BOSTON (CBS) – After two weeks of prime-time matchups against the Texans and 49ers, it’s safe to say the Patriots won’t be as amped up for their Sunday tilt with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Though in typical Patriot fashion, they’ve boosted the 2-12 Jags as a “good team” all week. According to the Pats, Jacksonville will make them claw for every yard, keep their defenders busy all afternoon, and could miraculously make the playoffs if they live up to their ability.
But despite what the Patriots have said, the Jaguars are just plain awful.
That’s not to say they won’t give New England a game on Sunday; anything can happen when the two teams take the field. But you can bet the Patriots are a little miffed about their loss to San Francisco, and will be taking things out on the lowly Jaguars.
Here are four things to watch for in Sunday’s game:
Taking Care of the Ball
Stevan Ridley is having a phenomenal season for the Patriots with 1,105 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. His emergence as the premiere back has given New England one of the best run games in the NFL and a perfect complement for Tom Brady’s air attack.
But, as he did at the end of last season, Ridley has had a bit of trouble with fumbles over the last two weeks. He lost his second fumble of the season against the 49ers, and while the weather and the opponent can be credited as key contributors to that one, he also nearly lost one early against the Texans that would have drastically changed the game.
Ridley has to hold on to the ball. He found himself benched after fumbles in Week 17 of the regular season and in the divisional round against Denver last year, and if the trend continues could be in for a similar fate – despite his stellar resume up to the hiccups.
It would be unfair to just single out Ridley, as he wasn’t the only one with turnover issues last week. Fellow back Shane Vereen also coughed one up, and Brady threw two interceptions – though blame can easily go to Wes Welker (for slowing up on his route) and Aaron Hernandez/Josh McDaniels (seeing how Hernandez was probably still seeing stars from a hit he took on the play before).
So this week in practice, ball security was no doubt high on the priority list — as it usually is. The Patriots have been successful in large part thanks to their ridiculous +22 in the turnover department, and it’s hard to imagine they’ll have another four turnover game the rest of the way (especially against the Jaguars).
Ridley and Vereen must have gotten stern talking-to’s about their ball security, but we’ll see if Bill Belichick takes it a step further and cuts into their carries. Chances are Ridley, Vereen or whoever runs the ball will have success against the 30th ranked rush defense in the league, but if either of the two backs are on secret probation from BB, that could mean a busy day for Danny Woodhead and/or Brandon Bolden.
Cecil. Shorts. Best name in football?
It’s up there. But aside from his name, Shorts is a pretty good receiver too.
With Chad Henne replacing Blaine Gabbert under center back in October, Shorts has put on his big-boy pants and really come into his own. Five of his seven touchdowns on the season have been thrown by Henne, and he has four in his last five games alone. Shorts leads the Jaguars with 925 yards and that’s with him missing Week 14 with a concussion (and the overall horribleness of the Jacksonville Jaguars). He returned last week against the Dolphins and went off for 101 yards on six catches – his fourth 100-yard game of the season.
Shorts may also be the only big-play threat Jacksonville has, but he is a good one. He leads the team with 17 receptions of 20+ yards, and is second in the NFL with an average of 18.9 yards per reception.
Rookie Justin Blackmon lines up across from Shorts, and while he leads the Jags in receptions with 51, his recent string of success is mostly because of the focus being put on Shorts. And the extra attention hasn’t deterred Henne from going Shorts’ way, with 23 targets in his last two games.
To close with the most-obvious, lame joke one can go with, the Patriots shouldn’t sell Cecil short.
Improving Special Teams
The play of the Patriots special teams has been up-and-down all season long, but Sunday against the 49ers it was a real issue.
Of the five 49ers punts on Sunday the Patriots were penalized on three, costing them 60 yards and making them start inside their own 10-yard line twice. Then after the Patriots had tied the score at 31-31, their special teams decided not to tackle LaMichael James on the ensuing kickoff, letting him take it 62-yards to the New England 38. It only San Francisco one play to find the end zone, and seal the win.
And that doesn’t even include the fake punt they fell for.
Bill Belichick always stresses the importance of all three phases of the game, and it must have killed him inside to watch the special teams unit struggle the way it did on Sunday. Look for them to place a big focus on special teams success on Sunday, as they try to build momentum at the end of the season.
Big Day For Brady
Like a really big day for Brady.
The Jaguars are 24th in the NFL against the pass this season, allowing 246 yards per game. Tom Brady is second in the NFL with 305 passing yards per game. After watching Brady put up 443 yards against a 49ers defense that ranks fifth in the league against the pass, one can only imagine what he will do against the Jaguars come Sunday.
Brady should have plenty of time to throw the ball too, with the Jaguars dead-last in the NFL with just 15 sacks on the season. They added Justin Babin a few weeks ago, but he has only contributed one sack in his first three games in Jacksonville.
Brady is a perfect 3-0 in his career against the Jags, throwing seven touchdowns and no interceptions. Look for him to boost those numbers up even more, depending on how long the Patriots actually have to leave him in.
Tune in to Sunday’s Patriots-Jaguars game at 1pm on WBZ-TV and 98.5 The Sports Hub. Pregame coverage begins on 98.5 with Patriots Preview at 10am, followed by three hours of postgame coverage after the game. WBZ-TV kicks off their coverage at 11:30am with Patriots GameDay, followed by Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s postgame press conferences on Patriots 5th Quarter after the game.