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2017 AFC Championship Game Preview

Matt Weston takes a shot at an AFC Championship preview, and gives his prediction.

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Buffalo Bills at Jacksonville Jaguars Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Stick stick stick to your guns. That’s something that I wish I would do. Instead I take in new information in this constantly changing world to make different decisions, rather than glue myself to the past like a rat begging to leave this world. So noble. Earlier this year, I wrote and said on Battle Red Radio that the Jaguars are the toughest match up for the Patriots and would also give the Steelers a rough time. Now, obviously, I changed my mind when I looked down from that balcony. I picked Pittsburgh last week. I thought they wold run the ball well, which they did, but their game plan and turnovers dug them into too deep of a grave for them to finger punch their way out of.

Yet again, I have yet another opportunity to be a man of my word. Which is something, I will kind of sort of do. I do declare the Jaguars will give the Patriots a tough time. For one simple reason. They can follow the blue print.

The Denver Broncos were the last team to beat the New England Patriots in a playoff game. They beat New England 26-16 in 2013 and 20-18 in 2015. In their last victory over them, the Broncos were able to get to Tom Brady with their front four. They sacked him 4 times, knocked him down 20 times, and were able to pressure him 31.1% of the time. This hornets nest had only four stingers. Denver blitzed just 16.4% of the time.

In addition to this, they intercepted Brady twice. The most important interception occurred when Von Miller surprisingly dropped back in coverage and stood in front of a Rob Gronkowski out route. This play set up a 16 yard touchdown drive. The Broncos took advantage of the opportunities they were given. Aside from an 83 yard opening touchdown drive, similar to the one Blake Bortles led against Pittsburgh last week, Denver’s scoring drives only took 23 and 48 yards.

Peyton Manning was Osweilerian in this game. Seven of Denver’s drives were three and outs. Manning completed 17 of 32 passes for 176 yards. But he made two touchdown throws. With the way their defense played all they needed was for Manning to make two throws, and not make mistakes. The worst quarterback to ever win a Superbowl was able to do exactly that.

The Jaguars can replicate this type of game. The 2015 Broncos defense had a pass defense DVOA of -28% (1st), a run defense DVOA of -22.8% (4th), and led the league in overall defensive DVOA. The Jaguars defense this year has a pass defense DVOA of -27.5% (1st), a run defense DVOA of -2.8% (26th), and led the league in overall defensive DVOA.

The Jags’ pass defense is led by their two outside cornerbacks and their front four. Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye is the best corner back combination in football, and both are top five players at their position. This season Ramsey has been targeted 92 times. He’s given up 5.4 yards a pass despite the average attempt traveling 14.5 yards down field, has a success rate of 63%, and has allowed 0.9 yards after the catch (via Football Outsiders’ Charting Stats). Bouye has been targeted 83 times. He’s given up 5.6 yards a pass despite the average attempt traveling 16.2 yards down field, has a success rate of 61%, and has also allowed 0.9 yards after the catch.

They play differently too. Ramsey is all about physicality and upper body strength. Bouye is more of a technician. He has perfect ballerina footwork that puts him in control of every route.

The majority of the time they play one sideline and stick to it. It works. The Jaguars are first at covering a team’s number one receiver (allowing 42.0 Y/G with a DVOA -58.5%) and are eighth at covering a team’s number two receiver (allowing 31.4 Y/G with a DVOA of -14.2%). They have a DVOA of -28.7% (1st) on the left sideline and a DVOA of -8.5% (14th) on the right sideline. New England has a fluid offense though. They are going to line up receivers all over the field, in a zoological range of formations, to get their receivers away from these two and in advantageous situations.

It’s going to be interesting to see if they decide to keep these two players out on their stoop, and then run a mix of cover one, and cover three, or if they will do something cRaZy like stick Ramsey or Bouye on Gronk, Bouye has been surprisingly great at covering tight ends throughout his career, and the other on Cooks.

The key for the Jags’ defense isn’t even covering Gronksowski. You really can’t. He’s going to get his. This season he of course had 69 catches for 1,084 yards, averaged 15.7 yards a reception, and had 8 touchdowns. He also led all tight ends in DYAR with 340, Travis Kelce was second with 198. He’ll rampage around with a refrigerator to his back. The Jags can limit him by doing things like jamming him at the line of scrimmage with a linebacker and then letting the safety take over, or as mentioned earlier, put Ramsey or Bouye on him. Myles Jack and Telvin Smith have the athleticism to run with Gronk, they just don’t have the coverage skills.

The other concern I have for the Jaguars’ passing defense is their ability to stop deep middle throws. This is purely a subjective thing. The Jags have been great against these plays. They have a DVOA of -42.1% against deep passes, and a DVOA of -91.9% against deep middle passes. Teams have completed 11/32 of their attempts to this part of the field and threw just 2 touchdowns to 6 interceptions, Ben Roethlisberger accounted for 3 of these interceptions.

Since the Jaguars play as much cover three as they do, and keep their spectacular corners on the sideline, the middle of the field is left up to their safeties. Tashaun Gipson is good on a great defense, and Barry Church is pretty good at everything, but neither is a player you want matched up one v. one with a receiver streaking down the middle of the field. The Seahawks were able to attack this part of the field. Roethlisbeger hit Martavis Bryant by isolating the safety in coverage before the end of the half.

Although the numbers don’t show it, I really do believe you can attack the Jaguars’ downfield if you go to the deep middle and its fringes, and run route combinations that isolate receivers against Gipson and Church. The Jags need to keep the Patriots’ passing attack to a minimum. They can give up yards to Gronk, but they can’t afford to give up yards to Gronk and to the deep parts of the field.

One way to prevent this deep passes is by getting pressure. Specifically interior pressure. Brady is older. He’s creakier and crankier. He still has great feet to side step exterior rushes, but he can’t deal with pressure that envelopes him immediately. Yannick Ngakoue is a stretchy spider with a great rip move, and is a master fumble forcer, and Dante Fowler Jr. is pretty good, but both will struggle to get to Brady quick enough. The Jaguars can’t repeat what Von Miller and Demarcus Ware did. Instead, exterior pressure will be an added bonus. They will depend on their interior pressure.

On the inside they have the gargantuan Calias Campbell, a man so big that even his face scrunches up in his helmet, and Malik Jackson, a former member of the Brady devouring Broncos. This season Campbell has 41 pressures, 14.5 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles. Jackson has 25 pressures, 8 sacks, and 4 forced fumbles. These two players need to have an all-time game. The problem with interior pressure is it’s hard to get one on one blocks. At least one interior rusher will get doubled by another big strong man. Both players have to make the most of their chances when they are blocked individually.

There are mismatches available for them too. Left guard Joe Thuney and center David Andrews both get eaten up by bull rushes, and swim moves can leave them heaving and leaning over.

If Brady can’t complete anything deep, and is forced to get the ball out quickly at a minimum, the Jaguars’ pass defense will have been successful. Jacksonville has the defensive speed to quickly come down and tackle quick passing attempts, and have been great at stopping short passes this season.

The Patriots’ offense isn’t one dimensional though. They did finish third in rushing offense DVOA with 10.4%. Dion Lewis has been one of the best running backs in the league since taking over the haul back in week 11. Since that point he has 123 carries for 632 yards (5.13 Y/C), 31 catches for 235 yards, and 6 total touchdowns.

The Patriots’ physicality and rushing attack is underrated. They run a lot of power plays, and are great at running inside zone lead plays. Fullback Mike Develin is like a jazz musician or jockey, bludgeoning defenders at a position that was more important in the past.

Jacksonville’s run defense numbers are screwed up. They were terrible to start this season. Then they traded for Marcel Dareus. As shown in Football Outsiders’ preview for this same game, the Jaguars’ run defense has been much better with him. In weeks 1-7 the Jags’ had a run defense DVOA of 8.4% (31st) and in weeks 9-19 they had a run defense DVOA of -12.4% (11th). Dareus is the pullout bed in the center of the couch.

The last thing Jacksonville has to do is set up some short and easy fields for their offense. The Jags created 32 turnovers this season, which puts them second in football. After turnovers the Jaguars have scored on 53.1% of their drives. This is the fourth highest rate. 10 of these drives ended in touchdowns. 7 ended in made field goals. The Patriots don’t turn the ball over though. They had only 12 this year. Turnovers are unacceptable in New England. They gave the ball up only 38 times combined in the last 3 years, and had the fewest number of turnovers in each of the last 3 seasons.

So even if, even if, the Jaguars’ defense is able to get limit either Gronk or the deep passing game, get quick interior pressure, stop the run, and set up easy fields for their offense, the Jags’ aren’t going to win. They are going to need their offense to do something. You can’t do nothing. You gotta do at least something.

This throw. This throw Blake Bortles made against Pittsburgh that turned the score from 28-21, to 35-21 has to be made at least once, and probably twice this weekend.

Bortles will have to do all the usual game managing: not get sacked, not turn the ball over, complete short and easy passes, and additionally, he will need to make one or two big plays. The Jags’ probably won’t be able to create a turnover. It would be rare for them get a short drive to score points on. They need Bortles to do things.

Bortles can though. Quick crossing routes are going to be there. He should have time to throw. The Patriots’ have a pressure rate of just 28.1% and Malcolm Butler and Stephen Gilmore have been disappointments. Gilmore is especially susceptible to getting beat downfield.

What the Jags’ probably won’t have is their run game. Let me hit you with a cliche real quick, the Patriots take away what you are best at. And what the Jaguars’ offense is best at, isn’t really anything, but what they want to do is run the ball. The Jags led the NFL in run attempts with 527, yards with 2,262, and were second in touchdowns scored with 18, but only managed to pick up 4.3 yards an attempt and had a DVOA of -4.8%.

The Jags are like the Titans. Both teams like to go heavy and run the ball, and throw it out of spread formations. Their run and pass attacks are dichotomous. Jacksonville also like to throw play action in creative ways to unknown tight ends in fullbacks in playoff games.

New England will do what they did last week to stop the Titans. They are going to load the box. They are going to spy Bortles.

There is no way the Patriots are going to allow Leonard Fournette to bounce anything wide, and there’s no way Bortles will be able to gallop for first downs like he did against Buffalo and Pittsburgh.

Even if Fournette isn’t able to get outside, he still is a riot. When he runs up the middle he goes through tackles, and always falls forward. Three yard runs become successful five yard runs. 3rd and 4 becomes 3rd and short.

When New England is discussed the conversation is dominated by Brady and Bill Belichick, just as they should, Brady is the greatest quarterback to play the game, and Belichick is the greatest coach in NFL history. What goes missing is the Patriots’ toughness. They hit. They can mash. Fournette should be able to fall forward for more, but the Patriots will meet him head on and gang around him to bring him down. It won’t be the same type of game he got against Pittsburgh’s weak inside linebacker group. Watching Fournette take Dont’a Hightower head on is going to end with explosions and bright colored blasts.

The Jags 100% have a chance to win this football game. Doug Marrone isn’t going to whimper and kick field goals and punt on fourth down conversion chances. Jacksonville will maximize every opportunity they get, something required to pull off this monumental task. They are the exact team that gives the Patriots’ fits. If Manning’s purple tonged corpse could be dragged to a win over New England, then why couldn’t Bortles’s luscious head of hair? He can. They can. They could. I just don’t see it coming to fruition though.

Instead I expect for the Jaguars’ defense to do enough for them to win, but their offense not being able to pick up the rest.

New England 20 Jacksonville 13