Not all that long ago, the surprising Jacksonville Jaguars held a double-digit second half lead over the then-defending champion New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. Blake Bortles and company looked like they were on their way to the Super Bowl, and then the Patriots did what they always do. They stormed back into the game by out-executing their opponents, and taking advantage of every single mistake the other team made. 

One such mistake the Jags made was not being aggressive enough offensively, while another was letting Brady sit relatively unhurried in the pocket and pick out receivers to whom he could throw the ball. Eventually, he made just enough plays to win, and the Pats got to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. 

Eight months later, New England is again the heavy favorite to play into February. The Jaguars are in that mix as well, and largely for the same reason they wound up there last year: their defense is just that good. Bortles is throwing to a depleted crop of receivers this year compared to last, and while the offensive line is improved, there’s no real expectation that the Jags will field an above-average offense. Instead, it’s all about ball control, grinding the clock, and punishing the opposing offense. 

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That’s the typical strategy against a Patriots machine that has shown it can out-gun even the best defenses, though, so New England will be well-prepared to handle whatever the Jaguars throw at them in the rematch. This is one of the marquee games of Week 2’s Sunday slate, and it should be exciting to see how it all shakes out. 

When the Jaguars have the ball 

First things first: we do not yet know if Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette will suit up for this game. Fournette suffered a hamstring injury during the Jaguars’ Week 1 win over the Giants and has practiced on only a limited basis so far this week. He referred to himself Thursday as a game-time decision. 

He’s had hamstring issues before and the Jags obviously don’t want this one to linger, so it’s possible they sit him down and wait for Week 3 against the division rival Titans before getting him back onto the field. It’s of course possible they’ll prioritize winning this particular game given its importance in the AFC playoff race, but Fournette has too much long-term import to the Jaguars to rush things. If he’s ready, they should let him suit up; but if he’s not, they shouldn’t force it just because this week’s opponent is the favorite to come out of the AFC. 

While it may seem like a major issue for the Jags to be without Fournette, that is not necessarily the case. T.J. Yeldon is not the same kind of power-speed-athleticism force as Jacksonville’s starter, but he is 6-foot-1, 223 pounds and he’s smooth enough catching the ball out of the backfield. He carried 14 times for just 51 yards against the Giants last week, but he’s up at four yards per carry for his career and he’s caught at least 30 passes during each of his three NFL seasons. He’s not Fournette, obviously, but he’s capable. 

Whether Fournette is out or not, something that seems likely is an extra dose of pass-catching back Corey Grant. Jaguars offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett mentioned earlier this week that he wants Grant to be more heavily involved in the offense, and considering Jacksonville’s relative lack of playmakers on the perimeter, that makes a ton of sense. Grant was a big factor in the building the Jags’ early lead in the AFC title game, catching three passes for 59 yards in the first half, including two that extended drives that later ended in touchdowns. He’s not an every-down back but he’s shifty in open space, and when you consider that New England’s defense ranked 22nd in DVOA on passes to running backs last season, you begin to think there’s some merit to mixing him in more often this week in particular. 

If Fournette does sit, much of the pass-catching infrastructure that helped the Jaguars build their early lead in last year’s AFC title game will be missing in action for the rematch. Allen Hurns (six catches, 80 yards) is in Dallas. Marqise Lee (six catches, 41 yards) is out for the year with a torn ACL. Marcedes Lewis is on the Packers. Holdovers Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook, now two of Blake Bortles’ top three receivers, caught only three passes for 66 yards combined in the previous game. 

Given the way the Pats used their corners in Week 1 (and the way Bill Belichick has preferred to use his corners in the past), we seem likely to see a shadow coverage situation on Sunday, with No. 1 corner Stephon Gilmore tracking Cole from side to side and Eric Rowe playing opposite and covering whichever of Westbrook and Donte Moncrief lines up out wide. Patrick Chung would then handle the slot, which he did for 78 percent of passes against the Pats in Week 1. That means he’ll likely see Westbrook most often, since he’s been the primary slot man for Jacksonville so far. 

The battle in the trenches will likely go a long way toward determining whether or not Bortles can get himself in a rhythm, as he has struggled with pressure throughout his career. The Pats sacked him thrice and hit him eight more times during the AFC title game and while he was still able to do some damage before halftime, his played slow in the second half. Trey Flowers, in particular, was a monster on that day, racking up four of New England’s eight hits on Bortles. He picked up right where he left off in Week 1, with 1.5 sacks, two tackles for loss, and three hits of Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson

When the Patriots have the ball 

Just like the Jaguars, the Patriots have some question marks surrounding who, exactly, will be healthy in their backfield for Sunday. Jeremy Hill tore his ACL last week and is out for the season. First-round pick Sony Michel is still working his way back from a knee injury and has been limited in practice all week. Rex Burkhead apparently suffered a concussion at some point and was held out of Wednesday’s practice, though he did return on a limited basis on Thursday. That leaves just James White as a fully-healthy back for New England, and he has primarily operated as a pass-catcher for most of his career. 

Considering the strength of the Jaguars’ defensive front, and their pass defense in particular, it’s not a great sign that the Pats’ backfield is so banged up. It’s even less of a good sign when you consider just how many of the pass-catchers Tom Brady utilized during that AFC title game victory are no longer with the team. 

If Burkhead doesn’t play, then 25 of Brady’s 38 targets from last season’s title matchup are gone, as are 196 of his 290 passing yards. The only targets remaining would be White, Rob Gronkowski, Chris Hogan, and Phillip Dorsett. Gronk, as you might notice there, had just one catch for 21 yards in that contest. He spent much of the game being covered by Jalen Ramsey, and it would not be a surprise to see the Jaguars try that strategy again, even though they ranked fifth in pass defense DVOA against tight ends last season and that was primarily due to the work of players like Myles Jack, Telvin Smith, Barry Church, and Tashaun Gipson

Brady and Gronk have beaten elite defenses like this before, and Gronk is open even when it looks like he’s not, but it’s never really wise to throw at Ramsey and Gronk being limited here is not out of the realm of possibility. The question, then, is where else does Brady look? Week 1 breakout Dorsett (7-66-1 last week) seems likely to see a whole lot of A.J. Bouye, given that he primarily operates as an outside receiver. That leaves Hogan in the slot against D.J. Hayden, and that seems like the matchup the Patriots will target most often — especially if Burkhead can’t play and White has to handle the backfield role by himself and thus may not see quite as many targets because they have to save his body to ensure he can run the ball. 

This also might be a game where we see what Josh McDaniels and company have in mind for Cordarrelle Patterson, because the Pats might need both another ball-carrier and someone who can create yards out of nothing on smoke routes that neutralize Jacksonville’s devastating pass rush and take advantage of the fact that Ramsey is aligned with Gronk and not in his usual post on the perimeter. Patterson is not a complete player by any means, but there are ways to use his skill set so that he is put in position to succeed, and there is probably no coordinator-quarterback infrastructure more well-equipped to do that than the one in New England. 

Having to resort to a player like Patterson as a real part of the offense is not a good position to be in, but it’s one that might be New England’s reality due to the injuries, suspensions (Julian Edelman), and matchups presented in this game. It would be another story if they could count on their offensive line to keep Brady upright all afternoon but that seems unlikely with Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, Marcell Dareus, Malik Jackson and company going up against a group that lost its starting left tackle and swing tackle from last season and saw first-round pick Isaiah Wynn go down with a knee injury during the preseason. All that said, if there is any team that can take a matchup that looks bad on paper and swing it to its advantage, it’s these guys. 

Pick: Patriots 23, Jaguars 14


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