By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The AFC’s No. 1 offense is set to go up against the AFC’s No. 1 defense. Make no mistake about it: This is the best possible matchup for the AFC Championship Game.
Sure, the theatrics and drama would have been much higher if it were the Steelers rolling into Foxboro on Sunday. But from a pure football standpoint, this one ought to be pretty good.
The Patriots enter Sunday as heavy favorites, but being big underdogs didn’t stop the Jags from stunning Pittsburgh last week. In fact, the Jaguars have been underdogs by 5.5 or more points on three occasions this year; they won all three games, by a combined score of 104-58. All three were on the road.
So there’s an element to the Jaguars’ game that allows them to raise their level when facing better competition, and they won’t be short on confidence when this one kicks off on Sunday at 3 p.m.
As for which team will earn a trip to the Super Bowl and which team will walk off the field in disappointment, here’s a look at what to expect in this year’s AFC Championship Game.
We always scrutinize and dissect every single throw that leaves the right hand of Tom Brady, but you can bet we’ll be doing the impossible by paying even closer attention this weekend.
That is, of course, because Brady suffered a hand injury at practice on Wednesday. The exact extent of the injury remains unclear, but the Patriots were concerned enough to send Brady for an X-ray. (It was negative.)
Brady being Brady, we know he’ll be on the field on Sunday (he’s officially listed as questionable). But if his accuracy appears to be a bit off, or if he stays down for an extra second or two after taking a hard hit from the ferocious Jacksonville pass rush, then we’ll all start to wonder just how bad that hand might be feeling.
On the flip side, if Brady goes out there and slices up the NFL’s best pass defense, then we’ll all likely feel very silly for ever caring so much about an inconsequential injury.
Who Covers Whom?
As you have likely heard by now, the Jaguars have a great defense. Sure, those 42 points from the Steelers put up last week don’t look great, but that was a unique game where the Jaguars led 21-0 and 28-7 early, and where Antonio Brown, Le’veon Bell and Martavis Bryant made some unbelievable catches to rack up some yards and points. But on the whole of the season, the Jaguars ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in just about every important defensive category.
That’s because, naturally, they have a tremendous amount of talent, both up front and in the secondary. With regard to the latter, it will be fascinating to see how head coach Doug Marrone and defensive coordinator Todd Wash strategize the matchups against the Patriots’ lethal receiving corps.
The general consensus is that the top two corners — A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey — on receivers Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan. That’s a sound strategy; Cooks can kill you with the deep ball, and when left unattended in last year’s AFC title game, Hogan caught nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns.
Then, when it comes to trying to cover Rob Gronkowski, the Jaguars could maybe go with a combination of linebackers Myles Jack or Telvin Smith with safety Tashaun Gipson (if he’s healthy enough to play). It sounds all right in theory, until you remember that Dion Lewis and James White can’t really be covered by linebackers, and Rex Burkhead’s not too bad either. That trio combined to catch 118 passes for 897 yards and nine touchdowns this season, and the duo of Lewis and White combined to catch 13 passes for 108 yards and a touchdown (the touchdown was as close to being a handoff as a pass can get, but rules are rules) last week against Tennessee.
The point is that for as much talent as the Jaguars’ defense has, the Patriots’ offense is more stacked. And if the Brady ends up getting one of his dynamic running backs in space against Paul Posluszny? The results could be disastrous for the Jags.
The best course of action for Jacksonville may be to switch things up. Perhaps mixing in some occasional zone, and/or switching up the assignments might help to prevent Brady and Josh McDaniels from figuring things out after a few drives and really getting to work.
However the Jags do decide to go about it defensively, it will be largely decide the game.
How About That O-Line?
As we talk about the Ramseys and Bouyes and Gronkowskis and Lewises of the world, we’re kind of overlooking five guys who are rather important to this game. Those would be the five men tasked with protecting Tom Brady.
It’s a unit that’s not at full strength, after backup right tackle LaAdrian Waddle suffered an injury during last week’s win over Tennessee. If he plays on Sunday, he’ll be hobbled. If he doesn’t, it’ll thrust backup-to-the-backup Cameron Fleming into starting action, and it will effectively eliminate all depth at the tackle spots.
But even outside of that, the task will be tall for Nate Solder, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Fleming/Waddle, because the Jaguars’ defensive line is beastly.
Calais Campbell is a force, at 6-foot-8 and 300 pounds, and his 14.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and three passes defensed are indicative of that reality. Then there’s Yannick Ngakoue, who recorded 12 sacks on the year and had the big strip-sack in Pittsburgh last week. Malik Jackson had eight sacks himself, and Dante Fowler Jr. also had eight. That’s a whole lot of getting after the quarterback.
And while the Patriots may have the edge at the skill positions, they could find themselves in some trouble if the quintet on the offensive line combines to individually have, say, five bad snaps. If the Jaguars win their line battles five times, the results could be significant in terms of getting sacks, forcing fumbles, and leading to rushed passes for incompletions or interceptions.
Obviously it will take a lot for the Jaguars to win this game. But if they do, it will almost assuredly be because of their play on the defensive line.
The fourth-year quarterback is like the NFL’s piñata — everybody gets to bash the guy whenever they want, much to everybody else’s delight. Jadeveon Clowney called the man “trash” after the Jaguars romped the Texans 45-7, in which Bortles threw for two touchdowns and no picks. But that’s just the way life is for Bortles.
But the 25-year-old is now 2-0 as a starting quarterback in the postseason. Though he hasn’t impressed much with his arm (53.1 percent passing for 301 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in two games combined), he’s done enough to keep his team in the game — and he’s also impressed as a runner. He’s carried the ball 15 times for 123 yards thus far, and if the Patriots aren’t careful, Bortles could scamper to move some chains in this game.
But where the game may be won or lost is in whether or not the Patriots’ defense can step in front of a Bortles pass. Given his suspect accuracy, the opportunities are sure to be there for Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler, Eric Rowe, Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon. That’ll especially be true if he attempts any fluttering deep balls like the three he unloaded in Pittsburgh. There, two fell harmlessly to the turf and one was hauled in by Keelan Cole. It’s hard to imagine Bortles getting so lucky again.
Looking at Bortles’ season, it’s difficult to say that his interceptions have had a great impact on wins and losses. The Jaguars are 9-4 in games when he throws at least one pick, and somehow they went 4-1 when he threw multiple picks. But in the playoffs, it’s fair to say that the Jaguars would have likely lost either game if Bortles had been picked off by either Buffalo or Pittsburgh.
If Bortles ends up giving the football right back to the Patriots after his defense comes up with a potentially game-changing turnover of its own, the Jaguars may be cooked.