The Jaguars have been such a punchline for so long that their incompetence is a plot point on the television show “The Good Place.” Almost no one expected them to get this far — and judging by the betting line, few people expect them to get any farther — but they are one of four teams left competing for the two spots in Super Bowl LII, and they will need to get through the five-time champion Patriots to get there.
No. 3 Jacksonville at No. 1 New England
3:05 p.m. Eastern, CBS
Line: Patriots by 9
Laugh all you want, but the Jaguars (10-6) got to this point by earning every win. It was not always pretty, but Jacksonville scored the fifth-most points in the N.F.L., and allowed the second-fewest, regularly confounding opponents who expected the other shoe, hanging precariously from one of Blake Bortles’ toes, to drop.
So what type of team, exactly, are the Patriots (13-3) facing? First and foremost, the Jaguars are a weaponized secondary. Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye are both Pro Bowl cornerbacks, with Ramsey having become a shutdown defender who cuts the field in half. Anyone trying to cheat over the middle will find that Tashaun Gipson and Barry Church are two of the league’s finest, and most aggressive, safeties.
Tom Brady is obviously capable of handling a top-notch secondary, but he will have almost no time to process his reads thanks to a Jacksonville pass-rush led by Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue. That duo combined for 26.5 sacks, and the team as a whole had 55. It gets no easier behind Campbell and Ngakoue, where Brady will find Telvin Smith, who was rated by Pro Football Focus as the N.F.L.’s fourth best linebacker.
Should Brady try to avoid both the secondary and the pass-rush by feeding his running backs, he will find that Jacksonville’s defensive line was dramatically revamped by a trade for Marcell Dareus leading up to Week 9. Once pushovers against the run, the Jaguars now hold their own.
Things are not quite as smooth for Jacksonville on offense, where Bortles can be frustrating to watch regardless of how positive his results are. The combination of big plays and bad throws led to mostly middle-of-the-road statistics, but Leonard Fournette, a rookie running back selected with the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft, was a perfect complement, rushing for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns in just 13 games.