New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady throws a pass during the AFC Divisional round playoff win over the Tennessee Titans on Saturday. Photo by Matthew Healey/UPI | License Photo
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Certainly, the New England Patriots' (14-3) offense was always going to be in the spotlight this week leading up to Sunday's AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium against the Jacksonville Jaguars (12-6).
New England's No. 1 overall offense and No. 2 scoring attack is set to take on Jacksonville's defense that's No. 2 in both yards and points.
It's a classic battle.
The focus on the Patriots' offense only grew Wednesday afternoon in Foxborough when Tom Brady failed to make it to his scheduled afternoon press conference set to air live on NFL Network. New England's public relations staff announced that Brady was meeting with the team's medical staff and would be on the forthcoming injury report, which he was listed as limited for the day's work due to an injury to his right hand.
Shortly afterwards, the Boston Herald reported that Brady suffered the new injury - he was listed at various points during the regular season with both left shoulder and Achilles injuries - occurred when "one of his teammates accidentally ran into him and jammed his right throwing hand. X-rays were taken revealing no structural damage."
History would seem to indicate that Brady will be under center when New England takes the field on Sunday because other than missing all but one quarter of action in 2008 to a torn ACL, he has never missed a game to injury.
But the issue certainly bears watching for the 40-year-old All-Pro, especially given the challenge that the Jaguars present. Jacksonville in many ways is built around its defense, even if the unit did allow the Steelers to score 42 points in the divisional playoff.
Jacksonville has the NFL's No. 1 passing offense thanks to a combination of All-Pro cornerbacks, linebackers and defensive linemen. The Jaguars had 55 sacks during the regular season, and had four guys with eight or more sacks led by Calais Campbell's 14.5. They also had 21 interceptions among their 33 takeaways, second-most in the NFL in each category.
"They are competitive. They are a very, very competitive defense - fast, tough, physical and like I said, competitive," Patriots All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski said. "You have to be ready to bring it. You have to be ready to play. You have to be ready to make tough plays. There are going to be no easy open plays or wide-open plays. They are going to be tough, contested plays that we are going to have to make. They are just very competitive."
Not only do the Jaguars make traditional good plays on defense, they score points. Jacksonville had seven defensive touchdowns during the regular season. All-Pro linebacker Telvin Smith had a 50-yard scoop-and-score fumble recovery in last weekend's win in Pittsburgh.
"Top of the league in everything, starting with turnovers, sacks, negative plays (forced) and points, you name it," head coach Bill Belichick said. "They are good tacklers and they are good at stripping the ball. Everybody is good at stripping the ball - their whole team is. Their front guys, their linebackers, their secondary - they are all good at taking the ball away with strips, interceptions, tipped balls and so forth. That's why they have so many of them. They are a very explosive group on defense. They can score when you have the ball and that's always a very threatening thing. Not only can they take the ball away, but they can take the ball away and score. I think that speaks to the explosiveness of their team."
Belichick then concluded by dismissing a question wondering if the Jacksonville defense had any weaknesses that New England could exploit.
"I think we're going to have to play our best game of the year," Belichick said simply.
That will require Brady to prove he's healthy enough to lead the New England offense against by far the best, most talented defense the Patriots have faced all season.
"We have to be ready. We have to be prepared. It is going to be a big, tough challenge, for sure," Gronkowski said.
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.
--Experience is generally seen as a benefit, whether it be in sports or life. The Patriots will be playing in their seventh straight AFC title game on Sunday. Head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady will be in their 12th conference title game together. New England's roster is littered with guys with plenty of big-game experience.
But Belichick, for one, doesn't see that as an advantage for his team.
"I have never talked about experience, so I don't really think it is a relevant conversation," Belichick said. "I think the team that plays well on Sunday, that will be the team that is victorious. I don't think experience has anything to do with that."
Belichick's players often say that the coaches tell them experience means nothing.
"Well, it doesn't," Belichick says. "Because we are talking about how the teams are going to compete on Sunday. That is what is going to determine the winner in that competition. It is what happens Sunday, not what happened last year, two years ago, five years ago, 15 years ago, 1996 or whatever it is. Those games don't make any difference, with all due respect."