JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton break down three Jaguars keys for Sunday's AFC Championship Game between the Jaguars and New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts
1.Pressure with four. This is the most well-known page in the "book" on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady – or any pocket-based quarterback, for that matter. It also is something the Jaguars appear to have a chance to do. Some of the Patriots' most high-profile postseason losses – the Super Bowls to the Giants following the 2007 and 2011 seasons and the AFC Championship Game to Denver following the 2015 season – have come to teams able to pressure Brady without undue blitzing. When that happens, Brady – like most quarterbacks – can be pressured into hurried throws and interceptions. Particularly key for the Jaguars: defensive tackles Malik Jackson and Marcell Dareus, whose ability to pressure on the interior could be the Jaguars' most important matchup advantage. Dareus said this week Brady hates "gnats" who bother him in the pocket consistently. Jackson and Dareus must be gnats.
2.Play like it's Pittsburgh. Or Seattle. This is about the Jaguars' offensive line, a strong unit at times this season and an OK one at others. In two victories at Pittsburgh – one in the regular season and the other in last Sunday's Divisional Playoff – and a home victory over Seattle, the line was dominant. A strong running game defined those games, and quarterback Blake Bortles had time to throw, which allowed the deep passing game to work; the results were an offense that looked capable of scoring on any team in the NFL. At other times this season the Jaguars haven't been able to run when they wanted to run – and the results were an offense that couldn't complement an elite defense. When this offensive line is good, the Jaguars look capable of winning the Super Bowl. They need the good offensive line Sunday.
3.Score touchdowns in the red zone.The Jaguars showed against the Steelers they can move offensively, and they have shown the same most of the season. The Patriots have shown throughout the season they will allow yards. What the Patriots do as well as any team in the NFL is stop teams once they get to the red zone, and that's a major reason they were the AFC's No. 1 seed. The Jaguars were strong in the red zone this season, and scored five touchdowns on five trips inside the 20 against the Steelers Sunday. That kept enormous scoreboard pressure on the Steelers, and eventually allowed the Jaguars to hold off a second-half rally. If the Jaguars can get touchdowns in the red zone Sunday, they have a chance to win. If they settle for field goals, they could have trouble keeping pace.
1.Slow down Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.So how do you do that? A hint: don't do it by asking one guy to keep him in check – or even two. You take Brady's biggest weapon away by taking time and comfort away from the quarterback. Brady is rarely rattled and his vast playoff experience affords him vision and uncommon understanding of what the defense is doing. Jaguars defensive tackle Marcell Dareus said it best Monday: Brady can take a sack, get up and throw a touchdown pass on the next play … not a problem. But if you are constantly in his face, like the gnats in summer around here, he gets flustered and impatient; he doesn't like it. So, if you're worried about Gronk – and you're not alone – worry first about Brady and one might cancel the other out.
2.Have a creative game plan. If Bortles was the star of the show in Pittsburgh, then the best supporting actor was offensive coordinator Nate Hackett. He went new directions, utilizing tight ends other than Marcedes Lewis – and was any touchdown more fun to watch over and over this week than that from fullback Tommy Bohannon? Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick is famous for taking away what you do best, so find a couple of things you do really well and keep him guessing what's coming next. We talked in the preseason about managing Bortles' pass attempts, keeping him balanced and in the mid-20s in terms of number of attempts. If you feel it this week, completely disregard the pitch count and let him go. Whatever it takes; there's nothing to hold back for now.
3.Don't look up.If you pay attention to the five Super Bowl banners, or read any of their press clippings, the game is over before it starts. They've won nine consecutive AFC East titles, this is their seventh consecutive appearance in the AFC Championship Game … blah, blah, blah. We all get it. The Patriots have played at a level that defies the laws of professional football for a length of time that nearly defies the laws of physics. Who cares? They didn't finish 16-0, but even when they did, the Jaguars nearly beat them in Foxboro 10 years ago – and that Jaguars team wasn't close to as good as this team. This Jaguars team is a good football team – a very good football team – that can beat anyone, anywhere … even the Patriots in New England in the AFC Championship Game. This team needs to keep their emotions in check and have their minds keenly focused on Sunday; if they do, and I have every confidence that they will, they're going to be in a position to win and advance to their first Super Bowl.