The 1-1 Jacksonville Jaguars travel to the 2-0 New England Patriots on Sunday with the daunting task of defeating Tom Brady at home. The Jags are coming off an impressive win over the Miami Dolphins last week, as Blake Bortles took a significant step forward in his development, throwing for 273 yards, two touchdown and no interceptions. Second-year receiver Allen Robinson hauled in six catches for 155 yards and two touchdowns, giving the Jags a big and explosive outside receiving threat they've long lacked.
The Patriots are coming off an equally impressive win in hostile Buffalo, against a Bills team that thought they were ready to finally turn the tide against Brady and Belichick. Instead they nearly got blown off the field before putting together a late comeback that made things interesting.
On paper (and in Vegas) this one might appear to be a mismatch, but the Patriots aren't always a lock at home in September. In 2012 they lost to the Arizona Cardinals in Foxborough, a team en route to a 5-11 season, and it was the Cardinals' only road win of the season. The Patriots were flat that day and always seem to have a game early in the season where they just can't do anything right.
With the Jags looking to make a statement and nothing to lose, they should put it all on the line and play aggressive. That could make for a far more entertaining game than most might expect.
Jacksonville at New England
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET
Line: New England -14
Three Things to Watch
1. How do you solve a problem like Gronk?
Each week teams have a plan to stop Rob Gronkowski and each week he seems nearly unstoppable. The Patriots are masters of scheming their big tight end open, but he's so talented he often has no trouble doing that on his own. Eventually a team will over-commit their resources to take Gronk out of the game, but until that day the monstrous tight end will continue putting up numbers and setting records. Gus Bradley certainly saw what Gronkowski did to his old Seattle team in the Super Bowl, and will have some adjustments for him. Bradley does have the size throughout his defense to give the big tight end some problems, but if they can't slow him down at all it will be a long day for the Jags.
2. Can Bortles stack success?
The biggest key to beating the Patriots is to not turn the ball over. Blake Bortles played perhaps the best game of his career against a very aggressive Dolphins front seven and he'll need to have the same exact clean game to give the Jags a chance in this one. Of course, doing it at home is one thing, doing it in the stadium of the defending Super Bowl champs is another. The Patriots will mix-and-match their front seven, forcing Bortles to identify who's coming and who's dropping. If confusion arises from those pre-snap reads, Bortles will fall into the traps that Bill Belichick and Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia are setting for him. Bortles can't force anything, but he also cannot play too conservative. A big part of that will be trusting his big receivers to win the jump balls on New England's smaller defensive backs.
3. Can the Jags run?
The Patriots currently have the 31st-ranked run defense according to the Football Outsider's DVOA metric. Part of this is having leads in two games and focusing more on stopping the pass, but another part of it is New England's evolution toward putting more athletes on the field. In most situations the Patriots will have just two big defensive linemen on the field, and the rest of the front seven will be rounded out with hybrid linebacker types. The Jags should attack the Patriots with their running game and force them to play a grind-it-out type game. If Jacksonville can put together long drives on the ground they'll eat up clock and keep Tom Brady off the field. Forcing the Patriots to put three defensive tackles on the field will also tire them out as there's limited depth behind Sealver Siliga, Alan Branch and Malcom Brown.
The Patriots' run defense could be asignificant team flaw, but in today's NFL will it be a critical one? Expect the Jags to attack it and find out, but they cannot afford to get behind early. Things have to break extremely right for teams to get an upset in New England — you can't turn the ball over, you need an early lead or an early mistake from the Patriots offense, and you must compete for the entire sixty minutes. Despite their mystique, the Patriots have had plenty of close games with lesser teams in Foxborough over the years, but even then they usually were able to pull them out late. If the Jags don't have a near-flawless game in them, it could get out of hand.