It was a hard fought AFC Championship Game between the New England Patriots and the Jacksonville Jaguars. The home team ultimately prevailed and won 24-20 but it needed some standout performances in all three phases of the game to get the job done – and this is exactly what happened. Without the benefit of a film review, let's take a look at some of those standouts, both positively and negatively.
Winner: The left side of the Patriots' offensive line (Nate Solder and Joe Thuney)
The Jaguars have one of the most impressive defenses in the NFL, a unit that has talent on every level. It was therefore encouraging to see parts of New England's offensive line rise up to the challenge and deliver an outstanding performance: Both left-side players – tackle Nate Solder and guard Joe Thuney – were able to keep as much pressure off quarterback Tom Brady as is possible against Jacksonville. After some up-and-down performances in the past, the duo stepped up its game as of late, with Solder in particular playing like one of the NFL's best left tackles.
Loser: The right side of the Patriots' offensive line (Shaq Mason and Cameron Fleming)
As good as the left side of the offensive line played, the right had some issues especially in pass protection: Both Shaq Mason and Cameron Fleming gave up sacks, while Tom Brady was primarily pressured off the right edge. Of course, the hat needs to be tipped to the opponent but the Patriots need a better performance by its right guard and tackle – either Fleming or LaAdrian Waddle – to defeat the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl.
Winner: WR Danny Amendola
Danny Amendola's nickname “Playoff” is perfect and yesterday's game against the Jaguars again showed why. The veteran was simply unstoppable at times and stepped up when needed to late in the game – and at that point, the Jaguars defense simply had no answer for him. Overall, Amendola registered seven receptions for 84 yards and two fourth quarter touchdowns. He also had one rush for three yards, a 20-yard pass completion and two punt returns for a gain of 25. It was an outstanding performance.
Winner: QB Tom Brady
He played with an injured hand. He was under relentless pressure for large portions of the game. He lost his best skill position player to injury before halftime. He never quit. Tom Brady, adding to his legacy as the greatest quarterback of all time, had another one of his patented performances. The 40-year old led his team back from 10 down in the final period during a game in which he completed 26 of 38 passes for 290 yards and two touchdowns. It was vintage “Comeback Kid”.
Loser: TE Rob Gronkowski
As the result of a helmet-to-helmet hit, Rob Gronkowski left the game with a concussion late in the second quarter and was later downgraded from “questionable” to “out” because of it. But even before his injury, the NFL's best tight end had a quiet day against the Jaguars. Jacksonville did a good job of taking him away with double-team coverages as Gronkowski finished with only one catch on his two pre-collision targets.
Winner: DE Trey Flowers
The Patriots defensive line was uneven at times against the Jaguars, but one player was his consistent self: defensive edge Trey Flowers. The 24-year old was his team's best defensive lineman and finished with a team-high four quarterback pressures while also tying for the team-lead in tackles with nine and finishing with a pass-breakup. Not even a small injury scare in the second half – when his ankle was looked at by trainers – did stop Flowers from having a good game.
Winner: P Ryan Allen
At times during the game, the Patriots had a troubles moving the football against a talented Jaguars defense. However, they were able to keep the damage in relative check and punter Ryan Allen played a big role in that. His second-half-performance in particular featured some outstanding punting, as the veteran pinned the Jaguars inside their own 10 on his three last kicks ensuring that no return materialized due to impressive hang-times. All in all, Allen helped keep the field position battle in New England's favor whenever called upon – an underrated yet important fact of the game.
Winner: ST Matthew Slater
Another big reason why the Patriots were able to play the field position game on their terms was the performance of New England's gunners, with Matthew Slater the most notable of which. The veteran had another very good performance and finished with a tackle in the kicking game and consistently was the first player around the punt returner, prompting them to just fair catch the football instead of trying to advance with it.
Loser: The first-half defense
There is no other way to say it: The Patriots defense struggled in the first half against the Jaguars. Yes, the offense having a hard time moving the football did not help, but Matt Patricia's unit failed to deliver the spark needed – quite the opposite actually. While New England was somewhat productive against the run, the unit was unable to stop the pass and watched quarterback Blake Bortles go 13 of 15 for 155 yards and a touchdown.
Winner: The second-half defense
Fortunately for the Patriots, the team's defense – just like during the last big playoff comeback by New England – stepped up in the second half and held Jacksonville to a mere two field goals over quarters three and four. The unit, which brought more pressure up front and as a result improved its man-to-man coverage, played perfect complementary football to the offense: When a stop was needed to be made, it was made. And whether it was Devin McCourty on a key third-down or Stephon Gilmore on an impressive 4th and 11 pass breakup the unit did its job.