When the Jaguars have the ball: It’s no secret what the Jaguars must do to be successful. Although Blake Bortles has played two clean playoff games (zero turnovers) and hit some passes downfield on well-schemed plays, the Jaguars must run the ball. This accomplishes two things: it protects and puts Bortles in good situations and helps keep Tom Brady off the field.
Leonard Fournette, a hammer and a finisher, leads a good rushing attack. But can he break tackles and get to the edge on outside runs? The Patriots harp on setting hard edges defensively, and they’ve done a better job down the stretch; James Harrison has helped here the past two games. They might be lighter up front, but they’ve been assignment-sound recently.
The Patriots logged eight sacks against a mobile Marcus Mariota, but seven came in the second half with two- and three-TD leads, allowing them to tee off. If the Jaguars keep the score close, the pass rush will slow down. Bortles took zero sacks and was hit only four times against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He also has flashed nice scrambling ability (15 rushes, 123 yards) in the postseason.
Can the Jaguars’ receivers separate vs. the Patriots’ secondary? That’s a concern.
When the Patriots have the ball: Some of what worked against the Titans might not be successful against the fast-flow Jaguars’ defense. The Patriots last week spread the field out and threw quickly and short to Danny Amendola, Dion Lewis and James White, but the Jaguars’ back seven might be too quick to do that consistently.
The Patriots must run the ball right at the Jaguars, which has been one of the few occasional weaknesses of this defense. If that works — and we’ll see if Rex Burkhead and/or Mike Gillislee are active — it opens up play action to Rob Gronkowski.
The Jaguars actually are pretty predictable defensively. They run a few fronts and a few base coverages, predominantly cover-3. They’re just better, to a man, than most offenses they face. Amendola and Brandin Cooks have bad individual matchups here vs. CBs Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye. The Patriots’ offensive line also will have its hands full with that talented front four, led by Calais Campbell.
Tom Brady is a master of manipulating defenses, and one carryover from last week might be tempo. The Jaguars’ defense has been on the field a lot the past few games and hasn’t had a week of rest since October, so we expect the hurry-up to wear them down. Brady won’t vertically press the safeties often, but he will take a shot or two per quarter just to free up the underneath.
Special teams: The Patriots are extremely sound in all facets here. They don’t have home-run returners, but they also keep opponents’ runbacks to a minimum and often win the field-position game. Now that the Jaguars have solved their kicking issues with Josh Lambo, they’re more sturdy here — just not as complete as the units the Patriots have. Both punters are adept at pinning teams deep.
Coaching: Doug Marrone has shown his coaching chops recently, especially last week when he and his staff were consistently outmaneuvering Mike Tomlin and the Steelers. It goes without saying that the Patriots are among the best-coached teams in the NFL, as three of Bill Belichick's assistants currently are in the running for head-coaching jobs elsewhere. Both teams have their hands full this week, but we don’t think Marrone will be overwhelmed in this one.
Prediction: We expect a low-scoring game, and the sledding will not be easy for Brady and the Patriots. But if there’s ever a team that can reinvent itself on the fly and adjust, it’s them. It’s hard to imagine Bortles and the Jaguars putting up anything close to the 45 they dropped on the Steelers last week. The Patriots win a tough battle, even if they don’t get typical January in Massachusetts weather in their favor.