With Tom Brady listed as questionable for Sunday's AFC Championship game against the Jaguars, the Patriots will consider adjustments if the quarterback is not capable of a Brady-like performance.
Brady finally spoke with reporters this afternoon after canceling his press conference each of the last two days. Asked if he’ll be playing on Sunday, Brady replied, “we’ll see.” He wore red receiver’s gloves on each of his hands during his trip to the podium, hiding any signs of potential damage on his right hand.
Brady was listed as a limited participant in today’s official practice report, along with LaAdrian Waddle, Alan Branch, Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee. All five players are listed as questionable for Sunday; all players aside from Brady are dealing with knee injuries.
No matter how healthy Brady is, New England’s stable of running backs will take on an added level of importance on Sunday.
“It’s always important,” Dion Lewis said of the running game. “We’ve just got to be balanced. The run helps the pass and the pass helps the run. We’ll definitely want to be as balanced as possible and the more success we have early, the more we’ll stick with it.”
Some combination of Lewis and James White – plus Burkhead and Gillislee, if they can play – should be able to exploit a soft spot in Jacksonville’s defense, if there is one. The Jaguars gave up the fewest yards in the league to wide receivers this season and fourth-fewest to tight ends (granted, they didn’t face Rob Gronkowski).
Per Pro Football Reference, Jacksonville was a bit more towards the middle of the pack when it came to covering running backs in the passing game. The Jaguars were 12th in receptions allowed to running backs and 10th in receiving yards given up to players out of the backfield.
Jacksonville had the 21st ranked rushing defense, surrendering 116.3 yards per game. It was 26th in terms of opponents’ yards per carry, at 4.3.
Neither Burkhead nor Gillislee were active for last week’s game against the Titans.
Should the unthinkable occur and Brady can’t go on Sunday, Brian Hoyer will get the start under center.
“I don’t know,” was all Belichick had to say when asked if Brady’s status complicated his planning process.
Plenty of Brady’s teammates on each side of the ball sounded confident that No. 12 will be ready to go for his 12th career AFC Championship Game on Sunday.
“Tom always tends to show up in big games,” Danny Amendola said. “This is a big game.”
“He looked pretty good to me,” Malcolm Butler said of Brady at practice today. “Throwing pretty good. Laughing and joking like he always does.”
Hoyer has started against the Jaguars four times in his career. He’s 2-2, each win coming during his time as a starter with the Houston Texans. Each win also came before Jacksonville’s revamped defense began to form in 2016.
Hoyer started one playoff game during his time with Houston, a loss in the AFC Wild-Card round in 2015 to the Kansas City Chiefs. Hoyer was 15 for 34 passing for 136 yards and four interceptions as the Texans were eliminated, 30-0.
It warrants mentioning that at the media portion of practice today, held just before noon, there were only two quarterbacks seen: Brady and Hoyer. No emergency third-stringer – or backup for Hoyer – had been added to the roster.
The last quarterback to start a postseason game for the Patriots other than Tom Brady was Scott Zolak in the 1998 wild-card round vs. the Jaguars.
Recent history doesn’t provide much of a glimpse into what to expect on Sunday afternoon from the Jacksonville Jaguars.
We know all about the three-day joint practice sessions the teams held this summer prior to a preseason game, but New England and Jacksonville haven’t met in a game that’s counted since Week 3 of the 2015 season: a 51-17 win for the Patriots.
Not much has changed for New England, save for an additional Lombardi Trophy.
2015 was actually the best season record-wise for Jacksonville in Gus Bradley’s nearly four-year tenure as head coach of the franchise… at 5-11. Most of the pieces that made up the NFL’s No. 2 defense this past season were either still in college or playing elsewhere in the league.
The Jaguars have been ridiculed, rightfully so, for past personnel moves that sent the team spiraling into irrelevance for the better part of a decade. Drafting a punter in third round of the 2012 draft, five picks ahead of quarterback Russell Wilson, is just the tip of the iceberg.
General Manager David Caldwell took over in 2013 and after a few so-so drafts, he completely nailed his 2016 selections: cornerback Jalen Ramsey in the first round at No. 5 overall, linebacker Myles Jack in the second round and defensive end Yannick Ngakoue in the third. Caldwell also signed defensive tackle Malik Jackson away from the Denver Broncos in March 2016.
The makeover continued this past offseason, with Tom Coughlin added to the front office as Executive Vice President of Football Operations. Defensive end Calais Campbell was signed as a free agent from the Arizona Cardinals and tied for second in the NFL in sacks, with 14.5, while cornerback A.J. Bouye defected from the Houston Texans and tied for second in the NFL with six interceptions.
“He’s good at everything,” Belichick said of Campbell. “He’s long, he’s strong, he’s powerful, he’s quick, he’s very instinctive, he’s a smart player, uses his hands well, and he’s one of the best defensive linemen in the league.”
In addition to giving up the second-fewest yards per game (286.1) and second-fewest points per game (16.8), Jacksonville had the second-most takeaways in the league with 33 (21 interceptions, 12 fumble recoveries) and sacks (55). The Jaguars surrendered the fewest passing yards per game, at 170.
Of course, Jacksonville never faced an offense quite like New England’s in the regular season. The Patriots led the league in total yards and scored the second-most points.
The Jaguars faced two top-10 offenses and won each game, first against the Pittsburgh Steelers (30-9, Week 5) and the San Diego Chargers (20-17, OT, Week 10). Much of the rest of their schedule was filled with underwhelming attacks featuring quarterbacks such as Josh McCown, DeShone Kizer, T.J. Yates, Blaine Gabbert and old friend Jacoby Brissett (twice).
Jacksonville’s .434 opponents winning percentage was tied for worst in the league with the Tennessee Titans in the regular season.
Down the stretch of the regular season, the Jaguars could be seen giving up 44 points to another old friend in Jimmy Garoppolo and the San Francisco 49ers in Week 16 (San Fran’s offense accounted for all but one of the touchdowns). Jacksonville deserves all the credit in the world for going into Pittsburgh and upsetting the Steelers in last week’s divisional round, but the fact remains Pittsburgh dropped 42 points on the vaunted Jags defense.