You won’t find two more different pedigrees this millennium than the ones you’ll find in this year’s AFC Championship Game between the New England Patriots and Jacksonville Jaguars.
For the seventh-straight season, the Patriots are playing for a conference title and looking to advance to the Super Bowl for the fourth time during that span. It’s just another notch in the belt for the Tom Brady, Bill Belichick partnership, who already have five Super Bowl rings together. They have also appeared in more playoff games than the Jaguars have as a franchise.
Jacksonville is making its first postseason appearance since 2007 and its first conference championship trip since 1999 after an unlikely 10-6 season broke a trend of 10-consecutive years of records at or beneath .500.
The Patriots come in as heavy favorites, per OddsShark.com, as 9.5-point favorites at home against the Jaguars. But looking at the positional battles, it doesn’t look as lopsided:
Tom Brady is the quarterback of this generation and one of, if not the greatest passer of all time. It doesn’t matter who he is throwing to or how much time is left on the clock, chances are he is going to pick the opposing defense apart.
While Blake Bortles proved admirably down the stretch during the AFC Divisional Round against the Pittsburgh Steelers, he’s been inconsistent and one of Jacksonville’s largest problems this season.
The Jaguars held the NFL’s leading rushing attack this season with rookie Leonard Fournette putting up over 1,000 yards in just 13 games. The physical back dominated the Steelers during the first half last week and will be a handful for New England to stop on Sunday as long as his ankle stays healthy.
If we were just looking at wide receivers, I’d be inclined to give the edge to the Jaguars here with Allen Hurns, Marqise Lee, Keelan Cole and DeDe Westbrook. But Rob Gronkowski is the great difference maker as he is truly uncoverable when he is on his game.
Both of these units can clear paths for the run game and protect their quarterbacks decently well. While New England’s O-Line is better on the run game, Jacksonville’s protection allowed just 24 sacks in 2017 which was tied for third best in the league.
Jacksonville’s defensive line includes four members that racked up at least eight sacks. Calais Campbell was tied for second in the league with 14.5 sacks while Yannick Ngakoue added 12 of his own.
The Patriots have received inconsistent showings from their linebackers ever since Dont’a Hightower went down with a torn pectoral muscle. The Jaguars, on the other hand, have two of the most explosive linebackers in football on the outside with Telvin Smith and Myles Jack.
Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye might just be the best cornerback duo in football. Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson hold things down at the safety position, though Gipson is dealing with a foot injury. Should he be unavailable, Gronkowski could have a field day in Jacksonville’s secondary regardless of how good the Jaguars’ corners are.