Quarterback David Garrard did just enough last week to help the Jaguars knock off the Steelers. He'll have to be far better if he is to lead Jacksonville to an upset win at New England.
The Patriots and Jaguars square off Saturday at Gillette Stadium for the right to advance to the AFC Championship Game. Jacksonville held off Pittsburgh 31-29 last week and now tries to become the first team this season to defeat the Patriots.
Jacksonville entered the playoffs winners of six of its last eight games. But in order to get a shot at the undefeated Patriots, the Jaguars had to first go on the road and beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh for the second time this year.
Garrard completed only nine of 21 passes for 140 yards, and he threw two interceptions. The two picks were one fewer than he had all season. Things won't get any easier for Garrard this week as he takes on a Patriots unit that finished the year ranked fourth in the NFL in total defense.
Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew are the key to everything Jacksonville does on the offensive side of the ball. Playing behind a big offensive line known for its run blocking, the combination of Taylor and Jones-Drew put up close to 2,000 yards on the ground and 14 touchdowns in 2007. Both players are tough inside runners but posses the speed to break off big gainers as well. Jones-Drew is also dangerous returning kicks and as a receiver coming out of the backfield.
The battle between the Patriots' defensive front and Jacksonville's offensive line will go along way in deciding Saturday's winner. Toward the end of the season, New England's defense wasn't exactly a brick wall against the run. The Jaguars need to get Taylor and Jones-Drew going early to have a chance. It will be up to the Patriots' trio of first-round draft choices on the defensive line -- Richard Seymour, Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork -- to prevent that from happening.
Garrard does a great job of keeping plays alive and distributing the ball to open receivers. But the one problem with Jacksonville's offense is there aren't always open receivers. As a matter of fact, no Jaguars receiver reached 50 receptions on the year.
Ernest Wilford led the team with 45 grabs, followed by Dennis Northcutt's 44. Former first-round draft pick Reggie Williams only caught 38 balls, although 10 of those receptions went for scores. Asante Samuel should remove one of these options from the offensive game plan, but none of the Jaguars receivers has the big-play ability to take advantage of Ellis Hobbs or New England's aggressive safeties down the field.
Defensive tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson have been the face of Jacksonville's defense over the past four years, but there's a chance neither will be on the field Saturday night. Stroud was placed on injured reserve last month, and Henderson left the Steelers game early in the first quarter with a strained hamstring and didn't return. Even without Henderson on the field, Jacksonville held the Steelers to only 43 yards rushing, but that shouldn't be a factor this week because the Patriots don't rely on the run to be successful offensively.
What the Patriots do rely on is throwing the football, and that causes some problems for the Jaguars defense. Jacksonville smothers teams that don't have a strong passing attack, but it has struggled in recent years against the Colts because they have the receivers to threaten the Jaguars down the field. The Patriots also have the receivers to make life miserable for the Jacksonville defense.
Jacksonville's best cornerback -- Rashean Mathis -- likely will be asked to cover Randy Moss. But even if Mathis has success against Moss, New England has so many other options for Tom Brady to go to, it's not going to matter much. One thing to keep in mind is that the Jaguars have a rookie free safety, Reggie Nelson, whom Moss and Brady may be able to exploit for a big play.
Jacksonville came to Gillette Stadium two years ago for a playoff matchup, and they left on the short end of a 28-3 blowout. With no Pro Bowlers and not many around the country giving them a chance to win this game, the Jaguars players still feel as if they don't get any respect. With a victory Saturday night over the undefeated Patriots, getting respect would no longer be a problem.
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