JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (12-6) at NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (14-3)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET, Gillette Stadium, TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Tony Romo, Tracy Wolfson (field reporter), Jay Feely (field reporter). WESTWOOD ONE: Kevin Kugler, Dan Fouts, Ed Werder. SIRIUS: 88 (WW1), 83 (Jax), 82 (NE). XM: 88 (WW1), 83 (Jax), 82 (NE).
SERIES HISTORY: 12th all-time meeting. Patriots lead series, 10-1. Though New England and Jacksonville have played a mere 11 times since the Jaguars inception in 1995, that includes four previous postseason matchups. New England won three of the previous four playoff battles, all in Foxborough, the lone loss coming in January 1999, a 25-10 defeat in head coach Pete Carroll's final game in New England. The Patriots won a previous AFC title game meeting 20-6 at the old Foxboro Stadium to advance to Super Bowl XXXI. New England won the last playoff battle with Tom Brady's undefeated Patriots defeating David Garrard's Jaguars 31-20 in January 2008, and the last meeting overall, a 51-17 beatdown at Gillette Stadium in September 2015.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Jaguars want to control the game and the clock. The best way to do that is to run the ball. They will do that by feeding RB Leonard Fournette on a regular basis. Last week, Fournette looked like he did the first half of the season when he was among the league's leading rushers. He gained 80 yards in his first 11 carries, but suffered an ankle sprain midway through the second quarter and only gained another 29 yards in 14 carries after intermission. He is expected to be at full strength for Sunday's game and if so, will likely get 25-30 carries. T.J. Yeldon needs to help out with a solid backup effort. The more success the ground game has, the more success Blake Bortles will have in passing the ball. The Jaguars are 10-0 this season, including their two playoff games, when Bortles doesn't throw an interception.
As soon as this matchup was finalized, one of the first things that Tom Brady mentioned in a weekly radio interview was a need to get rid of the ball quickly against Jacksonville's impressive pass rush. That quick, short passing game was something New England used successfully this year against the likes of the Chargers and Broncos. Though the Jaguars clearly have fast, athletic linebackers, opposing backs and tight ends have been productive against the unit. Look for Dion Lewis and James White to get into the passing game early, including with screen passes against the aggressive rush. Quick throws to WR Danny Amendola in the slot and TE Rob Gronkowski could also be a part of an up-tempo, fast passing game to try to neutralize the Jaguars' front. That could open things up for the complementary running back with Lewis, who's been rolling throughout the second half of the season as well as some opportunistic deep shots to WR Brandin Cooks.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Patriots WR Danny Amendola vs. Jaguars CB Aaron Colvin. While Jacksonville's All-Pro cornerback combo of Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye might be busy with the likes of WRs Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan and TE Rob Gronkowski, dealing with Amendola might be the biggest matchup issue. The trusted veteran proved himself a clutch postseason contributor with 11 catches for 112 yards in the win over Tennessee. With Tom Brady looking to get rid of the ball quickly against the Jaguars' pass rush, he may be looking to Amendola out of the slot early and often, putting Colvin in the spotlight for the Jaguars' star-studded defense.
--Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski vs. Jaguars defender. Who that defender is won't be known until game time as the Jaguars aren't about to reveal who will be on the Patriots' offensive weapon. Gronkowski led the league's tight ends in receiving yards (1,084) for the fourth time. He's such a matchup nightmare due to his size, physicality and deceptive speed. The Jaguars have several options in trying to contain him. They could put their most physical linebacker, Myles Jack, on him. They could go with FS Tashaun Gipson but he's recovering from an ankle injury suffered in last week's game and may not be at full strength. Or they could opt for one of the two cornerbacks, Jalen Ramsey or A.J. Bouye. One or a combination of the above will need to be at their best in shutting down Gronkowski if the Jaguars are to slow down the Patriots' offensive attack.
--Patriots OL vs. Jaguars DL. New England's solid-but-unspectacular line will be facing its biggest test of the season with the Jaguars' sack-happy front. Jacksonville has four guys with eight or more sacks. They bring speed and versatility from all over, led by the likes of DEs Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue. New England didn't allow a sack in the divisional playoff win over Tennessee, but keeping Tom Brady clean will be much tougher this time around. Past Patriots playoff upset losses have included pass protection struggles. The line needs to avoid that theme being an issue once again.
WEDNESDAY INJURY REPORT
DID NOT PARTICIPATE IN PRACTICE
--Wednesday: S Tashaun Gipson (foot), G Patrick Omameh (illness)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION IN PRACTICE
--Wednesday: S Barry Church (shoulder), RB Leonard Fournette (ankle), DT Malik Jackson (ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION IN PRACTICE
--Wednesday: QB Blake Bortles (right wrist), LB Paul Posluszny (abdomen)
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
LIMITED PARTICIPATION IN PRACTICE
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Jaguars DE Calais Campbell. Prior to this season, the Jaguars only had two position players who had played in more than three postseason games - Campbell with nine games (four starts) and DT Malik Jackson with eight games (seven starts). The Jaguars never needed more from Campbell than they will for this game. He set a franchise record for sacks (14.5) this year, but hasn't had a sack in the Jaguars' last four games. Last week against Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, the Jaguars had just two sacks in the Steelers' 58 pass attempts. Campbell, named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year by the Pro Football Writers of America, must lead a charge to put pressure on New England's Tom Brady to disrupt the Patriots' passing attack.
FAST FACTS: Jaguars -- QB Blake Bortles had pass TD last week. In last meeting, passed for 242 yards & 2 TDs. Passed for 3,687 yards & has 3,500+ pass yards in each of past 3 seasons. Has 14,928 pass yards since entering league in 2014, 4th most in NFL history by player in 1st 4 seasons. RB Leonard Fournette rushed for 109 yards & 3 TDs last week & is only rookie in NFL history with 100+ rush yards & 3+ rush TDs in postseason game. Led all rookies with 9 rush TDs & ranked 2nd with 1,040 rush yards. Is 1 of 2 rookies in franchise history (Fred Taylor) with 1,000+ rush yards. WR Keelan Cole ranked 4th among NFL rookies with 748 rec. yards. Had 17.8 rec. yard avg., highest among rookies (min. 25 catches). LB Telvin Smith tied career-high with 16 tackles & had FR-TD last week. Has 27 tackles, FF & FR in 2 career playoff games. Was 1 of 3 NFL LBs with 100+ tackles (102) & 3+ INTs (3). DE Calais Campbell led AFC with franchise-record & career-high 14.5 sacks. DE Yannick Ngakoue was 1 of 2 NFL players (Aaron Donald) with 10+ sacks (12) & 5+ FFs (6). CB A.J. Bouye has 2 INTs, FF & 7 PD in his past 4 postseason games ... Patriots -- QB Tom Brady is all-time postseason leader in career att. (1,378), comp. (866), pass yards (9,431) & pass TDs (66). Has 13 career 300+ pass yard games in playoffs, most in NFL history. Is 26-9 (.743) as starter in postseason, most wins by QB in league annals. Led NFL with 4,577 pass yards & ranked 1st in AFC with 32 TD passes, both most by QB at age 40 or older. Is making 12th career AFC CG appearance. In last game vs. Jax., completed 33 of 42 (78.6 pct.) for 358 yards with 2 TDs vs. 0 INTs for 118.1 yards. Aims for 3rd postseason meeting in row with 3 TDs, 0 INTs & 110+ rating. RB Dion Lewis led team with career-high 896 rush yards. Had 141 scrimmage yards (79 rec., 62 rush) in AFC Div. Has 507 scrimmage yards (126.8 per game) with 5 TDs (3 rush, 2 rec.) in past 4 (incl. playoffs). Had rush TD in last meeting. RB James White has 179 scrimmage yards (89.5 per game) & 5 TDs (3 rush, 2 rec.) in past 2 postseason games. Since 2015, has 15 TD catches (incl. playoffs), most among NFL RBs. TE Rob Gronkowski led all NFL TEs with 1,084 rec. yards, his 4th career 1,000+ yard season, tied with Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten for most among TEs in NFL history. In past 6 postseason games, has 512 rec. yards (85.3 per game) & 7 TDs. Aims for 7th playoff game in row with TD catch. WR Danny Amendola has 190 rec. yards (95 per game) & TD catch in past 2 playoff games. DE Trey Flowers had sack last week. Has 3.5 sacks in past 2 postseason games. LB James Harrison has 11 career sacks in postseason, tied for 5th most in NFL history.
PREDICTION: It seems unthinkable to pick the Patriots to lose at home in a conference championship game. In the Bill Belichick-Brady era, New England is 6-1 at home in the title game, with the only loss to Baltimore in the 2012 season. They have won by at least seven points in every victory and their last two over Indianapolis in 2014 and Pittsburgh last year have been by 38 and 19 points, respectively. This game should be closer and the condition of Brady's right hand, injured in practice Wednesday, might (we stress might) be a factor. Of course, lurking in the back of everyone's mind is that New England is 2-5, including two losses in Super Bowls, to teams coached by Tom Coughlin, who is now the Jaguars' vice president of football operations. Still, we won't do the unthinkable, but it won't be easy.
OUR PICK: Patriots, 23-16.