FOXBOROUGH — The Jaguars were one of the more aggressive and successful teams in the regular season when it came to fourth-down conversions.
Jacksonville ranked second in the NFL with a 76.9 percent success rate, converting 10 of 13 fourth-down opportunities. Only the Saints were better percentage-wise (80), and nobody converted more than the Eagles, who were 17 for 26.
That aggressiveness is part of what has defined this Jacksonville team through a gritty run of two road playoff victories. The stakes are raised in the playoffs, and the Jaguars haven’t deviated from their style.
In both victories, against the Bills and Steelers, the Jaguars converted fourth-down opportunities at critical times. Should the Jaguars face a similar situation Sunday during the AFC Championship game, the Patriots’ defense expects to be ready.
“Especially the fourth-down plays, you treat the fourth-down plays as a ‘gotta have it’ moment, even if it’s in the first quarter or any time of the game,” safety Devin McCourty said on Thursday.
“For us, we’ll study that a little bit more because you don’t know how it will affect the outcome, but usually a team that goes for it, if they get it, it’s a huge play from the offense. If you stop it, it’s a huge momentum swing and the offense comes on. I think we do look as those plays and it’s not just another play for us, it’s a situational play for us, so I think the awareness and time we spend on it makes the difference in a game. We’ll execute it right, and if we don’t, it’ll hurt us.”
The Patriots have developed a reputation for being the gold standard for executing in situations other teams wilt in. That stems in large part from Bill Belichick’s obsession to detail. Look to the win against the Steelers in Week 15 and Duron Harmon’s interception that sealed the victory. Harmon noted the Patriots prepared that week and practiced the fake spike, anticipating the Steelers would turn to it in such a situation.
This season, the Patriots have stopped 13 of 23 fourth-down attempts. The Jaguars went for it on fourth and goal from the 1 against the Bills at the end of the third quarter to take a 10-3 lead, in a game where points were hard to come by. Jacksonville also went for it in a similar situation on the opening drive against the Steelers and scored.
“We’ve got to know once they get in that territory that we kind of call ‘Cuatro situation,’ that third down is not really third down,” McCourty said on Wednesday, when he also was asked about the Jaguars’ aggressiveness. “We’ve got to be prepared for a play that might gain a couple of yards, but not maybe a first down, but get them close enough to the stick. Whether it’s in a goal line situation like last week, or you stop them on third down and you’re going crazy, you’ve got to realize that they’ll line it up and go for it.”
Van Noy better
Several Patriots were put on the spot to answer questions about the status of quarterback Tom Brady and his hand injury, but linebacker Kyle Van Noy wasn’t taking the bait.
“Tom always looks good. He’s handsome and he’s good at football,” Van Noy said.
“That’s his thing, I’m going to control what I can control.”
Van Noy was being cheeky, but he does indeed have his own health to worry about, such as making sure he steers clear of the calf injury that kept him out of three games down the stretch.
He eased back into action in Week 17 and played 12 snaps against the Jets, then played a much bigger role in the playoff win against the Titans (45 snaps) last Saturday. Van Noy, who credited the training staff for getting him up to speed, noted he feels “better” than he did in weeks prior.
“I can’t specify [the injury],” Van Noy said when asked about the light load against the Jets. “You can make your speculations. Let just say it was a significant injury and it wasn’t anything to play around with. I worked really hard to get back and play with the team. You want to keep winning and keep the ball rolling, especially when I feel like I was playing a high level [before the injury].
“I think each week has been better and better.”
Right tackle LaAdrian Waddle was the only player other than to Brady who did not participate in practice. Waddle is dealing with a knee injury that bumped him from the divisional-round game.
Waddle had taken over for starter Marcus Cannon, who’s on injured reserve with an ankle injury. Waddle has had an ankle injury of his own, which limited him toward the end of the regular season.
If Waddle is unable to play against the Jaguars, the Patriots would turn to Cameron Fleming, who has filled in for Waddle previously.
“I’m lucky enough to be at a place where everybody practices, everybody is coached, everybody gets work in,” Fleming said. “That’s helped my ability to stay ready to play when I’m getting some reps in practice, some reps in scout team. You just [have to] refocus. Your mentality changes when you’re in the game rather than just looking at the game.”
Defensive tackle Alan Branch and running backs Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee were again limited participants in practice because of knee ailments.