FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots are heavily favored over the Jacksonville Jaguars in this Sunday’s AFC Championship Game, and understandably so. They are playing at home, have Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, and a defense that just set a franchise record for most sacks in a playoff game.
So what has to happen for the Jaguars to have a chance at the upset, and why should Patriots followers possibly believe that Jacksonville is equipped to potentially pull it off?
Here is a touchdown’s worth of thoughts (with an extra point):
1. Turnover differential can’t be negative. The Patriots are 16-0 in the playoffs under Belichick when they have a positive turnover differential. Including the regular season, they are 159-15 with a positive turnover differential under Belichick (2000 to present). Those are decisive statistics. So the best chance to beat them is by winning the turnover differential (Patriots are 42-48 in the negative under Belichick), or at least drawing even (Patriots are 39-20 under Belichick). One potential positive for the Jaguars: They were plus-10 in the regular season, which tied for the fifth-best mark in the NFL. The Patriots were plus-six, which ranked 11th.
2. Generate pressure with standard four rushers. One way to win the turnover battle is to speed up Brady’s decision-making process by generating pressure with the standard four rushers. That’s what the Giants had success with in Super Bowl XLII -- pretty much selling out against the pass and daring the Patriots to run -- and the 2017 Jaguars have the personnel to possibly duplicate that approach. The Giants often rushed end Justin Tuck over the center in that game, targeting matchups that exploited the interior of the Patriots’ offensive line. Brady had said after that game that it was like trying to throw through trees in a forest because of the length of the Giants’ defensive linemen.
3. Embrace the mentality of being in a 12-round fight. This was what Jaguars executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin’s old Giants teams did when they faced Belichick’s Patriots, and it’s why they gave New England as much trouble as anybody. The Jaguars, as evidenced by what they accomplished Sunday in Pittsburgh, have that type of mentality. That’s no surprise, because Coughlin’s fingerprints are all over the team’s revamped culture in 2017. Those who know Coughlin relay that he is especially proud of being one of the few coaches who had teams that stood up to the challenge against Belichick’s teams in high-stakes games.
4. Score points on defense or special teams. Referred to in New England as “bonus points,” the Jaguars have the defensive DNA to support their run-first offense by putting points on the scoreboard. They’ve scored eight defensive touchdowns this season. Their cornerbacks, in particular, can get physical. Patriots receivers, on the other hand, have had some struggles uncovering against physical corners.
5. Blake Bortles needs a Mark Sanchez-like performance. In the Patriots’ 28-21 upset loss to the Jets in the 2010 divisional round, Sanchez, the Jets’ quarterback, stayed within himself and played an efficient, clean game. He was 16-of-25 for 194 yards, with 3 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. Half of his total passing yardage came on two plays (58, 37 yards), which reflects how Bortles needs to hit a few deep shots against the Patriots. He can do that, as he showed Sunday against the Steelers. And as the Patriots have shown at times this season, they’ve been vulnerable to the big play.
6. Play keep-away and/or win on third down/in the red zone. One line of thinking is that by pounding Leonard Fournette and the running game, the Jaguars can keep the ball away from Brady and the offense. That fits their style of play, as they had an average time of possession of 31 minutes, 47 seconds in the regular season. Meanwhile, the Patriots ranked 31st in the regular season in average yards allowed per carry (4.7). But as the Jets’ 2010 divisional-round victory over the Patriots showed, that doesn’t necessarily have to be the formula. The Patriots won the time-of-possession battle that day 34:56 to 25:04, but the Jets' combination of forced turnovers, timely third-down stops (Patriots were 5-of-14) and red zone holds (Patriots were 2-of-4) kept the Patriots at arm’s length. The Jaguars could be built to play that way, as they ranked fourth in the NFL on third down in the regular season and second in red zone defense (based on TD percentage: 28 trips, 11 TDs).
7. Take a page from Sean Payton’s Super Bowl book and steal a possession. When the Saints were playing Peyton Manning and the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV, head coach Sean Payton wanted to take one possession away from such a lethal offense and called a surprise onside kick at the start of the second half. It was a brilliant concept, backed by solid execution, and was instrumental in New Orleans’ 31-17 victory. Perhaps the Jaguars take a similar approach. With kicker Josh Lambo, they have already shown a knack for this late in the season by recovering a high-bouncing onside kick against the 49ers.