By: Bob George/BosSports.net
January 07, 2006

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Is this a case of "Be careful of what you wish for"?

Patriots/Jaguars
Close-Up
What: AFC Wild Card
Where: Gillette Stadium
Foxborough, Mass.
When: Saturday 1/7/06
8:00 PM EST
TV National:
TV Local:
ABC
WCVB-TV 5
DSS: DirecTV
Channel 931
2005 Team
Records:
Patriots 10-6
Jaguars 12-4
Latest Line: Patriots by 8
How must the Jacksonville Jaguars feel after seeing both New England and Cincinnati practically lay down last weekend so that they could play them instead of Pittsburgh this weekend? So, the Patriots get the "easy" opponent this weekend? And the lasting image of this season will be a dropkick instead of hoisting aloft a record third straight Vince?

In the abstract, things look good for the Patriots Saturday night. They get the Jacksonville Jaguars, who went 12-4 against a far weaker schedule than the 10-6 Patriots did. They get a team which has a quarterback controversy, a star running back who is more fragile than the Venus De Milo, and a team overall with zippo playoff experience that returns several players which got kicked around here in December of 2003, 27-13. They have home crowd on their side, and it will be freezing cold nighttime weather, conditions that are usually fatal for teams based in Florida. They also have history on their side, featuring a quarterback who is undefeated in his postseason career and a head coach who has done better in the postseason than Mr. Lombardi himself.

But the Patriots still have to go out and play the game. As long as that is the case, expect anything and assume nothing.

Well, here are a few things you can expect, at least.

Jacksonville will come out of the tunnel more angry than how their city felt in 1996 when they were called "Jagwads" by Woody Paige of the Denver Post (who was blamed for the subsequent 30-27 loss by the Broncos to the Jags, which set up that year's AFC title game at Foxborough). They have been playing the "disrespect" card all week long, and have done everything except call Doug Flutie a clown for that dropkick. Never underestimate the power of an underdog scorned (Ladies, you like that twist on the famous old saying?).

Byron Leftwich versus David Garrard? Jack Del Rio has tabbed Leftwich as his starting quarterback, but Jaguar Nation might be pining for Garrard. Leftwich started the 2003 clash in the snow up here two years ago, and was cuffed around by the Patriot defense pretty well. The former Marshall gunslinger has been injured most of this year, and Garrard has done well in his place. It is thought that Garrard might give the Jaguars more options at quarterback, and is more mobile than Leftwich. But the incumbent starter will begin Saturday night under center anyway.

Fred Taylor has to have a good game for the Jags to have any chance. But Taylor has missed five games this year including the meaningless finale against Tennessee. Rookie LaBrandon Toefield rushed for 103 yards in the aforementioned finale against the Titans, and can provide help if Taylor pulls up lame. Fullback Greg Jones is listed as probable. The Patriots must be able to contain the Jaguar running attack, but the health of Taylor is always a concern to Jaguar Nation.

Perhaps a bigger challenge the Patriots face is the tall Jaguar receiver corps. Jimmy Smith, the lone holdover from the 1996 AFC Championship Game at Foxborough Stadium for the visitors, is the smallest at 6-1. Ernest Wilford, Matt Jones and tight end Kyle Brady (a former Jet) are all 6-4 or taller. They will give the small Patriot secondary problems if Leftwich is given time to throw.

Defensively, tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson and middle linebacker Mike Peterson could spell trouble for the Patriot running game. No one is really sure about the health of Corey Dillon, and he'll snap at you if you try and ask him. Kenny Wright anchors a secondary which can generally be picked on.

So, what do the Patriots do to win? That's the answer. Just do what they do.

Injuries to the Jaguar defense will help. Peterson is listed as questionable and Wright is probable, but some reports say that Wright is hurt more than "probable". Defensive end Reggie Hayward is also questionable. The guess is that Peterson will play, but with the one player who could cause the most disruption at less than one hundred percent, the Patriots might be able to open a few holes here and there for Dillon and Kevin Faulk. If the weather is extremely cold, Dillon could have a great second half.

Basically, what the Patriots simply need to do is to give Tom Brady time to throw and he will be okay. If Wright cannot answer the bell, Brady will have a stellar night. As long as the Patriot receivers run their routes well and don't suffer drops, they will be able to make hay against the Jaguar defense.

What the Patriots have to be more careful about is their approach on defense. Like Jacksonville, the Patriots have an injury issue at middle linebacker, and the Patriots could be in trouble if Tedy Bruschi is unable to play at his usual high level. What the Patriots may do is use a variety of blitz packages to force hurried throws, and hope that the taller Jaguar receivers don't get open quick enough. They may also have to rely on Artrell Hawkins to come up and help contain the run if Bruschi cannot do it himself.

The emotion of the crowd, the cold weather and the enormous wealth of playoff experience should bring the Patriots home. But, at the risk of further indignifying the Jaguars, what should also help the Patriots is the real reason why they may have preferred to play them rather than the Steelers, and that being the fact that they may emerge from this game healthier than they would have against Pittsburgh.

Despite the fact that the Patriots know Pittsburgh better and have beaten them in their last two meetings, Jacksonville simply doesn't pose that many problems other than unfamiliarity. The biggest factor which could bring about a Jacksonville upset is how angry they are as they approach the two-time champions.

You the fan got the matchup you wanted. But it is the players who actually have to go out and deal with the Jaguars. No Patriot came out this week with any sound byte which Jacksonville could use against them. The Patriot players themselves know exactly what task they have at hand, and that in the playoffs there is no such thing as an "easy" opponent or an "easier" opponent.

But face it. You're thrilled to death that Pittsburgh is going to Cincinnati.

Let's hope that twenty-four hours from now, you don't wish that Matt Cassel had completed that conversion.


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