The New England Patriots rolled through the Tennessee Titans on Saturday night in the AFC Divisional Playoff round. After Tennessee went ahead 7-0, the Patriots scored five unanswered touchdowns to leap out to a 35-7 lead before allowing a garbage time touchdown to make the final score 35-14. Quarterback Tom Brady led the way with 337 yards passing with three touchdowns and no interceptions (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted).
Tennessee’s vaunted rushing attack was mitigated by the Patriots’ strong play up-front. Tennessee managed just 65 yards on 16 carries and running back Derrick Henry was held to just 28 yards on 12 carries. The Titans were just five of 15 on third downs and punted seven times and turned the ball over on downs prior to half-time.
New England will face the young and brash Jacksonville Jaguars who are flying high after their road victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Jacksonville pulled out a 45-42 win on the strength of their strong and opportunistic defense, the legs of running back Leonard Fournette and a surprisingly efficient performance by quarterback Blake Bortles.
Hopefully, no one in Patriots Nation is sick of the Jim Nantz and Tony Romo top team at CVS. This week’s match-up will again be broadcast by CBS and again can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 in Boston and WPRI 12 in Providence and Southeastern New England. Jim Nantz will once again handle play-by-play duties with Tony Romo as the color analyst. Tracy Wolfson will work the sidelines.
On the radio, this week’s game will again be broadcast to a national audience by WESTWOOD ONE. Kevin Kugler, in his fifth years as the voice of Sunday Night Football for the station and former San Diego Chargers’ Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts will call the game with former ESPN NFL correspondent Ed Werder providing sideline analysis. Fouts–who provides play-by-play for CBS Sports during the regular season–is well-known to Patriots Nation.
Locally, the Patriots’ flagship station 98.5 FM the Sports Hub will carry the game on the Patriots Radio Network. The Patriots are on the radio on 40 stations throughout the nation and will feature broadcasters Bob Socci doing play-by-play and local media member and former Patriots backup quarterback Scott Zolak adding color.
Now that you know how to watch and listen to the game, here are the five key match-ups to watch that will determine if the Patriots continue their winning ways against the Jacksonville Jaguars to reach the Super Bowl again or if Blake Bortles will pull off the historic upset and vault Jacksonville to their first Super Bowl.
1. NE TE Rob Gronkowski vs JAX Secondary and Linebackers
Last week New England tight end Rob Gronkowski celebrated his return to the NFL Playoffs with a dominant performance catching six passes for 81 yards and a touchdown against the Tennessee Titans. Tennessee had no answers for the gigantic and athletic tight end as the Titans swapped out safeties and linebackers in coverage trying to slow him down.
Jacksonville is another team that does not have a six-foot-seven, 265 pounds athletic freak who can match-up with Gronkowski in man-to-man coverage. Not to read too much into it, but in reviewing my training camp notes when Jacksonville practiced with New England, the Jaguars were clearly overmatched trying to slow Gronkowski. Last week against Pittsburgh, the Jaguars allowed tight end, Vance McDonald, to catch ten passes for 112 yards.
The Jaguars are going to mix their coverages on Gronkowski but they run a basic cover-3 scheme. Defensive coordinator, Todd Wash came to Jacksonville with Gus Bradley in 2013 and the defensive scheme is very similar to Seattle without the new Legion of Boom in Seattle and similarly athletic linebackers.
Linebacker Telvin Smith is athletic but at six-foot-three and 218 pounds he does not have the size to cover Gronkowski. In addition, his pass coverage skills are not up to par to staying with the best tight end in the NFL. As for veteran Paul Posluszny, at age 33 he should be kept far away from Gronkowski in coverage.
Myles Jack was the Jaguars’ second-round draft pick last season and while athletic, is just six-foot-one and 245 pounds. Jack had an interception in coverage of Steelers’ tight end Vance McDonald, but more often than not McDonald was open, even when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did not throw to him and tried to push the ball downfield.
The big question will be whether or not the Jaguars deviate from their usual coverage and assign a cornerback to Gronkowski and put safety help over the top. Free safety Tashaun Gipson is the logical choice to help out with Gronkowski but he left Sunday’s game with a foot injury but was in a walking boot early in the week which weakens the safety position by having to turn to Peyton Thompson to play more.
Strong safety Barry Church was a free agent signing from Dallas and figures to see a lot of Gronkowski. Church is an excellent tackler but not more than average when forced into man coverage. In zone coverage, his skills translate much better and he has a nose for the football as evidenced by his four interceptions.
The biggest surprise would be the Jaguars focusing on taking away Gronkowski by putting one of their two top cornerbacks on him and letting Jalen Ramsey (A.J. Bouye is just six-foot and 185 pounds) cover him in man-coverage. Ramsey is young and brash but is part of the next wave of great cornerbacks in the NFL. At six-foot-one and 210 pounds, he can handle big receivers, but Gronkowski is a totally different kind of player than even the biggest wideout.
New England has multiple options with Gronkowski in formations, flexing him wide to get him in space against linebackers or moving him tight to the line to dominate smaller secondary players in the running game or to cause separation in routes over the middle of the field. Even when Gronkowski is slowed down by coverages, he often requires multiple defenders. He can cause defenders to abandon their coverage responsibilities and create holes for the other receivers because of the threat he presents.
The Patriots attacked the cover-3 zone defense in the past with running multiple receivers through a zone to create gaps in coverage. They will also use Gronkowski to draw a cornerback out of a deep outside zone and run a wide receiver upfield into that space. Finally, they will attack at all three levels with wide receivers deep, Gronkowski and Danny Amendola in the middle of the field, and with the running backs near the line of scrimmage.
After the way that Pittsburgh attacked Jacksonville with the tight end position, the Patriots should be carrying that blueprint into their match-up against the Jaguars defense which gave up 42 points on Sunday.
2. NE T Nate Solder and LaAdrian Waddle/Cameron Fleming vs JAX EDGE Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue
On the other side of the football, the Jacksonville Jaguars boast one of the best defensive lines in the NFL. Primarily in a 4-3, the Jaguars have big bodies Abry Jones, Marcell Dareus and Malik Jackson rotating in the two interior positions. The Patriots are used to facing the disruptive Marcell Dareus from his years in Buffalo where he wreaked havoc against guards and centers.
Jackson is no stranger to New England either, as the former Denver Broncos interior pass rusher was part of the Broncos teams that defeated the Patriots in the AFC Championship game in 2013 and 2015. Jones is the least known of the group having toiled in Jacksonville since 2013 and not having posted gaudy sack numbers like Jackson and Dareus. Jones is the big body that occupies space and is a vital cog in the run defense.
On the edge is where Jacksonville has surged in 2017. The Jaguars imported the gigantic and disruptive Calais Campbell. In his first season in Jacksonville, the 31-year old Campbell piled up 14.5 sacks. Opposite him, 2016 third-round draft pick Yannick Ngakoue (pronounced yah-NEEK in-GAH-kway) built upon his eight-sack rookies season last year by adding a dozen in 2017. Behind him, the Jaguars have 2015 third overall draft pick Dante Fowler coming off the bench to provide fresh legs and he added another eight sacks.
For the Patriots, left tackle Nate Solder has upped his game in the second half of the season after missing time in training camp and during the week to care for his young son in the three-year old’s battle against cancer. Solder will have his hands full facing speed rushers Ngakoue and Fowler. The last time New England faced Campbell, he was in Arizona and the Patriots were without Solder due to injury in week one in 2016. The offensive line allowed no sacks to Campbell (he played a lot more defensive tackle than end in that game) protecting Jimmy Garoppolo in his first start.
At right tackle, the Patriots may be starting Fleming depending upon the status of LaAdrian Waddle’s knee injury. Waddle has been starting for All-Pro tackle Marcus Cannon who has been on injured reserve with a knee injury. Waddle stepped in and played well but has had injury issues all through the second half of the season. Fleming has had to play much of the last quarter of the season at right tackle.
Jacksonville likes to use Campbell much like New England has used Trey Flowers on defense: he is on the edge on first and second downs in run support and rushing the passer and on obvious passing downs and third downs he slides inside to rush the quarterback from the interior trying to maximize his quickness against guards and the center.
Slowing Campbell is no easy task. He will likely line up on the defensive left side across from LaAdrian Waddle (if he plays) or Cameron Fleming. At six-foot-eight and 280 pounds, Campbell has the strength and power to overwhelm most tackles. What is surprising is his quickness and his ability to use a variety of moves to get to the quarterback.
Campbell has slowed down the stretch: he has failed to register a sack in five of his last six games (and both of those were against a T.J. Yates led Houston Texans team in week 15). Part of that could be he is wearing down having played 77% of the defensive snaps this season (801 snaps) after playing 830 snaps (77%) in Arizona in 2016. Add in another 70 snaps against Buffalo in the Wild Card round and 63 more on Sunday against Pittsburgh. At 31 years old and playing a demanding position, he could be worn down playing more games this season than he is used to playing.
Regardless, Campbell is going to be motivated to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since after the 2008 season as a rookie with Arizona. Fleming has struggled at times as a pass blocker (he is a strong run blocker) but his game has improved by leaps and bounds since the return of offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. Both Fleming and Waddle have held their own with Marcus Cannon on injured reserve.
3. NE ILB Kyle Van Noy and Marquis Flowers vs JAX RB Leonard Fournette
The Jaguars’ offense got great news on Tuesday when running back Leonard Fournette was involved in a car accident and had no injury from the minor accident. Fournette has been the offense as a dominant smash-mouth running back in Jacksonville. The rookie from LSU was slowed by an ankle injury against Pittsburgh on Sunday, but returned to the game and is expected to play on Sunday in the AFC Championship game.
Fournette rushed for 109 yards on 25 carries for the Jaguars against the Steelers but was most effective in the first half. Before being injured mid-way through the second quarter, he had rushed for 82 yards on just 12 carries and two touchdowns. He returned in the second half but carried the ball 13 times for just 27 yards (2.1 yards per rush average) and was clearly hampered by the ankle. He lacked his explosiveness and power that made him so difficult to handle all season.
Last week against Tennessee, inside linebacker Kyle Van Noy and Marquis Flowers led a swarming team defense that limited Derrick Henry to just 28 yards on 12 carries. With a 21-7 lead at halftime, the Titans rushed Henry just twice in the second half, on the second play of the second half and once in the fourth quarter when the score was 35-7. Henry’s longest carry for the entire game was four yards.
The New England rush defense has not been a strength during the regular season in 2017 as they have allowed 1,836 yards rushing, good for 20th in the league. In addition, they allowed opponents to rush for 4.7 yards per rush, which was second worst in the NFL. The Jaguars boasted the top rushing attack in the NFL pounding out 2,262 yards.
Despite the struggles of the New England rush defense in the regular season, when they were in the red zone they tightened up and they only allowed four touchdowns inside the red zone and only six rushing touchdowns total, which was good for second best in the NFL. With their personnel on the defensive line, they have the ability to play well against the run.
For most of the regular season, the Patriots spent much of their time on defense in nickel or dime defenses with an extra defensive back or two or three. Those light fronts allowed for opponents to run the football and often playing with a lead New England was more than willing to dare their opponents to rush the football and use up time on the clock.
New England hopefully will get veteran defensive tackle Alan Branch back from his knee injury which has sidelined him since week fourteen on Monday night against the Dolphins. Branch was expected to be good to go last week, but the team kept him out another week. Adding Branch would give New England a fresh pair of legs to rotate with Malcolm Brown, Adam Butler and Lawrence Guy on the interior defensive line.
New England got Van Noy back last week against Tennessee. Van Noy, who had stepped in for Dont’a Hightower after he went on injured reserve, missed a month with a calf injury and was not able to play in the last three games of the season. Van Noy played 67% of the snaps on defense playing 45 of 67 snaps in his first action. He and Marquis Flowers played most of the snaps at inside linebacker.
Van Noy is a key to stopping Fournette much as he was last week against Derrick Henry and Tennessee. He uses his speed and explosiveness to fill gaps and help stop the run. He is a sure tackler and has the size and strength (six-foot-three and 243 pounds) to take on and take down the strong Fournette (six-foot and 240 pounds) who can be a load to bring down. If New England can replicate their success with containing Henry against Fournette and the Jaguars, it could mean a second consecutive trip to the Super Bowl.
4. NE RB Dion Lewis vs JAX LB Telvin Smith, Paul Posluszny, and Myles Jack
Running back Dion Lewis has emerged as the top running back in the second half of the season. Lewis finished with 896 yards rushing and a 5.0 yards per rush average. Most of the yards came in the second half as he stepped in for Mike Gillislee and increased his production with Rex Burkhead banged up. Down the stretch, Lewis rushed for 90 or more yards in four of the last six games.
Last week, the Patriots were determined to pass the football and Lewis finished with just 15 carries. However, he did average 4.1 yards per rush and finished with 62 yards on the ground and the team rushed for 101 yards against the Titans. Lewis was a weapon through the air as he caught nine of ten targets for 79 yards giving him 141 total yards through the air and on the ground.
One of the few weaknesses of the Jacksonville Jaguars has been their rushing defense. They allowed 1,860 yards, which was 21st in the NFL and 4.3 yards per rush. In the playoffs they allowed 130 yards rushing to the Bills, but more importantly only allowed three points. After jumping to a 21-0 lead over Pittsburgh last Sunday, the Steelers abandoned the run game and had just 83 yards on 18 attempts on the ground.
If New England gets out to an early lead, it could be a heavy workload for Lewis against the Jaguars. With interior defensive linemen Malik Jackson and Marcell Dareus and speedy linebackers, it seems like it would be difficult to run on the Jaguars but the aggressive nature of the defensive line and linebackers often lead to cut-back holes for running backs to pick up chunk yardage.
Of course, the way Lewis can do the most damage may be coming out of the backfield. As he carved up the underneath of the Titans’ defense last week, linebackers Myles Jack and Telvin Smith are fast and athletic but struggle in coverage against running backs and tight ends in coverage. Brady completed 13 passes on 17 targets for 108 yards and a touchdown to Lewis and James White.
With an aggressive pass rush and overzealous linebackers and safeties for the Jacksonville defense, the underneath passing game can make some big plays from the backfield. In addition to getting yards on the ground, Dion Lewis is going to be vital to the New England offense on Sunday against the Jaguars.
5. NE DE Trey Flowers, James Harrison, Eric Lee and Deatrich Wise vs JAX T Cam Robinson and Jeremy Parnell
The New England Patriots have been criticized in the local media all season for their lack of a big-time pass rush. The defense had ten defensive players with two or more sacks this year, and Trey Flowers led the Patriots with 6.5 sacks but the defense had 10 players with at least two sacks in 2017. Of course, the Patriots then went out and piled on Tennessee with a team-record eight sacks on Saturday night.
Against Tennessee, the Patriots were able to keep quarterback Marcus Mariota from making too many plays with his legs. Defensive ends Trey Flowers, James Harrison, Eric King and Deatrich Wise played a key role in forcing Mariota to stay in the pocket and limit his ability to run for first downs or get outside the pocket and make plays downfield. They will be counted upon to do the same this week against the mobile Blake Bortles.
The problem with planning to set the edge and pressure the quarterback is winning the one-on-one match-ups against the Jaguars’ pair of offensive tackles. Rookie left tackle Cam Robinson has stepped in as the 34th overall draft pick and instantly solidified the position. The massive (six-foot-six and 322 pounds) Alabama product suffered an abdominal injury against San Francisco and missed the final game of the season, but has back to his dominant self.
On the right side, the Jaguars have the underrated Jermy Parnell who was signed away from Dallas after the 2014 season and has been one of the best right tackles in the league this season. Parnell was a project in Dallas as an undrafted free agent who played basketball in college at Ole Miss. He had experimented on the defensive line and tight end before being moved to tackle. He was the swing tackle for the Cowboys for three years before Jacksonville signed him where he has started every game since arriving.
New England needs their edge pass rushers to hold their own against Parnell and Robinson and win some one-on-one match-ups to pressure Bortles. Trey Flowers and James Harrison will have a key role in setting the edge in the running game and trying to slow the Jaguars passing offense and not allow them to set-up play-action passing or have Bortles hurt them with his legs.
–Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media. He covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01