Tom Brady and the New England Patriots are an unstoppable force on their way to a record-equalling sixth Super Bowl title, aren’t they?
Well, unstoppable force, meet immovable object, as the Jacksonville Jaguars’ stellar defense rolls into town for the AFC Conference Championship on Sunday – live on Sky Sports Action from 7pm.
Jaguars @ Patriots
January 21, 2018, 7:00pm
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Brady led the NFL in passing this season, with 286.1 passing yards per game, while the Jaguars led the league in pass defense (169.9 YPG allowed).
A look at Blake Bortles' main danger men plus the hard-hitting Calais Campbell, ahead of the AFC Championship game
Since 1990, the No 1 passer has faced the top pass defense three times, with the latter prevailing in all of those. So, will the Jaguars D make that four wins from four?
With the help of Washington Redskins cornerback Josh Norman and Denver Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, we look at the five keys to the Jaguars causing an upset in New England…
Take down Tom Brady
“They’ve got to get the quarterback.” It’s as simple as that, according to Norman, who is joining Sky Sports’ live coverage of Super Bowl LII on February 4.
If Jacksonville are to be there too, that’s what they need to do – bring pressure on the Patriots QB, who has been hampered by a hand injury this week. “You’ve got to cut the head off the snake,” adds Norman.
Josh Norman says he's excited to be joining Sky Sports' Super Bowl coverage, though adds he'd rather be playing in the game
Brady has only a 3-4 record in the playoffs when sacked three or more times. And, this ‘Sacksonville’ team might just be the perfect team to get after him – they had the second-most sacks (55) in the NFL in 2017, trailing the Pittsburgh Steelers by only one. They are also No 2 in QB pressure rate (30 per cent of plays).
Adding to a tricky match-up for Brady is the fact that the Jaguars are able to do this with predominantly only a four-man rush, allowing the defense to drop seven players in coverage on a consistent basis – it all adds up to the league’s No 1 outfit in pass defense.
Forcing Brady deep
A look at the Patriots' danger men that Tom Brady has to choose from heading into the AFC Championship game
Brady threw the third-most deep passes in the NFL this year, with 80 attempts, but ranked 11th in passer rating on such throws (88.5), with only five touchdowns to four interceptions. That’s down significantly on 2016, where he had eight TDs and only one pick, for a 124.4 rating. Maybe old father time is finally catching up with the 40-year-old QB and, specifically, his arm strength?
The Jaguars will be happy if Brady continues to try his luck on the deep ball, particularly as they have allowed the third-lowest completion percentage in the league on deep passes this season – 16 of 70 attempts (22.9 per cent).
Antonio Brown scored two touchdowns against the Jaguars, including this brilliant catch deep
Their cornerback pairing of Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye are particularly strong, with the two combining for only seven completions allowed on 33 deep targets this season, though Bouye did get burned by Antonio Brown on a couple of occasions in the thrilling win over the Steelers last Sunday.
Still, forcing Brady deep potentially helps keep the ball away from star tight end, and match-up nightmare, Rob Gronkowski in the middle of the field.
‘Walk the walk’
Watch this Brawl erupt between the Bengals and Jaguars players during Week 10 of the NFL
Jacksonville’s brilliant young defense has occasionally got itself into trouble this season due to a somewhat brash attitude, typified by Ramsey – the second-year corner went at it with Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green earlier this year, sparking a mass brawl.
“I told him almost every play that he was weak, that he was soft,” Ramsey said at the time. “Those are straight facts. He just can’t handle the truth. He got mad.”
The quote speaks to Ramsey’s unwavering confidence, which again was in evidence after the divisional round win over the Steelers, telling Jacksonville fans: “We’re going to the Super Bowl and we’re going to win.”
NFL Network's Tom Pelissero talks with Jacksonville's Calais Campbell in the locker room following their 45-42 victory over the Steelers, just as he predicted
“They talk the big game, that defense, let’s see if they can walk it,” says Washington’s Norman, who has got into his fair share of heated exchanges with opposition receivers before, most notably Odell Beckham Jr. Ramsey has been able to back-up his words so far this season, named an All-Pro, but will need to again on Sunday.
Embracing the elements
In the Brady era, the Patriots are 18-3 at Foxborough in the playoffs, and the road to the Super Bowl once again runs through New England.
The Patriots have been the No 1 seed in the AFC for five of their seven Super Bowl appearances since 2000, with 2001 and 2004 the only exceptions. They thrive in this environment, and have yet to lose an AFC Championship game at home in that span.
Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders talks from experience on how to get the better of Tom Brady and the Patriots
“It’s going to be cold! It’s going to be brutal,” says Broncos receiver Sanders, who has experienced the unwelcoming environment of a playoff game in New England.
His Broncos team were the last to get the better of the Patriots in an AFC Championship game, two years ago, though, admittedly, it was in Denver. So what does it take to beat them?
Stefon Diggs stepped up for the Vikings in the final seconds of their thrilling divisional round win over the Saints
“Big-time players need to make big-time plays,” says Sanders. “Don’t be the guy that ruins the game. Be the guy that makes the play to win the game.
“Look at Stefon Diggs, who made that play for the Vikings last week – that was a crazy game, wasn’t it? Be accountable. Don’t worry about your team-mates – just do your job.”
Jacksonville’s big-time players that will need to put their hand up then are, as well as Ramsey, season sack leader, Calais Campbell (14.5) and, on offense, quarterback Blake Bortles and rookie runner Leonard Fournette.
Fournette could be in for a heavy load. The rookie has six 100-yard games this season (including playoffs), tied for second-most in the NFL, behind Todd Gurley. The Patriots allowed 4.7 yards per carry this season – second-worst in the NFL – though they have never given up 60 yards to a rookie in the playoffs before.
Meanwhile, the much-maligned Bortles has struggled of late, following an encouraging run in December of three games with seven TDs and zero interceptions, leading the league in passer rating (129.1). In his four outings since, those numbers read four TDs, five picks, and a 69.8 rating, though he was improved in the second half against the Steelers. Will he step up again on Sunday?
Blake Bortles expects there to still be many doubters despite the Jaguars' impressive victory over the Steelers
Watch the Conference Championship finals in the NFL playoffs, starting with Jacksonville Jaguars @ New England Patriots, on Sunday from 7pm, live on Sky Sports Action.
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