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Syndication: The Indianapolis Star Grace Hollars/IndyStar / USA TODAY NETWORK

On paper, this looks like a mismatch. The New England Patriots are more or less a win away from clinching a playoff spot in the AFC while the Jacksonville Jaguars continue to prove there is no bottom for them.

The Jaguars have 17 players on the reserve/Covid-19 list as part of the wave that’s hit the NFL this winter. The Patriots are reeling off back-to-back losses to the Indianapolis Colts and Buffalo Bills. Sports bettors still have New England listed as 16-point favorites at home, which is almost too good to be true.

However, the game still has to be played regardless of the statuses of those two teams. Here’s what the Patriots need to do in order to make this game a winnable one.

Make Jacksonville earn its points

New England has a healthier and better functioning offense, but this game can flip if it has a turnover, or a special teams mistake. Those have been an issue for the Patriots, who rely on complementary football to beat opponents as opposed to blasting them away on offense. If the worst thing that happens on offense is a punt, I’m not too worried about Jacksonville being able to take advantage.

On defense, it will require the team to not allow any huge chunk plays. J.C. Jackson will likely draw the assignment against veteran receiver Marvin Jones. How the rest of the secondary plays out will determine how well Jacksonville will sustain drives.

Don’t allow Trevor Lawrence to improvise

The Patriots defense should have little trouble handling Jacksonville’s offense, but the one thing that can beat them is if they allow Trevor Lawrence to be able to extend plays outside the pocket. The good news for the defense is the rookie isn’t the same threat to run as Bills quarterback Josh Allen, but he’s capable of making throws on the move if something opens up in the scramble drill.

It’s important for the Patriots defense to take away that option because I like their chances of holding down the Jaguars offense if they keep everything in front of him. I’m not well versed in Lawrence’s willingness to simply be willing to slowly work his way down the field, but if they can make him have to sustain drives to get points I don’t see the Jaguars putting up much on the scoreboard.

Crush the Jaguars for every costly mistake

The best way to make an overmatched team give up is to take advantage of its mistakes. Breakdowns in protection, special teams, or turnovers are going to happen, the Jaguars are a poorly-coached team and will give the Patriots opportunities.

The most likely scenario to play out will be interceptions with Lawrence playing behind a weak offensive line, with third-string running backs, and a bad receiving group. That means the secondary needs to be ready for when Lawrence puts one up for grabs or if. the pass rush is able to exploit its matchups to speed up his process.

When the Patriots get a turnover or blocked kick, turning it into a touchdown going the other way more or less amounts to taking an uppercut to the chin. One or two of those could break Jacksonville’s spirit in this game.

Take the fight to Jacksonville

The Patriots’ passing offense tends to be hit or miss on a given week, but one thing that has been consistent is their running game. Jacksonville has a young defense across the board, so there could be opportunities for New England’s offense.

It’s going to come down to Josh McDaniels being able to get the offense going quicker in games. The Patriots have had a pretty reliable rushing attack for most of the season, but have struggled to get consistent looks in the passing game. Establishing physicality early, then hitting the Jaguars hard on play-action fakes to get the tight ends and wide receiver Kendrick Bourne to attack the defense downfield will be key.


RB Damien Harris: This game has the feel of a grind-it-out-let-it-loose contest on the ground, so I expect a sizable workload for both Damien Harris and rookie Rhamondre Stevenson against the Jaguars — especially if the Patriots try to manage the former’s workload coming off a hamstring injury.

The Patriots offense is designed to hit you with a bunch of body blows that add up and allow the duo to dominate on the ground in the late stages of the game. The ability for Harris and Stevenson to set a physical tone early will help put the Jaguars’ second-level defenders in a bind when the team decides to go with play action passes.

LB Kyle Van Noy: The most dangerous matchup could be the Patriots’ linebackers against the Jaguars’ running backs in space. That means we will likely see Jacksonville try to get Dare Ogunbowale matched up against Kyle Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower, or Ja’Whaun Bentley

I could see the Patriots going the other way, though, and trust Kyle Dugger or Myles Bryant to take on the Jaguars running back and free up the linebackers — especially Van Noy — to go after Lawrence on passing downs.

Prediction: Patriots 27, Jaguars 13

I think this is a game where the Patriots can move the ball on offense, but have red zone issues that turn them into field goals. Jacksonville will have trouble holding onto the ball, with three turnovers leading to 17 Patriot points. Expect a game that starts slowly with Jacksonville’s defense being able to keep the Patriots out of the end zone early — think the game against Carolina — but the Patriots defense will make a play to break this one open and the offense finds its groove in the second half.

Damian Harris puts up his sixth 100-yard game and Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith each catch a touchdown pass from Mac Jones. I don’t necessarily think we see something out of this team that suggests they are back to where they were in October and November, but some steps in the right direction nonetheless.