By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — When the Jacksonville Jaguars jumped out to an early lead over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday afternoon, it brought about the same old routine from some of the loudest moany-groany voices in the Boston sports media. The message? The Jaguars are a joke, and the Patriots essentially have earned themselves a free trip to the Super Bowl.
That’s the type of thinking that could lead to some shock and disappointment in the area next weekend. These Jaguars are as legitimate as it gets.
Sure, some folks see the two-tone helmets, and the unaccomplished head coach, and the shaky quarterback, and they consider the Jaguars to be the historically inept franchise that we’ve known for the last 18 years, essentially since Tom Coughlin ended his first go-round with the franchise. But to do so is to overlook too much about how dangerous this Jaguars team really is at this moment.
Look just at the team’s most recent games against the Steelers. The Jaguars marched into Heinz Field in Week 5, picked off Ben Roethlisberger five times, and won 30-9. With the whole season on the line on Sunday, the Jaguars once again forced turnovers, and once again won by a 45-42 final score. While the defense did the bulk of the work, the team quarterbacked by Blake Bortles averaged 37.5 points per game in Pittsburgh.
The Patriots won by three points, and by the narrowest of margins, in their lone trip to Pittsburgh this year. Tom Brady’s team put up 27 points.
The Patriots (8-0) did hold a better record against common opponents than the Jaguars (6-3) on the year, but if there’s reason for Patriots fans to be worried, it’s in that Jacksonville defense.
Jacksonville ranked second in the NFL in points allowed, second in yards, second in sacks, first in passing yards and first in opponents’ passer rating. That’s not just good; it’s exceptional.
If there’s any way that Bill Belichick’s team goes down prematurely, it will because a ferocious defense didn’t allow separation on the outside and got to Tom Brady. With excellent cover corners A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey, and with Calais Campbell (14.5 sacks), Yannick Ngakoue (12 sacks) and Dante Fowler Jr. (8 sacks) rushing the passer, the Jaguars are the AFC team best equipped to do that.
In Sunday’s win over Pittsburgh, the Jaguars recorded an interception which led directly to a touchdown, and they scooped a fumble off a strip sack and ran it 50 yards for another score. That’s how teams like Jacksonville can win on the road in the postseason.
Now, at the same time, none of this is to say the Patriots are doomed. Hardly. They have the experience, they have home field, and they’re not likely to be the team that commits the foolish penalties, like Jacksonville did on Sunday but managed to overcome. Brady himself owns a 26-9 postseason record as a quarterback; the Jaguars as a franchise are 7-6. There’s no proper way to account for that playoff experience, and it should serve Brady well as he faces a difficult challenge on Sunday afternoon.
The Jaguars’ defense also showed some holes in the win over Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger twice connected with Antonio Brown for touchdowns (first 23 yards, later 43 yards), and the quarterback also connected with Martavis Bryant on a 36-yard touchdown pass. The Jaguars did allow 42 points to a Steelers team that averaged 25.4 points per game during the season. And though the dynamics of the game were unique (namely an early 21-0 deficit that forced Pittsburgh to go pass-heavy and attempt six fourth downs), the Steelers were able to pick up 545 yards of offense.
Yet, the final scoreboard had the Jaguars with a well-earned victory on the road in the postseason, in a game that not many gave them a chance to win. While some of Bortles’ deep passes were begging to be intercepted, the quarterback avoided disaster and did enough to help his team win.
That figures to be a key for the Patriots heading in to next week, as the Jaguars are 10-0 this season when Bortles does not throw an interception. They’re 2-6 when he throws at least one interception.
The Patriots are equipped to better confuse Bortles in a high-pressure road game with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line than the Steelers were on Sunday. But the Patriots did allow the third-most passing yards per game this season, and they did allow 24 touchdowns compared to just 12 interceptions. The defense has improved as the year went on, the pass rush showed up with a franchise-record eight sacks on Saturday night, and based on the way he looked against the Titans, Stephon Gilmore might be saving his best for January and February. But the Patriots did lose games this year to Alex Smith and Jay Cutler. Bortles should accordingly not be counted out — especially not with Leonard Fournette (109 yards, 3 TDs vs. Pittsburgh) by his side.
There’s also the Tom Coughlin factor. While it’s up for debate about just how impactful an executive vice president can be on a single football game, the fact is that Coughlin showed a knack like no other in his coaching career to be able to beat Belichick on the game’s grandest stages. His guidance over Doug Marrone could prove invaluable this week.
The Jaguars will no doubt enter Foxboro as heavy underdogs, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a chance to pull off a huge upset for the second straight week. The Patriots are still the better team, but if they find themselves in a close game, the Jaguars are the right type of team that could keep it close, force a turnover at a critical moment, and stun the football world for the second straight week.
New Englanders might want to hold off on booking any trips –physical, mental, or otherwise — to Minneapolis. There’s a lot of work still to be done.