January 12, 2008
Stop The Run, Stay Undefeated
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
These guys won twice this year at Heinz Field. And it's these guys who no one wants to face in the postseason, not your Patriots.
The Jacksonville Jaguars make their third playoff pilgrimage to Foxborough Saturday night. This is a team with which the Patriots have a good deal of familiarity, as these two teams have met in each of the last two seasons, one meeting of which was a playoff game. Further back, in January of 1997, the Patriots defeated this team, at the time in its franchise infancy, 20-6 in the AFC Championship Game. The only time Jacksonville was able to beat the Patriots, Scott Zolak was the Patriot starting quarterback.
Plenty of history favors the Patriots in this Divisional Round matchup. The Patriots have won nine straight home playoff games. The Jaguars return much the same cast from the 2005 team which lost to the Patriots in the Wild Card round. The Patriots have never been fazed by these Jaguars, not even in the close 24-21 win last year at AllTel Stadium, which nailed down last year's division title.
Now, ask Mike Tomlin and the Steelers what the Patriots can do with this history.
The Jaguars have only one real element which could have a chance at ruining the perfect 2007 Patriot season, and that is a one-two running back punch which needs to be addressed correctly by the Patriot defense. In Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, the Jaguars have the number two rushing attack in the NFL, one which has the capability to control a game and chop down a mightier opponent on paper. The two men bring a powerful approach to the Jaguar offense, which is a reflection of their head coach, Jack Del Rio.
But most important of all, it was good enough to win twice on the road against the number one defense in the NFL, the most recent win being last weekend in the Wild Card round.
The Jaguars come to Foxborough with plenty of coals in the hopper, ready to take dead aim at the Patriots. For all hype that surrounds what Taylor and Jones-Drew might do to the Patriots, it still only represents the one facet of the game where they have a clear advantage over the Patriots. In every other area of the game, the Patriots are loaded and clearly superior to the Jaguars. It comes down to the fact that the Jaguars absolutely have to run the ball to have any semblance of a chance to defeat the Patriots, and the Patriots absolutely have to stop the Jaguar run attack to keep their perfect season going.
Good as quarterback David Garrard has been, he isn't about to light up Gillette Stadium with some aerial attack which can come even remotely close to what Tom Brady can do. Garrard has some nice passing stats, the most notable of which is the fact that he only threw three regular season interceptions. But the Patriot defensive scheme for this game is fairly clear: Stop the run attack and dare Garrard to beat the Patriots through the air.
The nice thing about this idea is that Garrard has nowhere near the receiver corps that Brady has. These are mostly guys whom the Patriot defense has seen before, and who are more tall than they are good. Reggie Williams, Ernest Wilford and Matt Jones are all six-foot-four or taller. Dennis Northcutt is a former Cleveland Brown who has had some good days in his career. But these are receivers the Patriot secondary can deal with.
The Patriots may load up the box with lots of guys to stop Taylor and Jones-Drew, but another assignment would be quarterback containment. Garrard, who had a 32-yard run last week at Pittsburgh to clinch the win, is six-foot-one and 245 pounds and hard to tackle in the open field. Garrard also runs like someone 30 pounds lighter. Look for Mike Vrabel and Adalius Thomas to play a key role in containment, but if there is any Patriot that needs to have a great game, it is Vince Wilfork and his ability to clog up the middle, and that includes quarterback scrambles as well as off tackle runs.
The Patriots should have little trouble in operating their offense. Jacksonville would dearly love its defense to be at full strength to complement its edge in the running game. But Marcus Stroud has been out all season long, linebacker Mike Peterson is also a scratch, down lineman John Henderson is ailing and could also be out, and reserve lineman Grady Jackson (a Snow Bowl veteran in his Raider days) also might not play. That leaves Paul Spicer, who will be this week's Anthony Smith thanks to his SpyGate remarks ("The Patriots should be put on probation!").
The Patriots will probably begin by bringing in the Luftwaffe and let Brady and his receiver corps run the Jaguar defense ragged for as long as it can. Don't be surprised if you see Randy Moss, no longer in need of setting any receiver records, used as a decoy for Wes Welker, Donte Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney. Later on, look for the Patriots to run the ball right down Spicer's throat, just to spite him best they can. With the Jaguars in a tired state, then look for Moss to get in on the fun.
The Patriots are clearly superior, and should win the game easily. But it is all predicated upon stopping Taylor and Jones-Drew. If they are unable to, and if Jacksonville is able to keep Brady off the field and control the clock and the game, things will get hairy. It still won't guarantee the Jaguars a win, but it would give the Jaguars an excellent opportunity to pull off the greatest upset of this new millennium.
No Jaguar remains from the 1996 team, but that team pulled off one of the more remarkable road postseason wins of the 1990s, maybe since the merger. One week before facing the Patriots for the right to go to Super Bowl XXXI, the Jaguars went into Denver, withstood a withering attack from the Denver media (remember the term "Jagwads"?), and upended the top seeded Broncos at Mile High Stadium, 30-27. This upset win by the Jaguars in essence sent the Patriots to Super Bowl XXXI by eliminating the one team which surely would have knocked out the Patriots that season. Last Saturday's win by Jacksonville at Pittsburgh was the first road playoff win by the Jaguars since that epic win in Denver.
This is stated only to serve notice that Jacksonville has knocked off a playoff behemoth on the road before. Maybe owner Wayne Weaver will deliver a pep talk to the team, relating to them what happened in Denver eleven Januaries ago. There is no question that the Patriots will have a formidable foe lining up against them Saturday night, but one which, if the Patriots do their jobs like their coach says, they should win and advance to the AFC Championship Game.
But make no mistake. Taylor and Jones-Drew are the real deal. It's not about that they should be stopped. They have to be stopped. Period.
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