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