The vaunted Jaguars pass defense held Tom Brady scoreless in the touchdown column until the fourth quarter, but the Pats quarterback had as much success as anyone against the Jaguars defense this season.
In fact, Brady completed 12 passes of beyond 10 yards against the Jags in the AFC Championship Game, which was the most by any quarterback against the Jags this season – a stat that’s even more unbelievable when you factor in that he did it without Rob Gronkowski for the majority of the game.
In all, Brady was 12-21 for 216 yards, one touchdown, and a passer rating of 108.4 on passes of 10 yards or more, a matchup that was supposed to favor the Jaguars heavily. Furthermore, we saw Brady have success going up the right sideline, mostly on comeback routes to wide receiver Brandin Cooks.
Cooks was matched up against Pro Bowl corner A.J. Bouye for most of the game and got the better of Bouye who allowed 58 yards into his coverage and was flagged on a big pass interference call before the half.
Finally, Brady held onto the ball a bit longer than usual against the Jags, logging a time of throw of 2.84 second, which is a surprise given the Jags’ ferocious pass rush.
But as you’ll see in the next section, the Patriots offensive line was terrific throughout Sunday’s game, and you understand Brady holding onto the ball a bit longer due to the tight coverage and the type of routes the Patriots ran against (crossing patterns, slower developing plays) the Jacksonville secondary.
There are a lot of nominees for game balls after a win like that, but if I were Bill Belichick, I’d give the game ball to the five hogs up front on the offensive line.
The Jaguars defense came into Sunday’s game with one of the league’s best pass rushes, pressuring opposing quarterbacks on 38% of dropbacks, which was the third-highest mark in the NFL. And the Jags did it primarily with a four-man pass rush, an Achilles heel of sorts for the Pats in the past.
Well, Achilles heel no more, as the Patriots offensive line delivered its best performance of the season in the most important game of 2017. In all, the Jaguars pressured Tom Brady on just 21.4% of his dropbacks, the second-lowest pressure percentage of the season for the Jaguars defense (20.9% vs. ARI Week 12).
The Patriots’ starting tackles, in particular, deserve an immense amount of credit for their performance on Sunday. Nate Solder and Cameron Fleming had the task of blocking three dynamite edge rushers in Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, and Dante Fowler, and the duo passed with flying colors allowing just one sack and four total pressures.
The number one storyline entering Sunday’s title game was if the Patriots offensive line could give Tom Brady enough time in the pocket, and the Patriots are advancing to the Super Bowl because they were able to do precisely that.
Danny Amendola had another terrific game for the Patriots running out of the slot with both of his fourth-quarter touchdowns coming from inside the formation, and overall, he posted an impressive 2.38 yards per route run out of the slot.
However, the Patriots’ usage of Brandin Cooks out of the slot was far more out of the ordinary than Amendola’s. Cooks lined up in the slot a season-high 32.6% of the time, and despite only having six catches from inside all season, had a massive 31-yard reception out of the slot on the Patriots’ opening drive of the game.
The Patriots’ decision to line Cooks up in the slot more often against the Jaguars likely stems from a weakness the Patriots saw in the Jaguars’ cover-3 defense. Entering Sunday’s game, the Patriots’ ability to attack the seams of the Jaguars defense, in between their cover-3 zones, was something that many highlighted as a possible breaking point for the Jags secondary.
By putting Cooks inside more, the Patriots were able to take advantage of his top-end speed compared to a traditional slot receiver, and it was a huge factor both on Cooks’ 31-yard catch and in terms of spacing on other big plays for the Patriots offense.
Cooks might not have produced the stats that Amendola did from the slot, but his usage certainly highlights another wrinkle in the Patriots’ game plan against Jacksonville.
PASS RUSH/RUN STOPS
The Patriots’ unsung heroes often get a lot of attention this time of year.
Players like the recently added James Harrison, Marquis Flowers, and Eric Lee have gotten a lot of praise in the second half of the season and rightfully so, but the Patriots’ best player in the front seven consistently comes to play week in and week out, and that’s Trey Flowers.
Flowers, was an absolute nightmare for the Jaguars offensive line on Sunday, combining to have six total pressures and four run stops on the day. Flowers saved his best for the postseason tallying a team-high 12 total pressures over the Patriots’ last two games.
The Patriots front seven often gets flack for not having elite talent, or an elite pass rusher, but Trey Flowers is as elite as they come. Flowers wasn’t only a force to be reckoned with as a pass rusher, but also led the Patriots with four run stops.
The Patriots sold out to stop the Jaguars’ rushing attack and rookie running back Leonard Fournette, playing with a single-high safety for the most of the game, and even in a goal-line defense in certain situations.
For the second straight week stopping the opponents running game was the key for the Patriots defense, and their defensive tackles delivered with another strong performance.
Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy, and Ricky Jean Francois contributed on the stat sheet with three run stops apiece, but their ability to hold at the point of attack was just as important as their statistics.
Overall, the Patriots pressured Blake Bortles on an impressive 38.5% of his dropbacks, which was just slightly below last week’s number of 39.6% despite the discrepancy in sacks, and held the Jaguars to 3.2 yards per carry on the ground.
Early on it looked like the Jaguars physical offensive line would control the game up front, but the Patriots front seven recovered nicely in the second half.
Blake Bortles’ passer rating of 98.5 on Sunday was his highest mark since Week 15 (five games), and the Patriots secondary certainly had its lapses in this game, but the competitive spirit shown by this group illustrated the Patriots’ relentless mentality perfectly.
Bortles played one of his best games of his career on Sunday, but the Patriots secondary was able to clamp down when it mattered most, forcing Bortles and his receivers to make contested plays for most of the second half.
Cornerback Stephon Gilmore continued his strong play with another terrific performance against the Jaguars. In fact, since his return in Week 10, Gilmore has allowed a passer rating of just 83.1 into his coverage and has quickly climbed up the Pro Football Focus grading system.
As of now, Gilmore has an 88.1 overall grade this season according to PFF, which is tied for the tenth-best grade among all cornerbacks this season. Furthermore, Gilmore added two pass breakups on the stat sheet in the AFC Championship Game, and none were more significant than his diving pass breakup on a last-gasp fourth down play late in the fourth quarter.
In all, the Patriots defense tallied six pass breakups against the Jaguars, which is tied for their second-most in a game this season. For comparison, last week against the Titans the Patriots only got their hands on two Marcus Mariota pass attempts.
The Patriots didn’t intercept Bortles in this one, but it’s a great sign that they’re beginning to get their hands on the football in the passing game. After all, this group ranked 21st in the NFL during the regular season with only 67 pass breakups on the year.
(h/t Pro Football Focus: https://www.profootballfocus.com/products/elite#edge)