Patriots

Patriots' postseason first-timers have 2017 offseason approach to thank

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Patriots' postseason first-timers have 2017 offseason approach to thank

FOXBORO - There aren't many players inside the Patriots locker room who will be new to the postseason experience this weekend. But the do-or-die nature of the playoffs is completely foreign feeling for a few key first-year contributors, such as Brandin Cooks and Stephon Gilmore. 

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That those players are finally getting a taste of football in mid-January is thanks in part to an evolving offseason approach in New England that saw the Patriots slot in as one of the NFL's top offseason spenders in 2017. 

The Ringer's Kevin Clark put together a fascinating piece on free-agent spending this week, pointing out which teams dealt out the most cash, why, and how they fared. The Patriots ended up as one of the top 10 spenders in free-agency, and they were one of six top 10 spenders that made the playoffs. 

It's a staggering number considering that free agency has long been viewed as an often-foolhardy last resort for NFL teams desperate to turn things around. But in recent years, organizations have had much more salary-cap space to play with, which has allowed front offices to be more aggressive. Those who have shown a willingness to spend have been rewarded as they've separated themselves from teams who've clung to the idea that thriftiness is key.

Where's the cap space coming from? The cap has ballooned from $120 million to $167 million in the past six years. Plus the 2011 collective bargaining agreement made two changes that have had an impact: 1) It reined in rookie contracts and 2) it allowed teams to roll over unused cap space from one year to the next.

The Patriots have long held a reputation as a team that prefers develop from within, as their list of long-term, high-priced, free-agent deals would indicate, with the 2007 addition of Adalius Thomas coming in as one of the few outliers in Bill Belichick's tenure. 

While the arrival of 2017 heralded a different approach, one doesn't need to go back all that far to find an example of the Patriots largely staying on the sidelines in free agency. Even though they came in as the No. 9 free-agent spenders in 2016, the vast majority of their money spent was a result of Tom Brady's contract extension. Without it, they would have placed among the NFL's bottom-third spenders, just a few spots ahead of the perennially free-agent averse Packers. (After shuffling their front office this offseason, even Green Bay has made a commitment to being more aggressive in the free-agent market, as bold an indication as any that teams are changing their stance on spending.) 

Then last offseason, the Patriots went on a shopping spree. They made Gilmore one of the highest-paid corners in the league. They went out and signed largely unheralded defensive tackle Lawrence Guy to a four-year deal. They invested (in the short term) at the running back position by grabbing unrestricted free agent Rex Burkhead and restricted free agent Mike Gillislee. They re-signed Duron Harmon and Dont'a Hightower. And they were willing to trade an opportunity to draft cost-effective rookies in order to acquire Cooks, and Dwayne Allen, both of whom would cost more against the cap in the short-term.

One could argue the effectiveness of their method, but not that it had a decidedly different look than the norm for them.

Will it continue into 2018? Will the Patriots have the money to add another playoff-starved free agent with a top-of-the-market deal?

They don't have much in the way of 2017 cap space to roll over next season (about $3 million), but the cap is expected to go up again. Over the Cap has projected it to land somewhere in the range of $178 million and for the Patriots to have around $17 million in cap space. Unless something changes, that's hardly a king's ransom that the Patriots will have available to them to spread around in March. 

But what the Patriots did last offseason -- shelling out for immediate help at expensive positions -- showed that when they have the ability to spend they're willing to do it. And in a league with a cap that's increasing annually, where it seems as safe to gamble on outside help as it's ever been, a prodigal approach isn't necessarily a bad one. Based on recent evidence, at least, fortune has favored the bold.

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Patriots-Jaguars inactives: Patriots without Waddle, rolling with Fleming

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Patriots-Jaguars inactives: Patriots without Waddle, rolling with Fleming

FOXBORO -- This is why you hold onto as many backup tackles as possible. 

The Patriots are down to their No. 3 right tackle, Cam Fleming, in the AFC title game. Yet Fleming's importance to the Patriots plan has barely come up this week. Why? Because he ain't bad. 

Fleming, who will get the starting nod at right tackle with LaAdrian Waddle out due to a knee injury, has started five of New England's last six games and has allowed jut two sacks in that span. Fleming played 35 snaps in the Divisional Round after Waddle was injured, and he did not allow a single quarterback pressure. 

There aren't many teams who could be down to their third right tackle and still have a chance, but the Patriots -- who went out of their way to build up their tackle depth by keeping both Waddle and Fleming for the 53-man roster out of training camp -- might be one. 

The Patriots announced that along with Waddle, Jacob Hoillister, Mike Gillislee, Bernard Reedy, Kenny Britt, David Harris and Alan Branch are all inactive for the AFC title game.

Hollister, a healthy scratch, is an interesting choice in that the Patriots could rely heavily on two-tight end sets against the Jaguars. If they do, they'll have to lean on Dwayne Allen and Rob Gronkowski. 

Alan Branch has said for two weeks that he's healthy enough to play. But the Patriots have opted to suit up Ricky Jean Francois instead of Branch, their biggest defensive tackle. The defensive front will have a lot of responsibility on its hands against the Jaguars, who rely heavily on their running game with big back Leonard Fournette. 

A pair of Patriots who were inactive last week will be in uniform Sunday afternoon: running back Rex Burkhead and corner Johnson Bademosi. With Jonathan Jones out for the season, Bademosi will likely take on the bulk of Jones' special-teams responsibilities. 

Patriots-Jaguars pregame notes

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Patriots-Jaguars pregame notes

The Patriots host the Jaguars today at Gillette Stadium in the AFC Championship Game. The game begins at 3:05 p.m.

  • Watch Patriots Pregame Live from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. with Michael Felger, Charlie Weis, Bert Breer, Troy Brown and DJ Bean in Burlington, and Tom E. Curran, Phil Perry and Mike Giardi at Gillette.
  • When the game ends, watch Patriots Postgame Live.

Tune into NBC Sports Boston to watch, or click here for the livestream of the shows (and all NBC Sports Boston programming).

Here's what you need to know about the game . . .

FACTS AND FIGURES

GAME TIME: 3:05 p.m. 

SITE: Gillette Stadium

TEAM RECORDS: Patriots 14-3, Jaguars 12-6

ON TV: CBS

TV ANNOUNCERS: Jim Nantz, Tony Romo, Tracy Wolfson and Jay Feely

ON LOCAL RADIO: 98.5 The Sports Hub Patriots Radio Network

LOCAL RADIO ANNOUNCERS: Bob Socci and Scott Zolak

NATIONAL RADIO: Westwood One

NATIONAL RADIO ANNOUNCERS: Kevin Kugler, Dan Fouts and Ed Werder

ALL-TIME SERIES BETWEEN THE TEAMS: Patriots lead, 10-1

LAST MEETING: Patriots 51, Jaguars 17 on Sept. 27, 2015 at Gillette Stadium

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

-- Tom Brady completed 35 of 53 passes (66 percent) for 337 yards and three touchdowns for a 102.5 passer rating in the Patriots’ 35-14 win against Tennessee in the Divisional Playoffs. He can become the first quarterback in postseason history to record four consecutive games with at least 300 yards and multiple touchdown passes.

-- James White scored two touchdowns (one rushing, one receiving) in the Patriots’ win against Tennessee. He also scored three touchdowns in Super Bowl LI, and needs two touchdowns today to tie Emmitt Smith and Larry Fitzgerald for the most combined rushing and receiving touchdowns over a three-game span in postseason history.

-- Rob Gronkowski caught a touchdown pass last week and now has 10 career postseason TD receptions, trailing only Jerry Rice (22) and John Stallworth (12). He can tie Stallworth with two today.

-- The Jaguars, who went 3-13 last season, are attempting to become the first team since the 2009 Saints to go from 'worst to first' in their division and qualify for the Super Bowl. (In the NFC title game, the Eagles can accomplish the same feat.) Prior to the Saints, the last team to do so was the 2003 Panthers, whom the Patriots beat in Super Bwl XXXVIII.

-- The Jaguars, who beat the second-seeded Steelers in last week's divisional round, are also attempting to become the 11th team to defeat the top two seeds in their conference en route to the Super Bowl. 

-- Jacksonville running back Leonard Fournette rushed for 109 yards in three touchdowns in the Jaguars' 45-42 win in Pittsburgh last week. With one rushing touchdown today, he can tie Jamal Lewis (2000 Ravens), William Floyd (1994 49ers), Tony Dorsett (1977 Cowboys) and Norm Standlee (1941 Bears) for the postseason record for most rushing TDs by a rookie in a single postseason. He can break the record with two.

PATRIOTS VS. JAGUARS

-- The Patriots and Jaguars are meeting in the postseason for the fifth time. New England has won three of the previous four, including the 1996 AFC Championship Game at old Foxboro Stadium, which the Patriots won 20-6 in Bill Parcells' final home game as Patriots coach.

-- In the teams' last postseason meeting, New England improved its season's record to 15-0 by knocking off Jacksonville, 31-20, in the 2007 AFC Divisional Playoffs on Jan. 12, 2008 at Gillette Stadium.

MORE ON THE PATRIOTS

-- New England is the first team since the 1970 merger to play in seven consecutive conference championship games.

-- The Patriots have won nine conference championships, the most in NFL history. New England is 6-1 all-time in AFC Championship Games played at home.

-- Bill Belichick has advanced to 12 conference championship games, the most by a head coach since the 1970 merger.

-- Brady has 26 career playoff wins, the most by any starting quarterback in NFL history. Brady is also the NFL postseason leader in career completions (866), attempts (1,378), passing yards (9,431) and touchdown passes (66).

-- Brady has 13 playoff games with at least 300 passing yards, the most in NFL history. Brady recorded his 10th career postseason game with at least three touchdown passes last week and surpassed Joe Montana for the most all-time.

-- New England won its ninth consecutive division title, the longest streak in NFL history. The Patriots are the only team to win 14 division titles in a 15-year span.

MORE ON THE JAGUARS

-- Jacksonville is the second team since the 1970 merger to advance to the conference championship game after winning three or fewer games in the previous season. The other was the 2006 Saints.

-- The Jaguars led the NFL with seven defensive touchdowns during the regular season and scored on a 50-yard fumble-return touchdown by linebacker Telvin Smith in the divisional round against Pittsburgh.

-- Smith leads the NFL with three defensive touchdowns this season (including the playoffs).

-- Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles has won his first two career playoff starts. In both games, he threw a touchdown pass with no interceptions.

CAN JAGS TURN UP THE HEAT?

-- Jaguars defensive end Calais Campbell had a franchise-record 14.5 sacks in the regular season and teammate Yannick Ngakoue added 12 sacks. Against Pittsburgh, Ngakoue had a sack and forced fumble, which led to Smith’s 50-yard fumble-return touchdown.

LOOKING FOR MORE?

-- Click here for additional information about the game.