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5 questions with Pats Pulpit: What to expect from the Patriots in the AFC Championship rematch

AFC Championship - Jacksonville Jaguars v New England Patriots Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Jacksonville Jaguars take on the New England Patriots in a highly-anticipated early season matchup on Sunday evening and the world will be watching. The game is going to draw a huge crowd into TIAA Bank Field as the powerhouses of the AFC battle it out.

The rematch of last year’s AFC Championship game — a dramatic 24-20 victory for the Patriots — is going to allow us to determine where exactly Jacksonville stands in this league.

To help us gain more insights into what the 2018 Patriots look like, and what we can expect on Sunday, I spoke with Bernd Buchmasser, editor and senior writer for Pats Pulpit — SB Nation’s source for all things New England Patriots.

1. What are the biggest changes for the New England Patriots as a team in 2018 compared to the team from the AFC Championship?

Bernd: The Patriots have had some serious turnover since January as multiple of starters from the AFC Championship Game are now gone: left tackle Nate Solder, wide receivers Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola, running back Dion Lewis, and cornerback Malcolm Butler all wear different uniforms this season. While the majority of those offseason losses impact the team’s offense, the biggest changes – next to Butler – actually came on defense: coordinator Matt Patricia is now the Lions’ head coach, with Brian Flores taking over (he’s not the official coordinator yet but basically fills the role). The change can be seen as a positive one so far as the unit looked solid against the Texans and their mobile quarterback. Part of that has to do with the improved depth up front: defensive tackle Danny Shelton, defensive edges Adrian Clayborn and Keionta Davis, and linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley all did not play in the AFC title game – and all of them filled big roles last week.

2. If you were an opposing offensive coordinator, how would you attack the New England defense? If you were a defensive coordinator, how would you combat the Patriots’ offense?

Bernd: At its core, New England’s defensive philosophy is this: make teams leave their comfort zone. You love throwing to your tight end? The Patriots will try to take it away. You love stretch runs? The Patriots... well, you get the idea. The key to beating this is easier said than done but basically boils down to putting your depth players in a position to be successful. The Jaguars were able to do that during the first two quarters of last year’s AFC Championship Game when Corey Grant was a successful receiving option out of the backfield. Teams should not be afraid to use their rotational pieces to try to get an advantage. Also, if I were an offensive coordinator going against the Patriots I would try to control the clock at all costs whether it is by running the football or calling high-percentage passing plays. Of course, it’s all easier said than done.

Speaking of easier said than done: defending the Patriots’ offense. What makes New England’s attack so dangerous is that it constantly finds mismatches to exploit – no matter if it is Rob Gronkowski to pull away attention from other players, using shifty running backs against coverage linebackers, or running the football in would-be obvious passing situations. Ultimately, I would do the following against the type of offense and personnel the Patriots use – especially if I had the defensive talent Jacksonville has: try to create pressure with just four men, take away the underneath coverage zones with the athletically impressive linebackers, and play physical on-man coverage on the perimeter. With New England currently not having a player to beat press-man coverage on a consistent basis (other than Rob Gronkowski), this could – *could* – create problems.

3. What were your takeaways after one game? How do you see this season going for the Patriots?

Bernd: I’ll answer the second question first: if New England doesn’t lose one of it superstars to injury, it would be a surprise if the team were not in it until the very end. While there might still be some issues early on during the year considering the ragtag group of wideouts the team currently uses, they will likely look like the old boring Patriots again – aka. one of the best teams in all of football. Sunday’s game against the Texans only added to this feeling: not all was perfect, but the defense looked much more cohesive a unit than it did for most of last year and the offense still found ways to get the job done despite all the personnel turnover it experienced since February.

4. What about this Jaguars team concerns you, and on the flip side, do you see any potential weaknesses the Pats may be able to exploit?

Bernd: One word: defense. Phillip Dorsett might be able to carry you past the Kareem Jacksons and Jonathan Josephs of this world, but he and the rest of the Patriots’ offensive skill position players will have to bring their absolute A-game to be successful against Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye and company. That’s not to say that they can’t do it – New England was quite successful the last time the two teams met, even with Gronkowski playing not even two full quarters – but there is no Danny Amendola around this time to serve as Tom Brady’s safety blanket. So if things do not go according to plan offensively, is there anybody to step up and fill the role Amendola filled last year? Gronkowski might be the answer but he will naturally be the Jaguars’ center of attention all game. And if nobody else rises to the challenge, it could be a long one for New England.

I hate to do, I really do, because I know it reeks of a lack of creativity... but the potential weakness I see has to be Blake Bortles. Quarterback is the most important position in all of football and Bortles has shown little improvement when it comes to consistency and decision making over the course of his career. That doesn’t mean he is a bad player, but I think his ability to carry the offense appears to be limited especially when he has to leave his comfort zone. If New England can keep him in the pocket by rushing in a disciplined manner (something they were mostly able to do last week against Houston) an simultaneously take away his go-to guys in the passing game – I’m primarily speaking Yeldon and Cole –, good things might happen from the Patriots’ perspective.

5. With Jeremy Hill lost for the season and placed on IR, and the recent additions of Corey Coleman and Bennie Fowler (Go Green!), do you expect the offense to change at all this week, or are these roster moves inconsequential as the players ease into the system?

Bernd: I think the latter is more likely. It would surprise me if Coleman and Fowler grew into reliable players that quickly – the Patriots’ system is notoriously hard to learn for newcomers, especially ones that did not have the benefit of training camp. Fowler does have a better chance, though, to see action early on: he has plenty of experience on special teams and could be used on the punt and kickoff units. Offensively, however, neither is projected to see plenty of snaps this week.

6. Bonus for fun: final score prediction?

Bernd: 21-20 Patriots.

Thank you to Bernd for taking the time to speak with me, and for providing terrific analysis. Follow him on Twitter, and to keep up with Patriots news and insights, check out Pats Pulpit as well.

And never forget...Myles Jack wasn’t down!