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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Jags D a true road test

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Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack declared that this is the biggest week of his life, leading up to the biggest game of his life in Sunday afternoon's battle with the Patriots at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville.

That's probably a bit strong for a Week 2 game, especially one between two teams who faced off in the AFC Championship Game just last January in Foxborough with a trip to Super Bowl LII on the line.

If you recall, Jack's Jaguars led that game for almost three full quarters, including a 20-10 advantage in the fourth quarter, before Tom Brady and Danny Amendola led a comeback that culminated in the 24-20 victory to propel the Patriots to their second straight Super Bowl (a game Jags coach Doug Marrone claims he still hasn't seen).

So even if this week's matchup isn't quite as grand as Jack would lead us to believe – though it's clearly a much bigger game for a Jacksonville squad still trying to establish itself as a true, consistent AFC contender – the title game rematch is a marquee battle.

It's the aging Brady-led Patriots squad known for its offense against the upstart young Jaguars built on one of the game's best defenses.

It's the Hall of Fame coach/QB duo of Bill Belichick and Brady against one of the more questioned coach/QB pairings in the game in Jacksonville's Marrone and Blake Bortles.

Oh, and we almost forgot to mention that All-Pro Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey spent the bulk of the offseason criticizing endless players across the NFL, including both Brady and Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.

It's not the biggest game of anyone's life or the season by any means, but Sunday afternoon's contest between the Patriots and Jaguars is one of the best matchups on the Week 2 NFL schedule and could have long-term ramifications in the AFC playoff picture.

As you get ready for the 4:25 Sunday afternoon kickoff and wonder if Ramsey's playing skills match his work with his mouth, here are some of the Keys to this fun matchup between the Patriots and Jaguars in Jacksonville:

Line up the challenges – One of the impressive aspects of the Patriots opening day win over the Texans was the new-look New England offensive line's work against Houston's star-studded defensive front. New left tackle Trent Brown took care of Jadeveon Clowney and the rest of the line followed suit. The Jaguars brings just as big a test, though, with their Sacksonville front. It's also worth noting that the game will played in warm and potentially wet conditions that could test early season conditioning and footing. As is so often the case, if the line gives Brady time it's a big first step toward offensive success.

Gronk and then what? – Whether Gronkowski is against a linebacker or an elite cornerback, he is still clearly the Patriots most proven, palatable weapon. The All-Pro is healthy and having fun making plays. Brady will throw it to him almost regardless of the situation as his trust in No. 87 is about as high as possible. Beyond that, though, the matchups and options in the passing game are suspect. James White is a clearly trusted option out of backfield but the speed of Jack and the rest of the Jaguars linebackers could limit his production. Phillip Dorsett had a nice opening day, but is he ready to, say, win consistent battles with A.J. Bouye? The Jaguars have a very impressive pass defense at all three levels and it's still a work in progress in terms of the Patriots weapons. Maybe this is the week Chris Hogan steps up and breaks out. However it comes together, Brady will need more than just Gronk to beat Jacksonville.

Fournette or for naught? – The Jaguars play defense and want to run the ball on offense in order to keep Bortles from having to make too many plays to win. That's a lot easier with workhorse back Leonard Fournette in the lineup and healthy. Even if he's the former on Sunday he's unlikely to be the latter. Fournette missed practice all week with a bum hamstring. That could very well limit either his availability or his production and is good news for a Patriots defense that struggled against the run in Week 1. Assuming Fournette is limited or out, T.J. Yeldon will be asked to pick up the slack and more with fall on Bortles. It could also mean more chances for Corey Grant, who gave the Patriots issues early on last January. Still, New England probably gets a break with Fournette's injury.

Backfield in motion – New England has its own issues at running back with Jeremey Hill (ACL) gone to IR and Rex Burkhead missing practice time to a concussion this week. Burkhead went from sitting out practice to limited as the week developed, so maybe he'll be ready to go. And rookie first-round pick Sony Michel said his status will be based on a coaching decision not medical. But Michel didn't play in the preseason and making his debut against the Jags pass rush may not be ideal. Even beyond the question of who joins White comes the issue of how the running backs deal with the speed and athleticism on the Jaguars front. Jacksonville's defense is good enough that an offense needs all hands on deck for the battle. It will be worth noting who the hands in the backfield turn out to be and how much production they can bring to the test.

Return policy – The Patriots had issues in the return game in the opener. Riley McCarron's muffed punt cost him his job and New England seven points. The kickoff coverage was not very good. The options for the punt return role this week probably includ Patrick Chung or newcomer Kenjon Barner. Chung is a sure-handed decision maker. Barner had 27 returns for the Eagles last year, but also had muff issues. One will need to get the job done, maybe in bad weather. The coverage unit just needs to find a way to keep Jacksonville from starting every drive past the 30. There is also the feeling that this tight battle could be swung by a big return, either in the kicking game or on a turnover. New England escaped last year's AFC title game when Jack was called down on a would-be fumble return. One of those big plays for either team could sway the outcome this time around.

Kings of the AFC mountain – Until further notice the 66-year-old Belichick and 41-year-old Brady are the kings of the mountain in the AFC. The Jaguars, led by coach Marrone and quarterback Bortles had the chance to try to change that last winter. They came up short. As they both try to prove themselves and elevate their team they get another shot at the ultimate measuring sticks at their respective jobs this Sunday. Marrone, Bortles and the Jaguars have something to prove and they have the perfect opponents to prove it against. Assuming they are up to the tall task of course.

Prediction: The Patriots offensive line and defense answered opening day challenges, leaving many with positive momentum regarding the defending AFC champs. But this week's trip to Jacksonville is a new, more grand challenge. The Jaguars have been talking the talk all offseason and it could be a pretty emotional game on Sunday in front of their home crowd. The Patriots still have plenty of early-season questions to answer. Still, the foundation of Belichick, Brady and Gronkowski is as good a starting point as you'll find. Brady has never lost to the Jags in eight meetings, having topped 100 in passer rating in all but two games, one of those an impressive 97.1. He has 19 touchdowns and just two picks – all in one 2012 meeting – in those matchups. So Brady vs. Jacksonville is a safe bet. Look for him to get enough protection to spread the ball around to his small group of trusted targets, frustrating an athletic, aggressive Jags D. Gronk scores. Michel too. Defensively the Patriots faced an overmatched Deshaun Watson last week. Bortles doesn't have a lot of weapons to work with. The unit should be up to this challenge given its own newfound depth, especially up front. If the Patriots avoid turnovers – an issue last week – and big plays allowed, they should have the horses to control and win what should be a physical battle. Something in the range of a 24-17 victory for New England sounds about right.

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

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