Five takeaways from the Patriots’ 31-20 loss at Jacksonville, in which the Jaguars may have asserted themselves as the team to beat in the AFC…
The Jaguars are better
There was a sense emanating from Jacksonville as Sunday approached that the Jaguars believe they actually were the better team among the participants of last January’s AFC championship game. They did hold a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter of that contest, and have since rued their failure to finish that effort, reflected in their confidence and commentary as the rematch approached.
It’s a hard case to make in retrospect, given that the Patriots ultimately overcame the Jaguars, and stamped their tickets to the Super Bowl. But after Sunday, there’s no dispute or debate necessary. Two weeks into the new season, the Jaguars are better than the Patriots.
It said so on the scoreboards Sunday at TIAA Bank Field, and it said so on the scorching fields between those boards, as well. On both sides of scrimmage, in both halves, by evaluations both measurable and observable, through whatever lens the game was viewed the Jaguars looked like the faster, more dangerous, more complete team. And, while things could certainly change before these clubs would meet again, this time it wasn’t particularly close.
The Jags defense lived up to the sizable hype that came with last season’s No. 1 rankings, putting heat on Tom Brady while simultaneously taking away any threat of a running game and removing any Patriot hope of a big play. On the other side, Brady’s counterpart, Blake Bortles, played like last season’s playoff run represented the emergence of a star more than it did a good couple weeks for a game manager.
Jacksonville was aggressive, demonstrating a fearlessness in the face of the Patriots’ mystique, and with their inherent swagger they came at the big, bad Pats like a pushed-over kid finally standing up to the bully.
We’ve seen teams do this before, of course. Kansas City did it just last September, then eventually wilted, so Jacksonville has a lot yet to prove before January. But if they see the Patriots again, the Jaguars have reason to feel good. Because until things change, they’re the better team.
Undone with a brutal start
The first quarter finished with a helpless-feeling draw play that failed to pick up a third and five, followed by a tongue lashing from Josh McDaniels where he unloaded on his offense – but would only have been a more fitting visual if the entire squad had been huddled around.
In a game where most figured the Pats could ill-afford to fall behind (a line of thinking validated by Bill Belichick’s decision to take the ball to start rather than deferring to the second half), the visitors got off to an atrocious start in all three phases and fell quickly into a 14-point hole. It began with a badly missed field goal attempt from Stephen Gostkowski, and on the subsequent series the Jaguars marched down the field by converting a couple of long third-down tries before going right at the Pats’ best corner and coming away with a four-yard touchdown when Donte Moncrief beat Stephon Gilmore.
New England went three-and-out on the next series, while Jacksonville answered by going 84 yards in just seven snaps, as Blake Bortles punctuated a perfect period of quarterbacking with a 24-yard strike to Keelan Cole. That brought Bortles to 10 of 13 for 123 yards with two scores, plus another first down picked up with his feet.
Add to that the departure of defensive stud Trey Flowers to the locker room for concussion evaluation, Brady showing signs that the Jaguars persistent pressure was starting to make him shaky in his pocket, plus another go-nowhere drive capped by the aforementioned draw, and the first quarter was as frustrating as McDaniels’s face was red.
No pressure on Bortles — despite the Jags’ injuries
Flowers didn’t return after his concussion was diagnosed, and safety Patrick Chung didn’t come back for the second half after incurring a concussion of his own. But those injuries aren’t enough to explain the disturbing performance of a Patriots defense that allowed Bortles to finish 29 of 45 for 377 yards and four touchdowns.
The Jaguars were missing Leonard Fournette, their bell-weather running back on whose abilities so much of the offense is based. Then they lost left tackle Cam Robinson in the opening quarter. Yet despite those ailments limiting the effectiveness of the Jacksonville run game, and their anchor along the offensive line, New England managed to get little sustained pressure on Bortles as he sat back and slung three touchdowns in a half for the first time as a pro.
Flowers would’ve helped with that, obviously. But the rest of the front needs to be better, especially when the team is continually loading the box with extra defenders near the line. Even without Fournette, the Pats still appeared to prioritize stopping the run, yet the Jags were averaging close to six yards per carry through three quarters. And, at the same time, because that strategy forced the Pats to trust their defensive backs with man-to-man coverage – the illustrious Keelan Cole and Moncrief both looked like Pro Bowlers.
It wasn’t until Jacksonville had already opened a 24-3 lead that the Patriots began to make plays defensively. Gilmore forced a fumble, Kyle Van Noy snared a deflection for an interception, and in between New England prompted their first three-and-out of a day Jacksonville began by hitting on eight of 10 third-down tries. By then they’d already plunged into a position where they needed to be perfect. That became impossible when Brady was strip-sacked, canceling the Van Noy pick, then again when the Pats lost Dede Westbrook and let the receiver run for a long, coffin-nailing touchdown catch.
Really, though, the game had long since gotten away from the Patriots defense.
Two close calls could’ve changed the tone
Jacksonville was undeniably the better of the two teams in the first half. They went to intermission leading 21-3, and that margin reflected what was happening between the whistles. Yet, there were a couple of swallowed whistles that might’ve left Pats fans wondering how things might’ve gone differently had they be been blown.
The first came on the opening drive, on the fifth play from scrimmage. To that point, the Patriots had actually been moving the ball. In four plays they’d moved from their own 25 to the Jaguars’ 39, and had a fresh set of downs when Brady looked for Rob Gronkowski breaking toward the left sideline.
Gronkowski got a step on his defender. Brady recognized it, and led his tight end to the open territory in front of him. Problem was, the defender trailing Gronkowski grabbed him by the tail of his jersey, and tugged. Gronkowski wrestled himself free, but the interruption in his route was just enough that Brady’s throw never really had a chance. Had that connection been made, Gronkowski would’ve taken the ball into the red zone, if not farther. Instead it was second and 10, and after a run and an incompletion New England was left to send Gostkowski out for a 54-yard boot that missed by a county.
Had the Pats scored there, even a field goal, perhaps the tone of the game is different. The same can be said of the sequence at the end of the second quarter, when Jacksonville expanded its lead to 21-3 with a pass to Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
It came on third and 3, with 14 seconds left before intermission. It was a killer. But part of the reason Seferian-Jenkins was so open was that another of the Jaguars’ receivers had made contact with Chung in the shallow area of the end zone as Chung tried to run with the tight end. Picks set by receivers are supposed to be legal only within a yard of the original line, but this was about five yards into the backfield, and the collision created plenty of space for the completion.
If that had been called, it would have forced the Jaguars to retry third and goal after walking off the penalty. If the Pats could’ve held their ground there, even limiting Jacksonville to a field goal, it could have represented a momentum swing back in New England’s favor going into intermission. The Patriots could’ve made a case that as poorly as they’d played, they were still within two scores. With no call, though, the deficit was 18. And New England was desperate.
Sony Michel makes his debut
First-round pick Sony Michel made his debut for the Patriots, touching the ball on each of his first five snaps, and handling a featured role in New England’s offense at stretches. He lined up as a receiver on his first play and caught a pass for seven yards, then carried it 10 times for 34 more, including a brutish 15-yard pickup when he barreled through the hole to pick up a short-yardage first down.
What was interesting about Michel’s role is that although Burkhead started the game, and got opportunities on the opening drive, Michel took over those duties for much of the evening. The most productive back in New England’s arsenal, though, was James White, who caught a team-high seven passes for 73 yards.
If Sunday revealed anything of how McDaniels and the Patriots will deploy their talent at that position, it’s that White remains a primary weapon in Brady’s passing attack. But, if it he isn’t already, Michel may quickly become the back Belichick’s staff asks to carry the load on early downs.