It’s Tom Brady and the New England Patriots with the best offense in the entire NFL against an awful, 2-12 Jaguars team. What do you expect?
What, you are still here? Good, because I have a proper game preview for you, even if the odds for another ugly home blowout loss are significantly higher than the let’s say the Mayan Doom’s day prophecy (congrats on surviving, by the way). In fact, since Tom Brady became the starting QB for the Patriots, the Jaguars have lost every time (0-5, 0-3 in the regular season). Brady has thrown 13 TDs and 1 pick in these games. In fact he had more touchdowns than incomplete passes in the last two meetings (one of them was the divisional playoff round in January of ’08). The Patriots are the NFL’s best offense in NFL (36.1 points per game – the Jaguars are 31st with 15.6) against the 31st overall defense. To make things worse, the Patriots lost last week at home against the 49ers (34-41) which ended a 7 game winning streak, and it’s very rare that they lose 2 in a row. Everyone is expecting a blowout based on the talent gap between the two rosters (and coaching staff) not to mention how poorly the Jaguars have played at home in ’12 (1-6, 5 of them were pretty ugly). So Is there anything which gives the home team a tiny little chance for the upset of the year? Let’s dig deeper.
Actually there is a match-up which could favor the Jaguars. Although the front seven of the Patriots defense is really powerful (more on that little later) their secondary is not. Last week against the San Fransisco 49ers, the defensive backs allowed 4 TD passes which were longer than 20 yards and Michael Crabtree looked like an elitle receiver, which he is not. This is great news for Cecil Shorts III who has a reception of 50 yards or more in three of his past five games, and his 18.9 average yards per reception ranks second behind Tampa Bay’s Vincent Jackson in the NFL. Even Patriots head coach Bill Belichick praised him in his press conference earlier this week. Shorts will most likely be covered by Aqib Talib who has covered the top receivers of the opposing teams in the last few weeks. It will be interesting to see if Shorts can manage to reach 1000 receiving yards for the first time since Jimmy Smith returned in 2005. He needs 75 more yards. I expect that the Patriots will even use double coverage to limit his big play ability. Their best DB by far is Devin McCourty who transitioned to safety this season and has played outstanding all year. If Shorts will get extra attention that means opportunity for Justin Blackmon who’ll face a familiar face in Alfonso Dennard. The 7th round pick CB proved this season that he was really a 1st round talent without his off field issues. However he left the game last week, and is listed (among 17 other players) as questionable for Sunday. His replacement, Kyle Arrington, had a rough game last week so the Jaguars talented WR tandem can do some damage and put together a decent game. Even Marcedes Lewis can be involved more often, because, unlike McCourty, Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung are struggling.
Add to the mix Chad Henne, who knows most of these players from the time he played in the AFC East, and all of sudden there is a winnable matchup right there.
However there are a couple of things why this might not work so well. First of all, although the Jaguars are taking care of the football this season (+1 in the turnover ratio), the Patriots are really great at taking it away (leading the league with +22 still, despite last week’s 4 turnovers). This not too scary secondary has 16 interception. Oh, and there is the front 7. The defensive line is lead by Vince Wilfork, who will be a challenge for Meester and Nwaneri. Austin Pasztor had a solid 1st game as pro at the other guard spot, now he gets Kyle Love. The matchup between Chandler Jones and Eugene Monroe will be a premiere one with the best Jaguars O-lineman against the rookie, who has collected 6 sacks despite missing some games. But for me, the scariest duel will be between Rob Ninkovich, who is leading the team with 8 sacks, and whomever ends up starting at right tackle for the Jaguars. The Jaguars just benched Cameron Bradfield, who has really struggled lately. It seems Guy Whimper (who was much better as a TE than a RT) will take the start again in RT. Once again I expect huge pressure coming from that side of the line which could be major trouble for Henne. The backups in the defensive line (Trevor Scott, Justin Francis and maybe Jermaine Cunningham if the Patriots activate him) are also capable of causing this not-too-good offensive line trouble). I didn’t even mentioned the really great starting LB trio! Jarod Mayo and Brandon Spikes are tackle factories like Paul Posluszny and Russell Allen, but they are much better at forcing takeaways (9 FF) and sacks(4 sacks). Add rookie Dont’a Hightower to the mix (3 sacks), and it’s easy to see why the front 7 can pressure the opposite QBs into turnovers. Not to mention how this front is stopping the run. Montell Owens had 2 nice games so far, it would be nice if he could cement his position as the Nr. 2 RB on the roster for next season.
So that was the promising looking part. Now we arrive at the scary part: the New England offense. I wrote about Tom Brady in the intro, and how unstoppable he has been in the past for much better Jaguars defenses. He is well over 4000 passing yards again thanks to a 443 passing yard performance last week against San Fransisco. He has 30 passing TDs (and 4 rushing). The entire Jaguars offense has 22. He has so many targets that if 2 starters are missing, he will still have plenty receivers left to pass. We all remember how the Jaguars passing offense looked against the Jets when Robinson and Shorts was unable to play (the Jaguars had Blackmon, Lewis and that was about it). Good news for the home team, Rob Gronkowski willl sit out this game. The bad news is, the Jaguars must still cover Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Aaron Hernadez, Michael Hoomanawanui and Deion Branch who will play for the first time in Everbank Field since he was selected MVP in Super Bowl XXXIX. Not to mention the RBs Woodhead, Vereen or Ridley). The Patriots often run 3 WR + 1 TE or 2 WR + 2 TE sets. With Gronkowski out, Herandez and Hoomanawanui will get the most snaps there, while Lyoyd and Welker are the primary targets. And since Dwight Lowery is on IR right now, it means Chris Prosinski must handle either of New England backs or Hernandez. That could be ugly.
Also the Patriots run a no-huddle offense very often, which has caused problems for the defense in other games. One more note to Mel Tucker, try to limit the 4-2-5 schemes this time. Other teams tried that against the Patriots to cover all their receiving talent. The result: New England put major yards and often points on the ground. Also, this was part of the problem for the horrible performances by the Jaguars run defense. Now the good news is that Daryl Smith might be activated and he will return to the starting lineup. If that happens, all of sudden the Jaguars have a pretty strong LB trio (if Daryl is anywhere near where he was last year). If the Jaguars run defense can limit Danny Woodhead and co, that would take of some pressure off the secondary. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen had fumble problems last week. They played 21 snaps combined. Woodhead might team up with a new partner in rookie Brandon Bolden. Since the role of the running game is increasing in the playoffs, the visitors might try to find out what the best combination is for them on the ground.
One of the major questions of this game is will the Patriots try to rest some key players. They will most likely play on Wildcard Week (which is not a good ome, because they have lost every game but 1 in that phase during the Tom Brady era), but now and next week they can give a break to their banged up players. This is the reason why Gronkowski is not playing this Sunday. Another era could be the offensive line, where Logan Mankins, Sebastian Vollmer and Dan Connolly must skip some games because of injury. All 3 played last week, but maybe we will see some rotation in this unit later in the game. The Patriots offensive line is a really good run blocking unit this year and are still protecting Brady relatively well. Since I expect a lot of run plays I hope Austen Lane will see plenty of playtime (since he is the only DE who is decent against the run). I hope Jason Babin’s forced fumble streak will continue. He had 1 in the last 2 games. I think he is a keeper. And one of the reasons why this team must stay in the 4-3. But that’s another story.
I planed to write about the major 3rd quarter issues. Yeah the last 3 weeks were just awful and because this is looking like a trend. And thanks to Ryan O’ Halloran’s stats looks like it is – the Jaguars are outscored in points (43-70), yards (665 -1352) and especially first downs (34- 84). That questions Mike Mularkey’s halftime adjustments. But since this game could be easily over by halftime, this might not be an issue. And that’s the problem with this game. If the Jaguars are blown out, we can say “as expected.” But weirdly, every time the Jaguars were major (double digit) underdogs, they produced a really good game. They did it against the Packers in Green Bay and against the Texans in Houston. I think this will be either a very close game or maybe the ugliest blowout loss. Because the Patriots lost last week, I lean toward the latter. But I hope once again the Jaguars will produce a pleasant surprise.
Prediction: Jaguars 17 – Patriots 35
– Zoltan Paksa