Well, that wasn’t supposed to happen. But then again, it’s sports. If everything went according to plan, it wouldn’t be entertaining. So this weekend, the New England Patriots will be hosting the Jacksonville Jaguars at Gillette Stadium with a trip to the Super Bowl in Minnesota on the line. And yet again, the Pats will be overwhelming favorites. The 10-6 Jags scrapped out a win over the Buffalo Bills in the Wild Card Round and then outscored the overconfident Pittsburgh Steelers in the Divisional Round. The Patriots success has come in large part from not looking past opponents and focusing on the details. Here’s what they’ll need to focus on this week.
- Force Blake Bortles to beat you
It’s not a stretch to say that Bortles is an enigma. Say what you want about the oft-criticized Jags quarterback, but he’s done enough to get Jacksonville to the AFC Championship game. In the words of safety Devin McCourty, he’s a “winner.” Bill Belichick will force Bortles to win this game for Jacksonville by taking away the run game. The Jags had the league’s number one rushing attack in the regular season at 141.4 yards per game and were second in the league with 18 rushing touchdowns. Rookie Leonard Fournette leads the ground game with help from T.J. Yeldon and Bortles. Just like against the Tennessee Titans, the Patriots will focus on stopping the run and force Bortles to beat them with his arm. His arm hasn’t been all that bad this postseason, but it hasn’t exactly been special. In two games, he’s thrown for just 301 yards on 53% completion. Most of that has come on check downs, screens, tight end pops, and other easy throws. New England will need to force him to make plays and make sure he can’t get into a passing rhythm.
- Capitalize on the deep ball
Statistics will tell you that Jacksonville’s passing defense in nearly impenetrable. They ranked first in passing yards allowed, third in passing touchdowns, second in interceptions, and second in sacks. And yet, Ben Roethlisberger threw for nearly 500 yards and five touchdowns. That’s because he found the Jags weakness – deep balls. Jacksonville allowed 12 passes of 40 or more yards this season, tied for sixth most in the league. Last week, Big Ben sliced the defense for 40-yard touchdowns twice – once to Martavis Bryant and once to Antonio Brown. The deep ball is an area where New England can try to attack the Jags D. Unfortunately, the deep ball hasn’t exactly been Brady’s specialty this season. How many times has Brady missed Brandin Cooks, both over and underthrown, on deep balls this season? Brady has completed just 57% of targets to Cooks, the lowest of percentage of Cooks career.
- Don’t let Jacksonville get out to an early lead
Jacksonville’s rush defense isn’t nearly had scary as their pass defense. The Jags were 21st in the league in rushing yards allowed. The problem is, if you get behind early, the run game is out of the question. Le’Veon Bell averaged 4.2 yards per carry last week but only carried the ball 16 times because the Steelers got behind early. New England could use their run game to control this game if they don’t let Jacksonville get out to an early lead.
New England again finds themselves in a position where a loss would be a monumental upset. Last week, they took care of business. They look to do the same in the AFC Championship against the Jaguars.
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