The Patriots are 11-2, AFC East Champions, playoff bound and currently the top team in the AFC. The Jaguars are 4-9 and in last place in the AFC South with players trying to prove to first-year head coach Jack Del Rio that they are part of the team's solution and future. The Patriots are 6-0 at home. The Jaguars are 0-6 on the road. So it's a lock for New England when these two teams hook up Sunday at 1 p.m. at Gillette Stadium, right?
"Don't even go there" has become a staple comment for Bill Belichick's repertoire during his team's nine-game winning streak when someone asks a question that places his team on a pedestal, and he would likely utter those words if you told him his team should win this week.
There's good reason for that. While his team is 7-0 against opponents currently residing north of .500, his is also a club that has needed late-game heroics to secure four wins and near-dominant defensive efforts to win four more.
If appearances mean anything, it could be argued that New England plays to the level of its competition with its two losses coming to clubs that are both below .500. It certainly seems that New England is in a dogfight every Sunday playing games that aren't truly decided until the final minutes. There is rarely any time to breath a sigh of relief knowing the game is in hand.
"I think the team goes out there with high goals every week and some weeks the performance is better than others," Belichick said. "As far as that goes, you look at any competitive contest and when you get to the end of the contest, you do what you have to do to win."
That's his team's mentality and it has proven an incredible ability to do just that. But when a team does it consistently through a long stretch of games, there is more to its success then coincidence. For the Patriots, it's come down to preparation along with the players' ability to respond positively in critical situations.
"If you are at the end of a football game, you go through the different situation things and do what you need to do to win," he continued. "You can't control those situations. You just have to react to them. That is what the team has to do. You can't script the act. But over a 60-minute game, there are going to be some points in the game that are certainly going to be better than others and you try to have as many high points as possible."
The point here is that when Jacksonville flies from Florida's cozy warmth into New England's icebox, expect a close game with an outcome that remains in doubt until the fourth quarter. That just seems to be the Patriots way.
Belichick will remind his team that the 1-7 Jaguars beat the 7-1 Colts and that Jacksonville has won three of its last five including its last two, capped by a dominating 27-0 blowout win over the Texans -- the same Texans New England needed overtime to beat three weeks ago.
Belichick has seen plenty of Jacksonville's games this season while studying up to play Tennessee, Indy and Houston. He is impressed by their defense, and legitimately should be given its lofty rankings -- fifth overall and second against the run.
"I would say they have one of the best fronts we have seen all year," Belichick said. "Tony Brackens and Hugh Douglas are outstanding ends and pass rushers. Inside they have big guys Marcus Stroud and John Henderson. They have a good secondary."
It is a defense that has come on strong and should be able to control an offensively challenged Patriots team, or at least a Patriots offense that has mustered little in the way of points at home this season. New England may be undefeated at Gillette Stadium but since scoring 61points in its first two home games of the year, it has managed just 50 in its last four. The Jags, meanwhile, have allowed only 8.3 points per game in their last four outings.
All signs point to another low scoring, defensive game played in the cold weather in Foxborough. The Patriots have won those games this season and if trends mean anything, there is no reason to think Jacksonville will be the team to end the winning streak. But then again, maybe it will. Eight of the Patriots games (and seven wins) have been decided by one score or less and all it takes is one big mistake in a big spot- the kind New England has generally avoided -- to come up on the losing end of those games.
Jacksonville, meanwhile, is 3-5 in close games. Expect field position and turnovers to again play a big role this week.
"They have a tough competitive attitude," Belichick said. "They play hard and you see it in every game. They are physical. They don't give you much. You better be able to stop the run and be able to handle their front or you are going to be in for a long day. A lot of teams have been in for long days against them, especially offensively."
SERIES HISTORY: 5th meeting. Patriots lead series 3-1 after winning the first three, including a 20-6 AFC Championship Game win in 1996. Jacksonville won the last meeting, 25-10, in a 1998 AFC Wild Card game.