Matchups for the AFC championship game Sunday between the Jacksonville Jaguars and New England Patriots:
When the Jaguars (12-6) have the ball
That impressive performance in Pittsburgh very likely will be needed for the Jaguars to have a chance. That means QB Blake Bortles (5) must get time from his blockers, led by C Brandon Linder (65) and rookie LT Cam Robinson (74), who is big and nasty and plays with an edge, against a spotty pass rush. New England doesn’t have any studs in the front seven, but everyone is effective. Last week, Geneo Grissom (92) and Deatrich Wise (91) each had two sacks. Who? Exactly the Patriots’ way.
Jacksonville will look to run with stud rookie Leonard Fournette (27) and valuable backup T.J. Yeldon (24). The Patriots held Tennessee, a decent run team, to 65 yards. The Jags, though, led the league in rushing yardage, and Bortles is a threat to run.
Jaguars receivers Marqise Lee (11) and Allen Hurns (88) can be a dangerous pair — Lee is vastly improved — and with the Patriots likely to try to take Fournette out of the game, how those two manage against an inconsistent secondary will be a key. In the playoffs, however, New England’s DBs, particularly S Devin McCourty (32) and CB Malcolm Butler (21) tend to step up big time.
The Jags hurt the Steelers with big plays, and the Patriots have been vulnerable to those at times. Jacksonville will require a bunch of them to stay close.
When the Patriots (14-3) have the ball
Start with Tom Brady. We could almost end there, too.
At 40, the four-time Super Bowl MVP plays as if he’s 30. He might have slowed down in December, but does anyone think the All-Pro quarterback won’t be on-target to fellow All-Pro TE Rob Gronkowski or WRs Brandon Cooks, Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan and RBs James White and Dion Lewis?
The caveat comes from Jacksonville’s pass rush. Sacksonville had 55 in 2017, then four more in the playoffs. The biggest threat, All-Pro DL Calais Campbell had 14½ during the regular season and has none in January. He must be itching to get a QB down on the ground.
Fellow pass rushers Yannick Ngakoue, a strip-sack artist, Dante Fowler Jr., Marcell Dareus and Malik Jackson could add to Brady’s discomfort; Brady’s biggest dislike is not being able to set himself to throw.
Trying to keep that pass rush honest will be the most underrated O-line in the game, paced by LT Nate Solder and C David Andrews.
White has been super reliable in past postseasons, but Lewis has become the primary running back.
Jacksonville’s cocky secondary features All-Pro CB Jalen Ramsey and solid A.J. Bouye, and two castoff safeties who have been solid, Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson. They will unquestionably be challenged by Brady’s receiving group.
After struggling by his standards in 2016, Patriots K Stephen Gostkowski is back to being close to automatic: 37 out of 40 in 2017, 4 for 4 on kicks of 50 or more yards. Gostkowski’s 165 postseason points trail only Adam Vinatieri (234) and David Akers (175).
Lewis is the only player on the four remaining teams in the playoffs to have returned a kickoff for a touchdown this season. He ranked fourth in the NFL with a 24.8 yards per return.
Amendola is also a threat on punt returns. He averaged 8.6 yards per return during the regular season, including a long of 40 yards.
Jacksonville’s penchant for trick plays on special teams is something to watch. The Jaguars turned three fake punts into touchdowns during the regular season.
Josh Lambo, signed in mid-October to replace errant Jason Myers, is a former Major League Soccer goalkeeper who has made 21 of 22 field goals, including both in the postseason, and 29 of 31 extra points.
Brad Nortman ranked 31st in the league in net average (44.1) and had two punts blocked, including one last week at Pittsburgh.
Returners Corey Grant and Jaydon Mickens have the speed and agility to break long returns.
Give Doug Marrone tons of credit for changing the culture in Jacksonville. No more Lax Jax. This is a tough, relentless bunch on defense, and one that while up and down has become more threatening with the ball. Marrone has the Jags believing, and when was the last time folks in North Florida could say that?
Defensive coordinator Todd Wash should be getting looks for a top job. Yes, the roster was vastly improved on D over the past two years and Wash has molded it well.
OC Nathaniel Hackett isn’t nearly as accomplished, but he outcoached his Steelers counterparts last week.
What else needs to be said about the Patriots’ leadership, which gets them this far all the time? Suffice to point out that OC Josh McDaniels and DC Matt Patricia both have been front-runners for head coaching jobs this offseason.
The Jaguars are one of four teams never to make a Super Bowl. Their win in Pittsburgh has them stoked, and their youthful exuberance that some might describe as over the top actually has served them well so far. Then again, riling up Brady’s bunch rarely is a good strategy.
Somehow, the Patriots have convinced themselves they are either disrespected, distrusted or dismissed outside of New England. Not a bad motivational tool, even if it seems to ring hollow for a five-time champion.
AP Sports Writers Mark Long and Kyle Hightower contributed.