This Can’t Be Real

AFC Championship

(3) Jacksonville Jaguars at (1) New England Patriots

Jaguars: Let’s look back for just one second. They have been the laughingstock of the NFL for so many years with losing season after losing season and top pick in the draft for multiple seasons in a row. Now, here they are as division champions of the AFC South, the three seed in the AFC Playoffs, their first trip to the playoffs for the first time in a decade and they are one game away from reaching Super Bowl 52, simply incredible. What a difference a full week can make because they really had a difficult time generating any type of offense against the Buffalo Bills in the Wild Card round and scored only ten points in the win with Blake Bortles rushing for more yards than he did as a passer. This past Sunday in Pittsburgh, you saw a completely different looking Jaguars offense that established Leonard Fournette and unleashed Bortles to really attack the Steelers defense. This is one of the major advantages of having a running back that commands so much attention because the Steelers came out and loaded the box trying to take him away and Blake took advantage of it. I can sit here and say he wasn’t necessarily the sharpest passer on Sunday afternoon, but when his team needed him to connect on key passes in the game, he did just that. You can’t talk about this team without mentioning their defense and this is the best defensive unit in our league right now with that physical front four, a balanced group of linebackers that plays from sideline to sideline and covers ground, and a secondary that can lock down, prevent you from getting the deep ball down the field and force turnovers. I was so impressed with them on Sunday in that win over the Steelers because of their confidence and how they went into that environment once again and smacked Pittsburgh in the mouth. Each time the Steelers had some momentum, Jacksonville would take it right back from them. They’re in their first AFC conference title game since 1999 and to get to Minneapolis, they will need to take down the gold standard in the AFC.

Patriots: Another year which results in another playoff victory and a trip to the AFC Championship for the seventh straight season and twelfth time as a franchise. I watched that game really closely last week against the Titans and they came out the gates a little rusty. The passes they normally connect on were being dropped and the defense was a bit shaky and they gave up that spectacular one-handed touchdown grab to Corey Davis for the Titans to strike early. After that play, it was all New England for the rest of the game and here’s what makes this team so great: They will give up some small plays that can result in first downs or a few big plays that can result in touchdowns and that will be it. Their defense is known to do it once and then, you won’t hear about them giving up another big play to that particular player and their defense may not be the strongest at times, but they know when to clamp down and stop people. Throughout this year, I’ve been vocal about their lack of a pass rush and how they’ve been known to always have that guy to get to the quarterback and now, they have that in James Harrison who was released by Pittsburgh and picked up on waivers by the Patriots in December. For a team that struggled a bit to get to the passer, they sure had no issues on Saturday night as they recorded eight sacks on Marcus Mariota. Their offense did their usual as expected with Tom throwing three touchdown passes and Dion Lewis is still handling the responsibilities as the number one running back and he continues to provide a balance that the offense needs. They’ve been in these situations before and with the win on Sunday, they will be in the Super Bowl for the second consecutive year, the third time in the last four seasons and the eighth time in the Brady/Belichick era.

Jaguars Player To Watch: T.J. Yeldon– When they played the Bills in the opening round of the playoffs, you saw how much he was missed within their offensive game-plan. In Pittsburgh on Sunday, when Blake’s first two reads were taken away, he was always able to find Yeldon to convert the chains. New England will do what they are known to do and that’s take away your best offensive weapon and force you to beat them another way and I see Jacksonville finding ways to get T.J. the football.

Patriots Player To Watch: Brandin Cooks– If you really watched the Jags/Steelers game on Sunday, the Steelers were still able to throw the football on a defense that’s ranked first when it comes to stopping the pass. They had Antonio Brown flanked out wide and he capitalized on the one on one opportunities. Jacksonville will be all in on trying to limit Gronk and I often say let number 87 get his because he’s basically impossible to slow down, you have to worry about the others and this is the game I see Brandin Cooks really making his mark and having an impact.

Final Analysis: It has come down to this! With a straight face, who really thought that the Jacksonville Jaguars would be in this position right now? A game away from advancing to the Super Bowl after so many years of losing football games. I’ve often stated that this is the one team that can really give New England fits because of how they play defense and they have the formula to slow down this Patriots offense and that’s a solid defensive line with the interior pressure up the middle. They also have the corners to be physical with those receivers underneath across the board and that will be key for the Jaguars on Sunday and that’s winning that battle of the trenches up front, jamming those receivers at the line and most importantly, trying to take away the middle of the football field, an area where the Patriots live. Bortles needs to take care of the football and simply play his own game. If I’m New England, I’m flanking Dion Lewis wide to get a mismatch with one of those Jaguars linebackers in open space and no team is better at creating those mismatches than the Patriots and I’d attack the middle of their defense, that’s the Jaguars defense biggest weakness.

Prediction: Jaguars 24 Patriots 21