Both on paper and on the field, the Jacksonville Jaguars defence is built to stop Tom Brady.
The New England Patriots may be the more well-rounded and complete team in tonight’s AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium, but the Jaguars’ formidable unit is designed to even the playing field.
With their combination of pass rushing and lockdown cornerbacks, it’s no wonder the Jaguars finished the regular season boasting the second-fewest yards allowed in the NFL (286.1 per game), second-fewest points surrendered (16.8), fewest passing yards against (169.9), the lowest passer rating (68.5), the second-most sacks (55) and second-most takeaways (33).
New England, meanwhile, had the second-best scoring offence in the league (28.6 points) and gained the most yards (394.2) with Brady again leading a high-octane attack.
When Brady meets the Jaguars, it’ll be a case of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.
However, the Patriots are more uniquely equipped to exploit Jacksonville in ways other teams have failed to do this season.
According to Sharp Football Analysis, the Jaguars’ defensive effectiveness has been highly dependent on which offensive formation they face.
When opposing offences lined up with three wide receivers or more, Jacksonville had the league’s best success rate at 39 per cent, the fewest yards per attempt at 5.0 and the second-best passer rating at 59.
When offences lined up with one or two wide receivers though, the Jaguars’ defensive ranks fell sharply as their success rate of 55 per cent (23rd), yards per attempt of 9.6 (28th) and passer rating of 99 (18th) were all in the bottom half of the league.
The discrepancy plays right into the Patriots’ hands as Sharp Football Analysis found they used 11 personnel (three wide receivers) the sixth-least of any team in the league, while using 21 personnel (two wide receivers, two running backs and one tight end) the most.
When using 21 personnel, New England had a 64 per cent success rate, 9.0 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 133.
If the Patriots flash the threat of a running game, Jacksonville will be forced to put their base personnel on the field on early downs, which would make them more susceptible to play action while potentially slowing down their pass rush.
Brady could then attack mismatches in the middle of the field which pit the Jaguars’ linebackers on New England’s shifty running backs and tight end Rob Gronkowski.
While the weakness of Jacksonville’s defence makes this a more comfortable match-up for Brady than initially meets the eye, the Jaguars have two aces up their sleeves that could potentially neutralise the Patriots’ advantage.
The first could see two All-Pros battle head-to-head if Jacksonville cornerback Jalen Ramsey is lined up on Gronkowski.
Cornerbacks are usually at a size disadvantage against Gronkowski, but the 6-foot-1 Ramsey possess elite athleticism along with physicality that could disrupt the tight end, particularly in the red zone.
“He hasn’t played a corner like me before,” said the ever-confident Ramsey.
Jacksonville’s other equaliser could be their pass rush, which has the ability to generate pressure on with the front four alone – the exact style that gave Brady and the Patriots trouble in both Super Bowl losses to the New York Giants.
And while former Giants coach Tom Coughlin won’t be on the sidelines tonight (UAE: 00:05 +1), he’s helped put together the Jaguars’ personnel with the knowledge of what if takes to beat New England.
Plenty of attention has been paid to Brady’s mysterious hand injury in the lead-up, but there’s no doubt the biggest obstacle standing in his way of another Super Bowl appearance is a hungry and capable Jacksonville defence.
Here are five things we learned from week 12 of the NFL.
AFC IS SIGNIFICANTLY WEAKER
As the weeks go on, it’s becoming more and more clear that the NFC’s depth of quality teams far outweighs what the opposite conference has.
Whereas the NFC has five teams with a record of 8-3 or better, the AFC only has two in New England and Pittsburgh. After the cream of the crop in the AFC, there’s a severe drop off with Kansas City leading the AFC West with just six wins, while the wild card race could produce a winner with an 8-8 record.
ARIANS WORKING MAGIC WITH BLAINE
Blaine Gabbert may be in the midst of a revival after leading the Cardinals to a win over one of the best defences in the league in Jacksonville.
While he’s made his share of mistakes over his two starts (three interceptions), he’s also moved the ball through the air and looked like a capable quarterback. His 87.6 passer rating doesn’t jump off the page, but it’s impressed coach Bruce Arians enough to say he could see Gabbert as the starter in 2018 if Carson Palmer is no longer around. Arians’ system can work wonders it seems.
CRABTREE, TALIB SUSPENSIONS VALID
Michael Crabtree and Aqib Talib were each handed a two-game suspension for fighting in Sunday’s game, which may sound too harsh, but it’s a worthwhile precedent to set.
Crabtree and Talib are taking their bad blood too far and while the latter’s chain-snatching antics are comical, the fact is both players were representing themselves in a poor light while also hurting their teams by being ejected. Both of them need to grow up, act like adults and not throw hands again when they likely meet next season.
IT’S GO TIME FOR JIMMY G
The universe forced the 49ers hand and thrust Jimmy Garoppolo into action at the end of Sunday’s game after C.J. Beathard was knocked out, but it’s time for coach Kyle Shanahan to make the switch himself.
That’s no knock on Beathard, but San Francisco need to see what they have with Garoppolo before the offseason hits and they have to decide whether or not to hand him a big long-term contract. Beathard’s injuries aren’t serious, but they may provide enough of an excuse to make the move.
EAGLES PUT ON A GOOD SHOW
And that’s not even referring to their quality of play. No team has pulled off consistently fun team celebrations after touchdowns like the Eagles this season.
After hearing players’ gripes for so long that the league was sapping all the fun out with their strict celebration rules, it’s nice to see Philadelphia take advantage of the new lax guidelines and do something seemingly every week that’s worth tuning in for, whether that’s baseball simulations or choreographed dances.
Defence and the Baltimore Ravens are synonymous once again and the unit’s stinginess continues to cover up shortcomings on the other side of the ball.
Baltimore’s two phases have been on opposite ends of the spectrum this season, with the defence proving to be one of the best in the league while the offence has been mediocre at best.
The contrast was evident in the 23-16 win over Houston on Monday night, when the Ravens stymied the Texans in the second half and came up with key turnovers to earn a victory that wasn’t aesthetically pleasing, but enough to move them to 6-5 and keep them alive in the playoff race.
Their offence, meanwhile, was outgained 303 to 294 by Houston as quarterback Joe Flacco threw for just 155 yards, but the defence allowed just two field goals after the intermission and produced a fumble and interception on the Texans’ final two drives.
“The defence wants the game in their hands,” said Baltimore coach John Harbaugh. “If they don’t score, we win – that’s the mentality of those guys.”
The Ravens’ pass defence has been particularly stout this season, ranking first in the league in passer rating allowed at 65.9, while being second in average pass yards given up with 189.9 and completion percentage surrendered at 57.2 per cent.
But perhaps their most impactful attribute has been their knack for timely interceptions, which they now have 18 of to lead the NFL.
“We have a goal,” said safety Tony Jefferson, who had his first pick with Baltimore in the win over Houston. Our mindset is to take the ball away and have the offence protect the ball. We did that, and I think that’s an old saying – ‘If you win the turnover battle, you usually win the game.’ We have to continue to do that.”
As effective as the defence has been, Baltimore is still only one game above .500 and will have to earn a playoff spot the rest of the way.
That’s why Flacco understands he and the rest of the offence will have to turn it around to accomplish their ultimate goal.
“If we believe we can win the Super Bowl with how we’re playing right now, I’m all for it. I really am,” Flacco said.
“[But] we can all take a look at that and say it’s probably not super-realistic. We need to go out there, we need to go get it and we need to be better on our side of the ball.”