The last time the Patriots faced the Jaguars, safety Rodney Harrison chased Jacksonville wide receiver Jimmy Smith down from behind on a 67-yard catch-and-run on the Jaguars' first play from scrimmage in a 27-13 Patriots victory on Dec. 14, 2003.
Harrison, who saved a touchdown on the play, won't be running after Smith on Saturday night when the Jags again visit Gillette Stadium, this time for an AFC wild card playoff game. Harrison, 33, tore three ligaments in his left knee in a Week 3 win at Pittsburgh and is on injured reserve.
Harrison said the forced time off has given him a new appreciation for how much physical pounding there is on an NFL field.
"It's a scary game," he said.
Scary was a good way to describe the Patriots' Harrison-less secondary for much of the season. In the first eight games without Harrison, opposing quarterbacks strafed the Patriots for 16 touchdown passes and only four interceptions. Five times the QB had a passer rating of 112.1 or more.
Thanks to some lineup tweaking - making rookie CB Ellis Hobbs a starter and converting street free agent CB Artrell Hawkins into a strong safety - the Patriots dramatically reduced the problem down the stretch. Over the last five games, opposing quarterbacks totaled three TDs and five interceptions and posted passer ratings of 39.8, 33.6, 72.5, 67.9 and 92.4. The last number - by Miami's Gus Frerotte in the finale - was inflated because the Patriots rested most of their starters after the first quarter.
The change in fortune has brought a smile to Harrison's face as he watches the Patriots prepare for potentially rusty Jaguars QB Byron Leftwich, who is expected to make his first start since breaking his ankle on Nov. 27.
"It can't get any worse than what we've gone through," Harrison said. "We've had so (much) transition of players in there and I think finally we've found a core group of guys that feel pretty comfortable with each other. I think you have to give the guys credit because they're really mature and understand they have to take care of their business. They can't sit back and rely on anyone else. I think each individual guy is taking care of his business and we're bringing it together, from the front seven back to the secondary. Our defense is playing well right now."
The Patriots have been especially good at cutting down the number of big plays allowed through the air. Opponents completed 14 passes of 40-plus yards this season, but only four came at the expense of the new-look secondary and one of those was a garbage-time TD late in a 35-7 win over the Bills.
"Guys are running around, making plays, having fun, relaxing, not blowing coverages, and that's important in the secondary," Harrison said. "If you can (avoid) those big plays, not have missed assignments, that really helps you immensely."
--LB Tedy Bruschi, who returned at midseason after suffering a mild stroke at his home in February, shared the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award with Panthers WR Steve Smith. Bruschi finished fifth on the Patriots with 72 tackles despite playing in only nine games. He is expected to play in Saturday's playoff game after sitting out the regular-season finale with a left calf injury. Bruschi wore a wrap on his calf in the locker room Thursday.
--QB Tom Brady finished third in NFL Most Valuable Player voting. Brady received 10 votes from a panel of 50 national sportswriters and sports broadcasters. Seahawks RB Shaun Alexander won with 19 votes, six ahead of Colts QB Peyton Manning. Brady led the league in passing yards with a career-high 4,110. He threw 26 touchdown passes.
--RB Corey Dillon was in fine form in the locker room Thursday, delivering an expletive-laced tongue-lashing to media members who he believed have written him off this season. Plagued by ankle and calf problems, Dillon missed five games and finished with only 733 rushing yards. Dillon's mood improved later and he was laughing and joking with the media, even mugging with a TV reporter.
--WR Andre' Davis and WR Tim Dwight each had long kickoff returns in the regular-season finale, providing the Patriots with some options besides their top returner, WR Bethel Johnson, who hasn't broken a big runback since Week 4.
--LB Don Davis had a team-high 25 special teams tackles this season.
--CBs Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs shared the team interception lead with three each.
--WR Troy Brown is 20 catches away from Stanley Morgan's franchise career record of 534. Brown finished third on the team this season in catches (39) and yards (466).
--K Adam Vinatieri has hit 32 of his last 33 field-goal attempts (97 percent) in the second half, dating to the 2003 regular-season finale. That stretch includes six playoff games.