AFC championship game
Jacksonville Jaguars at New England Patriots
Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET, CBS
Livestreaming on Yahoo Sports app
JAGUARS AT A GLANCE
Key player: DT Malik Jackson. The personnel isn’t the same and the scheme isn’t the same as when he was with the New York Giants, but Jaguars’ vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin knows what it takes to beat the Patriots. A decade ago, in Super Bowl XLII, Coughlin’s Giants had great success affecting Tom Brady by pressuring him through the middle. That’s where Jackson comes in. The 28-year-old first-time Pro Bowler had eight sacks and 11 quarterback hits in the regular season, and if he’s active on Sunday, able to even disrupt Brady, it could go a long way toward the Jaguars’ defense slowing the Patriots’ offense.
Why they’ll win: Get an early lead – Blake Bortles plays better when he has a cushion – and dial up the defense. We saw it last week in the divisional round against Pittsburgh: Jacksonville went up 21-0 in the second quarter, and while the Steelers closed the gap, they were never able to fully dig out of that hole. Having a lead, or even a close score, means the Jaguars can continue getting Leonard Fournette lots of touches, which both runs time off the clock and keeps the ball out of Brady’s hands. And on defense, you have to mix it up and disrupt Brady without flat-out blitzing him and flood the passing lanes.
Why they’ll lose: We hate to put it on Blake Bortles, but if Bortles has one of those games – you know, an interception at the worst possible time, the back-breaking turnover that the Patriots quickly turn into seven points – it will be a long, cold afternoon in Massachusetts. In Jacksonville’s Week 16 loss to San Francisco, Bortles had three interceptions, one of which was returned; the 49ers turned the other two into touchdowns as well. The Jaguars lost, 44-33. Now in his fourth season, Bortles has come a long way, and he played relatively mistake-free in a close game last week in Pittsburgh.
Keep in mind: The Jaguars are 1-10 all-time against the Patriots. That ain’t good. The one win was in the playoffs, in the 1998 wild-card round, but that was a long time ago. So long ago even 40-year-old Brady wasn’t in the NFL yet. New England has won seven straight since that postseason win, including the 2007 divisional round, when Brady completed an incredible 26-of-28 passes. The last meeting between these clubs was early in the 2015 season, a 51-17 New England win.
PATRIOTS AT A GLANCE
Key player: TE Rob Gronkowski. Even Jaguars coach Doug Marrone concedes that there’s no good way to cover Gronkowski. Asked about the 6-foot-7 All-Pro, who missed the postseason last year because of injury, Marrone said, “Hope they do not throw him the football. Hope he drops it. There is no secret formula. I’d like to watch a game where someone has been able to do it. He is going to make his plays and you hope those plays don’t end up killing you.” Last week against the Titans, Gronkowski had six receptions for 81 yards and a touchdown.
Why they’ll win: The Patriots’ defense was the team’s Achilles heel early in the season, but since the fifth game of the season, it’s been one of the stringiest units in the league, at least in terms of points allowed – and that’s about the only statistic Bill Belichick cares about. Over the first four games, when New England went 2-2, the team allowed 32 points per game; over the final 12 games of the regular season, that number dropped to 14 PPG. Oh, and there’s that whole Tom-Brady-at-quarterback thing.
Why they’ll lose: Speaking of Brady, he didn’t practice on Wednesday or Thursday because of an injury to his throwing hand. It’s hard to imagine he won’t play on Sunday afternoon, but the rhythm and timing of the Patriots’ offense could be off. If timing is an issue, that could pave the way for the Jaguars’ defense to have success. Will it happen? Stranger things have.
Keep in mind: Experience could be huge in this game, as could emotion. This is New England’s seventh straight appearance in the AFC title game, and as we know, the Patriots are the defending Super Bowl champions. They’ve stumbled at home in the playoffs before, and this game won’t be easy, but Belichick prepares for any and every situation, and he also teaches them that no opponent is to be overlooked, especially this late in the season.
Teams tend to do dumb things when they play the Patriots. A bad decision on a punt return that could have been avoided, terrible clock management, a chip-shot field goal miss – it’s happened so many times. But there have been teams, particularly teams with strong defenses and especially those who don’t get sucked into the Brady/Belichick mystique and get too cute, that have been able to have success against New England, even in Foxborough. The Jaguars have done well this year to break years of franchise frustration, and they’ll have to play their best game to beat a New England team for which making the postseason and advancing is an annual occurrence.