Looking Ahead: Patriots vs Jaguars

The New England Patriots host the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Wild Card weekend game on Saturday night. The Patriots are looking to defense their Super Bowl title, while the Jaguars expect to be the ones to knock them out of the tournament. New England is peaking at the right time, while the Jaguars are getting their injured players back on the field. Defeating the Jags will be no mean feat if Jacksonville's Byron Leftwich is able to shake off the rust early.

If Leftwich Is On, Jaguars Are a Threat
By John MacKenna

The Jacksonville Jaguars could bring a premature close to the New England Patriots' quest for a third straight NFL championship if QB Byron Leftwich delivers the goods this Saturday night in Foxboro.

Unfortunately for the Jaguars, that's a big if. Leftwich has missed six straight games with a broken left ankle, and while he is expected to reclaim the job from backup David Garrard, Leftwich is likely to be rusty and off his game.

Leftwich is the key because, unlike Garrard, he has the skills necessary to engage the Jacksonville passing attack. The Jaguars (12-4) have a corps of large receivers who could have a field day against New England's undersized and oft-abused defensive backfield.

Should Jacksonville start moving the chains with an aerial assault, the possibility of a stunning first-round upset will become very real. Eric Mangini's defense, which ranks next-to-last in the NFL against the pass, would have to play more nickel and dime packages, or at least drop linebackers into pass coverage, giving the Jaguars a chance to run the ball and operate a dangerous, balanced attack.

While the performance of their offense is dependent on Leftwich's return, the Jaguars can count on their defense to give the Patriots a hard time. The Jacksonville defense is built around prize defensive tackles John Henderson and Marcus Stroud, who could knock the Patriots' offense out of its comfort zone in three ways.

First, their presence could prevent Patriots QB Tom Brady from stepping up in the pocket, which is his preferred move when he feels pass rushers closing in. Secondly, the big tackles--Henderson is 6'7", 328 pounds, Stroud 6'6", 312--pose such a threat that New England might need to keep guards Stephen Neal and Logan Mankins in place to block rather than having them pull on screen plays, which they often do. Thirdly, Stroud and Henderson could shut off the middle and discourage the Patriots from running inside.

Like the Patriots with star DT Richard Seymour, the Jaguars rely on Stroud and Henderson to attract double teams and create opportunities for teammates. The two tackles have only four sacks between them in 2005, but the Jaguars are third in the NFL with 47 because opposing blockers can't pay enough attention to the defensive ends. Three of Jacksonville's four sacks leaders are defensive ends, led by Reggie Hayward with 8.5. Paul Spicer has 7.5, and Rob Meier has six. (Hayward and Spicer are both questionable with hamstring and hand injuries, respectively.)

The Patriots (10-6) will struggle to keep the Jacksonville pass rush from disrupting QB Tom Brady. New England fields an offensive line that has lost three starters since last season. The replacement linemen, rookies Mankins and Nick Kaczur on the left and converted reserve guard Russ Hochstein at center, have played well enough to limit opponents to 28 sacks (seventh lowest in the NFL), but Brady has been under heavy pressure often, and the Patriots will need to keep two or three extra blockers near him on passing plays.

New England has struggled with its running game all season, and Saturday night should bring more of the same. Starting RB Corey Dillon is expected to play after missing three of the last seven games due to leg injuries, but the line has struggled to clear holes for him, and it won't get any easier with Stroud and Henderson in the way. Middle linebacker Mike Peterson is the Jaguars' leading tackler, but he is questionable with a wrist injury.

New England's ace in the hole is its own deep, talented receiving corps. Saturday night will likely be the first time since Week 3 that the Patriots have taken the field with all five of their top receivers in uniform. If Jacksonville has to contend with wideouts Deion Branch and David Givens, tight ends Daniel Graham and Benjamin Watson and RB Kevin Faulk, it could be a long day for cornerbacks Rashean Mathis and Terry Cousin.

Watson and Graham pose tremendous threats to Jacksonville's defensive backfield with their ability to run after the catch. Look for them to bust off some long gainers on quick passes from Brady. New England is likely to favor a short passing game to get the ball away from the heart of the Jaguars' defense.

Even then, Jacksonville's defense is stingy (sixth in the NFL in yards and points allowed), and the Patriots are likely to struggle for every score.

The Jaguars, meanwhile, are a threat to exploit the weak underbelly of the New England defense, and Leftwich has the weapons, provided he is not too rusty to find them. The Jaguars' top receiver is 13-year veteran Jimmy Smith, who had 70 catches for 1,023 yards and six touchdowns. Smith is a handful at 6'1", 208 pounds, but he is small by Jacksonville standards. Ernest Wilford (6'4", 223) has 41 catches for 681 yards and seven touchdowns. Reggie Williams (6'4", 223) has 35 catches for 442 yards. And rookie Matt   Jones (6'6", 242) has 36 catches for 432 yards and five touchdowns.

If Leftwich is on his game, expect him to exploit 5'10"Asante Samuel and 5'9" Ellis Hobbs by throwing over them.

The 6'5", 245-pound Leftwich is a sure-handed passer, having completed 57.9 percent of his passes with 15 touchdowns and only five picks. The third-year man out of Marshall is fearless about throwing into traffic and throws a good deep ball.

If Leftwich can't play, Garrard will lead the team. He is a strong rusher (172 yards, 5.1 yards per attempt) but lacks Leftwich's arm strength. In his seven games, Garrard has completed 98 of 168 passes (58.3 percent) for 1,117 yards with four touchdowns and one interception.

New England has been tough against the run down the stretch, but Jacksonville's big backs could find some openings if the Patriots are overly concerned with stopping the pass. Fred Taylor (6'1", 234) leads the Jaguars with 787 yards and a 4.1 yards-per-carry average. Greg Jones (6'1", 250) has carried 151 times for 575 yards and four touchdowns.

Patriots LB Tedy Bruschi is questionable for the game with a calf injury. His absence would help the Jaguars immensely both running and passing. When he missed last week's season finale against the Dolphins, he was replaced by reserve Monty Beisel.

While enjoying advantageous matchups with their defensive tackles and receivers, Jacksonville is overmatched in other ways. They are a warm-weather team. They haven't played a postseason game in five years. And they're facing a Patriots team that has won nine straight playoff games and is loaded with experienced postseason performers.

The Jaguars also are not battle-hardened, having played eight of their last nine games against teams that lost 10 or more games this year.

Prediction: Patriots 23, Jaguars 13.

John MacKenna is a regular contributor to Patriots Insider. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "John MacKenna" or


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By John MacKenna

The Jacksonville Jaguars could bring a premature close to the New England Patriots' quest for a third straight NFL championship if QB Byron Leftwich delivers the goods this Saturday night in Foxboro.

Unfortunately for the Jaguars, that's a big if. Leftwich has missed six straight games with a broken left ankle, and while he is expected to reclaim the job from backup David Garrard, Leftwich is likely to be rusty and off his game.

Leftwich is the key because, unlike Garrard, he has the skills necessary to engage the Jacksonville passing attack. The Jaguars (12-4) have a corps of large receivers who could have a field day against New England's undersized and oft-abused defensive backfield.

Should Jacksonville start moving the chains with an aerial assault, the possibility of a stunning first-round upset will become very real. Eric Mangini's defense, which ranks next-to-last in the NFL against the pass, would have to play more nickel and dime packages, or at least drop linebackers into pass coverage, giving the Jaguars a chance to run the ball and operate a dangerous, balanced attack.

While the performance of their offense is dependent on Leftwich's return, the Jaguars can count on their defense to give the Patriots a hard time. The Jacksonville defense is built around prize defensive tackles John Henderson and Marcus Stroud, who could knock the Patriots' offense out of its comfort zone in three ways.

First, their presence could prevent Patriots QB Tom Brady from stepping up in the pocket, which is his preferred move when he feels pass rushers closing in. Secondly, the big tackles--Henderson is 6'7", 328 pounds, Stroud 6'6", 312--pose such a threat that New England might need to keep guards Stephen Neal and Logan Mankins in place to block rather than having them pull on screen plays, which they often do. Thirdly, Stroud and Henderson could shut off the middle and discourage the Patriots from running inside.

Like the Patriots with star DT Richard Seymour, the Jaguars rely on Stroud and Henderson to attract double teams and create opportunities for teammates. The two tackles have only four sacks between them in 2005, but the Jaguars are third in the NFL with 47 because opposing blockers can't pay enough attention to the defensive ends. Three of Jacksonville's four sacks leaders are defensive ends, led by Reggie Hayward with 8.5. Paul Spicer has 7.5, and Rob Meier has six. (Hayward and Spicer are both questionable with hamstring and hand injuries, respectively.)

The Patriots (10-6) will struggle to keep the Jacksonville pass rush from disrupting QB Tom Brady. New England fields an offensive line that has lost three starters since last season. The replacement linemen, rookies Mankins and Nick Kaczur on the left and converted reserve guard Russ Hochstein at center, have played well enough to limit opponents to 28 sacks (seventh lowest in the NFL), but Brady has been under heavy pressure often, and the Patriots will need to keep two or three extra blockers near him on passing plays.

New England has struggled with its running game all season, and Saturday night should bring more of the same. Starting RB Corey Dillon is expected to play after missing three of the last seven games due to leg injuries, but the line has struggled to clear holes for him, and it won't get any easier with Stroud and Henderson in the way. Middle linebacker Mike Peterson is the Jaguars' leading tackler, but he is questionable with a wrist injury.

New England's ace in the hole is its own deep, talented receiving corps. Saturday night will likely be the first time since Week 3 that the Patriots have taken the field with all five of their top receivers in uniform. If Jacksonville has to contend with wideouts Deion Branch and David Givens, tight ends Daniel Graham and Benjamin Watson and RB Kevin Faulk, it could be a long day for cornerbacks Rashean Mathis and Terry Cousin.

Watson and Graham pose tremendous threats to Jacksonville's defensive backfield with their ability to run after the catch. Look for them to bust off some long gainers on quick passes from Brady. New England is likely to favor a short passing game to get the ball away from the heart of the Jaguars' defense.

Even then, Jacksonville's defense is stingy (sixth in the NFL in yards and points allowed), and the Patriots are likely to struggle for every score.

The Jaguars, meanwhile, are a threat to exploit the weak underbelly of the New England defense, and Leftwich has the weapons, provided he is not too rusty to find them. The Jaguars' top receiver is 13-year veteran Jimmy Smith, who had 70 catches for 1,023 yards and six touchdowns. Smith is a handful at 6'1", 208 pounds, but he is small by Jacksonville standards. Ernest Wilford (6'4", 223) has 41 catches for 681 yards and seven touchdowns. Reggie Williams (6'4", 223) has 35 catches for 442 yards. And rookie Matt Jones (6'6", 242) has 36 catches for 432 yards and five touchdowns.

If Leftwich is on his game, expect him to exploit 5'10"Asante Samuel and 5'9" Ellis Hobbs by throwing over them.

The 6'5", 245-pound Leftwich is a sure-handed passer, having completed 57.9 percent of his passes with 15 touchdowns and only five picks. The third-year man out of Marshall is fearless about throwing into traffic and throws a good deep ball.

If Leftwich can't play, Garrard will lead the team. He is a strong rusher (172 yards, 5.1 yards per attempt) but lacks Leftwich's arm strength. In his seven games, Garrard has completed 98 of 168 passes (58.3 percent) for 1,117 yards with four touchdowns and one interception.

New England has been tough against the run down the stretch, but Jacksonville's big backs could find some openings if the Patriots are overly concerned with stopping the pass. Fred Taylor (6'1", 234) leads the Jaguars with 787 yards and a 4.1 yards-per-carry average. Greg Jones (6'1", 250) has carried 151 times for 575 yards and four touchdowns.

Patriots LB Tedy Bruschi is questionable for the game with a calf injury. His absence would help the Jaguars immensely both running and passing. When he missed last week's season finale against the Dolphins, he was replaced by reserve Monty Beisel.

While enjoying advantageous matchups with their defensive tackles and receivers, Jacksonville is overmatched in other ways. They are a warm-weather team. They haven't played a postseason game in five years. And they're facing a Patriots team that has won nine straight playoff games and is loaded with experienced postseason performers.

The Jaguars also are not battle-hardened, having played eight of their last nine games against teams that lost 10 or more games this year.

Patriots 23, Jaguars 13.

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