Phil Perry

Who will be Patriots unsung hero Sunday?

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Who will be Patriots unsung hero Sunday?

FOXBORO -- We've hit on Tom Brady's hand. Over and over. And over again. We've also dissected just how good this Jaguars defense really is, and how Rob Gronkowski might be able to exploit it

But what about the games within the game? What about the so-called bit players who could make a significant impact in the AFC Championship Game? 

It seems to happen every year in the biggest games. No one predicted James White would put together an MVP-level performance in Super Bowl LI. No one saw Malcolm Butler coming - least of all Russell Wilson - in Super Bowl XLIX. And who would have guessed that Marquis Flowers, Adam Butler and Deatrich Wise would've had key roles in helping the Patriots dominate the Divisional Round against the Titans?

Let's try to get out ahead of those storylines before the Jaguars and Patriots meet at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon. Here are five of our under-the-radar keys to the game: 

1) James Develin's incorporation into the game plan could seemingly pop up out of nowhere like a neck roll.
But if you've been following along this week, you know that it would be a good idea for the Patriots try to throw out of formations that employ their fullback. If Josh McDaniels figures out a way to keep Jacksonville's base defense on the field, that should give Brady all kinds of room to throw. That means getting Develin onto the field with Dion Lewis. It could also mean having Dwayne Allen (or Jacob Hollister) on the field with Rob Gronkowski. Two-back sets and two-tight end sets should have the same effect: The Jaguars will respond by leaving an extra linebacker and an extra defensive tackle on the field. (In all likelihood, run-stuffing linebacker Paul Posluszny would remain, as would defensive tackle Marcel Dareus. In sub situations, those players are more likely to come off, bringing nickel corner Aaron Colvin and pass-rusher Dante Fowler on.) That bigger stop-the-run grouping makes the Jaguars slower. When they're slower, they're less-equipped to defend the pass. Per Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Analysis, the Jaguars allowed a quarterback rating of 99 and an average of 9.6 yards per attempt against offensive groupings with two backs, two tight ends, or both. Against three-receiver sets, they're much more effective, allowing a rating of 73 and an average-yards-per-attempt of just 4.9. One issue with Develin's usage could be - wait for it - Brady's hand. If it's clear Brady can't take snaps from under center, then the Patriots will either simply have to huddle up with Develin in the mix and align in some sort of spread look when they break, which they've done in the past. Or they could concede the threat of running behind Develin is non-existent if Brady can't get under center, and then you may simply see more two-tight end looks. Using tempo with this bigger personnel could also be wise. If the Patriots get defenders on the field they want to throw against, they could prevent the Jags from subbing by hurrying to the line of scrimmage. 

2) Joe Thuney's ability to handle power rushes on the interior could determine how smoothly the Patriots offense runs.
The Jaguars front is their biggest threat to Tom Brady. Jacksonville's coverage players are talented, but there should be windows to throw. If Brady doesn't have time to find the windows because of a dogged pass-rush, though, it won't matter. Thuney could be the key. Why? Calais Campbell, a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, has seen 58 percent of his pass-rushing snaps come from the defensive right, according to Pro Football Focus. If that continues, he'll see his fair share of Nate Solder and -- in sub situations when he kicks inside -- Thuney on the offensive left. Along with the vastly underrated Yannick Ngakoue (12 sacks and a league-high six forced fumbles, but he's not a Pro Bowler or All-Pro), who rushes off the defensive right 77.5 percent of the time, Campbell helps form as imposing a duo as Thuney and Solder have faced all season. Campbell is the real-life response to the blue beings in James Cameron's "Avatar." He's 6-foot-8, with 36-inch arms, and if he can extend on Thuney, that's a one-on-one matchup that doesn't favor the Patriots. Thuney, who carries around a green notebook full of secrets to help him on game days, has been solid of late. He hasn't allowed a sack or a quarterback hit in his last three games, but he'll have to put together one of his cleanest performances of the season to keep Brady upright Sunday.  

3) Johnson Bademosi will have big shoes to fill in the kicking game. 
When Jonathan Jones suffered a season-ending injury against the Titans, that should thrust Bademosi - who was a healthy scratch last week -- back into the mix as a kick-coverage player and reserve corner for the Patriots. The Jaguars have a talented return man in Jaydon Mickens, and as a gunner, it could be on Bademosi's shoulders to make sure that the Patriots don't allow Mickens to make a game-changing play. With the focus on Matthew Slater, that should leave Bademosi with some one-on-one matchups to win on the outside. Why, you ask, is this important? The Jaguars are not a threat to consistently string together scoring drives offensively, so -- aside from scoring defensively, which they've been known to do -- they may need to exploit a breakdown in the kicking game in order to have a shot. "Mickens," Bill Belichick told Patriots.com this week, "as a returner, very explosive player...He's very, very explosive in the open field...They're a very explosive special teams unit."

4) For the second consecutive week, Marquis Flowers could play an important role in the defensive game plan.
His two best games with the Patriots have come against mobile quarterbacks, and Blake Bortles -- though not as athletic as Tyrod Taylor or Marcus Mariota -- would qualify. The Jaguars quarterback has recorded 123 yards rushing on 15 carries (an average of 8.2 yards per run) in two playoff games this season, and against the Bills in the Wild-Card Round, he actually ran for more yards (88) than he picked up through the air (87). Flowers has shown a knack for being able to mirror passers as he spies them from the second level, and it would come as no surprise if he was asked to do so again this weekend. The Patriots are a man coverage team. If you've watched closely, you've noticed they've played less true Cover-2 this season than they have in some others, partly because their corners are better-suited for man-to-man assignments than covering zones. By deploying Flowers (or Kyle Van Noy or someone else) as a spy, that allows Patriots defensive backs to play man-to-man on the back end. Without a spy, that would typically require more true zone in the secondary so that defensive backs could have their eyes in the backfield and spot when a quarterback takes off. If Flowers is tapped to spy again this weekend, he allows his teammates in coverage to play their game: Lock-down man-to-man.

5) Let's stick with the Patriots linebackers for this final key.
Discipline at the second level will be of vital importance against the Jaguars. Matt Patricia's unit should have little trouble stopping the run. It's a numbers game in the box, and if the Patriots commit enough resources to stoning Leonard Fournette, they should have success. Especially with the way Lawrence Guy, Malcom Brown, Ricky Jean Francois and Trey Flowers have been playing of late. But the Jaguars are adept at using an opponent's aggressiveness against them. Whichever Patriots are at the linebacker level -- whether it's Elandon Roberts, Van Noy or Patrick Chung -- will have to be sure they read their keys and remain patient. Leaving Bortles wide-open throwing lanes is one of the few ways the Jaguars will be able to create chunk plays on Sunday, and if the Patriots are too eager to step up and fill lanes against the run, they could open themselves up to be stunned by the 23rd-rated quarterback in the NFL this season. The Jaguars passed on three of their first four plays from scrimmage against the Steelers in the Divisional Round. They picked up 53 yards on those three throws due in large part to Bortles' use of play-action. 

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#FridayBag: Don't worry, you can keep your hands to yourself

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#FridayBag: Don't worry, you can keep your hands to yourself

FOXBORO - Every Friday, Phil Perry and Mike Giardi will take your Patriots questions on Twitter and answer them as a joint mailbag -- or Friday Bag, as they call it.

Got questions? Tweet the guys using the hashtag #FridayBag. But for now, give the latest edition of the Bag a read.

MG: Hopefully that’s not needed, Casey, but I will pass it on. 

MG: BIG GAME! Sure. Why the hell not?

MG: Allie, this is a question that’s I’ve been pondering for years, or at least months . . . ok, for about 3 minutes. Tarzan has either a) been duping us all this time and actually has a job, drives an BMW and has a colonial with 2 1/2 baths or b) he’s a baby face who never hit puberty. 

MG: Mikey! Here’s a quite from Todd Wash, Jags DC, when asked about Ramsey possibly covering Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski Sunday: “I think the last thing you can do is to go into a game like this and you try and reinvent the wheel . . . Jalen is a good corner and he plays against wide receivers . . . "

So either he’s telling the truth or he doesn’t want to reveal a wrinkle. My opinion: Why waste Ramsey outside the entire game? Brady’s at his best attacking inside the numbers and even more to the point, inside the hashes. At the very least, I’d deploy Ramsey on Gronk in the red area and make Tommy boy look elsewhere.

MG: Yeah, tough injury. Jon Jones has been terrific on special teams for two years, a likely heir apparent to Matt Slater as that guy who ends up being in the Pro Bowl every year. Love almost every bit of what he brings. Would say Jonathan Bademosi will be active this week and move into that role. 

MG: Sizzle, for sure. We’ve done a lot of X’s and O’s on this one and one area where the Jags have been especially vulnerable is under the linebackers. That means running backs, that means shorter crossing patterns and that means combo platters designed to force these LBs to make a decision. Telvin Smith was targeted 13 times last weekend (according to Pro Football Focus) and surrendered 12 catches. A healthy Brady feasts on this.

MG: Goose making his #FridayBag debut. Welcome. Best matchup is Matt Patricia and his big brains versus Blake Bortles. If that kid thinks he’s going to be looking at the same thing very often, I got a bridge to sell him. Worst matchup is T.J. Yeldon on the linebackers. We’ve spent a ton of time talking about Leonard Fournette and what he brings if he’s healthy but Yeldon is both strong, shifty and can catch. With a skittish QB, Yeldon could be heavily involved.



PP: JP, checking in from the District! I'd say the chances are minimal. I would do it. You might do it. Go out on top and all that. But you and I haven't been saying for years that we're planing to work into our mid-40s. And we don't have post-retirement business plans that kind of hinge on our ability to work into our mid-40s. We also aren't about to be named MVP...of anything. We'll see, but I would be very surprised if this ends up being Brady's last season.



PP: Good question, Michael. Also a scary one for Patriots fans, I'd think. If the unexpected happens and Brady can't take the field, I think you'd have some packages in place for Chris Hogan or Jacob Hollister just in case something happened to Brian Hoyer. Hogan is arguably one of the most versatile athletes on the team, and he threw a pass (left-handed) at MetLife last year. Hollister was a walk-on quarterback at the University of Nevada. When he transferred to Arizona Western Community College, he made the transition to tight end.



PP: To me, all of these questions are related, so let's smash them all together. I do believe the Patriots will show plenty of "21" and "12" personnel in this game. That means either a) two receivers, two backs and one tight end, or b) two receivers, one back and two tight ends. In that scenario, the receivers would be -- in my opinion -- some combination of Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola. I'd use the Cooks-Amendola combination most frequently unless it seems like Hogan has completely shaken the rust from his long regular-season absence. The reason it would be a good idea to use theses heavier formations -- as opposed to "11" personnel with three wideouts -- is that it attacks the Jaguars with their weaker coverage people on the field. If the Patriots deploy, say, James Develin, Dion Lewis and Rob Gronkowski in the same look, Jacksonville would likely have to respond by putting run-stuffing linebacker Paul Posluszny on the field. If the Patriots can manipulate the coverage to get any non-Develin weapon on Posluszny, that's a mismatch they can exploit. We go into further detail on how the Patriots can exploit the Jaguars' base defense -- which has struggled in coverage this season -- here

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Patriots-Jaguars practice participation/injury report: Brady sits out

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Patriots-Jaguars practice participation/injury report: Brady sits out

FOXBORO -- Tom Brady's hand injury is significant enough that he was held out of Thursday's practice, according to the Patriots.

Whether that means he was at risk of exacerbating the injury by playing, or whether he needed more time to receive treatment (or both) is not clear. Brady was present for the stretching portion of practice on Thursday, which reporters were permitted to watch, but the team must have held him out of action following that period.

Brady last missed a practice on Dec. 27 as the Patriots prepared for the regular-season finale against the Jets. He was scheduled to speak with reporters on Thursday afternoon following practice, but the Patriots announced that they had pushed back his media availability to Friday. 

The Patriots will hold their final practice of the week on Friday before taking on the Jaguars in the AFC title game Sunday. 

Thursday's practice participation/injury report for Sunday's Patriots-Jaguars game:

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

DID NOT PARTICIPATE
QB Tom Brady (right hand)
OT LaAdrian Waddle (knee)

LIMITED PARTICIPATION
DL Alan Branch (knee)
RB Rex Burkhead (knee)
RB Mike Gillislee (knee)

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

DID NOT PARTICIPATE
FS Tashaun Gipson (foot)

LIMITED PARTICIPATION
SS Barry Church (shoulder)
RB Leonard Fournette (ankle)
DT Malik Jackson (ankle)

FULL PARTICIPATION
QB Blake Bortles (right wrist)
OL Patrick Omameh (illness)
LB Paul Posluszny (abdomen)