FOXBOROUGH - This corner of the Nation took the Jacksonville Jaguars very seriously going into Sunday's game.
Fortunately, so did Bill Belichick.
Jacksonville came out playing like 9-4 instead of 4-9, with a distinct toughness which mirrors their new head coach. In addition to that tough edge, the Jaguars were able to do to the Patriots what hadn't been done since the Red Sox were in the playoffs. Despite the figurehead of past Jaguar postseason glory, Mark Brunell, sitting on the sidelines watching the final days of his era play out, the future for Jacksonville is Byron Leftwich, and that future is bright as Florida sunshine.
Unfortunately for Jacksonville, they got the opposite of Florida sunshine on Sunday: Massachusetts snow. They also got a heavy dose of the best team in the NFL, which eventually found a way to solve the tough and hardy Jaguars. The snow wasn't so much a factor as the Patriots patiently finding out exactly how to bring home the win, and the Patriots parlayed two Tyrone Poole fourth quarter picks into a 27-13 victory. By game's end, you could barely see the field or the game action, but the scoreboard was crystal clear when the time read 0:00.
The Patriots established franchise records with their 12th regular season win and 10th consecutive win. At 12-2, the Patriots still have the inside track to the AFC top seed. With both Kansas City and Indianapolis winning prohibitively, the Patriots needed this win as they head into two tough division tilts to finish the season.
The game was, like last week, a tough battle fought in the snow. Unlike last week's punting duel, both offenses were able to make some hay. Leftwich, in particular, managed 288 yards passing, and fired a late touchdown pass to Kevin Johnson to break the string of no home touchdowns allowed by the Patriots since the Tennessee game in October. Leftwich also fired a 67-yard pass to Jimmy Smith on the game's first play for Jacksonville, which led to a Sean Marler field goal from 24 yards out.
For much of the first half, the Patriot defense looked either tired or uninspired. Leftwich was finding lots of time to throw, and the Jags' offensive line was opening up some holes for Fred Taylor. Leftwich finished the first half with 9 of 13 passing for 163 yards and a 111.9 passer rating.
Complicating the issue was uncharacteristically poor coverage technique by the Patriot secondary. On the 67-yard pass, Eugene Wilson took the wrong angle to cover Smith, who made the reception and cut inside past a totally faked-out Wilson. Only a fleet Rodney Harrison saved a touchdown by running Smith down at the Patriot 9. In the second period, Johnson made receptions in the right flat for ten and 28 yards against Ty Law, and in each case Law had failed to turn around by the time Johnson had the ball. On the 27-yard touchdown to Johnson late in the game, it looked like Asante Samuel lost the ball in the snow, and like Law, never reacted to the receiver until after he had made the catch.
The level of inspiration, or lack of it, was demonstrated in the second quarter. On the only Jacksonville possession which ended in a three-and-out, Leftwich was sacked on first down by Richard Seymour, who knocked the ball loose from Leftwich only to have Brad Meester fall on the ball. Taylor ran for no gain and Leftwich misfired on a pass to Johnson, and the Jags had to punt from their own 13. The Seymour sack was the first solid defensive play of the day for the Patriots up to that time.
But as they have done all season long, the Patriots eventually found the right formula which produced the win. The snow began to fall in the second half, which helped the Patriot cause, but was not the ultimate factor in the Patriot win. All the Patriots had to do was to play Patriot football, and the defense was finally able to break Leftwich and disrupt the rhythm he had gotten in the first half.
More aggressive coverage and blitz packages held Leftwich to only 4 of 9 passing in the third quarter for 47 yards. Leftwich's tenth pass of the second half, the first play of the fourth quarter, was a hurried and poorly thrown ball 13 yards into the left zone seam. Smith was making a move into the area, but Leftwich never saw Poole, who made the interception. Not being able to see Poole was somewhat forgivable, as by then the snow was coming down pretty well.
Two possessions later, Leftwich drove the Jaguars from their own 19 to their own 43. On second and ten, Leftwich tried to force one to Troy Edwards in the right flat. Poole stepped in front of Edwards and made the pick, and returned the ball down the left sideline. Poole would have scored a 47-yard touchdown if he didn't hold up the ball at the ten-yard line in celebration. This caused LaBrandon Toefield to catch up with Poole and smack him down at the 3.
Tom Brady, as he always seems to do with amazing skill, managed the game perfectly and did not give Jacksonville any chance to steal a win. Brady finished 22 of 34 passing for 228 yards and a 103.6 passer rating, and no interceptions. He fired two touchdown passes, a 27-yarder to Daniel Graham on the opening drive of the game, and a 10-yard beauty to Troy Brown in the fourth quarter following Poole's first pick.
Antowain Smith added a one-yard touchdown run in the final period, coming after Poole's second interception. That was the highlight in what was another lackluster effort from the Patriot running game. Patriot rushers had 32 carries for 84 yards, a measly 2.6 yards per carry. But, as usual, Brady's impeccable craftsmanship prevented this from being a problem.
Jack Del Rio wore only a turtleneck shirt amidst the snowstorm, showing his players how tough he was and how he wanted his players to play. There is no doubt that Del Rio has something special brewing in north Florida, and that Belichick knew darned well that his opponent would do anything but play like a 4-9 team. In the end, the Jaguars simply ran out of time and spunk, and the Patriots simply had more material to win this game.
Belichick deserves major kudos for getting his team ready to play this game. Coaches hate the term "trap game", but this match was definitely a letdown waiting to happen. But the Patriots were still well prepared to play this game, as well as plenty motivated. If the Patriots would like to play only at Gillette Stadium in January, games like this simply cannot be choked on and gagged.
Which the Patriots did not. They are 12-2, still in the AFC driver's seat, and taking dead aim at the Jets and Buffalo to bring this season to a rousing finish.
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