Compared to their upcoming opponent, the New England Patriots had a relatively easy way to the AFC Championship Game: While the conference's top seed defeated the Tennessee Titans 35-14 at home, the Jacksonville Jaguars had to travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers in a hard-fought 45-42 victory. And the physicality that the AFC South champions showed will be on display again this Sunday – at least if you ask New England.
“They get lined up and play fast and aggressive,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said in a conference call earlier this week when talking about the Jaguars defense. Wide receiver Danny Amendola echoed his play caller's remarks when he pointed out that the unit “strong, they’re big and they play physical” – descriptors fellow wideout Phillip Dorsett also used when talking about cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye: “They're physical guys.”
“It’s going to be a tough defense to play against,” added offensive tackle Nate Solder. He and his brethren along the line will face their toughest challenge all year long. After all, the Jaguars' defense is coming off a regular season during which it forced 55 sacks – second most in the NFL and a perfect complementation to the defensive back end's coverage skills. It is therefore no surprise that the team only gave up an average of 169.9 aerial yards per game.
And despite the team having some issues in its pass defense against the Steelers, McDaniels praised the unit by saying that there was “nothing” that they did not do well. “They’re very talented, their scheme is difficult and they’re well-coached,” the Patriots' offensive coordinator pointed out. “This is going to be a huge challenge for us.”
“They are a very, very competitive defense,” added tight end Rob Gronkowski. “Fast, tough, physical and like I said, competitive.” The Jaguars' defense is the center of the national discourse's attention when it comes to the team. But Jacksonville's offense – both in terms of production and physicality – cannot be underestimated either according to the Patriots defense.
“This is going to be a physical game,” said Patriots safety Duron Harmon when asked about the unit, which ranked fifth in points per game during the regular season with 26.1 scored per game. “Probably the most physical game we’ll play this year,” Harmon added. The physicality and toughness that gets mentioned does not come as a surprise for fellow team captain Matthew Slater: “Coach Marrone, having a background as an offensive line coach, they have that toughness. They have those types of players who bring out toughness and edge.”
According to Harmon, the Patriots need to be able to match this intensity. “We just have to come ready to set the edge, play physical in the run game, take on blockers, shed blockers, tackle and just try to play physical,” said the defensive back. Devin McCourty sees it the same way: “They’re going to be physical, they’re going to be ready to go and confident. So, we’ve got to match that intensity and make some plays of our own.”
Of course, all that is easier said than done. “This will be the best football team that we’ve played all season long,” said Slater. And judging by the last 19 weeks, he is not lying.