Blake Bortles is one win away from playing in the Superbowl. Stop the world, we’re all getting off. On the other side, Peter Pan is quarterbacking New England in his eighth AFC Championship. Come Sunday, Pan (sorry, Brady), will have appeared in more AFC Championships than fourteen teams to have played in the conference.
In this preview article I discuss, among other things, the relative strength of Jacksonville’s defense and the likely New England gameplan, finishing with a confident if unsexy prediction.
Historically good defense, or lies, damned lies and statistics?
On Thursday NFL Research tweeted a graphic espousing the greatness of this year’s Jacksonville defense by comparing different facets to that of famous teams of the past. Here are those numbers:
- Fewer PPG allowed than 2015 Broncos
- Fewer pass YPG allowed than 2013 Seahawks
- More sacks than 2002 Buccaneers
- Better 3rd down defense than 2000 Ravens
- More defensive TDs than 1895 Bears
Is the fallacy of incomplete evidence at play here? The numbers are startling, for sure, but there is more than a hint of cherry-picking. With time on your hands and a penchant for, if not myth-busting, then at least balanced reporting, one can find a counterpoint to each statistic:
- The 2015 Broncos allowed just 283.1ypg against (the Jags allowed 299.2)
- The 2013 Seahawks made 28 interceptions (the Jags made 21)
- The 2002 Bucs turnover ratio was +21 (the Jags was +10)
- The 2000 Ravens allowed just 10.3ppg against (the Jags allowed 16.8)
- The 85’ Bears had 4 shutouts, including 2 in the post-season (the Jags had 1)
Perhaps the more pertinent point which illustrates just how good the Jacksonville defense is is the very fact that Blake Bortles is one game away from the Superbowl. That in itself is nothing short of remarkable given that Bortles ranks in the middle of the pack in almost all major quarterback rankings and last off-season admitted to “not being a natural thrower of the Football”. Analysts will quite often point towards game tape to bolster the perception of a QB who has a mediocre stat line, but on this occasion watching more of Bortles will only serve to reinforce the opinion that he is, objectively, a bad starting quarterback. Despite finding some success in tucking the ball and running for his life rather than trusting his arm, on Sunday the Jags will need their defense to be historically good to stand a chance.
How can Bill mastermind a victory?
Bill Belichick gets something out of everyone. Last week against Tennessee, Geneo Grissom and Deatrich Wise each had two sacks. Who? Exactly. But for all the talk of the ‘plug and play’ nature of the system in New England, it’s the adaptability of the team which merits most admiration. Belichick, along with Matt Patricia and Josh McDaniels, are unrivalled at taking away a team’s strength whilst simultaneously exposing their deficiencies, week in week out, regardless of the opponent. For all the Jaguars defensive dominance this season, their running game has been equally impressive. Rookie running back Leonard Fournette has had a sensational 1000 yard season and Jacksonville lead the league in 159.5ypg. Expect New England to stack the box, run blitz, and spy Blake Bortles on longer yardage downs where he has developed a propensity for scrambling.
On the offensive side of the ball, expect Brady to hand the ball off even more regularly than usual. New England have embraced a power running attack, rushing on average 34 times per game over the past three weeks. Sunday sees the return of Rex Burkhead, but expect Dion Lewis to handle the bulk of the work, which will remain largely inside the tackles to limit the effectiveness of speedy Jags linebacker Telvin Smith. Wherever possible Brady will look to work off play-action and get the ball out of his hands early to Amendola and Gronk, mitigating the risk of contested balls. The Jags will likely employ confident man coverage on the outside. In this regard, the battle between the greatest QB of all time, and an emerging, bullish secondary has the makings of a classic.
The Jaguars defense has the confidence of youth, not to mention the speed. They claim to fear no-one and their sincerity seems unquestionable. However, we’ve been here before. Bill Belichick is a genius (no hyperbole) who has masterminded 7 AFC Championship wins in his tenure with New England. Despite their defensive class, with a QB so flawed Jacksonville are un-pickable in a winner takes all scenario against the greatest coach and QB of all time. For their part, it won’t be much of a gamble for the Patriots to commit wholeheartedly to stopping the run and challenging Bortles to beat them. Assuming the concerns over stitches in Brady’s throwing hand don’t come to fruition, I can’t see past New England.
Jags 14-28 Pats.
Follow Joshua Edwards on Twitter, @Joshwa_1990.
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