BOSTON (CBS) — The 2018 NFL season is only in its infancy, but boy do we get a nice little treat on just the second Sunday of the year.
The Patriots will visit the Jaguars for a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship tilt, and a potential preview of this year’s conference title match. There is a whole lot to be decided before we can even start thinking about late January, but for an early season game, this is about as good as you can get.
The Jaguars want this one after letting a 10-point, fourth quarter lead slip away in Foxboro eight months ago. They’re doing an awful lot of talking about being the better team, and at the moment, they probably are. But that will be determined on the field Sunday, and those soundbites could come back to haunt a franchise that has never beaten Tom Brady.
Sunday in Jacksonville is going to be hot. It’s going to be sticky humid. It’s going to be windy. It may even rain. Mix in some remnants of a powerful hurricane, and it’s going to be a fairly uncomfortable day in Jacksonville. Essentially, it’s just your normal September day in Florida. All of that adds to what should already be a rock fight of a game, one that may play a pretty big role in where this year’s AFC Championship bout is played.
Here’s what we’ll be watching for when two of the AFC favorites clash again on Sunday.
Gronk vs. Ramsey?
Jacksonville’s All Pro corner and Hall of Fame trash talker would like nothing more than to shut down Rob Gronkowski on Sunday, even though he doesn’t think the best tight end in the game is any good.
Gronkowski caught just one of the three passes that Brady sent his way in the AFC Championship Game. That doesn’t include the one he dropped after having his brain rattled by safety Barry Church because there was a flag on the play. Ramsey did spend some snaps on Gronk when the tight end was in there, but he and A.J. Bouye were used mostly on Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan. The duo no longer have to worry about Cooks, which may free up Ramsey to blanket Gronk on Sunday.
Gronk will likely get another heavy dose of safety Tashaun Gibson and Church, with a lot of help from linebackers, but Ramsey will get a few cracks to back up his smack. We’ll see if Gronkowski tosses him out of the club (without losing his cool), or if Ramsey can add another victim on his impressive and growing shutdown list.
Third Down Offense
Not having Gronkowski played a major factor in this, but the Patriots were only 3-of-12 on third down the last time these two teams met (one of which was Brady taking a knee at the end of the game). Gronk is back, but Cooks is no longer around to draw game-changing PI penalties and Danny Amendola isn’t around to be Brady’s security blanket when the Pats need to move the chains (he had a monster 21-yard reception on a pivotal third-and-18 late in the game). And we can’t forget that Dion Lewis now calls Tennessee his home, and won’t be in Jacksonville to break off an 18-yard run on third down to seal a victory.
Gronkowski will certainly help on third downs, but Jacksonville still owns an insanely talented defensive line. They put pressure on Brady all day in the AFC title game, and Sunday will be no different. Their defensive line had a big hand in that 3-for-12 showing from the Patriots offense, coming up with a pair of third-down sacks. They also kept any running back who was hoping to keep a drive going with a third-and-short carry from accomplishing their goal with some vicious hits in the backfield.
Chances are the Patriots won’t win again if they only convert a quarter of their third-down tries.
Full Of Fullbacks
If you love fullbacks, you’re going to love Sunday’s game.
James Develin is a legit threat in those third-and-short situations, whether it’s delivering a monster block or picking up the yards himself, but the fullback has morphed into much more than that. He was a key part of the New England offense in Week 1, catching all four passes that went his way for 21 yards. He played a ridiculous(ly awesome) 47 percent of New England’s offensive snaps against the Texans, and gives Brady another target out of the backfield. He may even see an all-around bump in his role Sunday if Rex Burkhead is out with a concussion.
The Jaguars also use their fullback, as Tommy Bohanon played 19 percent of their offensive snaps last week and 22 percent against the Patriots in the AFC title game. This is the kind of game that Bill Belichick will one day tell his grandkids about; not because of the outcome, but because of the pair of fullbacks who played significant roles.
The talk about the New England defense heading into the season was all about the pressure they’d be applying throughout the season. They did not disappoint in Week 1, getting pressure on Deshaun Watson on 53.7 percent of his dropbacks. It resulted in three sacks for the Patriots’ D and a relatively quiet day for Watson.
They’ll look to apply similar pressure Sunday on Blake Bortles, who will likely be without running back Leonard Fournette. That puts even more on the shoulders of Bortles, who is …. not a great quarterback. But somehow, he manages to do just enough in the Jacksonville offense to make it work (read: he doesn’t screw up as much as he once did).
The Pats sacked Bortles three times in January and kept him from doing any damage with his legs, which he does pretty well when the Jags can’t get open downfield and he has no other options. If Trey Flowers, Adrian Clayborn and Deatrich Wise Jr. can up the pressure, Bortles may be forced into a few of those screw-ups he was once known for. Those could be the difference on Sunday.
Tune in to Patriots-Jaguars on WBZ-TV — the home of the New England Patriots! Pregame coverage begins at 11:30am with Patriots GameDay, and after the game tune in to Patriots 5th Quarter on myTV38!