AFC Championship Preview 2018
The New England Patriots are the NFL's gold standard. The Jacksonville Jaguars were a laughingstock franchise for the last few years until they suddenly put together a great defense in 2017. One team that most fans across the country are sick of. One team that most fans across the country can't believe is here in the first place. One of these teams will move on to Super Bowl LII.
Over the last five years, including the playoffs, Patriots teams led by Tom Brady are 7-6 against teams that ranked in the top five of defensive DVOA. The losses are mostly close, including two overtime losses in 2015 and the playoff game in Denver where they fell short on a game-tying 2-point conversion, but those are still losses. However, only one of the six losses came at home: 31-24 to Seattle in Week 10 of last year. The Jacksonville Jaguars may play a defensive scheme similar to the Seahawks, but there's a big gap between Blake Bortles and Russell Wilson.
Given the mysterious hand injury that may affect Brady in Sunday's game, I should probably point out that Patriots teams led by Jimmy Garoppolo were 1-1 against teams that ranked in the top five of defensive DVOA, while Patriots teams led by Brian Hoyer are a thought that will cause every New England fan reading this preview to smack their heads against the nearest desks.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. (Game charting isn't lined up with DVOA yet in our data, so a lot of those stats will have passer rating or other numbers listed.) Please remember that all stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.
This week, we're breaking out separate charts for offensive and defensive DVOA each week. The defensive charts are "reversed" so that better games are still higher on the chart even though they have negative DVOA.
Jacksonville at New England
All readers can click here for in-game discussion on our message boards.
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
Any discussion of the Patriots' defense has to start with a look at two things: how they improved after the first month of the season, and their historic ability to shut down opponents in the red zone despite giving up yardage the rest of the way.
Let's start with the red zone. You may notice in the table above that the Patriots were fourth in red zone DVOA despite ranking 31st in defensive DVOA overall. That split is simply mind-boggling. So is this fact: the Patriots ranked dead last in yards per drive allowed, but sixth in points per drive allowed. Our drive stats data goes back to 1993, and in all the years before 2017, no team had ever ranked 26th or lower in yards per drive but also in the top 10 for points per drive. The Patriots cleared that baseline with ease. This is truly one of the unique defenses in NFL history.
Then there's the issue of the Patriots' full-season stats compared to stats that start in October. The Patriots had a horrendous 29.2% defensive DVOA through the first four weeks of the season. From Week 5 on, that improved to 4.7%, which ranked 21st in the NFL. The improvement is even stronger in pass defense, where the Patriots ranked 14th in the NFL from Week 5 onwards. In fact, the run defense didn't really improve at all; the improvement was all against the pass.
What's particularly interesting when considering Jacksonville's strategy in this game is to look at how the Patriots' defensive improvement broke down into different areas of the field. The NFL tracks whether passes go to the left, middle, or right, and they track short passes (up to 15 air yards) vs. deep passes (16-plus air yards). Here are the horrible numbers for the Patriots defense in the first four weeks of the season. (Be aware these Week 1-4 numbers are very small sample size, especially in the deep middle where we're only talking about three passes in the first four games.)
|New England Pass Defense DVOA by Direction, Weeks 1-4|
|Deep||3.3% (11)||147.6% (32)||87.3% (30)|
|Short||37.7% (32)||26.0% (29)||23.2% (32)|
That's a lot of blown coverages right there. Now let's compare that to the same DVOA numbers for Week 5 onward:
|New England Pass Defense DVOA by Direction, Weeks 5-17|
|Deep||-34.8% (2)||55.0% (21)||11.5% (12)|
|Short||-2.6% (19)||28.5% (29)||-18.8% (10)|
We've got a lot of improvement, enough to be above average in three of the six directions and close to average in two of the others. But there's one exception: the short middle. The Patriots have been susceptible to passes in the short middle portion of the field for the entire season. And when you flip things around to look at these numbers for the Jacksonville offense, you'll find...
|Jacksonville Pass Offense DVOA by Direction, Weeks 1-17|
|Deep||42.3% (16)||35.2% (20)||-9.5% (29)|
|Short||-1.0% (23)||35.0% (14)||5.7% (16)|
... that the Jaguars had their highest DVOA rank in the same place where the Patriots appear to be weakest: the short middle of the field.
The Patriots will probably shut down the Jaguars' squad of no-name tight ends. They ranked eighth in DVOA against tight ends for the season, and second if we only look at Weeks 5-17. However, even in Weeks 5-17, the Patriots ranked 26th against opposing No. 1 receivers and were an average defense against No. 2 and "other" wide receivers. There's a good opportunity here for Blake Bortles to find his receivers on man-beating crossing routes over the middle of the field. It's also significant that the Patriots will now be without nickelback Jonathan Jones, whose 60 percent success rate in coverage was actually the best of the three main Patriots cornerbacks. Jones will be replaced by either Eric Rowe, an outside corner last year who has struggled with injuries this season, or Johnson Bademosi, primarily a special-teamer who Sports Info Solutions tracked with a poor 39 percent success rate on 18 cornerback targets.
If the Patriots do have a problem with cornerback coverage, they can alleviate that by getting pressure on Blake Bortles. It's interesting to note that both of these units do much better in terms of sacks than in terms of pressure. On offense, the Jaguars were fifth in adjusted sack rate despite being 21st in pressure rate. Bortles often runs when pressured, and successfully, which is a reason for the Patriots to play a bit more zone coverage than usual or even leave a spy on Bortles. On the other side, the Patriots defense was 10th in adjusted sack rate despite ranking only 27th in pressure rate. Yes, they had eight sacks against Marcus Mariota last week, but in general the Patriots are not a "pin the ears back" defense. They led the NFL with 14 regular-season sacks coded by SIS as either "Coverage Sack" or "Failed Scramble." (The Panthers, Chargers, and Steelers each had 13; no other defense was above 11.)
The way to get to Bortles with pressure is to blitz him. Bortles gained 7.1 net yards per pass against four pass rushers, but 5.8 against five and 3.9 against six or more. Against a blitz, Jacksonville's pressure rate went up to 10th in the league. However, the Patriots didn't spend a lot of time blitzing this season. They blitzed on only 20 percent of pass plays (22nd in the NFL), and gave up more yards per pass with five pass rushers (7.6) than with four (6.5). Sports Info Solutions only marked the Patriots sending a big blitz of six or more pass rushers 14 times all season, but they allowed a grand total of 8 yards on those plays.
All of this talk about the Jacksonville offense, and we have yet to get to the Jaguars' running game, which their offense is allegedly built around. Here's the thing, though: the Jaguars' running game isn't really that good. Leonard Fournette managed a positive rushing DVOA because of opponent adjustments, but was unable to average even four yards per carry during the regular season. Since the Week 8 bye, and including the playoffs, Fournette is averaging just 3.3 yards per carry. The Jaguars have to get yardage on first down and keep the drive on schedule, or they fall way behind. Jacksonville is sixth in offensive DVOA on first down, and fifth on second-and-short. But they rank 26th on second-and-medium, 25th on second-and-long, 21st on third-and-medium, and 29th on third-and-long. They need more than just a three- or four-yard run from Fournette on most first downs.
The way to run at the Patriots is right up the gut, where they rank dead last in adjusted line yards. However, the Jaguars' were just 22nd in adjusted line yards up the middle, compared to ranks of 7-14 in the other four measured directions.
Of course, like most heavy-running offenses, the Jaguars also like to use a lot of play-action passes. Jacksonville play-action was roughly average for most of the year, with 53 percent of passes complete and 13.3 yards per reception. But from Week 12 to Week 17, the last six weeks of the regular season, the Jaguars were up to 82 percent completion and 17.1 yards per reception on play-action passes. Both figures led the NFL. Last week against the Steelers, Blake Bortles used play-action on a mind-boggling 58 percent of his pass attempts. The Patriots were exactly average this season with 7.3 net yards per pass allowed on play-action passes.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
For the most part, I'm going to assume here that the mysterious hand injury that kept Tom Brady out of practice on Thursday is minor and won't truly affect him in Sunday's game. If that's not the case, then most everything here is up in the air.
You may have heard that the way to beat Brady in the playoffs is to get pressure with your front four so that you can drop seven into coverage. If any team can do this successfully, it should be Jacksonville. The Jaguars sent four pass rushers more than any other defense (84 percent of pass plays) and allowed fewer yards per pass with four pass rushers than any other defense (4.8). However, Brady wasn't excellent against the blitz this season, the way he has been in most recent years. He actually dropped from 7.7 to 6.3 net yards per pass when opponents sent more than four pass rushers.
(For what it's worth, Brian Hoyer is much better against a standard four pass rushers. This year, he had 6.1 yards per pass against three or four pass rushers and 3.4 yards per pass against five or six. Last year in Chicago, those numbers were 7.9 yards per pass against three or four pass rushers and 4.7 yards per pass against five or six.)
The problem with pressuring Brady all day is that usually Brady will still play well against you. He was the NFL's best quarterback under duress this season, with a 98.5 passer rating. Like every quarterback, Brady was better without pressure than he was with pressure, but the difference was small. So it may matter less than the Jaguars ranked fourth in pressure rate this season. It is notable, however, that Brady this year tended to take sacks rather than throw the ball away or attempt to make some gunslinger play. The Patriots ranked only fifth in pressure rate allowed, but were 14th in adjusted sack rate.
Playing the Seattle defensive style means that the Jaguars are mostly in Cover-3 and Cover-1. Against Brady, they're likely to be in more Cover-1, since the Patriots have had problems with man coverage ever since their upset loss to Miami. However, the Jaguars also play Cover-4 a surprising 13 percent of the time according to Sports Info Solutions charting. If they get ahead early and start playing off coverage, it sets up for Brady to lead an easy comeback:
|Jacksonville Defense by Coverage, 2017|
Jaguars rank No. 1 in DVOA against opposing No. 1 receivers, and rank in the top dozen against No. 2 and No. 3 receivers. But they are 20th against tight ends and 15th against running backs. The Patriots certainly have no problem avoiding their wide receivers and throwing the ball to tight ends and running backs. There's been a lot of discussion on Boston radio about who will cover Rob Gronkowski when the Jaguars go to a man defense. During the season, Myles Jack and Telvin Smith had the most snaps defending tight ends; when a cornerback was on a tight end, it was usually slot corner Aaron Colvin rather than Ramsey.
But maybe "tight end" means other problems for Jacksonville than just Gronkowski. The Jaguars gave up some big gains this year to unheralded tight ends, including two catches for 79 yards by Tyler Kroft in Week 9 and four catches for 72 yards by undrafted rookie Ricky Seals-Jones in Week 12. Maybe this is the game where Jacob Hollister finally makes a huge play. And according to Sports Info Solutions charting, the Jaguars particularly struggle to cover tight ends and running backs when opponents come out in 12 or 21 personnel, allowing 72 percent completion rate and 9.0 yards per attempt. The Patriots can come out in power formations and choose to either run the ball or throw short passes. Theoretically, a Brady finger injury might affect short passes like screens and swing passes less than deep passes to Brandin Cooks.
In the early part of the season, this game might have set up for the Patriots to run the ball a ton. That was back when the Jaguars were threatening to rank No. 1 in pass defense DVOA and No. 32 in run defense DVOA. However, things have improved significantly since Marcell Dareus showed up via trade in Week 9:
|Jacksonville Run Defense, Weeks 1-7 vs. Weeks 9-19 (including playoffs)|
As the Jaguars run defense has gotten better, so has the Patriots' running game. Through midseason, the Patriots ranked eighth in run offense DVOA. Since Week 10, the Patriots were tied with the Saints as the No. 1 run offense in the league at 20.2% DVOA. I also added red zone DVOA to that table because the Patriots absolutely love to run the ball in the red zone. They have 105 total carries in the red zone, 17 more than any other team. Of course, they were also in the red zone more often than other teams, so this works out to 50 percent of red zone plays, but that is still tied for seventh in the NFL.
The Patriots are likely to have the most success running up the middle, where they ranked No. 1 in adjusted line yards while the Jaguars were 25th on defense (18th since Week 9). But the Jaguars defense also struggled against outside runs, and Dareus didn't help there. They ranked 31st against left end runs (30th since Week 9) and 26th against right end runs (16th since Week 9).
[ad placeholder 3]
One other important note: While the Jaguars run defense improved significantly since their bye week and the acquisition of Dareus, their pass defense has actually declined. When we think of the Jaguars as an otherworldly pass defense, we're mostly thinking of the first half of the season. In the first seven games of the season, the Jaguars led the NFL with a -46.9% pass defense DVOA while no other team was better than -25%. But since Week 9, including the postseason, the Jaguars are at -9.7%, which ranks sixth. That's very good, but it's not great. Part of what let up for the the Jaguars was the pass pressure. Jacksonville's pressure rate was second in the NFL at 37.5 percent before their bye week, but dropped to 33.3 percent in Weeks 9-17. The pass pressure has rebounded in the postseason: the Jaguards had 22 hurries against Buffalo (their season high) and then 14 more against Pittsburgh.
In terms of Football Outsiders DYAR, the top five games Jacksonville allowed to opposing quarterbacks have all come since Week 10: Ben Roethlisberger last week, Jimmy Garoppolo in Week 16, Philip Rivers in Week 10, Russell Wilson in Week 14, and Blaine Gabbert (no, seriously) in Week 12. If the Jaguars give their average defensive performance of the second half of the season, it's not enough to slow down a (healthy) Tom Brady. But we know two things. First, there's a possibility that Tom Brady isn't healthy. Second, the Jaguars never give what we would describe as an "average Jaguars performance."
The Jaguars had the worst special teams of the 12 teams that made the postseason, while the Patriots ranked third during the regular season and second among playoff teams behind the Rams. One place where the Patriots' advantage is not as good as we have it listed is on field goals. Josh Lambo's positive value in the final ten games essentially cancels out Jason Myers' negative value from the first six. Lambo hit 19 of 20 opportunities with a long of 56 yards; he actually had more regular-season misses on extra points (2) than field goals (1). Gostkowski hit 37-of-40 during the regular season, his fourth year out of five completing more than 90 percent of his attempts.
[ad placeholder 4]
But the Patriots have a huge advantage on kickoffs. Lambo and Myers were both slightly below average on kickoffs but the Jacksonville kickoff coverage was poor. On the other hand, Gostkowski had the best net kickoff value in the league, because he excels at dropping the ball in right in front of the end zone and giving the Patriots coverage the opportunity to tackle the returner before he reaches the 25. So Corey Grant isn't going to get much opportunity to go anywhere; meanwhile, Dion Lewis had two returns over 70 yards and was one of the best returners at getting at least to the 25 after fielding a kickoff outside the end zone.
New England has an advantage on punts too, but it is small. Ryan Allen was one of the league's top punters, but the Jaguars got good value out of rookie receiver Jaydon Mickens, including two returns over 60 yards. Flip it around, and the Jaguars got a fairly average performance from punter Brad Nortman while the Patriots got fairly average returns from Danny Amendola.
On the surface, this game looks predictable. The Patriots are currently No. 1 in weighted DVOA, and the Jaguars are No. 10. That's a pretty big gap, and when you add in home-field advantage, the Patriots are easy favorites. But it isn't quite that simple. First, there's the issue of Brady's hand injury, which is impossible to diagnose from the outside. Easier to diagnose is the issue with trying to predict the Jaguars: they're the league's most unpredictable team. The Jacksonville Jaguars are like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates: you never know what you're gonna get. Check out how much those Jacksonville DVOA graphs oscillate from week to week. Jacksonville finished 31st in variance; the Rams were higher only because of sitting all their starters in Week 17. Jacksonville was one of only two teams to have at least three games with DVOA over 40% and three games with DVOA under -40%. (Washington was the other.) The Jaguars were one of only two offenses with at least three games over 30% and three games under -30% with the same quarterback. (Cincinnati was the other.) The defense tied for the league lead with seven games at -20% or better, but the Jaguars never had two of those games in a row.
Above, I've tried to break down what the Jaguars need to do to upset the Patriots on Sunday. But the answer might be as simple as "have one of their good days" and/or "hope Tom Brady's hand really hurts."
As long as the Patriots don't blow the doors off the Jaguars, we might be in store for a wild ending that matches strength against strength and weakness against weakness. In late and close situations -- second half or overtime, score within one touchdown -- the Jaguars ranked dead last in offensive DVOA and second in defensive DVOA. New England ranked No. 2 in offensive DVOA and dead last in defensive DVOA in those same situations.
DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.
SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.
Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list red zone DVOA and WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).
Each team also gets two charts showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to offensive and defensive DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games.