FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Surprise, surprise! The highly anticipated rematch between the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game won’t take place, as the Jacksonville Jaguars spoiled the party. Next they will look to do the same to the Patriots’ Super Bowl hopes when the teams meet Sunday at Gillette Stadium (3:05 p.m. ET).
Reasons to be excited: Entering Sunday, the idea that the Patriots could avoid the Steelers — who played them tough in a 27-24 New England win on Dec. 17 in Pittsburgh — would have been viewed by many as a victory for the team in and of itself. So for those who preferred the “easier” path, this would seem to be it. But is it really? Perhaps perception hasn’t caught up to reality when it comes to the Jaguars, a franchise that had a string of losing seasons but has turned things around in 2017 by playing stingy defense, relying on a power running game and executing the type of “situational football” that has become a trademark in New England. This sparks memories of the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 12, 1997, when the Bill Parcells-coached Patriots defeated the Tom Coughlin-coached Jaguars 20-6 to advance to Super Bowl XXXI.
Reasons to be concerned: Coughlin is in his first season as the Jaguars’ executive vice president of football operations, and when Patriots followers consider some of the most significant heartbreak the team has had in the Bill Belichick era, Coughlin-led teams have been on the opposite sideline (Super Bowl XLII loss to the Giants and Super Bowl XLVI loss to the Giants). Coughlin’s teams usually have a specific DNA, and it starts with physical and mental toughness, which was reflected in the preseason when the Jaguars (coached by Doug Marrone) practiced with the Patriots and talked about how they were working more in full pads than they had under the prior regime. Coughlin-built teams, as evidenced by the Jaguars’ win over the Steelers on Sunday, also don’t back down in big games and critical situations. Going for it on fourth-and-goal on their first drive Sunday against the Steelers is the type of “we have nothing to lose” approach that the Patriots can expect next Sunday.
What’s next: The Jaguars and Patriots worked together for three days in August on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium before playing in the preseason opener, with Jacksonville players saying they could learn a lot from how a championship team operates. They obviously took good notes and deserve immense credit for putting together an impressive 2017 season that few saw coming. At the time, veteran Jaguars defensive lineman Calais Campbell told me the Jaguars wanted to see the Patriots’ “style, the way they prepare, the way they lock in and focus, the small details of what it takes to prepare to win.” As for the Patriots this week, players are scheduled to be at Gillette for meetings on Monday, where they will receive their initial scouting report on the Jaguars, then have their standard Tuesday day off (although many, if not all players, show up anyway). The first official practice of the week will be Wednesday.