Patriots

Rob Gronkowski return provides immediate shot in the arm for Patriots

Rob Gronkowski return provides immediate shot in the arm for Patriots

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Jets have been drafting with Rob Gronkowski in mind for years now, it seems.

This past spring they took safety Jamal Adams in the first round and safety Marcus Maye in the second, prompting analysts everywhere to assume they would play key roles in Operation Halt Party Boy. Last year the Jets took hybrid linebacker Darron Lee in the first round, looking for a player with some size to run with the biggest mismatch in the league. 

All three were on the field Sunday for Gronkowski's return to the lineup. None of them could stop him consistently. 

MORE:

After missing New England's Week 5 win in Tampa Bay as a late scratch with a thigh injury, Gronkowski re-joined the Patriots offensive huddle at MetLife Stadium and provided an immediate shot on the arm. He finished the day with six catches for 83 yards and two scores to help the Patriots win, 24-17. 

"It went smooth," Gronkowski said after. "Everything didn't go as well as you thought it would. Every play didn't go as well as you wanted it to, but what's most important is coming out with the win. And every time you come out to New York, it's always going to be a dog fight. Those guys played hard."

They did. And they won their share of battles with Gronkowski -- Lee in particular. 

He was all over Gronkowski early in the game, helping force an incompletion and a Patriots punt. Before the end of the half, Lee was there again to force an incompletion with Gronkowski down near the goal line. 

But Gronkowski plucked a 25-yard reception off the top of the 6-foot-1 linebacker's helmet for a first down during New England's first touchdown drive, and both of Gronkowski's touchdowns came with Adams in coverage. His two-yarder was a quick-hitter that seemed uncoverable with Adams playing off of Gronkowski's inside shoulder. Gronkowski's 33-yarder in the third quarter came out of a stack formation that slowed down Adams early in the down and created some space between the tight end and the safety.

It was Gronkowski's 15th career game with multiple receiving touchdowns, tying the franchise record set by Randy Moss. 

"Just gave them up," Adams said. "Got picked on one. The one in the red zone, Brady put it on real quick. He delayed, then got it out real quick. Lost my leverage."

For a team that went 1-for-3 in the red zone against the Bucs without him, having Gronkowski to help turn drives into touchdowns made an immediate impact.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

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

cp-spark-brady-1-011818.jpg

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. 

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE


 

Will the real Jaguars defense please stand up?

jaguars_steelers.jpg

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