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Patriots Set To Face A Conference Championship Foe From Long Ago

Bob George
Bob George on Twitter
January 15, 2018 at 9:16 pm ET

Patriots Set To Face A Conference Championship Foe From Long Ago

🕑 Read Time: 5 minutes

There once was a time when the Patriots actually did beat a team coached by Tom Coughlin in the postseason.

The 1996 Patriots were by no means the top team in the AFC, even though they went to the Super Bowl that year. The Denver Broncos, who smoked the Patriots at home that year, and who won the next two Super Bowls to end John Elway’s career in style, were far and away the best team in the conference. The Patriots managed to beat Pittsburgh in the Divisional round the previous week in a dense fog to advance to the 1996 AFC Championship Game, only the second time in franchise history for the Patriots at that time to make it that far in the playoffs.

But the AFC Championship Game was played in Foxborough, and not in Denver. And the Patriots have the Jacksonville Jaguars to thank for that.

In only their second year of existence, Coughlin guided the Jaguars to within a game of the Super Bowl (and Dom Capers did the same for the Carolina Panthers in that same year over in the NFC) with two upset road wins. The first, in Buffalo, was considered a sizeable upset over a team recently removed from four straight Super Bowl losses. The win sent Jacksonville to Mile High Stadium for the AFC Divisional round one day before the Fog Bowl game versus the Steelers.

This was the game made famous by a disparaging column written by Woody Paige of the Denver Post. Paige derided the team and the city of Jacksonville in general, calling the team “Jagwads” and dismissing the city as a country bumpkin, hick town. The Jaguars caught wind of that article, then went out on Saturday and pulled off one of the biggest upset wins in NFL playoff history, winning 30-27 and making the Patriots the home team for the AFC Championship Game.

In what would be the one and only AFC Championship Game played at old Schaefer Stadium (called Foxborough Stadium in 1996), the Patriots dispatched the Jaguars, 20-6 as Bill Parcells, in what would be his final winning game as Patriot head coach, defeated his former coaching colleague from their days with the New York Giants.   The game was famous for a second quarter delay when a transformer outside the stadium blew out, dimming most of the stadium lights and the scoreboard.

For the record, Bill Belichick was on the Patriot sidelines for that game, as the assistant head coach and secondary coach. Bob Kraft was there also, and held the Lamar Hunt Trophy up to the crowd as everyone in attendance (including our own Ian Logue, who was in the stands that night) roared in delight. “This is for all the fans who waited 37 years for this!” said Kraft, even though it was the second AFC Championship Game for the Patriots, but the first at home.

Now, some 20 years later, these two teams renew this acquaintance, and how things have changed for the home team.

Kraft is still here. Belichick is now the head coach. Coughlin is in the Jacksonville front office. Otherwise, it’s a whole new experience. The Patriots and Jaguars don’t meet that often and don’t have that much history, but this will be the fifth postseason meeting between these two teams. The Patriots are 7-0 against the Jags in the regular season all time, and 3-1 in the playoffs. The one loss was a 25-10 decision at Jacksonville in a 1998 Wild Card game where backup quarterback turned radio icon Scott Zolak started in place of the injured Drew Bledsoe.

This game was supposed to be the big rematch between the Patriots and Steelers, the top two seeds in the AFC. Mike Tomlin guaranteed a second meeting between the two teams, and Mike Mitchell guaranteed a Steeler win. But even though the Patriots kept up their end of the bargain with a 35-14 throttling of the Tennessee Titans on Saturday night, the Steelers collapsed on defense and committed two costly turnovers as Jacksonville held on for a 45-42 win on Sunday at Heinz Field. So it’s the Jaguars who get to come to Foxborough next Sunday and not Pittsburgh.

Patriot fans might look at this as a letdown, missing out on what was to have been the next incarnation of the Game of the Year. Fans will need to get over this and quick, because Jacksonville has an elite defense and will not be afraid of the Patriots. This has been a renaissance year for the Jaguars, and Patriot Nation may wish that Pittsburgh had managed to overcome the Jaguars. The Patriots have much more familiarity against Pittsburgh than Jacksonville, but an aggregate 10-1 record against the Jags, including 9-0 in the Belichick Era, cannot be ignored.

Many experts will look at this matchup and simplify it down to stop the run and don’t miss field goals. Blake Bortles, the former Central Florida product, is finally fulfilling his legacy of getting the Jaguars to the promised land. However, Bortles is not looked at as an elite quarterback, and rookie running back Lawrence Fournette, who the Patriots saw in August in a preseason game, is the true linchpin of the Jacksonville offense.

The success of the Jaguars has been their defense. Veteran castoffs Calais Campbell and Marcell Dareus, rookie Yannick Ngakoue, longtime veteran Jaguar Paul Pozluzny, and former Texan cornerback A.J. Bouye form the nucleus of the top-ranked defense in the NFL, as well as the second-best scoring defense. The defensive dominance has allowed the offense to allow Bortles a bit of a margin for error, and the Jaguars have been able to enjoy the postseason success they haven’t seen in almost a decade.

Fournette was injured in the win on Sunday over Pittsburgh, but he recovered well enough to return to the game. T.J. Yeldon provides good depth at running back, but Belichick will likely sell out to stop the run and dare Bortles to try and beat the Patriots through the air. Marqise Lee and Mercedes Lewis are the marquee receivers, but they aren’t Antonio Brown or Martavis Bryant or Juju Smith-Shuster. Belichick should be able to design a good game plan to keep the Jaguar passing attack on ice.

Offensively, the Patriots will pour over game film from the win over Pittsburgh and see how Jacksonville surrendered 42 points to the Steelers. Granted, the Steelers are what they are on offense, but Tom Brady will have a good idea of what to do with a less familiar defense by week’s end. If the Patriots are fortunate to get Rex Burkhead and perhaps Malcolm Mitchell back, they will help a great deal. Jacksonville also surrendered 44 points to San Francisco towards the end of the regular season, so the Patriots will have plenty of material to look over when formulating a game plan.

So, it’s the Patriots and Jaguars, not the Steelers. One game, and then hopefully on to Minneapolis. It could still be a home game for the Vikings, who barely survived a home scare against New Orleans. But for now, it’s on to Jacksonville and not Pittsburgh.

AFC CHAMPIONSHIP: Six Reasons To Be Worried About The Jaguars

About Bob George

Covering Boston Sports since 1997. Native of Worcester, Mass. Attended UMass and Univ of Michigan. Lives in California. Just recently retired after 40 years of public school teaching. Podcasts on YouTube at @thepic4139

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