By: Bob George/
December 27, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH -- Maybe the Patriots owe Chris Gamble a debt of gratitude.

Two weeks after bragging to the world that his Carolina Panthers ran the same defensive sets over and over again because they basically knew what the Patriots were going to do, Tom Brady went out and had maybe his best game since 2007. The Jacksonville Jaguars, who have one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL, were no match for the future Hall of Fame Patriot quarterback, and the Patriots nailed down the 2009 AFC East title with a 35-7 win over the Jags on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.

The AFC playoff picture is still a bloody mess, but that's mostly the Wild Card situation. It's so messed up that Jacksonville, at 7-8, could still make the playoffs with a ton of help. All four divisions in the AFC are clinched, with the only loose end being whether or not the Patriots can hold on to the three seed or yield it to the Cincinnati Bengals next weekend.

The Patriots hold the tiebreaker against the Bengals based on a better strength of victory as of right now, and can nail down the three seed with a win next week at Houston. The Bengals have to travel to play the Jets next Sunday night, as NBC made that game its flex game so as to draw in the New York audience (with the Giants being eliminated Sunday night thanks to Dallas' win at Washington, the Jets are all the Big Apple has left). The Jets, thanks to a weird chain of events, actually control their own destiny and can nail down the five seed with a win against Cincy.

The Jets are in that position because the Indianapolis Colts, as predicted by some, mailed in their game against the Jets and flushed their chance at an undefeated season down the toilet. The Colts pulled Peyton Manning in the third quarter, and the Jets promptly scored the last 19 points to win and vastly improve their previously floundering playoff chances. The Colts have done this in previous years, as they remain paranoid over losing Manning to injury in meaningless games, but their strategy in resting Manning has often resulted in early playoff defeats thanks to rusty play due to the long rest. So while the 1972 Dolphins broke out their bubbly, the 2009 Colts held firm to their goal being Super Bowl champs and not 19-0 Super Bowl champs.

With Baltimore losing to Pittsburgh, 23-20, and with Denver losing at Philadelphia, 30-27, the Jets moved into the five seed and the Ravens dropped to the six seed. But five other teams remain alive for a playoff berth, that being Denver, Houston, Pittsburgh, Miami and Jacksonville, in that order.

One of those teams, Houston, hosts the Patriots next weekend at Reliant Stadium, and it sets up a scenario similar to 2005 when the Patriots hosted Miami at home on the final weekend of the season. The Patriots had the three seed if they won and the four seed if they lost. They had a choice to play Pittsburgh (the six seed) or Jacksonville (the five seed). This was the game where Doug Flutie made the first drop kick field goal in the NFL since World War II. Matt Cassel finished the game with a lousy attempt at a two-point conversion, the Patriots lost, hosted and defeated Jacksonville, but their season ended the following week at Denver. (Pittsburgh, if you recall, became the first six seed to win the Super Bowl that year, but that's another story.)

So, if the playoffs began today, the Patriots host the Ravens at Gillette Stadium in two weeks. Of course, the Patriots might want to opt to not play hard and let Houston win next week, in which case they may draw the Jets instead of the Ravens. The Ravens were an Anthony Mason dropped pass away from beating the Patriots earlier this season, but the Patriots manhandled the Jets when they came to town a few weeks later. Perhaps Bill Belichick rests his starters and opts for an opening round game against the hated Jets, but a win in that scenario likely sends the Patriots to Indianapolis for the second round instead of San Diego, where they would go automatically if they win the Wild Card round as the three seed.

It's too bad the playoffs weren't this week. Watching the Patriots take apart a Jacksonville team which almost beat the Colts last Thursday (when the Colts were actually trying to win) was a thing of beauty. Next to their lopsided wins over Tennessee and Tampa Bay, this was perhaps the most complete and impressive win by the Patriots this year. Jacksonville was a much tougher team than Tennessee (back then) and Tampa Bay, and the Patriots did yeoman work in neutralizing the two main offensive cogs for the Jaguars, that being David Garrard and Maurice Jones-Drew.

Brady was simply unreal on this afternoon. He was 23 of 26 passing for 267 yards and four touchdowns, three of them to Randy Moss. His rating was 149.0. He looked every bit like the surgeon he has been known for but hasn't been seen much this year. Wes Welker had his 13 catches for 138 yards, but Moss scored a touchdown on 75% of his receptions.

An interesting sidebar or two emanated from the Patriot running backs. On the opening drive of the game for the Patriots, the Patriots drove 82 yards in ten plays to the Jaguar one-yard line. Laurence Maroney, who had 22 yards on four carries on that drive, tried to score on a right tackle run. But he was hit at the line of scrimmage by John Henderson and coughed up the ball. Maroney never returned to the game after that lost fumble, but fortunately the Patriots weren't hurt by the fumble other than it cost them a 42-7 win. Maroney's absence for the rest of the game might be something to keep an eye on over the next week, as Belichick's patience may be growing thin on the former first round draft pick who has coughed up several fumbles during the season.

Sammy Morris, on the other hand, rushed for 95 yards on 12 carries (just south of eight yards a carry). But of special note was the return of longtime Jaguar Fred Taylor, playing against the only team he has ever known prior to this year. On the final drive of the game for the Patriots, the hometowners ran off all but 29 seconds of the final 12:41. Taylor came into the game on this drive and rushed eleven times for 35 yards. One of his runs was a three-yard gain on fourth and one at the Jax 16-yard line. Taylor, who had a nice reunion with his former teammates before and after the game, added further meaning to the "Where was Maroney?" queries.

This game was never in doubt, even with the Maroney fumble ruining the opening drive. The Patriots simply stuck it to the Jags on both sides of the ball, holding Jones-Drew to only 63 yards on 18 carries and Garrard to only 185 yards passing and two interceptions. Brady carved up the suspect Jags secondary with amazing ease. The Patriots clinched the division title with little resistance from the Jaguars, and it is amazing that Jacksonville could still make the playoffs, albeit only mathematically.

So next week in Houston, if Brian Hoyer tries a drop kick, you'll know where Belichick's head is at as far as who he wants to play during Wild Card week.