From the sublime to the pretty much ridiculous, the Patriots float back to earth this Sunday when they travel to the site of their last Super Bowl triumph to take on the Jacksonville Jaguars, owners of the league's worst record.
That's right. After two weeks of primetime, potential playoff/Super Bowl previews, the Pats will see a 2-12 team at 1 p.m. on Sunday afternoon with CBS's No. 5 broadcasting team calling the action in a stadium that regularly has it's upper deck covered by tarps due to the frequently low attendance numbers.
In other words, this should be a comfortable win for the Pats, a way to get back on track after the exhausting, wet, cold epic they played last week against the 49ers. But before we all break our arms patting ourselves on the back, it's important to note that these Jaguars, although tied for dead last in all of the NFL alongside the Kansas City Chiefs, have some guys who can hurt the Pats.
QB Chad Henne isn't great, but he's looked it against the Pats in past meetings when he was running the show for the Dolphins. Wide receivers Justin Blackmon (the No. 4 overall pick in last April's draft) and Cecil Shorts are legit deep threats. Newly acquired defensive end Jason Babin is capable of being a pass rushing demon. And tight end Marcedes Lewis can make plays in the passing game from a position the Pats have had trouble defending all year.
The point is that this may look like a walkover and may well even turn out to be one. But to take a team like the Jags, playing at home in what for them will be by far their biggest, most important game of the year, lightly, could spell trouble for a Pats team weary and banged up after the major tilts of the past two weeks.
So with that, let's get into this week's game and a few of its more compelling match ups.
When the Jaguars pass the ball.
It seemed like a solved problem before the loss to the 49ers but now, the Pats' issues in coverage against the pass are once again making news. The Pats' defensive game plan in that one was to keep QB Colin Kaepernick contained within the pocket and force him to make throws from there. For the most part, that plan worked but what wasn't factored in was that Kaepernick would have so much success throwing the ball downfield against the Pats' much improved secondary. Everyone back there gave up at least one big play and the coverage issues were so glaring, it felt a little bit like late September and October all over again for the defense.
Even though the Jags are second to last in both points and total yards per game, they have climbed to 24th in passing yards and got 354 yards and four TDs from Henne in a close loss to Houston in which they scored 37 just over a month ago. Henne also passed for over 400 yards and a pair of scores in a Dolphins' loss to the Pats last season, so he knows how to get some things done against them.
As far as Shorts and Blackmon go, they are two guys you can bet the Pats have focused on plenty during practice this week. Shorts has caught nine passes for 30 or more yards this season, trailing only the likes of Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas and A.J, Green in that department. Shorts has 49 catches for 925 yards (18.9 YPC) and seven TDs, while Blackmon, who was nowhere under Jacksonville's previous QB Blaine Gabbert, really came on catching passes from Henne in that Houston game (seven for 236, one TD) and has just one fewer grab in five games with Henne than he did in nine with Gabbert.
Alfonzo Dennard, who left last week's game for the Pats with a knee injury has been at practice this week and will be counted on in this one should he prove healthy enough to play. His absence prompted Kyle Arrington's move away from his comfort zone in the slot and back to the outside against the Niners and that resulted in the game-winning TD. All of the Pats' defensive backs will be under the microscope in this one not only because the Jags' downfield passing game may be their only way to stay in this game but also because a solid performance will go a long way toward proving that last week was just a one-game misstep and the secondary really is much better than it was before Aqib Talib arrived.
If the Jags' two receiving threats can be contained and Lewis isn't too big a factor (possibly a stretch against the Pats' coverage-phobic linebackers) then the Pats should have no other real issues on defense. It stands to reason that Bill Belichick and staff know this too.
When the Patriots run the ball.
Who will be the lead back this week? Danny Woodhead? Perhaps, but doubtful. It's clear that both Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are in the doghouse after each lost crucial fumbles last week (and pretty much didn't see the field again afterward), especially Ridley, who has three in two weeks and is clearly in the middle of his second documented case of fumble-itis in his two years with the Pats. Neither Belichick nor the fans can be blamed if they don't necessarily trust Ridley to hold on to the ball at this point and it's clearly a problem that must be addressed and hopefully overcome with the playoffs right around the corner.
This week may present just the circumstance for the Pats to put all of that behind them and rebuild their trust in Ridley as well as give him the opportunity to regain his confidence. The Jaguars are dead last in the NFL against the run, allowing 148 yards per game on the ground. And while their +1 turnover ratio is a little bit better than you might expect from a team with six times as many losses as wins, their inability to stop the run has to be an indication that this could be a big week for Ridley.
Let's not forget that Ridley is a tough, hard runner. He's still on pace to gain around 1,300 yards this season and is still the best the Pats have had at the position in years. Perhaps he'll have his workload reduced somewhat due to the increase in fumbles of late, especially considering how well Woodhead played against San Francisco and given the presence of Vereen in the mix as well. Even Brandon Bolden could factor in as well. He's been back two games since his suspension and got some garbage time reps late in the win over Houston.
Regardless of who gets the bulk of the carries or if it's a straight platoon broken down evenly into thirds, this is a match up that favors the Pats in a major way.
When the Patriots pass the ball.
Will this be the week for Rob Gronkowski? The 49ers game was the first time since his injury that his presence was truly missed but that was against the best defense in the NFL. The Jags aren't even in the same galaxy defensively (29th in points allowed, 31st in total defense, 24th against the pass) so if the Pats want to hold Gronk out another week despite his participation in practice on a limited basis all week, more power to them.
Beyond Gronk, all the rest of the Pats' receiving weapons will be on hand and a couple of guys to keep an eye on will be Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Lloyd. Hernandez put up numbers last week, but had a couple of critical drops and looked tentative and a step slow after being dealt a big hit over the middle by 49ers' safety Dashon Goldson in the third quarter. As for Lloyd, he played his best game as a Patriot by a wide mile last Sunday night, not only making a slew of catches, some of them spectacular, for a ton of yards, but looking more fiery, more aggressive and less hesitant to take contact than at any other point this season. It was beautiful to watch.
The only team in the league that gets to the opposing QB less than the Jaguars is the equally moribund Raiders. They may have won the waiver claim on former Eagles' pass rushing specialist Babin a few weeks ago, but Babin has only one sack in his three games as a Jag. After having to deal with the defensive lines and pass rushes of Houston and San Francisco the past two weeks, this game has the makings of a break for the Pats' battered O-line.
Tom Brady took Wednesday off from practice, most likely to rest his arm after throwing a career high 65 passes against the Niners. He won't have to throw nearly as many in this one, but when he does drop back to pass, the Pats will again have the clear edge.
Prediction: Patriots 45, Jaguars 17
There's a chance, albeit a small one, that Jacksonville will get off to a very good start in this one and put the Pats in an early hole. At the end of a disastrous season, the opportunity to play a championship contender at home in an attempt to save a little face and exercise some pride could very well carry the Jags for a while. But even if that does happen, this is a team that simply doesn't have anywhere near the talent, experience or firepower to hang with the Pats for very long, especially if the Pats come out strong and pissed off on the heels of last week's loss. It may be somewhat close in the early going. It won't be anywhere near that in the end.