By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Week 1 of the NFL is over, and while everyone was feeling Pete Carroll-levels of pumpedness and jackedness for the start of football, the actual slate of games was a bit … underwhelming. Aaron Rodgers was pretty fun … and the Browns almost won, which was cool … Ryan Fitzpatrick went buck wild … but overall, the majority of games from the weekend won’t be remembered decades from now.
As a result, there may be some malaise setting in. There may be a lack of inspiration permeating the NFL fandom.
Fortunately, a hero is here to save the day. And that hero comes by the name of Pats-Jags.
In the hysteria that was The Philly Special and the strip-sack of Tom Brady and the months-long Eagles celebration, it somehow got lost in the wash that the 2017 AFC championship was a game for the ages. Most people don’t properly recognize just how close the Jacksonville Jaguars came to beating the New England Patriots in Foxboro to earn a trip to the Super Bowl.
How close did they come, you ask? This close. They came this close:
What is that tangled mess of bodies? Why, it is of course Dion Lewis sort of fumbling, and it’s the football magically rolling onto the gut of Myles Jack, and it’s the near-contact perhaps made between Lewis’ hindquarters and Jack’s leg or arm that prompted an official on the field to blow the play dead, ruling that Jack had been down by contact. It was a wild play, one that happened at a million miles per hour, and one that gave the football to the Jaguars in the fourth quarter of a game they led 20-10.
Alas, the official did rule that Jack was down. Had that official swallowed his whistle and let the play finish, Jack was off to the races for a 67-yard touchdown return that would’ve put the Jags ahead 27-10 with about 13:30 left to play. Even for a team that overcame a 28-3 Super Bowl deficit, climbing that hill would be awfully difficult.
“Close” is all the Jaguars got that afternoon, and close obviously doesn’t punch any tickets to any Super Bowls. Nevertheless, a brash, confident, fast, and powerful football team will get another crack at the class of the conference this Sunday afternoon in Jacksonville. While the Jaguars tend to invoke repulsion and derision upon their names being uttered around football fans, this weekend’s meeting is without a doubt a high-end meet-up of (potentially) two of the best teams in the NFL this season.
With that being firmly established, here are your headlines to start the week.
Leonard Fournette Got Hurt In Week 1
The engine that makes the Jaguars offense go suffered a hamstring injury in the first half against the Giants. He didn’t return to the game, and he insists it’s not major. He said he’ll play this week. He’s officially considered day-to-day.
The possibility remains that Fournette is not deemed healthy enough to play Sunday. If that’s the case, its significance cannot be overstated.
Last season, Fournette accounted for 46 percent of the Jaguars’ rushing yards and 22 percent of the Jaguars’ offensive yards from scrimmage. He accounted for 50 percent of their rushing touchdowns and 26 percent of their total offensive touchdowns. Offensively, he had 304 touches. The Jags player with the next most offensive touches was Chris Ivory. With 133.
On a team that really (and fairly) doesn’t trust Blake Bortles, Fournette is the central figure. They managed to put up 20 points and beat the Giants on Sunday, but lasting without Fournette does not appear to be a plausible course of action for the Jaguars. So, one might figure that the Jaguars would be particularly cautious with Fournette this early in the season. We shall see.
The Jags’ D Picked Up Right Where It Left Off
Statistically, the Jaguars had the second-best defense in the NFL last year, and the 2018 version appears to be just as dangerous.
On Sunday in New Jersey, the Jaguars recorded a pair of sacks, and an interception in their 20-15 win over the Giants. Myles Jack returned his interception 32 yards for a touchdown. Malik Jackson had 1.5 tackles for loss. An indication of their aggressiveness, safety Barry Church had two tackles for loss, and cornerback Jalen Ramsey had one too.
The defense limited Eli Manning to 224 yards, no touchdowns and the interception, for a passer rating of 67.8. Saquon Barkley did bust one on the Jags’ defense, breaking a 68-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. But the No. 2 overall pick rushed for 38 yards on his other 17 carries on the day. And the remainder of the Giants rushed for eight yards on five carries.
That’s not to say the defense is impenetrable. In today’s NFL, no defense can be. And Odell Beckham was able to post a 100-yard receiving day. But the talent on that defense — almost across the board — is remarkable.
Jalen Ramsey Is More Than Just A Mouth
Speaking of that defense, Jalen Ramsey is doing what he can to become the most well-known member. On a defense that features the likes of Myles Jack, Calais Campbell, Dante Fowler, Yannick Ngakoue, and Telvin Smith among others, that’s no small feat.
But Ramsey has embarked on the Richard Sherman route to fame, which frankly is a pretty sound career move. By shouting into every microphone placed before him, a player can boost his popularity, which can eventually lead to a few more dollars contractually but also a whole lot more money in terms of sponsorships.
The hard part of being the guy who spouts off and insults other players’ abilities is that, well, you have to back it up. So far in his career, Ramsey has done that. In his first two seasons, he picked off six passes and forced a fumble, returning one pick for a touchdown. He made the game-sealing pick last year in the wild-card round, and overall he established himself as a true contender for being considered the best corner in football.
He’s poised to take big steps in year three. But after a summer spent talking and talking and talking — and his assertion that Rob Gronkowski isn’t that great — you can bet that if Ramsey so much as slips up for one play, it will be spotlighted and remembered forever.
Danny Amendola Is Not Around To Save The Day
The Patriots beat the Jaguars in January. Everyone remembers this. Huzzah for the Patriots.
What might not be remembered quite as prominently is that there was no way the Patriots would have won that game if it hadn’t been for the superhuman efforts of one Mr. Daniel James Amendola. In the fourth quarter, with his team trailing by 10, this guy went off, in a way nobody really knew he could.
Consider this: When the Patriots got the ball with 12 minutes left in the game, Amendola had caught two passes for 28 yards. In the 10 minutes that followed, Amendola caught five passes for 56 yards and a pair of touchdowns — two touchdowns that changed the fate of the Patriots’ season, from a bitter home defeat to a Super Bowl berth.
In the midst of that, too, Amendola caught a punt at midfield and returned it 20 yards to set up the game-winning score … which he of course scored.
Just for good measure, Amendola also had a few rushing yards, and he completed a pass to Dion Lewis for 20 yards (prior to Lewis’ aforementioned fumble). He really did it all for the Patriots that day, securing the (temporary) nickname of Playoff Danny.
This weekend, obviously, Amendola won’t be in Jacksonville to help the Patriots. And he hasn’t really been replaced. Phillip Dorsett was very good in Week 1, but it was also a career-best performance. Can he replicate it against a top defense? Can Gronkowski dominate? The Jaguars knocked him out of the game in January before halftime. Can Chris Hogan break out? Will James Develin be able to replicate four random receptions out of the backfield?
We don’t know the answers to those questions (except the last one). But Amendola’s late burst in January shows what it takes to beat a defense as talented as Jacksonville’s.
Brandin Cooks, Too
He’s not remembered by most fans as a great Patriot (which is a story for another day), but the Patriots absolutely would not have beaten the Jaguars in January if it hadn’t been for the speedy Brandin Cooks.
Cooks caught six passes for 100 yards that day, and he also drew two pass interference penalties against some of the best corners in the game — one against Ramsey, one against A.J. Bouye — that totaled 68 yards.
After one PI, Cooks caught a 12-yard pass over the middle, setting up a 1-yard James White touchdown run.
You can clearly see both the speed of Cooks as well as the precision of his routes are things that the Patriots’ roster currently cannot produce. If the Patriots are to win on Sunday, it will require an entirely new offensive game plan.
Hey, Remember This Play?
Yeah. That one was pretty sweet.
The Patriots’ offensive line did an outstanding job against a potent Texans pass rush in the first half last week. In the second half? There was some slippage. Maybe not major slippage, but somewhat significant slippage.
The net result was that the Patriots went from scoring 21 first-half points to just six second-half points. It was good enough to beat Houston, but it won’t always be. And the challenge won’t get any easier for the O-line this time around.
With Nate Solder anchoring the left side of the line in January, the Patriots still allowed three sacks and seven quarterback hits. It was not the easiest environment for a quarterback to thrive in. This time it’ll be Trent Brown (who looked very solid last week) on the left side, and likely a cycle of Marcus Cannon and LaAdrian Waddle on the right side. The interior will have its hand full with Calais Campbell, who despite being in the league for 11 years still makes you double and triple-check his height and weight just to make sure there wasn’t a typo somewhere along the line. (He’s 6-foot-8, 300 pounds, for the record.)
It’s a lot of work. And if the Patriots’ O-line has a bad day, the team’s chances of winning will go kaput.
But Then, There Is Blake
For as mighty as the Jaguars may be, there will always be a segment of fans and pundits who refuse to take them seriously for as long as one Mr. Blake Bortles is the man lining up under center. This doubt is reasonably placed.
Bortles was at his best last season — his fourth in the NFL — which is to say that he was serviceable. He completed 60.2 percent of his passes for 3,687 yards, 21 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He ranked 24th in completion percentage, 11th in passing yards, 17th in yards per attempt, 16th in touchdowns and he was tied for throwing the seventh-most interceptions.
In three playoff games, he completed 57.6 percent of his passes for 594 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. That’s 594 total passing yards in three games, and yet the Jaguars came within inches of reaching the Super Bowl.
That’s remarkable in and of itself, and it’s indicative of the Jaguars’ philosophy: a great or even above-average quarterback is not needed in order to succeed. In a passing era, it is a bold strategy to say the least. But it did nearly pay off last year.
As it relates to this week, the Patriots have to feel good about their defense coming off a shutdown of Deshaun Watson last weekend. Blake was perfectly Blake in Week 1, going 18-for-33 for 176 yards, one touchdown and one interception. If the Jaguars have any weak link, it’ll still be Blake. The Patriots know that and will be seeking to make life difficult for him as early as possible on Sunday afternoon.