ORLANDO, Fla. – Six subplots to keep an eye on in Sunday's AFC championship game:
1. Tom Brady vs. Jacksonville's pass rush
The Patriots signal caller reportedly injured his throwing hand during Wednesday's practice and has been seen wearing a glove in subsequent practices and during Friday's press conference. Despite a playoff resume some consider incomparable, Brady will need to be healthy and sharp against Jacksonville's vaunted defense. The Patriots love to utilize crossing routes and running back screens to move the chains. Jacksonville's overall physicality could lead to success in neutralizing those tendencies.
2. Leonard Fournette vs. New England's defense
Jacksonville's star running back gained more than 1,000 yards during the regular season, and ran for 109 yards and three touchdowns in the Jags' win over Pittsburgh last Sunday. But he also injured his ankle midway through the second quarter, and his numbers suffered. Fournette amassed only 27 yards on the ground after returning to action. If Fournette is still banged up, that's a huge win for the Patriots since his ability to find the end zone is critical against a defensive unit that thrives in the red zone.
3. Blake Bortles' accuracy
So far, so good when it comes to the Oviedo native's first foray into the postseason. Not spectacular, per se, but definitely good enough. Bortles didn't commit a turnover in playoff wins over Buffalo and Pittsburgh, and that ball security will be essential on the road in a hostile environment. The Patriots are notorious for taking care of the ball themselves, so drawing even or perhaps winning the turnover battle against New England would be a giant advantage for the Jags.
4. The glare of the spotlight
Just how integral is playoff experience? Patriots coach Bill Belichick shoots down its importance whenever asked, but the fact of the matter is New England is about to play in its 12th conference championship since 2001. While many of the names and faces have changed over time, Belichick and Brady have been the constants. With so much experience in big games, it's foolish to think the moment will be too big for them. On the other side of the field, however, is a team making its first conference championship appearance since the 1999 season. The Jags proved a lot of doubters wrong with their 45-42 win in Pittsburgh in last week's divisional round, but the stakes have never been greater against a team with such an incredible playoff pedigree as New England.
5. Containing "Gronk"
New England won the Super Bowl a year ago without the services of All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski. Now, he's healthy and hungry. Considered too big for defensive backs and too fast for linebackers, "Gronk" is a matchup nightmare for any team. Jacksonville's strategy in defending one of the NFL's most lethal weapons could tip the scales one way or another.
6. Special Teams
Playoff teams can win games in a variety of ways. Special teams is an area that can never be overlooked, especially in January. The Patriots feature one of the NFL's best kickers in Stephen Gostkowski, and punter Ryan Allen is proficient in pinning the opposition deep in its own territory. As for Jacksonville's special teams, kicker Josh Lambo is 21 for 22 on field goal attempts this season and could be busy if the Jags' offense stalls in the Patriots' end of the field.