New England Patriots vs Jacksonville Jaguars: AFC Championship Game preview and prediction

FOXBOROUGH, MA - JANUARY 13: Tom Brady (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH, MA - JANUARY 13: Tom Brady (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images) /
3 of 8
New England Patriots
FOXBORO, MA – DECEMBER 31: Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots looks on before the game against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on December 31, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images) /

Rob Gronkowski

With the loss of wide receiver Julian Edelman in the preseason, the New England offense desperately needed to find an option on third down and in the red zone. Fortunately, the return to health of tight end Rob Gronkowski has been just what the doctor ordered. In 14 regular season games, Gronkowski had a ridiculous 84 percent of his 69 receptions go for a first down (or touchdown) per ProFootballFocus.

New England was without Gronkowski in two games in 2017: against Tampa Bay in Week 5 (minor injury) and against Miami in Week 14 (suspension). Those two games were the lowest scoring games for the offense as they mustered just 19 points versus Tampa Bay and 20 points versus Miami. Without their All-Pro tight end, the Patriots were 4-12 on third down against the Buccaneers and 0-11 on third down against the Dolphins.

Opposing teams simply do not have an answer against Gronkowski. He is too quick and his superior route running leaves linebackers in the dust. Safeties do not have the physical strength and size to match-up with him with the ball in the air–even if they keep up with him in coverage. Finally, most cornerbacks are not big enough or strong enough to compete with Gronkowski, particularly at the goal line.

Extra attention for Gronkowski opens up free receivers and space for Brady to look off his tight end and find a free runner in the space vacated by the defender rushing to help with Gronkowski. Vertical routes open up the underneath for running backs and slot receivers. Zone coverage or man-to-man coverage, Gronkowski is a match-up challenge for any defense.

Jacksonville has athletic linebackers in Myles Jack and Telvin Smith, but neither is a strong pass defender in coverage. Safety Tashaun Gipson usually covers tight ends (Barry Church may draw a few assignments during the game) but neither has been stellar.

Pittsburgh tight end Vance McDonald lit the Jacksonville safeties up for 10 catches for 112 yards last week. It may require the Jaguars emptying the kitchen sink and throwing cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye at Gronkowski in an attempt to keep him from taking over the game.