FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — One franchise is the established winner, heavy favorite and earned its reputation by thriving in situations like Sunday’s AFC Championship game.
The challenger and 10-point under Jacksonville Jaguars (12-6) are new to the party, having gone 1-10 against the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots (14-3) all-time and 0-10 since the 1999 wildcard game.
“I think we’re going to have to play our best game of the year,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of the matchup.
Nothing else would be expected from Belichick from those familiar with his pregame styling.
But the Patriots stand out by nearly every measure. Jacksonville has seven combined conference championship game appearances on its entire roster. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will start his 12th on Sunday.
“I have never talked about experience, so I don’t really think it is a relevant conversation,” Belichick said. “I think that the team that plays well on Sunday, that will be the team that is victorious. We are talking about how teams go compete on Sunday. That is what is going to determine the winner in that competition.”
Perhaps a winning history on this stage will help Belichick and Brady.
With five Super Bowl rings, Brady has the decided edge in experience — and based on his trophy case, also the advantage in excellence — over the Jaguars’ Blake Bortles. Brady returned only to limited participation in practice Thursday after an injury to his throwing hand sent him to the trainer’s room on Wednesday. Brady will play Sunday, teammates said, but might opt for gloves on both hands for security and stability as he used Thursday in side-session work.
“I’m sure he can probably throw it left-handed if he had a problem with the right hand,” Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said Thursday, recalling seeing Brady four times while serving as head coach of the Buffalo Bills from 2013-14. “It’s always amazing when you go out (for pregame) and watch him. You see a lot of quarterbacks who have to go out and have to warm up. He can literally go pick up a ball and throw it and you would think that he’s ready to go. When you’re in this league, you watch a lot of quarterbacks warm up and they all warm up and get themselves ready to go. I really think he’s one of the most naturally gifted throwers that I personally have ever seen. He can pick the ball up any day and just throw it.”
There have been few doubts about the stability the 40-year-old Brady brings the Patriots. Even operating this season without his favorite wide receiver, Julian Edelman, Brady led the NFL in passing yards and New England was No. 1 in the league in passing.
Jacksonville boasts the No. 1 passing defense in the NFL. But last week pressure was hard to come by for long stretches against the Steelers, and big plays were there throughout for Ben Roethlisberger because of it. At one point in the third quarter he had a streak of 14 consecutive completions.
If all goes according to plan for the Jaguars, the key on offense is the front five blocking to drive wedges in the Patriots’ maligned run defense and running back Leonard Fournette putting Jacksonville on his back.
Fournette slashed through the Steelers for 109 rushing yards and three touchdowns. New England’s run defense was stomped by some of the best in the NFL this season — Kareem Hunt of the Chiefs went for 148 yards, Melvin Gordon of the Chargers had 132, LeSean McCoy had a 164-yard day for the Bills and Kenyan Drake of the Dolphins put up 134 rushing yards.
New England has tightened its 20th-ranked run defense in the past three games, allowing 2.8 yards per carry (136 yards on 49 carries). Jacksonville was undefeated when it got at least 93 rushing yards this season.
“That’s the biggest thing,” Patriots defensive lineman Ricky Jean-Francois said. “Once they’ve got that rolling, you can’t stop it.”
Bortles and the Jacksonville offense are not built for exchanging blows with the big-play Patriots. Entering the fourth quarter at Pittsburgh, Bortles was just 9 of 21 passing and had only two completions to wide receivers. In the wildcard win over Buffalo, he had 87 passing yards, 88 rushing yards.
On the injury report, Bortles is listed with a wrist injury but he is taking every snap with the first-team offense in preparation for a tall mission Sunday afternoon.
Free safety Tashaun Gipson (foot) is the only player the Jaguars listed as missing Thursday’s practice. He is expected to play Sunday.
“He’s trending in the right way,” Marrone sad.
–Jeff Reynolds, Field Level Media