on Sunday night.

Detroit's Matthew Stafford connected with Anquan Boldin for a 35-yard touchdown pass with 13 seconds left, but the Packers recovered the onside kick and Rodgers had only to kneel once to seal the victory.

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Jags safety misses second practice; how will they cover Gronkowski?

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Jags safety misses second practice; how will they cover Gronkowski?

FOXBORO -- For as much talent as the Jaguars trot out onto the field defensively, there's no clear-cut answer for how they'll cover Rob Gronkowski. 

"Hope they don't throw him the football," Jaguars coach Doug Marrone answered when asked how to guard the Patriots tight end. "Hope he drops it. There is no secret formula. I’d like to watch a game where someone has been able to do it. He is going to make his plays and you hope those plays don’t end up killing you."

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The Jaguars rank 20th in the NFL when it comes to defending tight ends, according to Football Outsiders, allowing 44 yards per game on six targets. Against Pittsburgh's Vance McDonald (15 targets) and Jesse James (one target) in the Divisional Round, Jacksonville was gashed for 11 receptions and 124 yards, including 107 yards after the catch. 

On paper, the Jaguars should match up better against tight ends than what they've shown. They have a pair of athletic linebackers who have the size/speed combination to run with bigger pass-catchers and contest them at the catch point. They also have a long and hard-nose corner in Jalen Ramsey, who doesn't shy away from the physicality associated with defending a tight end. 

But talk to Patriots defenders, the same ones who try to match up with Gronkowski on a daily basis, and it's not that simple. In general, linebackers just can't match the First-Team All-Pro's athleticism in the passing game. Corners, who are accustomed to playing on top of their responsibilities in coverage in order to protect against the big play, are too easily boxed-out. Even the tough ones. 

That's why safeties are so often the choice when coaches try to determine who should check Gronkowski. Patrick Chung is Gronkowski's toughest matchup on his own team. Tennessee's All-Pro Kevin Byard was competitive for a time last week, but Gronkowski (six grabs, 81 yards, one touchdown) eventually had his way with the rookie. The results were even worse for Pittsburgh safety Sean Davis back in Week 15. 

The Jaguars will throw a different look at the Patriots. Their Cover-3 scheme -- run by defensive coordinator Todd Wash, who spent two years in Seattle as the defensive line coach -- is reminiscent of what the Seahawks showed the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX. Like the Seahawks, the Jags will "match" out of their zone at times, meaning their defenders won't necessarily be anchored to one spot on the field, dedicating themselves to one particular zone. For instance, if the Patriots place three receivers on one side of the field, Ramsey and corner AJ Bouye could end up aligning in close proximity to one another. That's how the Jaguars ensure that they have the best chance to match skill-sets with the receivers running through their zones. 

That kind of defense, though, could play right into New England's hands when it comes to Gronkowski's usage. In Super Bowl XLIX, the Patriots went with three receivers to Tom Brady's left and lined up Gronkowski wide to the right all by himself. Seattle didn't have a corner go out on the island with the 6-foot-6, 265-pounder. It was linebacker KJ Wright. Gronkowski ran right by him for a 22-yard touchdown. 

Jacksonville's linebackers Myles Jack and Telvin Smith are as athletic as any pair in the league, but if a similar situation pops up on Sunday, Brady's decision should be just as easy. 

If the Jaguars choose to match Gronkowski over the middle of the field with one of their two interchangeable safeties -- Tashaun Gipson or Barry Church -- they'll be opting to cover New England's top offensive threat with two of their weakest defenders. Plus, Gipson is dealing with a foot injury that has held him out for two practices this week. If he's at all limited, that could press second-year safety Jarrod Wilson, undrafted out of Michigan last year, into action. 

How the Patriots use Gronkowski in the AFC title game will be fascinating to watch. Will they use him as one of four vertical threats to stress Jacksonville's three deep defenders? Will they have him try to puncture the soft spots in the intermediate areas of Wash's zone scheme? Will they incorporate him in the screen game, as Jerod Mayo suggested on this week's Quick Slants the Podcast, to take advantage of an aggressive defensive front? Or will the Patriots isolate him on the outside, trusting him to win his one-on-one matchup?

If the Jaguars come up with the answer to slow down Gronkowski, without outright doubling him, they'll be the first to do so in some time. He's averaging 109 yards per game in his last five, and he has four touchdowns in that span.

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With Jaguars defense looming, a reminder of Tom Brady's struggles in AFC Championships

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With Jaguars defense looming, a reminder of Tom Brady's struggles in AFC Championships

Check out this terrible lede: The Patriots should hope Tom Brady’s good in the AFC Championship. 

It’s the ultimate “no duh” statement. The best team in the world would obviously want the best player in the world to play well in the biggest game of the season. 

But here’s the thing: Context makes that really stupid lede a little more sensible. After all, Tom Brady has only been okay in AFC Championships. He’s had some great performances and more than one terrible performance. But overall? Just okay for me, dog. 

We remember the doomed 2007 season for its regular-season scares against Baltimore and Philly and its eventual demise in the Super Bowl, but can you remember that season’s AFC title game? It was against the Chargers. It was close, as in a two-point game in the fourth quarter. Brady threw three picks. Without a big game from -- you guessed it -- Laurence Maroney, those undefeated Patriots might not have even made it to the Super Bowl. 

Of course, even the greatest player ever is allowed his occasional off performance. Yet in AFC Championships, it’s more than occasional with Brady. He threw multiple picks in each of the Patriots’ next two AFC Championships as part of a stretch of six consecutive conference title games that saw him throw more than one interception four times. The Pats went 2-2 in those four games. 

Of the three playoff rounds (and yes, I’m saying three; Tom Brady plays in Wild Card games just a little more often than he tears his ACL), the AFC Championship is by far his worst. Here’s his average per-game performance in each round, with Brady’s injury-shortened 2001 title game being taken out so as to not skew the numbers. 

Divisional round

61.36 completion percentage, 288 yards, 2.07 TD, .78 INT

Conference championship

61.13 completion percentage, 264 yards, 1.5 TD, 1.2 INT 

Super Bowl

66.69 completion percentage, 296 yards, 2.14 TD, .71 INT

With a big sample size -- 14 divisional-round games, 11 conference championships (10 of which are included here; again, we left out his quarter-and-a-half performance against Pittsburgh in 2001) and seven Super Bowls -- it’s jarring that Brady’s worst numbers in every category, from completion percentage to passing yards to touchdowns to interceptions, have come in the AFC Championship. 

Which brings us to . . . the AFC Championship and the Jaguars. Jacksonville finished the season second in points allowed, second in yards allowed, second in sacks and second in interceptions. For as annoying as all the “The only way to beat Tom Brady is ____,” questions may be, the Jaguars seemingly have the tools. 

Good news, though: The Jaguars defense just got absolutely torched in the divisional round by a Steelers team that played through narcolepsy. For as daunting as the Jags should be considered, the Steelers game provided a reminder that they are a team capable of allowing 40-plus to a good team. 

There’s a lot of interesting storylines surrounding Brady entering Sunday. We’ll be talking plenty about Brady’s hand (?) now, but there’s also the fact that last year’s AFC Championship was by far his best performance in a conference title game (384 yards, three touchdowns, no picks). 

Those kind of numbers might not stand out for the best player to ever play the sport. But for a guy who’s 7-4 in these games, he’s rarely found them to be particularly easy. 

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