By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots' potential to make the Super Bowl could ultimately rely on the defense limiting the points. And if the unit can get the job done all the way to Atlanta, it could end up riding what's become one of the league's more dangerous cornerback groups.
You can partially thank undrafted rookie JC Jackson for that. Jackson assumed a much larger role in the secondary starting in Week 13 against the Vikings, and the Patriots defense has tangibly improved ever since.
Jackson played eight of the Patriots' first 11 games, averaging 16.4 snaps in the games he was active. That jumped to 52.8 snaps per game in the final five games of the regular season. The Patriots' opposing passer rating from games 1-11 was 86.1; in the five games after Jackson's snap count jumped, it dipped to 77.8.
The drop in opposing passer rating can also be attributed to the competition. The Bills and Jets' rookie quarterbacks, Josh Allen and Sam Darnold, both looked like rookies in their respective Gillette Stadium debuts. At the same time, one of the games included a 152.0 passer rating for Ryan Tannehill in Week 14, which only amplifies how well Jackson and the defense played against talented quarterbacks and explosive offenses in the Steelers and Vikings.
According to data compiled by The Athletic's Jeff Howe over the course of the season, Jackson was targeted 44 times and allowed 20 catches for 230 yards and zero touchdowns, making interceptions against the Dolphins, Bears, and Bills. That amounts to an outrageously bad 33.3 opposing passer rating.
Much like the Patriots' competition as a team, Jackson's great coverage numbers don't necessarily mean he's been Champ Bailey going up against elite receivers all the time. However, he did rise to the occasion when matched up against the Vikings' Adam Thielen, and delivered his own signature game of the season by shutting down the Steelers' JuJu Smith-Schuster (4 catches on 10 targets for 40 yards) in Week 15.
Stephon Gilmore's All-Pro-caliber season has the Patriots secondary entering the playoffs as perhaps the team's biggest weapon. Jackson has made it much easier to delegate matchups on the outside with his size, toughness, and ball skills on the boundary. It's freed up Jason McCourty to move inside at times, effectively replacing Jonathan Jones, who had an up-and-down season before assuming a reduced role from Week 10 on.
It remains to be seen how the defense performs against mobile quarterbacks and how much pressure they get up front, but there's plenty of reason to like the Pats' chances of covering the receivers they're inevitably going to face.
Say the Los Angeles Chargers end up coming to Foxborough. Gilmore would certainly match up with Keenan Allen. Jackson has inspired confidence that he can cover well against the likes of Mike Williams or Tyrell Williams.
What about the Texans? With DeAndre Hopkins getting plenty of Gilmore (and probably double-teams), Jackson is suddenly a matchup you feel good about against anyone below him on the Houston depth chart that they employ on the outside.
The big question with Jackson in particular, clearly, is whether his lack of experience will affect him in January. But so far, he's lived up to his own billing. Jackson said all the way back in training camp that his goals as a rookie were to "stay consistent, make plays, and get better."
Check, check, check.
The Patriots may not have the edge at a ton of positional matchups on paper. But their cornerbacks are poised to give them an advantage over opposing receivers, especially based on how they've played late in the season. A lot of credit for that confidence is because of the emergence of Jackson.
Matt Dolloff is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].
Note: This was updated with accurate information on the Houston Texans. Demaryius Thomas is out for the season with an Achilles injury.