Patriots Look To End Jaguars Playoff Hopes

Last January, Jacksonville came up to frigid New England looking for respect. The Jaguars had gone 12-4 in the regular season but weren't given much of a chance to upend the Patriots at home in the playoffs. Led by a hobbled Byron Leftwich, the Jaguars offense never got going as they were held out of the end zone in a 28-3 Patriots victory.

Now the Jaguars get the Patriots on their turf this Sunday, badly needing a win to secure a playoff spot. Jacksonville has been tough at home this year, beating the Cowboys, Steelers, Jets, Titans, Giants and Colts by a combined score of 172-51.

David Garrard hasn't been spectacular behind center since replacing the injured Leftwich, although he's made plays when he's had to and given the offense an added dimension with his ability to scramble out of the pocket. He is, however, coming off his worst performance of the season.

Three Garrard turnovers went for touchdowns last week in Tennessee. The Titans defeated the Jaguars 24-17, despite not scoring an offensive touchdown. The loss dropped Jacksonville to 6-3 since Garrard became its starting quarterback.

One reason Garrard is having so much success is due to a Jaguars rushing attack that's among the NFL's best. Actually, Jacksonville's ground game looks a lot like what Patriots fans thought they were going to see when the season started. Veteran Fred Taylor carried the load early on but probably won't play this week because of a hamstring injury.

Rookie Maurice Jones-Drew was used primarily as a return man at the start of the season, but the first-year running back has really come on of late. His big-play ability has provided a spark for the Jaguars as a ball carrier, receiver and kick returner. This will be the matchup of the game as it pits the Jaguars' second-ranked rushing offense versus the Patriots fourth ranked rush defense.

"Offensively, they run the ball better than any team in the league, in terms of running the ball," Bill Belichick said. "Now, Atlanta might have a few more yards. We know a lot of that goes with the quarterback. But just in terms of running it. These guys can block. They're big. They're physical. They've got a whole stable of runners that can all run."

While New England has been strong against the run all year, they really need nose tackle Vince Wilfork back on the field. Miami's Sammy Morris was able to gash the Patriots up the middle once Wilfork went out with an ankle injury. Last week, Ron Dayne gained 96 yards and Houston ran for 4.8 yards per carry as a team. If Wilfork can't go this week, it will be a huge advantage for the Jaguars ground game.

Jacksonville not only runs the football well, they also do a great job of stopping the run on defense and that all starts up front with its defensive tackles. Both John Henderson and Marcus Stroud are Pro Bowl-caliber players that cause havoc for opposing offenses. Henderson is having the best season of his career, picking up the slack for the Jaguars defense while Stroud missed five games with an injury in the middle of the year. Needless to say, running between the tackles against these two space eaters is going to be a tall order for Laurence Maroney (If he plays) and Corey Dillon this Sunday.

The Jaguars defense is solid in every phase, although teams that have had success against them did it by throwing the football. Rashean Mathis is second in the NFL in interceptions and will be headed to Hawaii at season's end. However, the rest of Jacksonville's secondary can be exploited.

Despite having a strong defensive front, the Jaguars don't register many sacks. If Tom Brady gets time in the pocket, there's no defense good enough to shut him down for an entire game. On the flip side, with the Patriots current crop of receivers, the Jaguars lack of a pass rush could be a moot point on Sunday. If Ben Watson is out again and Reche Caldwell is shut down, Brady's options in the passing game are limited.

The recipe for success in the playoffs usually involves running the football on offense and stopping the run on defense. The Jaguars do both of those things and they do them very well. If the team can get solid play out of Garrard at the quarterback position, they'll be a tough out assuming they make the postseason.

The Jaguars are still looking for respect around the league. Dismantling the Colts 44-17 helped -- as would a victory at home this Sunday against the Patriots -- but if this team really wants to be considered with the NFL's elite, they'll need to make some noise in the playoffs. Much like last year, the Jaguars first stop on the road to respect could lead them back to Gillette Stadium on wild card weekend. On the other hand, if the Patriots lose on Sunday and the Jets win, New England will need a victory the following week to take the AFC East. For all intents and purposes, the playoffs kickoff this Sunday for both the Patriots and Jaguars.

SERIES HISTORY: 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.

NOTEBOOK

--Rookie RB Laurence Maroney was named the Patriots' 12th player award winner for the 2006 season. The award is presented annually to the Patriots player who personifies the Patriots team spirit, performs beyond expectations and is recognized for his contributions to the organization, both on the field and in the community.
Maroney has rushed 155 times for 624 yards (4.0 avg) and four touchdowns in 12 games for the Patriots this year. The rookie has also caught 18 passes for 188 yards and a touchdown.
Recent winners include linebacker Willie McGinest in 2005, wide receiver/defensive back Troy Brown in 2004, defensive tackle/fullback Dan Klecko in 2003, kicker Adam Vinatieri in 2002, quarterback Tom Brady in 2001 and linebacker Tedy Bruschi in 2000.
--Richard Seymour was named to his 5th Pro Bowl, as a starting defensive tackle. Seymour is the only Patriots player to make the Pro Bowl. QB Tom Brady, CB Asante Samuel, DE Ty Warren and NT Vince Wilfork were also in the mix to make the trip to Hawaii but in the end, didn't make this year's team.
"If other people who vote don't have the respect for this team, I think we're kind of used to that," Brady said. "After what we've accomplished, maybe people just choose not to vote (for us). I think this team cares about one bowl, and it's certainly not the Pro Bowl."
--According to a Ticketmaster analysis released on Tuesday, New England Patriots games were the most requested sporting events of 2006. Ticketmaster's rankings are based on online page views, information requests and ticket sales from January 1, 2006 to December 13, 2006.
The Patriots have sold out 136 consecutive home games dating back to 1994, the year Robert Kraft purchased the team, and more than 50,000 fans are on the Patriots season ticket waiting list.
--The Patriots have won 83 percent of their meetings with Jacksonville (5-1). The only other teams where New England has won at least 80 percent of its games against are Baltimore (3-0) and Houston (2-0)
--The Patriots rank second in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing 13.8 points per game. Meanwhile, the Jaguars rank fourth, allowing 15.4 per contest. The Jaguars have the stingiest defense at home, giving up just 64 points in seven games at Alltel Stadium.
--"How much does it matter? It matters very, very, very little. You're judged in this game on Super Bowls, not Pro Bowls. Unless you never win a Super Bowl, and then you are judged on Pro Bowls, but guys on this team, what we're concerned about is winning the championship. I think you just go about your business. Everyone is happy that Richard (Seymour) is going, certainly, and the years that (players have) gone you're always proud of your teammates because those guys are very deserving. But, at the same time, you don't work out every day in the summer to try to go to a Pro Bowl. You try to go to the Super Bowl." -- Tom Brady on not being selected to the Pro Bowl.

BY THE NUMBERS: 1.94 -- The average number of yards per play allowed by the Patriots in the red zone, which is tops in the NFL.

THEY SAID IT: "My background is as a defensive coach, so you can figure out the answer to that question. But the bottom line is that nobody cares what I think. It doesn't make any difference. There are plenty of people on that committee and they love to talk about the rules they made and how great they are and all that. The Charley Casserly's of the world, who have all the answers to everything; talk to them." -- Coach Bill Belichick when asked what he thinks about the current rules that are in place to protect the quarterback.


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