This weekend isn’t one to send mixed messages about the challenge ahead: The Patriots are a better football team than the Jacksonville Jaguars. A much better team.
After consecutive weeks of facing two of the NFL's top teams, the Patriots will now take on a squad that may end up with the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft.
But the stakes don’t change for the Patriots, no matter the opponent, and it’s professional football. As they say, on any given Sunday, any team can beat another.
We’ve seen plenty of competitive games in the past between teams with discrepancies in terms of talent, and the Jaguars have shown a penchant for hanging tough this season, evidenced by three losses in overtime.
In previous weeks we’ve laid out a multitude of factors about the Patriots’ upcoming opponent that were worth noting and keeping an eye on come kickoff, but the message this week is about the Patriots themselves. If they play to their abilities, they should win this game. But that’s why they play the games, and there’s nothing to be taken for granted in the NFL.
With kickoff closing in, here’s five things we’ll be watching for:
1. Ball security. Turnovers doomed the Patriots in Week 15, and perhaps none has stirred the debate pot more than a fumble by running back Stevan Ridley, his second in as many weeks and fourth this season. Ridley’s fumbling woes made him essentially a nonfactor at the tail end of 2011, but a similar fate is highly unlikely this season. Nonetheless, Ridley must show he can be trusted to not only carry the football, but continue to carry the heavy load from the backfield.
2. Secondary work. After several weeks of improved play, the Patriots' secondary showed some leaks last Sunday night. The secondary didn’t perform poorly on the whole, but there appeared to be coverage breakdowns on a couple of occasions that proved costly. If there is a strength to the Jaguars' offense, it’s in the receiving core, as both Cecil Shorts III and Justin Blackmon have proved to be capable playmakers. Slowing them down is a must.
3. Jones back on track? Rookie defensive end Chandler Jones appears to be working his way back from an ankle injury that kept him out of two games recently, and dating back before the injury, he has not recorded a sack in four straight games. It’s not clear how close to 100 percent he is at this juncture, but the Patriots could use his pass-rushing presence that made such an impact earlier this season. Fellow rookie defensive end Justin Francis has provided some burst off the edge, and the Patriots are likely hopeful Jones can regain the form he showed earlier in 2012.
4. Who takes carries for Jacksonville? With Maurice Jones-Drew officially ruled out for Sunday by the Jaguars, the team will once again rely on a reserve back to carry the heavy load. We've seen Rashad Jennings, Jalen Parmele and Montell Owens each have a shot at the starting role, with Owens most recently getting the nod. The fact that MJD is not playing is certainly a positive for the Patriots, and the run defense will look to hold a team under 100 yards rushing in a game for the first time since Week 6.
5. Update: Gronk watch continues. After speculation that Rob Gronkowski could return to action after missing four games due to a broken forearm, a team source told ESPN senior NFL writer John Clayton on Friday night that Gronkowski would not play Sunday in Jacksonville. Despite the fact that he practiced each day this week, the team will sit Gronkowski for at least another week. Should the team's playoff seeding be determined before Week 17 play kicks off, it may also opt to sit Gronk until the first round of the postseason. His return to the field this year appears to be a matter of when, not if, and he'll provide a big boost to an already potent offense.