We’ve looked at the 10 most important players for conference championship Sunday, but now it’s time to take a look at the biggest keys for each of the games. Here are the top five keys for the AFC championship game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and New England Patriots (for the top five keys to the NFC title game, click here):
1. Tom Brady’s effectiveness
Perhaps you think Brady is just fine, and the news of his hand injury is all a way to get in the Jaguars’ heads. Well, there is no conspiracy theory. Teams don’t sit out quarterbacks from practice just to mess with their opponents. But Brady could be just fine. Or maybe he won’t be. It’s impossible to tell.
It will be a shock if Brady doesn’t play. The only time he has ever missed games due to an injury came when he tore his ACL in 2008. But that doesn’t mean he’ll be 100 percent. It’s also hard to imagine Bill Belichick benching Brady for Brian Hoyer during the game. That means Brady will play, and likely play the whole game, but what if he can’t grip the ball like usual?
That wouldn’t be good against a Jaguars defense that allowed just 169.9 passing yards per game, the best in the NFL. Whether Brady is 100 percent or significantly affected by a hand injury that kept him out of practice this week is the biggest factor in the AFC title game, and it’s not even up for debate.
2. The Jaguars can’t be put in a position to abandon the run
Most NFL teams win to run, not the other way around. They take a big lead and then start to run the ball. The Jaguars are the rare team that would prefer to run the ball all the time. They ran it as much as they threw it: 527 pass attempts vs. 527 rush attempts in the regular season.
The Jaguars failed to reach 100 yards rushing in five games. They went 1-4 in those contests. In every other game Jacksonville reached 135 rushing yards. They were 11-2 in those games. Part of that is a self-fulfilling prophecy — again, NFL teams generally want to get a big lead so they can run the ball more — but it should also be clear that if too much of this game falls on quarterback Blake Bortles, that won’t be good for Jacksonville.
3. Can Dion Lewis find some holes?
We’ve seen it for years and years: The Patriots will use your weakness against you. They don’t care about establishing the run or some made-up identity as a passing team. They’ll figure out what you can’t stop and attack it relentlessly. That sounds like a simple concept, but not everyone does it. The Jaguars’ strength and weakness on defense is clear: They’re the best team in the NFL stopping the pass, and they’re much worse against the run.
The Patriots are unpredictable so who knows what their plan will be, but it seems like a week we’ll see plenty of handoffs. That should mean a good dose of Dion Lewis, who took over the Patriots’ backfield late in the season. Lewis played more than half of the Patriots’ offensive snaps in only three games this season, and those were the Patriots’ last three games including the playoff win over the Titans. It wouldn’t be a surprise if this is a Lewis-centric game plan.
4. The Jaguars can’t settle for field goals
The Patriots are terrible at allowing yards and great at limiting points allowed. That’s not normal. Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz points out that the Patriots are 32nd in yards per drive allowed by only sixth in points per drive allowed, and that’s unlike any other team in 20 years. A lot of that has to do with a super-efficient Patriots offense that doesn’t give up many short fields to opponents. Some of it has to do with being very good in the red zone. The Patriots were second in the NFL in points allowed per red zone appearance.
On the other side, it’s a bit of a surprise that an oft-criticized Jaguars offense was among the best in the red zone. According to Football Outsiders, they were first in the NFL in points per red zone appearance and second in touchdowns per red zone appearance. It’s easy to say that converting long drives into touchdowns is a key to any game, but it’s really stark in this instance. The Jaguars got this far by being great inside the 20-yard line, the Patriots’ defense is great in tightening up inside the 20, and winning that battle is paramount for Jacksonville.
5. Yep, Blake Bortles
We all know that Bortles is a huge key for this game. We know what we’re getting from the main characters: Leonard Fournette, the Jaguars’ defense, New England’s offense as long as Brady is reasonably effective, the Patriots’ defense, etc. The biggest variable is Bortles.
This can be said for many quarterbacks, but Bortles has been very good in wins and terrible in losses, and it has been extreme. Check out these splits:
Wins (10): 63.2 completion percentage, 2,383 yards, 16 TDs, 3 INTs, 101.2 rating
Losses (6): 56.1 completion percentage, 1,304 yards, 5 TDs, 10 INTs, 62.1 rating
In those six losses, Bortles’ rating never was higher than 83.2. In eight of 10 wins, his rating was at least 80. Two times Bortles had a low rating and the Jaguars won: Once, they picked off Ben Roethlisberger five times, in the other the Chargers had a ridiculous collapse in the final two minutes and an overtime interception by Philip Rivers that was almost returned for a score. We can probably assume the Patriots aren’t going to give away a game like that.
Sometimes we get too quarterback-centric with analysis. It’s a team game and more goes into who wins and loses than the quarterback’s stats. But look at those splits. If you told us Bortles’ stats right now, we could reasonably predict the outcome of this game.
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