The New England Patriots maintained their hold on the top spot in the AFC on Sunday with a 27-13 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. The two teams traded blows early on, chasing each other up and down the field on a series of dramatic first quarter scoring drives. Each team scored on its first two possessions, but the Patriots had a touchdown and field goal while the Jaguars had just two field goals.
Jacksonville's failure to capitalize on its early opportunities gave New England a chance to pull away, and the Patriots did just that. The Patriots scored two second-half touchdowns to just one for the Jaguars, as the snow started falling in earnest.
The Patriots have now won 10 games in a row, a franchise record, and also hit the 12-win mark for the year, the first time in team history that the team has had more than 11 wins in a season.
Here is a look at some of the plays and players that contributed to Sunday's result:
"Troy Brown's Back And There's Gonna Be Trouble"
Sing it with me, folks. "Hey nah, hey nah, Troy Brown's back."
The Patriots' star receiver has been on the shelf with an injury for the past six weeks and his absence was starting to stir speculation that he either may be injured to the point of being lost for the season, or the team was preparing to part ways with him after this season.
After Sunday, both theories seem like the silliest of speculation. Brown roared back to his old form in this game, making several outstanding catches including one for a touchdown. He made another great catch on a beautifully thrown ball from quarterback Tom Brady that went for 23 yards when the team was facing a seemingly impossible third down and 20 yards to go. That first down allowed the Patriots to continue a scoring drive that ended with an Adam Vinatieri field goal.
Brown totaled four receptions for 43 yards, but beyond his numbers, he brought a spark to the offense. Brady, for instance, seemed energized by the knowledge that the reliable Troy Brown (whom Brady calls "the best player on the offense") was at the other end of his passes. In fact, Brady had one of his best games of the year, throwing for 228 yards and two touchdowns after throwing just one touchdown at home in his six previous home games this season.
Brown also returned to punt return duty. He fielded 5 punts and returned them for a combined 49 yards, his longest going for 18 yards. He also showed his trademark dancing ability, dodging tacklers and slipping into the open field, which was lacking from the punt return aspect of New England's special teams during Brown's absence. Brown averages more than 10 yards per return, which is about 3-1/2 yards more per return than the team's other punt returners except Kevin Faulk, but Faulk has only had 5 returns this season against Brown's 24.
Brown wasn't the only Patriots receiver to prove his worth on Sunday. Second-year man David Givens made one of the best catches of the season in this game, hauling in the ball for a key 32-yard gain.
On the play, a 2nd-and-9 from the Jacksonville 43-yard line, Brady let fly a long pass along the left sideline. Givens was trying to run past rookie cornerback Rashean Mathis, but Mathis was right with him. The ball came in just over Mathis' helmet and Givens leapt into the air and turned completely around to get his hands on the ball. He fell backwards at full speed but held onto the ball, gaining the Jacksonville 11-yard line for his teammates. Mathis was in good position and only Givens' athletic twisting leap earned the reception.
Givens' five catches on the day tied him as the team's leading receiver for the game. He complied 65 yards and an impressive average, boosted by this 32-yarder, of 13 yards per catch.
The team leader by just four yards was tight end Daniel Graham, whose five catches went for 69 yards. He also added a 27-yard touchdown, which was made possible by a Givens catch on the preceding play that converted a fourth down.
But Graham was a first-round draft pick, one whom the Patriots actually traded up to get. Givens, meanwhile, has had to scrap and claw his way onto the roster after being chosen in the seventh round of the same draft in which the Patriots landed Graham. Givens came from a run-oriented program at Notre Dame and while he has size (6 feet tall, 212 pounds), he has had to start nearly from scratch in learning how to run routes and use that size effectively. His performance in this game, and throughout the season, shows that he has clearly done his homework.
Both teams had multiple chances to swing the momentum of the game in its direction and each was missed.
For the Jaguars, it was two drops on scoring opportunities that turned would-be touchdowns into field goals.
For the Patriots, it was a similar dropped pass that forced them to settle for three points when they could have had six (plus the likely extra point).
New England also missed on an interception that leaping linebacker Willie McGinest had in his palms but could not hold onto. The Jaguars were not able to capitalize on that bit of luck, though, and in fact that drive ended in an interception anyway, the first of two fourth-quarter interceptions (both by impressive cornerback Tyrone Poole) that helped seal the win.
But the Jaguars' end zone drops represented serious blows to the team's psyche. The first was an errant pass from rookie quarterback Byron Leftwich to tight end Kyle Brady that was just too far in front of the receiver, bouncing off of Brady's fingertips. The ball had to be threaded in-between the outstretched arms of Patriots linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Roman Phifer, each of whom nearly got a finger on the ball, and Leftwich simply did not have the room to put the ball where it needed to be. The miss forced the Jaguars to settle for a field goal attempt and a resulting 7-3 score, instead of a possible early tie.
This missed opportunity was all the more painful because the Jaguars' field position was set up by a terrific catch-and-run by receiver Jimmy Smith for 67 yards. And anyone who thinks veteran safety Rodney Harrison may have lost a step needs to know that it was Harrison who came from all the way across the field to stop Smith from scoring at the New England 9-yard line.
The Jaguars' second miss was less the fault of the quarterback and more that of the intended receiver. Running back Fred Taylor dropped a dump-off pass from Leftwich, who was being swarmed over by the Patriots pass rush. Because the Patriots committed so many players to attacking the quarterback, Taylor slipped through the line and was alone at the three yard line. He would have likely walked into the end zone had he made the catch. Leftwich did a remarkable job of getting the ball out at all, but instead of a touchdown, the Jaguars had to settle for another field goal, wasting a 13-play drive that started at their own 27-yard line, ended at the New England 5, and consumed nearly 8 minutes of the second quarter.
The Patriots, meanwhile, had problems of their own and likely had very mixed feelings about welcoming back Larry Centers. The veteran fullback strained a knee muscle in a game against the Giants earlier this season. The Patriots needed his roster space but did not want to end his season by placing him on injured reserve, so they cut Centers with an agreement to re-sign him once he got healthy again. That day came on December 10th, when Centers was back in his #31 jersey, and Sunday was his first game action since October 12th.
To put it kindly, he appeared to be a little rusty. Known as a prolific pass-catching fullback, the first time the team threw his way was late in the second quarter. The Patriots drove to the Jacksonville 11-yard line but quickly found themselves in a third-and-12 situation, when offensive coordinator Charlie Weis called a perfect play. His design allowed Centers to get wide open in the right flat for what would have been an easy touchdown. Brady put the soft pass right on Centers' hands, but he ball bounced off his hands, then his helmet and fell harmlessly to the ground with a stunned and embarrassed Centers right behind it, hands over his helmet. The Patriots would have had a 17-6 lead entering the half but instead settled for a field goal and a 13-6 advantage.
But Centers wasn't done making mistakes. The Patriots had a 20-6 lead in the fourth quarter and were looking to run down the clock. Facing 3rd-and-6 at their own 30-yard line, Brady threw a pass to Centers in the left flat at the first-down marker. Again, the ball hit Centers right in the belly, but Centers failed to hold on to it. As a result of the drop, the Patriots went three-and-out and burned just one minute and 40 seconds off the clock. The Patriots understandably did not throw his way again, and Centers will need to show better focus if he wants to see the ball coming in his direction in the future.
News, Notes, and (a warning against) Looking Ahead
The Patriots scored a touchdown on their opening drive for the first time this season.
Patriots receiver Deion Branch hurt his hand and did not return to the game. He appeared to jam a finger on an incomplete pass to him very early in the first quarter, but it may be a dislocation or even a break. His status will be examined later this week (the team releases the official, if vague, injury report on Wednesday).
The Jaguars ended New England's streak of home games without giving up a touchdown. The Patriots went 19 quarters without allowing an opposing team to reach the end zone, but the streak ended when Leftwich hit receiver Kevin Johnson for six in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game.
The Jaguars proved a tough opponent who matched the Patriots in nearly every statistical category except the final score. The Jaguars had 17 first downs to the Patriots' 18; the Jaguars rushed for a net of 72 yards and the Patriots for 84; the Jaguars had a 43% third down conversion rate while the Patriots converted 50%. The difference was two Leftwich interceptions that the Patriots turned into points, while the Jaguars were not able to capitalize on the Patriots' lone turnover (an Antowain Smith fumble).
The Patriots had a battle on Sunday, though, and their schedule doesn't get any easier. They head to the Meadowlands this coming Saturday for a night game against the resilient New York Jets, who shut-out Pittsburgh 6-0 on this snowy Sunday. Jets running back Curtis Martin had a huge game against the Steelers, putting up 174 yards on 30 carries and becoming just the second player in NFL history to have 9 straight 1,000-yard seasons beginning with his first year in the league. The Patriots finish the season against the Buffalo Bills, the team that shut them out 31-0 in the season opener and which nearly beat the tough Titans in Tennessee on Sunday.
The Patriots have already clinched a playoff berth with their win last weekend; they can clinch a first round bye with a win on Saturday night and, if they achieve that feat, they can further clinch home field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win the following week. But far be it from this team to look ahead; they are squarely focused on the next game and the next game only. Check back here later this week for a look at that match-up.