JACKSONVILLE – Jaguars.com senior writer John Oehser each week during the 2017 regular season will speak with a writer or media member covering the Jaguars' opponent.
Up this week:
ESPN New England Patriots writer Mike Reiss on the Patriots as they enter Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the Jaguars at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts
Question: The Patriots are defending Super Bowl champions and playing in their seventh consecutive AFC Championship Game. They're the No. 1 seed in the AFC. How do they feel about themselves as this game approaches?
Answer: They feel good. This is not the best Patriots team under [Head Coach] Bill Belichick, but it has the two things Belichick has mentioned in the past that he feels define the teams he feels comfortable going into these big moments with. That's physical and mental toughness to go along with the ability to come through in pressure situations. When the Jaguars were up here for joint practices during August, that was really the beginning of that journey. You have an idea what you have at that time, but you're really just laying down the bricks of what you hope it's going to be. They got hardened over the course of the season. They've had to deal with a lot of personnel situations in terms of injuries and shuffling guys in and out of certain parts of the lineup. As they get into this game, they feel like they've got a group on both sides of the ball and on special teams they feel good about going into this game with.
Q: You didn't mention quarterback Tom Brady. Is there anything about this season that differentiates it from others for him?
A: He threw eight interceptions. Maybe that's a little higher than you would have expected. That's the first thing, and think about what I just said: Eight interceptions are higher what you expect. The bar is very high. But they came in bunches and were all in the back half of the year. When they lost [wide receiver] Julian Edelman for the year in the preseason with a torn ACL [anterior cruciate ligament], it took away his go-to guy. Then, you add in [wide receiver] Brandin Cooks from the offseason trade [with New Orleans]; it's a little bit of a different attack than we've seen. There was an adjustment period with that. He [Brady] is most likely going to win the [NFL] MVP. I won't argue against that, but in terms of his best seasons I don't think 2017 is going to be on the top of the list. It's still so good, though, that you don't want to minimize that. We're talking about such a high-level player that the performance might be down a little bit, but it's still extraordinary.
Q: When teams have succeeded in slowing this team down, is there a commonality?
A: No. 1, it's always turnovers. Under Belichick in the regular season from 2000-2017, when the Patriots win the turnover differential, they are 143-15. Belichick always says, "Few stats correlate to wins and losses more than turnovers." If you want to strip every other piece of analysis down and go to one thing, that's it. The game that's relevant is the 2010 Divisional Playoff against the New York Jets. The Jets came into Gillette Stadium, kept the ball away from the Patriots, got a turnover and made some plays defensively to get them off the field. I'd say the second part is the thing that ties into [Jaguars Executive Vice President] Tom Coughlin. The two [Patriots losses in] Super Bowls against the [Coughlin-coached] Giants are great games to look at. The Giants in 2007 said, 'If you want to run it, run it. We're going to invite you to run it.' They put four defensive ends on the field. They put their arms up. Brady said it was like trying to throw through the trees of the forest. Being able to get to him with four rushers fast, drop seven – that's the schematic aspect of it. Then there's the mental aspect of it: you have to believe you can do this. Stand up to this team. It's not my place to speak for him, but I would think he (Coughlin) takes pride in being one of the few coaches and teams that stood up to them (the Patriots) and said, "We're going to embrace this challenge." Those would be the three things to me that stand out.
Q: The Patriots struggled for the first four games of the season defensively and since have turned it around in a major way. Why?
A: They ran into some issues with communication in the secondary early in the season. They had some plays where they weren't even giving themselves a chance before the snap to have a good play. That was dealing with bunch formations and part of it was adjusting to new personnel. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore was a free-agent signing [from the Bills] getting used to playing a new scheme and the Patriots were getting used to him and what he was comfortable with. They worked through some of those issues early in the season, and they also lost outside linebacker Dont'a Hightower, a glue guy for them. Off-the-line linebacker has been a little bit of an issue for them, trying to figure out how to handle that situation. This team always is going to be a good tackling defense. They get better as a tackling unit as seasons go on and they get more practice time. They take a lot of pride in that and it's going to be a big thing in this game with [Jaguars running back Leonard] Fournette and the [Jaguars'] running game. They're a good tackling defense, fundamentally sound. They're not a huge pressure team in terms of blitzing unless it's favorable combinations.
Q:This is another season with coordinator "distractions" for the Patriots, with defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels both rumored to be connected to head-coaching positions. But that never really has bothered this franchise ….
A: Definitely not. They have so much history with this, going back a decade. In 2005, offensive coordinator Charlie Weiss and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel left for head-coaching jobs. Josh McDaniels in 2009 to Denver, [then-offensive coordinator] Bill O'Brien to Penn State earlier in the decade. They have a nice way of compartmentalizing and understanding, "I'm getting what I need to get done for the team and now I can take care of that piece." It was telling that Bill Belichick after the [Divisional Playoff victory over the] Titans [Sunday] singled out both coordinators without being asked.
Q: Last question: Do you feel like this is a team destined to win it? The Patriots are obviously the favorites, but is this an unstoppable force?
A: I don't see it as unstoppable because this is a team that has shown if they come out and don't play their game, they can be beaten. Even in games they have won, you can make points they easily could have lost some of these games if things didn't go their way. So, I don't think they're unstoppable. They can be beat. In saying that, I do think if they play their game they should win. But I'm not saying they're going to win because that's not the way it works. They have to go out and play their game. I'm not going to fall into the same trap I did in 2007 when they were playing the Giants in the Super Bowl and everyone thought it was a fait accompli. I learned from that. That's football. If they slip, it would be that they don't play with energy and that they have uncharacteristic turnover – and combine that with the other team bringing their A-Plus game.