Curran's AFC Championship Preview/Review
FOXBORO -- It didn't go as anyone thought, but it ended as expected: With the Patriots winning the AFC Championship by defeating the Jaguars.
How much did Tom E. Curran correctly predict in his preview? Let's take a look . . .
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.
The Patriots picked up chunks of yards on their first drive including a 31-yarder to Brandin Cooks before the drive got down to the Jags’ 32 and Brady hit Danny Amendola on a rub route that picked up 20 before the Patriots had to settle for a 31-yarder by Stephen Gostkowski. The Patriots next three drives didn’t get past their own 35 as New England had problems with its drive starters (with the exception of a 20-yard completion to Gronk). The Patriots went to work just before halftime with a penalty-aided drive – a helmet-to-helmet hit on Gronk and a 32-yard DPI on A.J. Bouye to put them at the Jags 12 then a James White touchdown. The Patriots had a shot at a big play to Brandin Cooks at the start of the second half but the pass ricocheted off his hands downfield. After that, the Patriots were again forced to punt. Third down through the midway point of the third quarter was a big problem for the Patriots. And their first drive of the fourth began with their only turnover of the day – a brilliant takeaway by Myles Jack after a double-pass, Crossfield, lateral thingy from Danny Amendola to Dion Lewis. When the Patriots got the ball next, they had 12:03 to go and were down 20-10. Brady hit Brandin Cooks for 18, lost 8 on a sack, hit Amendola for 21 on a third-and-18, found Phillip Dorsett as the second read on a flea-flicker for 31, Amendola made a ridiculous catch on the sidelines for 14 and then a toe-tapping, second-option catch at the back of the end zone for a 9-yard score. On their next possession, the Patriots got a big DPI on Jalen Ramsey for 36 yards but the drive stalled and they punted down 20-17 with six minutes left. The Jags only erased 50 seconds of clock before they punted back to the Pats. New England got a short field and needed just five plays to punch it in with James White and Danny Amendola driving it in. A big 18-yard run by Dion Lewis on third-and-9 sealed it with 1:38 left meaning the Patriots didn’t have to go back on defense one last time. Brady finished 26 for 38 for 290. With a sliced hand. And no Gronk. The Pats went just 3 for 12 on third down and – prior to Lewis’ 18-yarder – managed just 28 yards on 15 carries.
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 Jags came out trying to get Fournette established on their first drive. They got it out to midfield before pass breakups by Kyle Van Noy and Malcolm Butler on consecutive plays ended the drive. The Jaguas had a terrific drive on their second possession with a 20-yard drive-starting screen, a rollout for 11 and another rollout dumpoff for 24 before Marcedes Lewis leaked out on first-and-goal from the 4 for an easy touchdown and a 10-3 lead. They followed that drive with a 10-play, 82-yard drive that picked up 50 yards on its first three plays. Fournette did the bulk of the damage from there and the Jags went up 14-3. A third-and-8 completion to Cole over Malcolm Butler kept another drive alive for Jacksonville as they got out across the 50. But the drive stalled with a delay of game on third down and then a sack. The Jags were able to get three out of their first drive of the second half as they stayed hot on third down. Even when the Patriots defense rose up on consecutive drives and kept the Jags on their heels, Jacksonville was eventually able to get off its goal line and add another field goal before the end of the third with an 11-play, 66-yard drive. When they got the ball back thanks to a mammoth play by Myles Jack, though, they were forced to punt. Then, leading 20-17 with nine minutes left, they took over at their15. A 20-yarder to Allen Hurns down the middle of the field was the only big pickup before a punt. They turtled on their next possession and went three and out. Then, after falling behind 24-20, they got a 29-yarder to Dede Westbrook on Stephon Gilmore to give a glimmer of hope before Gilmore redeemed himself with an athletic fourth-down pass breakup on Westbrook. The Jags carried 32 times for 101 yards but Bortles went 23 for 36 and Jacksonville was 6 for 15 on third down.
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.
A big 53-yard goal by Josh Lambo at the end of the Jags first drive of the second half put Jacksonville up 17-10. Stephen Gostkowski had three touchbacks in addition to his chip shot field goal. The Patriots kickoff coverage paid dividends in the fourth when they pinned Corey Grant at his 16. Ryan Allen had three of his punts downed inside the 20. The special teams play of the game was Danny Amendola’s 20-yard punt return down to the Jags 30 with 4:48 left.
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).
Rob Gronkowski was forced from the game before halftime after a head shot by Barry Church on an incompletion. He missed the remainder of the game. Trey Flowers was limping around for a moment after a play.
JAGUARS MEDICAL REPORT
QUESTIONABLE: FS Tashaun Gipson (foot).
The Jags lost Myles Jack (left) and Marcel Dareus on back-to-back plays down the stretch. Fishy. Their rookie left tackle Cam Robinson also left with a shoulder injury in the second half.
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.
Dougie Marrone didn’t really have to roll the dice. His team was in the unexpected position of being out front most of the game. And his level of adventurousness was impacted by that. He didn’t know whether to be on attack or conserve or somewhere in between. And that showed up at the end of each half. As for Brady’s thumb, the impact was minimal. There seemed to be a period in the first half when his accuracy waned but when the second half and crunch time came, it didn’t appear to be any factor.
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.
Not much of a night for the little engine that could. He had nine carries for 34 yards (including the 18-yarder at the end) and seven catches for 32 yards (20 on the double-pass that turned into a fumble). Jacksonville bottled him up. It was Dola and Cooks that got ‘em.
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.
Campbell had to be some factor in bottling up Lewis but his numbers don’t show up in the boxscore.
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.
Again, nothing. The Jags were able to pretty much able to play the Patriots straight-up and have their way in building a lead. Which begs the question of how complicit they were in allowing the Patriots to come back. And were they prepared to properly deal with a lead.
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 execution was so good that – even though the Jaguars were ahead on virtually every important metric – they still lost. It was – in a way – like the Super Bowl. The time was not as compressed and the margin for error was a little greater, but the execution over the final 12 minutes had to be perfect.
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 Jags took a delay of game coming out of a timeout just before the two-minute mark in the first half, wiping out a first down on a third-and-7. There were two other flags of note – both justified – before the half. A 15-yard unnecessary roughness call on Gronk and a 32-yard DPI on A.J. Bouye. The Jags had five penalties for 62 yards in the first half. They finished with six penalties for 98 yards. The Patriots had one penalty for 10 yards. That’s a Jags cover and an under. I never get anything right.
THE WINNER IS . . .
Patriots 23, Jaguars 12
Patriots 24, Jaguars 20