By: Bob George/
December 24, 2006

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JACKSONVILLE -- ABC had it dead on with that famous slogan of theirs on Wide World of Sports, that little thing about thrill of victory and agony of defeat.

On the one hand, you had the AFC East champion Patriots, in top December form, flexing their playoff muscles and sending the rest of the conference a stern message if they should draw them in the postseason.

On the other hand, you had the Jacksonville Jaguars, who fought gallantly up to the end and gave a great effort that, in the end, may ultimately lead to going home for January with no postseason.

Such as things go in the NFL. No matter how you win, you simply have to win, period.

Ironically, next week that dogma may not pertain to the Patriots. In wrapping up the AFC East title for the fifth time in six years, the Patriots saved themselves the burden of needing to win next week at Tennessee. With Baltimore winning, New England can no longer earn a first round bye. But with Indianapolis losing at Houston, the Patriots could still earn a three seed if the Colts lose next week at home against Miami and the Patriots win.

The Patriots? 24-21 victory over Jacksonville was close and not decided until the very end, but the Patriots actually dominated the Jaguars a lot more than the final score indicated. But for three defensive lapses and two key penalties, the Patriots would have won this game very comfortably. Tom Brady once again showed why he is the best in the business, and also showed a tough side which saved Patriot Nation a lot of calls to suicide counselors.

The Patriots were deadly methodical in dissecting the Jaguar defense. For the most part, the big two of John Henderson and Marcus Stroud were not real factors in the game. The defensive lineman who did the most damage was actually Paul Spicer, who had the one sack of Brady. Otherwise, Brady killed the Jaguar defense with incredibly efficient passing, throwing to eleven different receivers and hitting on 28 of 39 passes for 249 yards and a touchdown. Rookie tight end David Thomas had a terrific coming-out party, leading the team with five catches for 83 yards and a touchdown, filling in brilliantly in Ben Watson?s absence.

Defensively, the team did well when it had to, but made some critical mistakes at bad times to make the score close. With Fred Taylor out with an injury, Maurice Jones-Drew turned out to be basically the entire Jaguar offense, and the mighty mite rookie was exactly as advertised, though his numbers (19 carries, 131 yards) bear a little bit of explanation.

Early in the second quarter, just after Stephen Gostkowski connected on a 48-yard field goal to give the Patriots a 3-0 lead, Jacksonville took over on their 26 for their third offensive possession of the game. Jones-Drew took a handoff and headed up the middle, then bumped into a lineman who was pushed into him by Richard Seymour. Jones-Drew fell down right in front of Tully Banta-Cain, then got up running to the left side. Banta-Cain didn?t react in time because he thought Jones-Drew was down by contact. Jones-Drew continued off the left end, then cut back up the middle and ran by Artrell Hawkins, who also reacted late. Jones-Drew sprinted by Hawkins and off on a 74-yard touchdown run. Bill Belichick threw the red flag, and it looked like Jones-Drew was down thanks to a Patriot making contact (replay was not clear on who might have touched Jones-Drew), but the call stood.

Banta-Cain played at a maniacal level for the rest of the contest, obviously distraught over the supposed gaffe. But there was really no way that he could have reacted any quicker, and he had every reason to believe that Jones-Drew was down by contact. If Banta-Cain is guilty of anything, he forgot the one basic tenet of football, and that is to play to the whistle. The Jaguars had a gift touchdown on a fluke play, and led 7-3 at that point.

Jones-Drew was held pretty much in check the whole game. If you take away the long 74-yard gallop, his final totals are only 18 carries, 57 yards, and an average of a little over three yards a carry. Though at times he made Patriot tackles miss (Tedy Bruschi missed him at least twice) and he did score two touchdowns for the Jaguars, the Patriots did a very good job overall in defensing Jones-Drew, especially with Vince Wilfork missing the game thanks to his ankle injury. The Patriots were able to hold the point of attack at the line of scrimmage, and Mike Wright did a nice job in place of Wilfork at nose tackle.

The other two touchdowns came thanks to defensive lapses, both times occurring in the secondary. With the Patriots up 17-7 in the third, David Garrard was able to find Ernest Wilford for a 41-yard pass along the right sideline after Asante Samuel turned the wrong way in coverage and let him slip behind him. Two plays later, Jones-Drew ran it in from the one. In the fourth quarter, with the game seemingly in hand at 24-14 Patriots, Matt Jones hauled in a 33-yard scoring toss from Garrard thanks to Ellis Hobbs turning the wrong way and missing a tackle after the catch.

Two key penalties set up the first of these touchdowns. The Patriots had third and one at the Jacksonville 26, but Daniel Graham jumped early and the Patriots were not able to convert on third and six. Gostkowski then pushed a 49-yard field goal try barely wide left. When the Jaguars got the ball back, two plays later Garrard was pressured and intercepted by Mike Vrabel, but Seymour was called for a very ticky-tack roughing the passer penalty when he shoved Garrard a half-second after he let the ball go and the All-Pro lineman had no chance to let up. On the next play, Garrard hit Wilford on the 41-yard pass.

Brady added another illustrious game (97.1 passer rating) to his body of work, and his own body was almost sacrificed in the process. Brady was second on the team in rushing yards with 31 on 10 carries. The last of those (which wasn?t a kneel-down) came in the fourth quarter on a scramble left. Brady needed six for a first down at the Patriot 42 and got seven, but he was blasted in the back by Clint Ingram and was writhing in pain on the ground. Brady got up, took one play off, then came back in the game and led them on the game-winning scoring drive (a 27-yard touchdown run by Laurence Maroney did the trick). Brady showed that he is tough, albeit a bit foolhardy at times with his scrambling, but he continues to lead the team by example, in deeds as well as in words.

The Patriots can try and play for the three seed next week, which they would get if they beat Tennessee and if Indianapolis loses at home to Miami. Or, the Patriots can simply accept the four seed and treat next week like a bye and rest everyone important. The Patriots have some incentive to play for the three seed, given that Denver has the inside track to the five seed thanks to their wacky win against Cincinnati with an ending which resembled the movie North Dallas Forty. Denver would come to Foxborough if they were the five and the Patriots the four, and no further embellishment is needed to explain that scenario. A Jet win on Christmas night gives them the inside track to the six seed; if the Jets lose, the Bengals are in the best position to claim the final playoff seed.

Maybe the Patriots won?t care. Take next week off, take it easy against Tennessee, and this time finally figure those darned Broncos out.