JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - This is as far as they have ever advanced. The Jaguars, for the third time in franchise history, will play in the AFC championship game. In their two previous appearances, they lost on the doorstep of the Super Bowl. Facing the AFC's reigning dynasty and defending Super Bowl champions, here are the four biggest questions the Jaguars must answer in order to claim the Lamar Hunt Trophy:
Can they get a lead?
The Jaguars are a different team when they are out in front. Last week against the Steelers, Jacksonville jumped out to a 21-0 lead. Although Pittsburgh came back to make it close, the Steelers never led in the game. Blake Bortles made some big plays in the fourth quarter as Ben Roethlisberger was getting into a groove. That was a good sign for the Jaguars, but Bortles still has not delivered when the Jaguars were trailing in the fourth quarter of a game this year. They would rather not put him in that situation, no matter how much his teammates stand up for him.
Will the stage overwhelm them?
The Jaguars showed some nerves early in the wild card round playoff game against the Bills, then settled in. They did not appear overwhelmed last week against the Steelers, perhaps because they had dominated Pittsburgh three months earlier. The Jaguars have not faced the Patriots since the preseason, even then, the starters didn't play in the preseason opener for New England. The last time the Jaguars faced Tom Brady in a game, New England torched Jacksonville 51-17. Paul Posluszny, Telvin Smith, Aaron Colvin, Abry Jones and Peyton Thompson are the only remaining players from the defense to have played substantial snaps in that game. This is a much different defense that Jacksonville features now.
Can they run the ball?
New England head coach Bill Belichick is famous for taking away the thing you do best, and forcing opposing teams to try to beat the Patriots with one hand tied behind their back. For the Jaguars, that is clearly the running game. Expect the Patriots to do what numerous teams have done in the past year: load the box and try to stop Leonard Fournette. If the Jaguars can still run the ball effectively, they can win the game. It is not as much about yards as it is about carries. In the nine losses Brady has suffered in the playoffs, the opposition has run the ball at least 26 times, and typically, its much more than that.
Is Tom Brady's finger an issue?
Is this another Patriots' mind game? Is Brady setting things up for a Curt Schilling moment with a bloody glove instead of a sock? Brady is reported to have four stitches in his right hand after hitting it on a teammates helmet in practice. Brady was almost comically tight-lipped about the injury on Friday. I suspect that it could be a minor factor in the game, but it won't be a major deterrent. You can expect some tight shots of Brady's gloved right hand during the television broadcast on Sunday.
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