In their most desperate hour in the most hostile of territories against the most dangerous of teams, the Jacksonville Jaguars need their defense to stop the unbreakable machine that is the New England Patriots' offense, which is led by quarterback and part man, part machine Tom Brady. To do that -- rather, to give themselves a chance -- the Jaguars need to stop tight end (and full machine) Rob Gronkowski from going all Gronk all over them.
Luckily, they have the man for the job.
On Sunday, they need to turn Jalen Ramsey loose. They need to give their young ( ) cornerback the game's toughest assignment. And they need to trust him to complete it. Because if he can do what needs to be done, the Jaguars will stand a chance against the mighty Patriots. The Jaguars need to let Ramsey shadow the unstoppable machine that is Gronk.
The AFC Championship Game between the Jaguars and Patriots on Sunday, which you can live-stream here, features a whole host of intriguing matchups from Brady's ability to deal with a menacing pass rush to the Jaguars defense's ability to stop the Patriots' plethora of running backs coming out of the backfield to Blake Bortles' ability to overcome his own erratic right arm.
They all pale in comparison to how much damn fun it would be to watch Gronk vs. Ramsey for an entire game. Unfortunately, it's not a lock to happen. Ramsey is a cornerback and the Jaguars' coaching staff could decide to let him shut down the speedy Brandin Cooks, an actual wide receiver, on the outside. They might use a combination of their linebackers and safeties to slow Gronkowski down. But if the Jaguars are thinking straight, they should let Ramsey shadow the Patriots' most dangerous weapon similar to how the Chiefs stuck safety Eric Berry on him in Week 1. Berry held Gronk to two catches on four targets for 33 yards, according to Pro Football Focus.
If the Jaguars can take out Gronk, the Jaguars can take out the Patriots. At the very least, they'll stand a chance.
We all know how dominant Gronk is, but let's put what he does in context for a brief moment. In his regular-season career, he averages roughly 70.4 receiving yards and 0.75 touchdowns. Consider Antonio Brown -- arguably among the top five wide receivers all time -- averages 86.2 receiving yards and 0.51 touchdowns. Gronk's numbers get even better in the playoffs, where he averages 75.9 receiving yards and 0.91 touchdowns.
He's so unstoppable it's actually laughable.
Covering Gronk is like trying to cover a, well, a 6-foot-6, 265-pound tank with turbo boosters. Ramsey has the speed to cover him, but at 6-2 and 208 pounds, he gives up some size. That's unavoidable. The truth is, a perfect Gronk stopper doesn't exist. Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib once said Linebackers are too slow to stick with him downfield. And defensive backs are too small.
Ramsey can at least stick with him and provide tight coverage, which will force Brady, who might be under duress against a top-notch pass-rush, to throw into tight windows. That'll give Ramsey a chance to come down with takeaways -- something the Jaguars desperately need if they're going to win in Foxborough.
According to PFF, Ramsey has allowed a 64.3 passer rating in coverage -- 10th best among qualified cornerbacks -- and racked up more interceptions (five) than touchdowns allowed (three). It's worth noting that Ramsey's teammate, A.J. Bouye, led cornerbacks with a 31.6 passer rating in coverage during the regular season, so he would be well-equipped to handle the toughest non-Gronk assignments like stopping Cooks.
There's another factor at play here, and it has nothing to do statistics. It has everything to do with Ramsey's loud mouth. Earlier this season,
Ramsey has already started jabbering, guaranteeing two more wins.
To be clear, taking Gronk out of the game wouldn't guarantee a Jaguars victory. The Patriots have so many weapons coming out of the backfield that they can still dink-and-dunk the Jaguars to death with their armada of running backs. They still have Cooks and his 16.6 yards per catch. They still have Tom freakin' Brady.
But the Jaguars can only win this game by making Brady as uncomfortable as possible.. And so is taking away his favorite target.
Again, this isn't a lock to happen. The Jaguars might not even put Ramsey on Gronk. But if they do, get your popcorn ready. It could be an all-time matchup between a brash, loud-mouth cornerback who is ready to take Richard Sherman's mantle and the greatest tight end in the history of football.
Read on for 10 stats to know for the conference championship games.
For all of the NFL's faults, its greatest strength remains its parity. Often, calling attention to the league's balance feels overdone and cliché and not entirely accurate. After all, the Patriots have won five Super Bowls since 2001, and generally dominate the entire NFL. But the league's parity is real.
As ESPN Stats & Info pointed out, three out of the remaining four teams -- the Jaguars, Vikings and Eagles -- did not finish with a winning record last season. Now, they all have a chance to go to the Super Bowl. Of course, parity's problem is that the Patriots are probably going to win another Super Bowl in the next month.
2. Tom Brady is different
No, I'm not talking about. I'm talking about his ability to play quarterback.
The Patriots are probably going to win their next two games because of their advantage at quarterback. The other three teams have quarterbacks who have started a combined FIVE playoff games. Brady has won FIVE Super Bowls.
Let's take this a step further. Case Keenum, Nick Foles and Blake Bortles have combined to throw five touchdowns in their postseason careers -- or the same as Brady's Super Bowl rings count. Brady, on the other hand, has thrown 66 touchdowns in the playoffs. To put it another way, Brady's touchdown rate in the playoffs (4.8) is nearly as high as the other quarterbacks' total passing touchdowns in the playoffs.
3. A defensive-minded final four
The other teams do have great defenses, though -- something that is usually necessary to beat the Patriots in the playoffs. It's a very defensive-minded final four, even when including the Patriots.
This is the first time since the 1970 merger that all 4 teams in the conference championship games had a Top 5 scoring defense that season@Vikings: 15.8 PPG allowed (1st)@Jaguars: 16.8 PPG allowed (2nd)@Eagles: 18.4 PPG allowed (4th)@Patriots: 18.5 PPG allowed (5th)— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) January 15, 2018
After the offensive shootout the Patriots and Falcons gave us a year ago, I very much welcome a lower-scoring Super Bowl.
4. Patriots defense has improved substantially
Surprise, surprise: The Patriots defense finished as a top-five unit by points allowed, which is really the only stat that matters when it's all said and done. Since the first month of the season, they've been playing lights out -- well, for the most part considering Jay Cutler did .
The Patriots give up their yards (29th in yards allowed) in between the 20s, but they tighten up around their own end zone. They boast the fifth-best red zone defense, allowing a touchdown on 46 percent of opponents' red zone trips, according to TeamRankings.com.
5. The Jaguars' remarkable turnaround
The Jaguars are ranked one spot ahead of the Patriots in opponent red zone scoring percentage (43.8). That shouldn't come as a surprise given how the Jaguars have ridden their defense to the AFC title game. What should be surprising is that the formula has worked this quickly.
What an amazing turnaround this has been:
In the process, they've turned into a team that is actually incredibly fun to watch despite them having a subpar quarterback. Ramsey, who appears to be a lock to take Sherman's place as the most entertaining defensive player in the league, is already predicting a win in the Super Bowl -- Calais Campbell sort of . Their fans once sent
6. Jaguars can't hide Blake Bortles
But about Bortles: The Jaguars need to keep unleashing him. Steelers, and I'm going to briefly write about it again. The Jaguars can't try to hide Bortles. To beat the Patriots, they need to let him throw on early downs and off play action. They can't jam it up the middle on first and second down and then expect him to bail them out on third-and-long. They have to keep New England on its toes by throwing early and often.before their victory over the
On first down, Bortles has thrown for 11 touchdowns, two interceptions and a 103.9 passer rating. On second down, he has thrown for six touchdowns, five picks and an 80.8 passer rating. On third down, he has five touchdowns, six picks and a 68.5 passer rating. You get the point.
They should use play action too. According to PFF, Bortles has a 106.6 passer rating on play-action passes, which is the eighth highest in football. Without play action, Bortles' passer rating drops to 77.1, which is the eighth lowest in football.
If only there was a play from their win over the Steelers that demonstrated what I'm talking about. Oh wait ...
7. Fournette needs to do what Henry didn't do
To use play action effectively, the Jaguars will need rookie running back Leonard Fournette to gouge a Patriots defense that stunk against the run in the regular season, when it allowed the second-most yards per carry (4.7), but stiffened up against Titans running back Derrick Henry in their dominant win last week, limiting him to 2.3 yards per carry.
Despite eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark in the regular season, Fournette's rookie year really didn't go all that well considering he averaged 3.9 yards per carry. But he looked awesome during the win over the Steelers, exploding for 109 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries.
For the first time since the beginning of the season really, he finally looked explosive again.
If Fournette can get going, the game should open up for Bortles and his play-action passes.
8. Brady against pressure
On the other side of the ball, how the Patriots deal with the Jaguars' pass-rush will be paramount for obvious reasons. When the Patriots lose in the postseason, it's usually because they can't protect Brady from a barrage of hits. I wrote about this in my picks column at greater length ---- but just take a look back at the teams that have beat the Patriots in the playoffs. They're usually teams that can rush the passer.
"The way to beat Tom Brady is to hit him," he once wrote for The Players' Tribune. "As many times as you can, hit him. And even then, it might not be enough."
And the Jaguars can certainly rush the passer. They finished with the second-most sacks in the regular season (55). And they can get pressure without blitzing. According to PFF, the Jaguars pressure quarterbacks at a rate of 39.6 percent even though they blitz only 18.7 percent of the time (league average is 29.3 percent). They have the players -- Malik Jackson, Calais Campbell, Dante Fowler and Yannick Ngakoue -- to harass Brady.
With that being said, let's not pretend Brady collapses under pressure. He's still good, even if he's not his superhuman self. Brady led all quarterbacks this season with a 96.6 passer rating under pressure, according to PFF.
9. Vikings defense vs. Nick Foles is a giant mismatch
Speaking of pressure, you know who's absolutely atrocious against it? Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, who sports an ugly 34.0 passer rating under pressure, per PFF.
With Carson Wentz out of the picture, this really is a matchup between the league's best defense and the league's worst offense.
The Vikings had the NFL's #1 total defense this season— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) January 16, 2018
In their 4 games without Carson Wentz (including playoffs), the Eagles have averaged 277.5 total YPG... which would have given them the NFL's worst total offense if applied over the full 2017 season#MINvsPHI
10. Can Case Keenum deal with the Eagles' pressure?
But it's not like the Vikings' quarterback situation is foolproof. Case Keenum has shined this season and deserves a crap ton of credit regardless of how his storybook season ends, but he might be in for a rough outing against the Eagles.
As PFF's Sam Monson pointed out, Keenum's passer rating under pressure against the Saints was 5.1. 5.1! And the Eagles know how to generate pressure.
Case Keenum had a passer rating of 5.1 when pressured vs the Saints. Eagles front pressures the QB more than any other in football. That could be the Vikings Achilles heel right there.— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) January 16, 2018
Pressure -- not just from the moment, but from 300-pound men -- is going to be a theme of Championship Sunday.