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5 questions with Pats Pulpit: ‘This game will be decided on the last drive or two...’

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Divisional Round - Tennessee Titans v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Jacksonville Jaguars will be traveling to play the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship on Sunday and to get us ready for the game we’ve got Rich Hill from Pats Pulpit here to answer some questions leading up to the matchup.

1. What’s the feeling in New England? Are y’all taking the Jaguars seriously? Is the defense any concern to y’all? Or is it a foregone conclusion every year that the Patriots are going to the Super Bowl regardless of the opponent?

New England fans are definitely taking the Jaguars seriously after they pasted the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Patriots do have a good track record of making the Super Bowl when they host the conference title game (5-1 under Bill Belichick), but not all of them are easy and that one conference title game against the Baltimore Ravens in 2012 is enough to make fans hesitate from guaranteeing a victory.

There are plenty of reasons to credit the Jaguars, too. They have a great running game to control the clock, which is essential to keeping the score close. They have the best defense in the NFL with elite players at every level, so Tom Brady and the offense will have their hands full. Even if fans think the Patriots will win (and why shouldn’t they?), I’d expect the vast majority to peg this game as one that will be decided on the last drive or two.

2. How do you defend Rob Gronkowski? Is there an opponent who’s done it well?

The only player I’ve seen limit Gronkowski one-on-one was Chiefs safety Eric Berry, but that was also in Gronkowski’s first game back from back surgery, so I’m not sure how relevant that might be. The best way to limit Gronkowski is to: 1) Hit him at the line, hold him for half a second, and do whatever it takes to disrupt his release to his route; 2) use two players to cover him in man, with one in his back pocket and the other taking away the weak point; 3) hope and pray that works. So the best bet would be to have the defensive end chip Gronkowski and have a linebacker cover tightly with a safety over the top, or the safety cover tightly with the linebacker underneath.

This is a clear problem for the defense because it forces them to designate two or three players to covering Gronkowski, which will provide Tom Brady with more time in the pocket and leave another player with a favorable one-on-one match-up. If the safety is covering Gronkowski, who will cover Dion Lewis or James White or Rex Burkhead out of the backfield? There’s a reason Patriots running backs combined for 1,005 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns this season, second only to the New Orleans Saints. Or if you ask the other safety to cover the running back, then who is covering to help cover the deep route against Brandin Cooks or Chris Hogan?

That’s the difficulty in covering Gronkowski. No one can do it one-on-one and any additional resources dedicated to the tight end will open up a different vulnerability. It’s about limiting the potential damage. If I were the Jaguars, I’d trust Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye to cover Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan on islands and make sure to take away Gronkowski and the running backs. That would force Brady to win with the deep ball, which is a low percentage game that could be the Jaguars best bet to limit the scoring.

3. Is the impending loss of Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia a concern for you as you go into this game? Can that be a distraction or does Bill Belichick keep his team too well focused?

The Patriots have been through all of this before, so this shouldn’t be a concern. McDaniels and Patricia have been in the coaching discussion for the team’s previous two trips to the Super Bowl, so it’s not like this should be too much different- other than them actually taking the job offers. I think McDaniels and Patricia themselves will be the ones making sure their new jobs don’t become a distraction and prevent them from doing their best possible work with their current responsibilities. I also think that’s why it was so important for both to find general managers that they trusted- people that can steer the ship while they’re still away.

4. If you’re the Jaguars offensive and defensive coordinators, how would you attack the Patriots?

The Jaguars offense should try to control the clock and limit the number of possessions for the Patriots. New England did a great job of stopping Derrick Henry and the Titans offense, which is likely how they’ll try and stop the Jaguars, too. They want to stop Leonard Fournette from getting big yards on first down and to force Blake Bortles to have to throw the ball on second and third down. The big weakness for New England on defense is their linebackers due to all of the injuries, so using Fournette or (my pick) T.J. Yeldon as receivers out of the backfield as an extension of the running game should allow Jacksonville to move down the field on long methodical drives.

As for the Jaguars defense, whatever they’ve been doing this year has been working and they’re definitely capable of doing it against the Patriots. The blueprint is out there for every team and they should just copy the 2015 Broncos plan: pressure with the four defensive linemen, crowd the middle of the field to limit the running backs, Gronkowski, and Danny Amendola, and play press coverage on the sidelines. The press coverage will ensure Brady throws it deep, which is the best way to force a three-and-out and get the ball back to the Jaguars offense for another slow, methodical drive.

5. What’s your prediction for this game? Will the Jaguars make it exciting? Is there a chance of an upset?

I think the Patriots have the track record both this season and over prior seasons that would make it unreasonable to predict their demise. The Jaguars are a good team, but they also lost twice as many games as the Patriots in the regular season. The Patriots are going to watch what Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers did in week 16 and what the Pittsburgh Steelers offense did in the divisional round to see if they can move the ball against Jacksonville. And then they’re going to see how the Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills limited the Jaguars to 10 points in each game for week 17 and wild card weekend. In just the past four weeks there are multiple examples of how both sides of the Jaguars football was demolished.

New England, for their side, have had one bad game since week 4 (their loss to the Miami Dolphins). Just twice have they allowed a team to score more than 17 points (that Dolphins game and then the potent Steelers offense). The offense has averaged 30.1 points per game since the bye week, albeit against defenses nowhere near in the stratosphere of the Jaguars. In four games against top 11 defenses (Steelers, Falcons, Saints, Panthers), they averaged 29 points, so that’s not too much of a difference.

But that said, the Jaguars are hungry and I don’t expect a blowout. They definitely have a chance to win. But I think New England ultimately prevails 27-20.