Is Another Super Bowl Win Really a Slam Dunk for Patriots?January 22, 2018
In a fortnight, the New England Patriots will take part in their eighth Super Bowl in a 17-year span. They'll be favored in that game, for obvious Tom Brady- and Bill Belichick-related reasons.
But the Pats emerged from their 24-20 AFC championship victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars as a team that might be running low on four-leaf clovers, rabbit feet and whatever else has allowed them to remain dominant during an era in which nobody is supposed to continually succeed.
Sure, the Patriots once again reminded us how much mettle they possess by coming back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit against a defensively dominant opponent that had little to lose. It marked the third time in four years that New England won a major playoff game despite trailing by at least a double-digit margin in the final quarter (they also accomplished that feat in their last two Super Bowl victories).
But if not for several self-inflicted Jaguars wounds, I'd be using this space for a Patriots eulogy.
Leading 14-3 with the ball in Patriots territory and four minutes remaining in the second quarter, the Jaguars had a clear view of New England's jugular. Then the league's fourth-most-penalized team drew an illegal shift penalty while panicking to avoid a potential Pats challenge on 1st-and-10. Three plays later, they converted a 3rd-and-7, but a Blake Bortles completion to tight end Marcedes Lewis was negated by a post-timeout delay-of-game penalty. They were then flagged for holding on third down (declined because Bortles was sacked), punted and later took 47 yards' worth of penalties on New England's ensuing touchdown drive.
The Jags could have regained momentum before halftime when they got the ball back with two timeouts and 55 seconds remaining, but they clammed up and took two knees to run out the clock.
Jacksonville still managed to hold a 20-10 lead in the fourth quarter, and a Myles Jack strip on Pats running back Dion Lewis had the fat lady doing vocal warm-ups. But Jacksonville fell into a predictable offensive pattern that consisted of a short first-down run from Leonard Fournette and two low-percentage passes from Bortles, playing into New England's hands.
Jacksonville punted three times in a seven-minute window in the fourth quarter, which wasn't fair to its defense.
And when the Jaguars had a chance to make up for all of that with possession down by four inside of three minutes, they again panicked in a huge, unfamiliar spot, forgetting that Fournette existed by passing on six consecutive plays before taking their final breath. They inexplicably ditched the screens and play action that led to so much success in the first half.
The point is that a more mature, more tried-and-tested opponent would have likely made the Patriots pay for their lack of offensive balance (they handed the ball off 14 times for 46 yards), their inability to make third-down stops (Jacksonville was 4-of-6 in the first half) and their offensive inefficiency on the same down (they were just 3-of-12 for the game).
An opponent like the Philadelphia Eagles, who have more postseason experience than the Jaguars and will likely be less forgiving than the Jags after a dominant performance against the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game. On paper, Philly's defense is right there with the Jaguars in the top four in terms of points and yards allowed, as well as takeaways. And more importantly, the Eagles won't have to go to Foxborough.
The most significant clue that the Patriots could be ripe for the picking is that they entered Sunday having won seven consecutive home playoff games by an average margin of 36-18. They rarely lose at Gillette Stadium in January. In fact, Belichick and Brady have been defeated just three times in 21 playoff games at that stadium.
Cutting it close is a bad omen, because it's often a different story for them at neutral sites.
Each of New England's seven Super Bowl games under Belichick have been decided by six or fewer points, and the most lopsided Super Bowl victory in franchise history came when the Pats overcame a 28-3 deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons in overtime a year ago.
The Patriots don't dominate outside of Foxborough in February. They survive, and, as the New York Giants can attest, sometimes they even fall short.
And we all know that the key to beating Brady is to pressure him frequently with a natural rush. But according to Pro Football Focus, Brady barely won Sunday despite the fact he wasn't pressured on 33 of his 42 dropbacks. Jacksonville's pass rush wasn't a big factor, but the Jags still fell just short of slaying Goliath in Foxborough.
Brady might be as fortunate, pressure-wise, against the Eagles in Minneapolis, but what if he isn't?
If Brady faces more pressure on February 4, the Patriots are in trouble. If New England's opponent controls the ball for 35-plus minutes again, the Patriots are in trouble. If New England is whistled for more than just the one penalty it had against Jacksonville or its opponent takes fewer stupid ones, the Patriots are in trouble.
The Pats are also without their top receiver (Julian Edelman) and one of their top defenders (Dont'a Hightower), and are now monitoring the health of their top offensive weapon (Rob Gronkowski, who left Sunday's game in the first half due to a "head injury," per the team's Twitter account) in addition to their Hall of Fame quarterback (Brady's injured right hand wasn't 100 percent against the Jags).
So yeah, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about New England's chances of capturing a record-tying sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy. None of us would dare count out a team that has now found a way to win 10 consecutive non-road playoff games, but it's fair to wonder if the Patriots are running out of gas and/or breaks.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.