When the season began, no one expected the New England Patriots to have go through two AFC South foes to make a return trip to the Super Bowl.
However, that's the task awaiting the Patriots in Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the Jacksonville Jaguars after knocking off the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round on Saturday.
Not only is Jacksonville an unexpected opponent of the Patriots, it made its way to the AFC title game by way of a 45-point outburst versus the Pittsburgh Steelers led by quarterback Blake Bortles that no one saw coming.
A win on Sunday would hand the Patriots their 10th Super Bowl appearance, while the Jaguars are looking for their first trip to the big game.
Date: Sunday, January 21
Start Time: 3:05 p.m. ET
Brady Looking for More Success in 7th Straight AFC Championship
It's hard to be surprised about the postseason achievements of the Patriots because of their prolonged success, but it's remarkable to see them in the AFC Championship Game for the seventh time in a row.
Sunday's contest will be the fifth of the seven the Patriots have played at home. They've been victorious in three of the previous four home games, with the lone defeat coming to the Baltimore Ravens in 2012.
However, Brady hasn't been perfect at home with a Super Bowl berth on the line since 2011. The 40-year-old quarterback was intercepted on four occasions in back-to-back AFC Championship Games against the Ravens in 2011 and 2012, the latter of which was won by the visitors.
In his five career games against the Jaguars, Brady has averaged 273.8 passing yards and thrown for 11 touchdowns with two interceptions.
If he follows his recent trend in the title game and repeats his past success against the Jaguars, the Patriots will cruise into their third Super Bowl in four years.
Stopping the Run Just the Start for the Jacksonville Defense
Containing Brady's production is a given for the Jaguars defense, but in order to put all the pressure on the Patriots quarterback, they must silence the ground game of the home team.
That should be an easy task for a Jacksonville defense that held the Steelers to 83 rushing yards in the divisional round on Sunday and limited the Buffalo Bills to 130 yards on the ground in the wild-card round.
The push on the interior starts with defensive ends Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue, who will look to get around the edges and to the New England running backs before they even leave the backfield.
If the Patriots ground attack—led by running back Dion Lewis—is able to surge past Jacksonville's first line of defense, it will have to deal with a tremendous group of linebackers headlined by Telvin Smith, who recorded 14 solo tackles in the win over the Steelers.
The key for the Jaguars will be to not allow their linebackers to play a major role in stopping Lewis and his fellow running backs. Although that may seem odd for stopping a ground game, Smith and Myles Jack will be concerned with the presence of Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski over the middle of the field.
If the Jacksonville front four is able to control the battle against the Patriots offensive line, it will be vital to a unit that needs everything to go right in order to stop all the weapons New England has, starting with Brady and Gronkowski.
How Does Gronkowski Match Up Against Jaguars?
You don't need a rocket scientist to tell you Gronkowski is a matchup nightmare for most of his opponents.
The 6'6" tight end averages 76 receiving yards per game in the postseason, with a trio of 100-yard performances.
One of the best games of Gronkowski's career was the 2015 AFC Championship Game that the Patriots lost to the Denver Broncos. In that contest, he caught eight balls on 15 targets for 144 yards and a touchdown versus one of the best defenses in the league.
The New England tight end will be going up against another tenacious unit on Sunday in the form of the Jaguars and their linebackers.
The trio of Smith, Jack and Paul Posluszny will be tasked with finding a way to limit Gronkowski in coverage and force Brady to target his other options that will be blanketed by cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye and the rest of the Jacksonville secondary.
All three of Jacksonville's linebackers have a disadvantage in height against Gronkowski, with Smith being the tallest of the lot at 6'3". That doesn't mean much with the way they've been playing, especially Smith, who was dominant in the divisional round.
The specifics of how the Jaguars cover Gronkowski will be figured out during the week, but if they are unable to contain his output, they better hope their defensive backs can quiet every other one of Brady's targets.
If Gronkowski is the only weapon the Jags get hurt by, they'll be in decent shape, but if the Patriots tight end running rampant in the secondary opens up space for Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola and others, Doug Marrone's team won't stand a chance.
Prediction: Patriots 34, Jaguars 16
Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.