Bill Belichick has won an NFL-record five Super Bowls.
His New England team is a strong contender again. The biggest challenge could come from the Jaguars.
The Patriots (1-0) visit the Jaguars (1-0) on Sunday at TIAA Bank Field in what could be a crucial game in determining home-field advantage in the playoffs.
The Patriots defeated the visiting Jaguars 24-20 in last season’s AFC Championship Game. Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles started out strong, completing 13 of 15 passes for 155 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions for a 131.9 passer rating in the first half. He finished the game 23-of-36 passing for 193 yards with one score and no picks for a 98.5 rating.
Bortles had a mediocre day passing in Sunday’s 20-15 win at the New York Giants in the opener, throwing for 176 yards on 18-of-33 passing with one touchdown and one interception for a 67.2 rating. Bortles did run for 41 yards on a key play in the third quarter, the longest gain of the day for the Jaguars.
The fifth-year veteran is the key to the game on Sunday. When Bortles plays well, the Jaguars are incredibly hard to beat with their elite defense.
Belichick spoke exclusively to 1010XL on Wednesday to preview the game and we started by discussing Bortles.
“He continues to improve as he gains experience,” Belichick said. “He does an excellent job using the players around him. The option plays he’s involved in, the RPOs, he makes the right decisions either giving to the guy or keeping it like he did on the long gain against the Giants. He keeps the team well balanced. It takes a good quarterback to be able to do that.”
The biggest question entering the game is the health of Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette, who suffered a minor hamstring injury against the Giants. If Fournette can’t play, T.J. Yeldon is expected to handle the bulk of the carries. Backup Corey Grant gave the Jaguars a boost in the passing game against the Patriots last year with 59 yards on three catches.
“They have good depth at that position,” Belichick said. “Yeldon is an explosive player with a lot of skill. Fournette, Grant, it doesn’t matter who is in there. They’re all dangerous.”
Offensively, the Jaguars have to find a way to slow down Patriots edge rusher Trey Flowers. The fourth-year veteran had 1 ½ sacks in New England’s victory over Houston on Sunday. Flowers will test Jaguars left tackle Cam Robinson.
“Trey has done a good job for us,” Belichick said. “We give him a lot of different responsibilities. He can play all three downs in a lot of situations. He’s a very unselfish, dependable, hard-working player.”
Flowers is a promising talent, but the advantage tilts heavily towards the Jaguars on defense. The Jaguars have a first-team All-Pro cornerback (Jalen Ramsey) and defensive end (Calais Campbell), as well as reigning Pro-Bowl players in tackle Malik Jackson, end Yannick Ngakoue, linebacker Telvin Smith and cornerback A.J. Bouye. Free safety Tashaun Gipson and tackle Marcell Dareus (twice) have also had Pro-Bowl seasons at previous stops.
Belichick credited the Jaguars brass with stocking the roster with elite talent and commended how well the defense plays together.
“They all help each other,” Belichick said. “They have players at all three levels. They make it hard. A lot of guys that are hard to block and a lot of guys that are hard to throw the ball on. They pursue well, tackle well, turn the ball over a lot and score on defense. Last year, they were near the top of every category that was meaningful and they’re off to a good start this year.”
The Jaguars resurgence from the league doldrums took off with the 2016 draft when Jaguars general manger Dave Caldwell selected Ramsey, linebacker Myles Jack and Ngakoue in the first three rounds. After Jaguars personnel chief Tom Coughlin was hired in January of last year, the Jaguars added Campbell, Bouye and strong safety Barry Church in free agency.
“They’ve put a strong roster on the field from the draft to their free-agency acquisitions and development of young players,” Belichick said. “They have a lot of good players. Dave and his staff deserve a lot of credit for that. They have a very talented roster.”
You can hear my interview with Belichick on Wednesday’s Frangie Show at the one-hour, 35-minute mark.
(You can email Hays at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @HaysCarlyon)