By: Bob George/
December 23, 2006

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JACKSONVILLE -- Maybe Bill Belichick brought in Larry the Cable Guy this week just to tell the Patriots to ?git ?er done? on Sunday.

It?s so easy to call any game a ?must win?, since all games can be considered as such. But for the Patriots, their game Sunday against Jacksonville provides some interesting ramifications, with consequences ranging from an instant division title to the precursor to an unheard of non-playoff berth. With the New York Jets breathing down their necks (along with some snorting and grunting to boot), the Patriots are in a position where they need to win to secure a playoff berth and to avoid having to go to Tennessee next week with their season on the line.

At least the Patriots come to a venue which brings back good memories. Their last championship conquest came two years ago here at AllTel Stadium. The Patriots have lost to the Jaguars only once in history, a 1998 25-10 playoff loss in a game where they were forced to insert Scott Zolak as quarterback in place of an injured Drew Bledsoe. The Patriots have a good history against this team, featuring two playoff wins in Foxborough, one of which brought them a Super Bowl berth in 1996.

On Sunday, the Patriots will try to nail down the division title against a Jaguar squad which is literally fighting for its season. At 8-6, a loss could doom their season, with seven other teams with either seven or eight wins at present. The fact that Jacksonville will be the more desperate team is one of several factors which work against the Patriots. Even though the Patriots would love to avoid having their season decided next week in Nashville, the Jaguars could very well come out the more intense and more hungry team.

Given the emergence of the Jaguar running attack as being at the top of the class in the NFL, and given the injury to Vince Wilfork which will leave a gaping hole in the middle of the Patriot defense, that also could spell doom for the Patriots on Christmas Eve. Another factor which will work against the Patriots is the fact that Jacksonville will be bent on revenge from their 28-3 playoff loss at Foxborough last January. Throw in Jacksonville?s 6-1 record at home, and things don?t look good for the Patriots in the abstract.

Some mojo swung back in favor of the Patriots this week which might help tip the balance more towards the middle, and maybe in favor of the Patriots. One half of the powerful rushing duo for the Jaguars, Fred Taylor, is a scratch for Sunday?s game. This will ease the problem of shutting down the Jaguar rushing attack, especially given that Wilfork is also a likely scratch given his absences from practices this week.

The other event which happened this week which should help the Patriots is the release of the Pro Bowl rosters this week. Only Richard Seymour made the Pro Bowl, which of course allows the Patriots to play the ?no respect? card. Players like Ty Warren and Asante Samuel will step up their games and show the selectors of the Pro Bowl rosters that they made a mistake, and that will bode very well for the Patriots.

With rookie Maurice Jones-Drew now paired with LaBrandon Toefield in the Jaguar offensive backfield, the Patriots will have a much easier time in dealing with the run. If this comes true, the Patriots should have little trouble dealing with David Garrard, the quarterback who has taken the place of Byron Leftwich. Garrard is a better scrambler than he is a pure passer, and is not a quarterback who is likely to overcome whatever brainteasers Belichick?s defense might throw at him. Of course, this is all predicated upon being able to stop the run, and Taylor?s absence will be sorely felt by the home team.

Offensively, the Patriots will still have to deal with the large Jaguar defensive line, led by Marcus Stroud and John Henderson. The Patriots had no such problem back in January, and shouldn?t have a problem on Sunday, especially with the Jaguars missing players like Mike Peterson and Donovin Darius due to injuries. Laurence Maroney, who has not played since the Detroit game, has resumed practicing and plans to make the trip. If he can play and give Corey Dillon the blows he needs, that will help Tom Brady in working out the kinks in the passing game, something which has been sorely lacking over the past few weeks.

The Patriots also know very well that if they win Sunday and nail down the division, it most likely renders the finale at Tennessee meaningless. Unless both Baltimore and Indianapolis lose on Sunday (the Colts won?t, they play at Houston), meaning that the Patriots could ostensibly play the Titans for a two seed if both lose again in their finales, the players could treat the finale like last year?s Drop Kick Bowl where the Patriots lost purposely to get a more favorable playoff seed. If the Patriots do nail down the division on Sunday with a win (or a Jet loss, which perhaps could happen at Miami), the players know full well they can take it easy at Tennessee and treat it as if it were a bye week. This last element may be the biggest motivating factor for the Patriots to equal or exceed whatever intensity the Jaguars intend on bringing to the Christmas Eve table on Sunday.

Since 2001 and except for 2002, the Patriots have shown that they can win the big December games. The only two losses the Patriots have suffered in the month of December in 2001 and 2003 through 2005 were both to Miami, which included an atypical blown late lead on a Monday night and the aforementioned 2005 season finale they really didn?t want to win in the first place. The Patriots are among the best in the league at bringing their season to a big crescendo and peaking at just the right time.

But the Patriots cannot ignore the urgency of winning to avoid the prospect of having to win next week to save their season. This is why this week is a must win for the Patriots, because if their season comes down to having to win at Tennessee, it could leave Patriot fans with lumps of coal in their Christmas stockings. The Jets finish at home against Oakland and don?t figure to lose to a team wanting to ?get on the bus?. The Patriots would then have to expend more energy than they would like to, and would have to deal with emerging rookie Vince Young who is just now beginning to showcase his awesome talent everyone in Austin, Texas knows so well.

The Patriots have a clear mandate, and it?s their time of the year. Whether Patriot Nation will truly have a Merry Christmas won?t be known until about four o?clock on Sunday.