For the seventh consecutive season which is flabbergasting to say the least, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots are rolling into the AFC Championship game looking to punch their tickets into Super Bowl 52. This year’s opponent however is a team that I can be certain when saying that nearly no one expected them to be in the position that they have ended up in; The Jacksonville Jaguars lead by none other than Blake Bortles.
After a season of battling in the putrid AFC South, the Jaguars found themselves with a 10-6 record which was constructed by toppling a few formidable opponents, but at the coinciding time, dropping games to feeble foe.
Some of their weaker competition who handed them loses included the Arizona Cardinals (8-8), the New York Jets (5-11) and their divisional rivals, the Tennessee Titans (9-7) who beat them twice.
Jacksonville has had to scratch and claw their way to the AFC Championship game, and clearly by their track record, coming into New England in the playoffs and coming home with a win is one of the more rare feats ever to be done in sports.
Jacksonville’s season has been a slew of inconsistency and it all begins at the helm with their quarterback, Blake Bortles. Bortles has shown spurts of ability that displays a positive upside. He has remained one of the quarterbacks in the league who could always give you a chance to win the football game but quite frankly, it all depends on which Bortles arrives to the stadium that day. We’ve seen this time and time again over the course of the season. When in San Francisco taking on Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers, Bortles racked up a big day in the pocket hurling the football for 382 yards and two touchdowns. We’ve seen this Bortles peak his head from behind the curtain time and time again. Yes, he did also throw three interceptions that day, but we’re focusing on the positives from this game, okay?
On the other side of the coin we have the Blake Bortles who showed up in the Wild Card round against the Bills two weeks back. The Bortles who could not hit a simple screen pass to move the ball just two yards for a first down. Against Buffalo, Bortles was barely a quarterback as he threw for just 87 yards. I understand that I’m not a professional quarterback or even remotely close to the athletic prowess of being even a semi-pro football player, but I think I could even rack up 87 yards in one game, right? If Buffalo had a competent offense that was functioning during that game accompanied by their ferocious running attack, Jacksonville probably wouldn’t have even received the opportunity to partake in the Divisional Round in Pittsburgh last week.
The reason I’ve taken such an in depth look into Bortles and his inconsistencies is because I’ve gathered the sense that he is the X-Factor to Sunday’s outcome. And we’ll get back to Bortles in a little bit.
I genuinely fear the Jacksonville defense. Whether you choose to believe the numbers or not, there’s one thing that’s indisputable and it’s that they hold one of the most lethal pass defenses of this year’s NFL.
Through the air the Jags on average would allow just 169.9 yards per game ranking second in the NFL.
Combined with a pass rush that could shake any quarterbacks confidence with the likes of Calais Campbell (14.5 sacks) and defensive backs such as Jalen Ramsey (4 Int), this is one of the most difficult teams for your quarterback to feel any sense of serenity when in the pocket seeking their target.
And we’ve seen what happens when even the GOAT, Tom Brady, feels too much pressure. He begins to show signs of discomfort and tends to rush his passes or make poor decisions resulting in either interceptions, or just uncharacteristically low completion percentages.
Now while the New England Patriots offense is staring down a tall task in the Jaguars passing defense, Jacksonville themselves have a tough chore ahead of them as well, and his name is Tom Brady.
At 40 years old Tom Brady has just been named the MVP by the Pro Football Writers of America and has brought his offense to rank second overall in passing yards per game (276.1). Even without his favorite target, Julian Edelman, losing him to a torn ACL in preseason, Tom Brady has continued to put up on Godly number. And that isn’t a coincidence either as he has shown little sign of slowing down even at his old age and it’s not like he’s surrounded by a bunch of no name talent. Of course there’s Gronk, Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola, but his convoy of running backs with a variety of talent has been a tremendous plus side to Brady’s game this season as well.
Between Rex Burkhead, Dion Lewis, James White and Mike Gillislee (at points), the Patriots backfield displayed a large mixture of power, shiftiness, acceleration and speed. And this relates back to Brady because when in a bind he has had his safety net to either his right or left who is always prepared for a check down. We saw the perfect example last weekend against Tennessee when Tom Brady was pressured, the entire offensive line blocked to the right while the right guard and tackle swung out and Brady dumped the ball off to Lewis which in itself resulted in a big play. And while I rave about Jacksonville’s defense, this is an immensely important factor for this Sunday as well.
While the Jaguars are the perfect Mexican Border Wall President Trump wants to build against the pass, they struggle when opponents hand the ball off. This as an important factor because due to once again, the variety of skill-sets in the Patriots backfield, I can see the Patriots preparing to take advantage of that and do what they do best, exploit their opponents most glaring deficiency.
Whether it’s a Rex Burkhead blow up the middle while David Andrews and Joe Thuney take their defenders and create a hole, or a Dion Lewis shuffle pass off of the left tackle, I see the Patriots keeping this ball on the ground for a majority of the game; Or at least for the first half before adjustments are made.
Do I think they will keep Tom Brady and the patriots passing game below 230 yards? Absolutely not. What I do think however is that they have a strong matchup against the Patriots most dominant offensive threat, Rob Gronkowski.
Ramsey has been one of the season’s largest standouts and he has been gleaming with confidence all week declaring that Jacksonville will win this game and the Super Bowl. Slow down, buddy.
However I do think he is physical enough to keep up with Gronk. When I say a strong matchup, what I mean is that I think they can partially take the big man out of the game especially if they choose to double team him. Which if they do Brady will then do what he does best and find the open man. Gronk will not be totally eliminated from the game though because that is a nearly impossible task. Gronk will get some catches and I almost want to guarantee that some of them will be in clutch, down to the wire moments, but I don’t see him dominating this game this weekend specifically because of Ramsey if the Jags decide to roll with that defensive game plan.
While I do think Jacksonville’s defense is strong, I don’t see them as being one of the best defenses I’ve ever seen with my own eyes, and that was the 2015 Denver Broncos. That was a team who dominated the Patriots on the offensive line from the first snap. It did help them that Bryan Stork, the Patriots center then, was telling the world when he was about to snap the ball, but regardless Denver was dominant in the trenches from start to finish.
The Jaguars defense, while very talented and incredibly respectable, just doesn’t have enough of my respect to have the faith in them to stop Tom Brady, injured thumb or not, and prevent the Patriots from getting into the end zone.
And now rewinding quickly back to my X-Factor, Blake Bortles. I’ve said this since I had Bortles on my fantasy football team that eventually won me my league two years ago; You just never know which Bortles is showing up that week. I already eluded to this at the top of the blog, but if Bortles can throw together a comparable game to what he was able to do even last week, than I would be nervous as a Patriots fan. Jacksonville does have their own arsenal of weapons in Marqise Lee, Dede Westbrook and Allen Hurns, not to mention a future star of the league, Leonard Fournette in the backfield, and those talents hold enough of a potential to give the Patriots defense a very difficult time.
If Bortles can hit the mark on his receivers, than I seeing this being a much closer game than most are anticipating. His receiving core has shown their strong ability to get open. It just so happens that Bortles can fall into deep holes within games where he loses the ability to hit his targets. If he can manage to find a way to be accurate come Sunday at three, than I think that drums up an entirely new ballgame.
He also is going to need a large capacity of help from Fournette. The rookie running back did sustain an injury to his ankle last weekend which did cause him to see the sideline for a small amount of time after dominating the first quarter of the game, but he was able to get himself back onto the field; However he clearly wasn’t as productive. According to rotoworld.com, Fournette is expected to play and once again have a very heavy workload.
The Patriots defense ranks in the bottom 20 in everything except for scoring. Against the run they are 20th, pass 30th and total yards 29th. This year has brought them back to their classic defensive motto, “bend but don’t break”. They tend to let up play after play causing Patriots fans to rip their hair out, but inside their own 50 they generally find the solution in keeping their opponent out of the end zone.
Do I think the Jaguars can win this game? I would give them about a 30% in doing so. There is always a possibility in the AFC Championship to see an upset. Jacksonville is coming to New England with a boat load of confidence after knocking off a team last week who was looking past them. They have the momentum any team would need when entering Foxboro, Massachusetts. With that being said I’m still going to take the Patriots. Amid the reports since Wednesday that Tom Brady had injured his hand, I don’t see it unfolding as a major factor in the game and yes, I do believe he plays.
Mike Felger of 98.5 The Sports Hub claimed today that he has a source telling him that Brady’s injury is just a cut received after he knocked his thumb’s knuckle off of the belt of a teammates helmet requiring four stitches to his hand. It supposedly isn’t on the inside of the hand which is the best news the Patriots could have received.
My overall score prediction sits at 32-23 New England. And just as a side note, I think they play Minnesota in the Super Bowl.
Although this is a matchup that I see as a clear win for the Patriots, for whatever reason I view it as one of the most intriguing matchups I’ve seen in a long, long time.
Written By: Nick Quaglia (@NickQuag)