By Matt Citak
THE NFL ON CBS travels to Foxborough on Sunday for coverage of the 2018 AFC Championship game, as the AFC South Champion Jacksonville Jaguars take on the AFC East Champion New England Patriots at 3:05 PM ET on CBS.
Jacksonville beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in a shootout last weekend, pulling off the 45-42 upset at Heinz Field. Leading up to the game, the Jaguars were considered big underdogs against Pittsburgh. In fact, numerous members of the Steelers, including safety Mike Mitchell, running back Le’Veon Bell, and even head coach Mike Tomlin, were looking ahead to a potential rematch against the Patriots in the AFC Championship. Jacksonville had barely squeaked by the Buffalo Bills during the Wild Card round, beating Buffalo by a score of 10-3, and few people gave them a chance in Pittsburgh.
But Jacksonville came out of the locker room with a chip on their shoulder in the AFC Divisional Round. Jaguars first-year running back Leonard Fournette continued his stellar rookie campaign, carrying the ball 25 times for 109 yards (4.4 yards per carry) and three touchdowns against Pittsburgh’s stingy defense. Quarterback Blake Bortles threw for 214 yards and a touchdown, adding five carries for 35 yards. Most importantly, Bortles, who threw 13 interceptions and lost three fumbles during the regular season, took care of the ball against Pittsburgh. The fourth-year quarterback did not turn the ball over for the second consecutive game, a trend he will need to continue in New England this weekend if Jacksonville wants to extend their season another two weeks.
Following the victory, Jaguars stud corner Jalen Ramsey guaranteed a Super Bowl parade in Jacksonville next month. While having confidence is a good thing, THE NFL TODAY analyst Bill Cowher questioned whether or not it was a good idea to give the Patriots extra motivation heading into this AFC Championship game.
“I know Jalen Ramsey was talking about the Super Bowl. But he should have learned from last week, just like the Steelers were talking about New England,” Cowher said on Ramsey looking too far ahead. “You need to worry about this one game… The one thing you don’t want to do with this New England team is give them anything to put on the bulletin board. Trust me. And they should know that from last week.”
If Tom Brady and the Patriots offense is in sync like it was against the Tennessee Titans last weekend, then it may not matter how confident the Jaguars are. Brady completed 66 percent of his passes to seven different receivers, ending the game with 337 passing yards and three touchdowns. Dion Lewis added 15 carries for 62 yards (4.1 yards per carry), while Brandon Bolden and James White each scored a touchdown on the ground. It was a completely dominant effort by New England, which scored 35 unanswered points after falling behind 7-0 in the first quarter.
While it was a big win for the Patriots, THE NFL ON CBS lead analyst Tony Romo has come to expect that sort of performance from a Bill Belichick-led team.
“They had two weeks to prepare… If you give Bill Belichick that much time [they’re going to beat you]…” Romo said on New England’s victory over the Titans. “You’ve seen their defense get better throughout the year. The reason they improve better than other teams consistently every year is because more data. As the season goes on, Bill Belichick has more [of a] take on them. He really is a very uniquely special coach… He’s so gifted. His ability to take that information that he deems important, and give it to his staff, who then give it to the players, it’s just rare. Once he gets all that [information], it’s very hard to beat them.”
This matchup between the Jaguars and Patriots should be a wildly entertaining game. New England finished the regular season with one of the league’s most efficient offenses. The Patriots ranked first in total yards (394.2) and second in passing yards (276.1) and points per game (28.6). On the other side of the field, the Jaguars enter this AFC Championship with one of the NFL’s strongest defenses. Jacksonville ranked first in passing yards allowed (169.9) and second in total yards allowed (286.1) and points per game (16.8).
One of the primary focuses of the Jacksonville defense will be limiting the production of All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski. The star tight end caught six passes for 81 yards and a touchdown against Tennessee last weekend, upping his touchdown total to nine on the season. Gronkowski racked up 69 receptions for 1,084 yards (first among all tight ends) and eight touchdowns during the regular season, despite missing two contests. Slowing the 6-foot-6 tight end down will be key to Jacksonville’s defensive success against the Patriots on Sunday.
It certainly won’t be an easy feat, but Romo believes there is a way for Jacksonville to limit the talented tight end.
“For me, it’s disrupt Gronkowski at the line of scrimmage…” said Romo. “It’s not really in the system of Jacksonville, but a defensive end hits Gronkowski on his way out for a route. All of a sudden, he gets covered. You’re starting and stopping a really big guy. By doing that, you’re taking away their No. 1 man-to-man weapon, especially the vertical man-to-man weapon. That’s certainly something I’d consider doing…”
Another key to this game will be the battle between New England’s offensive line and Jacksonville’s defensive front. The Patriots’ o-line did a fantastic job of protecting Brady against the Titans last weekend. New England did not allow a single sack and Brady was hit just four times total. But the Patriots will face a different beast this weekend. Led by Calais Campbell and his 14.5 sacks, the Jaguars finished the regular season ranked second in the league with 55 sacks. Jacksonville picked up two sacks in each of their first two postseason contests, while racking up a combined 13 QB hits.
Between Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, Malik Jackson, and Dante Fowler Jr., the offensive linemen of the Patriots will have their hands full for all four quarters on Sunday.
“They have matchups everywhere… Somebody [on the defensive line] is going to be one-on-one,” Romo said about Jacksonville’s pass rush. “The idea is if you can get four pass rushers all on the field, it can really make it difficult on any team, because, number-wise, you have an opportunity for someone to get the [one-on-one] matchup. This game will be about matchups — the way that New England blocks and who they’re blocking in critical situations… That’s where this game is going to be won or lost…”
“Over the years, Tom Brady has been so exceptional. He barely beats the rush with a throw that’s perfect, and Gronk just out-muscles the guy and catches it. That’s special. That’s high-level football. Now can [Brady] do it half a second sooner than he’s normally used to doing [it]? Then it gets a lot harder. Jacksonville is going to try and do that…”
During the regular season, Bill Belichick moved into third place in the NFL record books for wins as a head coach. No one needs to be reminded of the head coach’s resume, which includes 276 career wins, five Super Bowl Championships, and three Coach of the Year Awards. However the one thorn in Belichick’s side has been the two postseason encounters with Tom Coughlin. Of course, Coughlin was head coach of the New York Giants for their two victories over the Patriots in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI. The 0-2 playoff record against Coughlin is Belichick’s worst mark against any opposing head coach throughout his 23-year head coaching career.
Coughlin took over as Jacksonville’s executive vice president of football operations prior to the start of the season. While he won’t be on the sidelines on Sunday, the former head coach has left his mark on every player and coach in the Jaguars locker room. With the sort of success he’s had against Belichick and the Patriots in the past, Coughlin can provide some insight to head coach Doug Marrone leading up to Sunday’s showdown.
“The one thing that Doug can lean on with Tom is his experience in playing in big games,” said Cowher.
No matter who comes out on top on Sunday, this AFC Championship game between the Jaguars and Patriots should be a fantastic matchup. With one of the league’s most dangerous offensive attacks going up against one of the NFL’s toughest defenses, there are guaranteed to be some fireworks. A trip to Super Bowl LII is on the line, and both of these teams will be doing all that they can to ensure themselves a trip to Minneapolis.
At the end of the day, Romo couldn’t have said it any better: “It’s a big game, and I’m really excited…”
This weekend’s AFC Championship game between the Jaguars and Patriots will be called by CBS Sports’ lead broadcast team, featuring Romo, play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz, sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson, and analyst Jay Feely.
THE NFL TODAY with Cowher, James Brown, Phil Simms, Nate Burleson and Boomer Esiason airs Sunday at 2:00 PM ET on CBS.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.