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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Can Brady hand-le Jags D?

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An AFC Championship Game matchup between the NFL’s No. 2 scoring offense and No. 2 defense in terms of points allowed would seem to be a high-profile affair.

But it wasn’t until word of Tom Brady’s right hand injury hit on Wednesday afternoon that the buzz really built for Sunday afternoon’s big battle between the Patriots (14-3) and Jaguars (12-6) with a berth in Super Bowl LII on the line.

The story has made the way from coast to coast now, getting intense coverage in print and on both radio and television. Brady injured the hand in practice on Wednesday, reportedly on a handoff. He underwent X-rays and missed a scheduled live NFL Network presser conference.

A day later Brady was on the field for practice wearing a glove on the hand, something he prefers not to do. Officially he did not participate in practice on Thursday.

Friday he was again on the field and finally met with the media, though he didn’t shed much light on the injury or his status for Sunday’s game.

“I’m not talking about that,” Brady said when asked about the hand injury.

He was then asked about being ready to play on Sunday on multiple occasions and responded the same way each time.

“We’ll see,” Brady said, before officially being listed on the team’s injury report as questionable for the title game.

The reality is that even before the concern surrounding the Brady hand injury, New England’s No. 1 offense had its hands full with a Jacksonville defense that fields All-Pro talent at all three levels, a unit that sports the NFL’s No. 1 pass defense. Pressure, turnovers, third down, red zone – no matter the category, the Jaguars are good at it.

“Top of the league in everything, starting with turnovers, sacks, negative plays [forced] and points, you name it,” Belichick said of a defense that often seems like it’s on the offensive. “Everybody is good at stripping the ball – their whole team is. Their front guys, their linebackers, their secondary – they are all good at taking the ball away with strips, interceptions, tipped balls and so forth. That's why they have so many of them. They are a very explosive group on defense. They can score when you have the ball and that's always a very threatening thing. Not only can they take the ball away but they can take the ball away and score. I think that speaks to the explosiveness of their team.”

Jacksonville had seven returns for touchdowns on interceptions and fumbles during the regular season and another – a 50-yard fumble return by linebacker Telvin Smith – in last week’s win in Pittsburgh.

For the Patriots to advance to the Super Bowl for the second straight February and third time four years – looking to become the first NFL team to defend its title since New England itself accomplished the feat in 2004 – a banged up Brady and the offense will have to answer their biggest challenge of the season.

As the analysis of Brady’s injury and its effect on the AFC title game wind down ahead of Sunday’s 3:05 kickoff, here are some potential keys to this battle between the Patriots and Jaguars.

On hand – Brady’s hand will be the story until the presumed NFL MVP proves he’s capable of fulfilling his duties against Jacksonville’s defense. Will he wear a glove? Can he handle and control the football with the necessary hand strength? Is his accuracy or velocity affected in any way? All are questions that Brady must answer in what are expected to be relatively good weather conditions. Once Brady throws a few passes and shows he can do the job – or shows that his hand is a limitation in the game – then the rest of the game’s matchups will come into focus. Until then, Brady’s hand is the story.

Under pressure – Brady will face pressure on Sunday. That’s the reality of facing a team that had four players with eight or more sacks during the regular season. Jacksonville had 55 sacks this fall, ranking second in sacks per pass play. Free-agent addition Calais Campbell led the AFC with 14.5 sacks. On the other end, Yannick Ngakoue broke out with a dozen sacks. The front guys switch sides depending on the strength of the offense and the call on defense. Maybe most worrisome is when Campbell moves inside in sub situations. Certainly New England’s offensive line has its hands full. The group has been up and down in protection this season, but is coming off a solid performance against Tennessee. Past Patriots playoff upsets have almost all included an impressive, game-changing pass rush from the opposition. The Jaguars are capable of such impact work. (No, there will be no mention of Tom Coughlin’s history against the Patriots here!) It’s up to Brady and the line to make sure negative history doesn’t repeat itself as the Patriots look to repeat as AFC champs.

Less than Fournette – New England’s run defense has been on the upswing the last two times it took the field. The front was dominant in the season finale against the Jets and then held Tennessee’s Derrick Henry to a mere 28 yards on 12 attempts with no run longer than 4 yards. Leonard Fournette led Jacksonville’s No. 1 rushing offense during the regular season with 268 rushes for 1,040 yards (3.9 avg.) with nine touchdowns, including a 90-yard score. Fournette suffered an ankle injury in last weekend’s win in Pittsburgh. He had 25 carries for 109 yards in the game with three touchdowns, but he only picked up 27 yards on his 13 attempts (2.1 avg.) after returning from the ankle injury for the second half. On Wild Card Weekend, Buffalo held Fournette to just 57 yards on 21 carries (2.7 avg.). Doug Marrone is on the record stating that he would love to have a game where his quarterback didn’t throw a single pass. Jacksonville wants to run and play defense. But if Fournette is slowed by the injury that had him limited in practice this week it could help an improving Patriots run defense keep him from getting going. And New England’s history against bigger, power backs is a positive one. Clearly Matt Patricia’s defense will be intent on shutting Fournette down and making Blake Bortles make plays.

I spy with Van Noy’s little eye – Linebacker Kyle Van Noy was a not only a big part of the Patriots success stopping Henry last week but had a key role helping to spy Marcus Mariota to keep the dual-threat Tennessee QB from making too many plays with his legs. New England could employ a similar approach with Bortles, who ran 10 times for 88 yards to beat the Bills and another five times for 35 yards in last week’s win over the Steelers. Bortles averaged 5.6 yards per run during the regular season on 57 rushes and score a pair of touchdowns. He’s probably more consistent as a runner than as a passer, meaning the controlled pass rush that spied Mariota before piling up a Patriots postseason franchise record eight sacks could be employed again this Sunday afternoon.

Blake lively? – Speaking of Bortles, to pull off an upset Jacksonville is going to have to make some plays in the air. Bortles won’t get away with 87 yards passing, which he had in beating the Bills, in this trip to Foxborough, regardless of Brady’s health. Though Bortles has had just one TD pass in each of his postseason games, he did throw multiple touchdown passes in four of the final five weeks of the regular season. He did find ways to hit some big plays over the course of the year, including play-action shots down the field. Jacksonville had 10 different players catch a pass longer than 25 yards this season, with receiver Keelan Cole averaging nearly 18 yards on his 42 receptions. He hit the Steelers for a 45-yard gain last week. The Patriots have had their issues over the course of the year allowing big plays. Even in the always-present breezes of Gillette, Bortles will have to air it out at some point. The Patriots back end needs to be ready when it comes.

*Turnover talk – *The Jaguars were second in the NFL this season with 33 takeaways and also second with 21 interceptions. As Belichick noted, they turned seven of those turnovers into immediate points and did that again against Pittsburgh. Of course the Patriots had the second-fewest giveaways during the regular season with just 12. Turnovers are the great equalizer in the postseason. Certainly having a quarterback with a throwing-hand injury isn’t ideal. If Jacksonville can live up to its turnover reputation, which helped key last week’s upset of the Steelers, it wouldn’t be good for the home squad that puts such a premium on taking care of the football.

Playoff Amendola – There has been a lot of talk about Jacksonville’s elite talent on defense trying to deal with Rob Gronkowski and New England’s passing backs. The player that the Jaguars may not have an answer for is the guy Gronk has creatively dubbed Danny “Playoff” Amendola after the slot receiver’s 11 catches for 112 yards in last week’s win. All-Pro talents at cornerback Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye will be otherwise occupied so it’s up to Aaron Colvin and others to deal with ’Dola. That’s an advantage for the Patriots as they likely look to employ a quick, timely passing attack against the Jags impressive pass rush.

Prediction: *Brady’s hand injury – and Friday’s curious press conference – has all of Patriot Nation in a tizzy. Without the buzz that it’s created, this would be another week with New England expected to march right through an inferior foe. But Brady’s hand combined with the Jaguars talent on defense has brought a little more competitive uncertainty to the equation. Still, it’s hard to imagine Bortles making the plays necessary to pull off another road upset against a Super Bowl-winning QB. It’s far easier to imagine the Patriots using an up-tempo, quick passing attack to go at the Jags. Dion Lewis and the screen game should be in full effect. The run defense has earned enough respect to be at least a draw against the Fournette-led ground game. The Jags seem to have some confidence. They like to be aggressive and will probably take chances down the field on offense and make some aggressive, creative decisions throughout the afternoon. But in the end it won’t be enough assuming Brady is healthy enough to take his normal reps and fulfill his game-plan duties. In the end the G.O.A.T. leads the Patriots to a 27-9 victory* to advance to the Super Bowl for the second straight season and eighth time in his career. It’s on to Minnesota, maybe both the LII-hosting state and the opponent!

What do you think about our keys and prediction? Let us know with a comment below!

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