Curran's AFC Championship Preview: Could bum thumb end run?
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
The Jaguars allowed an NFL-low 142 catches to wide receivers this season. The nine touchdown passes to wideouts were tied for fourth-fewest allowed. They allowed an NFL-low in wideout receiving yards (1,768). Chris Hogan and Brandin Cooks will be effectively erased by Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye. Danny Amendola – as he always does – will find a seam and make a play but this defense is too fast to expect him to get the kind of catch-and-run yardage he often does when defenses lose track of him. Also, how well Tom Brady can throw with his injured thumb is a major concern. How much will he need to be in the shotgun? Will it affect him on handoffs? Will he be able to throw with velocity? Will his accuracy suffer? All unknown. The Jaguars have one of those “do what they do” defenses but their personnel is as good as any team in the league. Calais Campbell is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Malik Jackson and Yannick Ngakoue are outstanding and Marcel Dareus is there to provide even more beef on early downs. The Jags know they have to get after Brady. “We have to go rush the quarterback,” Jackson said. “Also we have to make sure we press the pocket up the middle because he likes to step up in the middle or that’s where he feels comfortable standing behind that center. That’s what I told our [defensive] line. We have to make sure that we create pressure, have to rally and tackle and just frustrate him. He is 40, so we can hit him.” If Brady can get the middle of the Jags defense opened up and use his backs on option routes and screens/draws, that will be a staple. Also, New England needs to use the aggressiveness of the Jacksonville defense against it and take advantage of over-pursuit. The Jags have two of the league’s fastest backers in Telvin Smith and Myles Jack. Look for a lot of James Develin in with two tight ends so the Patriots can get the Jags heavy players on the field then go up-tempo.
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
The Patriots allowed five rushing touchdowns this year. No matter how imposing the Jaguars think their rushing attack is with big Leonard Fournette, if they come in expecting to give him the ball 25 times and walk out with a win, it won’t work. The Patriots devour big backs. They’ve allowed 84, 40 and 65 yards on the ground in their past three games and Fournette, running on a balky ankle, should be contained. If that is their plan, setting the edge with James Harrison and letting Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy, Ricky Jean-Francois, Elandon Roberts and Kyle Van Noy take care of Fournette is the answer to that. T.J. Yeldon is a more shifty back. And the Jags will use a fullback as a lead blocker. The Patriots will be happy to try and let Blake Bortles beat them by moving the chains and picking up third downs. The Jags converted 37 percent of those. Bortles can run but so could Marcus Mariota and the Patriots stifled the Titans offense last week. It’s a very similar group. Marqise Lee, Allen Hurns, Keelan Cole and rookie Dede Westbrook are the wideouts. The Patriots have dealt with far better. Marcedes Lewis is a good tight end dealing with a not-so-good quarterback. Bortles struggles with accuracy on shorter throws. He struggles with accuracy on longer throws too. Even though he’s led the Jags to two wins in the playoffs and used his feet to do it, the Patriots are well-versed in dealing with mobile quarterbacks. His fingerprints will likely be all over a Jags loss.
THE KICKING GAME
Jaydon Mickens is a good punt returner (10.6 average) and Corey Grant averages 24.6 on kickoff returns. Those are high return numbers. Kicker Josh Lambo missed just one field goal in 20 attempts this season and he botched two extra points. Punter Brad Nortman’s averaging 44 yards per punt. The Jags’ coverage teams are solid.
PATRIOTS MEDICAL REPORT
QUESTIONABLE: QB Tom Brady (right hand); DL Alan Branch (knee); RB Rex Burkhead (knee); RB Mike Gillislee (knee); OT LaAdrian Waddle (knee).
JAGUARS MEDICAL REPORT
QUESTIONABLE: FS Tashaun Gipson (foot).
GAME WITHIN THE GAME
Dice Rollin’ Dougie and Tommy Thick Thumb. The Jaguars were 10-for-13 on fourth down in the regular season and aren’t shy about trick plays or spinning the wheel offensively. The Patriots need to be on it in terms of watching for anything weird on fourth down or at any time. Generally, they are about as sharp as it gets when it comes to surprise plays. There’s no getting around it. Brady’s thumb is injured. It will affect him. Whether it bothers him a little or a lot is the big question.
JAGS GOTTA STOP
Dion Lewis. In his past nine games, Lewis has been under five yards per carry only three times. He’s been better than six three times. He’s caught 21 passes in the past three games. He has been outstanding and is – especially with an injured Brady – vital.
PATRIOTS GOTTA STOP
Calais Campbell. He’s 6-8, 300 pounds and – in his first year with the Jags – he amassed 14.5 sacks. He’s a little like a latter-day Richard Seymour in terms of build and versatility, not that far from Michael Bennett in speed and explosiveness. He may wind up being the defensive player of the year and every offensive lineman the Patriots own will get a turn against Campbell on Sunday. Fine player. Fine, fine player.
THAT SUMS IT UP PATRIOTS STYLE
"I think we've seen a number of games that have come down to one situation, one play, one or two individuals involved in a play in that particular situation. Absolutely. I'm not suggesting that it's reckless in any way. I think it's very well calculated. They have been very successful at it. It puts a lot of pressure on their opponents, it's helped them win a lot of games and they are good at it. I'm sure they will keep doing it.” – Bill Belichick on Jacksonville’s penchant for fake punts, fourth-down gambles and general efforts at chicanery and skullduggery.
THAT SUMS IT UP JAGS STYLE
“This team, outside of the New York Yankees, is probably the best dynasty that we’ve seen. I don’t think I can come in here and give you guys any, ‘Hey, if you do this you have a chance … if you do this you have a chance.’ You have to go and you have to execute. You’re talking about a team that’s probably the best execution team performance-wise on Sunday since 2001.” – Doug Marrone, Jags coach telling it like it is.
THE CREW, THE BOOTH AND THE LINE
Clete Blakeman’s at the helm of the “All-Star crew” doing this one. You’ll remember ol’ Cletus as the guy running things when Gronk got beaten within an inch of his life at the back of the end zone on the final play against the Panthers in 2013 and then – as he lay bleeding and barely alive – the flag was picked up and the game ended. Actually, it wasn’t that bad. But it was bad. Clete hasn’t done a Patriots game since 2015. Two full regular seasons seems like a long time. The Jags were called for 120 penalties this season. They drew 121. The Patriots were called for 99 and drew 121. Their “net” was fifth-highest in the league. The Patriots are nine-point favorites and the total is 46. The Nantz-Romo booth will be in effect for CBS.
THE WINNER IS...
Patriots 23, Jaguars 12