SERIES: 7th meeting. The Patriots have dominated this series, winning five of six matchups. Last year the Jaguars traveled to New England and got smacked in the first round of the playoffs, 28-3. It was the third time the two have met in the postseason. New England topped Jacksonville 20-6 in the 1996 AFC Championship game, sending the Patriots to their second Super Bowl. The Jaguars returned the favor in 1999, beating the Scott Zolak-led Patriots 25-10 in the playoffs.
2006 RANKINGS: Patriots: offense 13th (13th rush, 14th pass); defense 6th (4th rush, 13th pass). Jaguars: offense 12th (2nd rush, 27th pass); defense 2nd (3rd rush, 7th pass)
PREDICTION: Patriots 27-21
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Jaguars have to be concerned facing the league's No. 4 run defense with RB Fred Taylor battling a hamstring injury that has his status in doubt and rookie Maurice Jones-Drew expected to play through a knee injury. With QB David Garrard coming off a three-interception game and the Patriots adept at rushing the passer from all angles, the Jaguars certainly need to establish their ground game to move the ball consistently. The Patriots' offensive game plan could be drastically different, knowing the Jaguars are difficult to run on with DTs John Henderson and Marcus Stroud clogging the middle. New England won't abandon the run, but expect QB Tom Brady to be given the opportunity to spread the field and work the Jaguars' secondary with plenty of multiple receiver sets.
FAST FACTS: Patriots: Clinch AFC East with a win or a loss by the Jets. ... Brady has surpassed 3,000 passing yards for the fifth consecutive season. Jaguars: Taylor needs 80 rushing yards for his sixth 1,200-yard season. ... Jones-Drew has rushed for a touchdown in a team-record six consecutive games.
--NT Vince Wilfork and TE Benjamin Watson were the lone players not present for the media-access portion of Thursday's practice. Wilfork (ankle) and Watson (knee) missed last week's game and are both OUT for Sunday.
--DL Mike Wright is questionable (shoulder) for Sunday. With Wilfork hurting, the Patriots can't afford to not have Wright in the lineup. However, Wright started last week in place of Wilfork and should be able to go against the Jaguars as well.
--RBs Kevin Faulk (knee) and Laurence Maroney (back) are both listed as questionable for Sunday's game. Maroney has missed the Patriots last two games, while Faulk was injured late in last week's victory over the Texans.
--S Rodney Harrison has been upgraded to questionable (shoulder) this week. Harrison has been out for almost two months now and was doubtful last week. This is a good sign that the safety is close to returning.
--QB Tom Brady (right shoulder) and DL Richard Seymour (elbow) are listed as probable. However, both players have been on the injury report all season, so expect them to start on Sunday.
--RB Fred Taylor was the only player who didn't practice Thursday. He remains questionable for the Patriots game with a strained hamstring.
--DT Tony McDaniel returned to practice Thursday with a hip injury but remains questionable.
--DT Marcus Stroud returned to practice Thursday after missing Wednesday with a chronic ankle injury, but he remains probable and should play.
--P Chris Hanson remains probable and practiced with a hamstring injury but the Jaguars hope he doesn't have to punt too often.
--QB David Garrard will play the most important game of his career Sunday. He needs a victory to keep the Jaguars in the playoff race and keep alive his chances of winning the job next season.
SCOUTING THE TEAMS
Stephen Gostkowski came to New England with large shoes to fill. He was replacing a guy who had made some pretty big kicks for the Patriots over the years. Gostkowski started off strong, connecting on all of his field goal attempts in the preseason, but hit a few bumps in the road once the regular season got underway.
The rookie missed three of his first six field goal attempts this year, including a stretch where he was unsuccessful on three consecutive tries. Just when people around New England started to sweat a little bit, Gostkowski turned it around. Since the Patriots Oct. 8 game against the Dolphins, Gostkowski is almost a perfect 14-out-of-15 in field goal attempts, as concerns about the Patriots rookie kicker are starting to diminish.
"I think for a young player, each game is a learning experience, provided they approach it the right way, which I think that Stephen does," Bill Belichick said. "It's a positive experience and it's something that you can continue to build off of, both for this year and career-wise. He's kicked well for us this year, not perfectly, as no player has played perfectly, but he's done a good job all year. I think he's had a good level of consistency both on place kicks and kickoffs. He's made a couple of tackles for us. He's had a solid year."
The turning point for Gostkowski came in the Patriots' 17-13 victory over the Chicago Bears. He originally missed a 52-yard attempt just before halftime but was given a reprieve when Bears Head Coach Lovie Smith called a time out just before the ball was snapped. Gostkowski made good on his second chance, sailing the 52-yarder just over the upright. The rookie said after the game that making a kick like that certainly helps his confidence. He wasn't lying. Heading into Jacksonville, Gostkowski hasn't missed a field goal attempt in almost two months.
Belichick said he has a great deal of confidence in Gostkowski based on what he's done so far this season.
"I was confident in preseason when he made all of those kicks," he said. "Every time he's had a chance to kick, for the most part, he's done a pretty good job. I'm not saying it's perfect, but it's been pretty good. So yes, I have confidence in him. I definitely have confidence in him and deservedly so. He's kicked consistently."
While he's in a zone when it comes to kicking the ball, there are still two concerns about Gostkowski moving forward. First off, he has yet to be put in a pressure situation. The closest he came was the Patriots' first meeting with the Jets back in September. Gostkowski had a chance to put the game away but his 29-yard field goal attempt was blocked. Since then, he's yet to be on the field late in the fourth quarter with the game on the line.
The other worry about the kicking game has little to do with Gostkowski. It involves his holder. Josh Miller had been the Patriots holder since he signed with the team in 2004. However, he was placed on injured reserve two days before the Bears game. New England brought in Ken Walter to replace Miller, but he too was lost for the season after the 40-7 victory over Houston. Walter's ability to hold on field goals and extra points was one of the reasons the Patriots acquired the veteran punter.
There's a good chance backup quarterback Matt Cassel will take over the holding duties for the rest of the season. The switch hasn't bothered Gostkowski so far, although Belichick admits making a change this late in the year at any position isn't the ideal situation.
"Is it a concern? I don't know if it's a concern but it's something that we have to work hard to try to get more consistent at and get our timing down well," Belichick said about using different holders. "You'd love to have the same people out there every week. That's the goal. That's the situation that we would love to be in. Josh and Kenny, they physically can't play. They're ineligible to play, so we have to move on. That's the way it is. Ideally, you'd love to have the same roster all the way through the year."
With the playoffs looming, it's a good sign for the Patriots that the team is more concerned with finding a holder than it is about the play of its rookie kicker.
The Jaguars have two concerns as they prepare for the game against the New England Patriots Sunday -- the condition of Fred Taylor and whether their fans will give them a home field advantage.
Taylor was working in rehab during practice Thursday and his status for the game is uncertain. He was the only player who didn't practice.
"I feel better than yesterday," he said. "I've got to see the doctor. I had a good workout session and we'll see how the rest of the week goes." The Jaguars have their final practice for the Patriots' Friday and Taylor doesn't know if he can go.
Meanwhile, they're also concerned about the size of the crowd.
"We need to pump that up this week," said defensive end Bobby McCray. "We need a lot of people to come to the game."
The Jaguars haven't forgotten the game the day after Christmas in 2004, when the stadium was barely half full for a meeting with the Texans. There was no electricity in the stands and the Jaguars lost, 21-0, a defeat that cost them a playoff berth.
There are differences this time. The weather should be much better than it was on that chilly day, when the temperatures were in the 40s. The forecast Sunday is for temperatures in the mid 70s, although there's a chance of rain. And they've covered up almost 10,000 seats since then so there are fewer empty seats.
Still, there were several thousand no-shows for the Indianapolis game two weeks ago, although it wasn't that noticeable because the empty seats were scattered. As long as the Jaguars get about 60,000 fans in the stadium that now seats 67,164, it appears filled. But the Jaguars don't want it to drop much below that.
The Jaguars are favored because of their 6-1 record at home. They've allowed only 64 points in the seven games and have two shutouts and they give the fans some of the credit for their good showing.
"We need them to come out and hoop and holler and get in (Tom) Brady's face," defensive end Paul Spicer said.
"We need them to bring the noise. We have one of the best defenses in the league and one of the reasons is that it's hard for teams to get their checks and hear the snap counts. I feel like they're a part of that. We need a packed house."
Coach Jack Del Rio said he'd be "shocked" if the fans bought tickets for this game and didn't attend.
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