By Danny Cox
The New England Patriots didn’t allow any rust to pile up thanks to an extra week of rest during the first-round bye as they manhandled the Tennessee Titans, 35-14. They appear ready to face anyone that comes in their path, but they are about to take on the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team that presents a test that has not stood on the opposite side of the field from them at any point this season.
To put it bluntly, the Jags are scary good.
Jaguars Season Record: 10-6 regular season, 2-0 postseason
Looking at the regular season, the Jaguars had some bumps in the road that seemed a bit uncharacteristic for the quality of talent they have on the team. They lost to the San Francisco 49ers, the New York Jets, and twice to the Tennessee Titans. Then they came out in the first week of the playoffs and barely beat the Buffalo Bills 10-3, but last week was the truly impressive feat.
Earlier this season, the Jaguars defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers, 30-9, and put up 45 on them in the Divisional Round of the playoffs last week. When they are on their game, they are on it in a big way.
Jaguars On Offense
While many may think that the Jacksonville offense includes a steady dose of Leonard Fournette, that isn’t all they have with which to work. It has taken a while, but Blake Bortles is starting to come around, and he’s getting better with each passing week. He has a variety of targets to choose from, but the Jaguars have some weak spots on the offensive line and give up a lot of sacks.
New England will need to expose those holes in the line and pressure Bortles into making mistakes. The quicker the Patriots can get ahead in the score, the more the Jaguars will have to lean away from the run game and force the game into Bortles’ hands. While that isn’t 100 percent ideal, it is better than allowing Fournette to do as he pleases.
Jaguars On Defense
During the regular season, the Patriots had the top-ranked offense in the NFL with averages of close to 400 yards of offense-per-game and almost 29 points each week. Jacksonville owned the second-ranked defense, which gave up less than 287 yards of total offense and less than 17 points per game. The Jags are extremely strong through the air, but they do have some weak spots in their defense against the run.
Jacksonville gave up more than 116 yards per game on the ground. That is where Dion Lewis could truly excel this weekend, and production out of the run game will be needed. Tom Brady is going to be pressured all day by the likes of Calais Campbell, Dante Fowler Jr., and Yannick Ngakoue.
Brady won’t have much time in the pocket to make his decisions, and that could also prove troublesome with the incredible secondary of Jacksonville.
Jaguars To Watch: RB Leonard Fournette and CB Jalen Ramsey
Leonard Fournette may only be a rookie, but he had a 1,000+ yard season in his first year in the NFL, and that was after missing three games due to injury. Last week against the Steelers, he racked up 109 yards and three touchdowns on the ground in just his second-ever playoff game. This kid is a beast who is not only strong, but very fast, and the Patriots will need to spy on him for a full 60 minutes.
Jalen Ramsey let Jacksonville fans know that his team was going to win the Super Bowl, and the Pats didn’t see that as a sign of disrespect, but simply having confidence in the Jags. The thing is, the second-year cornerback has the ability to back up his words, as he’s already one of the best cover corners in the NFL. Look for Tom Brady to avoid the side of the field that Ramsey is on throughout the game.
This is quite possibly the hardest game to call in the entire season; the Jacksonville Jaguars are a very good team and Blake Bortles is finally starting to hit his stride. If the New England Patriots are wanting to return to the Super Bowl, they will need to play at the top of their game on both offense and defense to advance past the AFC Championship Game. A win is certainly not out of the question, but this one will be hard-earned.