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. Here is what you can expect in the A.F.C. title game:
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.
Fournette found himself in the headlines on Tuesday thanks to a car accident, but he was not injured and will be good to go on Sunday.
The Patriots, of course, have numerous advantages. Brady has had perhaps the most consistent run of dominance in N.F.L. history — the anti-Bortles if you will — and Pittsburgh proved in the divisional round that a top-notch passing game can generate points against Jacksonville. The Patriots just have to be willing to break a few eggs in the process.
Coach Bill Belichick, who has famously been in the heads of so many opposing players, is likely to have a game plan specifically designed to limit Fournette’s impact and erode Bortles’s confidence.
The Jaguars can keep up with any team, even the Patriots, on their best day, but beating New England on the road a week after upsetting the Steelers in Pittsburgh seems like a task requiring more stability than Bortles has proved he can offer. It is easy enough to pick the Patriots to win, but there is a strong chance that this game will be far closer than most people, including Las Vegas oddsmakers, expect.