Patriots-Jaguars report card
It's rare to see Bill Belichick react the way he did at the end of the AFC Championship, but after re-watching the game -- especially the play that sealed it -- it makes sense as to why threw his hands in the air and hugged everyone in sight, sparking a thousand GIFs of his euphoria. Dion Lewis' 18-yard run with under two minutes left in the game showed toughness ("run the ball, stop the run, cover kicks" is Belichick's credo in that area) and it proved the Patriots had reached a level of conditioning that their opponents couldn't match. James Develin sealed his man. Nate Solder walked back Malik Jackson with ease. Dwayne Allen walled off Telvin Smith. Cameron Fleming hit his cut block on the back side. And Joe Thuney stoned Marcel Dareus. It left Lewis with a one-on-one on linebacker Paul Posluszny that Posluszny was never going to win. It was the kind of late-game execution -- a show of strength, really -- that the Patriots exhibited in last year's Super Bowl. And now they're headed to another. Click through for the full Report Card from the AFC title game.
Even with a gash in his throwing hand, this was one of Tom Brady's best games of the season. That he performed the way he did against the top passing offense in the conference made it all the more impressive. The Patriots clearly wanted to try to get their backs in space against Jaguars linebackers -- Jacksonville had been permissive to backs in the passing game late in the season, and that kind of plan worked well against the Texans' swarming defense in last year's Divisional Round -- but the speed the Jags exhibited, and their ability to finish tackles, put that plan on ice. Brady was able to loosen things up with strong and accurate throws outside the numbers and deep. His first explosive gain went on a perfectly-placed pass to Brandin Cooks up the seam. He floated another to Danny Amendola on a first-quarter fourth-down play that showed his hand wasn't an issue. Brady's numbers (26-for-38, 290 yards and two scores) would've been better had it not been for costly drops by Cooks and Rob Gronkowski. Rex Burkhead also mishandled a throw where Brady may have saved him from serious injury with a last-second adjustment to throw behind his target. Had Brady led Burkhead on the short throw over the middle, he may have been cut in half by Telvin Smith. Burkhead was still hurt on the play regardless, showing just how fast and powerful Jacksonville's 'backers were. That Brady's arm strength (or hand strength) didn't wane over the course of the game was an eye-opener, and perhaps a credit to the training staff for keeping the wound wrapped up. He zipped passes to the outside to Cooks, and his throw to Amendola for the game-winner -- high is what you need in the back of the end zone -- was only where his man could get it. In the end, especially considering he was without Gronkowski, it should go down as one of the three or four best postseason comebacks of Brady's career. I had Brady down for just four bad throws -- a miss to Dion Lewis in the flat, an overthrow of Gronkowski, a throw that was a smidgen inside to James White and broken up in the fourth quarter, and an off-the-mark fourth-quarter throw to Amendola that Amendola saved him on -- and he also had one sack fall on his shoulders when he held the football for about six seconds before being hit.
RUNNING BACK: C
There was very little space for the backs in this game. Why? Jacksonville's linebackers were so fast that they could hardly do anything in the passing game. Dion Lewis, in particular, had trouble shaking free from Telvin Smith and Myles Jack in one-on-one situations in the flat. For one of the best make-you-miss runners in football, that's saying something. In the running game, that speed at the second level was an issue, as was Jacksonville's athleticism up front to snuff out traditional between-the-tackle stuff. Even when the Patriots tried to stretch the Jaguars wide with end-around runs to Danny Amendola and Rex Burkhead there wasn't much room. Burkhead, Lewis and James White combined for zero broken tackles and averaged 1.31 yards after contact per attempt, according to Pro Football Reference. James White did well to react quickly when the Patriots hurried to the line for their end-of-the-half score, and he helped out with some important chips at the line of scrimmage in the passing game . . . but it was just hard to find positive contributions from this group consistently. Lewis fumbled on New England's double-pass, and White very nearly fumbled one earlier in the game. The final play of consequence -- Lewis' 18-yard run -- helped boost this grade to where it ended up, but they may need more from their backs in the Super Bowl.
The Patriots needed a performance in the 'A' range from this group with Rob Gronkowski out, and they got it. Danny Amendola earned the group all the extra credit it needed with his late-game performance. For a player his size, his catch radius is mind-boggling, which he put on display on the game-winner and on his catch over the middle three plays before. His catch BEFORE his first touchdown was among his most impressive, as he had to reach up and behind -- even though he was wide open for an easy first down -- to reel it in. Amendola was also at the point of attack on White's score, making a key block on slot corner Aaron Colvin. Then there was what Brandin Cooks was able to do. Despite a brutal drop on what might've been a touchdown -- really the lone play docking this grade -- he was huge on the outside, eating up the cushion generously provided by AJ Bouye, and then running past Jags corners when they got more aggressive. His numbers (six grabs for 100 yards) were really much more gaudy thanks to the pass-interference calls he helped draw. If Cooks can continue to fight for the football the way he did on the outside, that'll only help Brady trust him further as they continue to find themselves in pressure situations. Chris Hogan had just two catches for 20 yards and couldn't quite separate deep as he continues to knock off rust, but Phillip Dorsett came up with a big 31-yard grab on a deep over route (when Brady had time to throw, allowing receivers to run through Jacksonville zones, there were receiver-on-linebacker mismatches to be had) to help set up Amendola's first score.
TIGHT END: C
Once Rob Gronkowski left the game the Patriots were left with Dwayne Allen as their lone tight end in uniform. (Jacob Hollister was a healthy scratch and watching from the press box level.) Before that point, there wasn't much to grade from Gronkowski's end. He had a drop down the field on a well-thrown ball from Tom Brady and just one catch for 21 yards on a ridiculous pass that Brady made while being hit from behind. The Jaguars did well to throw multiple defenders at Gronkowski, including doubles (sometimes two safeties, once with Jalen Ramsey underneath on third down), to force Brady to look elsewhere. Allen ended up playing 39 snaps and was not targeted. His route on Amendola's first touchdown, though, helped draw coverage and get Amendola matched up on a linebacker. Fast as those linebackers were, that was still a mismatch. One play before the game-winning score, Allen couldn't get to Calais Campbell and James White was stuffed for one yard. But Allen made up for that play a little later with his block on Telvin Smith during Dion Lewis' game-clincher.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B
Three sacks on 42 dropbacks against one of the best defensive fronts in football would qualify as fridge-worthy for Tom Brady's protection. They were far from perfect. Cam Fleming, starting for the injured LaAdrian Waddle, allowed a third-down sack on New England's first drive of the game that forced the Patriots to settle for a field goal. Shaq Mason had a tough day, allowing Brady to absorb hits from Myles Jack and Malik Jackson. He also was beaten by Marcel Dareus for a run stuff and a sack. Brady took another hit from Yannick Ngakoue when Joe Thuney thought Ngakoue was down and out of the play. Nate Solder also allowed a hit, although Brady still completed the pass to Rob Gronkowski. David Andrews had a clean day in pass-protection but was put in some tight spots in the screen game to chase down linebackers. The group seemed to settle in after halftime. The Patriots converted their first third down of the game when Brady had enough time to let Chris Hogan free himself from Jacksonville's "rat" defender in the middle of the field. They also provided good protection on both of Danny Amendola's scores, Andrews and Mason provided some athletic blocks on James White's 15-yard screen play on the game-winning drive, and they got good push up the middle on Brady's two-yard sneak just before the go-ahead score. And even though his group had trouble creating space in the running game, Dante Scarnecchia, like Belichick, likely took a lot of pride in Dion Lewis' 18-yard run to send the Patriots back to the Super Bowl.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B+
This group had two tasks: Stop Leonard Fournette and get pressure on Blake Bortles without allowing him to escape around the edges for significant gains. Fournette was limited to 3.2 yards per carry (76 yards on 24 attempts), forcing Bortles to throw while facing some uncomfortable down-and-distance situations. Ricky Jean Francois came up with three run stuffs in just 15 snaps against the run. Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy, both of whom played a whopping 57 snaps (a season-high for Guy and second-most for Brown this year), were key in shutting down Fournette's running lanes. Trey Flowers had four stuffs himself as part of a monster day against both the run and the pass. He had six quarterback pressures, including three hits, and he added one batted pass. One of his pressures helped lead to a Guy sack, and one of his hits led to a third-down incompletion that led to Danny Amendola's key fourth-quarter punt return and gave the Patriots good field position on their game-winning drive. Bill Belichick would call that complementary football. New England's rookie linemen combined for one key third-down stop late in the second quarter when Deatrich Wise drew a hold and Adam Butler cleaned up with a sack. (Because the Jags seemed to think the penalty, which was declined, stopped the clock they ended up punting before the two-minute warning.)
There was good and not-so-good from this group. Kyle Van Noy looked a step late to track down a screen late in the first quarter and he was driven back into the end zone on Leonard Fournette's four-yard score in the second quarter. Marquis Flowers was beaten on a pair of occasions in coverage, the second of which came on Jacksonville's last drive of the game, but Blake Bortles missed his mark. James Harrison was beaten in coverage on a third-and-two play, which isn't exactly his game at his point, and he seemed lost on a Corey Grant 24-yard catch-and-run to start the second quarter. Harrison also seemed to set a decent edge two plays before Fournette's touchdown, but he missed a tackle on TJ Yeldon and no one was able to flow to the football behind him. As for the good? Van Noy snuffed out a screen for a loss of three, and he had a big-time "out of phase" pass breakup in the first. Van Noy and Harrison also met at the quarterback for a sack-fumble on the final Jacksonville drive of the game. Good late-game effort there by both. Elandon Roberts was key in limiting the Jaguars run game, especially early, and he finished with three quarterback hurries coming from his spot in the middle of the field.
Though Stephon Gilmore ended up making one of the plays of the game, this seemed to be an up-and-down night for this group. Gilmore was targeted five times in all, allowing three catches for 48 yards. Malcolm Butler was targeted four times and allowed two to be caught for 44 yards. Eric Rowe saw six passes head his way, and five were caught for 69 yards. Patrick Chung was targeted five times and allowed three catches, including a goal line touchdown, though the score was more of a tip-your-cap-to-Jacksonville type of play. Chung had a run-game responsibility on the edge, and the play-fake by the Jags was enough to get him to hesitate a beat, leaving Mercedes Lewis wide open. Hard to blame Chung there since he was a key piece in helping the slow the Jags run game. He'll be sore this week as he recovers, but luckily for him he has some extra time before facing the Eagles. Blake Bortles threw for almost 300 yards (23-of-36 for 293 and a touchdown), but the Patriots came away with key stops when the needed them in the passing game. They had good coverage on Adam Butler's sack to force Bortles to hold onto it longer than he wanted. Each corner had a pass-breakup and Gilmore got his hands on the football twice. Devin McCourty came up with a key tackle in the fourth quarter to keep Marquise Lee short of the sticks on a third-and-eight play that led to a punt.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A-
Yet another solid day from Joe Judge's group. And with the Patriots opting to play for field position at times, daring Blake Bortles to drive long fields, the kicking game was key. Danny Amendola's 20-yard return late in the fourth quarter to set up the game-winning score was enormous, aided by solid blocks from Johnson Bademosi and Jordan Richards, but there were several important specialty plays in this one. After the Patriots made the score 20-17, Matthew Slater snuffed out Corey Grant's return for just 16 yards. When the Jaguars punted later, and when Amendola checked in with the long return, the Patriots were already in field goal range to tie it. Ryan Allen was solid yet again, continuing his late-season push, dropping three of his six punts inside the 20. Stephen Gostkowski drilled all of his extra points and one chip-shot field goal. The only real blemish here was the team's lone penalty of the day, a hold on Marquis Flowers, who was drilled to the ground and took his man with him, which pushed the Patriots offense back to its own 11-yard line.