Entering Sunday's AFC Championship Game, I highlighted the four Patriots that I thought were on the spot against the Jaguars:
Danny Amendola. He did OK, I guess.
Elandon Roberts. Was not really all that crucial as most of the Jaguars' play-action plays ran to Kyle Van Noy's side.
Joe Thuney. He did a terrific job as part of a banner night for the offensive line.
And Malcolm Brown.
This is what I wrote on Sunday:
The interior lineman has been a tour de force since returning from injury, and he’s the one physically dominating presence the Patriots have on the interior. After watching Jaguars center Brandon Linder have the game of his life against the Steelers, the Patriots coaches know the Jaguars’ precious running game runs through the extremely physical, smart and athletic center. If Brown can control Linder on the interior, it’s going to make things very difficult for Jacksonville.
Not only did he come through against the Jaguars, he was an even more vital cog in the defensive gameplan than I anticipated. It was, truly, one of the best interior line performances in the postseason I've witnessed. That's not hyperbole. The only other one that rivals it happened six years ago on the same field in another AFC Championship Game: Patriots 23, Ravens 20. The player: Vince Wilfork.
That game was altogether different for Wilfork. Having spent much of his career doing the grunt work by taking up blockers, the Patriots allowed Wilfork a little more freedom against the Ravens in a title bout against center Matt Birk, one of the league's best. As a result, Wilfork was a force in the pass rush like never before.
Against the Jaguars, Brown wasn't asked to do much in the pass rush, although he did have a hurry. He was given an even more important assignment. Basically, it seemed like the Patriots coaches, namely Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia, told Brown to go wreck the Jaguars running game by controlling Linder. There was nothing subtle about the gameplan, either; the Patriots lined Brown head-up on Linder most of the game in "zero" technique. Mano-a-mano. Battle of the Big Uglies.
As I mentioned in the scouting report, the Patriots coaches saw the film of the Pittsburgh game when Leonard Fournette rushed 25 times for 109 yards (4.4 average) to key the Jaguars' upset. On most of those runs, Linder was slicing and dicing the vaunted Steelers defensive line to open up holes for Fournette.
The Patriots would have suffered the same fate as the Steelers if it wasn't for Brown's ability to dominate Linder and the interior of the Jaguars line. Final rushing total for Fournette: 76 yards on 24 carries (3.2 average). In the second half, Fournette was almost completely shut down with 36 yards on 13 carries (2.8 average).
And it started on the first snap of the game when Brown sent a message that he would not be moved this day, not even against a double team. Linder and right guard A.J. Cann — a combined 630 pounds — tried move the 6-2, 320-pound Brown and it was not happening.
This went on the entire game. Anytime the Jaguars wanted to run up the middle, or run an inside zone double team to the linebackers, Brown wouldn't let it happen. And he was at his best when the Patriots needed him the most.
Late in the second quarter, with the Patriots on the ropes trailing 14-3, Brown produced monster back-to-back plays:
5:26, second quarter: Head-up on Linder, Brown holds the point of attack -- and Fournette ran into the back of Linder for 1 yard.
4:51, second quarter: The left tackle and guard double team Brown. Not only does he not move, he splits the double team for a 1-yard tackle.
With the game on the line, it was much of the same:
2:06, third quarter: Head-up on Linder, Brown stays right in his gap and makes a 2-yard stuff with Ricky Jean Francois (also great in this game).
13:37, fourth quarter (after Dion Lewis' fumble): Linder tries to angle off Brown, but he doesn't take the hint. Brown disengages and makes a 2-yard tackle.
8:38: Again head-up against Linder, the Jaguars try an outside-zone run with Linder and Cann taking turns to run Brown to the sideline. Brown disengages and takes Fournette down for a 1-yard gain.
7:19: Last-second shift puts Brown in A gap between Linder and Cann. Brown drives Linder back 3 feet to squeeze off the hole. Patrick Chung finishes off Fournette for 1 yard.
Those are just some of the examples. By the end of the game, Brown had tabulated an amazing six stuffed runs (2 yards or less outside short yardage or goalline). It was nearly double the most of any Patriots in any individual game this season, and is likely the most since I started charting Patriots games (2008).
When the books are written about the Patriots and this game, they'll talk all about the job Tom Brady did with the cut on his hand, about how Danny Amendola came through in the clutch again, and how Stephon Gilmore earned his $16 million with one pass breakup. But don't forget about the vital contributions of Malcom Brown — who will face another top center (Jason Kelce) in the Super Bowl — because this is true as well: the Patriots don't win that game without his dominating performance. Just like Wilfork in '12.
Here are the positional ratings against the Jaguars:
Quarterback (4 out of 5)
Tom Brady wanted to say after the game that because of his injured hand, he didn't have his "A" game, and Bill Belichick, for some reason, didn't want to back him. Well, I will. Brady played well, but it definitely wasn't his best game. I would attribute that to the hand. The ball, at times, didn't come out how it normally does — he was a little high or behind on a handful of throws. But, still, Brady brought it when he needed to. Had him for 10 "plus" plays in the game, and seven "minus" plays or throws. Brady looked better on the coaches film than he did in person or on the TV copy. Two of his best throws — to Rob Gronkowski on the right sideline, and Brandin Cooks down the left — were dropped. He wasn't far away from being terrific, which bodes well for the Super Bowl. Most of his issues came from a handful of decisions that I think had more to do with the speed of the Jaguars than an all-out error on Brady's part.
Answering a popular question I often receive: why does Brady throw deep?
Running backs (2 out of 5)
This group wasn't bad or anything, it's just none of them made any of the type of exceptional plays you'd come to expect from them. Again, I think that had more to do with the Jaguars than the Patriots. Many of Dion Lewis' moves, which works wonders against 80 percent of the league, were rendered moot against the speedy Jaguars. ... Rex Burkhead looked like he wasn't healthy or very rusty. His drop across the middle should have been an easy completion but he didn't sit in the zone, which Brady wanted him to. Here's a play that could have really popped, but it wasn't quite blocked well enough:
Also, taking a look at the screen pass on third-and-6.
Receivers (4.5 out of 5)
It was basically the Danny Amendola and Cooks show. ... I mean, what else needs to be said about Amendola? The fourth-down catch, the third-and-18 reception ... we could go on and on. He was just sensational. Actually, I think his best play was the little 8-yard diving catch in the red zone late in the game. How he caught that ball, I'll never know. The hand strength that takes ... Then, there was this snag when one of them didn't run the correct route (I'm guessing Cooks was supposed to take the coverage with him deep). But Amendola still made it work.
As for Cooks, yes he had the drop. But outside of that, this was by far the best game he's had in some time. A lot had to do with his route running, which was much crisper. I'm guessing that wide receivers coach Chad O'Shea has been working with him to get a little bit more polish. With Cooks' speed, route running is vital. He's such a threat to go deep that the defenders have to give him cushion, but that only works if they believe you could take off. Too often in recent weeks, Cooks has been telegraphing his routes. On Sunday night, he sold the "go," which made the hitches and curls look so easy. Believe me, they aren't easy and they can easily be picked off if the receiver is not on point with his route running. An illustration of Cooks' improvement:
Offensive line (4.5 out of 5)
Considering the competition, this was an outstanding performance by this group, which has been stacking them lately. We've seen the Patriots, over the years, handle some excellent fronts in the regular season. But for some reason, the postseason has been a different animal (Jets, Denver, Giants, Seahawks, Falcons). For whatever the reason, the Patriots don't end up playing as well. That wasn't the case here. Even Shaq Mason, who had the most issues on the line (mostly with Marcell Dareus), had several outstanding plays. ... One big area of concern going into this game was how the Patriots would deal with the twists and stunts up front by the Jaguars. It's always been a weakness for the Patriots, but they were mostly terrific in this game. It started on the opening snap, when Mason easily handled a T/E stunt. Joe Thuney had another good one here:
The Patriots allowed three sacks, but this one was a tough call because it was really a coverage sack. However, Mason gave up the initial pressure so quickly it prevented Brady from even throwing the ball way. So in the end, I split the sack between Mason and Cam Fleming.
In order of effectiveness: Thuney, David Andrews, Nate Solder, Fleming and Mason. Mason's the only one where you could make an argument that he had an off night. Everyone else was excellent.
I highlighted Brown because of how crucial his role was, but this is also the truth: this group was simply outstanding in this game. I didn't have anyone for one miscue. Not a missed tackle, blown gap or edge failure (linebackers were a different story). They were flawless, so a tip of the cap to line coach Brendan Daly. ... Trey Flowers just continues to get better. Long, strong, smart and tough, the guy has it all. Had him for 12 impactful plays in the game, which is a ton. Even broke up a pass. ... Lawrence Guy (five impactful plays) and Francois (seven) were again rock-solid on the interior. You have to wonder if Alan Branch will even be active for the Super Bowl. That's how good these guys are playing, although you can always use depth. Guy has turned out to be a terrific addition (told you he would be after camp) and Francois has been a huge surprise as a late-season pickup.
Linebackers (2.5 out of 5)
Bit of a mixed bag from this group — even James Harrison had a half sack, but also busted a coverage and failed to set the edge on two big plays — so there's a bit of a concern if the Eagles try to exploit some of the issues here, especially in coverage and on the edge. ... Kyle Van Noy had one of the best plays you will ever see vs. a screen pass:
Secondary (4 out of 5)
Patrick Chung (eight impactful plays) was so good in his game against the run and the pass (the refs were generous with some physical play) that I don't really care all that much that it looked like he got beat for the first Jaguars' touchdown:
Everyone gave up some plays — and they would have been worse had Bortles been more accurate — but for the most part, this group was solid and competitive. There weren't any huge busts, although Eric Rowe got turned around a few times. ... The final throw from Bortles was very low percentage, but I'm not going to take anything away from Stephon Gilmore's breakup: that was an elite athletic play.
I don't usually get into special teams, but I thought the block by Johnson Bademosi on Amendola's final punt return deserved to be highlighted:
Malcom Brown: If the Jaguars gained another 25 or so yards on the ground, the Patriots might not win that game. Brown wouldn't let it happen.
Trey Flowers: The guy does it all — rush the passer, play the run, chase plays down to the sideline. The unquestioned defensive MVP is finishing strong. Arguably his best game of the season.
(tie) Danny Amendola, Brandin Cooks, Patrick Chung: Ironic that they've all been criticized (fairly at the time) at various points in their Patriots careers, but they all had spit-shine polish against the Jaguars.
Honorable mention: Tom Brady, David Andrews, Joe Thuney, Nate Solder, Lawrence Guy, Rickey Jean Francois.
The running backs: Dion Lewis made some yards were there weren't any, but outside of that, this group didn't make much of an impact.
Shaq Mason: He did a lot of good work against the Jaguars' stunts, but it was the most pressure he's given up this season by far.
Eric Rowe: Scraping a little bit to find a third, but he was a little loose with his coverage in this one.