Can the Jaguars Beat the Patriots?
After an absolutely wild Week 14 in the NFL, there is a lot of uncertainty now in both conferences. Jacksonville crashed the two-horse AFC race with a signature 2017 win over the Seahawks. We all know the Jags play sound defense led by their tremendous secondary. But, Jacksonville has contributions from everybody in their latest conquest including the much-maligned Blake Bortles. Can the Jaguars actually compete with Pittsburgh and New England come playoff time?
The fact is they match up well with any team in pro football. They can run the football with rookie sensation Leonard Fournette. And, they stop the run with their massive front seven. That alone is a recipe for success in the very mediocre AFC. However, there is one huge factor against the Jaguars and that is this: Blake Bortles vs. Bill Belichick & Matt Patricia in a playoff game. The Pats will completely sell out to stop the run. Belichick will force Bortles to beat his secondary and even as the Patriots’ defensive backs have struggled at times, the Jaguars’ QB is prone to mistakes when the game is in his hands. Huge advantage: Patriots.
Can the Jaguars Beat the Steelers?
Well, then, how would Jacksonville do against Pittsburgh? They beat them once, 30-9. However, it would be shocking if they could duplicate that effort. Why? Don’t count on Ben Roethlisberger throwing 5 interceptions again and having two returned for touchdowns. Don’t count on Fournette scoring on a garbage-time 90-yard run either. It is true that Jacksonville would probably rather get the Steelers than the Patriots. Shut down Bell and Brown and Pittsburgh does not have a chance. Obviously, that is easier said than done, but when it comes to January football, that is the easier recipe than trying to defeat a Belichick-coached team when the game counts.
Is there a path for the Jaguars to reach Super Bowl LII? It’s a long shot, but it will start by getting a bye. If they go 3-0 and Pittsburgh beats New England, they get it. With that bye, they’ll receive the bonus “gift” of potentially hosting the Patriots in the divisional round. Truthfully, Jacksonville is probably one year away from seriously competing for the conference championship, but much credit to Doug Marrone for getting his team in this position in 2017.
The NFC Playoff Picture is Zany
If Aaron Rodgers’ shoulder and Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension hasn’t created enough NFC havoc this season, Carson Wentz’ torn ACL has sent this conference into utter unpredictability. Philadelphia’s chances rest with Nick Foles. That is not as bad as it sounds. Granted, Foles does not have the improvisational skills Wentz possesses. Not many quarterbacks do. But the Eagles are a complete team and may end up with home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Last Sunday in Los Angeles, the playing field was clearly neutral. It was amazing to observe tens of thousands of Eagles’ fans two thousand miles from their home city. They will not experience that same thing if they have to travel to Minnesota or New Orleans for a playoff game, however. They will have to rely instead on their running game and Foles’ game-management. Is Philadelphia still the NFC favorite? Maybe. But, without Wentz, they are not the conference’s best team. When Alvin Kamara is on the field for the Saints, they are the best team in the NFC.
Kamara gets better with each passing week. His injury severely affected the Saints’ game plan last week against Atlanta. Down the stretch, New Orleans called plays in an effort to win in regulation. That gamble backfired and the loss kept their division rival and defending conference champion alive.
Minnesota Almost Comes Back
Likewise, Minnesota almost pulled off what would have been a fantastic comeback at Carolina. Two mistakes killed them in the end. Down 24-21, with a first down at the six, the Vikings went nowhere. They settled for the three. Then, facing a second and five on defense, they used a spy to account for Cam Newton running the ball. The problem is Andrew Sendejo (the spy) took a poor angle in his effort to get to Newton on the run and must have been stunned by the quarterback’s extraordinary speed. Newton exploded for 62 and that was a wrap.
The point of all this is: the NFC is officially insane. This is going to be fun!
The Patriots Own Tomlin
There are three enormous games this week. Without a doubt, the top showdown features the Patriots at the Steelers. Coach Tomlin mentioned before the season started that his goal was home field advantage throughout the playoffs. To earn that privilege, they will need to win a home game. Unfortunately for Tomlin, his zone defense has been demolished through the years by New England. Rob Gronkowski almost always runs free. It does not help Pittsburgh’s cause that they have lost Ryan Shazier to a tragic back injury. He may be the fastest linebacker in the game today. The Patriots will look to exploit the several match up advantages they have on the offensive side of the ball.
Be careful not to read too much into their lethargic performance on Monday night. Miami came to play. Their corners locked down against the Patriot receivers, Tom Brady was off and the play calling lacked continuity. If we know anything about New England, they will bounce back.
Two Other Huge Games
The other gigantic game in the AFC is in Kansas City. It would be “so Chargers” if they dropped this ball game. Kansas City started the season like gangbusters going 5-0 and beating the Pats and Eagles. Los Angeles could not do anything right going 0-4 including a home loss to the Chiefs. Everything has changed now. Yet, the teams are both 7-6 and a loss by Los Angeles could be a killer despite their resurgence.
Finally, in the NFC, the other team in LA travels to Seattle. The game is so significant for the Rams that a win puts them in control of the NFC West while a loss not just hurts their chances of winning the division, but may keep them from getting into the postseason altogether. It is time for Jared Goff to put on his big boy pants. Win in Seattle against Russell Wilson and the Rams will have truly earned their playoff spot under first year man, Sean McVay.