Jaguars vs. Patriots: AFC Championship Game preview

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The Backstory


Aloha, Mr. Hand! Just as surfers in Hawaii stand guard endlessly, month after month, for the definitive wave, football fanatics across the land lie in the lurch, awaiting a chink in the mighty Patriots' seemingly impenetrable armor.

The early-week storylines revolved around the underdogs, praising offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett's Divisional Round masterpiece in Pittsburgh, painting "Sacksonville's" vaunted defense as New England's worst matchup nightmare and anointing Jaguars executive vice president Tom Coughlin as a gridiron prophet possessed of a secret epiphany that otherwise unstoppable quarterbacks don't appreciate unanticipated pressure up the gut.

By Thursday morning, those narratives had fallen by the wayside, victims of an around-the-clock vigilance on Tom Brady's possibly mangled throwing hand. Once Brady was downgraded from Wednesday's limited practice to no participation on Thursday, "Thumbgate" took center stage.

To what extent the midweek injury limits the greatest of all-time's quest for an eighth Super Bowl appearance looms as a mystery likely to remain unsolved until Brady lines up under center on Sunday. To this point, word around the Foxborough campfire is cautiously optimistic.

Brady is active and will play after being listed as questionable for the game. Better yet, Patriots tailback Dion Lewis appeared on Thursday's edition of NFL Total Access, dispensing an assurance that "nobody's really worried" about Brady's thumb.

"From when I talked to the other guys, I knew he would be OK," Lewis added. "You know it's Tom, so regardless of any situation he's put in, he's going to be out there game day."

Much to Doug Marrone's dismay, Brady won't be forced to play wrong-handed in his 12th AFC Championship Game.

Players to Watch


Blake Bortles, QB, Jaguars

Hackett's aforementioned game-planning brilliance is unrepeatable, exploiting as it did the National Knee-Jerk League's penchant for overreaction to the sweeping, episodic nature of its weekly story arcs. When Bortles closed out the regular season in a fiery crash and regressed to his unnatural throwing motion in a ghastly passing performance against the Bills, the Steelers emerged from the tunnel utterly convinced that Marrone's extreme ground 'n' pound philosophy would set the tone.

What quickly resulted was offensive football's "unspoilable gag," the rare play-action phenomenon in which the feign works better each time it's used. Over and over again, Hackett provided his embattled quarterback with reliable pass protection, defined defensive reads and low-risk throws into gaping windows featuring open receivers.

Of Bortles' 17 dropbacks (excluding the 13 snaps out of shotgun formation), 15 featured some form of play-action or boot-action -- the only exceptions being a screen pass and a fumbled center exchange. Between the play design, strategic timing and execution, it might be a long time before we witness a more impressive job of hiding a remedial quarterback's obvious flaws while simultaneously building his confidence over the course of four quarters.

While Bortles deserves credit for pulling the trigger on a handful of challenging throws as Jacksonville's commanding lead narrowed in the final frame, he's facing a more prepared opponent this time around. As talented as any team in the league, the Steelers were ultimately done in by failures in situational football -- the one area that perhaps most defines the Brady-Bill Belichick dynasty.

Expect Belichick and likely Lions head coach Matt Patricia to employ a heavy dose of man-to-man coverage, challenging Jacksonville's young receivers to separate, spying Bortles' dangerous legs on third downs and forcing the scattershot signal-caller to make stick throws into tighter windows.

Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots

For all of the hullabaloo over Brady's status, his All-Pro tight end is the engine that makes the 2017 Patriots attack go. As dominant as Gronkowski has been throughout his unparalleled career, he's never been more important to Brady than the past few months.

The first NFL tight ends were offensive linemen sneaking outside for the occasional reception in football's dark ages before Bears legend George Halas split Mike Ditka out wide as a new breed in 1961. As Cardinals general manager Steve Keim pointed out a few years ago, today's tight ends tend to be limited players who fall into one of two categories: overgrown wide receivers struggling with blocking chores at the point of the attack or inline blocking specialists lacking the skill set to threaten defenses as effective pass catchers. The exception to that modern dichotomy is Gronkowski, custom-built by the gridiron gods to stand as the evolutionary tight end capable of swinging the biggest game of the regular season with an astounding five-play sequence the likes of which the position has rarely -- if ever -- seen.

Whereas Gronkowski broke the mould as a well-rounded behemoth with no weaknesses, natural selection on the other side of the ball has yet to generate a monstrous safety-cornerback-linebacker hybrid capable of shutting down the freakishly athletic tight ends and elusive scat backs in man coverage.

Jacksonville defensive coordinator Todd Wash happens to boast a pair of intriguing contenders, however. Speaking of Defensive Player of the Year candidate Jalen Ramsey, Patriots special teams ace Matthew Slater recently marveled, "The good Lord made that guy, and he said, 'Let there be corner.' And there he is."

While Ramsey has volunteered his unique skill set in service of stopping Gronkowski, Ravens safety Tony Jefferson has offered an alternative solution.

The Jaguars will upset the Patriots if they shut down Gronkowski, Jefferson predicted on NFL Total Access. "And I think the way they do that is put Myles Jack on him ... great cover guy."

A promising theory, but "even when Rob is covered, he's still open," as normally taciturn Belichick is all too happy to acknowledge.

If the Jaguars are truly going to "shut down" the tight-end juggernaut, they will need an unholy mashup of Jack's physical strength, Ramsey's elite coverage ability as well as injured safety Tashaun Gipson's range and instincts.

Key matchup


Leonard Fournette vs. Patriots front seven

How prescient does general manager Dave Caldwell look now in light of his post-draft pronouncement that the Fournette pick signals a move to "win-now mode" for Jacksonville?

An instant impact game-changer for Caldwell's outfit, the 2017 NFL Draft's No. 4 overall pick has exhibited a season-long trend of running like a chain-moving beast when healthy. Struggling through nagging lower-body injuries in the second half of the season, though, Fournette tends to gain hesitance and loses explosiveness when he's less than 100 percent -- naturally.

This presents a problem for Hackett's play-action attack at Gillette Stadium. Although Fournette is fully expected to get the green light for Sunday's tilt, he joins Brady as a mystery wrapped in a pregame riddle.

Prior to aggravating his ankle injury at the six-minute mark of the second quarter last week, the former LSU star had rushed 12 times for 72 yards (6.0 yards per carry) with eight carries of five or more yards. After the injury, conversely, a less fluid Fournette managed just 27 yards on 13 carries (2.08 YPC) with just one run of five yards. Already an extreme north-south runner, he seemed to lose all semblance of lateral agility as the game played out.

The Jaguars figure to align in the I-formation and hammer their smashmouth rookie into the teeth of a defense that largely abandoned its "big nickel" pass-defense package in favor of a 4-3 run-stuffing base against Tennessee last week. Will Fournette's ankle be up to the formidable task?

Prediction


As foolish as it would be to undersell a supremely talented Jaguars defense capable of destroying the pocket and wreaking havoc in the secondary, it's equally as short-sighted to overlook the most powerful head coach-quarterback-tight end triad in NFL history, bolstered by the hottest running back in the league over the past month.

New England's hallmark under Belichick is the reliable ability to distill an intricate plan designed to exploit the specific strengths and weaknesses of that week's opponent. Jacksonville, on the other hand, is the quintessential frontrunner, in dire need of an early lead to hide their quarterback, maximize their ground attack, pin their pass rusher's ears back and unleash their ballhawking defensive backs.

When the lights shine brightest in January and early February, I've learned not to doubt the lethal combination of Belichick's beautiful mind enhanced by Brady's cold-blooded assassin tendencies.

Patriots 27, Jaguars 16

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