For at least the second half of the NFL season, if not longer, it looked for all the world as if the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers were on a collision course to the AFC title game. The Jacksonville Jaguars spoiled that storyline by stunning the Steelers last week at Heinz Field, and it was no fluke.
The general feeling about the Jaguars is that a dominant defense has carried an offense that can run the ball but is mediocre at best and must avoid putting the game in the hands of its quarterback, Blake Bortles. But on paper, Jacksonville has been perhaps the AFC’s most balanced team all season. During the regular season, the Jaguars ranked fifth in scoring offense, sixth in total offense, and second in both scoring and total defense. For comparison, the Patriots have been the odds-on favorite all season despite a defense that ranked 29th in yardage allowed. So is the narrative backward? Are the Patriots really the team that needs to be dominant on one side of the ball so as to hide a big weakness on the other?
Not quite. The Jaguars really are at their best when Bortles just doesn’t screw it up; they are 6–0 when they don’t turn the ball over, and in two of those wins Bortles threw for 125 yards or less. In other words, he just didn’t screw it up. And a closer look at the Pats’ defense reveals that its ranking is just the result of a rough start: Since allowing at least 400 yards in each of its first six games, the New England defense has allowed that many just once since. And it has not given up more than 17 points at home since Oct. 1.
AFC Championship: Jacksonville at New England
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 21 at 3:05 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Patriots -8.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Another test for Bortles
Only once in Blake Bortles’ four-year career has he gone three straight games without throwing an interception. The good news is that it just happened last month; the bad news is that he followed that hot streak up with five interceptions in the final two regular season games, both losses. He’s taken care of the ball through two playoff wins, but can he do it again? Either way, he better look more like he did last week (214 yards, 8.23 yards per attempt at Pittsburgh) than the week before (87 yards, 3.78 ypa vs. Buffalo). Of course, he and the Jags jumped out to a 21–0 lead last week, and on two of the three scoring drives Bortles didn’t complete a pass. What if New England scores first? What if the Pats sell out to stop the run and Bortles faces 3rd-and-long, something the Jags avoided the entire first half at Pittsburgh? Bortles still has to answer these questions.
2. Gronk could have a huge day
Rob Gronkowski (right) has had bigger seasons for the Patriots, but he’s never looked more unstoppable. Perhaps in an effort to keep him healthy for when it really matters, New England relied a little less on its big tight end during the regular season. But it seemed he was always there when the Pats needed him, and he looked as good as ever with 81 yards and a touchdown catch last week. Gronkowski is such a unique weapon that past matchups hardly matter, but there is also this: Last week, Steelers reserve tight end Vance McDonald caught 10 passes for 112 yards against the Jaguars. On one hand, the Steelers racked up a lot of passing yards after falling behind 21–0 to start the game. On the other hand, McDonald is no Gronkowski.
3. Can the Jags shorten the game?
As good as the Jaguars' defense is, head coach Doug Marrone would rather it stay on the sidelines — along with Tom Brady (above, right) and company — while his offense runs the ball and eats up clock. No team ran the ball more than Jacksonville in the regular season, and only one team allowed more yards per carry than New England (4.7). That would seem like a big edge for the Jags heading into this one. Of course, that is everyone’s plan against the Patriots, and history tells us it rarely actually works, especially in New England. The last time the Pats scored fewer than 20 points at home with Brady playing the whole game was Sept. 21, 2014 — and they won that game anyway. Pounding Leonard Fournette as much as possible and trying to grind out a win is still probably the Jags best bet... but holding New England to less than 20 points is still a long shot.
Maybe we’re not giving the Jaguars enough respect. Maybe they are that rare team that comes along once a decade and makes a Super Bowl run despite its quarterback thanks to a dominant defense. And the Patriots' dynasty will end eventually, so why not here? Maybe the end is closer than anyone thinks. But we’re going to have to see it to believe it.