Surprise! Pats will face Jaguars for AFC titleBy ADAM KURKJIAN
January 14. 2018 8:48PM
Feel free to speak up if you thought the Jacksonville Jaguars would return to Gillette Stadium to face the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game when the two squared off in the preseason opener back on Aug. 10.
For anyone who called it, congratulations on bankrupting the sports books.
It made sense for a lot of people to assume the Patriots would face the Steelers, but the Jaguars went into Heinz Field and stunned Pittsburgh, 45-42, on Sunday.
The third-seeded Jaguars will be major underdogs again, but it would be unwise to overlook the AFC South champs, who slipped past the Buffalo Bills, 10-3, in the wild card round.
In addition to a strong defense that has been tremendous this season, the Jags surprised even more observers with an offense that showed off impressive balance against the Steelers.
The Patriots have to like the fact that they had a long look at the Jaguars’ personnel in joint practices in August, but a lot has changed since then.
As it stands now, here are five observations heading into this week:
1. For Blake’s sake
You will never confuse Blake Bortles for Tom Brady. The much-maligned Jaguars quarterback has not lived up to his billing after getting picked third overall in the 2014 draft. Although Jacksonville picked up his $19 million contract option for 2018, there are legitimate questions as to whether or not he’s the long-term answer there. This season was the best of Bortles’ short career, as he completed 315-of-523 passes (60.2 percent) for 3,687 yards, 21 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Bortles is at his best when his team’s running game and defense allow him to be more of a game manager. The Pats would like to get Bortles out of that comfort zone Sunday.
2. How’s Fournette?
As a player, Leonard Fournette is pretty darn good. The rookie out of LSU has been everything the Jaguars hoped for when they selected him fourth overall last draft. A true workhorse, Fournette ranked seventh in the league in regular-season rush attempts (268) for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns. However, when it comes to health, Fournette can be a question mark at times. Fournette injured his ankle on a pass reception in the second quarter Sunday but returned in the second half. The 6-foot, 240-pounder battled both quad and ankle injuries this season. T.J. Yeldon and Chris Ivory are solid backups, but the Jags would obviously prefer their bell cow be a full go against the Pats.
3. ‘D’ day
Unless you count the preseason opener (you shouldn’t), the Patriots have not seen a defense on Jacksonville’s level this season. Simply put, it’s nasty. In the regular season, the Jags were second in the league in points allowed (268), sacks (55) and interceptions (21). They have four Pro Bowlers (defensive linemen Malik Jackson and Calais Campbell and cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye), two All-Pros (Campbell and Ramsey) and young linebackers like Myles Jack who are beginning to grow into playmakers. Even though the Steelers had success against the Jags, the Patriots will have to play their best ball of the season to put up a big number on the scoreboard.
4. Cough’ed up
When the Jaguars hired Tom Coughlin as executive vice president of football operations, most people outside Jacksonville wondered exactly what that title entailed. But since he has stepped into that role, it’s become clear that Coughlin’s fingerprints are all over the team’s resurgence. With an emphasis on a downhill running attack and physical defense, these Jaguars aren’t appreciably different from the best teams Coughlin had while head coach for both Jacksonville and the New York Giants. He beat the Patriots twice in Super Bowls with the latter, so expect that storyline to get traction all week.
5. Tom’s time
Brady is one win away from his eighth Super Bowl appearance and a chance for his sixth title. The ESPN article released two Fridays ago about alleged discord between Brady, coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft that sparked all kinds of controversy has shined the spotlight on the quarterback even more than usual lately. Brady played well in the divisional round win over the Titans, as he completed 35-of-53 passes for 337 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He stumbled a bit down the stretch of the regular season, but the 40-year-old can silence those doubters who see a decline on the near horizon with a strong performance against an elite defense.