New England has been dominant at home this season and looks to extend its winning streak against suddenly hot Jacksonville
The New England Patriots are setting some personal records this season. The team has never won more than 11 games in a single season; they are now at 11-2 with three games remaining. They are on a 9-game winning streak, and although the Patriots won 9 consecutive regular season games carrying over from the 2001 to the 2002 seasons (until after Week 3 last year), the streak of 9 in this single season is a franchise record.
The Patriots are also 6-0 at home this year and have a chance to win a franchise-record 8th consecutive home game this weekend.
The Jaguars, meanwhile, have yet to win a road game. But while they are only 4-9 this season, they have won two in a row, including an impressive 17-10 victory over Tampa Bay two weeks ago and a dominating 27-0 shut-out of the Houston Texans last Sunday. To be fair, the Texans were playing their third string quarterback and backup running back, but the Jaguars still took care of business. When they were at nearer-to-full strength, three weeks ago, the Texans took the Patriots to overtime in a game New England was barely able to win. Still, the Patriots held huge advantages over Houston in that game and only their own mistakes (two interceptions and a fumble that led to all but three of the Texans' points) kept it close.
Limiting such turnovers is and will remain a key to New England's success, and having this game at home should help. Take, for example, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who has some interesting production differentials between his home and road performances. Of his 15 touchdowns this season, incredibly just one has been in Gillette Stadium. But on the other hand, of his 12 interceptions this season, none have come at home. While his home scores may be limited, Brady certainly seems to be taking better care of the ball at home than away.
The Jaguars will be running up against one of the league's toughest defenses. The Patriots have become the first team since the 1938 (yes, 1938) Giants to prevent an opponent from scoring a single touchdown in four straight home games. The Patriots have two shut-outs over that span as well. While they are ranked sixth in yards allowed, the defense is fourth in the league in the more-important category of points allowed.
For contrast, look at Jacksonville. The Jaguars actually rank fifth in the league in total yards allowed, one place ahead of the Patriots. Yet they rank 14th in the league in points allowed, despite last week's shut-out of the Texans. The Patriots allow an average of just 16.1 points per game and the Jaguars allow 20.3.
Here is a look at some of the players each team will have to worry about this weekend.
Last year, the Patriots were terrible (second-to-last in the league) against the run. This year, they rank in the top five in rushing defense. They will need to prove worthy of that status this weekend against Jacksonville's Fred Taylor (#28)
Taylor is a star running back who has already sprinted past the 1,000-yard rushing mark, piling up 1,200 for the season and a devastating 4.4 yards-per-carry average. At 6-1, 232 pounds, he is as big and powerful as New England's Antowain Smith (#32) but is much faster. Taylor has five rushing touchdowns and another receiving. The Patriots held Ricky Williams, a running back with a similar size-speed combination to Taylor, to just 68 yards and a sub-3.0 yards per carry average last week. But Taylor's season numbers are better than Williams' and Jacksonville's offensive line is better than Miami's especially in the interior with guards Chris Naeole (#65) and Vince Manuwai (# 67) and center Brad Meester (#63).
If Taylor has a weakness, it may be his ability to hold onto the football. He has put the ball on the ground six times this season and four of them have landed in the other teams' hands. This has contributed to Jacksonville's minus-2 turnover ratio, which is 19th in the league (the Patriots are plus-9, good for 5th best in the league).
Patriots defensive tackle Ted Washington (#92) and linebacker Ted Johnson (#52) will be focused on stopping Taylor. Both players have missed time with injuries but are healthy and productive now: Washington has 33 tackles and 2 sacks in 7 games, and Johnson has 19 tackles in 5 games plus a hit last week that was so hard it literally shattered the opponent's helmet. With or without the Two Teds, the Patriots have allowed an individual rusher to gain more than 100 yards in a single game just once this season (Clinton Portis of the Denver Broncos) and just four teams (Buffalo, Denver, Philadelphia, and Washington) have been able to gain more than 100 yards on the Patriots. But Washington and Johnson, along with safety Rodney Harrison (#37) and his 99 tackles, will be stalking the line of scrimmage to stop Taylor.
The Jaguars have replaced veteran quarterback Mark Brunell (#8) with a rookie. Byron Leftwich (#7) stepped in when Brunell went down after Week 3 this season and the newcomer has played fairly well. He has thrown for 2,233 yards in his 12 games as a pro, and has a good-not-great 57.8 completion percentage. He has thrown 11 touchdowns and has a powerful arm, with a long completion of 84 yards.
But like Taylor, Leftwich has had a problem with turnovers, losing six fumbles this season and throwing 12 interceptions.
Still, he has a weapon in receiver Jimmy Smith that most teams would covet. Smith has played in just 9 games this year but has four touchdowns and averages nearly 15 yards-per-catch. 12 of his 46 catches this season have resulted in gains of 20 or more yards, and 3 of them went for more than 40.
Leftwich has been improving this season, too, with 3 touchdowns and no interceptions in his past two games, both wins, and more than 60% completions. Two of those touchdowns went to Smith, who had his first 100-yard receiving game (10 catches for 136 yards) two weeks ago against Tampa Bay.
Patriots cornerback Ty Law (#24) will have his hands full against Smith, if only because Law seemed to tweak his hamstring in Sunday's win over the Dolphins. But if healthy (and he is not on the injury report), Law is as good as they come in the defensive secondary of any unit in the league. He has 56 tackles and is already up to 5 interceptions, the second-best total of his career, returning one for a touchdown. He has 14 passes defended, also the second-best total of his career (in 1998, he had a ridiculous 9 interceptions and 23 passes defended).
If Law has success against Smith, Leftwich could be in for a long day. Patriots defensive tackle Richard Seymour (#93) and newly-invigorated veteran linebacker Willie McGinest (#55) have 11 sacks between them. But linebacker Mike Vrabel (#50) should not be overlooked; he is tied for the team lead with 6.5 sacks this season and has become a terror of an edge rusher.
Antowain Smith, Kevin Faulk and Mike Cloud
Which running back will lead the Patriots this week? The Patriots have been rotating rushers this season, in part depending on which player has shown that he deserves more playing time and in part based on the game plan for a given opponent. For instance, this past Sunday's snow-filled game against a tough Dolphins' run defense weighed in favor of Antowain Smith (#32), whose size (6-2, 232 pounds) and ball protection skills (zero fumbles in 10 games this year) were favorable in the wintry conditions.
Each of the Patriots' three running backs brings an advantage to the table. Smith has his size and power, but lacks speed; he has become a solid short-yardage back for the Patriots but with an average of just 3.1 yards per carry he is not the team's primary threat. He has recorded just two touchdowns this year.
Kevin Faulk (#33) leads the team in rushing yards with 570 and is actually second on the team in receiving with another 431 yards, but he has no touchdowns on the ground or through the air. He is small (5-8, 202 pounds) but shifty and his versatility prevents a challenge to defenses. Faulk did suffer a major hit last week that temporarily knocked him unconscious. Faulk did not return to the game but is not on the injury report for the upcoming game.
Finally, there is Mike Cloud (#21), who leads the team with 5 rushing touchdowns. At 5-10 and 205 pounds, he presents a nice combination of size and speed, but he has played in only two of the team's last six games. Those two games were on turf in domes (at Houston and at Indianapolis), which might be an indication that he is not as fast on grass such as that in Gillette Stadium. While his 5 scores on just 27 carries and his 4.4 yards per carry average are impressive, the team has not shown an enormous amount of confidence in him.
The problem for New England is that it might not matter who starts at running back. Jacksonville's run defense is that good. The Jaguars are giving up just 84 yards per game, the second-best mark in the league. The interior of their defensive line, with Marcus Stroud (#99) and John Henderson (#98), is as stout as any combination in the league. They have 64 tackles and 6 sacks between them. Seventh-year veteran defensive end Tony Brackens (#90) has just 35 tackles but has 6 sacks all to himself. On the other side is veteran Hugh Douglas (#58), who is a pass rush specialist with 3-1/2 sacks. And while he may not be as good as the Patriots' Harrison, Jaguars strong safety Donovin Darius (#20) is third on his team with 67 tackles and is a solid player at the line of scrimmage. The Patriots are going to have a serious challenge running against this group and the offensive line will have to be on its game to protect Brady.
Smith will likely get the start for New England again this week. If Faulk can go, he will likely be the change of pace back as he was last week against the Dolphins. But if he is still experiencing lingering effects from the hit he took last week, then Cloud will get his playing time. Fullback/running back Patrick Pass (#35), a good receiver out of the backfield (with as many catches, 4, as rushes) and an improving blocker, will also get some touches if Faulk is out or limited.
No More Snow Angels
The Patriots lost Lonie Paxton for the season due to a knee injury (torn ACL) suffered in Sunday's win over the Dolphins. Paxton was the team's long snapper, providing perfect spirals to the team's punter(s) and to the holder(s) for Adam Vinatieri's field goal attempts. Paxton was also the player who, just after Vinatieri's kick sailed through the uprights to seal a victory over Oakland in the 2001 playoffs, celebrated the win by running into the end zone, flopping into the snow and proceeding to make snow angels. He repeated the display when the Patriots won the Super Bowl, even though that game was in a dome (he may have received rug burns but certainly thought it was worth it). The Patriots replaced him with journeyman long snapper and back-up tight end Sean McDermott.
With Paxton gone and punter Ken Walter replaced as well, the Patriots have lost two-thirds of the kicking unit that helped win them a Super Bowl two years ago.
According to Jacksonville's home town newspapers, the Jaguars look at this up-coming game like their own Super Bowl. They see themselves going up against the league's best team in the Patriots, and they see an opportunity to make a statement to the league that the Jaguars' future is bright. The Patriots are likely going to get their opponent's very best game this weekend, and they had better be prepared to bring their own.