JACKSONVILLE – It's the ultimate test to get to the ultimate game.
And really: What better way to get there?
The AFC South Champion Jaguars (12-6) will play the AFC East Champion New England Patriots (14-3) in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro Sunday at 3:05 p.m. and the answer is that there's absolutely no better – or tougher – way for the Jaguars to get to the Super Bowl.
The Patriots are the NFL standard.
They have made this game seven consecutive seasons, an absurd streak of success in a league built to prevent such dynastic runs. Defensive tackle Malik Jackson perhaps put it best this week when he called the Patriots "the gatekeepers" of the NFL, and in a sense he's right.
Head Coach Bill Belichick. Quarterback Tom Brady. Tight end Rob Gronkowski.
All are among the NFL's best at what they do, and all will be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame pretty much as soon as they are eligible. Their collective presence and the dynasty that is the Patriots make this by far the Jaguars' toughest challenge in this memorable season.
One key to beating the Patriots: being ready to face adversity, and being able to overcome it.
Jaguars Head Coach Doug Marrone on Jaguars Drive Time Friday talked about the Patriots' ability to take advantage of opponents' mistakes – and the need to respond when the Patriots do just that.
Defensive end Calais Campbell? He talked this week about the term Executive Vice President Tom Coughlin suggested the Jaguars defined themselves by way back last offseason: Grit.
"This game is going to come down to mental toughness and grit, and when the game is on the line who can be more focused and disciplined?" Campbell said. "I imagine the ball game coming down to the last drive and just who is going to grit out or who is going to be more tough in the final moments, and that's championship football."
Yes, the Jaguars must show grit on Sunday to win. Here are 10 other things the Jaguars must do:
1.Pressure Brady. If you can do it, you have a chance to win. If you don't, you have a chance to lose by a wide margin.
2.Limit Gronk.Gronkowski is the NFL's top tight end and it's not close. He and Brady take over games and drives by themselves. Disrupting, bothering or even limiting Gronkowski to the point that he doesn't dominate is one of the NFL's toughest tasks. But if you do it – again, you give yourself a chance.
3.Run.When the offensive line has run-blocked well in the second half of the season, the Jaguars have looked like a Super Bowl team. It did that against Pittsburgh. If it does it against New England Sunday, the thought here is the Jaguars will head to Minneapolis.
4.Protect the ball. The Jaguars are 8-0 this season when quarterback Blake Bortles doesn't commit a turnover. The Patriots are phenomenally good when they win the turnover battle. Bortles must make some plays downfield, but he must keep turnovers to a minimum.
5.Protect Bortles. As well as the Jaguars' offensive line run-blocked against the Steelers, they were equally good in pass protection. The Patriots don't bring pressure all the time; when they do it's effective. If the Jaguars match their no-sack Pittsburgh performance against the Patriots, the Jaguars will be very tough to beat Sunday.
6.Ignore the aura.You're not playing the championship banners; you're playing another football team. This won't be a problem for this Jaguars team. Confidence never is.
7.Chase and tackle.The Patriots thrive on the short passing game; they use it like many teams use their running game. A key Sunday: Can Jaguars linebackers Telvin Smith and Myles Jack use their speed to counter short passes to the Patriots' running backs? If Smith and Jack keep those plays to two-yard gains rather than six, the Jaguars will be winning those situations.
8.Score touchdowns in the red zone. The Jaguars have been the NFL's best team in this area this season, and they scored touchdowns on all five red-zone possessions in Pittsburgh Sunday. The Patriots are exceptionally good defensively in the red zone. Something's gotta give, but if the Jaguars are kicking a bunch of 25- to 35-yard field goals that could be trouble.
9.Spread it around.Bortles threw to nine different receivers against Pittsburgh. The Patriots almost certainly will gear the defense to stopping Jaguars rookie running back Leonard Fournette and the run. That will mean opportunities for Bortles in the passing game. If he utilizes his receivers as well as he did last Sunday, that will be a good sign for the Jaguars.
10.Pressure Brady. We may as well circle back on this. It's really the key to the whole thing.