Monday, January 9, 2006

Patriots 28, Jaguars 3 (1/7/2006)

Now don't get me wrong; I don't want to go through the Wild-card round every year, but Saturday night was one last chance for the Patriots to exhibit total dominance over a lesser NFL team. As you probably know by now, the Patriots whacked the Jacksonville Jaguars and their feeble Super Bowl hopes 28-3. It was the exact same score as the first playoff game I ever attended (a 1996 rout of Pittsburgh in Foxboro Stadium), and was such a blowout that the stadium was half-empty when the fourth quarter began. The win combined with a Steeler win on Sunday sends the Patriots to Denver next Saturday for another prime time winner-advances-loser-goes-home game. That game won't be as easy as the Jags game, but more on that in my next email.

In Saturday's tilt, the offense had a mediocre first half (don’t they always?) and a stellar third quarter, with two touchdowns and a 2:1 time of possession ratio. For the game, the offensive line did a great job, opening holes for a 6-yard rushing average and often giving Brady time to look through all his options twice before throwing. Brady was sacked four times, but at least a dozen other times he stood back there longer than any quarterback should be allowed to. Statistically, Brady had an outstanding game (15 for 27 for 201 yards, 3 TDs and no INTs). But to be frank, he missed enough throws that I’m starting to wonder if his right shoulder really is bothering him. I mean, he is on the injury list... every freakin' week.

The running game didn’t exactly control the clock (118 yards on the night), but it was effective enough to slow the pass rush and keep the defense honest. Kevin Faulk played a great game, gashing Jacksonville for 8.5 yards a carry and making some crucial third-down receptions. The Jaguars often committed no more than five players to the run, obviously determined to stop the Patriots passing attack by blanketing receivers. But eventually the receivers got open enough and Brady hit them most of the time. Ben Watson had a terrific catch-and-run, breaking three tackles on the 63-yard touchdown.

However, the offense made enough errors that a repeat performance will undoubtedly cost them the game next week. Besides the aforementioned four sacks, they fumbled four times (fortunately recovering them all), the offensive line committed three holding penalties and a false start, and both Ben Watson and Deion Branch dropped passes they should have caught. And Branch’s was a killer because it was a certain touchdown at the end of the first half, which would have made it 14-3. No complaints about the outcome this week, but they need to shore up some things if they expect to beat Denver and continue in the playoffs.

The defense wasn’t perfect either, but it was a wonder to behold. They held the Jaguars to one third-down conversions (to go along with only one fourth down conversion) for the entire game, slowed the running game (only 87 yards), and allowed the Jags starting QB a paltry 61.1 quarterback rating (lower than his very bad 63.3 when he last played in Foxboro – as a rookie). There were a few too many receivers running free, and a half-dozen dropped passes by the Jags helped out. But the D was obviously stoked to stop the run and make Leftwich beat them, and when they made the Jags on-dimensional, it was all over.

Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel were a two-man wrecking crew on Saturday. Willie notched an NFL playoff record 4.5 sacks in the game (making him the all-time playoff sack leader with 16) and 8 total tackles. Vrabel led a linebacking corps that was missing Tedy Bruschi (did not play because of a calf injury), and he cleaned up in the running game (making four tackles on a single drive in the third quarter). The team notched six sacks, with the linebackers getting credit for 5.5 of them, so you know what a game they had. Even Monty Beisel and a rotation of Chad Brown, Matt Chatham, and Tully Banta-Cain filled in well for Bruschi; though I’d rather see Tedy back in there next week.

The defensive line and secondary worked in perfect sync to slow down the passing game. Time after time, Leftwich would drop back to pass and just as he wanted to throw, he’d stop and pull the ball down because the receiver was covered. And the extra second he needed to chose another target gave the line just enough time to get a sack, a hit, or to move him out of the pocket (where he was not effective throwing the ball). On the line, Richard Seymour and Vince Wilfork played well, with Wilfork coming out in the second half when it was obvious the Jaguars were no longer going to run (40 of their 87 yards rushing came on quarterback scrambles). Oh, and Eugene Wilson had one of those vintage Patriots secondary hits that forced a Jacksonville fumble and stopped another drive. Just a great overall defensive effort; one of the things that makes football such an enjoyable game.

The special teams were pretty special, too. Long-snapper Lonnie Paxton made a great tackle on the team's first punt, and on a punt by Adam Vinatieri punted (on a fake field goal), he barreled down field to keep the ball out of the end zone and helped down it at the 4. Michael Stone and Andre Davis had a couple of nice special teams tackles each (and Davis had a crucial fumble recovery on offense), and the team enjoyed field position almost 10 yards better than Jacksonville's.

As for the coaching staff, they put Asante Samuel in the perfect position to intercept Leftwich and run it back 73 yards for a touchdown, and their plan to rest during the Miami game so that they could play Jacksonville looks pretty smart. And of course, they took away what Jacksonville does well (run the ball and physically dominate) and made them try to win with passing and finesse. And as usual, no dice.

So where does that leave us. Well, the win puts them at 1-0 in the playoffs (11-6 for the year) and gives them a date with Mike Shanahan and his running brigade in Denver next Saturday. That game won't be easy, but as I said before, I'll look at their game from earlier this season and see if enough has changed to change the outcome (Denver won, 28-20). The Pats 10 consecutive playoff wins is a new NFL record, and Bill Belichick continued to build his best-ever .909 winning percentage in the post-season. And this weekend, the Patriots have a chance to make a little more history by winning two playoff games the year after winning a second consecutive Super Bowl. Not only has no team ever won three straight Super Bowls, no one has ever even come close to getting back to a Super Bowl. And the Patriots have a chance to get closer this weekend. Should be fun.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Patriots tight ends have two of the best catch-and-run plays of this entire season. Daniel Graham's 'hurdle an offensive lineman and blast through two defensive backs' effort against Atlanta and Ben Watson's 'break three tackles and outrun the secondary' special this past weekend were amazing efforts."

(Note: not that I want to toot my own horn; but all four playoff losers from last weekend were listed in the "Lovely Parting Gifts" section of last week's playoff preview, even though three of them were playing at home. Woo-hoo!)

Keep the faith,

- Scott



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