Now, folks, it appears we have a playoff game on our hands.
Jacksonville has been dubbed a dark horse in this year’s race to the Lombardi Trophy, but as Pats fans learned in 2002, sometimes the dark horse is your best bet. Since their dramatic victory over Pittsburgh, the Jaguars have earned accolades from NFL fans that were perhaps overdue. Citing their powerful running game and the mettle they showed as an underdog against the Steelers, many in the country are hopeful that Jacksonville will pull off the ultimate upset this weekend.
But as the week’s gone on, the point spread for the gamblers in Vegas hasn’t taken much of an impact for all the Jacksonville optimism. The line on the game today is 13 and a half, up from 11 earlier in the week.
The upshot is, the Jaguars may have to play the game of their lives to beat the Patriots—but for the Patriots or their fans to underestimate them would be a huge mistake.
Below the fold, a look at the main strengths of both teams, and how they play off one another.
1. Running game – “It's probably time for me to admit it,” my friend Kristen wrote earlier this week. “Maurice Jones-Drew scares the hell out of me.” And well he should, along with his counterpart Fred Taylor. They’re ranked second in the NFL with 149.4 yards per game during the regular season. Meanwhile, this strength for the Jaguars capitalizes on a weakness for the Patriots, who are 10th in the league in rushing defense (98.2 YAPG) and near the bottom of the league in yards allowed per carry, with 4.4.
2. Defense – “Tough physical defense [is] this club's calling card,” according to Scout.com’s Tom Marino. The Jacksonville defense is physically one of the biggest in the league. And don’t let that average of 345.8 passing yards per game this season fool you. According to Patriots.com, containing Jacksonville cornerback Rashean Mathis is one of the keys to the game for the Patriots. His stats have dropped off this year due to injury, but “Mathis is still capable of being a shut-down corner against the better wide receivers in the NFL…New England will need to test this match-up early.”
3. Momentum – When Byron Leftwich was cut in August, it could’ve been clubhouse poison for the Jags. But an article by Tim Layden in this week’s Sports Illustrated tells the story of how the Jags united under David Garrard:
“Minutes after [the announcement Leftwich had been cut], veteran defensive tackle John Henderson stood all of his 6’7”, 335 pounds [Ed. Note—told you they’re big!] in front of the locker room and demanded support for Garrard. ‘I told everybody, ‘this happens in the NFL at this time of year…you lose your friends. But this’—and I pointed to David—‘is our quarterback.’
In my opinion, “soft” skills like attitude and mental makeup are important to a team’s success. This episode suggests to me that the Jags are a mentally tough, focused team.
As does their win over the Steelers; it may surprise some fans to know that Garrard is actually ranked 3rd in passer rating in the NFL. Number 2? The man he sent golfing last week. Number 1? The man he’s facing this week. Eek.
Leading up to the playoffs, the Jags have also shown steady improvement over the course of the regular season, going from 13th in the league on offense and 19th on defense in the first half of the year to finish the year second on offense and sixth on defense.
Even more worryingly for Patriots fans, the Patriots have the opposite pattern, blowing out teams in early weeks and showing wear and tear in later weeks of season. An extra week of rest could do them a world of good, but it could also subject them to a fate similar to the Colorado Rockies, who won 22 straight games but fell to the Red Sox after a long layover between winning the National League Pennant with a sweep and the start of the World Series.
1. Coaching – In addition to rest for the players, though, the extra time off has been extra time for the mighty brain of Bill Belichick to grind away on Jacksonville’s vulnerabilities. And Belichick’s signature when it comes to game-planning is to take away the strength of the team he’s facing, and make them beat him in other ways. Jacksonville will need to rely on more than its ballyhooed running game to beat the Pats.
According to an AP article that appeared this week, Belichick didn’t wait around to see who his opponent would be before getting down to business over Wild Card Weekend, either. In fact, “Bill Belichick spent more time during the weekend studying Jacksonville than his other possible playoff opponents,” even before their victory over Pittsburgh.
I believe the Patriots can stop Jacksonville’s running game, though I also expect the Jags’ backs to rack up big numbers. The contrast between their yards allowed per game and the yards allowed per carry points to the “bend but don’t break” nature Belichick’s defenses have already showed.
If New England is successful in “taking away” the running game from Jacksonville, the defensive matchup for the Jags looks considerably less bright: the Patriots ranked second in the NFL in sacks and in the top 10 in turnovers during the regular season.
2. Passing game – I don’t think I need to go into a lot of explanation here. We all know what Brady and Co. did in the regular season. The Patriots offensive line is a worthy opponent for the big, tough Jags, with Pro Bowlers at the most crucial positions of left guard and center. Patriots.com predicts that the Jaguars may try to shift double coverage to one of the Patriots receivers other than Randy Moss in this game if Mathis can handle himself. I don’t care how well the guy’s playing, that would be nothing but a mistake.
3. History - Some quick facts:
Another historical note: I have been surprised to hear that Jacksonville players have been talking smack in the press this week. Everyone knows by now that bulletin-board material is nothing but a disadvantage when facing the Patriots. This makes me wonder what else they’re not getting.
I know this is irritating to some, but I am far too superstitious to make a prediction as to who will win. The Patriots are the favorites for obvious reasons, but Jacksonville is nothing to take lightly. All I can predict is that it will probably be a closer game than Vegas is projecting, so if you’re the betting type, take the under!