Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Preview of Patriots vs. Jaguars (1/8/2007)

The Jacksonville Jaguars are coming to town, and they are not your father's Florida team. The aren't affected by weather (they beat the Steelers in the snow a few weeks back), they dominate with the run, have huge receivers, and a very physical defense. Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor are play-makers at running back, and their defensive line is massive and can stop the run and get pressure on the quarterback without blitzes. Jacksonville finished the season 11-5, and led the league in scoring the second half of the season (32 points per game). They recorded road wins against three playoff teams (Tennessee, Tampa Bay, and Pittsburgh) and they won't be intimidated by what mother nature has in store this Saturday.

So I guess the Patriots shouldn't show up, eh? No chance of that -- after all they're the #1 seed for a reason. With last week off, they should be healthy for the first time in a few weeks (all reports are that Ben Watson, Kyle Brady, Stephen Neal, and Nick Kazcur will be ready). In the regular season, the Pats had highest scoring offense and gave up the fourth-fewest points. They are solid in the kicking game and are undefeated in home playoff games under Bill Belichick (6-0). Confidence should be at an all time high, and weapons like like Brady, Moss, and Welker should help put a decent number of points on the board (which could bode well, as it might make the Jags abandon the run for the pass).


Point #1. One if by land.

At times this season, the Patriots struggled to stop the run, though it was mostly against teams with balanced offenses. If the Jags run the ball well, they can force the Patriots to adjust their defense, thus leaving single coverage on some of the Jacksonville receivers. That would be a mismatch they can use to their advantage as the game goes on, but it is all predicated on running the ball. Jacksonville can (and probably will) pound the ball -- it's the strength of their game. They averaged 149.4 yards a game and 4.6 yards a carry, notched 22 rushes of over 20 yards, and even though they ran the ball 522 times (second-most in the league), they had just 4 fumbles all season.

The problem with continually running the ball is New England's offense. If the Patriots come out of the chute quickly, the Jags could fall behind, and it is imperative that they don't panic if that happens. It would help if their defense could stop the Patriots early, to give their offense a chance to get a rhythm going. But hey don't have the quarterback or receivers to get into a high-scoring game with the Patriots, so patience with the run is paramount.

Point #2. Don't depend on the kindness of strangers.

Jacksonville should keep in mind that, unlike Pittsburgh, the Patriots probably won't turn the ball over four times, won't have as much trouble moving the ball as the Steelers did, and won't make mistakes on two-point conversions and play-calling late in the game. So if the Jags have the lead in the second half, they have to stay aggressive and keep trying to score, because the Patriots offense will get plenty of points. And if the Jags get behind -- as they did late in the game last week -- they can't wait around for the Patriots to self-destruct. The Patriots are far less likely to make crucial mistakes to help the Jaguars get back in the game. For example, if the Patriots are leading by one point and can kill the clock with another first down, they probably won't call three running plays in a row (the third being a QB draw on third-and-six), and then punt the ball back to the Jags. Just saying, I don't see that happening.

Point #3. Let David try to slay Goliath.

Five weeks ago, the Steelers came to Foxboro to with a stellar running game and thought they'd beat the Pats by ramming it down their throat and playing solid defense. They did run the ball well -- 32 carries, 181 yards, 5.7 yards a carry. But their quarterback could muster only 187 yards through the air and had only one big play, and the Patriots coasted to a 21-point win. The lesson of that game is that no team has stayed close to the Patriots by just running, and even with their vaunted ground game, the Jaguars will be no different.

Eventually the Jaguars will have to get good plays in the passing game from quarterback David Garrard to win. When they almost beat the Patriots in 2006 (they lost, 24-21), they had big plays on all three scoring drives, and two of the three came through the air. This season, Garrard posted the second-best quarterback rating (102.2), the fewest interceptions (3), and was just .1-yards from being tied for third most yards per attempt (7.7). He's not playoff tested but he has started 31 games (including last week) and should be ready to lead the team.

So take the training wheels off of David Garrard, if you hold out any hope of winning on Saturday.


Point #1. The Jaguars are already out of their comfort zone -- keep them there.

Jacksonville likes to play their base defense and pressure the quarterback by rushing four down linemen and no blitzers. They also prefer to play their corners off and keep passes in front of them, although they have shown of a willingness to bring them up in tight coverage. The problem is that not blitzing and playing off the receivers has been completely ineffective against the 2007 Patriots. The teams that stayed close to the Pats blitzed from all angles and played press coverage on the receivers. And Jacksonville is a team that (a) doesn't do that very much and (b) doesn't have the personnel to pull it off when they try it.

If they bring their corners up to press the receivers, they are vulnerable to the deep threat, because their corners aren't good enough to hold that coverage down the field. And if they play off, the Patriots offense will nickel-and-dime them down the field. And if they can't get pressure and then have to start blitzing, it opens them up to all kinds of havoc, with players either out of position or holes in the defense for Tom Brady to exploit.

Jacksonville might well try to blitz and/or play tight on the receivers, but it isn't what they do best. So before the Patriots even take the field, the Jags will almost certainly try some things they aren't used to doing. Belichick likes to take teams out of their comfort zones, but in this game, Jacksonville should start the game that way -- it will be the Patriots job to keep them there.

Point #2. Score early, score often.

It isn't critical to get an early lead, but if the Patriots do, they will be more than half way to winning. This year, the Patriots have allowed only 2 of 16 opponents to score on the opening drive. Conversely, the Patriots have scored on their own opening drive 13 of 16 games this year. That means the Patriots had early leads in 13 of 16 games this year, and nothing about Jacksonville would make you think it will be any different in this game. In fact, Jacksonville scored on only 6 of 16 first drives this year, one of the slowest starting teams in the NFL.

Falling behind might not be that bad... when you're playing, say, the Kansas City Chiefs. But if the Patriots get out in front, they won't be shy about keeping the pressure on by scoring more and more (just ask Joe Gibbs). And a large deficit would make the Jaguars more likely to pass, which they aren't accustomed to doing. So scoring early and often would put the Jaguars in the position the Patriots would love the most -- trying to win with their second- or third-best options.

Point #3. The regular season is over, but 16-0 still means something.

The Patriots rank first or second in most offensive categories, Jacksonville ranks sixth or seventh. The Patriots have eight Pro Bowl players, the Jaguars none. The Pats beat the Colts and Steelers (easily), while Jacksonville lost twice to the Colts and needed late comebacks to beat Steelers. The Patriots finished five games ahead of Jax, are playing at home, and should be well rested. And perhaps most important of all, the Patriots are 14-3 in the playoffs under Belichick (6-0 at home), and the Jaguars are only 1-1 under Jack Del Rio.

The Patriots won't win this game if they don't play well, but they don't have to play a perfect game to win. On the other hand, the Jaguars do have to play a perfect game to win. The talent disparity is that substantial.


A) Against the Steelers last week, the Jaguars had 19 guys playing in their first playoff game. On Saturday, the Patriots will likely have 3 -- Kyle Eckel, Brandon Meriweather, and Mel Mitchell (all part-timers and special teams guys).

B) Don't be too concerned about the way Jacksonville handled the Steelers. Pittsburgh was only 3-2 versus teams with a winning record, and lost to the Cardinals (8-8), Broncos (7-9), Jets (4-12), and Ravens (5-11). Blech!

C) The Patriots and Jaguars have met twice in the playoffs, with the home team taking each game. The Jags beat the Pete Carroll-coached 1998 team, 25-10; the Pats beat the Jaguars 28-3 after the 2005 season.


That Patriots will have to play well to win on Saturday, but all signs point to a victory. They were better in the regular season, have an absolute boatload of playoff experience, scored more points and gave up fewer than Jacksonville. The Jags will present some problems with their running game, and it will be imperative to maintain discipline in plugging holes and not overrun the play. But no team is better at making the adjustments needed to stop what their opponent does best. Jax could also spring some surprise blitzes to confuse the Patriots. For that, the Patriots need to be ready to call timeouts and/or make adjustments quickly to handle that pressure. Fortunately, they are the best in the NFL at changing their plans on the fly -- however, they'll need to be careful not to turn the ball over while they are figuring things out.

If the Jaguars stick with their normal pressure package, the game could be easier than most people think. The Pats shredded teams that tried the bend-but-don't-break defense, and there won't be any noise to distract the Patriots offense (what with the home crowd and all). So if you see four-or-fewer Jacksonville pass rushers, prepare for a good offensive day. The Patriots will use the running game sparingly (as usual), and eventually, the Jaguar pass rushers will start to tire of chasing Brady, which could make it even easier for the NFL MVP.

I don't envision a blowout, given Jacksonville's tendency to slow the game down with the running attack and their hesitance to veer from their game plan. The only blowout scenario I can envision is if one team gets behind and tries to pass to get back into the game and that leads to turnovers. It could happen, but I wouldn't predict it. More likely is a tough, hard-fought game with a final score like Patriots 31, Jaguars 20. But win-by-1 or win-by-21, I just hope I'll have to use my tickets for the AFC Championship Game the next week :)

The Most Ridiculous, Astounding, Stupendous, Jaw-dropping, Insane, You-Just-Can't-Believe-It, You-Gotta-Be-Frickin'-Kidding-Me Statistical Oddity of All Time: The Jacksonville Jaguars have more losses on artificial turf this year (3) than Tom Brady has in his career (2). Brady is an abacus-melting 35-2 on the fake stuff in his career. (And take note, Saturday's game is on artificial turf.)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "There is something magical about the season David Garrard had. I just hope it isn't the same kind of magic Tom Brady had in 2001."

Keep the faith,

- Scott



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