The Patriots are the epitome of success in the NFL’s current day and age. It will take a Herculean effort to defeat this team. If the Jaguars can successfully accomplish the following tasks, have a few bounces go their way, and then some, Jacksonville could be punching its ticket to Minneapolis.
1. Win the turnover battle
This sounds simple enough. The Jaguars are 10-0 this season when Blake Bortles doesn’t turn the ball over (including postseason). That is not a coincidence. Jacksonville’s +10 turnover margin during the regular season was good enough for fifth place in the NFL this year, and was a big reason why the Jaguars had a seven win improvement year-over-year.
Jacksonville has also won the turnover battle in each of the first two playoff games this postseason. In fact the Jaguars have yet to turn the ball over once in January 2018 (knock on wood). The proof is in the pudding. Though forcing New England into turnovers is an extremely tall task. The Patriots only had 12 giveaways all season — the second least in the league. Tom Brady only had one multi-interception game this season, and only threw eight picks total.
2. Carry the momentum of the running game into New England
I talked last week about how the running game needed to find itself against the Steelers, and it did in a big way. Leonard Fournette had his first 100-yard rushing performance since Week 14 and scored three times. He set the tone from the opening drive. Jacksonville must carry that momentum into New England. A strong running game will open up more playaction passing opportunities as well, which worked well for Jacksonville against Pittsburgh.
The Patriots defense was abysmal to start the season, but as per usual in a Matt Patricia-coached defense, the unit dramatically improved throughout the season. New England finished the season ranked 29th in total yards allowed, 30th in passing yards allowed, 20th in rushing yards and 31st in defensive DVOA. This is definitely a defense that Jacksonville’s rushing attack can take advantage of, but again, don’t let the numbers fool you. The Patriots are a much improved unit on that side of the ball.
3. The offensive line must control the trenches
It sounds basic, but at any level of football, the game is won down in the trenches. We mentioned above how the running game came alive last week, and Fournette had his offensive line to thank for that, clearing the way and allowing Fournette to rip off big chunk gains in the first half. The holes closed a bit in the second half, but the offense found a way to grind through and stay ahead on the scoreboard the entire game.
Then there is pass protection. Jacksonville’s offensive line didn’t allow a single sack on Sunday. Bortles’ jersey was kept clean all game, which probably did wonders for his confidence. New England may not quite have the edge rushers that Pittsburgh has, but the Patriots registered 42 sacks this season, which ranked seventh in the NFL. When Bortles has time, he has made plays.
4. Limit Gronk’s impact on the game — to the best of their ability
Much like Antonio Brown, there is really no stopping Rob Gronkowski. Teams just have to try to slow him down. That is a lot easier said than done, but the Jaguars defensive unit is special in every sense of the word. Todd Wash must create a scheme to limit Gronkowski’s effectiveness, whether that is by bracketing him in coverage, manning him up with a cornerback, bumping him off of his routes (good luck), or some other tactic, but Jacksonville cannot let him get free.
Gronk had 69 catches for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns in 14 games this season. When Gronk is taken out of the game, that’s when New England’s offense struggles most. It is no coincidence that the Patriots lost in Week 14 against the Miami Dolphins when Gronk was suspended, and had a much more difficult time than they should have against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 5, escaping with a close win.
5. Pressure Tom Brady all day long
The Jaguars have to get a strong push from the interior of the defensive line and collapse the pocket, while the edge rushers must get home. Wash may want to send more blitzes this week, something the Jags did very little of last week. Jacksonville sacked Ben Roethlisberger twice last week, including a strip sack, but Big Ben had plenty of time throughout the majority of the game, on his way to 469 passing yards.
Check out this article from SB Nation around this time last year. Adam Stites notes that only five franchises have defeated the Patriots in the postseason during the Bill Belichick era. The Denver Broncos, the team that has defeated Belichick the most in the playoffs (three times), had the correct plan in the 2015-2016 AFC Championship game: hit Tom Brady. The Broncos sacked Brady four times and hit him a ridiculous 23 times. Brady completed less than 50 percent of his passes in that game. #Sacksonville has to show up and follow this blueprint.
Again, this list is not the end-all-be-all, foolproof plan of beating the defending world champion New England Patriots. But if the Jaguars execute these tasks and do the little things it takes to win football games in the NFL, they may just pull the upset.
Either way you look at it, the Jaguars are 60 minutes away from potentially playing in a Super Bowl. No, that is not a typo.